On St. Patrick’s Day of all days, speechwriters should remember what Oscar Wilde said about the Irish: “We are the greatest talkers since the Greeks.”
Wilde himself was one of the most brilliant talkers who ever lived. The accounts that we have of his conversation and speeches are enough to make us wish that at least a few minutes of his spoken words had been preserved for posterity. But alas there are no authentic recordings of his voice.
Short of a recording, though, it is still possible to get at least an idea of what Wilde sounded like—at least as good as the printed word can convey.
On February 20, 1892, Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan opened at the St. James Theatre in London. It was a triumph. When the curtain fell on the last act, thunderous cries of “Author, author!” brought Wilde to the footlights. There, adopting a languid pose, with a cigarette in his hand, he delivered an impromptu speech—and unwittingly sparked a theatre legend that would tarnish his reputation for years.
The legend is that Wilde’s foppish manner, cigarette and the flippant tone of his remarks gave offense to the audience and spoiled his brilliant first night. The chief instigators of the legend were the London critics, many of whom had a deep dislike of Wilde that showed through their reviews.
Wilde, perversely, fanned the furor by entertaining people who had not been present with mischievous variations of what he had actually said. These, of course, only added to the legend of Wilde’s “insolent effrontery.”
Fortunately—and here is where we come to what Wilde sounded like—a member of the St. James Theatre staff took down Wilde’s remarks in shorthand. That enabled a Wilde biographer named Hesketh Pearson not only to print for the first time a full and accurate version of the entire speech, but also to italicize the very words that Wilde had stressed in his delivery. The result is that we can now almost hear Wilde speak:
“Ladies and gentlemen: I have enjoyed this evening immensely. The actors have given us a charming rendering of a delightful play, and your appreciation has been most intelligent. I congratulate you on the great success of your performance, which persuades me that you think almost as highly of the play as I do myself.”
According to Pearson, who obtained the text from George Alexander (the actor who was the first Lord Windemere), “The audience enjoyed this as much as anything they had heard that night.”
And of course we speechwriters know that high repartee is one of the most difficult types of speech there is—both to write and to pull off in front of a live audience.
Pearson’s biography of Wilde appeared in 1946, but the legend of Wilde’s bad-boy behavior persisted for years. We may hope that it was finally laid to rest by the excellent 1997 film biography of Wilde starring Stephen Fry. The film recreates the opening night of Lady Windermere’s Fan, complete with Wilde’s curtain speech. Fry delivers the speech exactly as Pearson recounted it. So if you have ever wondered what it was like to hear Wilde in person, Fry’s performance in that scene is as close as we are likely to get.