One hundred and twenty one years after his death, Irish playwright and poet Oscar Wilde still resonates with readers, romantics and rebels all over the world. Still considered controversial by some—mostly when dissecting his personal life—his wit and outspokenness seem to have stood the test of time and, dare I say, more relevant than ever? (I loathe that term). If you haven’t read The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) or The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), it’s never too late to discover Wilde’s work. In fact, his influence on our culture has continued to find its way in modern entertainment. Rupert Everett’s directorial debut The Happy Prince (2018)—a brilliant biopic where he also portrays Wilde at the end of his life following his release from prison after being found grossly indecent—is a must-watch for anyone mildly curious about the man behind the pen.
I discovered Oscar Wilde unexpectedly, perhaps at a time I needed him most but didn’t know it. In 2009, I was still stuck in community college after having dropped out a few times to pursue my dream of being a musician. Though I managed to land a small record deal for my band, sales were next to nothing and fandom was nearly nonexistent. I had exhausted all avenues, took criticism too personally, and began to give up on a passion I’d coveted since fifth grade. By the time I’d finally given up, I had no idea which direction I was heading. My compassionate yet academically-minded Indian immigrant father was running low on patience for his “artsy” son struggling to complete undergrad, while his friends’ children were all on steady career paths.
In ‘09, while living in my parents’ basement, I’d keep mtvU in the background as a source of discovering new music and artists who weren’t receiving recognition on mainstream airwaves. I felt a closeness to overlooked artists. Sitting at my desk, trying to find a book to report on for an English Literature class, I was feeling completely lost and unenthusiastic about being back at school, let alone the assignment. My senses were dulled by lack of interest in the objective. Why should I focus my energy on the past if I couldn’t even make progress in the present?
Then, in the middle of a video rotation, I heard a simple thump followed by an upbeat guitar riff, mixed in with some bass and minor Jazz elements. I turned my head to witness a Wes Anderson-y type video of three people around my age participating in a variety of school clubs.
“Oscar Wide” by Chicago-based indie rock band Company of Thieves. Written by its founding members, guitarist Marc Walloch and vocalist Geneveive Schatz:
I was moved by the song’s rhythm and its video’s aesthetics, but the lyrics struck me harder as lead vocalist and co-writer Schatz repeated the chorus; “We are all our own devil, we are all our own devil / And we make this world our hell.” Profound thoughts for kids around my age. At the video’s completion, the title ran in the left-hand corner. It read “Song: Oscar Wilde” and “Artist: Company of Thieves”. I was smitten with my new musical find. More so, I chose a subject for my assignment. I had only read The Picture of Dorian Gray in High School and found it boring, but perhaps I wasn’t ready to appreciate its societal commentary on the topics of vanity, selfishness, desire, and classism. But as I reread, I began to understand the messages he was attempting to convey toward his own generation, not unlike my own. I wondered why Company of Thieves chose Wilde as their muse of sorts.
In an interview with Times Union of that year, Schatz told journalist Michael Janairo, “When I was in high school theater class, we read Oscar Wilde’s plays….I always really loved the way he wrote about people and society and the way they carried themselves, and how everyone has these insecurities, and they’re constantly trying to mask them by outdoing each other or speaking in catty tones. He was trying to say that life is so short there’s no point in always worrying about the superficial.”
The band’s album title Ordinary Riches was also inspired by Wilde, from an essay titled “The Soul of a Man Under Socialism”, first published in February 1891 in Fortnightly Review, where he writes “Ordinary riches can be stolen from a man. Real riches cannot. In the treasury-house of your soul, there are infinitely precious things, that may not be taken from you.”
The more I found connections between Company of Thieves and Wilde, the more relatable I found the author, leading me to seek out more of his work, including The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888), and plays The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) and A Woman of No Importance (1893). I admired the wit and bravery in Wilde’s prose, as well as his defiance toward conventional norms. Upon further research down the internet’s rabbit hole, I learned more about his individuality and identity, along with his failures and banishment, yet remaining resilient and passionate throughout his life.
In the following years, after I finally graduated college, Wilde stayed with me. His confidence in his own work influenced mine as I eventually mustered up my own courage to take a stab at writing. I’ve written short stories since I was ten years-old, mostly in the context of song lyrics, but never in the form of an essay or deliberate narrative—not for myself anyway, not for pleasure. I found myself signing up for an evening writing class after work to strengthen my skill set. Once too shy to share my writing with anyone, I sought pleasure in workshopping my stories with others.
Now, over a century since his departure, I wonder if Wilde knew the lasting impact he’d have on others. Did he die thinking he was a failure? In the end, does it even matter how the world perceives you? With the passage of time, will new generations continue to explore the past in an effort to enlighten the present? If so, what sort of obligation do they have with respect to the dead? “Time keeps on ticking away / It’s always running away / We’re always running in time” as Company of Thieves explains it—I guess that’s all we can depend on, really.
Raj Tawney is a writer exploring history, culture, race, and food in America from his multiracial perspective. Contributions include The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Iowa Review and many other publications around the world. Find him at rajtawney.com