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Oscar Wilde in Indianapolis

by Guest User | Jul 11, 2012
[Editor’s note: On Saturday, Aug. 18, the Eiteljorg will host Out West, the first of several programs and exhibitions exploring the contributions of the GLBTQ community in the American West.]

Oscar Wilde appeared at English’s Opera House in Indianapolis on February 22, 1882, as part of his 150-city American tour, lecturing to large, curious audiences on the subject of decorative arts and aestheticism. Wildean ruminations were front-page news wherever he appeared.  

Five separate columns, editorials and criticisms excoriated him in Indianapolis papers.  American journalists generally do not like to be lectured to, especially about the beauty of sunflowers, by an effete, Oxford-educated, Irish poet with only a book of self-published Poems under his arm and an underperforming play, Vera, to his credit. 

“We have grown sunflowers for many a year,” stated the Indianapolis Journal on The Apostle of Beauty. “Suddenly, we are told there is a beauty in them our eyes have never been able to see. And hundreds of youths are smitten with the love of the helianthus. Alackaday! We must have our farces and our clowns. What fool next?”  

Wilde’s mode of dress—velvet cloaks, silk knee breeches, buckled shoes, long flowing hair— was derided as sheer calculation in four of the five reports.  “He knows uncommonly well what he is doing,” reported the Indianapolis News.  From “pit to dome,” many came to make fun of him, but most grudgingly admitted that he had something to say. “It would be safe to wage a cigar that if Oscar can be induced by his manager to be a little more utilitarian, he will not want for appreciate or applause,” wrote the Indianapolis Daily Sentinel.  

The criticism apparently stung, because at his very next performance Wilde took his critics’ advice and dressed down.  Later, in justification for ordering two new costumes, Wilde wrote that his audiences were “dreadfully disappointed at Cincinnati at my not wearing knee breeches.”  

And how would the future author of "The Picture of Dorian Gray" fare in America’s Great Frontier?  In Salt Lake, where he was hosted by John Taylor, the president of the Mormon Church, he was greeted by “The Sunflower Boys,” a row of admiring youth sporting sunflowers in the lapels of their velvet cloaks.  

In other venues, ruffians interrupted Wilde’s show to the point that he sent advance notice to Denver that he would no longer act the gentleman and that he was “practicing with my new revolver by shooting at sparrows on telegraph wires from my car. My aim is as lethal as lighting. -- O. Wilde”

American audiences knew who Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was before a special category had been coined for him and his kind.  The word “homosexual” did not appear in the public vernacular until after his premature death in 1900 at age 46, the result of his imprisonment of two years at hard labor for “extensive corruption of the most hideous kind.”

It is therefore important for me to tip my metaphorical cowboy hat to America’s first gay cowboy for paving the wayfor me as I take Out West to small Western communities like Cody, Wyoming, and Bozeman, Montana, where the subject of my research – LGBT history and culture in the American West – has been greeted with such respect.  

Oscar Wilde, who squared off with miners in Leadville and won their hearts, unquestionably loved the American West. He is remembered for many gifts. 

What I most appreciate was Wilde’s indefatigable refusal to conform to the male norm. Before his imprisonment, when urged to save himself, Oscar Wilde refused to run, and subsequently took it squarely on jaw for all of us. 



Gregory Hinton, creator, Out West


2 Comments

  1. 2 Janice Dodd 16 Jul

        I was not even aware that Mr Wilde had made this trip.  I only knew of his life and travails in England, and other countries of Europe.   He has been a great interest to me for all of my years, but this just shows that there is one more thing that I have learned from "Brokeback Mountain."  It has been quite a journey.  I am relishing it still.  Will for the entire rest of my life, I am sure.  
         I truly wish I could attend this upcoming event in Indianapolis, but that is not possible.  I wish you all the greatest success with this great and worthwhile endeavor.  Janice Dodd, Hillsboro, Ore.
  2. 1 Johnny 25 Jul
    Thank you for this very interesting piece about Oscar Wilde in Indianapolis. I did not know he had visited the Hoosier State. I will be attending the Out West presentation at the Eiteljorg next month and am eagerly anticipating your talk.

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