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In the preface of his 1891 novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” Oscar Wilde writes “diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex and vital”. He would no doubt be pleased to know that his book with its themes of beauty, art, pleasure, and hedonism has been generating a diversity of opinion for more than one hundred years. But Oscar Wilde’s book fared far better than he. A few years after its publication, he faced charges of “gross indecencies”, and went from being a British celebrity to a broken, penniless man living in exile. Join us for this month’s Readers Review, a discussion of “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, by Oscar Wilde.
- Leslie Maitland former reporter for "The New York Times"
- Nicholas Frankel associate professor of English. Virginia Commonwealth University editor, "The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition by Oscar Wilde"
- Thomas Mallon director of creative writing at George Washington University, author of seven novels, including "Bandbox," "Henry and Clara," and "Dewey Defeats Truman." Among his nonfiction books are "A Book of One's Own," "Stolen Words," and "Mrs. Paine's Garage." He's a frequent contributor to "The New Yorker," "The Atlantic Monthly," and other magazines.
Read the Book
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Gazing at his portrait, Oscar Wilde's character, Dorian Gray, murmurs, "How sad it is. I shall grow old and horrible and dreadful. If only it were to be the other way around. If it were I who was always to be young and the picture to grow old." In the controversial novel, "The Picture of Dorian Gray," that wish is granted and the consequences disastrous.
MS. DIANE REHMHere to talk about the book, Nicholas Frankel. He's editor of a new annotated and uncensored edition of the book. Thomas Mallon is author and head of the creative writing program at George Washington University and Leslie Maitland, former reporter for The New York Times. We are going to open the phones early in the program since it is a "Readers' Review." I invite those of you who have read, I'm not sure I'm going to say enjoyed, "The Picture of Dorian Gray," to be part of the conversation. Join us on 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Nicholas Frankel, I'm going to start with you and get you to give us a quick recap of this story and the principal characters.
MR. NICHOLAS FRANKELA pleasure, Diane. Well, of course, the novel opens in a artist's studio, the studio of the society portrait painter, Basil Hallward, who's been painting a fantastic portrait of a young man called Dorian Gray, the hero of the novel (laugh).
REHMHandsome beyond belief.
FRANKELHandsome beyond belief, indeed. And nobody has seen the portrait and we don't see Dorian himself at the beginning of the novel. It begins with a discussion of the portrait and the young man between Basil, the painter, and his friend, his decadent (laugh), dandy friend, Lord Henry Wotton and shortly after the novel begins, we are introduced to the title character, Dorian Gray, who comes in and, as you've explained, Diane, he sees his portrait and he's spellbound by how beautiful his image is in the painting.
FRANKELAnd of course, almost under his breath, an act of Faustian bargain, if he could just remain forever as beautiful as he appears in the portrait, he would give anything, including his soul. And indeed, he finds out -- I don't want to give too much away for those folks who haven't read it, but as the novel proceeds, we do indeed see that maybe he's sacrificed more than his soul or certainly his soul because he is indeed remaining forever young and while his portrait, which perhaps seems to represent his soul, starts to bear the scars and the traces of a life of heightening crime and criminality.
REHMLeslie Maitland, what did you think of the novel? I presume it's the second, perhaps even the third time you've read it?
MS. LESLIE MAITLANDRight. Well, I think that this novel speaks wonders for the efficacy of prayer because his wish for eternal youth and beauty is so quickly granted, it seems, we are not even brought to be witness to any kind of bargain with the devil as in Faust, but here we have kind of, as Nicholas says, a kind of muttered prayer, whether to the devil or to God, we don't really know.
MS. LESLIE MAITLANDBut I think that the book speaks to an eternal theme, the base of most religion and art and mythology, of a desire for eternal life. And in the end, I found that despite the fact that Wilde was himself so roundly criticized for having written an immoral book, which would eventually be used against him, the essential theme of the book becomes a moral one. That in his desire for youth and beauty and trading his soul lies destruction.
REHMTom Mallon, how did you feel about the book?
MR. THOMAS MALLONIt was longer than I remembered it (laugh). In some ways, it's very simple short story...
MALLON…that's blown up into a very long tract and, I mean, Wilde's essays were like fiction. And his fiction, in some ways, resembled essays. In essays like, "The Decay of Lying," "The Critic as Artist," he always puts the ideas into a conversation between two characters and so there's this thin kind of fictional envelope that surrounds the essay.
MALLONAnd here, I mean, the story's wonderful, the premise is wonderful, but it is essentially a short story that's made into a novel and padded out with tremendous amount of speechifying about art and about morality and so forth and also very heightened hyper description. There are moments when Dorian begins to luxuriate in jewelry and embroideries and whatever, it's almost like the whaling chapters in, "Moby Dick." You sort of skip over them to get back to the plot, but it still has power, I must say.
REHMIt still has power and, Leslie, there's a portion that you've chosen to read for us. Why don't you do that now?
MAITLANDOkay. You know, what's so interesting, I find, is that Henry Wotton, who's sort of the evil influence on this young man...
REHMHe sure is.
MAITLAND…it's the serpent in the garden and this little passage takes place in the artist's garden, which I found was interesting. And it's the moment where this young Dorian, who first appears on the scene as kind of a sweet and gentle soul, is suddenly awakened to a different view of what's important in life.
MAITLANDAnd Henry says to him, "Someday when you're old and wrinkled and ugly, when thought has seared your forehead with its lines and passion branded your lips with its hideous fires, you'll feel it. You'll feel it terribly. Now, wherever you go, you charm the world. Will it always be so? You have a wonderfully beautiful face, Mr. Gray. Don't frown, you have. And beauty is a form of genius, is higher than genius, as it needs no explanation. It is one of the great facts of the world, like sunlight or springtime or the reflection in dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has its divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it. You smile? Ah, when you have lost it, you won't smile.
MAITLANDPeople say sometimes that beauty is only superficial. That may be so, but at least it is not so superficial as thought is. To me, beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible. Yes, Mr. Gray, the gods have been good to you, but what the gods give, they quickly take away. You have only a few years in which to live really, perfectly and fully. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you or you have to content yourself with those mean triumphs that the memory of your past will make more bitter than defeats.
MAITLANDEvery month as it wanes brings you nearer to something dreadful. Time is jealous of you and wars against your lilies and your roses. You will become sallow and hollow-cheeked and dull-eyed. You will suffer horribly. Ah, realize your youth while you have it. Don't squander the gold of your days listening to the tedious, trying to improve the hopeless failure or giving away your life to the ignorant, the common and the vulgar. These are the sickly aims, the false ideals of our age. Live, live the wonderful life that is in you. Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing. A new hedonism, that is what our century wants. You might be its visible symbol. With your personality, there is nothing you could not do. The world belongs to you for a season.
MAITLANDThe moment I met you, I saw that you were quite unconscious of what you really are, of what you really might be. There was so much in you that charmed me that I feel I must tell you something about yourself. I thought how tragic it would be if you were wasted, for there is such a little time that your youth will last, such a little time. The common hill flowers wither, but they blossom again. The laburnum will be yellow next June as it now. In a month, it will be purple stars on the clematis and year after year, the green night of its leaves will hold its purple stars, but we never get back our youth.
MAITLANDThe pulse of joy that beats in us at 20 becomes sluggish. Our limbs fail, our senses rot. We degenerate into hideous puppets, haunted by the memory of the passions of which we were too much afraid and the exquisite temptations that we had not the courage to yield to. Youth, youth, there's absolutely nothing in the world but youth."
REHMBeautiful, Leslie. Beautifully done. The serpent in the garden.
FRANKELAlthough, you know, I have to question whether there's anything inherently evil in what Lord Henry is uttering there. In some sense, in one sense, at least, that's just the speech of a lover, is it not? A man who is struck by the person he is addressing. I think to some folks, it's what Dorian does in reaction to what Lord Henry is saying that may be evil. But those ideas, in some ways, they're just the high esthetic line, aren't they? That they have been espoused by painters and poets and philosophers.
REHMI guess the thing that struck me most was how quickly this disastrous evolution began to occur in Dorian. That he took in those words not as the words of a compatriot, a flatter, a wiser man, but somebody who was challenging him to somehow think about what decay and dying was going to be about. Tom?
MALLONWell, he's almost -- Dorian is almost a kind of Frankenstein project for Henry Wotton. I mean, he says at one point when...
MALLON...Dorian falls in love with the actress, Sybil Vane, "I hope that Dorian Gray will make this girl his wife, passionately adore her for six months and then suddenly become fascinated by someone else. He would be a wonderful study." I mean, step-by-step, he's sort of luring him into this and he falls very fast.
REHMThomas Mallon, he's head of creative writing at George Washington University. He's author of seven novels, including, "Bandbox." We'll take a short break. Your calls when we come back.
REHMAnd clearly one of our listeners has put his finger on why this book is so important. Jeremy, who posted his message on Facebook says, "Wilde is one of my favorite authors. He was the world's first pop icon. 'Gray' is a classic because it's just as relevant today as it was 100 years ago in a society as fixated on plastic surgery and airbrushing as we live in today. The story of, 'Gray,' isn't so farfetched." Nicholas.
FRANKELWell, I couldn't agree more with that. I think the attention to appearance, the fascination of appearance, the questioning of whether there is anything behind appearance, behind the surfaces we present socially. I think that's exactly right.
REHMBut it's his heart that's at stake here. It's not just his appearance, Tom.
MALLONYes. And I mean, what Wilde is doing is espousing this aesthetic and then showing the damage that his own aesthetic can do. I mean, he's coming at the end of 100 years of the great realistic English novel and suddenly he's trying to turn that on its head and say, no, we don't need art to imitate life. We need life to imitate art. And in some ways, the portrait -- what happens with the portrait is the ultimate example of that, that the art, you know, is so meshed with life in a way we haven't ever seen it before. But it's -- it is, it's a terrible thing that happens, but this exultation of artificiality above the real, everything that's artificial, everything that's on the surface is always better. Acting is better than behaving naturally.
MALLONAnd this, in a way, I think is extremely relevant to what goes on now. The sense that we don't really behave instinctively anymore, we imitate and we imitate the world of the movies we've been living in.
REHMIt also has to do with the power that some people have and others don't. Leslie.
MAITLANDYes. I think, well, of course, we've seen the influence that Lord -- Henry Wotton has over young Dorian as compared to Basil, the artist, who is a kind of voice of morality throughout. But I was also fascinated by how the picture works to show the two sides of people. There's the external, what is apparently viewed and the -- what is apparent and viewed and the secret internal side of us. And what this book does is turn it on its head, that it is the picture that gets hidden away in the room where Dorian grew up as a child and the real Dorian appears beautiful.
REHMAnd why is the portrait hidden away? Nicholas.
FRANKELWell, the portrait is the representation, perhaps, of his inner conscience, his soul. I suppose in Freudian terms, his superego that he'd rather...
REHMAnd he begins to see it change.
FRANKELHe see -- sees...
REHMWhat's the first sign?
FRANKELIsn't the first sign a change to his -- the expression of his lips, his mouth? It shows a cruelty that...
MAITLANDCruelty, cruelty after he breaks off with the actress, Sybil.
MAITLANDBut, you know, the thing that just knocked my socks off reading it is that there comes a moment where Wilde uses the word I. And after all the third person narration, all of a sudden, he says I...
MAITLAND...and he says, "Is insincerity such a terrible thing? I think not. It is merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities." And then he says quickly in the next paragraph, "well, such, at any rate, was Dorian Gray's opinion." But that slipping in of the I.
MAITLANDAnd then you come to understand when you read that that he himself had to live such a double life in the repressive era of Victorian England. That...
MALLONThis book, in many ways, is a great mask because at bottom, it's entirely about homosexuality. What's really forbidden in this book is the fact that Henry Wotton is in love with Dorian, he's infatuated with him. And what Wilde has to do is give this a kind of aesthetic displacement. You know, he displaces...
REHMAs opposed to a physical.
MALLONThat's right. He can't tell the story he really wants to tell. And so what he has to do, as he had to do in his own life, is turn this into a kind of abstract aesthetic debate, but what really is of issue here and what was of issue in his own life was his desire to love another man.
REHMAll right. And we've got lots of callers waiting. Let's go first to Winston Salem, N.C. Good morning, Robert, you're on the air.
ROBERTYes, thank you. One thing I was interested in having a discussion about -- a couple of things, the preamble, the statements concerning art in the 19th century that Oscar Wilde mentions. I think it's really important to this book. Now, what's sort of interesting to me is that symbolism in most of European 19th century was poetry. And as far as I know, I don't know of another symbolist novel except for this one here, a symbolism. And I want to make the comment also that Dorian Gray, the name Gold and Gray, 'cause the idea of the artist being just golden and gray and drab with the name Dorian Gray...
ROBERT...and the relationship of Wotton. Also wanted to see that, from my perspective, as also being perhaps the relationship between the critic and the artist.
FRANKELWell, the caller says -- there's been a lot of speculation about the name Dorian Gray and quite -- I'm a little more prosaic in my interpretation of the name Gray, given that Wilde himself was involved with a young poet named John Gray at the time that he was writing this novel. And indeed went on to have a relationship with this young poet.
REHMWhat about the preamble?
FRANKELThe preamble -- well, of course, the preamble was inserted when the book was -- the novel was published in book form a year after it came out as an extended short story in Lippincott's. And like Tom, I tend to read it -- prefer to read it as an extended short story than as a novel. There's a lot of padding in the later book version and that's when he added the preface and it's somewhat conflicted because as a sense in which he added that preface about art to distract from what Tom's saying about that the homosexuality and the personal elements of the novel. Of course, he'd been attacked personally in the press before this, so he -- there's a strategic element to the self-conscious artistry of the preface. But nonetheless, (unintelligible).
MAITLANDYou know, the other thing that I say, I think that when the book first came out and the moral purpose of it was noted, he found that to be the book's only error because he, representing a kind of aesthetic philosophy in art that art exists for its own sake, objected to the notion that it had too heavy handed a morality. And I think he partly added this preface afterwards with that particularly stunning last line that all art is useless to show that it had to be judged on its own terms, not in terms of any religious standards.
MALLONIn a sense, that preface traps him the way that the portrait finally traps and destroys Dorian. Because when his own catastrophe comes a few years later and he sues the Marquess of Queensbury, his boyfriend's father, for liable, which begins the whole unraveling of his life, during the first trial, which he thinks he's going to win, he spars about the preface with the opposing counsel. And if I -- just a few lines...
MALLON...from this -- from the -- there's no transcript of the trial, it all comes out of the scandalous newspapers of the day, which are our only record of it. But he starts sparring about that preface. "An illiterate person," this is Edward Carson, "reading Dorian Gray might consider it such a novel, a perverted novel, that could influence you in a bad way." Wilde, "The views of illiterates on art are accountable. I'm concerned only with my own view of art. I don't care tuppence what other people think of it.
MALLONThe majority of persons come under your definition of Philistines and illiterates? I have found wonderful exceptions. Do you think that the majority of people live up to the position you're giving us? I'm afraid they're not cultivated enough. Not cultivated enough to draw the distinction between a good book and a bad book? Certainly not. The affection of love, the artist of Dorian Gray might lead an ordinary individual to believe that it might have a certain tendency. I have no knowledge of the views of ordinary individuals. You did not prevent the ordinary individual from buying your book. I have never discouraged it."
MALLONCarson is trying to strip away all of the aesthetic flummery and get to what the book is really about. And Wilde is, in the first trial, enjoying this and he's bantering and he's being the Oscar Wilde that he is at a dinner party. And what he doesn't realize is he's falling into Carson's trap.
REHMHe's being trapped. Absolutely. To Raver (sp?) River, N.Y. Good morning, Margo.
MARGOGood morning. I'm very happy to be reminded of this novel and I just have an anecdote about it. I'm 44 years old and I went to Catholic school here on Long Island for elementary school K to 8, and this was my seventh grade novel in Catholic school. We were assigned to this novel, to read this novel as a group in class. And as an adult, understanding what the subtext of the novel is, I have often wondered if the -- I really wonder what the intention of choosing the novel for seventh grade Catholic school children was.
MARGOI hope that it was that I was part of the most progressive Catholic school on Long Island.
MARGOBut my real belief is that they really didn't know, the teachers and the principals and even the parents. So I still have my tattered copy on my shelf...
MARGO...and after today's show, I'm going pull it down and reread it as a 44-year-old rather than as a 12-year-old and...
REHMAnd yeah, you'll be interested in the different reactions you might have.
MARGOYeah, I'll be very interested and I'm a teacher myself and I'm not an English teacher, but I really do wonder -- I'll never get the answer, but I really -- the question will continue to burn, what was the purpose of the -- 'cause it was also tedious reading for 12-year-olds, obviously.
REHMSure. Of course. What about that, Nicholas. Do you see a lot of middle schools reading this novel?
FRANKELWell, it is -- it's certainly a dangerous novel, perhaps...
FRANKEL...to assign to middle school. Is it certainly possible to read it as a moral tale, as a reinforcement of the necessity for conscience for morality? And of course, as Leslie's remark, Wilde said in public, I feel the only flaw in the novel is that I made the moral too self evident, but I don't think that's the whole story. And of course, that moral veneer is, as Tom was saying, possibly a façade, there's much more dangerous subtext. So no, I would certainly not (laugh) suggest that it's appropriate for middle school.
REHMI think the first time I read it as a young person, I did not pick up on the homosexuality. Rather, it was this desire for eternal youth to be portrayed in this man. And that was the focus and perhaps that's...
MAITLANDYou know, what's interesting from the façade when you talk about the morality here. Take someone who has used this legend, which goes way back, you know, to folklore in Germany, of a Faust. Gerter (sp?) takes Faust and at the end, he is saved. His striving, salvation to have grace and this is all part of it, but the ending is a happy one and he winds up going to Heaven. Here the destruction...
MAITLAND...of this young man at the end, I think, it...
MAITLAND...serves a warning to young people.
FRANKELCan I just weigh in with...
FRANKEL...your comment, Diane, that you weren't aware of the homosexuality in the text. There are a number of different versions of the text. And of course, part of what we see between these versions is that Wilde and his publishers are systematically expunging the homosexuality text. Most people, of course, know the book version of 1891 where the sexuality has been minimized, effectively erased. But in those early versions and, of course, in my new uncensored version, the prepublication text that homosexuality is much more evident on the (unintelligible).
REHMI see. Nicholas Frankel, he's associate professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, an editor of, "The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition by Oscar Wilde." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Tom in Millfield, Ohio. Good morning to you, sir.
TOMGood morning. My question is about the little green book that Dorian carried with him throughout the novel in the story and who the author of that might have been. I was told by my high school English teacher that it was Henry Weissman (sp?). Anybody know about that?
FRANKELWell, it's a little yellow bound book and, of course, the color yellow in the late 1880s was a signifier for French decadent fiction. So Weissman would not probably be too much off target, one of the key French decadent writers, a great model for Wilde.
FRANKELAnd indeed Wilde was pressed on whether indeed that book was Weissman's (foreign language) Against Nature (word?)...
TOMAgainst Nature (word?), yeah, yeah.
FRANKELHe refused -- he denied it. He said, the book on which it was modeled does not exist. It's a kind of amalgam in Wilde's mind, at least that's what he claimed in the dock.
REHMTalk about the second trial that he did go through, Tom.
MALLONWell, he brought the first trial upon himself. He was the plaintiff, essentially, in the first trial and he was suing Queensberry, who it -- one thing that is...
REHMThe publishing house.
MALLONNo. Queensberry -- the Marquess of Queensberry, being Lord Alfred Douglas' father. And Lord Alfred Douglas' father was so enraged by the relationship he saw Wilde having with his son, that he left a card at Wilde's club saying, to Oscar Wilde posing as a sodomite. He misspelled it and said somdomite. And Wilde foolishly, talk about falling into a trap, sued Queensberry for...
MALLON...spreading a vicious truth about him (laugh) and...
MAITLANDAnd wasn't it true that the card was placed in an envelope so that no one actually even saw it? So he really courted his own disaster.
MALLONAnd Queensberry only said posing as a -- he was doing a lot more than posing, he was being one. But when he lost the case against Queensberry, logic dictated that he then be prosecuted because if you can't prove that he's libeling you by saying, you're a sodomite, than you must be one and that's illegal. And so during the second and third trials, he is really in the dock and he's a defendant and it becomes a criminal matter.
MALLONAnd in many ways, the novel, it prefigures so many things that happen later on. I mean, Dorian seems to prefigure Alfred Douglas, Kelso the brutal grandfather of Dorian, seems to prefigure Queensberry in some ways. All of these things, but again, this sense of Wilde. Yes, he's Henry Wotton, he's the puppet master, he's the one who's leading Dorian on and conducting the experiment, but also Wilde, in real life, is continually falling through a series of traps to his doom.
REHMAnd his doom involved...
FRANKELThe -- well, his doom involved Douglas, didn't it? Douglas, to me, is Wilde's doom, but of course, he's wildly in love with Douglas, too. So in some sense, his love for Douglas is his doom.
REHMBut he loses all his money...
MAITLANDOh, my goodness.
REHM...his social standing.
MAITLANDSentenced to two years hard labor, which was the maximum sentence in prison, during which time also on the eve of going to prison, marshals come and completely take possession of everything in his home to pay off Queensberry.
REHMAnd the guilty version is because...
MAITLANDGross indecency under an amendment to the criminal laws of England at the time.
REHMLeslie Maitland, former reporter for The New York Times. Her family memoir, "A Love Story of World War II and its Aftermath," will be published next year.
REHMNicholas Frankel, before we go back to the phones, talk a little about this annotated, uncensored edition of, "The Picture of Dorian Gray." How you did it, how you worked on it and how that research -- what it revealed.
FRANKELWell, certainly up until the 1980s, I think most folks read, "The Picture of Dorian Gray," in the 1891, 20-chapter book version. The version published as a book. But of course that version was a year after the novel had appeared in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, as Tom Mallon was saying a few minutes ago, as largely as an extended short story and indeed, Wilde refused to call it a novel at that time. He -- I think he saw it in terms of the short fiction, but before it appeared in the magazine, which was published in the states, it was co-published in America and Britain. But when he sent the novel in the form of a typed script to the editorial offices in Philadelphia, it was edited -- I would say censored very severely.
FRANKELThey were very, very cautious, very nervous about the text they had received from him, the editorial staff of Lippincott. And five or six readers, editors perused the manuscript and they determined to go through it and expunge all the objectionable material. Objectionable was their words in the words of the editor to make it...
REHMGive me an example of objectionable.
FRANKELOh, boy, well, just one example that the reference to the sterility of Basil Hallward's romance -- the sterility of his romance for Dorian -- the boy Dorian Gray himself. And sterility and romance, in some ways, are both code words for homosexual feeling, homosexual love, sterility especially. That phrase was taken out. Anything that was suggestive of not just homosexual passion -- although there was a lot of material taken out that was suggestive of homosexual passion, both on the part of Basil Hallward, the painter, and of Dorian Gray himself later on in the novel and his relations with young men. But also heterosexual passion. I mean, Dorian is involved with a number of women and these are referred to as his mistresses in the prepublication text as well.
REHMAnd there's a question I have about Sybil. Why did Dorian Gray turn against Sybil on a dime? I mean, he took all his friends to see her performance and somehow, he was monstrously disappointed and that was the end.
MAITLANDYou know, it's so interesting. At one point, he says that she is not any one person in herself. What he loves in her is that she embodies all of Shakespeare's creations. Juliet's lips have touched mine. You know, he does not really love her for herself. He loves her for the appearances, for the roles that she inhabits. And when she proves herself no longer the great actress who inhabits all these other roles but presents herself barren, her sole strip bare as the embodiment of a woman in love, he can't cope with her in that way, doesn't want that.
MALLONShe makes the fatal mistake of becoming real. And she tells him, I gave a horrible performance because, you know, I'm in love with you now. I've discovered my authentic self. I don't need make believe of all of that artificiality anymore. And of course, again, this is Dorian at his most puppet-like. This is Wilde using him to make an aesthetic point. And of course, you know, a bad performance sends him immediately out of love with her.
REHMAll right. To Bricktown, N.J., good morning, Jim.
JIMI just wanted to say I got the complete works of Wilde and his essays which were mentioned earlier, the -- well, the aptly named, "De Profundis," I'd recommend to anyone reading -- thinking that he was just a dandy and kind of flippant. He really comes to grips with everything that's been discussed and it's only 95 pages. And it's remarkable.
JIMThere's -- the one philosophy that I heard Nelson Mandela espoused that if one leaves jail hating one's jailers, one is still in jail and is consumed. And he came to grips with that. In fact, he did it in a rather Wildean way. He said, it was good I wasn't released after one year. I needed the second year to come to that philosophy. It's good to remember that he was married and he had two kids. And it was hardship for him and his wife had to divorce him to isolate herself from the financial turmoil that was mentioned earlier. It's just a remarkable piece and...
REHMVery interesting, Jim. Nicholas.
FRANKELIt is -- he's such a interesting conflicted figure, isn't he? I mean, he's so tortured by compunction, by conscience and trying to balance his traditional upbringing. And of course, he always flirts around his life with conversion to Catholicism, so there is a traditional element of belief to Wilde's make up, which is very, very apparent in, "De Profundis." I'm so glad that you brought it up and...
REHMAll right. To Orlando, Fla. Hi, Paul.
PAULHi, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
PAULI just wanted to make a comment. I read, "The Picture of Dorian Gray," as a teenager in the 1970s, so almost undoubtedly, I was reading the version that came later that you're talking about. But I just wanted to echo your comment that I didn't find anything particularly noticeably homosexual in the text when I read it at that time. And I was well aware that it was meant to be homosexual at that time, so I'll be interested to see the reprint of the original.
FRANKELWell, it's coded, of course. He cannot -- because homosexuality is a crime under the 1884 -- a gross indecency, at least, between men is a crime under the 1885 Amendment, Criminal Law Amended Act. He can't be very explicit, but as I say, he's more explicit in the prepublication text than in either of the published texts.
REHMAnd to Wolfeboro, N.H. Jim, you're on the air.
JIMIt's been so long since I read the book that I can't remember, is there any concept of redemption offered to Dorian in it?
MAITLANDWell, I think he himself is very much plagued by his own conscience and he keeps vowing that he will change, he'll be good. His -- the serpent in the garden here, Lord Henry Wotton, keeps saying, oh, come on, you know, you're perfect the way you are. But in a way, even Wotton doesn't understand the depths of depravity of which Dorian turns out to be capable. When he says to him, what would you say I murdered Basil? Wotton says, ah, come on, you're incapable of something like that. So I think only Dorian in the end knows how far he has truly sunk.
MALLONIt's interesting that the whole premise of the book has become, you know, so famous within popular cultures. The portrait that ages while the subject doesn't. I think what most people forget -- most people, if you ask them about this book, they remember that the aging is the only thing that happens to the portrait. It just grows old. They don't remember it as this moral barometer. What really changes the appearance is not so much the years passing. Not all that many years do pass. What really changes the portrait is the moral behavior of the subject in the portrait and I think that that's kind of gotten lost in popular memory of the book.
REHMYou know, we have not mentioned the two films that were made of this book, the first with Hurd Hatfield. When was that made in?
FRANKEL1945, I believe, yes, yes.
REHM1945. And then the more recent with Colin Firth. I saw the first many, many years ago and was absolutely engrossed, but the film with Colin Firth was a disaster (laugh).
FRANKELWell, the -- certainly it begs for contrast with the earlier versions. And Colin Firth's performance as Lord Henry Wotton, of course, confirms everything we were saying earlier, at least some of us were saying, about Lord Henry being a kind of serpent in the garden, being a figure of evil. But in those earlier versions, in the George Sander's performance of Lord Henry and especially in Gielgud's performance incidentally in the 1976 BBC production, which worked on John Osborn's script, that element to Lord Henry's make up is far less, apparently. Gielgud really plays Henry Wotton as very sympathetic. It's a fabulous performance.
REHMOh, I see. I'll have to watch that.
MAITLANDThe most recent one with Colin Firth changes the plot so dramatically and so gratuitously that it makes no sense. But I read somewhere that it was never released to the theaters. It went directly to DVD. So perhaps they recognized its faults.
MALLONAnd in the first film, you have Angela Lansbury, who's still in show business 65 years later.
REHMIsn't that wonderful.
MALLONMakes you wonder what bargain she made.
REHMGood for her.
REHMGood for her. All right. To Patrick here in Washington, D.C. You're on the air.
PATRICKI am. My original questions was going to be about why he -- in this novel, he seemed to put forth this theory about aestheticism in this whole theory on art and then at the same time, undermines it and shows you like the horrible consequences of that theory. I wondered why he did that, but then when your other caller mentioned, "De Profundis," I remembered there's actually a passage where he deals directly with Dorian Gray. And if you wouldn't mind, I'd like to say -- just read it real quickly. It's really interesting.
PATRICKHe said, "I don't regret for a single moment having lived for pleasure. I did it to the full, as one should do everything that one does. There is no pleasure I did not experience. I threw the pearl of my soul into a cup of wine. I went down the primrose path at the sound of flutes. I lived on honeycomb. But to have continued the same life would've been wrong because it would've been limiting. I had to pass on. The other half of the garden had its secrets for me also. Of course, all this is foreshadowed and prefigured and in my books. A great deal of it is hidden away in the note of doom and like a purple thread, runs through the texture of Dorian Gray."
PATRICKAnd then he goes on to say, "It could not have been otherwise, that every single moment of one's life, one is what one is going to be, no less than what one has been. Art is a symbol and because man is a symbol."
PATRICKI thought that was very interesting.
MALLONI think, you know, for all that homosexuality underlies the book and for all that, it's almost impossible to read this book without pondering the connections to Wilde's life...
MALLON...now, in many ways, part of its message is in keeping with some of the most aggressively heterosexual writing that would follow in the 20th century, this whole notion that repression is bad for the soul, that the soul needs to take a cure from the senses, you find this in D.H. Lawrence, in Norman Mailer. It's a very 20th century notion. And Wilde is presenting it really quite freshly at the very beginning of the century.
REHMToo early for his own good.
REHMTo Boston, Mass., good morning, Bobby.
BOBBYGood morning. How are you?
REHMFine, thank you. Go right ahead, sir.
BOBBYI'm 22. My mom first gave me the novel at 14 and then followed it up with a copy of a DVD and questioned me on it greatly. There are many, many discussions about it at the dinner table. And I'm just curious with the George Sanders' version, what does the panel think of that movie, because it mesmerized me at 14 and it mesmerizes -- it -- easy for me to say. It totally -- I love it now, so I'm just interested in hearing.
FRANKELWell, that's my favorite of the many, many movie versions that have been made. It's still the truest (laugh) in spirit and of course, the writer director, Albert Luan, was an ex-English professor, so of course, you'd expect. He's a Harvard English professor, but even in the cinematography and every element of that production, the performance is, the dressing, the direction, it's so true to the spirit. Even though, of course, it has to meet the Hollywood production code. It's billed as a very heterosexual version of the story. I think it was advertised as, why is Dorian Gray so fatal to women? And of course, as Tom mentioned, Angela Lansbury and Donna Reed very prominent in that production. But for me, it's still the truest in spirit.
REHMNicholas Frankel and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go now to Gadsden, Ala. Good morning, Andy.
ANDYHello. Yes. I don't think Henry's necessarily the bad guy in all this. He lived his life in moderation and Dorian wanted to live his life the way he wanted to live it.
ANDYYou know, drugs, homosexuality, that was all his choice. So I was, you know, wondering if you had comments on that.
MALLONWe never really know what's going on with Henry Wotton on the side. You know, we know that he's a married man, his wife and he have an arrangement, it seems, but we don't really know how much he (laugh) is doing and, you know, to what extent he lives vicariously through Dorian.
MALLONYou could say he lacks the courage of Dorian, in a way.
REHMHe loves to tempt him.
MAITLANDHe throws his own sister in Dorian's path, to her ruination and ultimate loss of her own children. But actually, you know, Henry himself defines himself because at one point, he says that, the most profoundly immoral thing that you can do is try to influence another person because every person's goal in life is to actualize themselves and to fill them with your own ideas and to try to shape them is a profoundly immoral act. He then goes on to do exactly what he's denounced.
REHMTo do exactly what he said is immoral.
FRANKELAnd he's a fantastic talker, isn't he?
FRANKELHe -- in some ways, I think he's what the world -- Wilde said, he's what the world thinks of me, what the world thinks I am.
MAITLANDYeah, that -- yeah, that's a tragedy. Wilde said Basil Hallward is what he thought that he was, that the world would think that he was Henry Wotton and what he would like to be would be Dorian in another age.
MAITLANDUndoubtedly, if he were to come back today and see the differences in the world, he'd be much happier.
REHMHere's a last comment from Joanna who says, "I think the dangerously enticing portrait of Dorian bears an interesting resemblance to the carefully cultivated and attractive virtual identities with which so many people, especially my age mates, put a lot of time and energy into, perhaps to the detriment of their true selves. Just look at the magazines. Just look at how quickly actors -- no, not actors, but actresses are pushed to the side because they age and here is Oscar Wilde writing about resisting the aging process."
MALLONMm-hmm. Who -- and also suffering his own premature death as a kind of martyr. And I mean, I think finally it's easy to think that Wilde must've been this hard-edged, brittle, you know, nothing but a maker of epigrams and cruel and so forth. And in fact, by and large, he was very gentle with people, behaved well toward people and he didn't really seek martyrdom. He really wanted to get away with it.
REHMThe book we've been talking about, "The Picture of Dorian Gray," by Oscar Wilde. Nicholas Frankel, Tom Mallon, Leslie Maitland, thank you so much. Let me say to our listeners, our next Reader's Review will be of, "The Masters," by C.P. Snow, one of my favorites. I hope you'll join me Wednesday, March 23. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture and Monique Nazareth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our e-mail address is email@example.com and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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