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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 Six Performance as Redemption in De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol 185


185 Chapter Six Performance as Redemption in De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol Although while writing this study I have been concerned primarily with the development of Wilde’s theory of performance as a cultural and literary theory, it has been impossible not to notice the second narrative embedded in Wilde’s theory. That is, as he is writing about performance, and especially about persona, his own public persona becomes more and more of a structuring agent for how his writings are received and read. Wilde’s focus on his own image, his brilliantly insouciant statements and his carefully cultivated friendships with celebrities made his own public persona a collaboration with the press, a collaboration about which he was always ambivalent. Writ- ers like Ellmann and Gagnier have always maintained that Wilde courted the press’ attention enthusiastically, that he maintained control of his public persona and that he was able to manipulate even the less-flattering public portrayals of him. Other critics have followed this interpretation of Wilde in order to challenge another interpretation which sees him as both victim and martyr. Given this portrait of Wilde as a player in the celebrity game, however, it can be difficult to reconcile it with the idea of Wilde as a sincere, non-campy thinker who was using his writings to describe what he saw as an important mode of creation and interpretation in both the individual and in late-Victorian culture. However, both of these ideas – persona as a cultural herme- neutic and persona as...

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