Archive for the ‘Oscar Wilde’ Category

Wilde wild Worthing

The 1895 production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ (Irene Vanbrugh as Gwendolen Fairfax & George Alexander as Jack Worthing)

‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ comes across as the most metropolitan and refined of plays and yet it was not written in Oscar Wilde’s Cheyne Walk home in Chelsea but in a holiday home in Worthing, West Sussex. That’s how come the protagonist is named Worthing and his family origins include reference to a first-class railway ticket to Worthing.

JACK. The late Mr. Thomas Cardew, an old gentleman of a very charitable and kindly disposition, found me, and gave me the name of Worthing, because he happened to have a first-class ticket for Worthing in his pocket at the time. Worthing is a place in Sussex. It is a seaside resort.

LADY BRACKNELL. Where did the charitable gentleman who had a first-class ticket for this seaside resort find you?

JACK. [Gravely.] In a hand-bag.

LADY BRACKNELL. A hand-bag?

JACK. [Very seriously.] Yes, Lady Bracknell. I was in a hand-bag – a somewhat large, black leather hand-bag, with handles to it – an ordinary hand-bag in fact.

LADY BRACKNELL. In what locality did this Mr. James, or Thomas, Cardew come across this ordinary hand-bag?

JACK. In the cloak-room at Victoria Station. It was given to him in mistake for his own.

It’s the most famous exchange in the play, largely due to Dame Edith Evans’ defining performance in which she made the very most of the word “hand-bag”. That’s why, in the performance last night at Brighton Open Air Theatre, the inventive players of Slapstick Picnic just mouthed the word. It was a superb distillation into a two-hander, reminiscent of Steven Berkoff’s mannered acting in his brilliant ‘Decadence’ (Berkoff being a big fan of Brighton with a bolt-hole in Kemptown), whose comic invention Wilde would have enjoyed.

2021 (6th August) production at Brighton Open Air Theatre

In the summer of 1894 Wilde went on holiday for two months to Worthing with his wife, Constance, and sons, Cyril (9) and Vyvyan (7). It was the last summer before his life disintegrated. Constance travelled down with their two young sons on 7th August, Wilde followed on the 10th.

Wilde was married to Constance (35) but in love with Lord Alfred Douglas, known as ‘Bosie’. He had met Bosie in 1891. They were both at Magdalen College, Oxford. Within 8 months of Worthing, Wilde was in jail as a direct result of his infatuation with the handsome young aristocrat. 

Although it was a family holiday, Bosie showed up and stayed three times. He was a demanding, immature character and his egotism caused Wilde no end of problems.  

Meanwhile, Constance, lonely and unhappy, fell in love (in a platonic way) with another man, Arthur Humphreys (30), bookseller, publisher and a family friend, who came down to spend the day in Worthing with the Wildes on 11th August. She wrote him a heart-felt love-letter while he was still at the house, slipping it to him before his departure.

And to complete the bedroom farce Wilde became sexually involved with a local teenage boy, Alphonse Conway. Born in Bognor but raised in Worthing, he was six weeks past his 16th birthday when they first met. Plus there were two other teenage boys on the scene.

Meanwhile he was writing what is broadly acknowledged as his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest – a landmark in English-language theatre. He had previously written three comedies but he peaked on this fourth.

Wilde was under pressure at that time financially so he really needed a hit play. He was also under pressure back in London from Bosie’s overbearing father, the Marquess of Queensberry, he of boxing fame, who was doing his utmost to harass his son’s lover. It was this crude man who finally landed a knock-out blow to the refined Wilde. The day before leaving for holiday Wilde wrote to Bosie of Queensbury: “It is intolerable to be dogged by a maniac.”

Wilde and Bosie had a sexual relationship for only a few months two summers before the Worthing trip. Queensberry, judging by Wilde and Bosie’s overtly gay behaviour in public, assumed it was on-going. Some four months after the Worthing holiday Queensberry left a visiting card at Wilde’s club on which he had written: “For Oscar Wilde, Posing as a Somdomite [sic]”. Wilde inadvisedly sued Queensberry for libel. He lost the trial, got convicted himself for homosexuality and ended up doing hard labour in Reading Gaol (where he served the last 18 months of his sentence) which broke his health although yielded a brilliant long poem.

Worthing was chosen as a place where Wilde would have peace to write. It was quieter than Brighton (which Wilde knew well) and Constance was able to rent a house from a friend who had gone north for the summer.

Wilde and Bosie, Alphonse and other male teenagers, swam, fished and went out every day on a sailing boat. Constance, whom he no longer loved (sexual relations between them had ceased around 1886), was left back in the house, isolated and saddened. She wrote to a friend: “I have had no-one to talk to, and I have been rather depressed.”

Wilde attended several events in Worthing over the summer:  a lifeboat demonstration, the annual sailing regatta and the Venetian fête, a lamp-lit water carnival, where, as a celeb, he presented the prizes for the best-decorated boats and made a witty speech in praise of Worthing: “It has beautiful surroundings and lovely long walks, which I recommend to other people, but do not take myself.”

Worthing provided several of the names in the play. Beside the protagonist Jack Worthing, Wilde found the name Bunbury in the Worthing Gazette. Miss Prism, “a woman of repellent aspect, remotely connected with education” is probably based on the “horrid, ugly Swiss governess” (as described in a letter to Bosie) looking after Cyril and Vyvyan on the Worthing trip.

Bosie was largely a hindrance and distraction to Wilde but he liked to bask in the aura of ‘Earnest’. He claimed he was in the same room while most of the play was being written and that some of the jokes were drawn from his own “repartee”. He was considered fairly witty and amusing. This Wilde child’s claims were no doubt overblown and another facet of the toxicity he brought to Oscar’s life. 

Oscar Wilde & Lord Alfred Douglas by Gillman & Co. (1893)
The Haven , the rented house in Worthing
Constance Wilde – 30th July 1894, a week before the Worthing trip
The lifeboat demonstration 22nd August 1894 – according to the Worthing Gazette “Mr Oscar Wilde was one of the occupants of a small rowing boat busily flitting about”

Very little of the concrete aspects of Wilde’s time in Worthing survives. The Haven, the house that Constance rented for the family, was demolished in the 60s. It stood at the northern (Brighton Road) end of the Esplanade terrace, four houses which stood between Brighton Road and the seashore at the eastern end of the town. The terrace eventually became a hotel. There is though a Blue Plaque on the site of the Esplanade terrace, a building called Esplanade Court. It is at the sea-end of the east façade of Esplanade Court (the opposite end from where The Haven actually stood). When the blue plaque was put up it caused a ripple of controversy in the town, a waiting room for heaven (or hell) with its dominant elderly population . Unworthy of Worthing said some of the duffers including a local historian: “This role model, a man preying on teenage boys with little or no education – I don’t think that would be regarded as heroic today. I think it would be regarded as smutty and reprehensible”.  All quite a contrast to Worthing’s neighbour Brighton whose alternative vibe is set by its LGBT community and whose current motto (devised by the local tourist board in response to the post-Covid term “the new normal”) is ‘Brighton Never Normal’. Oscar Never Dull.

Human Bonds

james bond Pan book covers

So I’m on the underground yesterday, reading the new hardback I’d bought the day before. Then this burn-out walks on and I have that feeling – I know he’s going to sit next to me. He’s very tall, lanky, drug thin. His fingernails are dirty. The driver has to warn passengers to stay clear of the closing doors. The burn-out calls them “fucking idiots” in the expected loud cockney voice. I shift rightwards in my seat, hope he isn’t going to smell too bad (which he doesn’t as far as my hopeless sense of smell can tell), carry on reading.

“Is that the new Bond novel?” he asks me gently, having glanced down at the page I was on. The book only came out the day before. The open page had few clues as to what it was.

“Yes, it is.”

“Do you think the film they’re making of it will be good?”

“I think it’s based on a different story.”

“So is that written by Fleming?”

What do I take from the unexpected exchange? You can’t judge the book by the cover I guess is the obvious one we (certainly I) can’t be reminded of often enough. You can tell the price (but not the value). What I most took away was the Simple Pleasure that I had enjoyed the conversation and contact and there was real warmth in those human bonds.

The new Bond book is entitled ‘Devil May Care’ and has been written by Sebastian Faulks (of ‘Birdsong’ fame) in the style of Fleming. I’ve only ever read a couple of Bond books, but remember really enjoying ‘Casino Royale’ (the first Bond novel) for the surprising brutality of the man I had only encountered through the movies. The publication of a new Bond book felt like a bit of an event (I was one when Fleming died) so I bought a copy of this in advance on-line through Hatchards website and picked it up on the day of publication on the way to a meeting at BAFTA with Rob Bevan of XPT- we were working on the forthcoming website for 4IP, the new Channel 4-led fund for public service interactive media, announced at Next on 4 back in March and coming on-stream over the summer. Hatchards in Piccadilly – a book shop dating back to 1797 as it says on its rich green bags the colour of Bond’s customised Bentley with its Arnott supercharger – is one of London’s great treasures. It makes me feel guilty every time I buy from Amazon and I try to make amends by pulling by whenever I’m at the Academy at 195 Piccadilly and picking up a signed volume.

After having a satisfying creative session with Rob, my old collaborator from MindGym, I hooked up with Ivo Gormley of ThinkPublic to talk about his forthcoming documentary about the internet and democracy. We walked back Channel4wards through St James’s and St James’s’ Park where I had the pleasure of demoing Big Art Mob in its mobile incarnation [WAP site] to him in a small alley where we found a superb bas relief of Anthony and Cleopatra, which looks like it may once have adorned a theatre in the area but is now built into a wall opposite an old public house, and on a remixed sculpture which seems to have once lost its head in the park. Ivo’s dad, Antony, who he closely resembles, is one of the most popular artists on Big Art Mob, third only to Henry Moore and Banksy. I wonder what the ‘burn-out’ thinks about public art? what his favourites around the city are? Something to talk about next time…

Bond is back

Dot Comedy

dorothy parker
Some favourite quotes from Dorothy Parker:

* Brevity is the soul of lingerie.

* Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words.

* You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks.

* You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.

* She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.

* If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.

* Salary is no object – I want only enough to keep body and soul apart.

* Take care of luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves.

* This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.

* I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.

* All I need is room enough to lay a hat and a few friends.

* It serves me right for keeping all my eggs in one bastard.

* That would be a good thing for them to cut on my tombstone: Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.

* I don’t care what is written about me, so long as it isn’t true.

And, to celebrate the 40th anniversary this month of the Prague Spring, a little mash-up:

* The two most beautiful words in the English language are “cheque enclosed”. The two most beautiful words in the Czech language are “Czech freed”.

Drinker with a writing problem

brendan behan

What do I think of when I hear the name Brendan Behan?

* Drink
* Fighting
* IRA
* Dylan Thomas
* Woolly jumper
* Dexy’s Midnight Runners

Drink:
By all accounts the man was an alcoholic for years. It certainly done him in. He described himself as “a drinker with a writing problem” (not quite Oscar wit, but amusing enough).

Fighting / Woolly jumper:
He looks like a brawler in the photos, even with those 50s Irish woolly jumper and tie arrangements. I’m not sure how much fighting he actually did – suspect most of it was with himself.

IRA:
He seems to have got caught a lot but I suppose at least it gave him raw material for his writing. His first stretch, the time he did in borstal, was for republican activities, specifically a half-baked attempt to blow up Liverpool docks. His first writings, poetry and prose, were published in Fianna, the magazine of Fianna Eireann, the youth organisation of the IRA. (My first published photos were in An Phoblacht [it’s a long story] but from there, besides our shared wild&windswept hairdo, our lifestories diverge.) I get the impression he eventually grew out of the IRA and came to doubt political violence.

Dylan Thomas:
There appears to be a number of close parallels between Dylan and Brendan – lionised to death in the US, hounded by the media, the drink, the woman they couldn’t live with or without (Caitlin and Beatrice respectively), the woolly jumper with tie look, money worries, New York, the White Horse Tavern on Hudson St. in Greenwich Village. My sister-in-law Bronagh is arriving from Dublin this evening and she knows about these things so hopefully I’ll be a bit more clued up about these connections by the time I hit the pit tonight. Poking around on the web I came across a bit of a spat in the mid-60s on this very point between Conor Cruise O’Brien and a certain Constantine FitzGibbon (a biographer of Thomas) – O’Brien made connections between the two and FitzGibbon denied them.

I stumbled across this rather neat link last night: “Dylan Thomas wrote Under Milk Wood, Brendan Behan wrote under Littlewood” – referring to Joan Littlewood whose Theatre Workshop put on The Quare Fellow at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1956, transferring to the West End and ultimately to Broadway, establishing his international rep.

It’s the last commonality on the list above – time spent in New York – which gives rise to this posting. A new play entitled Brendan at the Chelsea is coming up this month at the Riverside in Hammersmith (starting 15th January) written by Behan’s niece Janet and starring Adrian Dunbar (The Crying Game, The General, My Left Foot, Hear My Song – who co-directs) and Brid Brennan (Dancing at Lughnasa, Topsy-Turvy).

It’s set in the 60s in the “legendary bohemian bolt-hole”, The Chelsea Hotel (where Dylan Thomas checked out of this world in 1953 with alcohol poisoning – hang-out also for that other poet who adopted Thomas’ name, Bob Dylan, and his buddy Allen Ginsberg, not to mention writers ranging from Eugene O’Neill to Arthur C. Clarke [who wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey there], and musos including Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead, and of course the ungrateful dead, Nancy Spungen, who had no fun in a room there with Sid back in 1978). So, fellow playwright Arthur Miller is just across the hall, the grooves of free jazzer Ornette Coleman are drifting down from a floor above and Brendan’s in his room, short of dough and inspiration – he’s hung over and way past the delivery date of his next book, not a line written. He’s been told to stop drinking or he’ll be dead in six months – and that was two years ago….

So all set for a lively night on 23rd Street. I’ll report back when I’ve seen it and if you fancy a night of drama, drink and the fascinating interaction of human Behans, you’re just a click away from the Riverside

Dexy’s Midnight Runners:
I remember buying their first single Dance Stance and being intrigued by the litany of literary Irish (including Brendan who I hadn’t read but if he was in the same list as Oscar Wilde that was good enough for me)

Never heard about Oscar Wilde
Don’t want to know about Brendan Behan
Don’t think about Sean O’Casey
Don’t care about George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett
Won’t talk about Eugene O’Neill
Don’t know about Edna O’Brien
Won’t think about Laurence Sterne

Shut it
You don’t undertand it
Shut it
That’s not the way I planned it
Shut your mouth til you know the truth.

Happy Christmas you arses

shane macgowan

With Channel 4 Radio coming over the horizon, what better reminder of why it’s sorely needed than Radio 1’s sacrilegious censoring of Shane MacGowan’s lyrics in the best Christmas song ever – Fairytale of New York. The people who failed to censure Fatboy Moyles’ dodgy use of the word “gay” have had the bare-arsed cheek to clumsily cut the word “faggot” from that bit we all love to sing-along with:

You’re a bum
You’re a punk
You’re an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it’s our last

And while we’re celebrating the genius of Shane’s lyrics (difficult to reconcile with the figure who showed up like a benign Bill Sykes at Adie Dunbar’s last gig at the Boogaloo in Highgate with the Jonahs), let’s wheel out the title track from his first post-Pogues album, the Snake:

The Snake With Eyes Of Garnet

Last night as I lay dreaming
My way across the sea
James Mangan brought me comfort
With laudnum and poitin
He flew me back to Dublin
In 1819
To a public execution
Being held on Stephen’s Green

The young man on the platform
Held his head up and he did sing
Then he whispered hard into my ear
As he handed me this ring

“If you miss me on the harbour
For the boat, it leaves at three
Take this snake with eyes of garnet
My mother gave to me!

This snake cannot be captured
This snake cannot be tied
This snake cannot be tortured, or
Hung or crucified

It came down through the ages
It belongs to you and me
So pass it on and pass it on
‘Til all mankind is free.”

Now there’s a song that will be sung in a hundred years time, long after Radio 1 is history. There’s echoes in there of the greatest London-Irish poetry…

I walked, with other souls in pain,
Within another ring,
And was wondering if the man had done
A great or little thing,
When a voice behind me whispered low,
“That fellow’s got to swing.”

Dear Christ! the very prison walls
Suddenly seemed to reel,
And the sky above my head became
Like a casque of scorching steel;
And, though I was a soul in pain,
My pain I could not feel.

Here’s to the wilde men of words! Mess with genius in your hole! Happy Christmas your arse! Slainte

One of Oscar’s

 

oscar wilde

“I adore simple pleasures. They are the last refuge of the complex.”
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)

One of Oscar’s

oscar wilde

 A couple of interesting quotations I came across this morning (first day back at work so in need of plenty of displacement activity):

“Simple pleasures are always the last refuge of the complex.” – Oscar Wilde

“Pleasure is the object, duty and goal of all rational creatures.” – Voltaire 

“The inward pleasure of imparting pleasure – that is the choicest of all.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne

Wilde and Voltaire sit on the Shelf of Honour at home, Hawthorne I haven’t read – the man has a point, very Christian too (if you’re into that kind of thing). Difficult to gauge dear, dear Oscar’s without the context – do the Complex need to be more attuned to the Simple Pleasures and come to them earlier? And as for Voltaire, was he being straight in the context? Shi-it, quotations are of limited value after all…

Touched by Fire

Van Gogh self-portrait

Stephen Fry’s programme the other evening on BBC2 on bipolarity/manic depression (The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive) was astoundingly honest and brave – both on his part and pretty much all of the contributors.

There were some jolting moments – the revelation the mild mannered egg-head had been in prison, the notion of taking coke to calm down, his reaction to hearing he was way up there on the bipolar scale of the Cardiff research doctor – and there were moments of lightness – the picture of the art deco bar with the barmen in white jackets which he saw as a delicious nut house.

What was the heart of the programme was the question of whether the various suffers featured would erase the condition from their life if they could. All but one opted to keep it in their lives – as the ex-Royal Navy commander said – the suffering is worth it “when you’ve walked with angels”.

I’ve always been impressed by how people manage to live with such suffering and depression. I remember as a child listening to my old colleague Phillip Hodson in the dark on his LBC radio phone-in. Phillip would quickly establish what the Real Problem was (as opposed to what they started talking about) and it was humbling to hear how a woman managed to live day-to-day with extreme agrophobia or whatever the huge boulder the wretched caller was rolling up the hill day after day after day…

It’s truly a wonder so few of us take an early bow. But on the other hand, we have the miracle of birth and parenthood, the power of Love, and the Simple Pleasures of life to balance that out. Not to mention Jeeves & Wooster and Oscar Wilde.

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