Saturday, 30 November 2013


Oscar Wilde died on Nov 30, 1900, at the age of 46 (Photo by Napoleon Sarony, circa 1883)

Over a century after the American Revolutionary army made the Château Ramezay in Old Montreal its Canadian headquarters in 1775 – Benjamin Franklin himself would later overnight there in his quest to persuade Canadians to join the American Revolution – the Château’s gardens (then already a fraction of the size they used to be) would be visited by none other than Oscar Wilde during Wilde’s lecture tour of Canada in 1882.
Don Anderson resurrects Wilde

In Wilde’s children’s story The Selfish Giant, originally published in the collection The Happy Prince and Other Tales in 1888, kids play in an orchard very much like the gardens of Château Ramezay, which was built by Claude de Ramezay, the military commander appointed Governor of Montreal in 1704.

Château Ramezay was dubbed "the most beautiful house in Canada," and its gardens and orchard – only 750 square metres remain today – sloped down to the St-Lawrence River.

When I first visited the garden a few year ago I could not help but think of Oscar and The Selfish Giant, a story that can still bring me to tears today.

The Selfish Giant is the story I listened to most when I was a child and when I read it today I can hear my father’s voice,” says Montreal actor Don Anderson, who memorably portrayed Oscar in the Montreal New Classical Theatre Festival production of critically-hailed American playwright Moises Kaufman’s Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, back in November 2006.

“It’s a powerful story," Anderson continues. "Like so many of Oscar’s stories, there is a moral underpinning. All of what he wrote had a moral underpinning.”

Wilde, of course, really was the world’s first gay icon, and later a gay martyr when he was tried and convicted of sodomy in 1895, even though Oscar would never know what he would become, much less recognize the word “gay.”

 “Gay did not exist [back then],” explains the equally gracious Anderson, who is himself gay and has played Oscar in two other plays. “There was no rainbow flag, no pink triangle. There was no [gay civil rights] fight to be had at that time. He was simply fighting against the brutal, prudish world that was Victorian morality. During this whole period, during the rise of the Raj in India – the claiming of a whole subcontinent – the British subjected people to horrible crimes in the name of Empire. For somebody to stand up against that world, where do you go to fight this fight? That’s why I am loath to call Oscar a gay icon. He would not know what that would have meant.”

Kaufman’s Gross Indecency gives us ringside seats to Wilde’s dramatic trial based on actual court transcripts. In the Montreal production, Wilde’s lover, the insufferable Lord Alfred Douglas, or “Bosie,” was played by actor BJ Erdmann (“Who is stunning and tragically straight,” Anderson quips).

“You gotta understand that Oscar was the rock star of his age,” Anderson says. “He was Liberace and Bono rolled into one. Given the chance to escape to the continent, he refused, and the townspeople then chased him to the mountaintop with pitchforks and torches.”

While Wilde was imprisoned and then after his death, his truest friend, Robbie Ross, desperately protected Wilde’s literary legacy. Ross – whose father, the Honourable John Ross, was Attorney General of Canada – seduced Wilde, then 32, in London in 1886 when he was just 17.

“Robbie was Oscar’s first love,” Anderson says. “But nobody could have Oscar and Ross was the first to realize that.”

Still, it is fitting that in the monument Ross had built to mark Wilde’s final resting place in Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, Ross’s ashes were placed in a secret compartment on the 50th anniversary of Wilde’s death. And so they lie together still.

“It is absolutely appropriate,” Anderson says. “A poetic reality.”

Wilde’s life can also be seen through the now stereotypical gay-male prism of delayed adolescence, in which so many older gay men obsess over youth because the closet denied them their own adolescence.

“Like Oscar, I hang out with people 5 to 10 years younger than myself," says Anderson, 43. "I have older friends, but the vast majority are younger. And so many gay men today [still] fall for younger guys. That is what happened to Oscar. There is a deep emotional love between young and older men, when the younger has a sense of joy and wonder in the world. Young people can learn much, and there is much they can give as well. But one must learn not to give their soul. You can give your heart. But don’t give your soul. You will end up a tragic figure. Like Oscar, it will kill you.”

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