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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. **

 






‘Nutcracker’ Ballet and ‘Snow Day’ Brighten Holiday Season at MCCC’s Kelsey Theatre
(WEST WINDSOR, NJ) -- Holiday fun is on the schedule at Mercer County Community College’s (MCCC’s) Kelsey Theatre with two special events in December: Dance Connection's family version of “The Nutcracker” ballet December 14 to 16 and an interactive live radio show, “Snow Day,” presented by MPOnstage December 22.
NJ Rep To Present World Premiere of "Apple Season" by E.M. Lewis
(LONG BRANCH, NJ) -- New Jersey Repertory Company presents the world premiere of E.M. Lewis’ Apple Season from January 10 - February 10, 2019. Twenty years ago, Lissie and Roger fled from their family farm and made themselves disappear. But the family secrets haunt them still.  A funeral and a question from an old friend send the two siblings tumbling down a rabbit hole of memory and grief, as they try to let go of a tangled past that refuses to release them. 
NYC Theater To Present "Beltsville/Rockville, Part 1: Rise of The Goatman" by Matt Okin
(NEW YORK, NY) -- The Theater For The New City will produce Beltsville/Rockville, Part 1: Rise of the Goatman, an original play by Englewood resident Matt Okin, from December 27 to 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.
New Feathers Productions Announces Full Cast for "Naked Call"
(NEW HOPE, PA) -- Immediately following a near sold-out performance from their December 6th show, New Feathers Productions now announces complete casting of Naked Call, a featured, full-length premiere by award-winning playwright, Ken Kaissar with direction by Amy Kaissar.  Premiering on stage at the James A. Michener Art Museum December 20th, with a fully clothed cast, actor Michael Gamache reunites with Ken Kaissar after performing in the East Coast tour of Kaissar’s play A Modest Suggestion as well as Humility at Philly’s Painted Bride Arts Center in which he appeared in the nude.
New Feathers Productions To Present "Naked Call" by Ken Kaissar
(NEW HOPE, PA) -- New Feathers Productions will present the featured, full-length, new works reading of Naked Call by award-winning, playwright Ken Kaissar on Thursday, December 20th.  Naked Call will be professionally produced and presented for one night only and is the featured reading as the successful season concludes at the James A. Michener Art Museum.  Tickets include a museum pass with access to the latest exhibitions and the ever-popular, pre-show wine gathering with the creatives at 6:15pm, Naked Call starts promptly at 7:00pm and runs approximately 75 minutes.   


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.”
Betsy Aidem Puts A Woman's Touch On George Street Playhouse's "A Doll's House, Part 2"
Betsy Aidem is a veteran actress you might have seen on Broadway. Or maybe on an episode of “Law & Order: SVU.” Or maybe on the big screen last year in “The Greatest Showman.” But over the next few weeks in New Brunswick, Aidem is adding a brand-new section to her résumé — by helming a sequel (of sorts) to a classic play that’s more than 100 years old.
REVIEW: "Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn" at Paper Mill Playhouse
One man’s ambition is comfortable yet to another it is anathema.  This is the simplest way to convey the central theme of Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn – now playing at Papermill Playhouse.  The show is a rich, effervescent, beautiful, fun, musical that is well worth booking tickets for.  It enthralled my phone addicted 13 year-old and earned a shout out on Instagram - high praise in and of itself.
REVIEW: "A Doll's House, Part 2" at George Street Playhouse
For well over a century the world has been wondering what ever happened to Nora Helmer from Henrik Ibsen’s classic play A Doll’s House.  Nora was a woman during the 19th century in male dominated Norway when women could not sign contracts without their husband’s permission.  She challenged this law, essentially committing forgery.  And, even though she committed a crime for the purpose of saving her husband’s life, her actions wound up destroying her marriage when someone tried to blackmail her. 






Event calendar
Thursday, Dec 13, 2018


MUSIC

PROJECT/OBJECT @ The Saint, Asbury Park - 7:00pm

JERRY BLAVAT @ Lobby Bar at Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Atlantic City, Atlantic City - 12:00pm

VIENNA BOYS CHOIR @ Bergen Performing Arts Center (bergenPAC), Englewood - 7:30pm

BRIAN FALLON @ Crossroads (Garwood), Garwood - 8:00pm

The Irish Tenors Holiday Celebration @ Count Basie Center For The Arts, Red Bank - 7:30pm

BREAKING BENJAMIN @ Starland Ballroom, Sayreville - 7:00pm







THEATRE

Elf, The Musical @ Surflight Theatre, Beach Haven - 2:00pm

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

Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn @ Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn - 1:30pm and 7:00pm

Hudson Theatre Works presents "And My True Love Gave To Me" @ Hudson Theatre Works, Weehawken - 8:00pm


FILM

On the Map @ Pollak Theatre @ Monmouth University, West Long Branch - 7:30pm


MISC

Holiday Open Mic Night! @ Black Box Performing Arts Center, Teaneck - 7:30pm

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