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Why is Oscar Wilde having a revival? He’s the ultimate Gen Z icon

Oscar Wilde is having a moment on both stage and screen. Little wonder, says Anna Moloney – he would
have adored our age of Instagram and Tiktok

“Somehow or other I’ll be famous, and if not famous, I’ll be notorious,” Wilde wrote in a visitors book while a student at Oxford. It proved more than the bravado of youth: fame he wanted and fame he got, and over a century later we’re still talking about him.

This year in particular would have been sure to garner Mr Wilde’s approval. Not only are productions of his works still plentiful, they are also, crucially, still fashionable. Ncuti Gatwa, who debuted as Doctor Who’s fifteenth Doctor last month, will lead a production of Wilde’s 1895 play The Importance of Being Earnest at the National Theatre in November, while Succession star Sarah Snook took to the West End this summer to near-universal acclaim in a one-woman production of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Having picked up two Olivier awards, the show, directed by Kip Williams, is now set for a 2025 run on Broadway, with a film also in the works after the rights were recently snagged by Cate Blanchett.

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Such long-standing reverence for a writer is not novel, but there is something special about our enduring attachment to Oscar Wilde. When we think about Dickens or Austen or Shakespeare, it’s rare we remember details about the writer themselves; we might think of Scrooge, or Mr Darcy, or Hamlet. But when we think of Oscar Wilde, we think of him: velvet-draped, carnation in buttonhole, poised with a cigarette ready to deliver one of the hundreds of witticisms you can now find in a clothbound edition by your bookshop till. And, unlike other artists, who nobly protest that to be remembered for anything but one’s art is an extreme vulgarity, I imagine Wilde would smile. After all, his greatest masterpiece was always himself, and he went to great lengths to make sure it would be so. It is this that allows Oscar Wilde to connect so deeply to a 21st century audience, and, more to the point, the Instagram age.

Oscar Wilde: Tiktok’s lost star?

“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about” – The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray, a Faustian tale about a young man who gives his soul to a painting for the promise of eternal youth and beauty, is ultimately a cautionary tale about the dangers of narcissism. Dorian is in love with beauty, but above all he is in love with his own self-image. In Williams’ stage production, the script is largely faithful to the text, though there is one crucial modern twist: as Snook weaves between characters across the stage, she is all the while encircled by an array of cameras, operated by a crew that stalks her every move, her face beamed onto giant screens suspended above the stage. As Snook turns to take a selfie with the audience, she manipulates the image with layers of filters until it is warped into something grotesque. We are left with no doubt that this production aims to speak to its social media-hooked audience.

Every one of his witticisms is the equivalent of a tweet or a Tiktok. He was born for the social media age.

Gyles Brandreth, honorary president of the Oscar Wilde Society

How different, after all, is Oscar Wilde – obsessed with youth, beauty and fame – to the modern Instagrammer, obsessed with botox, filters and ‘likes’?

On the surface, that may seem a vulgar comparison, so allow me to phrase it more prettily. How different is the modern social media user, someone who cultivates their feed to reflect an idealised version of themselves, from the Wildean aesthete, who believes there is no greater piece of art than one’s own life?

Never trust anybody who treats you like you’re ordinary. We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. Women are made to be loved, not understood. These are all Wilde epigrams, but you could easily find them in glittering pink on an Instagram motivational quotes page.

As Gyles Brandreth, life-long Wilde devotee and current honorary president of the Oscar Wilde Society, tells me: “Every one of his witticisms is the equivalent of a tweet or a Tiktok. He was born for the social media age. He’d put the Insta into Instagram, the Tok into Tiktok, he would have stormed social media!” Other Wilde experts I spoke to agreed, citing his love of gossip, frivolity, and, above all, showing off. “He would have millions of followers, at least until he got cancelled,” adds Darcy Sullivan, deputy editor of The Wildean.

The irony of the influencer

“It is only shallow people who who do not judge by appearances” – The Picture of Dorian Gray

Linnie Reedman, writer and director of upcoming London production Dorian: The Musical, however, says she is hesitant to agree. In her production, Dorian rejects social media based on its hypocrisy, and she thinks Wilde would have rejected it on these grounds, too.

But surely such hypocrisy would have been its greatest appeal. Wilde, after all, loved to criticise the falsity and posturings of Victorian society, but only from within its warm embrace as he wafted contentedly between dinner parties. Vanessa Theron, editor of Oscar Wilde journal Intentions, tells me it’s this love for society that would’ve made social media so irresistible for Wilde: “Interior design, foreign travel, art galleries, theatres, fashionable clothing, celebrities, social climbing and parties… these preoccupations are all mainstays of social media content”.

Wilde’s plays may have mocked high society, but never in a way so daring that they wouldn’t come to see it. Wilde’s wit was stinging, but it was also designed to be protective: who could object to a joke? Especially one delivered so eloquently.

It is this tension that makes Wilde so relevant to the new age of social media users. While platforms like Instagram were once about curating a flawless snapshot of one’s life (posed images, picturesque backdrops, colour-coded ‘aesthetics’), to be seen to be carefully curating one’s own self-image is now firmly out of fashion. Gabriela Serpa Royo, behavioural analyst at Canvas8, tells me that “anti-aesthetics” are now in vogue, a look that says “I don’t care”. From casual posting (think photo dumps and BeReal) to ‘ugly beauty’ (Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘starry vomit’ Guts Tour marketing imagery), Instagram and Tiktok are now all about being ‘real’ – but still pretty, of course. One should reject the ideals of social media, but preferably in a pithy tweet or #nomakeup selfie. It’s not hard to see the irony, but indifference was a virtue of the dandy too, despite the hours they spent at the toilette.

The art of the selfie

“To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance” – An Ideal Husband

Instagram Face – a beauty standard created by our warped vision of ourselves through blushing, eyelash-batting filters – would likely not have been celebrated by Wilde, but it would not have surprised him. Life imitates art far more than art imitates life, he writes in The Decay of Lying – lip fillers and Botox just a matter of course then you see. Indeed, in the Aesthetic worldview, ‘natural beauty’ is nothing to be so proud of. On the contrary, “lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art,” the Aesthete rules. Wilde believed that one was one’s truest self when behind a mask; taken further, that one became one’s true self behind a mask. Generation Instagram has its own epigram: fake it til you make it.

It’s easy to mock, but Serpa Roya emphasises that Gen Z’s interaction with self-image is decidedly less superficial than their predecessors, with ‘aesthetics’ representing a meaningful form of self-expression and ideology. One such ideology is a reaction against hyper-productivity: hustle culture has given way to ‘soft living’; girl bosses to quiet quitting; self-help to self-care. The self remains at the heart of it, of course, but there is a rejection of utilising every part of one’s life for labour. It’s a similar impulse from which late-Victorian aestheticism was born, a reaction against industrialisation and mass commodification that instead championed art for art’s sake – beauty without use.

So, could the selfie actually be the ultimate Wildean aesthetic ideal? Certainly, the veneration of one’s own image is in line with any good dandy’s self-care regime. Love yourself first, foremost, and always. So said @girl.boss.bible, but it could as well have been Oscar Wilde.

City A.M. The Magazine