The Oscar Wilde? In Woodstock???
Even by today’s “anything goes” standards, British playwright and novelist Oscar Wilde would stand out from the crowd. In Victorian England, where and when he held court, Oscar was a veritable neon sign.
A flamboyant dresser, open homosexual and frequenter of opium dens, the author of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “The Importance of Being Ernest” viewed his Victorian world from a caustic perspective.
Of friendship, Wilde observed: “True friends stab you in the front.”
On making enemies, he advised: “Always forgive your enemies, nothing annoys them so much.”
And of morality, Wilde, (who knew much on this topic) predicted: Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”
In 1882, Oscar Wilde took his outrageous road show to “the Dominions”—Canada that is, a mere 15 years into nationhood. Then on to America, scarce more cultured; scarce more refined.
This was no literary tour. That purpose would have drawn the appropriate high-brow crowd. No, Mr. Wilde was setting out on an artistic mission to promote his latest addiction– the “Arts and Crafts” design movement.
Led by artist and writer William Morris, “Arts and Crafts” promoted traditional craftsmanship, produced by local artisans in all the decorative arts–architecture, painting, sculpture and furniture-making. Arts and Crafts took as its “goddess” the forms, images and colours of nature.
Travelling by train, Wilde’s tour would stop at 15 Canadian communities. In each he would preach his “gospel.” And if tales of his performances in England were to be believed, he’d be quite the attraction.
One of the stops on Oscar’s Canadian tour would be the little town of Woodstock, in the southwestern region of Ontario. No more than a dot on the map, deep in Ontario farm country, Woodstock seems a curious stop for such a pesonality.
But Wilde had been invited to speak by the Woodstock Mechanics Institute (the forerunner of the Woodstock Public Library). And besides, this little town and had a darn fine Town Hall to host the event.
Built in 1853, the yellow brick structure featured a handsome front gable roof, towering cupola, sandstone detailing on its windows and boasted the Royal Coat of Arms above its carved wooden front doors.
The interior boasted a large meeting area and stage on its second floor. Walls were finished with fine oak wainscot paneling.
With scant knowledge of the subject of their famous guest’s lecture, Woodstonians still flocked to the train station to catch a glimpse of him as he stepped off the train. Oscar did not disappoint.
Newspaper reports of the day describe the long-haired Wilde in royal blue knickers and matching jacket; lace shirt, and opera cape. He carried the symbol of the Arts and Crafts movement, a large sunflower.
If those who held tickets–25 cents each—to the biggest show in town hoped Wilde’s speech would be as outlandish as his costume, they were sorely disappointed.
The local newspaper reported that he began with the words: “I do not address those millionaires who pillage Europe for their pleasure, but those of moderate means who can have designs of worth and beauty before them always and at little cost.”
The remainder of Wilde’s talk was equally as thoughtful, as he delivered “a credible lecture on the importance of having beautiful surroundings in everyday life.”
And in the blink of an eye, Oscar Wilde was gone. Off to the next whistle stop…..
While the Woodstock Town Hall had, and would, host other celebrities—including Prime Minister John A. MacDonald, few would be as memorable as Oscar Wilde.
Over its 170 year history, The Woodstock Town Hall has served as a public assembly hall, a fire hall, the police lock-up, city council chambers and municipal offices.
My own vivid memories, as a child growing up in Woodstock are of the weekly farmer’s market that was held on its ground floor.
The building now serves as The Woodstock Museum and is open to the public. Sharp-eyed visitors will notice the pitting of its front wooden doors, where proclamations and public notices were nailed. Axe marks on the oak floors serve as remainder that wood was chopped to feed the stove that once heated the building.
The Woodstock Town Hall was designated as a National Historic Site in 1955.
466 Dundas Street,
Sources: Kevin O’Brien, “Oscar Wilde in Canada,” (extracts in Woodstock Public Library, Oscar Wilde history file); and the Woodstock Sentinel Review.