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  • Acting Wilde: Victorian Sexuality, Theatre, and Oscar Wilde
  • Ian Small (bio)
Acting Wilde: Victorian Sexuality, Theatre, and Oscar Wilde, by Kerry Powell; pp. x + 204. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009, £59.00, £25.99 paper, $93.00, $45.00 paper.

The basic structure of Kerry Powell's elegantly written and tightly argued monograph follows a well-known narrative of Oscar Wilde's biography: beginning with the American tour (and a discussion of the Napoleon Sarony photographs, parts of which will be familiar to readers of Daniel A. Novak's work, although he is not mentioned by Powell); moving to Wilde's journalism and, briefly, a discussion of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Salomé (1894), and the society comedies; and finally (via the trials, which Powell views as being "all about sex," not texts [159]) arriving at Wilde's prison letter, De Profundis, written between 1896 and 1897. The linking theme is what Powell terms Wilde's "performativity" (3), in which the "real" and the staged, the authentic and the contrived, are fluid terms (5): "To be 'acting Wilde,' whether in plays or life, was to perform outside the directives of surface reality; it was, or was meant to be, a transformational and revolutionary drama of Being and Becoming" (173). None of these terms for examining the relationship between Wilde's life and works is new; nor is Powell's proposition that Wilde's career represents a moment of transition between a time when an authentic (here an Arnoldian) "genuine self" was "superseded by an unstable, performance-based subjectivity" in which gender identity is constantly being enacted (4). The book's main claim to novelty thus lies in its methodology and use of evidence, especially in relation to the plays. Powell's is the "first [study] . . . to base its analysis on first-hand examination of all surviving, pre-production manuscripts and typescripts of these plays." "No criticism of Wilde," he goes on, "has taken them all into account" (3).

These are bold claims that invite three separate objections. The first is that Powell overstates the originality of his study by marginalizing the work of earlier critics, notably Sos Eltis, whose 1996 monograph is acknowledged but quickly passed over, as is that of text editors, several of whom have studied the genesis of Wilde's plays and used that information to analyse some of the plays' politics. The second objection concerns Powell's confidence that he has examined "all" surviving manuscripts. There are striking lacunae in Powell's evidence: drafts of Salomé of which he seems unaware and an extensive archive of drafts of A Woman of No Importance (1893) held by the University of Bristol, which provides evidence of Herbert Beerbohm Tree's involvement in revising that play. In some of the Bristol drafts, speeches are cut or revised, but it is difficult to identify either the order of the revisions or the agent behind them (only some marks are in Wilde's hand). When Wilde published his play in 1894, moreover, he kept with some of these revisions and did not restore all of his earlier thoughts. The Tree archive thus reveals a strong collaborative element in the authorship of A Woman of No Importance; evidence from manuscripts for the other plays corroborates this story.

Given his interest in "performativity," Powell surprisingly omits sustained attention to the institutional nature of theatrical production in which—as theatre historians emphasize—authorship is invariably plural. Powell interprets revisions to early drafts of Lady Windermere's Fan (1893) as representing "modifications of [Wilde's] feminist politics of purity" (53). For Powell, Wilde is the auteur, the writer in complete control of his material. Research by Joel Kaplan, however, has demonstrated conclusively that the timing of [End Page 731] the disclosure of Mrs. Erlynne's identity, which significantly affects the play's politics, was the product of machinations by George Alexander.

A third objection centers on the way Powell construes manuscript evidence. Such evidence never speaks neutrally. More precisely, the arrangement of drafts into a chronological order—constructing a stemma—is always difficult, in part because of the problematic authority of individual revisions. As I noted above in relation...


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