Lecture examines Oscar Wilde’s genius, witticisms

On Wednesday Oct. 26, English professor Tom Greenfield gave a short lecture in the Welles Harding Room on Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde. The talk marked the first of a series of mini-lectures to be hosted by Geneseo's chapter of the International English Honor Society, Sigma Tau Delta.

This fall, Greenfield is teaching ENGL 321, British Drama: Shaw, Wilde and Coward. His interest in Wilde, however, began as a 15-year-old duped into experiencing the author's epigrams when he thought he was "just reading the jokes in Reader's Digest."

Greenfield began the lecture in his style – with a song – and then began with Wilde's involvement in the Dandyism movement and his rise to fame. He defined Dandyism as "a particularly refined life … sequestered for males," dominated by a fixation on "dress, fashion, wit, composure and refined skills." In pursuit of this lifestyle, Wilde became first and foremost a modern socialite: famous for being famous.

"Wilde wanted to entertain the upper classes, but never as a fool," Greenfield said. "He was a stand-up comic … before there was such a thing."

This extravagant and public lifestyle, however, led to a controversial reputation for Wilde. Junior English major Emily Webb said that she is "taking [Greenfield's] British Drama to learn more about Wilde, and the class opened [her] eyes to the scandalous life and works of Wilde."

Despite the juicy allure of his class discussions, Greenfield chose to focus his lecture away from Wilde's notoriously provocative social life and instead explore the genius of his witty writing.  

Greenfield said that he "heard some of [Wilde's] epigrams before his plays," and explained that these "compressed pithy statements," often generated by gender and class discourse, acted as the core to his later works. The professor then passed around some examples of Wilde's "jokes," such as, "Women are made to be loved, not understood."

Included in his handout were excerpts from three Wilde plays: "Lady Windermere's Fan," "An Ideal Husband" and "A Woman of No Importance." Greenfield asked several audience members to read the parts aloud, playing a part himself each time, in order to fully appreciate the integration of Wilde's "joke" epigrams into the context of his witty plays.

As a change of pace, Greenfield then asked attendees to form small groups and write their own "Wilde-esque" dialogues wherein they explored the author's favorites of the "party scene" and the "flirtation between the dandy and the witty woman."

A couple of groups performed, including senior Hannah Schmidt and juniors Matt Cordella and Joe Flynn, who took a contemporary approach to the party scene and discussed their antics at the Inn Between.

 "STD is happy to conduct these mini-lectures and we hope everyone enjoys them," said senior STD President Gabrielle Gosset. "We had a really great turnout today."

STD plans to host a mini-lecture like this one every month, correlating the subject matter to the date. The next discussion is set for Nov. 17 at 4:30 p.m. and will be led by professor Caroline Woidat focusing on her specialty: Native American literature.