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When Oscar Wilde Visited Walt Whitman In Camden

By Henrik Eger, Ph.D.

originally published: 03/05/2017

When Oscar Wilde Visited Walt Whitman In Camden

A different side of legendary Irish writer Oscar Wilde was recently on display at Walnut Street Theatre in a new play by Michael Whistler entitled Mickle Street.  The play revolves around a little known piece of literary history — the period in which the 27-year-old writer traveled to Camden, New Jersey to seek the advice of Walt Whitman.

In Mickle Street, we see Wilde’s wit evolve, but many of his words taste like young wine — a fledging writer struggling with his identity, convinced that he has already made it because of the many Americans who are attending his lectures, from New York and Philadelphia, all the way to Colorado — even though the press writes less than flattering reviews.

Being associated with famous people was as much en vogue in the late 1800s as it is today. David M. Friedman, author of Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity, provides evidence that “Wilde didn’t travel to Camden to learn how to be a famous writer. […] He went to learn how to be a famous person.”

Whistler features the encounter of the rising, if fairly inexperienced, Wilde with the seasoned and much discussed Whitman, then 62, at his house on Mickle Street in Camden, NJ, on January 31, 1882.

Right from the beginning, the play shows Wilde reflected through the eyes of Gilbert and Sullivan, the famous Victorian writers of comic operas that satirized the aesthetic movement of the 1870s and ‘80s and all that went with it: fads, vanity, and pretentiousness.



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Mary, an Irish-Catholic widow, looks after Whitman.  When the tall and handsome Wilde arrives at Whitman’s humble and overcrowded home, he is all done up with his famous fur coat and pantaloons, looking like a Victorian male Madonna at a gala.  However, Mary doesn’t believe in externals.  “The crowd seemed more impressed with his appearance than his speech,” she says.

Whistler’s Mary has a fine eye for different layers of reality: “You know the paper says he lives ‘on beauty alone.’ All he asks for lunch is a glass of water for the posy he carries about.” Even when Whitman tries to explain to her the “L’art pour I’art” or “art for art’s sake” concept and Wilde’s Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood aestheticism, she doesn’t buy it.  “Suppose I were to make a pie for you, Mr. Whitman, and instead of cutting you a slice told you that ‘Oh no — this pie is not for the eating.  It is ‘complete in itself.’ I made it for the purpose of being a beautiful, aesthetic pie.’”

Mickle Street doesn’t fall into the trap of lionizing Wilde or Whitman. Mary makes it quite clear that “for all your fine words and flowers I know you for what you are, Mr. Walt Whitman: a trouble to man and woman both.” Whitman, unafraid of her, also has a few choice terms of endearment for her, “Mary, don’t be a stubborn old goat,” or “She’s a skittish trout when she’s of a mind.”  While she may not always understand the man whom she observes from her prim and proper perspective, she nevertheless serves as a balancing force throughout the play.

Audiences in Britain and the US at the time laughed at Wilde, the talented but attention-craving poet — the way Americans today make fun of the not so witty Paris Hilton and the Kardashians.  Unfazed, Wilde loves playing the role of the enfant terrible — dressed to the hilt, posy in his lapel.  In Whistler’s adaptation, Wilde even encourages the attention: “I want to shock.”

Whistler imagines a conversation between two writers: Whitman, with all his foibles, clearly has the upper hand, while Wilde’s verbal dancing doesn’t get him anywhere, except the awareness that, perhaps, there is more to life than theatrics and striking up “battles in this revolution for the Science of Beauty.”

Wilde, the dandy, throws out more than aesthetic pronouncements. There are moments when he touches on the untouchable: “We do not wear our sins as we wear our cloaks. Those we keep in a closet.”

Whistler’s Mickle Street presents some intense moments between those two men who were considered to be fluid in their sexuality, and were punished for their writing and their lifestyle—Whitman, by being denied a paid position at a hospital during the Civil War, and Wilde being sent to jail.

Friedman implies that both Whitman and Wilde were publicity hounds—with Whitman even writing enthusiastic, albeit anonymous, reviews about his controversial masterpiece, Leaves of Grass. These two writers were quite a match in their desire to reach as wide an audience as possible. “Cultivating newspaper coverage and meetings with American literary giants, the tour made Wilde the second best-known Brit in the country after Queen Victoria, despite having published almost nothing,” as Kevin C. Shelly points out.

Whitman, overwhelmed by Wilde’s many statements, mixed in with his compliments, blurts out, “You have thrown more ideas at me in an hour than fifteen other men I might know. You are smart, and you see something. But you have to stop staring all mooney eyed at ancient ruins. You no more live in an ancient temple than I do. You want to live in the world—live in the world.”

Whistler’s new play, based on historical facts and imagined conversations between two famous writers (the Walnut Street production was directed by Greg Wood and starred Daniel Fredrick as Oscar Wilde and Buck Schirner as Walt Whitman), opens new doors, shows an insecure young Wilde who seems to hide behind “aesthetics and art” while Whitman teaches Wilde more than he might have bargained for, advising him, “Go see America. Go see the world. Find out what creature you are. And for all the frippery—be honest. With us, and with yourself.”

Mickle Street ended its run at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre on March 8.  With any luck this tale, which involves one of New Jersey’s most famous artists, will see a production in the Garden State in the future.

** Note, this article contains material first published in phindie.com and the Philadelphia Gay News.  Henrik Eger, Editor at DramaAroundTheGlobe.com, interviews the playwright, Michael Whistler, in our April issue. **

 






Centenary Stage Presents Henrik Ibsen's "Enemy Of The People"
(HACKETTSTOWN, NJ) -- Randall Duk Kim and Anne Occhiogrosso headline Centenary Stage Company’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, February 15 through March 3 in the Sitnik Theatre of the Lackland Performing Arts Center, Hackettstown, New Jersey. Adapted by John Alan Wyatt and directed by Anne Occhiogrosso, the production will feature Randall Duk Kim as Doctor Thomas Stockmann supported by an acting company of professional and local talent from the tri-state area and Centenary University. The full-scale production marks the culmination of the 2018 Gates Ferry Lecture Series: “What is Truth?”
South Street Players Presents "Sylvia"
(SPRING LAKE,NJ) -- The South Street Players presents A.R. Gurney's "Sylvia" on two weekends - February 1-3 and February 8-10. The place is New York City, the time is the present.  Middle-aged, upper-middle class Greg finds Sylvia, a dog (played by a human), in the park and takes a liking to her. He brings her back to the empty nest he shares with Kate.  
American Girl Live: An Interview With Laila E. Drew and Shelby Miguel
Please note: Due to the potential of a major winter storm on Saturday, both performances of American Girl Live at Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown have been postponed and rescheduled for President’s Day, Monday, February 18 at 2 pm and 5:30 pm. All tickets will be honored on that date. If you cannot attend the new date, please contact the box office at 973-539-8008.
"Kinky Boots" Comes To Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City
(ATLANTIC CITY, NJ) -- Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City in conjunction with TROIKA Entertainment is will present KINKY BOOTS, the smash-hit musical that brings together four-time Tony® Award-winner Harvey Fierstein (Book) and Grammy® Award-winning rock icon Cyndi Lauper (Tony Award-winner for Best Score for KINKY BOOTS), at Sound Waves in Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City from April 30 until May 5 with two performances on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets starting at $35.00.
The Panto Company Presents "Beauty and the Beast" at The Newton Theatre
(NEWTON, NJ) -- When you think of a dying rose and a clock, candlestick andteapot who talk... you are thinking Beauty and the Beast. One of this season's spellbinding family shows from The Panto Company USA stars Dame Dotty Potty, Loopy Louie, Gaston, Belle and of course The Beast!  The company brings their show to The Newton Theatre on Sunday, March 3 at 3:00pm.


Laiona Michelle Talks About "Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical"
This might be the right time for Nina Simone—15 years after her death. That’s what Laiona Michelle thinks, and, in a way, Michelle will be testing that idea by bringing the singer-activist to life in a world-premiere musical show at George Street Playhouse. Michelle wrote the show—“Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical”—and she will appear in the title role at the New Brunswick theater from January 29 through February 24.
It's "Apple Season" at NJ Rep
Every family has stories. Some are funny. Some are sweet. Some are sad. And some are never shared. Those are often the most powerful.
Rise of the Goatman
Theater For The New City presents Beltsville/Rockville, Part 1: Rise of the Goatman, an original play by Englewood resident Matt Okin (Artistic Director of Black Box Studios), from December 27 through January 13. In this pseudo-Southern Gothic dark comedy, a vibrant group of teens from two very different suburban neighborhoods clash over class differences, drugs, and sex - and the existence of the legendary ‘Goatman’ in 1986. Cut to 2013, and the adolescent kids of those very same teens are struggling to make sense of their family histories - and the same “mythological” creature - that could be holding them back in life.
PHOTOS from "The Winter's Tale" at Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
(MADISON, NJ) -- The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s concludes its 56th season with its sixth and final Main Stage production, The Winter's Tale. Last seen at The Shakespeare Theatre in 2008, Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte directs this production of Shakespeare’s tragicomedic romance. Veteran company members Jacqueline Antaramian, Jon Barker, Erin Partin, John Keabler, Raphael Nash Thompson,Seamus Mulcahy, Patrick Toon, and Ames Adamson are among a cast of 20 actors. Performances run now through December 30. 
REVIEW: "It's A Wonderful Life" At Mile Square Theatre
Nestled in a corner of Hoboken, on the second floor, lies the studios of radio station WMST.  It’s a wonderful art deco studio, replete with fine wooden walls, embedded with colorful lights an applause sign.  On stage, we’ve got a few chairs, several microphones and a whole corner wedged with all the necessary props – piano, men’s shoes, sheet metal – to create the audio effects for the production of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”






Event calendar
Sunday, Jan 20, 2019


MUSIC

The Brook Orchestra presents Fire & Ice @ Brook Arts Center, Bound Brook - 3:00pm

Bay Atlantic Symphony: Mozart & Verdi @ Stockton Performing Arts Center (StocktonPAC) in Galloway, Galloway - 2:00pm

Scott Wolfson & Other Heroes @ Riverside Rhythm & Rhyme, Succasunna - 4:00pm


THEATRE

"Apple Season" by E.M. Lewis @ New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch - 2:00pm

Annie Jr. @ The Oakes Center, Summit - 2:00pm

Auditions: Born Yesterday @ Studio Playhouse Upper Montclair, Upper Montclair - 6:30pm







KIDS

American Girl Live @ Count Basie Center For The Arts, Red Bank - 1:00pm


MISC

WWE Superstar Braun Strowman @ iPlay America, Freehold - 11:00am

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