Dorian Gray is a beautiful young man who sells his soul for eternal youth. A hidden portrait of himself, that was made by his friend Basil Hallward, catalogues every evil deed by turning his once beautiful features into a horrible mask. When Dorian destroys his portrait, his face turns into the same mask of the portrait, and he dies. That is the basis of Oscar Wilde's legendary novel, which was first published 125 years ago, in Lippincott's Magazine, and a year later turned into an extended version.
Publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray scandalized Victorian England, and was even used as a evidence against the author on his famous 1895 trial. The book has been called immoral, unclean, effeminate and contaminating by the critics at the time.
"Why has the book received such negative reception?" I asked Merlin Holland, Oscar Wilde's only grandson, and the executor of his estate.
"It was a very shocking reception," Holland says. "A year later Oscar decided that he was going to add an extra six chapters. He divided one of them into two, and he added extra chapters when it was turned into a book. It was first published in an American magazine which was sold both in America and in England, and that version was much shorter than the final version which was published in 1891. Oscar had these extra chapters, and significantly he took them out, he suppressed certain things from the book which should've been in a magazine, and they were the overtly homoerotic passages.
It was unlike him to bow to what I think he probably perceived as public pressure. Certainly the critics at the time implied that there were certain parts of the magazine version which were -- I think the word didn't exist then -- they were overtly homosexual. When the painter declares his infatuation to Dorian, and when the book comes out it's made much less obvious, and I feel it's very unlike Oscar. Because Oscar was somebody who went out in a sense to shock people. So to back down, as I see him, and bow to the pressure of critics in that way was very unusual. But what is I think interesting is that when he finishes up four years later in a court of law, and he is attacking the father of his young lover Alfred Douglas, the Marquess of Queensberry, for as he says libelling him, calling him a sodomite, Queensberry's lawyer has gone back to the original version in the magazine and starts quizzing Oscar, cross questioning him about that original version with precisely those overtly homoerotic passages."
Luka Neskovic: Double life is a strong theme in Oscar's life and work, don't you think? I mean when we read Dorian, for example, and Lord Arthur Savile's Crime...
Merlin Holland: Yes, very much so. I mean it's not only the double life which is you know, people talk about "the double life in The Importance of being Ernest," "the double life of Robert Chiltern in An Ideal Husband," and so on. It's not only the concealed double life of the character but also, if you like, the re- appearance from the past. You get this in An Ideal Husband with Mrs. Cheveley for example. It's a favourite theme of literature; the mistaken identity, the double life, the re-appearance of somebody from the past that I don't think it's very specifically Wildean, but yes, it's interesting to make the connection.
LN: When I was reading the novel for the first time, I had a feeling that all three main characters: Dorian, Basil and Lord Henry, are Oscar's three different personalities.
MH: Yes, entirely. And what's more, you know that he says so.
LN: He really did?
MH: Yes, I will give you a quotation [searching]. It was a letter he wrote to an unknown person. We don't know who it was. He says [reading]: "I'm so glad you like that strange coloured book of mine: it contains much of me in it. Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks of me: Dorian what I would like to be -- in other ages, perhaps."
LN: That's great. So my feeling turned out to be true.
MH: Oh, absolutely yes!
LN: When was the first time you read the book?
MH: Oh God, I don't know, probably about 17, 18, or something like that.
LN: And what was your impression?
MH: Well, as a child of that age -- I think the children are much more sophisticated today and children also, because it is now been studied in England, as part of the national English literature curriculum, are being taught how to read it and what the significant of it is. In those days, I would read it nearly as a story, and I don't think I would have been aware of the significance of a great deal of it.
Much later, I studied languages and I read Goethe's Faust, and obviously there is Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. Those things I haven't read by then, and I had the supernatural idea of "Oh, well, that's not actually said in Dorian Gray of bargaining your soul with the devil for eternal youth." It's a well known theme in both English and German and French literature for that matter, so I wouldn't be aware of the depth of the book. I would simply read it superficially for the story and no more than that.
LN: Your play adaptation of the novel is going on in the UK, right now. How was working on it?
MH: There have been many attempts to dramatize The Picture of Dorian Gray over the years, and I'm not saying that none of them have succeeded, but it's a very difficult thing. There were so many different scenes, in which Dorian -- he is in Basil's home, he is in Lord Henry's house, he's in his own house, he's in the theater, he is at the opium den, he's in his country house... and it's not an easy thing. Obviously it's easier to film it, because you can have different locations, but to do it on stage with so many different scenes it could be quite difficult.
There is an additional problem I think in that adaptation is that you have to respect the words of the original. But Oscar's Wilde's words in the original -- there are so many epigrams, there are so many witty statements that if you try to keep them all it would be like reading a book of epigrams [laugh]. And also it would be impossible for the play to be four hours long. So there have been many difficulties to overcome.
We have to behave like a conductor with an orchestra: The conductor conducts from a script, from a score, and he has musicians who are playing, but the score was originally written, let us say, by the Beethoven. Now, as a conductor you can't say "The Fifth Symphony is a bit too long, and I'm going to cut out one movement," [laughs] and you can't say "I don't think that this musical phrase is quite right. I'm going to put in the next three or four notes." I mean, there are people who have taken Dorian Gray and done terrible things with it. They added their own witticisms, and they've cut out stuffs totally, and so on. And what we have tried to do is to respect the original in a way that a conductor respects a composer when he is giving a performance to an audience, and I hope that we have succeeded.
*The adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray will be staged at the St James Theatre, London: June 15-20.
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