Wilde & Whitman: Playwright Michael Whistler Imagines Conversation between Two Legends in ‘Mickle Street’

BLOG mikeweddingRight smack in the middle of Oscar time―the hoopla surrounding the nation’s annual Academy Awards salute to cinematic excellence―the Philadelphia region will double down on its own “Oscarmania” by focusing on the life and artistic works of celebrated author Oscar Wilde. Heading the list of special events will be the world premiere of “Mickle Street,” playwright and Montgomery County Community College Associate Professor Michael Whistler’s imaginative take on an historic meeting between Wilde and storied poet Walt Whitman, at the Walnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia, Feb. 17 through March 8.

Philadelphia’s first Oscarmania occurred in 1882, when a crowd of 1,500 flocked to hear a lecture on aesthetics by the up-and-coming writer. The very next day he traveled to the Camden home of Whitman, who had sparked great controversy in his time with his epic work, “Leaves of Grass.” The contrast must have been striking: one man at the dawn of an illustrious writing career, the other quietly composing loosely autobiographical musings as he neared the end of his own. What could the two have talked about? What artistic and philosophical connections might they have made?

Thus was born the idea for “Mickle Street.” Using an agent’s brief notes from the conversation and extensive research, Whistler has developed a dramatic fictional take on where these legends’ views on mortality, ambition and the nature of same-sex attraction may have intersected or diverged.

“These writers are real heroes of mine, so when I learned about this conversation, I thought, ‘What would THAT meeting of the minds have been like?’” says Whistler, an actor and playwright who serves as associate professor and theater arts coordinator for Montgomery County Community College. “These were two very different men. Wilde was known for his wit and being rather ‘fabulous,’ while Whitman wrote about working-class America and the common man. He had seen a very different slice of life than Wilde.”

At the time of their meeting, Wilde, 28, had created a real splash in London but hadn’t yet written the works he would become famous for, including “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” And Whitman, whose unique poetic style and subject matter had thus far failed to generate a strong following in the United States, was 63 and in declining health following a stroke.

“With historical fiction, the second you put pen to paper, these characters automatically become fictional,” notes Whistler, a New York native and Philadelphia resident who earned his bachelor’s degree in English and theater arts from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in fine art from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “The beauty is when you have writers with such distinctive voices, you can draw on that for inspiration. I hope audiences will get a sense of how these artists saw the world and ask, ‘How do I untangle this and understand what’s inside? How do I discover what that passionate world is that they see?’”

Sponsored by The Independence Foundation, “Mickle Street” is directed by Greg Wood and features Buck Schirner, Daniel Fredrick and Sabrina Profitt. It is the ninth play for Whistler, who has acted in and directed numerous productions.

Related events have been scheduled to take place during “Oscarmania.” From Jan. 23 to April 26, the Rosenbach Library and Museum is exhibiting a vast collection of Wilde’s letters, manuscripts and unpublished materials from public and private collections for the very first time. During a Feb. 25 guest discussion at the Rosenbach, Whistler and Allen Crawford―an artist who recently published an illustrated edition of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” poem―will talk about the craft of taking existing works of art and creating something new from them.

And the East Coast premiere of “Oscar,” a new American opera by John Cox and Theodore Morrison starring countertenor David Daniels and focusing on Wilde’s trial for “gross indecency” and subsequent imprisonment, will be performed by Opera Philadelphia at The Academy of Music February 6-15. To complement that production, the Free Library of Philadelphia will host “A Taste of Opera: Wilde and Whitman in Song,” on January 26, with Whistler presenting the segue readings in between the musical pieces.

Calendar Listings:

“A Taste of Opera: Wilde and Whitman in Song.” Free Library of Philadelphia, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, 7 p.m. Free. Registration required. 215-893-3600. operaphila.org/taste-opera. Postponed due to inclement weather; check website for new date.

Feb. 17-Mar. 8: “Mickle Street,” written by Michael Whistler, directed by Greg Wood, featuring Buck Schirner, Daniel Fredrick, and Sabrina Profitt. Walnut Street Theatre, Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. 215-574-3550. walnutstreettheatre.org/season/mickle.php.

Feb. 25: Guest discussion featuring Michael Whistler and Allen Crawford at Rosenbach Library and Museum, 2008-2010 Delancey Place, Philadelphia, 6 p.m. 215-732-1600. rosenbach.org.

~ by Lauren Somers

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