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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. **

 






Pebble Players Presents "Heathers, the Musical: High School Edition"
(SUMMIT, NJ) -- Celebrating their 10th season, Pebble Players has been entertaining Summit residents and audiences from surrounding towns with sophisticated Off-Broadway quality performances. The 2018 Season opens with "Heathers The Musical: High School Edition," directed by Jayne Myers and choreographed by Jaimie Woodruff.  Performances are Friday, November 16 and Saturday, November 17 at 7:30pm and Sunday, November 18 at 2:00pm. 
NJPAC Presents Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies
(NEWARK, NJ) -- New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) presents Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies from Thursday, March 21, 2019 - Saturday, March 23, 2019. The high-style music of “The Duke” is the heart and soul of this 1981 Tony-winning Broadway hit, directed with dazzle by André De Shields (The Wiz). Mercedes Ellington, granddaughter of Duke Ellington, re-creates the original show’s elegant dancing and tapping as choreographer.
Princeton Chinese Theatre in collaboration with the Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Theater present Teahouse by Lao She
(PRINCETON, NJ) --Princeton Chinese Theatre in collaboration with the Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Theater at Princeton University will present Teahouse by Lao She on November 16, 17 and 18 at 8:00pm and November 17 at 2:00pm in the Donald G. Drapkin Studio at the Lewis Arts complex on the Princeton campus. Teahouse is considered a masterpiece of contemporary Chinese theater, spanning 50 years in modern Chinese history from the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the Republican Revolution to the birth of the People’s Republic, bringing together over sixty characters who represent all walks of life. The production is directed by senior Changshuo Liu.
Axelrod's Rising Stars Youth Performing Arts Program Presents "Peter Pan"
(OCEAN TOWNSHIP, NJ) --  A family musical that’s perfect for the holiday season, “Peter Pan” is flying onto the Axelrod stage December 8-16. Axelrod’s award-winning Rising Stars Youth Performing Arts program presents one of Broadway’s timeless classics in a fully staged production directed by Lisa Goldfarb with musical direction by Randy Hurst and choreography by Wendy Roman.  
Mile Square Theatre Presents It’s a Wonderful Life: a live radio play
(HOBOKEN, NJ) --  Mile Square Theatre, Hudson County’s leading professional theatre, revives its beloved production of It’s a Wonderful Life: a live radio play by Joe Landry. Mile Square Theatre becomes a live recording studio in the golden age of radio, and MST theatre goers become the studio audience as WMST “goes on air” to broadcast Frank Capra’s popular holiday story. The production begins performances on Thursday, November 29 and runs till Sunday, December 23.  


Broadway’s Next H!T Musical LIVE! at Toms River’s Grunin Center
It’s Friday, October 26, 2018, and the Broadway’s Next H!T Musical cast is just about ready to take the stage at the Jay and Linda Grunin Center for the Arts, located on the campus of Ocean County College in Toms River, NJ.
The Last Apple Pie: "Apples In Winter" Opens At Centenary Stage
Jennifer Fawcett’s new play centers around a mother in a kitchen, doing something countless people across America will take part in over the upcoming holiday season: making an apple pie.
See Andrea McArdle LIVE! in Annie at Deal Park’s Axelrod PAC!
Leapin’ Lizards! Annie’s finally made it to the Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal Park, NJ, and it stars Broadway’s original Annie, Andrea McArdle, as Miss Hannigan!
"It's a Blast!" Go See Rock of Ages 10th Anniversary Tour NOW! at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino!
The five-time Tony award-nominated Broadway musical, Rock of Ages, returns to the stage with a 10th Anniversary Tour at Atlantic City’s Hard Rock Hotel & Casino! Performed in the venue’s ultra-modern Sound Waves theater, Rock of Ages runs from now until November 4, 2018.
There's One In Every Family: "Charley's Aunt" at The Shakespeare Theatre
On stage now through November 18 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, “Charley’s Aunt” is described as “part Oscar Wilde, part ‘Fawlty Towers,’ with a dash of South American spice!” This side-splitting British farce from 1892 has drag, mistaken identity, romance and plenty of physical comedy. Join Jesse and Dave at rehearsals in Florham Park to hear from the cast and director what makes this such a hilarious and enduring show.






Event calendar
Wednesday, Nov 14, 2018


MUSIC

PUDDLES PITY PARTY @ Mayo Performing Arts Center (MPAC), Morristown - 7:30pm


THEATRE

An Actor's Carol @ Cape May Stage, Cape May - 7:30pm

Apples In Winter @ Centenary Stage Company - Kutz Theater of the Lackland Center, Hackettstown - 2:00pm and 7:00pm

The Drowsy Chaperone @ Lauren K. Woods Theatre at Monmouth University, West Long Branch - 8:00pm


LITERATURE

An Evening with Award-Winning Author Jimmy Santiago Baca @ Summit Free Public Library, Summit - 7:00pm


MISC

Linda Shields, The Jersey Shore Medium @ iPlay America, Freehold - 5:00pm






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