Book Chapter Details
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Walshe E.
2015 January
George Bernard Shaw in Context
Oscar Wilde
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© Cambridge University Press 2015. In 1941, on the occasion of the eighty-fifth birthday of Bernard Shaw, the playwright Denis Johnston published a profile of the celebrated man in The Irish Times. Johnston's affectionate discussion of Shaw's quirky and lively qualities and of a memorable lunch meeting led him to make a comparison between the living man, now at the height of his fame, and his disgraced compatriot, the long-dead Oscar Wilde: ‘One is Westland Row dressed up as Merrion Square. The other is a poor relation of the Royal Bank living in Portobello. One is Trinity and Oxford. The other is a clerk's stool in Molesworth Street’. At the end of the profile, Johnston remarked on the beginnings of a change in popular attitudes towards the infamous Wilde and made a shrewd prediction: For all his iconoclasm, Shaw never seems to have done a really foolish thing in the whole of his life … Oscar Wilde ruined and disgraced himself at the very height of his powers, with an arrogance that can only have been deliberate and that disastrous plunge would seem at first sight to symbolise the truism that bad brilliant boys get what is coming to them and clever good ones get the first prizes. But I sometimes wonder whether Father Time has not still another joker up his sleeve. We are beginning to realise that Wilde's disaster was really his apotheosis and gave a meaning to all his life. It will be interesting to see who lives longest – the foolish genius who died first or the clever genius who was always smart enough to keep out of mischief. Johnston was prophetic. Wilde's literary reputation gradually revived after the disaster of his public disgrace and imprisonment, particularly in terms of Irish cultural perceptions of his life and of his writings from the late 1940s onwards. Wilde eventually regained popularity and visibility in Ireland, particularly in the years after Shaw's death, while Shaw himself slowly fell from favour in terms of popular taste and scholarly interest. Wilde was gradually reclaimed, first as Irish and then as sexual dissident, while Shaw's presence in Irish literary culture diminished. This rebalancing of the public perceptions of the clever genius and the foolish genius has become more pronounced now in the twenty-first century.
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