The other night I attended the opening of McDermott & McGough’s Temple of Oscar Wilde at the Church in the Village. The installation is the realization of an idea the artists first had twenty five years ago and have spent the past few years building.
The temple is a Catholic-style chapel, its centerpiece a four-foot carved wood sculpture of Wilde at the height of his velvet-clad long-haired fame. At the base of the statue’s plynth is a soapbox pulpit bearing a label for “fairy” brand soap. On the walls of the chapel are paintings of Wilde’s own stations of the cross, each with gilt-painted haloes and details like quatrocento icons. The scenes include Wilde’s arrest, the auction of his belongings, the cutting of his hair, and his time in Reading Gaol, among other things.
In addition to this the chapel has a guest book, a section of line portraits of LGBT martyrs including Harvey Milk and Alan Turing, a candle-lit collection stand for homeless LGBT youth, and a book of remembrance in which guests can write the names of those who died of aids. Same-sex weddings will also be held in the temple.
To portray Wilde as a gay icon, saint, and martyr is not uncommon. His arrest, downfall, and ignominy, coming at the end of the 19th century, set the tone for the particular style of homophobia that would dominate the 20th. Despite being a six-foot-plus bruiser of a man, Wilde’s fashion sense, delicacy of taste, refined sensibilities, and sharp wit would come to define the queer male archetype in the public consciousness, recast as vanity, effeminacy, flamboyance, and camp.
The irony of placing Wilde at the center of a chapel isn’t lost. It was the doctrine of the Church of England, informing the law of the state regarding sexual relations, that lay at the heart of Wilde’s persecution. Wilde himself converted to Catholicism on his death bed, having always been fascinated by and attracted to the church’s iconography, sumptuousness, and sensuality, and seeing in that church’s bloody image of Christ the sufferer something of his own crucifixion. Of course, perhaps no church has burned more gay men than the Roman one while at the same time indulging in the hypocrisy of “hate the sin love the sinner,” a deeply closeted clergy, highly homoerotic imagery like the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, and of course, the unforgivable decades (centuries?) of the rape of children by those tasked with their spiritual health.
Its perhaps the installation’s emphasis on young people that gives it its most power, as well as its inclusion of lesbian, bisexual, and transgender martyrs - as well as people of color - in its pantheon. In the past Wilde was chiefly a symbol for gay white men, but McDermott & McGough’s version of the deity is a more inclusive one. I hope that young people of all sexualities and backgrounds will gain an appreciation for Wilde’s importance and meaning by visiting the temple.
That legacy is one not just of gay rights, but of a profound capacity for love and compassion. Wilde was “Christian” in the most generous sense of the word, capable of great understanding and empathy in a way that the chauvinistic and patriarchal christianity of the Victorian empire could only pretend to be. His deep personal knowledge and experience of suffering informed his own personal theology, and he was almost miraculously able to take from his own ordeal a greater sense of love and forgiveness. Its a nearly superhuman feat, one which organized religion stumbles over on a large scale. It is personal and generous, and it demands no superstition or obeisance to authority - its mandate is a deep love for and patience with humanity and reverence for its ability to improve.
If only there could be more altars to secular heroes and people of great spirit like Wilde - monuments stripped of medievalism and consecrated to the humanistic spirit. We have McDermott & McGough to thank for this one.
I’ll end with two Wilde-related poems. The first, “Narcissus” by John Betjeman, always has me weeping halfway through, mainly because it so heartbreakingly shows how the short-sightedness, hang-ups, and prejudices of adults are inflicted upon the innocence of childhood.
Yes, it was Bedford Park the vision came from -
de Morgan lustre glowing round the hearth,
And that sweet flower which self-love takes its name from
Nodding among the lilies in the garth,
And Arnold Dolmetsch touching the spinet,
And Mother, Chiswick’s earliest suffragette.
I was a delicate boy - my parents’ only -
And highly strung. My father was in trade.
And how I loved, when Mother left me lonely,
To watch old Martha spice the marmalade,
Or help with flower arrangements in the lobby
Before I went to find my playmate Bobby.
We’d go for walks, we bosom boyfriends would
(For Bobby’s watching sisters drove us mad),
And when we just did nothing we were good,
But when we touched each other we were bad.
I found this out when Mother said one day
She thought we were unwholesome in our play.
So Bobby and I were parted. Bobby dear,
I didn’t want my tea. I heard your sisters
Playing at hide-and-seek with you quite near
As off the garden gate I picked the blisters.
Oh tell me, Mother, what I mustn’t do -
Then, Bobby, I can play again with you.
For I know hide-and-seek’s most secret places
More than your sisters do. And you and I
Can scramble into them and leave no traces,
Nothing above us but the twigs and sky,
Nothing below us but the leaf-mould chilly
Where we can warm and hug each other silly.
My Mother wouldn’t tell me why she hated
The things we did, and why they pained her so.
She said a fate far worse than death awaited
People who did the things we didn’t know,
And then she said I was her precious child,
And once there was a man called Oscar Wilde.
‘Open your story book and find a tale
Of ladyes fayre and deeds of derring-do,
Of good Sir Gawaine and the Holy Grail,
Mother will read her boy a page or two
Before she goes, this Women’s Suffrage Week,
To hear that clever Mrs Pankhurst Speak.
Sleep with your hands above your head. That’s right -
And let no evil thoughts pollute the dark.’
She rose, and lowered the incandescent light.
I heard her footsteps die down Bedford Park.
Mother where are you? Bobby, Bobby, where?
I clung for safety to my teddy bear.
The second poem is A.E. Housman’s “Oh Who is that Young Sinner,” a well-known piece written after Wilde’s arrest but not released until after Housman’s death. Like most of Housman, it has a countryside sing-song economy that bears a deceptively heavy message.
Oh Who Is That Young Sinner
Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists?
And what has he been after that they groan and shake their fists?
And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air?
Oh they're taking him to prison for the colour of his hair.
'Tis a shame to human nature, such a head of hair as his;
In the good old time 'twas hanging for the colour that it is;
Though hanging isn't bad enough and flaying would be fair
For the nameless and abominable colour of his hair.
Oh a deal of pains he's taken and a pretty price he's paid
To hide his poll or dye it of a mentionable shade;
But they've pulled the beggar's hat off for the world to see and stare,
And they're haling him to justice for the colour of his hair.
Now 'tis oakum for his fingers and the treadmill for his feet
And the quarry-gang on Portland in the cold and in the heat,
And between his spells of labour in the time he has to spare
He can curse the God that made him for the colour of his hair.