Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • On Valentine's Day in 1895, the most famous  playwright in the English speaking world,  

  • Oscar Wilde, presented his new play, The  Importance of Being Earnest, in London at  

  • St. James Theatre. The audience was packed with  celebrities, aristocrats and famous politicians,  

  • eagerly awaiting another triumph from  a man universally heralded as a genius.  

  • At the end of the performance, there wasstanding ovation. Critics adored the play  

  • and so did audiences, making it Wilde's  fourth major success in only three years

  • Yet, only a few short months later, Wilde  was bankrupt and about to be imprisoned.  

  • His reputation was in tatters and his life  ruined beyond repair. It was, as everyone  

  • then and now agreed, a tragedy, the swift fall  of a great man due to a small but fateful slip

  • The story of how Oscar Wilde went  from celebrity playwright to prisoner,  

  • in such a short space of time, has much to  teach us about disgrace and infamy. We don't  

  • have to be acclaimed to understand that Wilde's  poignant tragedy urges us to abandon our normal  

  • moralism and have sympathy for those who  stray, it calls for us to extend our love  

  • not just to those who obviously deserve  it but precisely to those who seem not  

  • to. We talk a lot of what a civilised world  should be like. We might put it like this: a  

  • civilised world would be one in which Oscar Wilde  could have been forgivenand in which those who  

  • make errors of judgement could be treated with  high degrees of sympathy and, even, of kindness.  

  • It would be a world in which we could remember  that good people can at times do bad things –  

  • and should not pay an eternal price for them. Wilde's tragedy began several years earlier,  

  • when he was introduced to a beguiling young  man named Lord Alfred Douglas. Douglas,  

  • known to family and friends as 'Bosie',  was extremely handsome, charming and  

  • arrogant.

  • By 1892, a year after they had met, the two men  

  • had fallen profoundly in love. Although Wilde  was married with two children, he spent much of  

  • his time with Bosie: there was a sixteen year age  gap, Douglas was twenty-four, Wilde forty. They  

  • travelled together, stayed in hotels and  hosted large dinners for their friends.

  • By 1894, the pair were constantly seen together  in public and rumours of their love affair had  

  • spread as far as Bosie's father, the Marquess  of Queensbury. The Marquess was a cruel,  

  • aggressive character, known for inventing  the 'Queensbury Rules' of amateur boxing.  

  • Having decided that Wilde was corrupting his sonhe demanded that the pair stop seeing each other

  • When Wilde refused, Queensbury began to hound  him across London, threatening violence against  

  • restaurant and hotel managers if they  allowed Wilde and Bosie onto the premises

  • Queensbury booked a seat for the opening  night of The Importance of Being Earnest.  

  • He planned to throw a bouquet of rotting  vegetables at Wilde when he took to the stage

  • When Wilde heard about the stunt, he had  him barred from the theatre and Queensbury  

  • flew into a rage. He tried to accost Wilde  after the performance at the Albemarle Club  

  • in Mayfair. When the porters refused to let  him in, he left a calling card which publicly  

  • accused Wilde of having sex with other men. Since homosexuality was illegal and deeply  

  • frowned upon in Victorian society this was a dangerous accusation

  • Seeing no end to Queensbury's bullying behaviour,  

  • Wilde decided to take legal action. By suing  Queensbury for libel, Wilde hoped to clear  

  • his name and put an end to the harassment.

  • When the trial began, Wilde was confident.  

  • He took the stand and gave witty, distracting  answers during his cross-examination

  • Within a few days, however,  

  • the tide had turned against him.

  • It became clear that Queensbury's lawyers  

  • had hired private detectives to uncover an  uncomfortable truth: that both Wilde and Bosie had  

  • hired male prostitutes. Some had even blackmailed  Wilde in the past, successfully extorting  

  • money from him in return for their silence. The trial was hopeless and Wilde withdrew his  

  • case, but events had spiralled beyond his control. Queensbury's lawyers forwarded their evidence to  

  • the Director of Public Prosecutions and Wilde  was soon arrested on charges of gross indecency

  • The legal costs left him bankrupt and  theatres were forced to abandon his plays

  • Wilde's criminal trial began at the Old Bailey  on April 26. He faced twenty-five charges,  

  • all of which surrounded his sexual  relationships with younger men

  • Wilde continued to deny the allegations  and the jury could not reach a verdict,  

  • but when the prosecution were allowed to try Wilde  

  • a second time he was eventually found guilty.

  • The judge said at his sentencing, “It is the worst  

  • case I have ever tried. I shall pass the severest  sentence that the law allows.  

  • Wilde was sentenced to two years' of hard labour.  

  • Inmates in London's Pentonville Prison, where  he was sent, spent six hours a day walking on  

  • a heavy treadmill or untangling old  rope using their hands and knees

  • For someone of Wilde's luxurious background, it  was an impossible hardship. His bed was a hard  

  • plank which made it difficult to fall asleepPrisoners were kept alone in their cells and  

  • barred from talking to one another. He suffered  from dysentery and became physically very frail

  • After six months, he was transferred  to Reading Gaol. As he stood on the  

  • central platform of Clapham Junction, with  handcuffs around his wrists, passers-by began  

  • to recognise the celebrity playwright. They  laughed and mocked. Some even spat at him

  • 'For half an hour I stood  there,' he wrote afterwards,  

  • 'in the grey November rain surrounded byjeering mob. For a year after that was done to me,  

  • I wept every day at the same hour  and for the same space of time.'

  • During his last year in prison,  

  • Wilde wrote an anguished essay, De Profundis:  'I once a lord of language, have no words in  

  • which to express my anguish and my shame…  Terrible as was what the world did to me,  

  • what I did to myself was far more terrible still….  The gods had given me almost everything. But I let  

  • myself be lured into long spells of senseless and  sensual ease…I allowed pleasure to dominate me.  

  • I ended in horrible disgrace. There is only  one thing for me now, absolute humility… I  

  • have lain in prison for nearly two years… I have  passed through every possible mood of suffering…  

  • The only people I would care to be with now  are artists and people who have suffered:  

  • those who know what beauty is, and those who  know what sorrow is: nobody else interests me.' 

  • In May 1897, Wilde was finally released. He set  sail for Dieppe in France the very same day

  • His wife, Constance, had changed her name  and moved abroad with their two sons,  

  • Vyvyan (now 11) and Cyril (12). Wilde would never  see his children again; he missed them every day.

  • Constance agreed to send him money on the  

  • condition that he end his relationship  with Bosie, but only a few months later,  

  • the pair reunited and the money stopped. They moved to Naples and Wilde began using  

  • the name Sebastian Melmoth, inspired by  the great Christian martyr Saint Sebastian  

  • and a character from a Gothic novel  who had sold his soul to the devil

  • They hoped to find privacy abroad, but the scandal  seemed to follow them wherever they went. English  

  • patrons recognised them in hotels and demanded  they be turned away. After Constance stopped  

  • sending money, Bosie's mother offered to pay their  debts if he returned home and the pair once again  

  • parted ways; it proved equally impossible. Scorned by many of his former friends,  

  • Wilde moved to Paris where he lived in relative  poverty. He spent most of his time and money in  

  • bars and cafes, borrowing money whenever  he could and drinking heavily. His weight  

  • ballooned and his conversation dragged. He  was slowly inebriating himself to death

  • When a friend suggested he try to write another  comic play, he replied: “I have lost the  

  • mainspring of life and art […] I have pleasuresand passions, but the joy of life is gone.” 

  • His final piece of writing, a poem, The Ballad of  Reading Gaol, was published in 1898. The author's  

  • name was listed as 'C.3.3.' – Wilde's cell block  and cell number from his time in the prison

  • Towards the end of 1900, Wilde developed  meningitis and became gravely ill.  

  • A Catholic priest visited his hotel  and baptised him into the church.  

  • He died the following day at the age of 46. 

  • More than a century later, in 2017, a law was  passed to exonerate those who had been convicted  

  • due to their sexuality and Oscar  Wilde received an official pardon  

  • from the UK government. 'It is hugely important,'  declared a government minister, 'that we pardon  

  • people convicted of historical sexual offences  who would be innocent of any crime today.' 

  • Our society has become generous towards  Wilde's specific behaviourbut it  

  • remains moralistic towards a huge number of other peoples   

  • and ways of life 

  • Many of us wouldacross the ageswant 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  

  • and still, deserve compassion. That

  • would be true civilisation and a world in which  Wilde's horrifying downfall had not been in vain.

  • Our online shop has a range of books and gifts that address the most important and often neglected aspects of life. Click now to learn more.

On Valentine's Day in 1895, the most famous  playwright in the English speaking world,  

Subtitles and vocabulary

Operation of videos Adjust the video here to display the subtitles

B2 wilde oscar playwright constance douglas began

The Downfall of Oscar Wilde

  • 4 1
    Summer posted on 2021/10/13
Video vocabulary