On this day…24 March

On 24 March 1909 Joyce’s article ‘Oscar Wilde’ was published.

The article ‘Oscar Wilde: il poeta di “Salomé”’ (‘Oscar Wilde: The Poet of “Salomé”’) was written in Italian and published in Il Piccolo della Sera on 24 March 1909. The immediate occasion for the article was a production of Richard Strauss’ opera Salome, based on Wilde’s play, at the Teatro Verdi in Trieste in March 1909, in which Gemma Bellincioni peformed the part of Salome.

Strauss (1864-1949) had seen a German version of Wilde’s play in Berlin in 1902 and started composing his opera in 1903. The first performance was in Dresden in December 1905 when Marie Wittich, who sang the role of Salome, refused to perform the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ and refused to kiss the head of John the Baptist.

The performances at the Teatro Verdi in March 1909 were among the highlights of that year’s opera season and the Trieste newspapers were full of reviews. In his article for the Piccolo della Sera, Joyce took the opportunity to point out not just that Wilde was the originator of the Salomé on which Strauss’ opera was based, but also his Irish roots.

Joyce starts by remarking on the façade of Wilde’s name – Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde – as an empty pretence which portended Wilde’s fate. His aestheticism was another such façade: the aesthete and apostle of beauty was editing a small-time women’s magazine and visiting the pawnbroker in order to make ends meet. It was not until the success of Lady Windermere’s Fan that Wilde had money to match his theories, and then he threw his money away on such expensive fripperies as flowers and a coach with a powdered groom.

Picturing Wilde as a court jester to the English, Joyce sees him as part of a tradition going back to Goldsmith and extending forward to George Bernard Shaw. The mob, Joyce claims, were delighted with Wilde’s downfall, and the ignominy of his prison sentence was accompanied by his betrayal by friends and family, and the destruction of his life. Having been betrayed by everyone else, Joyce claims that Wilde betrayed himself by then converting to Catholicism on his deathbed.

Joyce’s Wilde is a scapegoat. Like those who betrayed him, Wilde is a product of the English education system which produces secrecy and seclusion. His only ‘sin’ was to have caused a scandal, but that was enough to justify the hypocritical behaviour of the self-righteous English.

Wilde had been buried in Cimitière de Bagneux when he died in 1900, but in July 1909, a few months after Joyce published this article, his remains were removed to Père Lachaise cemetery where Epstein’s tombstone was added in 1914.


Sources & Further Reading:

Joyce, James: Occasional, Critical, and Political Writing, edited with an Introduction and Notes by Kevin Barry, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

McCourt, John: The Years of Bloom – James Joyce in Trieste, 1904-1920, Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2001.