The Downfall of Oscar Wilde: An Animated Video Tells How Wilde Quickly Went from Celebrity Playwright to Prisoner

Oscar Wilde left a body of lit­er­a­ture that con­tin­ues to enter­tain gen­er­a­tion after gen­er­a­tion of read­ers, but for many of his fans his life leads to his work, not the oth­er way around. Its lat­est retelling, Oscar Wilde: A Life by Matthew Stur­gis, came out in the Unit­ed States just this past week. “Uni­ver­sal­ly her­ald­ed as a genius” when his play The Impor­tance of Being Earnest pre­miered in Lon­don in 1895, he was just a few months lat­er “bank­rupt and about to be impris­oned. His rep­u­ta­tion was in tat­ters and his life was ruined beyond repair.” This is how Alain de Bot­ton tells it in “The Down­fall of Oscar Wilde,” the ani­mat­ed School of Life video above.

Wilde was impris­oned, as even those who’ve nev­er read a word he wrote know, for his homo­sex­u­al­i­ty. This de Bot­ton described as “the swift fall of a great man due to a small but fate­ful slip,” a result of the social and legal con­di­tions that obtained in the time and place in which Wilde lived. Hav­ing fall­en for “a beguil­ing young man named Lord Alfred Dou­glas,” known as “Bosie,” Wilde found him­self on the receiv­ing end of threats from Bosie’s father, the Mar­quess of Queens­bury. Their con­flict even­tu­al­ly pro­voked the Mar­quess to pub­li­cize Wilde and Bosie’s rela­tion­ship all through­out Lon­don, and since “homo­sex­u­al­i­ty was ille­gal and deeply frowned upon in Vic­to­ri­an soci­ety, this was a dan­ger­ous accu­sa­tion.”

Though Wilde fought a valiant and char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly elo­quent court bat­tle, he was even­tu­al­ly con­vict­ed of “gross inde­cen­cy” and sen­tenced to two years of impris­on­ment and hard labor. “For some­one of Wilde’s lux­u­ri­ous back­ground,” says de Bot­ton, “it was an impos­si­ble hard­ship.” This time inspired his essay De Pro­fundis, and lat­er his poem The Bal­lad of Read­ing Gaol, but accord­ing to most accounts of his life, he nev­er real­ly recov­ered from it before suc­cumb­ing to menin­gi­tis in 1900. He had plans, writes The New York­er’s Clare Buck­nell, “for a new social com­e­dy, a new Sym­bol­ist dra­ma, a new libret­to.” But as his lover Bosie put it, Wilde’s life of post-release con­ti­nen­tal exile was “too nar­row and too lim­it­ed to stir him to cre­ation.”

The Unit­ed King­dom has since par­doned Wilde (and oth­ers, like com­put­er sci­en­tist Alan Tur­ing) for the crimes com­mit­ted in their life­times that would not be con­sid­ered crimes today. More than a cen­tu­ry has passed since Wilde’s death, and “our soci­ety has become gen­er­ous towards Wilde’s spe­cif­ic behav­ior,” says de Bot­ton. “Many of us would, across the ages, want to com­fort and befriend Oscar Wilde. It’s a touch­ing hope, but one that would be best employed in extend­ing under­stand­ing to all those less tal­ent­ed and less wit­ty fig­ures who are right now fac­ing grave dif­fi­cul­ties.” Wilde might have come to a bleak end, but the life he lived and the reac­tions it pro­voked still have much to teach us about our atti­tudes today.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Oscar Wilde Offers Prac­ti­cal Advice on the Writ­ing Life in a New­ly-Dis­cov­ered Let­ter from 1890

Hear Oscar Wilde Recite a Sec­tion of The Bal­lad of Read­ing Gaol (1897)

Pat­ti Smith Reads Oscar Wilde’s 1897 Love Let­ter De Pro­fundis: See the Full Three-Hour Per­for­mance

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Reads a Let­ter Alan Tur­ing Wrote in “Dis­tress” Before His Con­vic­tion For “Gross Inde­cen­cy”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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