Archive for the ‘blue plaques’ Tag

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.

Blue and Brassy

Edison plaque

American overstatement

On a hunt for NFL gear in NYC this morning for one of the Enfants Terribles, I walked past Macy’s and noticed this brass plaque. The exact wording it turns out is crucial. You leave with the impression that this is where the first movie was projected – “Here the motion picture began” is what misleads. But the truth is actually precisely (and narrowly) what it says below: it’s where Edison first projected a movie. It was put up by “The American Motion Picture Industry” where truth is not always at a premium.

Movies were first publicly projected 8 months earlier in Chicago at the Model Variety Theater. And they were first projected to a paying audience 5 months before in Paris at the Grand Café. In fact they’d already been publicly projected in New York before this date. I haven’t done much research but I dare say there are some other European claims to challenge these dates.

Edison had already charged members of the public to watch movies prior to this date but on peephole machines, not projected. On the date marked by this bold and brassy plaque the film was part of a vaudeville show and was simply three of his peephole films spliced together. So over-stated, over-charged and over here.

Meanwhile back at home in London, I was thinking the other day about blue plaques because a newspaper story has been doing the rounds about how English Heritage, who now administer the blue plaque scheme, established in 1866 and believed to be the oldest of its kind in the world, are about to kill the blue plaque. The scheme was set up under the auspices of the Society of Arts (later the Royal Society of the Arts, of which at one time I was a Fellow). The baton then passed to the London County Council and in due course to the Greater London Council. In 1986, English Heritage took up the responsibility. So the press stories recently suggested that the scheme was about to end but I suspect this was actually cack-handed PR on the part of English Heritage, crying wolf in the face of tight times and cuts. They have subsequently said they are just pausing the scheme to deal with a back-log and slow things down in these cash-starved times. What they have done in the process is drawn attention to the cost of what should at heart be a simple operation with expenditure limited to making a robust piece of blue ceramic, but no doubt there is some immense bureaucracy accreted around a simple idea designed to make a plain link between notable characters from the past and the buildings in which they lived, worked and died. As English Heritage summarises the 147 year old scheme with which it has been entrusted: “It is a uniquely successful means of connecting people and place.” I suspect if EH did pull the plug, we the public could do it for ourselves at a fraction of the cost and bring back a long tradition of public subscription in our country with the help of some open, sharing digital technology.

Any way, enough kvetching as they say around here (I’m writing this at 3rd Avenue and 24th Street), I’d like to draw attention to my favourite blue plaque. It’s high up on the wall of 22 Frith Street in London, above the Bar Italia, directly opposite Ronnie Scott’s jazz club – and it’s a model of British understatement:

British understatement

British understatement

So basically “Here Television began”.

If you go to Bletchley Park, or certainly this was the case about five to ten years ago, you could see the concrete base of the hut where the world’s first programmable computer was created by Alan Turing. The hut was knocked down some years ago. The spot is (or was) not specifically marked. I remember standing there and thinking if this was in the USA there would be something pretty significant to mark this stupendous happening. “Here Computing began.” Or at least “Here programmable Computing began.”

It was minus 13 the night I arrived here. As an Englishman in New York I might have said: “It’s a bit nippy”. But there’s a time for sang froid and a time for being big, bold and brassy…

%d bloggers like this: