What else could he be but a master of façades?
“The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.” — Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
Town Hall Theatre asked local actor DC Scarpelli, who is a master of many on-stage façades, and currently starring as Lord Goring in our next show, An Ideal Husband, to contribute to our blog. Having recently returned from a trip to Paris (that's DC pictured above in front of Wilde’s grave at Père Lachaise in Paris), DC shared the following:
That Oscar Wilde: Snappy dresser. Brilliant wordsmith. Gay icon. The quintessential Victorian dandy, ever-ready with a novel turn of phrase, and certainly one of the most epically quotable humans ever.
It's extremely tempting to reduce Oscar Wilde to the glib epigrams which he produced by the sackful. It's something that can seem artificial to us and distance us from him. How could anyone whose facility with language was so blissfully nimble serve as anything but a spewer of empty bons mots? Surely he tired of quoting himself? Surely he didn’t really mean all the whimsically paradoxical statements he uttered? Surely he was more than the shimmery image we have of him?
Yes. And no.
Wilde’s public persona was carefully cultivated. He is the theater's master of façade — and that's saying quite a lot; what is theater, after all, but a world of surfaces designed for effect? His use of façades, not only in his plays and novel, but in his life, was in many ways his Great Art. But that doesn’t mean that the façade was perforce false or shallow.
He was an Irishman who rose to celebrity as a commentator on English society and mores. He was a husband and father whose own childhood — as the son of a lauded surgeon and a poetess who ended in dire financial straits — was privileged but highly unconventional. He was a gay man in a society that imprisoned and crushed them.
What else could he be, but a master of façade?
Victorian society abounded with glittering surfaces, and most of them were cultivated to fit in with and reinforce convention. The character and actions of People of Quality were expected to be beyond reproach.
In An Ideal Husband (opening at Town Hall Theatre June 1-24, 2017), we encounter a couple who live to just this standard. To be an Ideal Husband, in the definition espoused in the play by Lady Chiltern, is to be entirely “without stain,” to possess a soul as brilliantly unflawed and gleaming as the starched shirtfront that contains it.
A superhuman achievement.
Like all of Victorian England, Wilde lived in the shadow of the ultimate Idealized Husband. Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was not only the lionized consort to the most powerful Empress on earth, but rigid paterfamilias to both the English royals and many of the crowned heads of Europe. His untimely death in 1861 plunged Queen and Country into decades of enforced mourning and cemented his legacy as the eternal model of irreproachable paternal and moral rectitude. With the ghost of Albert hovering above it, the nation found itself expected to live up to his impossible ideal.
How to take the inevitable moral ambiguities and compromises that life presents us and split them in two: the unsullied public face and the messy, compromised reality behind it?
It's not difficult to feel for Robert Chiltern, the Ideal Husband of the play's title, who finds himself having to hold his entire life up to his wife's “unbending hard” estimation of his unimpeachable moral character. He's a man for whom one unscrupulous act of the past has the potential to grind his whole life's work to dust. What person among us could possibly say with a straight face that they are the Ideal Anything? The very idea is a prison.
The façade is the key.
Wilde himself used façades for self- definition and invention. One of the overriding themes of all his work is just that: cultivation of identity. In plays like The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, it's easy to see Wilde in the roguish antagonists — Algy Moncrieff and Arthur Goring — the dandies who flout society's conventions until they stumble into a societal slot that fits them perfectly.
In the universe of Wilde's plays, the seemingly false image presented to the world — the aesthetic perfection for which he strove — often turns in on itself and becomes absurdly inevitable (the improbable lies that fuel Earnest turn out to be true).
But in Husband, Lord Goring's unconventional façade counters the fact that he (and his equally unconventional love interest, Mabel) are perhaps the most human — and humane — characters in the piece. The fashions and epigrams aren't brittle artifice; they're these characters' way of being truest to their own nature — of acting out of love, loyalty, and compassion — something they recognize and find attractive in each other.
In the play, it’s those who are bound by convention who are straitjacketed and vulnerable to blackmail, disillusionment and ruin.
Not so in real life.
The same year An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, were produced to great acclaim on the London stage, Wilde became embroiled in the legal difficulties which were to prove his undoing. In the wake of the Cleveland Street Scandal of 1889 (a raid on a male brothel in which the highest levels of London society were implicated) and provoked by the appropriately pugilistic Marquess of Queensberry (father of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas), Wilde came crashing down in a series of three 1895 trials that took from him his freedom, his family, his fortune, his health, and, ultimately, his life.
The Wilde trials, which saw him convicted of “Gross Indecency,” exposed the split personality of the era and the impossibility of its gleaming white expectations. By the time the new century had taken root, the Victorian Era and its moral stranglehold had vanished, paving the way for a more attainable, more human Ideal…
But not, I think, one that sacrifices the brilliance of those epigrams.
“To define is to limit.” — Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
About the author:
DC Scarpelli is thrilled to be working at Town Hall! Recent roles include Czolgosz in Assassins (BAM) Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar (TVRT), Higgins in My Fair Lady (CCCT), The King of Siam in The King and I and Thénardier in Les Misérables (TVRT). He and his husband, Peter Budinger, have written and directed many plays, won a few awards, and appeared in numerous together. They were theater majors and improv disciples together at Yale University. DC received a 2011 BATCC Award for Best Lead Actor in The Mystery of Irma Vep.