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Wilde-mania builds

Movie, stage put Oscar Wilde back in favor

Web posted on: Friday, May 08, 1998 5:44:47 PM EDT

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Nearly a century after his death, Oscar Wilde, one of the most controversial writers of the 19th century, is back in everyone's good graces as he again becomes the focus of much attention.

Wilde's life takes center stage in a new film biography starring Stephen Fry; in a play called "Gross Indecency" currently running on the off-Broadway stage; and on Broadway, in David Hare's play, "The Judas Kiss," starring Liam Neeson.

Wilde came to the world's attention after publishing "Poems" in 1881, and went on to pen some of the Victorian age's best stage comedies, including "A Woman of No Importance," "An Ideal Husband," and "The Importance of Being Earnest," all of which were known for witty dialogue and intricately conceived situations. He toured the United States as a lecturer in 1882, gaining fame and notoriety for his eccentric wit and epigrams.

Liam Neeson as Wilde in the Broadway play "Judas Kiss"

But his fame had a double edge, as his homosexuality became more public.

"Wilde is usually portrayed quite wrongly as a kind of cynic, as a decadent," Hare said. "He's usually portrayed with mascara running down his cheek, smoking from a cigarette holder with a velvet dinner jacket. In fact, his most striking characteristic was his generosity, his open-heartedness."

Stephen Fry said he thinks the new attention is a sort of catharsis: "It's a very late tribute of the guilt I think England feels for what we did to him," he said, referring to the fact that in 1895, England threw one of its most famous playwrights in jail because of his homosexuality.

"He (was) being tried for homosexuality, but that is only the tip of the iceberg," said playwright Moises Kaufman. "What comes across is, the man is an artist with radical ideas about society art. And (his ideas go) head on with Victorian morality."

Wilde was given the opportunity to flee the country rather than go to jail. He refused. He was convicted on charges of gross indecency and sentenced to two years hard labor.

"The Wilde Album" is written by Merlin Holland, Wilde's grandson

"The great tragedy for him was not that he went to prison but he never saw his children again," said Fry. Wilde died in 1900, after his release at age 46.

"He was ahead of his time and he's being discovered," said Neeson.

But amid what one can only call Wilde-mania, can there be too much of a good thing? Merlin Holland, Wilde's grandson, worries that people will get sick of Oscar. "There's a danger that there might be a bit of overkill. That people will get Oscar indigestion," he said.

But Holland, whose book "The Wilde Album" has just been published in the United States, says he's pleased that his grandfather is finally getting the recognition he deserves.

Correspondent Cynthia Tornquist contributed to this story.

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