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 …

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