Watch Oscar and Walt, a play by Donald Steven Olson about the real-life meeting between Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman, starring Judy Kuhn, John Rubinstein and Sam Underwood.
“I come as a poet to call upon a poet,” Oscar Wilde (Sam Underwood) introduces himself to Walt Whitman (John Rubinstein) in “Oscar and Walt,” Donald Steven Olson’s play about the encounter. Those were the first words Wilde actually spoke, according to historical accounts, when, on the afternoon of January 31, 1882, the 27-year-old future author of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “The Importance of Being Earnest” visited the 62-year-old author of “Leaves of Grass.” The meeting took place in Whitman’s brother’s house in Camden, NJ, where Whitman had been living since suffering a stroke. Wilde was on a lecture tour, his first trip to America, and took a short detour from his second stop in Philadelphia.
“Oscar and Walt” is the first play in the New Works Virtual Festival, which has scheduled a new original work of theater every evening from now through Christmas. It is a promising launch. This Zoom reading (with the script scrolling at the bottom) is funny and informative about two figures – both still-celebrated writers, both queer, both pioneers of self-promotion — who continue to fascinate more than a century after their deaths. If “Oscar and Walt” doesn’t soar dramatically, that’s a mark in its favor; it would feel overblown to invest great drama in an afternoon conversation.
Over the roughly 80 minutes of the play, Olson uses that conversation to present both well-known and obscure biographical details of each man, and paint the sharp contrast in their lives and personalities – Wilde a scholarly graduate of Oxford, Whitman a self-educated man who dropped out of school at the age of 11; Whitman a plainspoken American in love with Nature, Wilde an British-Irish aesthete who speaks in one-liners.
The gulf extends to cultural misunderstandings. Wilde misidentifies Whitman’s chamberpot (portable toilet), saying “I collect Japanese porcelain myself.”
There is an undercurrent of envy from the older poet; the younger writer expresses only admiration. But as the conversation progresses, they find they have things in common (such as “our lack of money and uncertain futures” and their love of cities), and Wilde’s wit makes Whitman laugh. Whitman warms to him. We know this explicitly because of a dramatic device employed through the presence of the third character in the play, Whitman’s sister-in-law Louisa, portrayed by Judy Kuhn. Louisa is the source of much of the humor in the play; she is a kindly woman who takes care of Whitman, but she is also a devout Christian who doesn’t think much of her brother-in-law’s poetry or the mess he makes in his bedroom; she’s also star-struck, impressed with the black carriage drawn by white horses in which Wilde arrives.
Before Wilde’s arrival, Walt instructs Louisa that he will ask her to serve him milk punch (that’s fresh milk with brandy) if he likes Wilde; if he doesn’t like him, he’ll ask her to serve him her homemade elderberry wine — which he says would hasten his exit. After Louisa tells Oscar about Walt’s poem about Abraham Lincoln, “You Are My Captain.”
“No Louisa, that’s not what it’s called. It’s called O Captain! My Captain!” Walt says, with his usual irritation towards her. “It is not my best poem, Mr. Wilde. It is, however, the most popular.”
“Ah well,” Oscar replies, “popularity with the masses is desirable of course, but it’s never a true arbiter of taste or refinement, is it? In fact, quite the opposite.”
Without a pause, Walt says: “Would you care for a glass of elderberry wine, Mr. Wilde?”
When he drinks it, Underwood’s facial expression is priceless.
“Good, isn’t it?” Walt asks mischievously.
Eventually, though, Walt offers Oscar the milk punch.
It would be a scandal if a play about two of the 19th century’s most famous homosexuals omitted their sexuality; “Oscar and Walt” is not scandalous. It handles their sexuality in ways that feel realistic for the era. Oscar broaches it tentatively, talking first about Walt’s poetry.
“You’ve read my Calamus poems?” Walt says, surprised.
“I know them by hard.” He starts to recite one.
“You’re the first man to admit that to my face.”
Walt is blunter: He asks Oscar whether he’s ever had sex. The answer surprised me.
“Oscar and Walt” ends in a way that feels too satisfying to be believable — until you look it up and discover it is supposed to have actually happened.