Wednesday, 14 September 2011

A 'New' Play by Oscar Wilde?

Last night, a tiny 107-seat theatre, situated above the King’s Head pub in Islington, North London, was the rather unlikely venue for the world premiere of a rather controversial new play.

Billed as a newly-discovered piece by Irish novelist and dramatist Oscar Wilde, Constance is the story of the loyal and faithful wife of a rich industrialist, who is forced to endure the humiliating consequences of her husband’s illicit encounters with another woman.

Unsurprisingly, news of the production has caused consternation and disbelief in some quarters, with many doubting the play's provenance.

So, the big question is: Did Oscar Wilde really write this play?

The play’s producers are adamant that he did. The drama was written, they claim, after Wilde’s release from prison in 1897, where he served two years hard labour having being found guilty of sodomy and ‘gross indecency’.

Constance Wilde
Certainly, the piece has several parallels to Wilde’s own life, not least the fact that his wife, also called Constance, remained steadfastly loyal to her husband, despite the pain and suffering he caused her as a result of his scandalous trial and imprisonment.

The back-story of this play is just as intriguing as the play itself. It is claimed that Wilde conceived the piece before his imprisonment and, desperate for money upon his release, sold the ‘exclusive’ rights to several different people.

Here the trail gets a little murky. Charles Osborne, the writer and theatre critic, who is responsible for unearthing this ‘lost’ treasure, maintains that, upon his death, Wilde’s completed manuscript was entrusted to his friend, the American actress Cora Brown Potter and she in turn passed it onto the French writer Guillot de Saix. De Saix and his colleague Henri de Briel then translated the manuscript into French, and published it in a literary magazine in 1954. (The original English manuscript has never been recovered - it was, according to Osborne, destroyed during the Second World War.)

The King's Head Theatre
One of the play's biggest detractors is Merlin Holland, Wilde's grandson.  (Merlin's father was Wilde's second son, Vyvyan, who had his name changed to Holland following the scandal).

In an interview with Channel 4 news, Holland casts doubt over Osborne's claims.  He insists that, after his grandfather's release from prison, his physical and mental health was in rapid decline, and as such, he had lost any compulsion to write.

Holland concedes that Wilde had indeed conceived the play before his imprisonment, but maintains that he only ever got as far as writing a synopsis. As evidence of this, he points to a number of letters between his grandfather and Cora Brown Potter, in which she asks him if he is ever going to write the play he had promised her. Also, in various other correspondences, Wilde refers to the play only as ‘le scénario’ or ‘le scénario développé’. 

So, is Constance the real thing, written by the hand of Oscar Wilde in the months before he died? Or is it an elaborate hoax, possibly perpetrated by de Saix and de Briel?

Call me cynical, but my money is on the latter …

Monday, 12 September 2011

Jackie, JFK and Poetry

On this day (September 12th) in 1953, US Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy married Jacqueline Bouvier.

Despite being publicly humiliated by her husband’s incessant womanizing, they remained married until that fateful November day ten years later, when the then President Kennedy was assassinated, by ‘a lone gunman’ (yeah right), in Dallas, Texas.

Despite her reputation for being nothing more than a vacuous clothes-horse, Jackie Kennedy was, in fact, more cultured than she was ever given credit for. A lover of poetry, her favourite poets included Hughes, Shakespeare, WB Yeats, ee cummings, and Emily Dickinson. She was also well-versed in Homer and the Greek mythologies.

Before her marriage, she wrote a poem called Meanwhile in Massachusetts. The subject was her husband-to-be, and the poem was composed while she watched Jack walking along the sea-shore, “with the wind and the sea / And all the things he was going to be".

And, as this excerpt shows, it proved to be eerily prophetic
"…He would find love
He would never find peace
For he must go seeking
The Golden Fleece…."
For the full transcript of this poem, and other poetry of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, click here:

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The Man Booker Prize 2011 Shortlist

The shortlist for the Man Booker Prize 2011 has just been announced – and this year’s choices are somewhat, er, contentious, to say the least.

While the inclusion of perpetual Booker bridesmaid, Julian Barnes, for his novel, The Sense of An Ending, was widely expected, other hot favourites have been controversially dropped, including Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side and Alan Hollinghurst’s highly praised The Stranger’s Child.

The shortlist features four British and two Canadian novelists (only authors from the Commonwealth of Nations, Ireland and Zimbabwe are eligible for the prize, thereby omitting American authors)

The most surprising feature of this year’s shortlist is the inclusion of two debut authors - Stephen Kelman for Pigeon English and AD Miller for Snowdrops.

The full shortlist is as follows (whittled down from 13 longlisted titles):

Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape)
Carol Birch Jamrach’s Menagerie (Canongate Books)
Patrick deWitt The Sisters Brothers (Granta)
Esi Edugyan Half Blood Blues (Serpent’s Tail)
Stephen Kelman Pigeon English (Bloomsbury Books)
AD Miller Snowdrops (Atlantic Books)

(Pigeon English has been reviewed on this blog, as has Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, links below.
**Spoiler alert**: Thumbs up for Pigeon English, resounding thumbs down for Edugyan's offering.)

Those who did not make the cut:

Sebastian Barry On Canaan's Side (Faber)
Yvette Edwards A Cupboard Full of Coats (Oneworld)
Alan Hollinghurst The Stranger's Child (Picador - Pan Macmillan)
Patrick McGuinness The Last Hundred Days (Seren Books)
Alison Pick Far to Go (Headline Review)
Jane Rogers The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone Press)
D.J. Taylor Derby Day (Chatto & Windus - Random House)

The winner of the 2011 Prize will be announced at a reception at London’s Guildhall on Tuesday, October 18th. The winner will receive a cash prize of £50,000, while the other shortlisted nominees will each get £2,500 with a designer-bound edition of the book.

Julian Barnes
For what it’s worth, my money is on Julian Barnes – The Sense of an Ending is his fourth appearance on a Booker longlist, so surely a win for him is long overdue. But, given the unpredictability of this year’s judging panel, who knows what will happen on the night!

Review of Pigeon English:
Review of Half Blood Blues:

UPDATE: And the winner is ... Julian Barnes for A Sense of an Ending.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

On This Day in Literature

On this day (September 1st, 1952), Ernest Hemingway's seminal work, The Old Man and the Sea, appeared for the first time in Life magazine.

In what was an unusual move, the magazine featured the story in its entirety, a week before the book was officially published.  The gamble paid off - over 5 million copies of the magaizine sold in the first two days, and the book's first print run of 50,000 copies quickly sold out.

The Old Man and the Sea, which was written during the author's sojourn in Cuba, brought Hemingway the international acclaim he craved - the novel won the Pulitzer Prize in May of that year, and was given special mention when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.

The success of this novel provoked a critical re-examining of his earlier work, with many readers gaining a new appeciation for the author's uniquely sparse writing style.  However, despite its success, The Old Man and the Sea was to be the last piece of work Hemingway would see published.  His final offering, A Moveable Feast, was published posthumously in 1964, three years after he committed suicide at his home in Ketchum, Idaho.

"To hell with luck. I'll bring the luck with me."
Ernest Heminway, The Old Man and The Sea, 1952.