British actor Stephen Fry has recalled how, as a closeted teenager, reading about Oscar Wilde left him “terribly worried”.
Stephen Fry has starred in a range of British comedy classics, from A Little Bit of Fry and Laurie and Blackadder to St Trinian’s and Jeeves and Wooster, while also appearing in several more-recent LGBTQ+ TV shows and films, such as Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, Heartstopper, and It’s a Sin, as well as presenting the Channel 4 documentary Willem & Frieda.
However, being open about his identity as a gay man has not always been easy for him.
The actor first stumbled across the 1952 adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest as a teenager, and went on to discover the 19th-century poet and playwright’s tragic backstory while reading H Montgomery Hyde’s The Trials of Oscar Wilde.
“I started to gasp and pant and feel simultaneously triumphant and terribly, terribly worried,” said Fry, who turns 66 later this month.
“I suddenly understood this extraordinary man and that his ‘nature’ – the word he used in his famous letter to his lover Bosie – was the same as mine. As soon as I read that, I knew I was gay.”
Stephen Fry played Oscar Wilde in the critically acclaimed 1997 biopic. (Sony Pictures)
Wilde achieved coveted status in Victorian London for works such as The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and The Importance of Being Earnest, which premiered in 1895 – the same year he was jailed for sodomy and “gross indecency” due to his sexual relationships with men.
After his release in 1897, he was exiled to France and suffered from declining health before dying aged 46 in 1900.
He feared his life “was absolutely cursed if I wanted to stay in Britain, in that I would have to live a life of secrecy, shame, exile, disgrace. All the horrors, especially since gay men were viewed as disgusting, sent to prison – losing their name and their livelihood”.
Fry’s interest in the playwright has lasted throughout his life. In 1997, he received a best actor Golden Globe nomination for his performance as the playwright in biographical film Wilde and in 2021 starred in an online production of The Picture of Dorian Gray, opposite Russell Tovey and Joanna Lumley.
He can next be seen in LGBTQ+ romance Red, White & Royal Blue, which drops on Amazon Prime on Friday (11 August).