History 301: City didn’t make much of an impression on Wilde

Oscar Wilde was known for his flamboyant sartorial style.

The following story was published in the August 2021 print issue of Urban Times


Contributing editor

Over the years, Indianapolis has been infatuated with Oscar Wilde. For his part, Wilde did not reciprocate.

The Irish poet and playwright sailed to America at age 27 in January 1882 for a series of lectures. The Indianapolis Leader ran a front-page story, with his portrait, about the arrival of the “Lecturing Aesthete” in New York in which it referred to him as  “a young man, fairly good looking, of gentle blood, well educated, and with a wondrous turn for suave and persuasive talk . . . [and] the attention being given him, which is very considerably the product of astute business methods on the part of the gentleman who acts as his manager . . . promises to net him a great deal of money.”

Wilde famously embraced the sartorial style of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, the Romantic poets of the 1700s, and his dandiness simply gobsmacked Americans, figuring into every news story about him. The Leader reported: “He was dressed in full dress coat, white vest, black knee breeches, black silk stockings and low shoes with buckles.”

The Indianapolis News also covered Wilde’s New York arrival, but relegated him to page two, and then included both a dispatch about the lecture (and his clothes) and a derisive short piece in the “Daily News” column. The latter, beneath a mention of a Delaware canal and the local cow ordinance, complained that “The people of New York are lionizing Oscar Wilde. If he is the ineffable donkey described he need not be lonesome in this country.”

Then on Feb. 22, Wilde, who lectured his way through 150 cities, stopped in Indianapolis. The News once again relegated Wilde coverage to page two, where it devoted a half-page column to sneering at the lecturer “who has received more gratuitous advertisement than any public performer with the exception of Sarah Bernhardt.” And, despite having called him a “donkey” a month earlier, now wrote: “People have called this young man a fool. He isn’t. He knows uncommonly well what he is doing …. Mr. Wilde gains himself a hearing by wearing knee breeches and a lily. He is not disseminating news about art, but gathering dollars.”

Wilde spoke at the English Opera House, a magnificent building which William E. English had expanded only two years earlier. According to the website “Oscar Wilde in America,” which tracks his tour, five Indianapolis newspapers covered the lecture.

In 1949 Indianapolis Times columnist Anton Scherer reran one of the reports written by the Indianapolis Saturday Review in 1882, when Gov. Albert Gallatin Porter and Mrs. Porter had thrown a big party at the governor’s mansion on the night of the talk. According Scherer’s account of the Review story, “Things started getting dull at the Governor’s soiree around 10:30 when somebody suggested getting Oscar Wilde over to liven up the party …. Billy Roberts, the Governor’s clerk, was the man picked for the job. He hired a hack and drove 10 blocks to the New Denison Hotel where Oscar had registered.”

After arriving at the Governor’s Mansion, “Mr. Wilde immediately expressed dissatisfaction with the architecture of Mr. Porter’s house …. At the end of the evening,” Scherer recounted, “Wilde thanked the governor for ‘this opportunity of observing the peasantry of Indiana.’”

Even battle-hardened newspaper reporters don’t take well to hearing the governor called a peasant. Apparently, all the city newspaper coverage of the lecture excoriated Wilde. In fact, that word “excoriated” is used in almost every resource that describes the press response to Wilde in Indianapolis; Excoriate: “to censure scathingly,” according to Merriam-Webster.

How did Wilde respond to this scathing excoriating? He didn’t. He said nothing about the Circle City. Nada. In a book titled Oscar Wilde in America: The Interviews, authors Matthew Hofer and Gary Scharnhorst share most of the 100 interviews that Wilde gave to newspaper reporters during his lecture tour. None took place in Indianapolis. At a later stop on the tour, a reporter asked what he had thought of some of the places he’d visited, mentioning Indianapolis, St. Louis, Cincinnati. The only one Wilde had apparently thought about was Cincinnati. “Its people have not only a great love of art, but they are doing much beautiful work … in Cincinnati the work is good, and the workers are going at it in the right way.” So much for the beautiful English Theatre, and the new Denison Hotel, and Indianapolis.

Eventually Wilde returned to England with full pockets. But in 1893, he was back in the news in Indianapolis when Joseph M. Bowles published two articles on his play, Salome, in Bowles’s Modern Art magazine. The self-appointed art critic panned the play as “Mr. Wilde’s morbid fancy” but praised Aubrey Beardsley’s work illustrating it.

The play, with its jaw-droppingly beautiful illustrations by Beardsley, was banned in England because it depicted a biblical story, which was not allowed on the English stage. But Wilde soon had much bigger problems. All of which were reported in Indianapolis newspapers.

His homosexual relationship with the son of the Marquis of Queensberry landed him in court in three related trials. Ultimately, Wilde was sentenced to two years at hard labor for what the Indianapolis Journal called “vicious practices.”

Although local news didn’t seem to mention Wilde’s release in 1897, The Indianapolis News reported his wife’s death (the couple never divorced) in 1898.

The Indianapolis Journal reported his death in 1900 on page one. The tone of the article, which was likely reprinted from another publication, was more respectful than any previous coverage of Wilde in local newspapers.

That respectful tone was not present in a 1902 report in The Indianapolis News, written by Hilary Bell of the New York Times: “Oscar Wilde is dead …. Oscar Wilde is so dead that his name, even, is not to be mentioned …. Not long ago his Lady Windemere’s Fan was revived in England, but its authorship was hidden. In the present revival of The Importance of Being Earnest no name is announced in the programs …. Other dramatists have had unhappy endings, but none so melancholy as Oscar Wilde. He is the anathema of the theater, the one wit of English literature whom honest men and women hesitate to speak of.”

It only took about 20 years for Wilde’s name to be spoken in the theaters of Indianapolis. In 1923, the Indianapolis Times noted that the Murat Theater was presenting Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. In the 1998-99 season The Indianapolis Star reported that Phoenix Theatre’s Bryan Fonseca would direct a play about Wilde – Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde by playwright, Moises Kaufman. The Civic Theatre performed The Importance of Being Earnest in 2019 and other companies continue to produce his plays under his name. 

The name of Oscar Wilde is venerated nowadays in Indianapolis. It is about time.

But if he were still alive, Oscar Wilde probably wouldn’t care.