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The Modern Art of Influence and the Spectacle of Oscar Wilde by S. I. Salamensky (review)

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 47, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 579-582 | 10.1353/cdr.2013.0046

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In this wide-ranging study, S.I. Salamensky asks how Oscar Wilde (the author) and “Oscar Wilde” (the spectacular cultural presence) scripted and embodied what has come to mean “modernity”—both in his own day and in our own. Her study ranges from representations of Wilde in largely forgotten late-Victorian novels; to Wilde’s own use of contemporary debates surrounding Jewishness and hysteria in his dramatic representations of “modern” female sexuality; to Wilde’s emphasis on the “modernity” of language in what Salamensky terms his “fin-de-siècle talk” plays; to, finally, representations of Wilde’s at turns dangerous or revelatory modernity as exposed in the dialogic moments of Dorian Gray, in transcripts of his courtroom trials, and in a number of recent dramatic and filmic adaptations of his life.

From the introduction on, Salamensky remains true to her early assertion that this “is a book not only for scholars but for students, artists, and others intrigued by the elegance and decadence of the fin de siècle, the explosive advent of the brave new world that is our own…and [Wilde’s] ‘splendid and indeterminate life’” (3). Salamensky presents her material in an open, clear and engaging style. Her study regularly balances a tricky rhetorical line: she is able to present overviews of biographical details, texts and contexts detailed enough for the reader unfamiliar with Wilde’s life, but brief enough so as to avoid seeming tedious to Wilde scholars. This, in itself, is quite a feat—and one that makes her study valuable to a number of audiences: those interested in dramaturgical questions arising from plays that seem at once “period pieces” and distinctly modern; those interested in fin de siècle drama and its complex cultural contexts; and those interested, first and foremost, in Wilde: his life, his work, his numerous and dizzying incarnations in late twentieth-and early twenty-first-century culture.

Salamensky’s overarching claim—and the line of inquiry that seeks to unite her study—is that Wilde was constantly looking for ways to incarnate “the modern” in language. “Captivated by the fantastical propensity of words to effect their own realities,” she writes, “[Wilde] strove, especially in his four ‘society comedies’—Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest—to make that magic work on audiences, in turn” (3). Her first chapter, “Wilde Ways: The Modern Art of Influence and the ‘Professor of Aesthetics,’” focuses on representations of Wilde as an influential, and in some cases dangerously seductive, talker in the drama and literature of his day. After a quick gloss of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, in which the Wilde-inspired “parodic double” Bunthorne is presented as a “going thing,” an aspect of fin de siècle (i.e. “modern”) culture “that, it was hoped, would go away” (6–7), Salamensky juxtaposes Henry James’s The Tragic Muse and that novel’s ambivalent attitude towards its seductive, effeminate talker Gabriel Nash, against two lesser-read novels that similarly employ a Wildean talker as narrative instigator—Julia Constance Fletcher’s Mirage and Rhoda Broughton’s Second Thoughts—to demonstrate the varied ways in which the “Wilde figure” served as either warning against or prophet of a seductively queer modernity.

Significantly, in all three of these fin se siècle novels, seduction is accomplished not through the physical but through the verbal, the linguistic, and the aural. Fletcher’s “loquacious, effete, but sympathetic Claude Davenant” (13) is less of a threat to heteronormative social order than James’s Gabriel Nash, but he shares with that more dangerous dandy a presence more aural than bodily: his “voice materializes before his appearance is described” and the text “elaborate[s]…on his unique vocal style” (14). Likewise, Rhoda Broughton’s more mocking use of the Wildean character, the “babbling, rococo, absurd Francis Chalconer” (13), still celebrates the capacity for “talk” as an essential element in modern romantic unions—a capacity the Wilde figure teaches to the male romantic lead. Once learned, the male lead (and the narrative itself) has no use for the Wilde figure, so he “neatly steps out of the romantic economy” (18). What...

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