'The Happy Prince' takes a look at the end of Wilde's life.
It is much disputed whether Oscar Wilde’s last words before dying were “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or other of us has got to go.” But the Irish poet and playwright was known as such a wit that it’s easy to accept the legend.
Wilde’s death — specifically, his deathbed conversion — is at the center of a new movie about him. That conversion too is a subject of much dispute.
The Happy Prince, written and directed by Rupert Everett, an openly gay English actor who also portrays Wilde in the film, is about the final years of the playwright’s life (1854-1900). It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The film also stars Colin Firth, Colin Morgan and Emily Watson.
Wilde seems to have had a fascination with the Church throughout his life and almost entered several times. But, as Aaron Taylor points out in the Catholic Herald, he had a threat hanging over him: his father swore that he would disinherit him if he became a Catholic.
Nevertheless, the faith is something that sustained Wilde through some of his darkest days. He went to jail in 1895 for homosexual activity, and the reading material he asked for included St. Augustine’s Confessions, works by Cardinal Newman, and the Greek New Testament. Reading the Bible in Greek, he said, was “like going into a garden of lilies out of some narrow and dark house.”
Fr. Cuthbert Dunne, the young priest who attended Wilde on his deathbed, wrote that he was “fully satisfied that he understood me when told that I was about to receive him into the Catholic Church and give him the Last Sacraments. From the signs he gave, as well as from his attempted words, I was satisfied as to his full consent. And when I repeated close to his ear the Holy Names, the Acts of Contrition, Faith, Hope and Charity, with acts of humble resignation to the Will of God, he tried all through to say the words after me.”
Taylor writes in the Herald that Wilde’s deathbed scene is “ultimately a reminder that grace can transform and redeem even apparently pointless, self-inflicted suffering.”
In his testimony, Fr. Dunne defended Wilde against the moralising critics who carped at his 11th-hour conversion, noting that, “whatever his sins may have been, [he] expiated them by suffering severe penalties: imprisonment, ostracism from the great world in which he had been an idol, loss of all that the cultivation of his brilliant talents had brought him.” After suffering all this, Fr. Dunne concluded, “he turned to God for pardon and for the healing grace of the Sacraments in the end, and died a child of the Catholic Church.”