A Staged Reading of "Wilde About Whitman" at Stissing Center on December 18 | Theater | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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A Staged Reading of "Wilde About Whitman" at Stissing Center on December 18 

An Old Poet, A Young Aesthete, And A Bottle of Elderberry Wine

Last Updated: 12/05/2022 10:06 am
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"Mold your wit into a weapon they can't escape," Walt Whitman advises Oscar Wilde in "Wilde About Whitman" by David Simpatico. A staged reading of the play will take place at the Stissing Center in Pine Plains on December 18. The characters are played by Steven Patterson and Joshuah Patriarcho.

"Wilde About Whitman" is based on a true occurrence. The two writers met on January 31, 1882, while Oscar Wilde was on an 11-month tour of North America, promoting a new Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, "Patience." As yet, Wilde had composed no major works. He was a witty 27-year-old lecturer, a provocative hero of the Aesthetic movement, which espoused a life enriched by poetry, painting, and elegant handmade artifacts. "Patience" was a skillful satire of that movement.

Wilde and Whitman spent three hours together. "Only a very little bit is known about what they did, but they were said to have gone upstairs and locked the door—so that's what my play's about," Simpatico explains. "What happens behind that locked door!"

Whitman, once a young explosive innovator himself, had matured into a great gray American poet. He was 62; the year before he'd had a major stroke. In "Wilde About Whitman," we first see Whitman walking backward down the stairs. He's kept Wilde waiting an hour. Though he's world famous, Whitman is almost penniless, living in his brother's modest home in Camden, New Jersey.

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At first Whitman views this worshipful European dandy with suspicion. "Mr. Whitman, I come as a poet to call upon a poet with whom I have been acquainted almost from the cradle," Wilde announces. "And I, Mr. Wilde, come to you as one who just got off the crapper," Whitman rejoins.

But once two great talkers get started, they can't stop. The insults, the praise, the self-reproaches, the bon mots, begin to flow, along with homemade elderberry wine.

Oscar Wilde was known for his brilliant aphorisms, but many of them were stolen from other writers. As a private joke, Simpatico gives some of them to Whitman for Wilde to purloin—including Wilde's famous last words: "Either that wallpaper goes, or I do."

A subject the poets return to again and again is fame. The first edition of Leaves of Grass was anonymous. In place of an author's name was a famous photograph of Whitman in workingman's clothes, his collar open to his chest, a hand on one hip. Wilde asks Whitman about the photo, which hangs on the wall in the first act. "I wanted my readers to hold me in their hands," he replies.

In Act 2, the younger and older poet proceed up to the third-floor room. I will not reveal what goes on behind that closed door, but I will say this: Walt Whitman has a bearskin rug.

Simpatico scrupulously researches his plays, but also writes with a poet's daring. "I often build a collage before I start working with words," Simpatico says. "I think about emotions, and get psychological murmurs that I don't have words for."

Oscar Wilde would meet a tragic fate. He sued the Marquess of Queensberry, the father of his lover, for describing him as a "sodomite." The libel trial went poorly, Wilde withdrew the charges, and was then arrested for gross indecency. In 1895, Oscar Wilde was convicted and sent to prison for two years, where his health declined. He died in Paris in 1900, at the age of 46.

In "Wilde About Whitman," the elder poet predicts the younger's future: "Oh! Trust me, the vultures are waiting to pounce, Oscar. They'll ruin your life because you terrify them."

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