- Teaching Oscar Wilde
When I Entered "Oscar Wilde" as a keyword in the MLA International Bibliography recently, I got 2,014 hits. Only 417 of those citations appeared before 1980. To say, as Philip E. Smith does in his [End Page 101] Introduction to this new addition to the MLA Approaches to Teaching World Literature series, that "there was a major scholarly and critical revaluation upward of Wilde's importance" since the 1980s, then, is something of an understatement. The expansion of general interest in Wilde in the last thirty years, especially after the publication of Richard Ellmann's groundbreaking biography in 1987, is a phenomenon worth studying in its own right. From the provocations of "The Fag on the Crag" in Merrion Square, Dublin (unveiled October 1997), and Maggi Hambling's reclining Oscar, cigarette in hand, in London (November 1998), to Brian Gilbert's biopic Wilde (1997), Moisés Kaufman's Gross Indecency (1998), and David Hare's The Judas Kiss (1998), the cultural fascination with Wilde's life and loves continues unabated. This means, as Smith points out, that many college students will have "culturally loaded preconceptions" about Wilde the man before encountering Wilde the writer (6). An important aspect of this book, then, is its emphasis on helping instructors sort out the many ways students can learn to appreciate Wilde's brilliance as an author and intellectual, as well as his importance in European literary and cultural history.
As this collection amply proves, the range of approaches to Wilde is still exciting. Queer theory and post-structuralism, theater history and Irish studies, feminist theory, biography, genre studies, and the intellectual and formal trajectories of aestheticism, modernism, and postmodernism make Wilde a kaleidoscopic figure. The collection, though, is not organized around colorful theoretical angles, but rather through contextualized approaches to teaching specific works in courses with various audiences and aims—general education and liberal studies, English, theater, and drama. Overall, the essays are stimulating, original, and compact. The editor has placed them in fruitful dialogue with one another—there's very little overlap or repetition—and reading through them, I found that I was as much interested in the literary insights each author brought to Wilde as I was in ideas about pedagogy.
Smith begins with a concise section on sources for materials about Wilde. Many of the works and websites he references will be the goto places for teachers who use Wilde's works in different courses and so need different contexts for presenting and studying his works. The importance of context and the challenges of interpretation, in fact, are central to almost all the essays here. In the section on "Contexts for Teaching Wilde," for example, three essays examine how Wilde is taught in courses organized around different objectives: a sophomorelevel course on rhetorical argument, an upper-level course focused on [End Page 102] Irish studies, and a graduate seminar on Wilde and aestheticism. Because Wilde's rhetoric is often paradoxical and compendious, Bruce Bashford finds that using The Picture of Dorian Gray in a course on literary analysis and argumentation helps students to make interpretive decisions through textual evidence. The focus of the class is not on finding the "right" interpretation, but on exercising arguments for competing interpretations. Addressing the problem of interpretation is important for all the contributors, who differently acknowledge the radical openness of Wilde's writing and the special challenge such indeterminacy presents to literal-minded students. Neil Sammells, for example, explains that an Irish "nationalist" approach to Wilde contradicts Wilde's "determined deconstruction of essentialisms of all kinds": just as teaching The Importance of Being Earnest as "a gay play underneath is to use the surface/depth model of analysis, which Wilde's work explodes," presenting Wilde as anti-English is a simplification of his subtle critique of authority.
Five essays examine teaching Wilde's fiction. Whereas Shelton Waldrep teaches The Picture of Dorian Gray in a course on Victorian fiction in order to reexamine the "idea of Wilde...