"Would you like to know the great drama of my life?" Oscar Wilde once asked. "It's that I've put my genius into my life; I've put only my talent into my works."1 It required a certain genius to be Oscar Wilde, the Irish poet and playwright who authored classics like The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray. His combination of prodigious intelligence, charming flamboyance and biting humor made him one of the great wits of the 20th century. He was often accused of being too flippant, but his flippancy disguised a deeper seriousness. His best plays were comedies that identified society's foibles and hypocrisy as cuttingly as any high-minded editorial.
Wilde's overconfidence in his ability to surmount society's prejudices led to his downfall. When the father of the young man Wilde was romantically involved with left him a note with a homophobic slur, Wilde decided to sue him for libel, a decision that had tragic consequences for the poet. The trial became a referendum on Wilde's personal life. Though he defended himself with characteristic wit and eloquence, Wilde could not overcome the strength of Victorian social prejudices. He was eventually convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years hard labor. He lived for only three more years after his release from prison, finally dying disgraced, penniless and exiled in France in 1900 at the age of 46.
Today we enjoy Wilde's works for their enduring humor, but we also admire his commitment to his own ideals of truth and beauty. Thanks to him, it's a little easier for all of us to be ourselves.