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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. **

 






J CITY Theater Returns With "Bakersfield Mist"
(JERSEY CITY, NJ) -- J CITY Theater launches their first full season in four years with their Fall show: Bakersfield Mist by Stephen Sachs at their new location – The Barrow Mansion, 83 Wayne Street.  The production runs Thursdays through Sundays from September 28th through October 13th. Set in a downtrodden trailer park in California, Bakersfield Mist is the story of Maude Gutman (Sandy Cockrell) who has recently purchased an ugly painting at Daisy’s Junk Shop for three dollars.  Turns out, the painting may actually be a lost masterpiece by Jackson Pollock.   
Old Library Theatre Presents "Parade"
(FAIR LAWN, NJ) -- Old Library Theatre, Fair Lawn Recreation Department's resident theater company, presents Parade. Six performances only: October 12, 13, 19 & 20 at 8:00pm and October 14 & 21 at 2:00pm.  Parade tells the story of Leo Frank, a Brooklyn-raised Jew living in Georgia in 1913, who is put on trial for the murder of thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan, a factory worker under his employ.
The Lord Stirling Theater Company Presents "Treasure Island"
(BASKING RIDGE, NJ) -- The Lord Stirling Theater Company will present Treasure Island in the English Barn Theater at the Farmstead Arts Center October 5-7 and October 12-14. Adapted for the stage by award-winning playwright Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor, Crazy for You) from the classic novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island follows the adventures of a boy named Jim Hawkins who comes into possession of a treasure map.
Premiere Stages to Present World Premiere of Liberty Live Commission "Black Tom Island"
(UNION, NJ) -- Premiere Stages at Kean University will present Martin Casella’s Black Tom Island from October 11-21 at Liberty Hall Museum (1003 Morris Avenue, Union, N.J.). Originally commissioned over a two-year cycle through Premiere’s Liberty Live Commission, Black Tom Island will feature actors Damian Buzzerio, Mason Hensley, Jenna Krasowski and Bart Shatto. Producing artistic director John J. Wooten directs.
American Poetry Theater Presents "Gun Love"
(LONG BRANCH, NJ) -- The American Poetry Theater presents Gun Love from October 5-7.  The play, written by cast and community members, runs about one hour and is a collection of monologues and a skit dealing with gun violence in America.  


Two River Theater Presents The World Premiere of "Pamela's First Musical"
If anyone ever doubts that New Jersey is home to great theatre, just point them to the world premiere of “Pamela’s First Musical” at Two River Theater. The cast and creative behind this show by Wendy Wasserstein and Christopher Durang includes a combined total of more than 25 Tony Award nominations and seven wins. It’s a cast that would look impressive at any theatre – Broadway  or otherwise. According to one of the stars, the opportunity to work with the 10-time Tony Award nominee director/choreographer Graciela Daniele and to be part of a new musical was too good to pass up.
The Jersey Devil on stage: An interview with playwright Brandon Monokian
Up-and-coming New Jersey native Brandon Monokian has worked as an actor, writer, director, producer, and popcorn sample distributor. He wrote and starred in the film Happy Yummy Chicken and co-founded the production company Love Drunk Life with Katie Frazer. Together they have produced plays, films, books, and, to support their creative work financially, a product line: lovedrunklife.com. Monokian received national attention through Revolutionary Readings (his TEDx talk at Princeton Library), which was used to fight the banning of the book Revolutionary Voices from two New Jersey libraries. 
An Interview With Nicole Pandolfo
Nicole Pandolfo is a talented playwright from New Jersey whose work has been produced on four continents along with readings and productions throughout the Garden State. Her play, Brick City, is currently being presented at Premiere Stages at Kean University now through September 23rd. The play was commissioned and developed via the NJPAC Stage Exchange program. Premiere's production features Rafael Benoit, Jacqueline Correa, Madison Ferris and Chris Grant under the direction of Jessi D. Hill.
Ritz Opens Season With "Incorruptible"
Fun seems to be the operative word for “Incorruptible,” the production that opens the fall season at  the Ritz Theatre Company on Thursday, September 13.
"Bright Star" at Surflight Theatre
Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s Broadway musical “Bright Star” has come to Surflight Theatre in Beach Haven. The comedian and the songwriter created the show after collaborating on a Grammy-winning bluegrass album called “Love Has Come For You.” “Bright Star” is set in the American South in the 1920s and ’40s, and it’s on a similar musical wavelength. We recently spoke with Surflight’s Artistic Director Steve Steiner, actor Adrianne Hick and director Elizabeth Lucas about bringing “Bright Star” to Long Beach Island.






Event calendar
Tuesday, Sep 25, 2018


MUSIC

Cafe Tacvba with special guest Ruen Brothers – Niu Gueis Tour 2018 @ Prudential Hall @ New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), Newark - 8:00pm

Seuls en Scene French Theater Festival - "Gonzo Conference" @ Donald G. Drapkin Studio at Lewis Arts complex, Princeton - 8:00pm

Joan Baez @ Count Basie Center For The Arts, Red Bank - 8:00pm

Record Club: Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon @ Pollak Theatre @ Monmouth University, West Long Branch - 7:30pm


KIDS

West End Festival of the Arts- Children's Storytelling @ West End Arts Center, Long Branch - 4:00pm

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