Is Oscar Wilde’s appearance in The Gilded Age historically accurate?

Jordan Waller as Oscar Wilde in The Gilded Age. Image: HBO.

Season one of the HBO drama series The Gilded Age was set in 1882. When I found this out, I needed no further persuading to tune in. I was hooked before episode one aired.

That’s because 1882 is the year that Oscar Wilde undertook his lecture tour of North America. I made a special study of the tour while compiling my book Oscar Wilde: The Complete Interviews. I knew that in 1882 Wilde was the most written about man in America. Seen as the figurehead of a popular craze known as aestheticism (essentially the love of art for art’s sake), Wilde was mobbed by reporters and fans in every city he visited. He was entertained in Manhattan mansions, spoke in grand opera houses, and was the hottest topic of conversation in every home from New York to San Francisco. I was certain that Wilde had to make an appearance in The Gilded Age.

I was wrong.

So surprised was I by Wilde’s absence, I wrote an article about it. TL;DR? I enjoyed The Gilded Age, but felt that excluding Wilde was a missed opportunity.

Guess who’s back?

In the summer of 1883 Wilde briefly returned to America to promote and attend the rehearsals of his first play, Vera; or, The Nihilists, a melodrama set in Russia about the machinations of a gang of terrorists who are committed to assassinating the autocratic Czar. His return has allowed the writers of The Gilded Age to rectify his omission from season one. In the season two episode ‘Head to Head’ we are treated not only to the appearance of Jordan Waller as Oscar Wilde but also get to see many of The Gilded Age’s main characters attend a performance of Vera.

This is particularly exciting for me, as I have been working on a book about the writing and production of Vera and this often overlooked period of its author’s life. I have spent countless hours thinking about and studying the New York opening of Wilde’s first and worst play and it was thrilling to see it re-enacted for a wide audience on a popular TV show.

Let’s examine how The Gilded Age tackled Wilde and Vera, and consider how closely the fictional version of events matches real life.

A new play by Oscar Wilde

Aurora Fane (Kelli O’Hara) invites Marian Brook to see Vera; or, The Nihilists. Image: HBO.

Oscar van Rhijn (Blake Ritson) looks forward to Wilde’s play. Image: HBO.

At a meeting called by Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) to discuss tactics in the escalating opera war that is the main arc of season two, society mover-and-shaker Aurora Fane (Kelli O’Hara) invites Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) to the opening of ‘a new play by Oscar Wilde’. Aurora seems excited by the prospect; Marian perhaps less so (her response: ‘Oh’), though she agrees to attend.

Agnes’s son Oscar van Rhijn (Blake Ritson) later tells Aurora that he is looking forward to the evening with Wilde. She replies:

I’ve read nothing about the play. But we know him a little from one of our visits to England. He’s such an entertaining man.

The idea that Aurora knows nothing of the play is difficult to believe given that press coverage had been intense. Wilde’s first order of business after he waltzed off the steamer a week before the premiere had been to talk up his play. He was interviewed at least eleven times on the day of his return. This was effectively a press junket before press junkets had been invented, with Wilde meeting representatives of all the New York dailies in sequence, while perching on a leather sofa in the lobby of the Brunswick Hotel.

Oscar Wilde as he appeared in the summer of 1883, when he returned to New York for the production of Vera. Image:

Marie Prescott in Czeka, around the time she appeared in Vera. Image: NYPL.

He projected an image of breezy confidence, though must have been nervous. He had spent three years trying to bring his first play to the stage and knew that the manner in which it was received by the notoriously hostile critics of New York could make or break his still nascent literary career. But he was looking forward to his big night. As a ‘seraphic smile’ spread over his face he is supposed to have told one interviewer:

I shall be so glad when this play is produced. It will be such a delightful and such a novel sensation to stand and watch the audience drinking in the sentiment, like thirsty men quaffing at a fountain.

Marie Prescott – the play’s star, co-producer, and director – had also plastered the city with lithographs of Wilde’s face and posters depicting her as the titular heroine, firing a Winchester rifle while riding a sleigh. Newspapers carried prominent advertisements for ‘the greatest play of the day’ and Prescott had arranged for Wilde’s letters to her to be printed too. To sum up, the whole of New York was talking about Wilde’s play and Aurora’s claim to have to read nothing of it cannot be credited.

More plausible, though, is her revelation that she had met Wilde in England and found him entertaining. In 1880 and 1881 Wilde had risen to fame as a society poet, known for his eccentricities of dress and speech. He escorted fashionable women to art galleries, attended endless parties, and hosted a seance that was graced by assorted celebrities and even the Prince of Wales. Aurora could well have met and socialised with Wilde in London. Of course, she could also have availed herself of the opportunity to meet with the ‘Apostle of Aestheticism’ in 1882, when he was in New York. If she had, she would have been one of the few ‘old money’ New Yorkers who socialised with Wilde. In reality, although he was feted by several rich hostesses in January 1882, he was shunned by the blue bloods.

The first first night

Later in the episode a party of the younger characters is at the Union Square Theatre, bearing witness to Wilde’s first first night. We join the action at the end of Act I, when the den of the nihilist conspirators is being raided by the Czar’s secret police. Alexis, who has joined the nihilists under the guise of a medical student, averts catastrophe by whipping off his mask and revealing himself to General Kotemkin as the Czarevich (the heir to the throne).

Alexis (David T. Patterson), right, reveals his identity as the Czarevich to General Kotemkin (Geoffrey Allen Murphy) left, in Act I of Vera; or, The Nihilists, as re-enacted in The Gilded Age. Image: HBO.

In The Gilded Age, the acting of this scene is intentionally over-the-top. The performers declaim their lines and adopt stylised movements and gestures. It makes sense that David T. Patterson was cast as Alexis/Lewis Morrison and Samantha Sturm as Vera/Marie Prescott, as these actors have a wealth of experience in musical theatre and dance.

Wilde’s biographers have often emphasised the poor acting in the first production. It is true to say that the play was miscast, but all of the leading actors were tried and tested and the consensus of the reviews is that the acting was adequate. It was Wilde’s script that received the most ire. Wilde himself had predicted this might be the case in a letter he wrote to Prescott before the production:

My profits on the play depend on how you produce it and how it is acted; if it is not well produced and well acted my play is gone, and you know of course that if a play fails no one blames the actors, but they blame the author! No one ever says the actors failed, but on the author falls the vial of wrath.

The ‘vial of wrath’ certainly did fall on Wilde. The day after the first performance the Tribune described his script as ‘bantam gabble’; the Herald branded it ‘long-drawn dramatic rot’ and ‘a series of disconnected essays and sickening rant’. The Times man thought the play ‘unreal, long-winded, and wearisome’.

Oscar van Rhijn: ‘Is this the most boring play in the world? Or just in New York?’ Image: HBO.

The audience members in The Gilded Age roll their eyes at the bad dialogue and glance at each other in disbelief. Oscar van Rhijn whispers to Maud Beaton (Nicole Brydon Bloom): ‘Is this the most boring play in the world? Or just in New York?’ Maud insists that although it is evident that Wilde can’t write, she knows from experience that he can talk. Like Aurora she has met the novice playwright and he had her ‘in stitches’. ‘He may be witty’, says Oscar, ‘but clearly he hasn’t learned how to harness it’.

Oscar’s assessment is on the money. Wilde did include one of his trademark dandy characters in his first play, but Vera is nowhere near as amusing as his later comedies, Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest, which were written a decade later during his artistic maturity. By the time Vera was staged he had already written his second play – another melodramatic tragedy named The Duchess of Padua that today is as forgotten as his first. His third play would be the more artistically successful but equally unfunny Salomé, and he would attempt to write a number of other biblical or historical tragedies in a similar style. As odd as it may seem to us today, Wilde thought comedy was beneath him when, in fact, it was his forté.

Incidentally, Vera’s first night audience behaved much worse in real life than they do in The Gilded Age. During the lengthy breaks between the acts, rowdy boys in the circle called out Wilde’s name (he was sitting in a box, partially concealed by a curtain). They laughed and stamped and generally made their own fun, annoyed that Wilde had failed to supply any amusement with his play. But the constant wafting of the women’s fans is true to life: in late August 1883 New York was in the grip of a heatwave and many who were present at the Union Square Theatre on the 20th later wrote of how sweltering it had been. By the third act one reviewer noted that ‘[t]he audience was one vast fan’.

Larry Russell (Harry Richardson) and Susan Blane (Laura Benanti) ‘enjoy’ Wilde’s play. Behind them, fellow audience members hold copies of the programme to Vera. Image: HBO.

Advertisement for champagne, from the back of the original programme for Vera.

As well as writing the script for Vera, Wilde designed the costumes and the scenery. Some reviewers approved of what they saw, but most were unimpressed. The opulent costumes and scenery of the The Gilded Age are among the show’s strongest points, and they are very good here. Vera wears a red dress and fur hat. In reality she wore a red dress in the final scene, but as that scene is not depicted the costume designers can be forgiven for making use of it early. For this dress Wilde brought a bolt of vermilion silk from Europe. Prescott had been unable to find material to match a sample Wilde had sent her, as red dresses were not exactly fashionable in 1880s New York. Another actress of this era who wanted to wear a red dress on stage had to have it made from furniture fabric. Instead of a fur hat, for the real production of Vera Prescott wore a liberty cap: a floppy hat that was associated with revolutionaries both in France and America.

A detail for which The Gilded Age’s properties team should be applauded is their matching of the theatre programmes to the genuine article. Copies of the original programme are held at libraries in UCLA and New York, and the crew have clearly consulted these: on the back cover of copies carried by supporting cast members can be seen an advertisement for Piper Heidsieck champagne, exactly like on the real programme.

Enter: Oscar

In the next scene our characters are at a reception in honour of Wilde. There was no such reception after the premiere of Vera, and there is no evidence as to what Wilde did immediately after the play. As the curtain didn’t fall until nigh on midnight, he probably retired to his hotel in ignominious defeat. But many receptions were given for Wilde when he first arrived in New York in 1882, and there is no harm in placing one here for the purpose of introducing our regular characters to the man himself.

Oscar Wilde (Jordan Waller) in a costume closely matching that worn by the real Wilde in 1883. Image: HBO.

Wilde in 1883. Image:

Wilde in 1882, wearing a velvet jacket with piping. This jacket appears to be similar to that worn by Waller in The Gilded Age. Image:

Wilde is played by Jordan Waller, and to my mind rather expertly. He saunters into the glitzy party with all the insouciance for which Wilde is famed. He stands with one hand on his hip, exactly as Wilde can be seen in many photographs. He has chosen to play Wilde in a rather campy fashion, which is accurate: virtually every reporter who met Wilde in America commented on his effeminacy of appearance and manner. This is not to say that Wilde was perceived as gay (or, as Wilde himself might have put it, ‘psychological’ or ‘uranian’): at this time effeminacy in men was thought to be attractive to women, and Wilde, as a writer of semi-erotic poetry, was judged more of a threat to the virtue of young women than men.

Waller’s English accent is also spot on. Wilde claimed to have lost his Irish accent at Oxford, though he probably never had much of a brogue to begin with. His mother (who, by the way, was an Irish nationalist) once complained to him that ‘The Irish accent is dreadful … How refined we are’.

Waller’s costume has been based on photographs taken of Wilde during the summer of 1883, only days before Vera opened. Comparing the two we can see the same dark coat with piping on the lapels, a turn-down ‘Byronic’ collar, a large silk tie, a light coloured waistcoat and trousers, and even the same seal ring on a finger of the right hand.

There are a few minor inconsistencies. Wilde’s coat was of black broadcloth rather than what appears to be velvet, though Wilde did advocate the wearing of plush by men and had been seen wearing just such a coat in 1882. He would turn his shirt cuffs back over his jacket cuffs, an idiosyncrasy noticed by many of his acquaintances but not something we see in Waller’s costume. And the neon green carnation Waller sports is anachronistic as Wilde only adopted it in 1892. But this flower, widely considered to signify Wilde’s sexuality though just as easily explained by his love of artificiality and of the most decadent of hues, is so associated with the man that it is hardly a crime to pop it in his buttonhole a decade early.

I was much more surprised to find that Waller’s hair was cut short. Even though Wilde only wore his hair long for a few years, the most famous photographs of him – taken by Napoleon Sarony in New York in 1882 – depict him with long hair and have been instrumental in shaping the image of him that persists to this day. The hairstylists on The Gilded Age have decided to go with a cut more fitting to 1883, though they have not subjected Waller to the severe straight bangs worn by the real Oscar, supposedly in imitation of a sculpture of Nero he had seen in the Louvre.

The wit

Writing original dialogue for Oscar Wilde is a risky endeavour. As wonderful as Wilde’s (later) writings may have been, his friends all agreed that they were a pale imitation of his talk. No writer has much chance of matching him, but I think Julian Fellowes and Sonja Warfield have done a commendable job. As Wilde enters the reception he thanks his hostess, saying:

How very kind you are, Mrs Fane, to let me throw off the chains of the theatre so that I may step into society as if I were not damaged goods.

And when Oscar van Rhijn, struggling to find a good word for the play, compliments Marie Prescott, Wilde replies:

Yes, she’s glamourous enough to take our minds off the text.

This strikes me as true to life. A few months after his return to London Wilde attended a party at which he was heard to say, ‘You know what a run my play had in America?’ His auditor, fearing to hurt his feelings, made no reply. ‘It ran’, said Wilde, looking eminently self-complacent, ‘for a whole night; what more could one wish!’ As in The Gilded Age, Wilde had defused the tension. Now his fellow guests were laughing with him rather than at him.

Still, it took Wilde a little time to deploy this tactic. In the days after the first night of Vera he was devastated and somewhat in denial. He dismissed the critics’ opinions as worthless, insisting that audiences would flock to the Union Square Theatre regardless. When they stayed away Prescott and her husband and manager William Perzel were forced to withdraw the play after only a week. Wilde admitted that Vera had failed in New York and to withdraw it had been wise. He believed it would fare better on tour, but Prescott only staged it twice more, in Detroit. Vera has rarely been revived since. In fact, the audience for ‘Head to Head’ must have vastly exceeded the number of people who have ever seen Vera in the 140 years since the play was first produced.

Oscar Wilde (Jordan Waller) clocks Oscar van Rhijn and and John Adams while Aurora Fane (Kelli O’Hara) looks on, oblivious. Image: HBO.

Perhaps the lone misstep in The Gilded Age’s characterisation of Wilde is the choice to portray him as attracted to other men. In fact, at one moment he is dangerously close to coming out to Aurora. When she explains to him that the handsome John Adams (Claybourne Elder) is Oscar van Rhijn’s ‘old friend’, Wilde instantly clocks that the men have a romantic history. Both now have their eyes on women. ‘I can see that getting rather complicated’, Wilde remarks.

The exact nature of Wilde’s sexuality will likely forever remain a mystery, but the evidence suggests that the first time he slept with a man was three years after the events depicted here. He was smitten with a woman he met in San Francisco and, back in London, would court and marry Constance Lloyd. Some have suggested this was a so-called lavender marriage, but Wilde’s surviving correspondence implies that his affection for his wife was genuine.

The problem is perhaps that Wilde’s status as a gay icon is so secure that it can be difficult to see him as anything else. Do audiences want to see a straight or bisexual Wilde, or a Wilde in the closet? I suspect not. But in 1883 it would be more accurate to portray him as attracted to women rather than men, even if there is an argument to be made that his feminine flirtations may have been little more than a pose.

Never to return

We are not likely to see Wilde return to The Gilded Age in later seasons as, after the collapse of Vera, he departed America never to return. When his society comedies were transferred from London’s West End to Broadway, Wilde could not be persuaded to cross the Atlantic to promote them. He claimed, perhaps with some honesty, that he was not keen on further encounters with America’s prying interviewers. He may also have feared the critics and the possibility that he might be snubbed by high society.

But if this is Wilde’s only appearance in Fellowes’ show, it was worth waiting for. We got to see a Wilde we’re rarely exposed to. This is not Stephen Fry’s Wilde of the late 1880s and early 1890s, a family man with a secret life. Nor is it Rupert Everett’s post-prison Wilde. Waller and The Gilded Age have given us an earlier and, to my mind, more intriguing Wilde. An Oscar Wilde in the midst of his first failure, but wearing the mask of success.