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The Art of the Pose

Oscar Wilde’s Performance Theory

Heather Marcovitch

This book revisits Oscar Wilde’s major writings through the field of performance studies. Wilde wrote about performance as a cultural dialectic, as a form of serious and critical play, and as the basis of a subversive poetics. In his studies at Oxford University, his famous lecture tour of the United States and Canada, his friendships with famous actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Lillie Langtry, the writing of his critical essays, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Salome, and his society comedies, and culminating in his post-prison writings De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Wilde develops a rich theory of performance that addresses aesthetics, ethics, identity and individualism. This book also traces Wilde’s often-troubled relationship with late-Victorian society in terms of its attempts to define his public performances by stereotyping him as both irrelevant and dangerous, from the early newspaper caricatures to its later description of him as a sexual monster.


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Chapter Two Celebrity, Caricatures and Public Performances in the 1880s 51


51 Chapter Two Celebrity, Caricatures and Public Performances in the 1880s While still a student at Oxford, Wilde once flippantly stated, ‘I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china.’ The remark was typical of Wilde’s delight in annoying the Philistines, and not surprisingly the remark horrified Dean Burgon of St. Mary’s College who, in a vitriolic Sunday sermon, attacked it and the new form of ‘heathenism’ it represented.1 The Oxford and Cambridge Undergradu- ate’s Journal picked up the story and in an 1879 article used both Wilde and his blue-china remark as examples of the contemporary Aesthetic Movement. The remark gained widespread attention when Punch used it satirically in 1880, a year after Wilde had left Oxford.2 Throughout the 1880s Punch’s George du Maurier used Wilde as the model for the aesthete in his caricatures and satirical captions. Long-haired and languorous, lost in contemplation over a lily or a sunflower and speaking in cryptic aphorisms about beauty, Punch’s Oscuro Wildegoose, Ossian Wilderness and Drawit Milde, among other epithets, became the defining caricatures of the aes- thete for du Maurier and eventually for other magazine artists. Al- though Wilde changed his dress and witticisms a number of times after leaving Oxford, these early caricatures were the genesis of a spate of satirical drawings and articles and became the foundation of Wilde’s image as an aesthete in the 1880s. 1 Ellmann, Oscar Wilde. 45. 2 Ibid. 52 Wilde’s minor celebrity status in the 1880s proved...

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