New Angles  - and Brackets - on Wilde's Duelling Wit



Mrs. Marshall. Of the many names which fill the works and life of Oscar Wilde, hers is perhaps one that few can readily bring to mind, even though she was one of the first to chuckle, hoot, guffaw, marvel at his creations.


Here is a clue. “I assure you that the type-writing machine, when played with expression, is not more annoying than the piano when played by a sister or near relation. Indeed, many, among those most devoted to domesticity, prefer it.” That observation, which sounds as if sprung from a play, appears in an 1897 letter sent by Wilde from Reading Gaol to the loyal Robbie Ross about a long letter intended for Lord Alfred Douglas. Two and a half years earlier, Wilde had also been much occupied with typewriting. From Worthing and elsewhere, as 1894 turned from summer to autumn, he had been despatching manuscripts and duly receiving typescripts far sunnier than De Profundis.


This comedy had gone under various names, cover to keep secret its ultimate title when, by a series of chances, it appeared on the West End stage the following February as The Importance of Being Earnest. It had been staged as early as that, for the actor/producer George Alexander needed something swiftly to replace Henry James's Guy Domville which had received such jeers from the gallery that the author quivered and the run was truncated. Had that play found wider favour, Earnest would have remained upon the platform until the spring - and perhaps never have been seen, overwhelmed by the scandal already being fomented by the Marquess of Queensberry (who had detectives at work on the Worthing seafront where Wilde had sought relief from the task in hand).


Had the passing years seen Earnest emerge from the chaotic sale of Wilde's Chelsea house, it would not have been in the form we know it. Put succinctly, Wilde wrote a four-act farcical comedy, with extra characters and, of course, extra lines; in taking on that work, and supplying Wilde with ever-needed funds, Alexander dismissed him from rehearsals as soon as the first act was done; the way was clear for Alexander to strip it to a farce whose twenty-four hour traffic was accomodated in three acts, a work which met with acclaim (even if Shaw's review was ambiguous).


If secretly narked, Wilde was soon preoccupied by the torrent of events which, despite tacitly offering him the chance of fleeing to France, led to Reading Gaol via that humiliating wait upon a platform - not the Brighton line - at Clapham Junction.


As such, the play has become another example of a work - Sons and Lovers, Tender is the Night, indeed The Picture of Dorian Gray - which arouses contrary views of a definitive edition. Especially as one of the most widely circulating editions of Wilde is the Collins omnibus which prints a four-act version, albeit a hybrid one made by Wilde's son who worked back, in part, from a German edition. It is a reflection upon that country that, in Edwardian times, it was keen to rehabilitate an author whose masterpiece includes many gags about it. A necessary twist in all this is that, in post-Gaol exile, Wilde worked on the play again before its first publication, bravely undertaken by Leonard Smithers who also had a line in louche works. (One might pause to wonder whether his rare name inspired that given to a character in the allusion-hungry series The Simpsons.) In doing so, Wilde added many new, splendid lines to the script which Alexander had created for the first production. A typically resonant addition is Lane's dry remark that there were no cucumbers at the market “even for ready money” - Wilde's parlous exile made tangible. (As it happens, Alexander's script had been typed by a protegée of Mrs. Marshall's agency, one who, as Dickens's grandaughter, had set up a business of her own.)


This makes a cogent case for the first edition being the author's sanctioned text. Some might counter that Wilde did not have his original version to hand and so made the best of desperate circumstances. So saying, anybody who has encountered the four-act version (and the BBC included part of this in a production) must aver that it sags with the arrival of the solicitor and bailiff in the country garden; it loses the brio of what Auden called a verbal opera.


Life is always made joyful by reading, aloud or otherwise, the three-act play whose first-edition additions must make one wonder at all that Wilde could, in time, have achieved had he not become quite exploded in that dismal hotel room. One looks with such sorrow, upon the photograph of his corpse and reflects that a year or two before it was taken - a leap across time - a good friend's father had been beguiled by his conversation while on holiday in France, and, maddeningly, did not write down all that Wilde had said in exchange for a drink. There is no doubt that Wilde could have regained his energies. Every so often, here in Hove, I stroll past the flat in which Lord Alfred Douglas spent the end of his life, and feel irritated at the way in which he distracted Wilde. Be that as it may, as I sit in a house - nearer the sea - in Hove that was built the year that Earnest was first produced, I might be asked why I have spent a fortnight with a play which can be read in an hour.


Before me is a 1200-page two-volume edition whose hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of words might make something by Eugene O'Neill appear a sketch from The Fast Show. And it is all the more fascinating for that. Clive James remarked, somewhere in Cultural Amnesia, that in the time one might give to an author's byways, or even outright mistakes, one can have read another major work by somebody else. True, but, then again, he regards Schubert's songs as a byway from the composer's other works which some of us might, now and then, feel could have benefited from editing.


We all take our own tack upon the allocation of time between now and going underground covered by something which, in all probability, will be more modest than the Epstein creation sadly emasculated by vandals in Pere Lachaise.


Crucially, many of us should be thankful that Professor Donohue has given rather more time to a play upon which Wilde gave those few months. A quarter of a century ago, he produced, after many years' work, a splendid, copiously-illustrated oblong volume, now scarce, which presented the opening-night script of Earnest. In this the coffee table meets the research library (indeed it sits on my coffee table beside the facsimile of Hopkins's The Dublin Notebook, which makes me fearful of using it for coffee). Since then, while working on his two-volume edition of Earnest, it is more than likely that angle- and square-brackets have filled, fuelled Professor Donohue's dreams even if there have been moments when he has woken screaming from a nightmare which turned around losing in a left-luggage office vital material gathered in the Colindale newspaper library (to which, indeed, he had recourse for a definitive contemporary account of how to make a cucumber sandwich, a snack which never fails to bring Wilde to mind: surely a working definition of genius).


These two volumes are the latest part of Oxford's edition of Wilde - something which Smithers, even Wilde himself, cannot have imagined would be the final result of their endeavours. This goes way beyond the edition which Robert Ross produced before the Great War. Among other things, Oxford's edition gathers, in another two volumes, all the quotidian journalism which not only paid Wilde's bills but helped to keep him alert to the passing show which animates best plays and in turn have provided many people with what they take to be a definitive account of everyday life in the Nineties.


To return to these thick, deep-blue volumes. How does a short play full such space?


What we have here is - in essence - the four-act version, seven versions of which are scattered between various libraries (including a text owned by a producer who went down with the Lusitania) – and the three-act one. All of this is attended by cogent introductory essays about the works' evolution and supported, dare I say, rivetted by footnotes which contain innumerable delightful lines that Wilde rightly, reluctantly ditched, as well as those created post-Gaol. On page 172 Professor Donohue makes bold to say: “to appreciate in full the often gem-like qualities of these omissions, the reader should readily give in to the impulse to study passages of the critical apparatus, where these qualities are on full display”.


Well, he would say that, wouldn't he? And he is right. At the very least, the apparatus shows that Wilde was a craftsman, rooted in the Classics, no dilettante dashing off witticisms before breaking open a bottle of champagne at Willis's or somewhere less salubrious.


To present these 1200 pages like that could risk a reviewer appearing as a literary miner, his helmet-light on maximum while crawling through a tunnel in quest of ore to bring to the surface for delectation by others; in fact, all this has felt like a walk across rolling hills on a spring morning, a solace at a time when Wilde's France risks being consigned way beyond the Channel.


Let us forage (in the happier sense of that word), and savour the great dew of Wilde's progress through manuscript and typescript 125 years ago. Symbolic if all this us rhe sub-title's reversal from “A Serious Comedy for Trivial People” to “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People”, a distinction to tax the finest minds.


To the final version of the four-act version Professor Donohue has given the title of Lady Lancing (in which Her Ladyship appears as Lady Brancaster). As Gwendolyn leaves at the end of its Act One, Jack promptly exclaims to Algernon, “There is a ripping girl”, using an adjective whose currency is affirmed by citations from Anthony Hope and Conan Doyle one finds in the OED; Mrs. Marshall had previously typed “what a splendid creature”, which is debatably inferior; come the opening night, it was transformed into “there's a sensible, intellectual girl - the only girl I ever cared for in my life”. To which Wilde, post-Gaol, gave the emphasis, “there's a sensible, intellectual girl! The only girl I ever cared for in my life”.


Earlier, Algernon had provided, in the variously adjusted Worthing draft, this disquisition. “Oh! no chap makes a good husband. If a chap makes a good husband there must have been something rather peculiar about him when he was a bachelor.” Which is all very interesting, but brings so much with it that it holds up the play; even at this four-act farcical-comedy stage, Wilde realised that it had to move on. As it is, all too often in productions of the three-act version, actors pause too long over a line, bringing a laugh which overshadows the phrase which should duly clinch it. One shudders to remember a performance by Nigel Havers: repeatedly mugging, head aslant, almost winking at the audience, he was ignorant of the essential fact that for the play to work those on stage have to play it all for real. That production was only slightly preferable to one in which Hinge and Bracket contrived to take almost every rôle, but, for sanity's sake, we draw a veil over that sweltering evening in the galley.


It is neat when Cecily avers, in an early draft, of the 1874 champagne that “poor uncle Jack has not been allowed to drink anything else for the last two years. Even the cheaper clarets are, he tells us, strictly forbidden to him!” Wilde pruned this, claret deemed a distraction. Come the opening night, all of the '74 champagne had gone (as it were), and Wilde did not reinstate it for the first edition: in art, if not life, he realised that one can have too much champagne.


To keep upon matters culinary - and it is a play as much about that as the funds needed to secure the best of it -, it is a pleasing mark of Professor Donohue's wide knowledge of Wilde that in annotating the likening of Lady Brancaster/Bracknell to a Gorgon, he refers to an 1888 review in which Wilde described James Aitchison's The Chronicle of Mites as “a mock-heroic poem about the inhabitants of a decanting cheese, who speculate about the origin of their species, and hold learned discussions upon the meaning of Evolution, and the Gospel according to Darwin. This cheese- epic is a rather unsavoury production, and the style is, at times, so monstrous and so realistic that the author should be called the Gorgon-Zola of literature”. That alone should inspire more people to seek out Wilde's journalism. In fact, Professor Donohue does not stop there, but alerts one to a full-length, 1986 academic study by Bram Didkstra about the Medusa theme: Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siecle Culture. All of which one might call productive distraction, as is reflection upon the way in which Wilde shifted “exotic fruit” from one character to make best use of the phrase.


Time and again one reluctantly concedes that it was right - early on - to drop such observations as the one which Lady Brancaster made about the Morning Post: “I am sorry, for your own sake, to hear you speak in slighting terms of that admirable journal. It is the only document of our time for which the history of the English people in the xix th century could be written with any regard to decorum or even decency”.


A far cry from the Morning Post was Robert Hichens's novel The Green Carnation which had sport with Wilde and Decadence, and it finds a place in the first drafts of the Army-Lists scene, where Lady Brancaster finds that she is holding a copy by mistake: “This [...] seems to be a book about the culture of exotics. It contains no reference to Generals in it. It seems a morbid and middle-class affair.”


A great in-joke which would now produce scant laughter, the novel becoming a specialised taste, and the joke was swiftly ditched. As for the General, perhaps the play's funniest line, its double paradox requiring swift delivery, is “The General was essentially a man of peace, except in his domestic life.” Earlier, in a previous piece of dialogue, Wilde had her Ladyship state that the General also featured in other lists, such were his unfortunate business speculations. A needless complication, jettisoned. Puzzlingly, though, Wilde did keep in the final version of Lady Lancing typed by Mrs. Marshall a preceding reminiscence by Lady Brancaster: “he was violent in his manner, but there was nothing eccentric about him in any way. In fact, he was rather a martinet about the little details of daily life. Too much so, I used to tell my dear sister.” Rightly, that did not survive the Wilde-less rehearsals before the opening night; Alexander knew what he was about; to have kept all that would have hobbled the subsequent, tighter observation about the General at home, as the exiledWilde must have realised when looking again at the play for a first edition.


As for fugitive invalids, an article could be written - and they have been - about Bunbury. Professor Donohue has scoured the country for him. Odds are, such is the mingling of memory and imagination, that in naming this character, Wilde not only used that of a family friend who had written to him from deepest Gloucestershire with congratulations on winning the Newdigate Prize but he had also seen an 1891 farce Godpapa which concerns a John Bunbury and a ploy to marry his daughter. (Anybody now born with that name will find that he has some explaining to do, just as Wilde's genius has elevated cucumber sandwiches above their humble status.) Professor Donohue writes at length about the rise of nineteenth-century farce (one must hasten to seek out an 1875 comedy Brighton, first staged there and brought to London). One can only drool over the description of the number of theatres then competing for customers, so many of whom were then able to live in the vicinity of the West End; true, many of these productions are now the stuff of sedulous footnotes, but how much more stimulating it would surely be to watch them than yet another of the jukebox musicals which line Shaftesbury Avenue nowadays.


What's more, an evening usually offered a curtain-raiser. Happily, Professor Donohue supplies the American Langdon Mitchell's In the Season, a twenty-minute work which, previously staged, now preceded Earnest each evening during that first run duly halted by the Marquess of Queensberry (it is sometimes forgotten that, the situation brewing, Alexander arranged for a police guard around the theatre on the opening night). In the Season survives brightly, turning around allegations and misunderstandings about a love affair. (We need more short works in this era of television productions which stretch to seven seasons of twenty-four episodes apiece.) Rather than dwell on it, one must certainly note that early on, a character asserts, “I'm in earnest”, which does not seem to have been added for this production.


More than a bonus is an unpublished work by Wilde himself. A Wife's Tragedy has, in manuscript, been available in a library for sixty years but received scant attention. It does not appear in Richard Ellmann's 1987 biography which, unlike his Joyce, is unconvincingly stolid, paling beside Montgomery Hyde's a decade earlier and Matthew Sturgis's recent, highly enjoyable one. Fragmentary, the Venice-set tragedy hints at something which could have remarkable power: a bold spirit should attempt to stage it in some form, and there could be room for a new version of Wilde's scenario Mr. and Mrs. Daventry.


Professor Donohue's two volumes - adding very much to Russell Jackson's admirable 1980 edition – are so rewarding that any intended browse becomes close study, and might even divert one into making cucumber sandwiches according to the instructions provided by the Family Herald when Wilde was at work in Worthing (not that he necessarily read it). One might demur at Professor Donohue's description of Lancing, even in 1894, as “a charming little town on the Sussex coast” and one positively bristles at Howards End gaining an apostrophe on page 858. That is to cavil, for, how can one put it, this feat of humane scholarship produces vibrations. To say that Gwendolyn's phrase perhaps has an erotic timbre which escaped the Lord Chamberlain, and those long after, is borne out by the idea being there from the beginning, when it was briefly the more mundane “it carries vibrations”. One cannot stop writing about this play.