Oscar Wilde’s inspired paean to the life and message of Christ in his prison-authored “De Profundis” (1897) – identifying with Christ’s universal love, himself (and thereby, as implied, from the standpoint of his identity as a gay man) – sat well with no one.
Wilde’s admirers were dismayed by the deeply spiritual nature of the work, attributing it to the degradation of prison life, and church leaders had even less interest in his unconventional, radically humanitarian appreciation of Christ.
But the work was a fuller exposition of themes Wilde presented in earlier works, especially “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1890), where he drew a sharp distinction between the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure for its own sake and true happiness. In “De Profundis,” he wrote about “the note of doom that like a purple thread runs through the texture of ‘Dorian Gray.'”
Embracing such a perspective on life, including his own gay life, Wilde remained a happy soul until his untimely death, contrary to the popular view that, after prison, he was penniless, depressed and doomed to ignominy in Paris. His close lifelong friend, Robbie Ross, insisted it was quite otherwise, and it was Ross who saw to the publication of “De Profundis” following Wilde’s death.
If flamboyant and filled with wry and ironic humor, Wilde’s life and work was completely contrary in its sentiment and intent to the outrageous misrepresentation by Neil McKenna in his book, “The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde” (2005). McKenna dared to falsely assert that Wilde wrote “Dorian Gray” to seduce readers into the hedonistic excesses of the London underworld.
But then, postmodernists have a habit of shamelessly recasting historical figures in their own anarcho-hedonist image, eagerly dragging the legacies of great women and men through the mud with uncommon zeal.
So it is with British playwright Alan Bennett (who penned “The History Boys”), who performed a hatchet job on three important gay creative giants, poet W. H. Auden, composer Benjamin Britten and author Thomas Mann, in his recent work, “The Habit of Art” (2009).
To Bennett, there exists no nobility or virtue in gay sensibility. He recognizes only thinly-veiled social constraints on vulgar hedonistic, predatory lust. Whatever it may suggest about his own gay life, such a conviction reveals a jaded inability to appreciate how creative genius can focus the compassionate gay impulse on great, loving achievements, including the uplifting and edification of objects of affection, rather than their defilement.
Bennett’s comedy, “The Habit of Art,” details the lives and careers of its main characters Auden and Britten (and the oft-referenced Mann). But it treats their interest in adolescents as simply open or barely repressed craving, rather than a creator’s love of their potential.
Thus, to Bennett’s mind, the subjects of their interest are, just beneath the surface, objects to be devoured by lust, rather than recipients of a gay love whose creative energy strives to free them from the stranglehold of male-dominated straight society, and to transform them into loving creative individuals, in turn.
In Bennett’s play, the circumstances surround a fictional meeting between Auden and Britten in the early 1970s (the two had, in fact, briefly collaborated 30 years earlier). Britten seeks Auden’s validation for his desire to use Mann’s novella, “Death in Venice” (1912) , as the subject of an opera. “Death in Venice” had been written by Mann as an autobiographical account of being smitten by an adolescent boy while on vacation in Venice.
Britten, indeed, composed such an opera before dying in 1976. But the dialogue in Bennett’s play surrounds Britten’s misgivings about how his widely-rumored interest in adolescents – despite having a lifelong lover in baritone Peter Pears – might impact the receipt of an opera on the “Death in Venice” theme.
In Bennett’s play, Auden is characterized as a jaded old queen who hires rent boys to show up promptly at a given hour for dispassionate servicing. Auden, indeed, had a famous gay appetite that included cavorting with Christopher Isherwood in Berlin in the 1920s, as documented by Isherwood in his memoir, “Christopher and His Kind,” written following Auden’s death in 1976. (Auden used his enormous talent to pen the powerfully erotic poem, “The Platonic Blow,” that became public against his will.)
But the greatest slander of “The Habit of Art” is contained in its title, that creative geniuses consider their work matters of mere “habit.”
The rent boy in “The Habit of Art” sounds off at the end, demanding of Auden, “When do we figure and get to say our say?…When do we take our bow?…We… the fodder of art? … I want to know.”
Auden sighs, “We can’t help you.”
In the play, that was pretty much the sum of it. In reality, as a compassionate, loving gay genius, the entire purpose of Auden’s life and creative work was, actually, to answer precisely the opposite.
To be continued.