Wilde Speaks at City Hall

Posted on October 31, 2010 by

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OSCAR WILDE    [By EUGENE CAMPBELL]

There are probably very few people who haven’t heard of 19th century writing-great, Oscar Wilde, and most people probably have heard, or read, that he was gay, and that this ‘leaning’ led him to major problems late in his life.  But there are probably very few people, indeed, perhaps only a handful, that have heard that he visited Fredericton in 1882, spoke at City Hall, befriended New Brunswick writing legend Sir Charles G. D. Roberts, and went on to visit other Maritime centres, and indeed, the rest of Canada.

We’ll take a brief look here at his Fredericton visit, and what, at least one gay activist would like to do in honor of his visit.  Wilde arrived in Fredericton from Bangor, Maine, on Wednesday, October 4, 1882, and later that same day – at 8 o’clock – he had a lecture scheduled at the Lecture Room at City Hall – sponsored by H. Lebaron and a Mr. Kerr.  It is interesting to note here, that almost 130 years after his visit, Fredericton’s City Hall where he spoke, still stands, still looks very much as it did then, and is still used as a City Hall.  Erected in Phoenix Square on Queen Street in 1876, and year’s later was declared a National Historic Site, it is the oldest City Hall in the Maritimes still in use.

The talk at City Hall on the evening of his arrival in Fredericton, drew a huge crowd.  The audience hall was nearly filled, and all the reserve seats were taken.  The lecture lasted for an hour, and it is said the audience ‘preserved their patience wonderfully!’  In his book, ‘OSCAR WILDE IN CANADA’, Kevin O’Brien writes, “there was a need for equanimity of temper, at least on the part of Wilde, for he had to undergo his first ordeal in the Maritimes:  in his audience were some unwanted Aesthetic converts from UNB.’

O’Brien goes on to say that five minutes after the lecture began, ’25 students ,in procession, Indian File, into the Hall and down the main aisle to reserved seats near the platform.  A town woman, upset by students who “must not expect that they are at liberty to take possession of the whole town when they come to Fredericton to learn the rudiments of A.B.C. in manners.” ‘  The students – perhaps a gay showing, although this is not mentioned – wore sunflowers in their buttonholes.  Others were ‘ridicously garnished… (although) they appeared to be decently dressed.’  It is said that they carried canes and bouquets and ‘periodically broke out in uproarious applause, stomping their feet, and mock plaudits as they needled Wilde on his main points.’  The editor of ‘UNIVERSITY MONTHLY’, said, “by their frequent and animated applause, they showed that their sentiments were entirely in accord with those of the eloquent lecturer.”  Wilde, it is said, was too smart to battle the students.  He said, “They were highly intelligent looking boys, all of them.  They had their fun and I did not mind.”

While in Fredericton, he stayed at the Barker House – a long-time hotel in the 19th century and well into the 20th.  It was there that he met Fredericton’s native son, poet Sir Charles G. D. Roberts.  It is said Roberts took Wilde more seriously than did the students at City Hall.  Roberts had long been identified with Fredericton, and today, is one of the Capital’s most famous sons.  He graduated from UNB in 1879, and in 1882, was principal of the York Street School.  The poems he wrote while still in college, were published in 1880, as ‘ORION AND OTHER POEMS’.  This book was to be recognized as the first sign of a literary movement in Canada.  He influenced and encouraged a group of poets in Fredericton, including Bliss Carman, Theodore Roberts, Francis Sherman and Barry Straton.

But back to his involvement with Wilde.  When Wilde arrived in Fredericton, Roberts went to visit him at his hotel, and they set up a meeting for after the lecture.  O’Brien writes they arranged to meet in Wilde’s sitting room.  “The two young men sat at opposite ends of a table, and each read his poetry to the other.  Despite Fredericton’s being a ‘dry’ town under the Scott Act, they managed to imbibe some gin and ginger beer, and the evening progressed to the point of ‘pouring out libations to the gods of Greece and Rome’.  It is said both enjoyed the evening, and Roberts, soon after, received a letter from Wilde stating that with the beginnings Roberts had made, “there could be no height in song beyond his reach.”  Roberts, it is said, retained a high opinion of Wilde, even after his troubles in 1895.

Local poet and founder of The Travesty Cafe, Shaun Bartone, paid tribute to Wilde during Fredericton’s first-ever City-sponsored Gay Pride Week back in August, by saying, “Travesty is a form of burlesque that derived around the time of Oscar Wilde’s visit in the 1880’s.”  She went on to say that she would like to do a complete re-enactment of the Wilde speech – “the whole thing.  He had a set of speeches.  I know which one it was.  Oscar Wilde was the perfect mascot.  This is how far back we (gays) go.  He was a genius.  He exposed mannerisms of the upper class and the straight society.”

When Wilde left Fredericton, he travelled by train, to Saint John, and then to other Maritime centres.  For a detailed look at his visit to the Maritimes, city-by-city, go to the work above-mentioned.

Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland, on October 16, 1854 – he first published in 1888.  Although married, it is well-known he had strong gay leanings.  In 1895, he was accused of having gay affairs with Lord Alfred Douglas – an accusation made by Douglas’ father, the Marquis of Queensbury.  He became involved in a hopeless legal battle, and wound up being sentenced to two years in prison at hard labor.  It is said, from his prison experience, came his best poem, ‘THE BALLAD OF  READING GAOL’ in 1898.  He left England after his release from prison, and died, completely destitute, three years later, in France.

Today, more than a century after his death, he is regarded as one of the major literary figures of the 19th centurey, and for gays around the world, they are proud to call him one of their own.

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Posted in: QTC