Even though Oscar Wilde
--playwright, wit, critic, and convicted sodomite--died exiled and disgraced in 1900, his memory and influence remain central to British culture. In 1918 the specter of Wilde manifested itself in what social historian Philip Hoare calls "the trial of the century." This shocking libel case was brought by American actress Maud Allan, who had just appeared in a production of Wilde's Salome
, against Noel Pemberton Billing, an arch-conservative M.P., who accused her of being a member of "the cult of the clitoris": his catch phase for a sexual and social degeneracy that he saw as destroying England. Billing also claimed that the German government (with whom, you will recall, England was at war) had "a black book" containing the names of 47,000 prominent members of the British society who were "in the cult of Wilde"--a euphemism for quot;degenerate" homosexuals--and who were potential blackmailees, subversives, and traitors. As in the Wilde trials 23 years earlier, the real issue here was an attack by conservatives and moralists against social and sexual freedom.
As in his earlier work, Serious Pleasures: The Life of Stephen Tennant and Noel Coward: A Biography, Hoare proves himself to be an incisive social critic and a vigorous historian who illuminates the paradoxes of the recent past with insight and passion. But the real power of Oscar Wilde's Last Stand (that Hoare makes clear again and again) is its understanding that Wilde--social rebel and martyr to artistic and sexual freedom--remains, in so many ways, under attack by conservative social forces even today. --Michael Bronski END
From Kirkus Reviews
Even in death Oscar Wilde could still provoke upright society, as this lively and revealing history of a bizarre 1918 libel trial in London, concerning a play by Wilde, demonstrates. Focusing on the scandal surrounding the first British performance of Wilde's last play, Salom, Hoare, the biographer of Stephen Tennant (1991) and Nol Coward (1996), wonders what Wilde would have made of the early 20th century. A byword for unnameable perversity to the Edwardian middle class, Wilde had become a martyr figure for the decadent underground, which continued with desperate hedonism during WW I. The headline-making trial that Salom touched off suggests that, even in 1918, public opinion would still not have been friendly to Wilde. Noel Pembleton Billing, the right-wing publisher of the yellow journals the Imperialist and the Vigilante, and a loose-cannon member of Parliament, needed to maintain his maverick political career, even through proto-McCarthyite tactics. He had already claimed that the Germans had a list of 47,000 high-ranking members of the government, the military, the aristocracy, and society (all of them secret homosexuals) who were being blackmailed into sabotaging the war effort. Why not suggest that a new production of Salom, starring the scantily clad dancer Maud Allan, was a Hunnish effort to undermine public morality? When he ran a ferocious attack on the play headlined ``The Cult of the Clitoris'' (not a term many readers knew), the producers took legal action. The ensuing circus of a court case, with Billing conducting his own manic defense, dug up Wilde for public obloquy again, this time with Lord Alfred Douglas leading the attack on his former lover. It also revealed that mainstream attitudes toward homosexuality, morality, and aestheticism had changed little since Wilde's death in 1900. Expanding an unlikely historical footnote, this account of Wilde's posthumous last trial and its wider significance is sensational in more than just the journalistic sense of the word. (For more Wilde-iana, see Merlin Holland, The Wilde Album, p. 259.) (24 pages b&w illustrations, not seen) -- Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.