Oscar, Walt and Me
By David Simpatico
A cardboard butterfly. A human cello. A teenage vampire. Three distinctly different images with one thing in common: a thirst for recognition. This is the story of how I lost myself in the Valley of the Giants, and found my way out again with the help of Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde.
In 1980, when I was 20, I was featured on the cover of Newsweek Magazine, a mustachioed Northwestern University student-model for a friend’s nationally recognized, student-entrepreneurial cake company. At 22, I was the comic lead in a Porky’s-esque feature film, Screen Test, which has since achieved dubious cult status (perhaps it was my legendary hot tub scene with a naked blonde and a bubbling tsunami of hot dogs?) At 24, I was doing television commercials with legendary director Joe “Where’s the Beef” Sedelmeier. By 32, I was a Franklin Furnace award-winning New York City performance artist, appearing on bills with Penny Arcade, Dael Orlandersmith and other top solo artists. At 45, I was a downtown playwright of not-too small-renown with, finally, a huge commercial, ‘uptown’ hit, the stage adaptation of Disney’s High School Musical. So, at 50, I left the city with my husband, my dog and my computer, to find seclusion, succor and focus in the woods of Dutchess Country. Seclusion, succor and focus. But not recognition. Because recognition doesn’t matter, it’s the writing that counts. At least, that’s what I told myself.
In 1855, Walt Whitman stepped into fame, and notoriety, with the publication of Leaves of Grass, his groundbreaking book of poetic free verse. His description of a man in the full bloom of life is etched into our memory partly due to the strength and candor of the written text, “…I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin, hoping to cease not till death,” but also largely due to the power of the engraved frontispiece that greets the reader upon opening the book. Rather than use his name as the source of author identification, Walt chose an etching based upon a daguerreotype of himself by photographer Gabriel Harrison.
Walt changed the world of literary publishing forever with that frontispiece. He was among the first writers to publish his own likeness with his work, literally placing himself, via his image, his identity, in the hands of the reader. The carefully crafted image depicts a strong, handsome, bearded man in his mid-thirties, standing outdoors wearing an open, wide-collared shirt, a worker’s hat raked cockily to the side, with one hand perched casually on his hip and a provocative, direct challenge in his eye: a sexy, poetic Everyman. With that single image, he not only declared himself to the literary world, but also introduced a cult of image-based celebrity that continues to our day.
"From the beginning, my work has received consistently polarized responses: half the people love it, half of them hate it, and the third half are terrified of it. So it goes."
In 1881, by the age of 27, Oscar Wilde was already a celebrity in London’s social and literary circles. Growing up in an eccentric, creative Dublin home featuring weekly salons of the most dynamic individuals in Ireland, young Oscar quickly developed an outstanding gift of gab, coupled with an overwhelming desire to be famous. His conversational skills were unrivaled from an early age; but it was his hulking physical presence that helped bring him his first brush with fame—and notoriety.
Oscar made a huge splash at the Grosvenor’s Gallery opening, the social event of the season, spouting his educated opinions on the art exhibitions and drawing the attention of the best of London society, as well as the ink from a few poisoned pens. Standing a solid 6’3”, he dressed the part of an outlandish dandy: silk jacket, puffy satin knee breeches, with musical notes and clefs stitched boldly into the wide-hipped design, giving the distinct appearance of a cello from behind. Oscar was a living work of performance art, a Victorian Leigh Bowery.
Using the platform of the aesthetic movement, Oscar fashioned an identity for himself--languid, brilliant, opinionated, eccentric-- from which he could cast his personality and conversation out into the world. It worked. He was featured on several covers of Punch Magazine, bringing him and his likeness into millions of English homes.
Oscar was just getting started.
I feel as if I am always just getting started. Over the course of the last 30 years, my writing career has spanned film, television, video, opera, musical theatre, serious drama, dance and performance art. From the beginning, my work has received consistently polarized responses: half the people love it, half of them hate it, and the third half are terrified of it. So it goes.
I have an ongoing advance/retreat relationship with success. As soon as I started winning awards in performance art, I stopped performing to focus on writing plays and libretti. After Michael Eisner hired me to write the poetic libretto for Pulitzer Prize winner Aaron Jay Kernis’ millennium choral symphony, Garden of Light, conducted by Kurt Mazur at Lincoln Center, I veered away from the classical world to write an episode of Blues Clues. And then I quit writing altogether, stymied at the fits and starts of my career. After a year of doing computer graphics, I started writing again, scoring a critical success with The Screams of Kitty Genovese, with beautiful and brutal music by UK composer Will Todd, a dark music drama about murder, rape and apathy. After watching a student production in Boston, Robert Brustein, a leading American theatre critic, proclaimed in The Nation, that Kitty Genovese was “the hope of the American Musical Theatre.” And yet, no one would produce it; too violent, too edgy. Fits and starts. So, when the opportunity presented itself, I switched gears to adapt Disney’s High School Musical for the stage. After making a big commercial success with Disney, instead of hunting up my next big hit, I relocated out of New York City up to the Hudson Valley, where I’m told the stars go to hide from the tawdry glare of the spotlight (the Hudson Valley is lousy with celebs--Uma Thurman takes yoga with my pal Jennifer, Mark Ruffalo is a staple of the local anti-fracking set, Paul Rudd bought the candy store in my town). I was going to clear my life of distractions, create a whole new body of work, and focus on ‘getting it all out.’
For the last seven years, that’s what I’ve been doing. I have been incubating new work in my house in the woods during my voluntary hermitage. I dedicated two years to earning my Masters Degree, deciding, at 55, it was time to sharpen a few old pencils by writing a two-person play about Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde, called Wilde About Whitman. Back in the Hudson Valley, I created a local playwrights group to help get me out of my cave once a week. The writers in my group helped reacquaint myself with the fact that I work in a medium which demands a live audience in order to find fruition; people need to do my work in order for me to finish it. I’ve been so focused on ‘getting it all out,’ the actual next stage of ‘production’ has eluded me. Or maybe I’ve eluded it. Maybe I veer away from the spotlight where vision and identity finally come together; maybe, despite my intense desire for artistic success, I don’t feel worthy? Maybe my ambivalence is a question of identity; what if I’m afraid of who I am, of owning my talent? Maybe I’m caught in a flux of self-delusion; what if my talent isn’t as worthy as I think it is, and I’m afraid to find that out? Agents have no idea what to do with me: they can’t define me--and if they can’t define me, they can’t sell me.
Maybe they can’t define me because I can’t define myself.
Walt didn’t have that problem. He pulled no punches; he defined himself as a Poet of the Nation; the Nation, however, defined him as a failure, and a pornographer, due to the ‘prurient’ nature of his subject matter. Walt also defined himself visually; he micro-managed a series of carefully produced photographic portraits, defining his identity for others, and for himself. He was tenacious. He was ambitious. He was the second most photographed American of the 19th century, right behind Mark Twain. He posed for countless photographers, including Thomas Eakins and Napoleon Sarony. He was tireless in his photographic self-promotion and fussed over the smallest details of color and texture and design until the image achieved an iconoclastic, keenly constructed ‘style-with-no-style.’
Style, on the other hand, defined Oscar. By the time he graduated Oxford, he identified himself as the High Priest of the Aesthetic Movement. His languorous posing and hyper-intellectual enthusiasm for the world of beauty had London’s tongue wagging. His brother Willie, who wrote the weekly social column at The Daily Telegraph newspaper, made sure his brother’s artistic antics remained in the public eye. But Oscar, and the Aesthetic movement, had their detractors. The young poet had already met and irritated the world-famous comic librettist, William Gilbert. Gilbert had cautioned the younger poet that he should talk less in public; to which Oscar replied that he would be happy to oblige him, but could not, in his heart, deny the public the pleasure of listening to him.
A year later, the Savoy Theatre, famous for being the first theatre in London to use electric lighting, opened its doors for business with Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride, featuring a foppish ‘title’ character based on Oscar. It was a huge hit, and Oscar used it to fan the flames of his own ambition.
As fate would have it, Patience producer Richard D’Oyly Carte engaged the penniless young aesthete to introduce the Aesthetic Movement to the new world in an eleven-month lecture tour of the United States, dressed as the comic foil, Lord Bunthorne. Essentially, Richard D’Oly Carte hired Oscar Wilde as a ‘sandwich board’ for the upcoming tour of Patience. Oscar agreed, but he had his own ideas.
Dressed in the dandy’s outfit of knee breeches, cape, bowed shoes and delicate velvet coats, his hair six inches longer than socially acceptable, Oscar played his part to the hilt. He used the lecture tour to spread the gospel of his own identity, celebrity and brilliant intellect through an exhaustive series of lectures and interviews with the local press. He’d spend all day polishing epigrams and paradoxes, for use in conversation later that night.
Oscar understood the career benefits of cultivating a consistent and professional relationship with the press, in his pursuit of recognition. Even before disembarking in the New York harbor, he presented an endless fascination for American reporters, starting at the US Customs in New York Harbor in 1881, where he claimed, “I have nothing to declare but my genius.”
In New York City, at Playwrights’ Horizons Theatre on 42nd Street, my one-act play, Prom Queen, was chosen to participate in the prestigious Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Festival, a high-profile, highly-selective, competitive week-long one-act play festival with a rotation of judges made up of commercially produced writers. This was the Big Event I’d been hoping for, a chance to get myself out of the woods, and back in the game, with a play that showed me at my transgressive best. Before the performance, award-winning photographer Charles Chessler, an old college friend of mine, set up an impromptu photo shoot down on 42nd street, just two hours before the festival. He wanted to get me, as I am, as I was, in the street, full of dreams and shocks and wired hope.
Charles’ photos were dead on; they captured a happy combination of Angel, Devil and Clown; someone who feels at home in Edgar Allen Poe’s basement. I thought, great, once Prom Queen goes up tonight and makes its impact, once I make my impact, I’ll have a reason to use Charles’ photograph, I’ll be back in the game! Yay!
Walt wanted to make an impact; he wanted to be noticed; he wanted his work to be taken seriously. From years of experience in the newspaper industry, he knew a photographic image was essential to the success and longevity of an author’s career. A good picture could anchor the author’s identity in the public eye; it could tell them what they should think before any critical response could tell them otherwise. Walt was not above writing letters to the editor in the assumed guise of various ‘public citizens’, praising Whitman’s poetry and even Whitman himself. Taking his career into his own hands, Walt became the ‘voice’ of the ‘people’ by praising himself, as one of them. He demanded, and often provided, the recognition he felt was his due.
During those first few weeks in New York City, Oscar Wilde followed the advice of his friend, legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt, and spent a full day and night with photographer Napoleon Sarony, the Annie Liebowitz of his day. The two men carefully chose the effete costumes and distinctive poses that would make Oscar one of the most famous men in America. The photographic portraits were sent out in advance to newspapers and magazines, portraying a foppish, towering young man whose image beguiled and captured the attention of the country. His audacious photos were used, without his consent, to sell a variety of items, from chewing gum to shoe polish. Sarony’s portrait of Oscar would ultimately gain national and historic merit when the Supreme Court ruled, in favor of Sarony, that photographs could be copyrighted.
Moments before Prom Queen was about to start, the Samuel French Director of Licensing sat down in the seat next to me; having heard his staff talk about my play for weeks, he wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Prom Queen is risky: the piece is a darkly subversive, feminist satire about eating disorders and self-image, and includes the casual, on-stage, blood-sucking murder of an infant. The lights went down, and two brilliant young actresses in bra and panties took over the stage, portraying two New Jersey high school girls who discover the perfect diet: vampirism. The production, directed by Michael Schiralli, was flawless; the performances were wild and familiar and perfectly over the top; the audience erupted in laughter, shock and thunderous, foot-stomping applause. The Director of Licensing grabbed my leg: Prom Queen was a perfect one-act play, he said, and looked forward to seeing me at the final round of the weeklong competition. I could feel the spotlight warming up; clearly, I’d soon be needing Charles’ pics. Angel-Devil-Clown. Maybe I can work with the image, have some fun with it, shoot some more with Charles, allow myself to fully define my identity….
A famous photo of Walt Whitman balancing a butterfly on the tip of his finger became immensely popular and enhanced his reputation as Poet Laureate of Nature. It didn’t matter that the butterfly was made of cardboard. To Whitman, the image was the message, and the image was whatever he wanted it to be. He later created the myth of the Old Grey Poet, with his casually chosen wardrobe and wild white hair and beard. He spent hours designing a look that he knew would last forever. And soon, over the course of hundreds of newspaper interviews and countless photo sessions, Walt became what his image promised: the wild-haired genius of his time.
Not to be outdone, Oscar gave more than 300 interviews during the eleven-month lecture tour. His photo appeared over hundreds of times in newspapers and periodicals. By the time he left the United States, Oscar Wilde was once again a household name.
This was eight years before he would write anything of note.
My husband and I slogged through three Canadian Club Manhattans in Kabooze, a depressive commuter bar deep in Penn Station, waiting around to hear if the judges had chosen Prom Queen to advance in the festival. Remember, the Director of Licensing himself had called Prom Queen “a perfect one act play.” The drinks tasted good.
And then, I got a short text from my director. The judges’ verdict was in: Prom Queen had been ejected. Bounced out of the festival. Apparently one of the judges accused my piece of being sexist, missing the feminist trees in a forest of exposed teen flesh. And so, Prom Queen ended its run, ignominiously abandoned, bounced out of the game, shunted to the dark side of the spotlight. Again.
Identity. Self-definition. Self-promotion. Self-awareness. The power and clarity of the photographic image. Whitman introduced it. Wilde fulfilled it. Both men understood how to turn this recipe for fame into long, successful careers, using their celebrity to help spread the brilliance of their talent. Both fanned the flames of their ambition, despite either bad critical reviews of their work, or no work yet to be reviewed.
By focusing on the carefully constructed image, on the photograph, on the self-articulated identity as the artists defined themselves, they were able to circumvent critical literary response as being the sole, defining lynchpin of success. Their image reflected a persona they wanted to promote. Their image became them. And they became their image.
Clearly, I need to change how I play the game. The world can’t get a clear picture of who I am, because I keep changing it. Do I need to take one and give it to them, literally? No. What I need to do is consider myself with the same acuity and awareness exhibited by both Whitman and Wilde, and anchor myself in that image, in that identity. In my own identity.
My self-delusion is not so grand as to consider myself in the same class as these two giants; I’m barely in the same school, eating cookies and taking naps in the sodden corners of pre-K. But having stuck my head inside their lecture hall, I can see the similarities and disparities between them and me. Their careers were fueled by a constant belief in self-worth that enabled them to masterfully craft their fame. Their desire for recognition and success were unflinching and creative; it gave them a constant platform from which to spread their brilliant work. I have had a career of fits and starts. My belief in my self-worth would get me to the brink of success, would court the spotlight for my unique voice and vision, but then I’d run from whatever victory I had gained, feeling somehow unworthy of the intensely positive attention, or defined by tone-deaf, negative response.
Walt posed with a cardboard butterfly because he believed in what the image purported. Oscar paraded as a dandy because he knew he would gain the attention he felt he would someday deserve; by the end of the tour, he would lock the dandy costume in a trunk, and redefine himself as a serious (and seriously funny) man of letters. Neither of them was fully embraced by society; both Oscar and Walt were condemned for their work, and both died penniless. But neither of them swerved from the unshakeable belief in themselves. They each believed that their talent was worthy of the world, and that they were worthy of their talent. They defined themselves in a photo in order to spread a consistent, visual recognition of who they were, but their true definition was not confined to an image; rather, their sense of self exceeded the banks of the image they chose for themselves. Their belief in self was anchored in the knowledge that they deserved their talent. They craved the spotlight in order to better share their experience of the world.
As I jump once again back into the game, here is what I learned from my visit to the Valley of the Giants: Before you can expect others to know you, you have to know yourself first. As Oscar might say, belief in self-image breeds belief in one’s self.
David Simpatico is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. His full length play, Wilde About Whitman, is slated for publication in The Idaho Review, Fall 2018.