Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Abominable Showman, September 25, 2011

The importance of being Oscar
Wilde, Elvis, Thornton, Constance and Montreal
By Richard Burnett

Oscar Wilde once famously noted, “"The only duty we owe history is to rewrite it." 

But surely he did not mean this:  A new play called Constance – "the world premiere of the only unproduced Oscar Wilde play" – opened on Sept 23 at The King's Head theatre in Islington, north London.  And everybody is up in arms, especially Wilde’s grandson, Merlin Holland.

Holland told the Guardian newspaper that his grandfather only wrote a "minimal" scenario – just a few paragraphs – for a drama called Constance, which Wilde wrote in a letter dating back to 1894. "He never wrote a word of the play," Holland says.

The play should really have been billed as 'A play based on an idea [scenario] by Oscar Wilde, written in French by Guillot de Saix, translated into English and further adapted by Charles Osborne'.

Holland adds, “It is dishonest to foist this on the public. The play should really have been billed as 'A play based on an idea [scenario] by Oscar Wilde, written in French by Guillot de Saix, translated into English and further adapted by Charles Osborne'."

This entire mess reminds me somewhat of a similar rip-off, that of white 1950s American rock’n’roll teen stars ripping off African-American musicians, none more so than Elvis Presley. (Although BB King, when I asked him once what he thought of that other Memphis king, replied, “I liked Elvis because he called me ‘Sir.’”)

Anyway,  blues legend and drag king icon Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton (she wore men’s suits and cowboy hats and died on July 25, 1984, at the age of 58, after spending much of her final years in Montreal) is one of the great unsung heroes of both rock and blues. Thornton's song Hound Dog (credited to songwriters Leiber and Stoller) and Thornton’s masculine stage presence were ripped off by Elvis Presley, in the process redefining cool and literally morphing Elvis into the King of Rock’n’Roll.

Big Mama was a writer of Hound Dog that made Elvis famous. But she never got money for it, except for a one-time payment of $500. She remained bitter to the end about how she and Johnny Otis were never properly credited for Hound Dog. “I’ve been singing before Elvis was even born,” she once famously quipped. “He makes a million and all this jive because his face is different from mine.”

The estate of Oscar Wilde will surely get their fair share of royalties for this “world premiere of the only unproduced Oscar Wilde play”  – although I suspect Merlin Holland would prefer to lose money if only to make this play go away.

And Holland is not alone when it comes to hating this play.

The Independent newspaper gave Constance 2 out of 5 stars. “One thing is certain,” the reviewer writes, “The [controversy over] Constance is much more piquant than any of the dialogue delivered in Marc Urquhart's game, if rather ropey, staging.”

While it’s indisputable this play largely follows a scenario by Wilde, had it been more fully fleshed when Wilde himself sold it “exclusively” to a number of people, it would have been produced onstage decades ago. But it was not. And if Wilde did write it, The Independent says, “He must have been having a very off day indeed.”

Wit? There’s precious little. You wait in vain for a quotable epigram.

The London Telegraph in its own review writes, “The problem is that Constance – named after Wilde’s long-suffering spouse – is so threadbare it makes no sense to get excited about it. Its main storyline – concerning a virtuous wife whose industrialist husband’s flagrant infidelity drives her into the arms of a handsome Duke – rises effortfully to a pitch of indifferent melodrama. Wit? There’s precious little. You wait in vain for a quotable epigram.”

But wait, there’s more: “If it’s a handed-on hoax, it’s so lacking in the necessary flair that any admirer of Wilde should scoff at it,” The Telegraph says. “If it genuinely does bear traces of the artist, beyond its outline, those traces are so lacklustre as to suggest he had become a shadow of his former playwriting self.”

But I shall leave the last word to Oscar Wilde himself, who once astutely noted., “In this world there are only two tragedies; one is not getting what one wants, the other is getting it.”

Which pretty much sums up the “world premiere” of the world’s “only unproduced” Oscar Wilde play.


Château Ramezay
(photo: Bruno Lajeunesse)
Oscar Wilde in Montreal 

In Oscar Wilde’s children’s story The Selfish Giant, children play in an orchard very much like the gardens of Claude de Ramezay, the military commander who was appointed Governor of Montreal in 1704. Ramezay immediately built what was soon dubbed "the most beautiful house in Canada" on Notre-Dame Street (today across the street from city hall), whose gardens and orchard – which Oscar Wilde visited almost 200 years later – sloped down to the river. 

Ramezay’s manor, converted into the Château Ramezay Museum over a century ago, is now filled with tourists checking out the Château’s furnishings and oil paintings of 18th century Montreal aristocracy. This building was also the Canadian headquarters of the American Revolutionary Army in 1776, and where Benjamin Franklin stayed when he tried to convince Montreal to join the American Revolution.

Anyway, behind the building, the Governor’s Garden used to spread over 4,200 square metres and include an orchard as well as vegetable and flower gardens. Today only 750 square metres remain due to urban development, and a typical New France Governor’s Garden can be toured here each summer for free. Surely it looks much like it must have almost 130 years ago when Oscar Wilde himself paid a visit (during his 1882 North American tour of  150 cities) and supposedly was inspired to write The Selfish Giant, which was later published in 1888.

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