Max Beerbohm     BEERBOHM, MAX (1872-1956)


A caricaturist and writer, Beerbohm first met Wilde while a student at Charterhouse School in 1888, probably introduced to him by the actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Max's half-brother. The friendship between Beerbohm and Wilde did not develop until early 1893, when Max, while an undergraduate at Merton College, Oxford, attended rehearsals of A Woman of No Importance conducted by Tree at the Haymarket Theatre. In April, Beerbohm wrote to his friend Reggie Turner: "I am sorry to say that Oscar drinks far more than he ought: indeed the first time I saw him, after all that long period of distant adoration and reverence, he was in a hopeless state of intoxication.... I think he will die of apoplexy on the first night of the play." After the play opened on 19 April, Beerbohm lamented to Turner: "How the critics attack gentle Oscar." Except for William Archer and A. B. Walkley, "the rest have scarcely tried to write on the play at all. They have simply abused Oscar".

Beerbohm's first essay on Wilde and his first published work - "Oscar Wilde" by "An American" - had appeared in the Anglo-American Times (25 March 1893). By posing as an outsider, Beerbohm attempts to understand a complex personality: Wilde is an "incomparable wit," the best talker in London, though when he enters a room, "everything must go to the wall; ... he stands on the hearthrug and monopolises the conversation ..." Indolent by nature, Wilde possesses "one of the most salient and not the least charming of his qualities" - vanity. Concluding, the speaker regards Wilde as a genius, "a spirit which makes him a perfect type and a personality without flaw" - the final ironic thrust. Wilde read the article in proof, Beerbohm told Turner, and pronounced it "incomparably brilliant," though "he is rather hurt at my reference to Dorian Gray...". Beerbohm had written: "We have heard the grumble that the idea of an inanimate complicated by an animate personality developed in the story of Dorian Gray has been done before."

In August 1893, Beerbohm wrote to his friend the painter Will Rothenstein that he had read Wilde's French version of Salomé a second time and that he liked it "immensely": " - there is much, I think, in it that is beautiful, much lovely writing - I almost wonder Oscar doesn't dramatise it". Later that year, Beerbohm encountered Wilde's elder brother, Willie, at Broadstairs, Kent, and offered Rothenstein his distasteful reaction, a further indication of Beerbohm's ambivalence towards Wilde: "Quel monstre! Dark, oily, suspecte yet awfully like Oscar: he has Oscar's coy, carnal smile & fatuous giggle & not a little of Oscar's esprit". On one occasion in 1893, Beerbohm observed Wilde with his entourage (as he reported in a letter to Robert Ross): "Poor Oscar! I saw him the other day, from a cab, walking with Bosie and some other members of the Extreme Left. He looked like one whose soul has swooned in sin and revived vulgar. How fearful it is for a poet to go to bed and find himself infamous".

In late 1893 or early 1894, Beerbohm wrote another essay on Wilde, "A Peep into the Past," for the first number of the Yellow Book, but it never appeared. In his characteristically playful manner of combining fact and fiction to produce multiple ironies, Beerbohm pretends that Oscar Wilde was, at one time, "quite a celebrity.... Once a welcome guest in many of our Bohemian haunts, he lives now a life of quiet retirement in his little house in Tite Street with his wife and his two sons ... The "old gentleman" (Wilde was 39) continues to write; indeed, he "has not yet abandoned his old intention of dramatising Salome..." - echoing Beerbohm's letter to Rothenstein. Noting Wilde's first play (that is, his first society comedy, an indication that Max thought little of Wilde's early romantic melodramas), Beerbohm remarks that, at the curtain call, the "dazed" author had forgotten to extinguish his cigarette, "an oversight that the Public was quick to pardon in the old gentleman" (in fact, some critics were offended when Wilde appeared with a lighted cigarette before the curtain at the conclusion Lady Windermere's Fan). The Wilde debacle in 1895 made "A Peep into the Past" unpublishable for a number of years (it finally appeared in 1923).

In April 1894, when the first number of the Yellow Book appeared, Beerbohm's essay "A Defence of Cosmetics," an ironic defence of Decadence, created a sensation. This essay was revised and retitled "The Pervasion of Rouge" for The Works of Max Beerbohm (1896). Delighted with the essay, Rothenstein told Beerbohm with levity: "...all my friends chuckled over your dear cosmetics as they read & reread them. Oscar, solitary exception, was moved to a torrent of tears, so strong was his emotion". To Alfred Douglas, Wilde wrote: "Max on Cosmetics in the Yellow Book is wonderful: enough style for a large school, and all very precious and thought-out: quite delightfully wrong and fascinating". Wilde's appreciation of Beerbohm's wise, ironic manner is reflected in his remark: "The gods bestowed on Max the gift of perpetual old age".

Long before the Wilde trials, as Rupert Hart-Davis remarks, Beerbohm's family "worried because so many of his friends were homosexual - Oscar Wilde, Alfred Douglas, Reggie Turner, Robbie Ross - but, although Max greatly enjoyed their company, there is no scrap of evidence that he ever shared their sexual propensities". Indeed, Beerbohm often reveals his cautiously satirical view of Wilde in his many cartoons, his literary works, and his letters, both before and after Wilde's trials. In August 1894, in what Hart-Davis calls an "all-too-prophetic joke" concerning a police raid on a male house of prostitution, Beerbohm reports to Turner: "Oscar has at length been arrested for certain kinds of crime. He was taken in the Café Royal (lower room). Bosie [Alfred Douglas] escaped, being an excellent runner, but Oscar was less nimble".

In April 1895, however, when Wilde was actually arrested, Beerbohm was quite distressed, as he reveals in a letter to Ada Leverson from New York: "Poor Oscar! Why did he not go away while he could? I suppose there has never been so great a scandal and sensation! Over here the papers have been full of it. We are all so fearfully sorry about the whole thing". Later that month, Beerbohm was in the courtroom when Wilde gave his famous speech on "The love that dare not speak its name"; to Turner, he wrote that the speech was "simply wonderful, and carried the whole court right away, quite a tremendous burst of applause", though there were apparently also hisses.

During Wilde's imprisonment, Beerbohm published his fanciful tale in the Yellow Book (Oct. 1896) titled "The Happy Hypocrite," an apparent parody of The Picture of Dorian Gray. (When Wilde's novel had first appeared, Beerbohm wrote "Ballade de la Vie Joyeuse," doggerel verse with little bite, containing the wry observation that hedonists, wearying of defying the moral strictures of St. Paul, sometimes embrace morality: "Even the author of 'Dorian Gray'/ Makes for his hero a virtuous mood") In "The Happy Hypocrite," Beerbohm depicts the wicked Lord George Hell, who, by donning a mask of saintliness, becomes George Heaven, transformed by love - as opposed to Dorian Gray, who is transformed by evil. Wilde's novel had probably suggested the allegory of good and evil in Dorian's remark: "Each of us has Heaven and Hell in him." Indeed, Beerbohm's interest in masks once prompted Wilde to ask Ada Leverson: "When you are alone with him, Sphinx, does he take off his face and reveal his mask?".

Wilde was delighted with "The Happy Hypocrite," which he read after his release from prison in May 1897: "I have just read Max's Happy Hypocrite," he told Turner, "beginning at the end, as one should always do. It is quite wonderful, and to one who was once the author of Dorian Gray, full of no vulgar surprises of style or incident". To Beerbohm, Wilde wrote that "The Happy Hypocrite," a "wonderful and beautiful story," was obviously inspired by his novel: "The implied and accepted recognition of Dorian Gray in the story cheers me. I had always been disappointed that my story had suggested no other work of art in others".

Beerbohm apparently never saw Wilde in prison or after his release - an indication that he had distanced himself further from his former friend. Nevertheless, when the time approached for Wilde's release, Beerbohm wrote to Robert Ross out of concern about the expected reaction by the press: "Is there any way of getting Oscar out of the country without benefit of journalism? There are sure to be a dozen reporters at the prison gate and they will follow him to the English shore ... and they will ask him if he has anything to say to them and so on and so on." Beerbohm suggests a decoy carriage to lure the reporters while another carriage with Wilde would make its way out unobserved: "This sounds rather absurd, I suppose ... but surely it is rather important to let Oscar be spared a gang of gaping and offensive pressmen". In August 1897, Beerbohm heard from France "that that ass Oscar is under surveillance - I suppose he is playing the giddy goat. Can't someone warn him to be careful?".

On the day after Wilde died, Beerbohm wrote to Turner, who had attended Wilde at his bedside: "I am, as you may imagine, very sorry indeed; and am thinking very much about Oscar, who was such an influence and an interest in my life. Will you please lay out a little money for me in flowers for his grave.... I suppose really it was better that Oscar should die. If he had lived to be an old man he would have become unhappy. Those whom the gods, etc. And the gods did love Oscar, with all his faults". As the drama critic for the Saturday Review, Beerbohm devoted part of his column on 8 December 1900, to a restrained tribute:

The death of Mr. Oscar Wilde extinguishes a hope that the broken series of his plays might be resumed.... Despite the number of his books and plays, Mr. Wilde was not, I think, what one calls a born writer. His writing seemed always to be rather an overflow of intellectual temperamental energy than an inevitable, absorbing function. That he never concentrated himself on any one form of literature is a proof that the art of writing never really took hold of him.... But for his death, he might possibly have returned to [playwriting]. And thus his death is, in a lesser degree than his downfall, a great loss to the drama of our day.

In evaluating Wilde's plays, Beerbohm regards all three of the serious comedies as "marred by staginess, " particularly An Ideal Husband, least so in A Woman of No Importance. In the latter play, Wilde "allowed the psychological idea to work itself out almost unmolested, and the play was, in my opinion, by far the most truly dramatic of his plays." As for The Importance of Being Earnest, Beerbohm regards it merely as superior to the "every-day farces whose scheme was so frankly accepted in it".

In the Saturday Review (18 Jan. 1902), Beerbohm reviewed the first revival of The Importance of Being Earnest since its premiere in 1895. Clearly, Beerbohm has now gone beyond his previous view of the play as merely a superior farce:

... to me the play came out fresh and exquisite as ever, and over the whole house almost every line was sending ripples of laughter - cumulative ripples that became waves, and receded only for fear of drowning the next line. In kind the play always was unlike any other, and in its kind it still seems perfect. I do not wonder that now the critics boldly call it a classic, and predict immortality. And (timorous though I am apt to be in prophecy) I join gladly in their chorus.

Beerbohm reviewed other Wilde plays, including the first production of Salome in England in 1905 and the first production of the incomplete A Florentine Tragedy in 1906 as well as a revival of Lady Windermere's Fan. Of the latter play, he wrote in the Saturday Review (26 Nov. 1904) that it was "incomparable in the "musical elegance and swiftness of its wit" - "a classic assuredly": "Those artificialities of incident and characterisation (irritating to us now, because we are in point of time so near to this play that we cannot discount them) will have ceased to matter. Our posterity will merely admire the deftness of the construction".

When John Middleton Murray, editor of the Athenaeum, asked Beerbohm to review the second edition of Frank Harris's Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions (1918), he declined, having read the first edition in 1916: "...all that raking-up of the old Sodomitic cesspool - the cesspool that was opened in 1895, and re-opened in recent years by various law-suits - seemed to me a disservice (howsoever well-meant) to poor old O. W.'s memory". For the celebration of Wilde's hundredth birthday in 1954, Vyvyan Holland asked Beerbohm to unveil the London Council County plaque on the house in Tite Street. Pleading that he was "too old to travel" (he was almost 81), Beerbohm sent a tribute to be read at a luncheon after the unveiling: "I suppose there are now few survivors among the people who had the delight of hearing Oscar Wilde talk. Of these I am one." After citing such figures as Henry James, Edmund Gosse, and Swinburne, who were all "splendid" talkers, he remarks: "But assuredly Oscar in his own way was the greatest of them all - the most Spontaneous and yet the most polished, the most soothing and yet the most surprising".

References: Max Beerbohm, Around Theatres (1953); J. G. Riewald, Sir Max Beerbohm: Man and Writer (1953); Violet Wyndham, The Sphinx and Her Circle: A Memoir of Ada Leverson (1963); Beerbohm, Max in Verse: Rhymes and Parodies, ed. J. G. Riewald (1963); David Cecil, Max: A Biography (1964); Max Beerbohm's Letters to Reggie Turner, ed. Rupert Hart-Davis (1964); Beerbohm, Last Theatres, 1904-1910 (1970); Beerbohm, A Peep into the Past and Other Prose Pieces, ed. Rupert Hart-Davis (1972); John Felstiner, The Lies of Art: Max Beerbohm's Parody and Caricature (1972); Mary M. Lago and Karl Beckson, eds., Max and Will: Max Beerbohm and William Rothenstein: Their Friendship and Letters, 1893-1945 (1975); Ira Grushow, The Imaginary Reminiscences of Sir Max Beerbohm (1984); Robert Viscusi, Max Beerbohm, or The Dandy Dante (1986); Rupert Hart-Davis, ed., Letters of Max Beerbohm, 1892-1956 (1988); Lawrence Danson, Max Beerbohm and the Act of Writing (1989).