Title: The Picture Of Dorian Gray
Rating: 3 Stars
An artist, Basil Hallward, is infatuated with a young man named Dorian Gray. To Basil, Dorian represents beauty and a pure innocence. Basil paints Dorian’s portrait. Basil channels his deeply repressed love of Dorian into the art and produces a masterpiece that captures the essece of Dorian’s soul. As he’s wrapping up the painting, Basil and Howard meet Lord Henry Wotton, a witty hedonistic cynic. Henry’s cleverness captivates Dorian.
At the unveiling of the painting, both Dorian and Henry acknowledge the genius of the portrait. In fact, it is so lifelike that Dorian is upset. He realizes that, as he ages, he will lose his beauty while the painting will always retain it. Falling on his knees, Dorian implores that the painting age instead of himself.
His wish is granted. Over the ensuing years of hedonistic debauchery that ultimately descends to murder, Dorian does not change a bit, but the figure in the painting becomes a monster. Finally understanding that the painting is itself a portrait of his guilt, Dorian takes a knife to destroy it. In the morning, his servants find Dorian dead, stabbed in the heart, his face and body horribly disfigured by age and dissipation, and the picture restored to its original beauty.
Most people already know this story, if nothing else by a long ago Far Side Cartoon:
In the play, the “love that shall not speak its name” is much more obvious. Basil effectively confesses his love to Dorian. It’s clear that Basil is a gay man that has not and will not come to terms with this. Given the tenor of the time and the fact that Oscar Wilde, subject himself to many gay rumors and was to find himself in prison for “gross indecency to men” within five years, this was one of the most, for the time, controversial aspects of the work.
Oscar Wilde was a great proponent of the artistic idea of aestheticism. This is the idea that the beauty or sensuousness of the art is more important than any social or political meaning that can be derived from it.
Knowing that, it seems amusing to me that aestheticism gets a pretty good beating here. Aestheticism, if not regulated, leads pretty quickly to hedonism or empty cynicism. You see that here in many ways. First of all, Dorian falls in love with the actress Sibyl. Sibyl falls helplessly in love with Dorian, and in so doing, she loses her motivation to act. When Dorian sees her lackadaisical poor acting, he promptly falls out of love with her and renounces her, ultimately leading to her suicide. It is Dorian’s pursuit of meaningless sensuousness that, more than time itself, leads to the degradation of his portrait.
Henry, for his part, by the end of the play, after a lifetime of seeking only shallow surface beauty, is old, embittered, and lonely, a shell of his previous effervescent self.
Slightly off subject, but I find it interesting when an artist, through his art, actually makes the opposite point of his own personal beliefs. As I just said, with this play, Oscar Wilde does not actually put aestheticism in a good light. Similarly, Fyodor Dostoevsky was a political conservative, but in novels like Brothers Karamazov, his conservative characters actually come off poorly. It probably says something about an artistic genius that he/she can take a point of view that they don’t agree with but can express it in a compelling manner.
It is interesting to contemplate how Oscar Wilde sees himself in this work. When asked, he said that he saw parts of himself in all three main characters. His quote:
Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me: Dorian is what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps
Some interesting things were done in terms of this specific staging. There was a chorus consisting of Victorian men and women. They would occasionally interject the inner thoughts of characters. Sometimes the characters themselves spoke out loud their own internal monologues, often coming out in the form of almost stage direction.
The stage was nearly always in a state of fog. I’d imagine that this was to show Victorian London as well as to make visible the hidden gay subtexts of the play.
One of the challenges for staging a play based upon this novel is the epigrammatical method in which Oscar Wilde wrote. One of the reasons for his still enduring fame is that he was the master of the one-liner (eg I can resist everything but temptation). Throughout the play, especially with Henry’s lines, these bon mots are interspersed throughout the dialog. However, what seems clever when reading becomes jarring when staged. It’s almost like you’re talking face to face with someone who communicates only in tweets. There’s an artifice to it.
This was probably one of the reasons why the play left me somewhat cold to it. While watching a play, I like to have a suspension of belief but, whether it was the play itself or the choices that the actors made, I just couldn’t get over the feeling that there were just people on a stage reciting lines. I didn’t feel any true connection to the characters.