A couple of years ago I spent Christmas week in Paris with a friend and one of the odd little walks we took was through Père Lachaise Cemetery. A fascinating walk through what seemed an ancient cemetery to my American eyes. You actually pick up a map of the graves. Amongst the common and famous interned there are Balzac, Maria Callas, Moliere, Collette, Yves Montand – and most famously Jim Morrison. Also interned there is Oscar Wilde. While Morrison is probably the most visited grave, the monument for Oscar Wilde is larger and bizarre in both the style and the remembrances left by admirers – heavy lipstick impressions of kisses.
I had not read anything by Wilde that I could recall, but I knew that he was the playwright of The Importance of Being Earnest. I had seen the film and have seen the play a couple of times. It is funny and witty; you have to listen closely as its fast paced dialog soon will outpace you if you don’t. He also wrote An Ideal Husband, a witty play and a fun film.
Finally getting around to reading Wilde, I chose a short story called The Canterville Ghost (1887) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). Dorian Gray is his only published novel, his writings were mostly short stories and plays.
The Canterville Ghost takes place in an old English manor house that has been sold to a newly rich American family called the Otis’. The father, mother, twin boys, eldest boy, and young sensitive daughter are caricatures of how Victorian England must have envisioned Americans. Too naïve to realize that they should be terrified of the resident ghost, Sir Simon, the twins terrorize him and tease him! The oldest son keeps washing out the “permanent” blood spot in the library with an American cleaner and the father gives Sir Simon a patent lubricant to prevent his chains from rattling! The story is told from Sir Simon’s point of view and he is not happy! Soon the sensitive daughter, the only one to simply leave Sir Simon alone, comes to his rescue.
As I read this delightful but old-fashioned story I realized that I had seen an old movie years ago based on this story – only instead of being set in Victorian England, it is set during WWII and is a comedy with Robert Young as a GI and Margaret O’Brian. Too funny! The plot is essentially the same, but everything else is pure Hollywood. Alas it is not available on DVD – at least not at EVPL or at Netflix.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is so different! Its high Victorian style where ten words are used when one will suffice is not the easiest read. It is sardonic, witty, funny, and at times it seems Wilde writes to simply write or to impress the reader, and not for the story itself. The story itself is melodramatic but good. A young, rich, and extremely handsome young man has his portrait painted. The portrait is so good that the man becomes enamored of himself and vain when he was not beforehand. He dramatically declares that he wishes his portrait would grow old while he stays young – and he gets his wish. He begins a life of hedonistic debauchery that I expect only Wilde could write so dramatically and all the harm Gray does is reflected in the painting and not on his face.
The Picture of Dorian Gray was made into a black and white film in 1945 with innovative color sequences to emphasize the changes to the portrait. I have checked it out from EVPL and plan to watch it this weekend. It stars Angela Lansbury, Donna Reed, and George Sanders in their prime.