wilde nights, wilde nights! were I with thee…

Well, I can belatedly report, we had a cracking Oscar night. Wilde, that is. As for the other kind, that you hold in your hand, who needs it. We had a much better time. John McCullough and Tim Turnbull both read wonderful sets, and the scene from David Secombe’s play, I have Been Faithful to Thee, Ernest! in My Fashion, was riveting and quite lovely. (I can say it, because I was almost nothing to do with it; the miracle is that I have access to all these wonderful people who can make up an event like this.) Asked to choose a poem by Wilde to read before their own, John chose a wonderful sinister one called The Harlot’s House that goes, in part:

We caught the tread of dancing feet,
We loitered down the moonlit street,
And stopped beneath the harlot’s house.

Inside, above the din and fray,
we heard the loud musicians play
the ‘Treue Liebes Herz’ of Strauss.

Like strange mechanical grotesques,
making fantastic arabesques,
The shadows raced across the blind.

We watched the ghostly dancers spin
to sound of horn and violin,
like black leaves wheeling in the wind.

I like to think that Baroque Mansions is a little bit like that, in romance and mystery of course, not in debauchery. And certainly not like this bit:

Sometimes a horrible marionette
came out, and smoked its cigarette
upon the steps like a living thing.

“Horrible?” Smoking? Not on my balcony darling.

His poems about the hidden gay histories, in the old underworld slang Polari, and from the point of view of a Classical statue of a hermaphrodite – fascinating to Victorians of a certain ilk – cast a wistful glow over the Wilde story. John is one of the few poets I know of in our vicinity who are writing poetry about queer history in this way; I love the way the past comes alive in his work. (And his pamphlet has a great title: The Lies of Ghosts.)

Tim T, authentic in a brown checked jacket of positively Victorian loudness, read the magnificently ringing opening stanzas of The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

He did not wear his scarlet coat,
For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands
When they found him with the dead,
The poor dead woman whom he loved,
And murdered in her bed.

He walked amongst the Trial Men
In a suit of shabby grey;
A cricket cap was on his head,
And his step seemed light and gay;
But I never saw a man who looked
So wistfully at the day.

I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky…

and then a set of his own work that included not only a new poem with an epigraph by the arch-Decadent Arthur Symonds, and a reflection upon modern-day Saturday-night market-town decadence, but also A Concert Party in Hell, wherein the Modernists wait in an antechamber to hear their eternal fate:

…Ottoline’s turned up a deck of cards
with which they have a stab at divination.
Interpreting the spread is complicated

because nobody can say for certain what
Master Bun the Baker’s Son denotes, or
if Mr Bones the Butcher is really Death.
Then Joyce points out that they’re already on

the other side, which doesn’t go down well
and there’s a rumour now abroad that Pound
got in Up There by entering a plea…

The play extract worked really well, even in the tight space. It’s about a poor lecturer called Daniel, who is writing a doomed screenplay about the doomed poet, Dowson. He has a louche flatmate, St John, and there is a pest control operative called Geoff. At times, even mid-sentence, the action shifts to Dieppe in 1897: an effect whcih should be achieved with green lighting, in the full version, but we used vaguely period hats. Daniel becomes Dowson, St John becomes Robert Sherard, and Geoff the ratcatcher becomes Wilde. Tim T made a deliciously jolly and camp Oscar (and a very menacing “Cockney ratcatcher with a Yorkshire accent”), I have to say. Chris Brand gave us a lairy St John in a Hawaiian shirt, which was surprisingly effective with the addition of a little bue hat; and our Ernest was gorgeously characterised with a nervous absonthe twitch by Jack Tarlton. Jack has been in Doctor Who, so he was already well up with the time travel element.

Jack opened the scene by reading, in the character of Daniel, and with a surprising amount of feeling and clarity, Dowson’s poem…

…All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
When I awoke and found the dawn was grey
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion…

The play is essentially a farce, but in the whole version it descends into a sort of tragic farce. Some of that power was in this preliminary reading. I was so engrossed that I only remembered yesterday that I had intended to take pictures. Damn. As to the crowd, it was small but exquisite. Several of our intended audience members had fallen prey to things like the norovirus, work, forgetfulness – but the crowd we had was tremendous.

My own set of course was mainly from Oscar & Henry – with only one or two of my little Modernist squibs – for some reason those guys do seem to invite it when you put them beside Oscar. And indeed Henry. I had, in keeping with the structure of the evening, started with a reading, but because my stuff was a bit more biographical I had chosen to read some of Oscar’s letters, including – to get him into the narrative of the evening in advance of the play – one of his letters if 1897 to Dowson. There was a brief window there when, freshly released from prison, Wilde was trying to imagine that everything might be all right. He wrote, accordingly, to Dowson:

My dear Ernest,

Do come here at once: Monsieur Meyer is presiding over a morning meal of absinthe, and we want you.

I am a wreck, of course, but la belle soeur is like the moon.

You were wonderful and charming last night.

Ever yours,

Oscar

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