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Why Oscar Wilde Still Works: 'People Will Always Have Secrets!'

Courtesy of Seattle Shakespeare Company/John Ulman

Oscar Wilde is one of those people: You've heard of him, even if you've never read his novels or seen one of his plays.

The Irish-born writer was the toast of the London stage in the late 19th century. His play, "The Importance of Being Earnest," opened to rave reviews in 1895, joining a string of commercial successes for the dramatist. The play has been adapted for film, including a 2002 version that featured an all-star cast that included Dame Judi Dench, Colin Firth and Rupert Everett.

But these days, many people know Wilde by personal, rather than artistic, reputation. At the top of Wilde's success, he was toppled from his pedestal.

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According to Seattle stage director Victor Pappas, Wilde had been a happily married man with two children until he fell into a sexual liaison with a young aristocrat named Lord Alfred Douglas. The young man's father, the Marquess of Queensbury, was infuriated, says Pappas. "He showed up at Wilde's club and left a card that read ‘To Oscar Wilde, posing as a sodomite.’"

Wilde sued the Marquess for libel. Given the dramatist’s fame, Wilde assumed “no one would ever testify against a gentleman,” according to Pappas. Unfortunately for Wilde, the Marquess summoned a string of London "rent boys" who Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas had hired for sexual activity.

Ultimately, Wilde was prosecuted and convicted on charges of "gross indecency." He was sentenced to two years hard labor. Pappas believes the jail term broke both Wilde's spirit and his health. Wilde died young at just 46 years old.

But a century later, his work lives on. Pappas has directed many of Wilde's plays. His latest production of "The Importance of Being Earnest" opens on March 21 at Seattle Shakespeare Company.

Pappas says this play, and all of Oscar Wilde's work, remains vital because it's not only genuinely funny, but it speaks to the inherent humanity in all of us. All of Wilde's plays are about people who keep secrets, according to Pappas. "And that's why they're always going to work. People will always have secrets!"