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Oscar Wilde and the Green Carnation Karl Beckson Brooklyn College, CUNY BECAUSE THE IMAGE of the green carnation has often been associated with Oscar Wilde, writers on the subject have provided extravagant accounts that have acquired the status of venerated fact rather than ingenious fancy. The most blatant example occurs in W. Graham Robertson's 1931 memoir, Life Was Worth Living, in which Robertson, a designer of theatrical costumes, relates the dubious story that, on the day before the première of Lady Windermere's Fan, Wilde instructed him to buy a green carnation. However, in his memoir, Robertson shifts oddly from a single green carnation to many, Wilde allegedly having said to him: "I want a good many men to wear them tomorrow—it will annoy the public__ A young man on stage [that is, the actor portraying the dandy Cecil Graham] will wear a green carnation; people will stare at it and wonder. Then they will look round the house and see every here and there more and more little specks of mystic green. 'This must be some secret symbol,' they will say. *What on earth can it mean?'" When Robertson also asked Wilde what it meant, Oscar allegedly replied : "'Nothing whatever, but that is just what nobody will guess.'"1 No other memoir or any published letter, for that matter, has confirmed Robertson's account. If Wilde wished to create a sensation at the première of Lady Windermere 's Fan on 20 February 1892, there was no mention from the drama critics that any young gentlemen in the audience wore green carnations or, for that matter, that the actor portraying Cecil Graham wore one on stage. The drama critic Clement Scott was distressed because Wilde took his curtain call while holding a cigarette, but he did not mention that Wilde wore a green carnation.2 Frank Harris, who also attended the première, does not mention in his 1916 biography that Wilde wore the green flower; however, Henry James, who, like Harris, was at 387 ELT 43 : 4 2000 the opening, wrote to a friend that "the unspeakable one" did, in fact, wear what he called a "metallic blue carnation" (that is, blue green) while speaking to the audience during his curtain call.3 With his customary facetiousness, Wilde may have suggested to Robertson that members of his entourage and the actor portraying Cecil Graham all wear green carnations. Forty years later, Robertson elevated what may have been Wilde's whimsical remark to the status of a mythic event. Without questioning the story, Hesketh Pearson in his 1946 biography repeats Robertson's account,4 and recent critics, luxuriating in the ever-growing details, have provided further amusement by enlarging the story. Hence, one writer has remarked that Wilde "requested Robertson to wear a green carnation at the première and that he persuaded as many men as he could to do likewise," thereby turning "the audience itself into an object of artifice" and providing Wilde with "the pleasure at the première of watching straight men unwittingly bearing the emblem of homosexuality."5 Another writer, equally inspired, remarks that green carnations "were distributed to all the men in the audience."6 Robertson's story, its immortality now seriously challenged, has also been embraced by Richard Ellmann, whose imprimatur presumably guarantees academic authority.7 It is possible, of course, that Robertson confused the première of Lady Windermere's Fan with another theatrical opening that occurred just two weeks later: on 5 March 1892, the London Star reported that, at the Royalty Theatre production of Théodore de Banville's play The Kiss, translated by John Gray, Wilde was present with "a suite of young gentlemen all wearing the vivid dyed carnation which has superseded the lily and the sunflower."8 In London, at that time, a florist in King Street, near Covent Garden, sold carnations dyed green, blue, and heliotrope, none of which seems to have implied any covert symbolic significance.9 Just eight days after the Star's report of Wilde's entourage adorned with green carnations, there appeared in the popular weekly London paper Black and White a brief story in dialogue form, as...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 387-397
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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