In the March issue of New Jersey Stage, Dr. Eger took a look at Mickle Street, a new play by Michael Whistler about a chance meeting between Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman in Camden, NJ.
How did you come up with the subject of a play on the famous encounter between Britain’s Wilde and America’s Whitman in New Jersey? I first read about the encounter between Wilde and Whitman when I read Richard Ellman’s biography of Oscar Wilde as a young man. I thought immediately that it was a very exciting meeting of minds, and had always filed the idea in the back of my head to explore one day.
I visited Walt Whitman’s house at 328 Mickle Street (in Camden, NJ) a few years ago when I thought I might want to explore the territory, and was struck by the writing room and how eclectic it was. Although the actual meeting of Wilde and Whitman did not happen in the Mickle Street house, I saw there a very pronounced and mature personality for Walt, and I decided that I wanted the young Oscar to meet that, and to see Walt on his own turf. I wanted to create a world of which Oscar was in awe . . . and perhaps a little jealous. When I saw the house, that started my thinking about how the setting might help to do exactly that.
How did you research the historic visit of Wilde at Whitman’s Camden home? The research for a play like this takes many forms: I did spend a lot of time with biographies of the two men, as well as a pair of marvelous books about Wilde’s American tour—Declaring His Genius, by Roy Morris, Jr.; and Oscar Wilde Discovers America, by L. Lewis and H.J. Smith. I spent a lot of time revisiting the writings of each man, to see their worldviews, their letters, and to hear their voices. I also had to meet the “young Wilde”—Oscar in 1882, before he had written all the work for which he is known.
One of my great fascinations is to see how an artist’s life is expressed in his creations—to explore the young Wilde, I got to do some “literary archeology,” and look at his early writings, before he developed his voice, and see if I could uncover the traces of the writer he would become.
What surprised you the most about the literature that you read? One of the surprises was to discover how green Oscar Wilde was: his early lectures are described as dull and his voice unmusical. The lectures are very dry, and not filled with the humor we associate with Wilde. That led me to think that there was a “new” Oscar to be discovered in America, and perhaps those discoveries start early on in his tour, in his time with Whitman.
What did you see as the driving forces in the lives of the young and wealthy Wilde and the famous but poor and aging Whitman, especially during their encounter? In Mickle Street, I made decisions about what I felt these men would want from one another. In my mind, aside from the dialectics, the two men debate on their own viewpoints on Art, Science, and Beauty. I wanted to explore how a young man wants the approbation of respect and age; and the older man wants the energy and fearlessness of youth.
A number of writers have speculated that Wilde and Whitman had an erotic encounter. What was your sense of the evidence, or lack of evidence? Wilde’s famous quote, “I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips,” actually is a statement Wilde made after his second visit with Whitman, in April of 1882. It has been hotly debated what Wilde meant by this, although one thing is certain: Wilde loved the notoriety the statement gave him, and saw that it was well documented.
In truth, there is little to suggest that Wilde had any homosexual encounters before 1885, which is years after the meeting with Whitman. In fact, Wilde had recently been thwarted in a marriage proposal to Florence Balcombe. His own letter suggests that the proposal was in earnest, and that he was quite shattered by her refusal. He went to lengths to have his letters and mementos returned. In the years following the visit to Whitman, Wilde would court and wed Constance Mary Lloyd, and they would have two children together. I chose to draw from these facts that Wilde did not have a sexual relationship with Whitman—although the tension and sexual curiosity of a young man is present.