Few great writers have been as lionized and as vilified as Oscar Wilde. An Irishman who sought to be embraced by English society, he quickly became one of England’s most in-demand celebrities and one of the world’s most-produced and most-translated writers, only to be sentenced to prison for homosexuality — or, more correctly, bisexuality — and shunned by that society whose favor he had so fervently courted.
To an extent difficult to appreciate today, Europe’s Jews, also striving to be embraced by society themselves, identified not just with Wilde the writer, but also Wilde the man. It is no coincidence that even during his trials, Wilde himself depended largely on the unwavering support of a close Jewish friend, Ada Leverson, the host of one of London’s most glittering literary salons. Although it is barely remembered today, Jewish artists of that time vied with each other in creating works either inspired by or derived directly from Wilde.
Among the numerous Jewish artists inspired by Wilde was the musical genius Alexander Zemlinsky, whose two neglected operatic masterpieces based on Wilde’s works — “A Florentine Tragedy” and “The Dwarf” — are to begin a five-performance run of the much-belated first American fully staged productions tonight at The Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, and will be conducted by Leon Botstein. (As part of the ongoing revival, “The Dwarf” will also be produced early next year by the Los Angeles Opera, conducted by James Conlon.)
In the popular imagination, Wilde is widely thought of as a treasure trove of funny quotations, and as the butt of jokes about shallow aesthetes. But this has always been a willful diminishment of his actual accomplishments. Thomas Mann’s startling aphoristic assessment of Wilde’s work — “Nietzsche with a sense of humor” — gives a better idea. And Wilde produced a number of manifestly serious works, including these two.
“These are not funny texts,” said Botstein in an interview with the Forward. “These are brutal, psychological portrayals of human motivation in the name of love and desire. These are comparable to the case studies of early Freud.”
Zemlinsky, one of the great Viennese composers, was born into a Sephardic Jewish family that had members of very diverse backgrounds. His father’s parents had been Hungarian and Austrian, but they were both Catholic. His mother’s parents were a Sephardic Jew from Sarajevo and a Bosnian Muslim. Before his birth, his father converted the whole family to Judaism. This was not just a gesture, as his father became a committed Jew and wrote a history of the Sephardic community. Alexander’s earliest musical studies were in the so-called “Turkish Synagogue,” the main Sephardic temple in Vienna.
Zemlinsky’s earliest compositions were for the synagogue’s choir. With the enthusiastic help of Johannes Brahms, he soon became a major figure in the world of music. Igor Stravinsky claimed that Zemlinsky’s conducting of Mozart was the greatest single musical experience of his life. Alma Mahler was Zemlinsky’s pupil, and then his lover, before she brutally rejected him as a “hideous gnome” and married Gustav Mahler. Although Zemlinsky managed to emigrate before the Nazis rose to power, he never succeeded in America, where his music was viewed as old-fashioned. After suffering several strokes, he died in 1942; he is buried in Larchmont, N.Y.
The text of “A Florentine Tragedy” was stolen from Wilde’s study at the time of his arrest and resurfaced only after his death, so it is regarded by some as an incomplete draft. Richard Strauss wanted to set it, but decided it lacked an introductory scene. Zemlinsky had no such problem. For him, the romantic triangle needed no introduction; it was all too familiar to him, as it might be to any other Jewish striver, assimilationist or not: Set in renaissance Florence, the over-privileged prince Guido is romancing the all-too willing wife of the cloth-merchant Simone, whom the pair disdain as a mere salesman. They both wish Simone dead. What his wife sees as an opportunity for freedom, Simone first obsequiously sees as a business opportunity — such a rich visitor surely would want to buy his finest fabrics, and Guido agrees. As Simone realizes the situation’s seriousness, he calls for a duel with swords. His wife exhorts Guido to kill him. Simone, however, easily overpowers Guido, but chooses instead to strangle him with his bare hands in order to deny him any sense of honor or class. Simone’s strength to commit this brutal murder rekindles his wife’s desire for her husband.
“‘The Dwarf’ is even more powerful, because it’s in the tradition of Rumpelstiltskin, which is a kind of antisemitic fairy tale — you know, the guy who makes gold from straw, speaks a strange language, lives in a strange place,” Botstein said. “And he wants babies — you know, the child-murder smear that is associated with medieval antisemitism. There is great line in ‘The Dwarf’ that he has no home, only a childhood. This is a poignant, talented man who doesn’t recognize himself. He’s seen himself only through the eyes of others. He’s an ugly, repulsive figure, but necessary, amusing — talented even. A plaything.”
The character’s belated shock at realizing he will never be like the others is what eventually kills him.
Wilde as the talented outsider himself knew how fleeting and dangerous it was to be society’s darling — not unlike many of the most talented Jews throughout history, who were accepted by the larger society only so long as they were useful or interesting; then they would be discarded when their “otherness” becomes problematic. The original story, Wilde’s “The Birthday of the Infanta,” was also set several times by others, notably as a ballet by Zemlinsky’s close colleague Franz Schreker — that composer’s first great success.
As a postscript, it might be worthy to note that, according to critic Alex Ross, the relationship between Wilde and the Jews had unexpected ramifications. Writing in The New Yorker, Ross noted that the cause of Wilde’s downfall, the very over-privileged Lord Alfred Douglas, never recovered from the scandal. Douglas subsequently became unhinged, promoting “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and fulminating against imagined plots by Jewish or homosexual traitors. These ravings eventually landed Douglas in jail when he lost a libel case brought by Winston Churchill, who had been accused by Douglas of joining a Jewish conspiracy to kill Lord Kitchener. For Ross, this could very well explain why Churchill defied general opinion in Britain after the fall of France, and chose to fight Nazism to the death: “Churchill, at the outset of his years in the wilderness, was able to get a good look at antisemitism in its essential crudity and stupidity.”
Raphael Mostel is a composer who also writes on the arts. His recent composition “Night and Dawn” was commissioned for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra brass to commemorate the anniversary of Holland’s liberation from Nazi rule.