STORY WRITTEN BY TARA LYNN JOHNSON
For Digital First Media
In 1882, an up-and-coming writer named Oscar Wilde was touring the U.S., speaking to large crowds. It was the beginning of his literary career. After speaking to a crowd of 1,500 in Philadelphia, he traveled the next day across the Delaware River to Camden, New Jersey. There, he met legendary poet Walt Whitman, who had recently sparked controversy with his epic work, “Leaves of Grass.”
But there’s no record of what they men talked about or anything else about their visit. So playwright Michael Whistler imagines what may have transpired in his new play, “Mickle Street.” It takes the stage Feb. 17 through March 8 at Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3.
Whistler, who’s an associate professor and theater arts coordinator at Montgomery County Community College, created a dramatic fictional take on where these legends’ views on mortality, ambition, and the nature of same-sex attraction may have intersected or diverged (both men are thought to have been bisexual or gay).
Wilde and Whitman are favorite writers of Whistler.
“I love Wilde for his wit and humor, and Whitman for his huge, inclusive vision of humanity,” he said.
He wondered who they were in their lives and careers when they met.
“I wanted Wilde to be both inspired, and maybe a little jealous, of an iconoclast who has very much created his own path in the world,” Whistler said. “The two men are very different. Wilde is full of panache and affectation, a product of the Old World. Whitman is the rough and tumble ‘Great Grey Poet’ of the New World. I wanted to explore what was different in their aesthetics, but also see what was the same for these two artists who eschewed convention.”
Whistler began writing plays in 1999. He’s a trained actor, having studied at New York University, and he loves the immediacy of theater.
“I’m happiest when something which happens in the play affects the audience in the immediate, real time of the telling,” he said.
There’s not much immediacy when writing a play like this, though. It takes a lot of research. Whistler spent much time reading Whitman’s poetry and Wilde’s writings, “to see their worldviews,” and their letters, “to hear their voices.” He also learned about who Wilde was before he wrote his famous works (like “The Picture of Dorian Gray”).
“One of my great fascinations is to see how an artist’s life is expressed in his creations,” Whistler said. “To explore the young Wilde, I got to do some ‘literary archeology,’ and look at his early writings, before he developed his voice, and see if I could uncover the traces of the writer he would become.”
The play was commissioned by the Walnut Street Theatre (WST) and will be performed in the intimate space of Independence Studio on 3. Several drafts were created through the process, but Whistler said he had a great deal of artistic freedom. During the recent rehearsals, he was able to hear actors say his words and perform for the first time.
“I’m so very glad of the opportunity to explore these men with these artists, and the incredible family that is created here at the Walnut,” he said. “As a playwright, there’s a point where I move from the driver’s seat and into the passenger’s. I have the opportunity to step back and allow so many other artists bring their skills to the piece.”
Whistler hopes that the play shows his main objective — to explore how one man near the end of his career (Whitman) may have inspired the other who was just beginning (Wilde). He hopes that people experience “where two great men, who think and love mightily, would be struggling for the words to actually communicate what is powerful and eternal in their hearts,” he said, “and share and name their common sense of beauty.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Mickle Street”
When: Feb. 17-Mar. 8
Where: Walnut Street Theatre, Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia.
Info.: Call 215-574-3550 or visit http://www.walnutstreettheatre.org/season/mickle.php.