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Oscar Wilde toured the United States in 1882, giving lectures on aestheticism under the auspices of Richard D’Oyly Carte. The business manager for Gilbert and Sullivan wanted to pave the way for a tour of his new production, Patience, by educating Americans about the aesthetic movement. Wilde was apparently good at promoting himself as well. On his way from New York to Philadelphia, he let it be known that he was an admirer of Walt Whitman, who obliged by extending an invitation to his home in Camden. Wilde accepted.
Michael Whistler’s Mickle Street imagines the encounter between the two poets. There are some records of the event, many of which, in today’s climate, speculate on what took place when they retired to be “on thee and thou terms.” Whistler draws liberally from those accounts in his dialogue and then adds his own spin — including an ode to a tongue sandwich that one almost wishes Wilde had written — on what might have happened.
Whistler sets his play on Mickle Street and provides Whitman with a female companion, Mary, who sees to his needs. While Whitman did live on Mickle Street (now Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard), he did not buy that house until 1884, and it was some time after that that he invited the widowed Mary Davis to become his housekeeper. At the time of Wilde’s visit, Whitman was living on Stevens Street with his brother, George, and sister-in-law, Louisa. However, it is recorded that he did share Louisa’s elderberry wine with Wilde.
The Oscar we expect to see
The play, which could be seen as the prequel to Opera Philadelphia’s Oscar, shows us the young Wilde as we expect to see him. When Wilde (Daniel Fredrick) arrives in fur-trimmed coat and holds out his arms expecting to be ministered to by Mary (Sabrina Profitt), whom he assumes to be the servant, we know this is a man who is used to being adored and that Mary is someone who brooks no nonsense.
Fredrick’s Wilde, in green satin breeches and blue velvet coat, is a young man of intense good humor who charms everyone around him. He’s full of himself and knows it and enjoys it. Buck Schirner’s Whitman is irascible and ornery, a man enjoying his pleasures and suffering the consequences of over-indulgence and advancing age. (Whitman at this time had already had a stroke and was partly paralyzed, but there’s no evidence of that in this Whitman.)
Profitt’s Mary is the anchor for both men, so caught up in their world of ideas that they barely know how to relate to another human being. Whistler doesn’t show us Wilde and Whitman thee-ing and thou-ing. It’s Mary who warns Wilde — at that time, it seems, not yet in touch with his own desires — about Whitman’s predilection for young men.
The two poets talk about poetry, about ideas, about whether science is art or art science, although in the end it’s not clear who is saying what. They challenge each other and drink far too much. The audience sits on all sides of the stage and even on the furnishings in the living room. The actors move around them, oblivious to their presence.
The play is fun, the acting strong, and the discussion far-ranging, but questions remain.
Does reality matter?
First, does reality matter? When so many facts are disregarded, what are we left with? Does it matter that place and people are adjusted to meet the playwright’s vision? Was the event not interesting enough to make real drama — did it need to be enhanced? Writing about real people is always a challenge. Most of us don’t live our lives with a dramatic arc, but when the facts are altered, whose story is being told? And if the story is not strong enough in the first place, why is it being turned into drama?
And then I wonder — why this interest in Wilde at this time? Is it part of a giant mea culpa for how we have treated our artists who dared to live differently? Is it fame by association — Wilde is famous, he was once in Philly, ergo Philly is now even more famous? Is he an earlier version of a Kardashian, someone who enjoys fame in and of itself, with us complicit by our fascination? Whatever the reason, Wilde’s flamboyance was part of his art, at least before his time in prison, and the young Wilde would probably be very pleased with the attention he is receiving.
What, When, Where
Mickle Street. By Michael Whistler, Greg Wood directed. Through March 8, 2015 at Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut St., Philadelphia. 215-574-3550 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org.
Everything Is Going on Brilliantly: Oscar Wilde and Philadelphia. Through April 26, 2015 at the Rosenbach Museum & Library, 2008-2010 Delancey Place, Philadelphia. 215-732-1600 or www.rosenbach.org.
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