Wilde About Whitman: A Conversation with David Simpatico
In our forthcoming issue of the Idaho Review, for the first time we will publish a play—Wilde about Whitman by David Simpatico. We chatted briefly with David via email about the play and his other projects.
How did you decide to write a play about the real life encounter between Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde that took place one winter afternoon in Camden, New Jersey in 1882?
About four years ago, my husband Robert was reading The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde by Neil McKenna, a fascinating biography of Wilde’s life both in and out of the public eye. Robert looked up from his reading and casually said, “Did you know Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman spent an afternoon together, and may have had sex?” That little atomic nugget stopped me in my tracks, the notion that two of my literary idols had not only met, but could well have been momentary lovers for an afternoon, yanked my interest. The first hour of their meeting was documented, and took place downstairs in the public parlor; the next three hours, spent upstairs in the privacy of Walt’s locked den, remain hidden behind the veils of conjecture and allusion. The dramatist in me recognized a perfect opportunity to mesh reality with fantasy by hewing more closely to documented record in the downstairs parlor; and allowing a fuller flight of fancy upstairs in Walt’s den. The dramatist in me also recognized the marketability of writing a two-person play about the possible intimacies between two of the fathers of contemporary gay identity. I let the seed gestate in me for a few months, and then leapt fully into my new project when I was accepted into the Master’s in Creative Writing program at Southern New Hampshire University.
This play is full of life and energy. Reading it, I imagine it was delightful to write. What was the most fun for you during the writing process?
I had a ball writing this play, and I’m glad to hear my enjoyment comes through to the reader. I loved the process of finding my characters and matching my voice to theirs, specifically the first time I wrote an epigram in the style of Wilde. I loved the process of finding the first scene, during a workshop in my Master’s residency. I cracked the play wide open once I realized the Hero’s Journey paradigm would fit the play and the characters perfectly; my notebook is full of huge excited writing that rips through the paper. And I love the title, which, despite a bit of cheese, actually clued me in to the perspective of the play (Wilde’s encounter/POV of Whitman and the impact the older man makes on him). The title gives the play its initial identity, like a brave flag atop a newly discovered continent.
Did writing the play make you feel you "came to know" Whitman and/or Wilde better than before?
Absolutely. I’d grown up loving the writing of both men, but never really gave their work, or their lives, much scrutiny. I knew that if I were going to step into their shoes, I would have to dive deeper into their work and lives and fears and hopes and strengths and weaknesses and dreams. It was in the messy mix of aspiration and dread and fear that I found a way to mix my own life’s ambitions and frustrations into the crucible, adding my own pulse to theirs. By discovering more about Oscar and Walt, I discovered more about myself.
Do you have any upcoming writing projects you are excited to tackle?
Yes I do! I’ve been working a lot in opera and music theatre. I’m excited for the orchestral workshop of my new opera, The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing, at Chicago Opera Theatre in Feb. ’19; it will be exciting to hear the last five years come together. Justine Chen’s music is extraordinary and heart-breaking. I’m blessed with brilliant collaborators, all of whom make me look much better than I am.
I’m also working on two other operas; Rose of Sharon, a rock opera about the end of the world with composer/performer Heather Christian; and a blues opera adaptation of Robert Bloch’s That Hellbound Train, with composer Lisa DeSpain.