Oscar Wilde has always been more highly regarded on the continent than in England. In part, this may be a slap in the face of a former Imperial power which practised a double morality. Today, for a British prime minister to have a secret liaison uncovered may still spell political disaster whereas for a country like France it could actually increase a president’s prestige. It certainly won’t cause a politician to hand in their resignation, as the recent case with Hollande so clearly demonstrates.
I think, however, that there is more to Oscar Wilde’s great popularity abroad than that. The fact is that Wilde translates very easily into such romance languages as Italian. His prose style is ideal for it. The stories he wrote originally for his children are a case in point. As for his plays, Wilde first wrote Salome in French and it does work better in that language than in the English translation he subsequently made.
Wilde had a great love for Italy. He made several journeys to this country and, even after his notorious two- year prison spell, he revisited the place which so attracted him. The sequence of twelve sonnets Wilde wrote about Italy show just how transfixed he was. Here is part of the first one:
|I REACHED the Alps: the soul within me burned|
|Italia, my Italia, at thy name:|
|And when from out the mountain’s heart I came|
|I saw the land for which my life had yearned…..|
It should also be remembered that it was Wilde’s poem Ravenna that won the coveted Newdigate poetry prize in 1878 at Oxford where he excelled as a brilliant classical scholar.
It was, therefore, with some interest that I attended a performance of Oscar! yesterday evening at Bagni di Lucca’s very own Teatro Accademico. The script was by Masolino D’Amico who, appropriately, completed his literary studies at Trinity College Dublin, is a brilliant translator and has also written plays based on great English-language writers. The director was Germano Mazzocchetti.
The one and only protagonist was Gianluca Guidi, who turns out to be the son of that famous 50’s and 60’s Italian crooner, Johnny Dorelli, (real name Giorgio Guidi).
Guidi was Wilde and the monologue opened with Wilde reading about his own death. This time the newspaper report was not an exaggeration. This was the man’s actual death in a dingy Paris lodging house and in abject poverty and neglect.
From this point the play moved back to the writer’s youth and progressed through his life, though not in strictly chronological order. Having read Richard Ellmann’s definitive biography I was interested in knowing how true to the life the play would be. It certainly was, including many incidents such as Wilde’s lecture at Leadville, in the Wild West where everyone carried a gun.
In 1882, Oscar Wilde visited Leadville, which is in the Colorado Rockies, and read Cellini’s racy autobiography to the locals. They loved his reading so much that they asked Wilde why he hadn’t brought Cellini along. Wilde had to explain that Cellini was dead. “Who shot him?” someone asked in the crowd. (I’m suitably informed that Leadville ain’t like that anymore!)
The monologue was filled with these extracts seamlessly woven into the script.
The different environments in Wilde’s life were cleverly suggested with the minimum of stage-props: his chair at the Café Royal and the mattress-less wooden bed of Reading Gaol, for example.
For me the most moving part came with the recitation of the story of the selfish giant. Already, the virtuosity of the scene designer had been manifest in earlier parts with news headlines, figures and landscapes. Here, however, it was truly a coup de-theatre with the wonderful story illustrated by crayon drawings from local schoolchildren projected around the stage.
In short, I thoroughly enjoyed my evening and so did the audience, some of whom gave Guidi a standing ovation. I was pleased to note that the theatre was at least two-thirds full. In the past audience presence has been disappointing. If you live nearby and know some Italian then there’s every reason to keep watch over the theatre’s billboard and experience some really top-class productions.
For more information on what’s on at our theatre see http://www.luccaindiretta.it/cultura-e-spettacoli/item/34448-sette-titoli-per-la-stagione-di-prosa-del-teatro-accademico-di-bagni-di-lucca.html
PS I can’t help adding these wonderful quotes from the man himself.
1. I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability.
2. The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast.
3. Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.
4. It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.
5. The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself.
6. Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.
7. What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
8. A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.
9. When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is.
10. There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.
11. Work is the curse of the drinking classes.
12. Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.
13. True friends stab you in the front.
14. All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.
15. Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.
16. There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
17. Genius is born—not paid.
18. Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike.
19. How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?
20. A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally.
21. My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s.
22. The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything.
23. I like men who have a future and women who have a past.
24. There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope.
25. Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit.
And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:
If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.