Oscar Wilde, like other writers who could also talk, is remembered more for his smart sayings than his excellent writing. He "became the spendthrift of my own genius," dissipating his talent in a life of pleasure and ruining it altogether with a vainglorious lawsuit that ultimately landed him in prison and showed that it is possible to go too far in challenging the bourgeois strictures of society.
It is a curious flaw of "Diversions and Delights," the one-man show Vincent Price opened last night at Ford's Theatre, that the great Wilde witticisms that read so well on paper are far less interesting on stage than the serious stories and personal ramblings playwright John Gay has fashioned from the writer's work and biography.
While the bon mots are amusing, with conversational tidbits like "morality is the attitude we adopt toward people we personally dislike," and "you think I am overdressed? I atone for that by being immensely overeducated," they seem like cocktail party small talk compared to a moving story about a boyhood school friend who wept when Wilde left to go on to university. Gay and Price succeed so well at showing us the interesting mind and soul inside the clown that we hunger for more talk and fewer quips. Wilde was so irresistibly arrogant -- "I am the only person in the world I should like to know personally," he said -- that it would be hard, and certainly disappointing, not to dish up a few delectable morsels, but it is surprising how quickly one tires of them.
Price is at his most skillful in the more serious second act, as he gets slightly, subtly tipsy on absinthe, a small misstep here, an unfocused squint there. The Wilde of this play is giving a lecture in Paris in the last year of his life, trying to make some money in humiliating circumstances, in bad health and morale after his two-year prison ordeal.
He is, as ever, eager to amuse, but he promises "there will be no secrets here this evening," and rambles inevitably to earlier successes, his feeling of having been betrayed by not only his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, but by his friends and society when he decided to test the "slanderous" condemnation of Lord Alfred's father in court. In bringing the lawsuit he committed the "greatest mistake" of his life, because information brought out at the trial resulted in his being charged and convicted of sexual immorality. His health was ruined in jail -- "the way Her Majesty treats her prisoners . . . she doesn't deserve to have any," he quips sadly, and the few years left of his life were spent in poverty and loneliness.
It is perhaps inevitable that living portraits of historical figures such as this have a slightly museum-like quality, the feeling of looking at something rather than seeing it unfold in front of you. "Diversions and Delights" overcomes this tendency when the focus is on Wilde's life rather than his wit. Wilde once said he poured more of his genius into his life than his art and it was, after all, a brilliant life. He was vibrant, outrageous, provocative, unconventional in a world of conventional Victorians, a creative original who worshiped art and lived his convictions.
If Price, who first brought the show here in 1977, is slightly overaffected when playing Wilde the amuser, rolling his r's to excess and playing a bit coy, he makes up for it with the layers he subtly reveals of the serious Wilde. He is tremendously moving when telling about a 10-year-old boy who was brought into the prison, or about Wilde's post-prison, unsuccessful reunion with Lord Alfred, or reciting "A Harlot's House" and a bit of "The Ballad of Reading Gaol." This is when Wilde seems to live again.
DIVERSIONS AND DELIGHTS, presented by Ford's Theatre in association with Kolmar-Luth Entertainment, Inc.; written by John Gay, performed by Vincent Price.
At Ford's Theatre through Jan. 31.