Review: The Judas Kiss, David Hare

You won’t believe me but it’s true: I didn’t know this play was about Oscar Wilde. HEAR ME OUT. I was at the library and I happened to stumble upon the drama section, and I decided I would give David Hare a try, and The Judas Kiss happened to be the title that appealed to me the most. I didn’t know until I opened it up and started reading that it was going to be about Oscar Wilde. It’s true. Contrary to what I may have led you to believe, there are things about Oscar Wilde that I do not know.

(On a subject about which I know quite a bit, Legal Sister had a birthday recently and came into the city and one of the places we went was this bar that claims to be owned by Oscar Wilde’s multi-great nephew. Misrepresentation of the facts, say I. Wilde’s full and half-sisters all died young; his half-brother died without issue; and his full brother, Willy, had one daughter, Dolly, who never had children. Hence, “nephew” is a very suspicious claim. I’ll accept “distant cousin” but I am not taken in by this “nephew” business. No disrespect to the bar. Just an observation.)

So, I don’t know. I don’t know how a play that deals with the relationships between Oscar Wilde, Bosie, and Robbie Ross, just on the eve of his arrest, and in the time following his release from prison, could fail to be my friend. I worry that maybe I am unsatisfiable with portrayals of Oscar Wilde in fiction. While loving Stephen Fry’s performance in Wilde, I thought the film overall painted rather too martyred a picture of Oscar Wilde. And — well, actually, that’s the only other fictional portrayal of Oscar Wilde I can think of right now. Two is not enough for a pattern, which means I don’t have to blame not liking The Judas Kiss on me, which means I’m blaming it on David Hare. Yay! I love it when I can blame stuff on other people!

Here’s what the problem was: Hare’s Oscar Wilde isn’t interesting. I can’t fathom how you could make Oscar Wilde uninteresting. I can’t fathom it while reading the play. I don’t have a particular fault to find in the way Hare writes Oscar Wilde’s dialogue, or the things he has Oscar Wilde do — the words sound like things he might have said, and the deeds sound like — or plainly are — things he would have done. But the end result is dull. Bosie and Robbie are dull too, which feels like a more forgivable mistake: Bosie’s nastiness is easily made one-note, and Robbie doesn’t leap vividly from the pages of biographies the way some people (hemOscarWildehem) do.

In the end I think Hare fell victim to feeling too sorry for Oscar Wilde. He doesn’t shy away from the bad decisions Oscar Wilde makes, but he makes his Oscar too plausible in defending them. Portraying Oscar Wilde as a noble martyr is tempting, I know, and it’s clear David Hare tried to avoid it. There are some moments that are clearly intended to complicate the martyrishness of Hare’s Oscar character, but they fall flat and feel fake. What feel real are Oscar’s passionate defenses of what he’s done and what he deserves. It’s dishonest to something I think was pretty key to Oscar Wilde, that not-insincere-but-nevertheless-pose-i-ness he had.

Also, there are the problems that the stakes of the play aren’t well set up, that there’s no dramatic tension, and that the emotional moments between the characters don’t feel earned. But mainly it’s that Oscar Wilde is boring. Oscar Wilde wasn’t boring, dude.

So, bloggy friends? Is David Hare just a dull playwright? Surely not. When is he at his best? I still like plays, and I am still willing to like David Hare. Recommend me something!

Constantine Cavafy

C. P. Cavafy: I LOVE HIM I LOVE HIM. I have such a crush on Cavafy right now. I want to collect every translation of his poems that has ever been done, and compare them. I want to learn modern Greek, an impulse I have never had before, just so I can read Cavafy in the original. Wikipedia says translations don’t capture Cavafy. In fact it says “the poems also exhibit a skilled and versatile craftsmanship, which is almost completely lost in translation.” Dammit. But even so, check it:

As one long since prepared, as one courageous,
as befits you who were deemed worthy of such a city,
move with steady steps toward the window
and listen with deepest feeling, yet not
with a coward’s entreaties and complaints,
listen as an ultimate delight to the sounds,
to the exquisite instruments of the mystical company,
and bid farewell to the Alexandria you are losing.

Constantine Cavafy, can I come pick you up in the kidnapped TARDIS so that we may have teh sexy times together?

…The internet says not. Apparently he was gay. Uncool, Cavafy! Now even if I conquer time travel, you and I cannot get married. And a damn shame too, because I would not have minded changing my name to Jenny Cavafy. That would be pretty. (It’s cuh-VAH-fy. Jenny Cavafy. It flows well, does it not?)

I have quickly recovered from this crushing blow to my romantic hopes, returned to my initial time-travel scheme of marrying Gregory Peck (y’all should see Spellbound, Gregory Peck is hella sexy in Spellbound and Salvador Dali did some of the design) (obv would not change my name to Peck, he’d have to take my last name), and developed an alternate scheme for interfering in Cavafy’s love life by which I will take the TARDIS to Egypt, collect Cavafy, and transport him to Paris to hang out with poor, broken Oscar Wilde in the years following his prison sentence.

This…is an awesome idea. Cavafy and late-life Oscar Wilde both seem to have been, well, rather melancholy, and I believe they would have been good for each other. It doesn’t even require a TARDIS, the dudes were contemporaries. It could genuinely have happened: Cavafy could have traveled to Paris in 1897 (didn’t! but could have!). While he was there, of course he would have wanted to meet Oscar Wilde, one of his most important literary influences. They would have bonded over their mutually transgressive sexuality and their love of classical literature. Gradually Cavafy would have admitted that he, too, wrote poetry, and he would have perhaps shared a poem or two with Oscar Wilde, who would have loved them and encouraged Cavafy enthusiastically. Next thing you know Oscar Wilde would be writing poems again his own self, his post-jail literary output no longer limited to just “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”. His enthusiasm for writing restored, Wilde would have published a new volume of poems, anonymously, and basked in the resulting critical acclaim. Cavafy would shortly follow suit with a book of poems in English that a girl from, say, 2011 wouldn’t need to learn Greek to appreciate.

Steady literary output and a like-minded friend to hang out with would have distracted Oscar Wilde from his self-destructive tendencies (#coughBosiecough). After a few months of pleasant dinners al fresco, stuffed-bear-winning carnival trips, and an exchange of half-heart necklaces with his new BFF Cavafy, Oscar Wilde would have completely lost track of certain of his friends (#coughBosiecough). Good-natured letter exchanges with Constance (which would have included witty and endearing jokes about Constance’s name and its similarity to Cavafy’s) would have led her to agree to let the boys come to Paris regularly to visit their father, a practice that would be regularized by the time of her death in mid-1898.

Their long, close association and obvious mutual admiration would have led their biographers to speculate that they were in a relationship, though as ever with Oscar Wilde it would have been difficult to differentiate his regular-brand affection from sexy-type love. At the onset of the Great War (Oscar Wilde’s increased happiness would have dramatically improved his health, of course, and he would have lived until 1915), Wilde and Cavafy would have left an embattled Paris for Britain and Egypt respectively, but remained regular and affectionate correspondents. Oscar Wilde would have died before the end of the war, eliciting from Cavafy a famous cycle of tribute poems to his friend and literary mentor (and partner? History wouldn’t know! But I would draw my own conclusions). (Cyril Wilde, incidentally, would receive permission to come home for his father’s funeral, and would not have been killed by German sniper fire.) The lively and touching Cavafy-Wilde correspondence would have been collected and published by Rupert Hart-Davis and Robert Liddell in the 1970s, then reissued in a revised edition as My Dear Good Friend (ed. Merlin Wilde) in 1997, for the centennial of Cavafy’s and Wilde’s first meeting in Paris.


This post now constitutes by far the best imaginary scenario I have ever constructed, and may also be the most sustained display of the most complete dorkiness ever to issue forth from my keyboard. And I am the girl who dedicated a whole paragraph to how exciting it was to get back the memory of stychomythia, and drunk-on-wordplay-posted about Tom Stoppard’s clever use of Victorian sex slang. Actually, my last three posts have all been super dorky. I’m embarrassed for myself. I promise I will post something less dorky next time.

It Ends with Revelations, Dodie Smith

Poor Dodie Smith. What a shame to have written your first book, and it’s I Capture the Castle, not far off being the best book ever, narrated by a character that is the perfect blend of innocence and charming worldly practicality. Thereafter you can write more books, but none of them will ever be as good, and everyone will feel sad that your subsequent books are not I Capture the Castle. In fact it would not be unbearably dissimilar to the plight of the father in I Capture the Castle, except without the Joyce comparisons.

It Ends with Revelations has my love in a small way because the title and epigraph are in reference to a play of Oscar Wilde’s. A Woman of No Importance, I believe, though I wouldn’t swear to it. Moreover, Oscar Wilde is mentioned in the book:

She’s known about homosexuality since she was ten years old when she asked what crime Oscar Wilde committed. My grandmother, who had met and liked Wilde, obliged with a straightforward answer couched in such a way that Kit accepted homosexuality as being neither right nor wrong, despicable nor pitiable, but simply existent.”

…It now seemed perfectly natural to be sitting here eating cucumber sandwiches (so suitable, in view of the mention of Wilde) in this matter-of-fact way.

Of course the guy’s grandmother met and liked Oscar Wilde. Everyone who met Oscar Wilde liked him. Even the Marquess of Queensberry liked Oscar Wilde when he met him. He forgot about it almost straight away, because his head was full of craziness, but when he met him, he liked him. People did. Oscar Wilde was extremely lovable. Good point, Dodie Smith!

The plot of the book is this. Jill (I love that name) is the wife of a well-known stage actor called Miles, who is working on a play version of something that succeeded on TV, and experiencing some problems with the child actor, who was trained for TV and not for the stage. As Jill is helping smooth down ruffled feathers (producer’s, director’s, actors’), she meets MP Geoffrey Thornton and his daughters, Kit and Robin. At once she is charmed by the girls, and so am I. They are the best thing about the book, and this, I regret to say, is down to their being the most I-Capture-the-Castle-ish aspect of the book. On the up side, Kit’s adorability reassured me about the name Kit, which I had been mad at from that dreadful Mary Renault book. Here’s Kit being charming at length regarding Ivy Compton-Burnett:

She did fairly well on clothes and life but was out of her depth as regards literature–though she was thankful to be able to say that she had read one book by Kit’s favourite modern novelist, Ivy Compton-Burnett.

“If you’ve only read one, you couldn’t have liked her,” said Kit. “People who do, read them all–and again and again.”

“I almost like her because she writes about families,” said Robin. “But she doesn’t tell one enough about their backgrounds, what the houses are like, what the women wear. And though everyone’s always eating, we’re never allowed to know what they eat.”

“Well, who wants to know what anyone eats?” said Kit impatiently. “And she does say quite a bit about backgrounds. Sometimes there are cracks in a wall, or an overgrown creeper, or the rich people have cushions. One can do the rest from imagination. And the strange thing is that whenever I re-read one of the books I get a different mental picture of the house in it–and I can remember all the different mental pictures. Very peculiar, that. And the dialogue’s so marvellous, somehow it’s what the characters are thinking as well as what they’re saying, so it ends by being what they are. People say the servants don’t talk like servants and the children don’t talk like children, but the servants just are our great-grandmother’s chauffeur and lady’s maid, and the children are me, almost before I could talk. And the plots are lovely, all the families have terrific secrets and scandals, just like our family–though Miss Compton-Burnett hasn’t done a dipsomaniac nymphomaniac, which seems a pity. She usually deals with quite ordinary adultery, though sometimes it’s murder or bigamy or incest, but the incest seldom comes to anything. I must say she’s fussy about incest. After all, it’s been highly thought of at many periods of the world’s history, and it appears to work well in the animal kingdom.”

“Kit, dear,” said Robin, getting a word in at last. “Jill isn’t interested in Ivy Compton-Burnett.”

“I am, now,” said Jill. “I’ll try her again.”

“Try A Family and a Fortune,” said Kit. “That’s my absolute favourite. Though More Women Than Men is rather a love. There’s a most charming homosexual in it, the nicest character in the book. He marries eventually.”

Christy at A Good Stopping Point was just talking about cultural references in books, and whether they work, and how, and why. I do not know the answer, but this passage about Ivy Compton-Burnett is doing it right. I think that having fictional characters drop cultural references is a gambit, and it can come off affected, or it can come off like the characters love books and cannot resist talking about them. In this case, Dodie Smith has managed the latter. Of course, in this case she does not do a compelling plotline, or resist introducing a potentially explosive plotline in the last quarter and then resolving everything all nice and pat, but hey, she’s name-dropping Ivy Compton-Burnett very successfully. Even if I didn’t know who Ivy Compton-Burnett was, this passage feels perfectly natural.

Kit and Robin on art films, and I do really sympathize:

“And Julian [their brother] should be back soon. He went to one of the arty films he favours.”

“We only like some arty films,” said Kit. “Even some of the slow ones and some of the horrible ones. But we’re not enthusiastic when slowness and horror are combined.”

“Julian thinks those are best of all.”

Basically you can give this book a miss. It is trying to be about compromises, and happiness, and love, but it does not really succeed. I’m only giving it three stars rather than two for the compliment to Oscar Wilde.

Stomping around my bedroom late at night

I do not appreciate the suggestion that Oscar Wilde’s cleverness consisted in paradoxical epigram.  I will accept gracious tributes to Wilde’s way with epigrams, like Dorothy Parker’s:

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.

Thank you, Dorothy Parker.  You have lovely qualities and could bang out epigrams with the best of them.

I will not, however, sit idly by in the face of any slighting reference to Oscar Wilde that implies that he was not as witty and charming as he is renowned to be, but only fooled people into thinking he was by inventing, and then saying, little paradoxes.  WRONG.  He was exactly as witty and charming as he is renowned to be, and I will argue you into the ground on this point; and trust me, you will get tired of arguing about it before I will, because I will never get tired of arguing (about Oscar Wilde).

Last night I was reading The Invention of Love, my current favorite Tom Stoppard play.  It is set at Oxford during the youth of A.E. Housman, and also on the rivers Styx and Acheron following the death of A.E. Housman (because Tom Stoppard can do things like that).  The play is about Housman, studying Latin and being quietly and hopelessly in love with a classmate, while Oscar Wilde and British concern over homosexuality are always in the background, for Housman to take no notice of.  Viz:

Pollard: Ruskin said, when he’s at Paddington he feels he is in hell – and this man Oscar Wilde said, “Ah, but—”
Housman: “—when he’s in hell he’ll think he’s only at Paddington.”  It’ll be a pity if inversion is all he is known for.

I read this line and went straight into a snit.  I was all, “Um, Alfred Edward, you are cute and all, but out of you and Oscar Wilde, only one of you graduated Oxford with a double first, while the other (I’m not naming names) failed to pass Greats.  I think you will find that Oscar Wilde is a bit more than an epigrammatist.  I mean if it’s a pity he’s only known for anything, it’s—”

Oh.  Inversion.


And then I sat up and gazed at the book and read it over twice, and I said, “Oh, well played, Tom Stoppard.”  And then I got up out of bed and strode around the room waving my arms around and talking to myself about how good Tom Stoppard is.  I did this, you see, because the alternative was me drunk-on-wordplay-dialing one of my friends, and I really don’t think any of my friends would appreciate getting a late-night phone call demanding their vocal appreciation for a play on words that hinges on a term for homosexuality that’s completely out of date.

That is pretty good, though, eh?  Inversion?  Get it?  Get it?

Review: The Unwritten, Vol. 1, Mike Carey and Peter Goss

For the Graphic Novel Challenge!

The Unwritten is about a guy called Tom whose father – long since disappeared without a trace – wrote an incredibly popular series of books about a character with Tom’s same name: Tommy Taylor.  However, it turns out that all the paperwork proving Tom is his father’s son has been forged.  At first it is theorized that he is a fraud, the son of Romanian peasants; then people begin to believe that he is, in fact, Tommy Taylor, brought into existence by the stories themselves.  The word made flesh.

The Unwritten is set in London, a place with whose literary history Tom is very familiar.  His father was always telling him stories about the places in England and how they connect to books and authors – this plays into the unfolding of the plot and will, I expect, do so more and more as the series goes on.  There is one scene that is set at the Globe, the Globe that I love, you don’t even know and words cannot express how much I love the Globe Theatre.  It is like Mike Carey wants to say, “I love literature and I know that you do too!”  If fiction is going to be meta, it should be meta exactly like this.

The final issue included in this first volume of the graphic novel is all about Rudyard Kipling and Oscar Wilde.  While not closely connected to the main plotline, it does give us a glimpse into the means and methods employed by the villains and how it relates to stories and literature.  Also?  It has Oscar Wilde in it.  Oscar Wilde!  I love him so!  He was such a dear darling when he wasn’t being awful!

Two things that I like a lot are Oscar Wilde and London.  And metafiction – three things.  The three things that I like a lot are Oscar Wilde, and London and metafiction, and fictional characters coming to life.  Four – no.  Amongst the things that I like are such elements as Oscar Wilde, London – I’ll come in again.  (Sorry, XKCD.  I know you don’t like it when people do that.)

I have given in to temptation and subscribed to this comic on HeavyInk.  I know I shouldn’t be spending money on single issue comics, given that I will probably end up buying the collected volumes as proper books when they are released, but I cannot resist the alluring notion of getting comics each month, all wrapped up in crinkly brown paper.  Oh, HeavyInk, you seduce me with your sexy packaging.

Other reviews:

things mean a lot
The Literary Omnivore
Adventures with Words

Tell me if I missed yours!

Review: Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, adapted & illustrated by P. Craig Russell

Oscar Wilde told André Gide that he had put his genius into his life, and only his talent into his writing.  It’s a typical Oscar Wilde thing to say, especially since he’d all but stopped writing at that point, and if you’ve read about Oscar Wilde, you’ll know it’s best to take anything he says with a grain of salt.  Because, you know, hello to the self-dramatizing!  But I have to say, in reference to this remark: although I read about Oscar Wilde all the time, I almost never read anything he’s written.  Sometimes I’ll get in a mood and just tear through my big pink Complete Works, but by and large, if I’m in an Oscar Wilde mental place, I’m rereading Gary Schmidgall or H. Montgomery Hyde or whatever.  So yeah, Oscar Wilde may have had a point.

That said, I love P. Craig Russell, and when I saw that the Graphic Novel Challenge has a mini-challenge for January to read graphic novel adaptations of classic works, I thought, hey, perfect opportunity to check out Russell’s adaptations of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales.  My library had the volume with “The Devoted Friend” – where a woodland creature tells other woodland creatures about a miller who was such a terrible friend to a poor little gardener boy that the gardener boy eventually died – and “The Nightingale and the Rose”, where a nightingale kills herself to get a red rose for this guy who wants to give it to his true love, and then she scorns him utterly and he gives up love forever.

I felt so fond of both Russell and Wilde when I was reading this.  Russell draws really lush, gorgeous comics – must take him ages! – and Oscar Wilde, bless him, was exactly like Oscar Wilde was.  Which is to say, revoltingly overdramatic, and in the next breath poking fun at the thing he was just emoting over.  So he waxes maudlin over the nightingale giving her life to make the rose, and two pages later the student who wanted the rose in the first place gets rejected by the object of his affections and says:

What a silly thing Love is.  It is not half as useful as Logic, for it does not prove anything, and it is always telling one of things that are not going to happen, and making one believe things that are not true. In fact, it is quite unpractical, and, as in this age to be practical is everything, I shall go back to Philosophy and study Metaphysics.

And then the student goes off and reads a book.  It’s so Oscar Wilde.

Can I make a confession?  It’s been weighing heavy on my soul.  When I was in high school, my good friend’s dog had puppies, and as I had just then started to be interested in Oscar Wilde, and was spending all my time telling her the new facts I had learnt about him, she named one of the puppies Oscar Wilde.  He was very goofy and bouncy, and she used to call him “Mr. Wibbles” as a nickname.  She’d say, “Oscar Wilde!  Hey Oscar Wilde!  You’re my Mr. Wibbles!”  So now – um.  Well, sometimes now – please don’t judge me – when I am feeling exceptionally fond of the real Oscar Wilde, or when I see a picture of him unexpectedly, and all my love for him rushes to the surface, it unbalances me and I think of him as Mr. Wibbles.

This is the very real danger of a time machine, y’all.  Suppose someone invents a time machine, and I use it to go back in time and meet Oscar Wilde, odds are I’d see him and become seriously overset and call him Mr. Wibbles by accident.  And then Oscar Wilde would be like, I hate you.  And then, who knows what would happen?  I’d be really sad!  In my pain and misery, I might go way back in time and stomp on a butterfly, out of spite.