Philadelphia fell in love with “Oscar Visits Walt” earlier this year.
Writer Tom Wilson Weinberg’s fictionalized account of a meeting between legendary queer artists Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman sold out three performances at Giovanni’s Room in June, prompting interest in a return engagement. As luck would have it, the University of Pennsylvania is currently sponsoring “Whitman at 200: Art and Democracy,” a celebration of the poet’s bicentennial. Weinberg’s play fit right it, and it will be mounted at Penn’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center Oct. 25-27.
The Dublin-born Wilde visited Whitman at his Camden, New Jersey, home during his heralded lecture tour of the United States in 1882, but little is known of what their meetings actually entailed. Weinberg uses excerpts from Wilde and Whitman’s own writing, along with his songwriting acumen, to construct a narrative of these liaisons.
Weinberg spoke with PGN about the continued interest in Wilde and Whitman, as well as the need to recognize queer history. A fixture in Philadelphia’s gay arts scene for over five decades, he also discussed the future of local queer cultural life.
PGN: After the initial performances in June, did you know right away that you wanted to bring “Oscar Visits Walt” back to Philly?
TWW: Yes. One just gets a sense if a piece is working or not, and my cast of two and I all felt very good about the way it worked. We learned a lot also, and I made some changes along the way. It will be a luxury to do three more performances now, while the whole thing is so fresh in our minds. In general, we were very satisfied with the piece, and the audience seemed to like it a lot. It felt like something that should get a longer life.
PGN: As a creator, what drew you to the story of Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde?
TWW: I thought about this quite a while ago, because I like both of these writers very much. I started seeing on the internet that these visits happened, and that was something I didn’t know about. So I started researching it with the idea that it might make an interesting theater piece. The visits were private, so we don’t really know what actually went on when Oscar went to Walt’s house in Camden. The first visit happened in January 1882, and then Oscar went off on a lecture tour across the country and in Canada. When he was passing back through Philadelphia in May of 1882, he visited Walt again. I figured I could write about what happened inside the door of that little house in Camden.
PGN: How did your project become affiliated with “Whitman at 200”?
TWW: I did a little cabaret show in October of last year, and afterward a woman that I know came up to me and asked if I had heard about the events. They hadn’t started yet, and I hadn’t heard about it, but she asked if I would be interested in putting on a musical theater piece that had to do with Walt. I said yes. That woman is the artistic director of the whole festival. I described the piece to her and she liked the idea, so I went right to work. I felt so lucky, because the idea was on the back burner, and it’s always good for me to be working up against a deadline.
PGN: Did you always know that you were going to use Wilde and Whitman’s own words to tell this story?
TWW: No, actually. I thought it would be good, but I must admit I felt shy about setting Whitman’s poetry and Oscar’s prose to music. Some friends of mine encouraged me to do it, and to make it my own. I stayed as close as I could to the poetry of Whitman, because I respect it so much, but I did make a few changes here and there to make it work better as a song lyric. But for the most part, it’s just right out of his mouth and onto the page. Same with Oscar.
PGN: There have been many adaptations centered on Oscar Wilde’s life. Did you worry about covering ground that’s already been explored elsewhere?
TWW: Most of the stories of Oscar’s life have been about his trial. I didn’t want to write about the trial, because it’s been treated so often.
PGN: You have been a part of Philadelphia’s queer arts scene since the 1970s. How do you feel about the future of gay cultural life in the city?
TWW: The future looks pretty good! There is a lot going on. When I started writing gay-themed material, there wasn’t too much going on. It was hard to get a record published or find places to perform. That’s gotten better and better. There are several local theater companies that really emphasize LGBTQ theater, and there are comedians who are being open about it in their material. The whole drag queen scene has also become so creative, with the queens of today creating their own personas. I enjoy it a lot. I think we’re seeing both the assimilation of queer life into the mainstream and a new branch of out-there performance, so I’m optimistic about our culture remaining vivid and alive.
“Oscar Visits Walt” runs Oct. 25-27 at the University of Pennsylvania’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center, 3907 Spruce St. Tickets are $25 and are free for current Penn students (advanced reservations required). For tickets and information, visit oscarvisitswalt.brownpapertickets.com/.