London Letter

Oscar Wilde’s tragedy and the morals of the movies

BEVERLEY BAXTER June 18 1960
London Letter

Oscar Wilde’s tragedy and the morals of the movies

BEVERLEY BAXTER June 18 1960

Oscar Wilde’s tragedy and the morals of the movies

London Letter

BEVERLEY BAXTER

The film industry has always been strange, fascinating and irritating. Yet in Britain at least it has seldom been in a state of pitched battle like the one today, which involves two competing major companies that are working like mad to win not merely an Oscar but to be the first with a film based on the tragedy of Oscar Wilde.

How swiftly and strangely values can change! Ten years ago a play on Wilde's life was refused a licence for theatrical production and had to be produced cheaply in a small theatre club which did not come under the discipline of the lord chamberlain, who combines his duties at the royal palace with stage censorship.

In my opinion there is no subject which cannot be dealt with in the theatre provided that the author writes with sincerity. Some years ago I went with a group of theatrical people to St. James Palace to protest to the lord chamberlain about his stage censorship of Wilde's plays. We pointed out that there was no theatre ban on the licentious, the brutal or the seductive. We suggested that no subject in the theatre is obscene in itself but merely in the treatment thereof. As it was getting near his lunchtime the state guardian of our morals brought the conference to an end with an uncompromising negative uttered loud and clear.

Only a few weeks later a large

gathering of stage stars, authors and critics lunched at the Savoy Hotel and then marched to the house where Oscar Wilde had lived. There they were met by the mayor of Chelsea and after a few tributes to the memory of the famous playwright the mayor placed on the front door a plaque with these simple words engraved: Oscar Wilde 1854-1900 Wit and Dramatist Lived Here

Not long after that, I met Oscar's surviving son. a middle-aged, quiet fellow with no glamour or romanticism. He lived in a humble set of rooms because he had no special talents and because the copyright of his father's works had run out and any publisher could publish Wilde without paying royalties.

Truly this is a monstrous thing. If you own a piece of land or a house they are yours forever, but when an author's copyright runs out anyone can publish his books and pay no royalty. But when I raised it in the House of Commons at that time 1 had only one supporter who, like Wilde, was an Irishman.

Today two great cinema companies arc racing to beat each other for the presentation of Wilde’s life tragedy on the screen, but I doubt if his son will be invited to the premiere of either.

So fas-

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continued from page 10

“I would sooner talk to a young man,” said Wilde, “than be cross-examined by an old QC”

His eloquence failed

ciliated was I in my youth in Toronto by Wilde’s books and poems that on reaching England with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the 1914 war 1 made a pilgrimage to Reading Gaol where Wilde, during two years' imprisonment, was inspired to write that superb, it »omewhat self-pitying, poem. I he Ballad of Reading Gaol.

The warders could not have been more helpful nor more completely at a loss. Could 1 tell them how to spell the name? What was the date on which he was incarcerated'.’ What was he in for? 1 hey were not putting on an act. Still anxious to be of assistance they called in a senior warden who said that he knew the name but could not say when or why Wilde had been there.

Now let us come down the years. I lie Blitz was on. and Hitler's bombers were turning London into an interno. Lord Cecil Douglas was dining at my house in St. John's Wood. So violent was the bombing that he agreed with me that it was foolish to risk the bombs in the open streets, and 1 put him up for the night.

When 1 went iiUo his room next morning to announce that breakfast was ready, an extraordinary sight met my eyes. Beside his bed was a perfectly shaped leg completely detached from his body. He had always limped slightly, but not until then did I learn that as a very voting airman in the 19 14 war he had been shot down and his leg had to be amputated.

Cecil Douglas is the grandson of the famous eighth Marquis of Queensberry, who prided himself on a temper that terrorized even his friends, and whose attacks on Oscar Wilde as a degenerate at last prompted Wilde to take him to court for slander. Understandably it was a cause célèbre.

But almost from the very beginning it was evident that Wilde was mad to have brought the action. Cross-examination by the relentless Sir Edward Carson made it cruelly clear that Wilde had sought the company of young louts whose morals were as low as their intelligence. In a desperate and partially sincere attempt to justify his conduct, he said he liked people who were young, bright, happy, careless and original. "I do not like them sensible and 1 do not like them old. 1 don t like social distinctions of any kind and the mere face of youth is so wonderful to me that 1 would sooner talk to a young man tor half an hour than be cross-examined by an elderly QC .

There was laughter in the court, but Wilde was losing ground. His attempts to describe his association with young illiterate louts as the natural aflinity of age with youth fell flat despite the beauty of his language.

Then came the disaster. Wilde s principal counsel asked permission to withdraw' from the case. From that moment Wilde was doomed. His friends urged him to "leave the country at once, and there is evidence that the authorities would have facilitated his escape, but he stayed in his house until the police arrived with a warrant for his arrest on a charge of indecency.

Thus the second trial took place, and I suggest that we now motor with my friend Lord Cecil Douglas to the film studios to see a re-enactment of the scene with Wilde facing his relentless prosecutor. We were given seats in the

setting of the Did Bailey. It was as hot and fetid as Africa but the electric studio lamps knew no more pity than Queensberry had.

There in the dock was Oscar Wilde, not quite so bloated as in real life, and

facing him was the relentless Sir Edward Carson. "Silence!" shouted the director. "Complete silence!" Then they recorded the number of the retake, for they had been at this one short, vital scene all morning.

James Mason as the prosecutor, facing the accused, asked Wilde if it was true that when he had some young fellows at his flat he kissed one whose name was given in court.

"Certainly not,” said Wilde.

"And why not?” asked the prosecutor calmly.

"He was much too ugly,” answered Wilde.

Following the script, the crowd of extras and the members of the jury tittered with embarrassment. "Silence!” roared the clerk of the court.

“Just a minute," said the director, and the tension in the studio relaxed. “You public people in the court must be startied, shocked, embarrassed, or amused. Think it out. Turn and talk to each other and when the prosecutor shouts 'Silence in the court!’ see to it that you give me silence.”

“Knock off for five minutes,” said the director wearily. An actor dressed as a policeman lit his pipe. Members of the public, in costumes of 1895, fanned themselves in the fetid atmosphere.

Oscar Wilde and his relentless enemy, the Marquis of Queensberry, exchanged views as to what horse would win the 3.30 at Epsom. Four minor actors who had very small parts were playing bridge in the hall.

Then back to work. “Take off your glasses!” said the director to some members of the jury who were still studying racing forms. Thus even in the setting of artifice we are faced with reality. And thus came the adjournment for lunch.

Wilde and Carson, who had been insulting each other all morning, lit a friendly cigarette. Two young louts who had been among Wilde’s grubby favorites entered into a highbrow discussion as to whether Wilde w'as a poet or a poseur.

And while all this was going on a rival studio was racing against time to produce its own version of the tragedy of Oscar Wilde. With some knowledge of the film industry and the cinema public, I imagine that each version will help popularize the other. Having partly seen this film in the making I shall let nothing, not even the discipline of the Conservative chief whip. prevent me from attending its premiere.

The forthright, downright man to whom all things are simple would send every homosexual to prison and keep him there. On the other hand there is the sensitive, understanding man who contends that by treating homosexuality as a criminal offense you drive it into the organized underworld.

Some years ago when 1 was the theatre critic of the London Evening Standard I found myself faced with a dilemma which could not be set aside. One of our most famous and knighted actors had been arrested on the charge of soliciting a male for improper purposes. In this case, however, the magistrate combined justice with mercy. The disgrace and the tragedy of it did not need the extra shame of imprisonment. That was the wise decision of the court.

The actor in question did not withdraw from the stage. Instead there came the announcement that he would shortly be opening in a new play at the Haymarket Theatre in London. As a critic I was automatically invited but never did I approach a task with such apprehension. Would there be a demonstration from the gallery? If so, would the evening dress section in the stalls make a counter demonstration with loud applause?

The play had been running for about ten minutes when the cue came for his appearance on the stage. When he appeared there was a ripple of subdued applause and nothing more. Somehow, yet clearly, the audience acknowledged him as an artist and nothing more or less. It was exactly right, just as it was very English.

Degeneracy is one of the prices which old civilizations have to pay, and the irony of it all is that the degenerate, although an enemy of society, is so often gifted in the arts. Yet I am glad that I joined the march to the house where Oscar Wilde had lived and it seems to me that by the presentation of these two Oscar Wilde films we may experience the cleansing quality of tragedy.

So now as we come to the end of this London Letter we must pose this question of conscience. Should the films have been made? To my mind there is no subject that cannot be dealt with in the cinema or the theatre provided that it is based on sincerity and integrity, if