Monday, October 10, 2011

And the Oscar Goes To….

Vincent Price as Oscar Wilde

For many of us, there is one author who seems to capture the essence of our innermost thoughts and philosophies; our daydreams and waking dreams are put down on paper and the secrets of our lives exposed to the reading world before we have actually lived them.

For me, the author with whom I’ve had the most affinity was Oscar Wilde, patron saint of this blog.  My intellectual and spiritual relationship with Wilde’s work is worthy of a detailed essay, but for today I wanted to discuss representations of Wilde himself, presented in other media.

Though Wilde has appeared as a character in several films, I never thought that any particular actor has captured the whole essence of the man.  Robert Morley played Wilde on stage, and later in the 1960 film Oscar Wilde, but his interpretation never seemed to me in any way organic.  Never for a moment could I sufficiently suspend disbelief that I was watching Wilde rather than an amusing and witty actor cast outside of his range. 

For while Morley was an actor of surprising range when he chose to exercise it, physically and emotionally he was all wrong for Wilde.  In addition, Morley’s film was based on a very popular (at the time) play Oscar Wilde by Leslie and Sewall Stokes, which sought to paint Wilde as something of a tragic martyr.  He was indeed that, to a degree, but this view is such a distortion of the whole picture of Wilde’s life as to ring false.  (It’s interesting to note that John Neville played Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s seducer and destroyer; Neville and Morley played brothers Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes in the otherwise forgettable Study in Terror.)

Closer to the mark, I think, was Peter Finch, who played Wilde in The Trials of Oscar Wilde, also in 1960.  The film itself is not particularly good, though James Mason is a standout as Edward Carson, the man who prosecuted Wilde.  Finch’s Wilde was closer to a three-dimensional human being than the caricature created by Morley could ever hope to be, and one wishes that the performance was surrounded by a better film. 

Nickolas Grace played Wilde in Ken Russell’s ornate, rather repulsive Salome’s Last Dance in 1988.  Those familiar with Russell’s oeuvre will either be simpatico to his approach, or not.  This film is not available on DVD (neither are Oscar Wilde or The Trials of Oscar Wilde), but it often plays in revival houses and is interesting for the Russell completist.

The most critically successful Wilde in movies has been Stephen Fry, who starred in the simply titled Wilde in 1997.  This film was a significant success, and helped launch the career of Jude Law, who played Lord Alfred Douglas.  It’s time that I admitted to the rather unpopular view that I thought Fry was not particularly good in the part, and that the film underwhelming.  (Law, on the other hand, is a powerhouse, and possibly delivered his best performance to date – his Douglas is beguiling, dangerous and utterly crackers.)

Fry, director Brian Gilbert and screenwriter Julian Mitchell work so hard to make Wilde a tragedy that, they too, make the same error as Robert Morley: the tragic Wilde is not the complete picture, and is a distortion of the very essence of the man.  For despite how ornate or perfumed his character and outlandish and eccentric his behavior, Wilde was also the supreme comedian of his age.  Any motion picture of Wilde is fundamentally untrue unless it is also, to some degree, wickedly funny.  Wilde the martyr is free of comedy – but Wilde the comedian who became a martyr is a complex and more interesting figure.

Not surprisingly, Wilde is most effectively portrayed onstage, where audiences seem more comfortable with this paradox than in our movie houses.  Moisés Kaufman’s masterful Gross Indecency creates for us a Wilde who is archly funny and profoundly tragic.

Perhaps the finest representation of Wilde was in John Gay’s one-man play, Diversions and Delights, which starred Vincent Price on Broadway at the Eugene O’Neill Theater in 1978, and later, off-Broadway, at the Roundabout Theater.  The conceit of the play is Wilde, near the end of his life and living under the pseudonym Sebastian Melmoth, gave a lecture in Paris telling the story of his life.

It would be nearly impossible to imagine a more serendipitous collusion of actor and part than Vincent Price and Oscar Wilde.  Both were great champions of the arts, both men of deep erudition and each possessed a natural and delicious wit.  I was lucky enough see Price in Diversions and Delights at the Roundabout nearly every night of its run, and now whenever I think of Wilde, on one level or another I imagine Price.  It is, to date, the definitive performance of Wilde.

Happily, Gay’s Diversions and Delights is about to be revived by the Ensemble Theater Company under Kevin Shinnick.  We caught up with Mr. Shinnick last week to get an over of his plans for Diversions and Delights, and his vision of the fledgling Ensemble Theater Company.

Tell us about the Ensemble Theater Company

Well, Craig Dudley and came this close about two years back to getting a production of Diversions and Delights off the ground Off Broadway , so we decided we would now try and form a new nonprofit Professional Off Broadway Equity Approved Company.  Diversions and Delights will be our first production.

What are the company goals?

We want to offer hands-on experience and support to the next generation of theatre artists and audiences, and to produce quality, intelligent theatre that will engage, inspire, entertain and challenge with forgotten or retired theatrical productions; and to celebrate the essential power of the theatre and an ensemble cast to illuminate our common humanity.

We also want to provide opportunities to actors and others interested in pursuing a career in the theatre industry by offering them a chance to learn from seasoned mentors and give them exposure to talent, situations and experiences that they might not otherwise have in their current educational situations.  Though it’s probably best to remember something Wilde said at this point:  “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught!” - Oscar Wilde

Will you have a stock company of actors?

We will have company members but the ideal is to bring new talent both off and on stage , and let them work with those who are professionals and get them seen . Plus we want to provide talented professionals having difficulty getting seen to show their talent to others…

Why did you choose Diversions and Delights as your inaugural show?

Frankly, it is a show I fell in love with back in 1978 when I sat front row center and watched Vincent Price become the legendary wit and playwright.  
The play is currently unpublished (though trying to find a company smart enough to pick it up), so we were fortunate enough to speak to the very generous and talented author, John Gay. 

What is it about Oscar Wilde that continues to make him relevant and compelling in the 21st Century?

In an age of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell ,gay marriage, gay rights, as well as civil liberties being trod upon , free speech and free press  being stifled (there are protesters being stomped on at Wall Street as I make this reply ,whose protest went on for almost two weeks before the press in general began to cover it) and the general dumbing down of the general populace.

We feel that people want to see entertainment that also stimulates their mind, and has something to say on the human condition .  Another show we are looking at is a piece I directed 10 years ago called The Crimson Thread, which deals with women's issues, as well as unions, in a brilliant funny and touching fashion . 

What’s is like working with the playwright on this production.  What is his involvement?

We contacted him directly and he could not be nicer.  The play has been done rarely since the 1978 tour, so we hope our production will bring attention to this funny and touching piece.

Right now, we are trying to raise funds for the theatre company. If anyone wants to make a donation they can go to Donations from $5 to $5000 can be made via credit card through Fractured Atlas, and are tax deductible. 

Also, on November 18th, Sentimental Journey is performing at the TRIAD in NYC. Parts of the proceeds will go to benefit TETCNY's fundraiser campaign. You can learn more here at:  Also, people can visit our Web page at 

We’re looking for new members and contributors, as well as a Director of Development and a Web Site Designer.  Anyone interested can contact me through the Web site.

Thank you, Kevin!

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