12 May 2011

“Nothing But My Genius”: Oscar Wilde Discovers America

By Brian
& Richard E. Kramer


[Back in the spring of 1986, I took a class at NYU called Production Dramaturgy. The course project was to make an adaptation of non-dramatic material for a stage performance so my partner, Brian Drutman, and I decided to draw on the aphorisms and other sayings of Oscar Wilde (supplemented, I admit, with quotations from several of his plays) to compile an “illustrated lecture” of Wilde’s visit to the United States. (Wilde had left England on 24 December 1881 to tour the U.S. and lecture on Aestheticism, not only a popular subject of the day, but one with which Wilde had been associated, even in caricature. He stayed in America until 27 December 1882.) Our concept was that while Wilde was lecturing, the “slides” would be brought to life by a small cast speaking the writer’s words in brief scenes, the dialogue for which was taken from his occasional comments about America. The performance was to be fashioned in the style of a Victorian music hall (akin to our vaudeville) entertainment.

[Aphorisms such as “Women—sphinxes without secrets” and whole sections of dialogue appear in many of Wilde’s writings and in his conversations as well. He was not one to abandon a good line, whether he had used it before himself, or someone else had originated it. A case in point is an occasion when Wilde admired a remark of James McNeill Whistler, the American painter who lived in London. “I wish I had said that,” he applauded. “You will, Oscar,” rejoined Whistler, “you will.” (Like the section below of one-liners accompanying projections of caricatures of Wilde, we thought there might also be a section that would include actual photographs of the luminaries with whom Wilde associated, and about whom he often spoke. Whistler would be included, of course, as well as the actress Lillian Russell, who appeared in the American production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1881 operetta Patience, for which he served as an inspiration (as a figure of ridicule), and for the American opening of which (22 September at the Standard Theatre, New York) he traveled to America.

[Though Brian and I worked out the whole text in outline, the class requirement was only to produce a sample scene, so we assembled the dialogue only for two sections, reproduced below. (There are far more sources of material than those on which we drew, including Wilde’s own Impressions of America (1906) as well as newspaper accounts of his arrival and tour, and a full realization of the project would have included mining these for more quips and maxims, but our class project didn’t allow for extensive research; an actual adaptation for a theater’s season would have required it, however.) The program is made up not of scenes, but of thematic blocks, each dealing with a different aspect of American society as Wilde sees it. The blocks cover Travel, Art, Men & Women, Marriage & Divorce, Parents & Children, and Manners & Behavior. We also panned two sets of Interludes with songs and other late-19th-century diversions.

[The title of the piece, Nothing But My Genius, comes from a response Wilde uttered upon first setting foot on American soil in 1882. When the writer disembarked from the SS Arizona in New York on 2 January, he was asked by a customs inspector what he had to declare. “Nothing,” Wilde quipped, “Nothing but my genius.” The sample scenes were completed on 12 May 1986.]

* * * *

The Players:

OSCAR WILDE: A man in his late 20’s or early 30’s, made up to represent Wilde in 1883, when he was 29.

MATURE MAN: A man over the age of 40; the Sir Robert Chiltern or Lord Caversham type in Wilde’s plays.

MATURE WOMAN: A woman over the age of 40; the Lady Bracknell or Duchess of Berwick type.

YOUNG MAN: A man in his late 20’s or early 30’s; the Dorian Gray, Algernon Moncrieff, or Jack Worthing type.

YOUNG WOMAN: A woman in her 20’s; the Lady Windermere, Cecily Cardew, or Gwendolen Fairfax type.

THE PIANIST: A young woman, probably in her early 20’s; very attractive in a wholesome sort of way. She should be a soprano with a pleasing, but non-operatic voice.

(Despite their resemblance to the Britons in Wilde’s writings, all of the characters except WILDE and THE PIANIST, and others where specifically indicated, are Americans.)

It is 1883 and Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills WILDE (1854-1900), the renowned Anglo-Irish poet, critic, novelist, and lecturer on “aesthetics,” has recently returned from a well-publicized trip to the United States (2 January-27 December 1882). He is lecturing in England to an English audience about his impressions of America and about his views on American society. It is a portrait of the United States painted with Wilde’s sensibility. He’s appearing in a traditional proscenium style auditorium. That is to say, it has a raised stage with wings and an area for paying customers in front. The room resembles a late-19th-century Lyceum or lecture hall. Box seats, while not necessary to the presentation itself, would certainly add to the ambiance and authenticity of such a setting. If an actual period theater, such as Ford’s Theatre in Washington, cannot be used, then the designer should, through drawings, photographs, or any other means, strive to make the space as authentic as possible. In front of the theater should hang showbills which advertise the entertainment, and also list the subjects on the program in their order of appearance. These should be in the style and language of the period. The object is to simulate the trappings and conditions of an actual travelogue and illustrated lecture in the late 19th century.

Wilde’s talk is divided into thematic blocks, each with its own title, and directors are free to choose whether they will display the title with a magic-lantern slide, in accord with the concept for much of the visual material, or with a placard or sandwich-board so popular in the music halls and vaudeville. The blocks are Travel (including all of Wilde’s adventures journeying by rail and boat, and some discussion of American history and the building of the American nation); Art (WILDE’s pontifications on American painting, including his experiences with James McNeill Whistler, sculpture and music, and the criticism of these fields; also discussion of Patience); Men & Women; Marriage & Divorce (in both blocks: men, women, and a partial discussion of marriage and relations between the genders in America); Parents & Children (WILDE harps on the touchy issue of American child rearing, children’s education, and the eternal differences between youth and maturity); Manners & Behavior (a discourse on American society and WILDE’s views on such matters as smoking, recreation, and work). The various techniques and rhythms that are used in the two scenes below will reappear elsewhere in the production. The slide-to-live-action and live-action-to-slide sequences, as well as slides with voice-over and slides without commentary will all be several blocks. Some techniques that do not appear at all in the two scenes below, but were considered for other sequences, include repeated lines and phrases that WILDE often used on more than one occasion.

There are Interludes between the “Art” and “Men & Women” blocks, and between “Parents & Children” and “Manners & Behavior.” One of these must certainly include the handsome young lady at the pianoforte who will sing appropriate selections. Other members of the ensemble may join in. (During the interludes, one bit should include the song “Am I Alone” from Patience accompanied by the engraving “The Aesthetic Monkey.”)

Stage right, at the proscenium arch, stands a lectern or podium which will be used by the actor playing Oscar WILDE. The curtain is down as the program begins. A young woman is playing the piano as the audience enters the auditorium. The piece should be the overture of an operetta or any other lively period work. The program begins with WILDE’s entrance from stage left. He should be dressed in his famous (or notorious) “aesthetic” attire. That is to say, a red velvet suit with knee britches and floppy necktie. His hair should be shoulder length, and in one hand he should hold a sunflower, his trademark. (The sunflower motif might also be used to decorate the playbills and handbills that announce this engagement.) WILDE crosses to center stage and acknowledges the applause with an appreciative bow. He then continues to the podium and begins the lecture.

WILDE introduces himself in tongue-in-cheek manner. He “warms-up” the audience with his witticisms. He then explains the nature of the evening lecture. As WILDE gives his introduction, the curtain should rise to reveal a double scrim against which slides will be projected. The slides should be of the style and quality of the photographs of the period. The actors playing the characters in the production will have been posed and photographed in period clothing inside or in front of the featured buildings and locales. The idea is to simulate actual hand-painted glass magic-lantern slides. Posing the actors in front of a painted setting or backdrop to be photographed is also a possibility. This technique was widely practiced at the time. (At times, the slides do not behave as they are supposed to, occasionally being upside down, reversed, broken or just in the wrong order.) One scrim is at an angle stage left and the other at an angle stage right. Each should be three-quarters of the way downstage.

BLOCK 4: MEN & WOMEN

WILDE

During the introduction, and at several other times when WILDE speaks, slides coinciding with what he is saying will be projected onto the scrims onstage. The specific places where slides change are marked with an asterisk (*).

The contrast between American men and women interests me. When traveling abroad, the women make our beauties jealous by their clever wit and the men wander about in a melancholy manner treating the old world as if it were a Broadway store [*American couple in front of the Louvre buying a copy of the Mona Lisa from a street artist] and each city a counter for the sampling of shoddy goods.


[*MATURE MAN hosting WILDE] At home the American man is the best of companions, as he is the most hospitable of hosts. [*The women at leisure] Nevertheless, it is only the women who have any leisure at all; and, as a necessary result of this curious state of things, there is no doubt but that, within a century from now, the whole culture of the New World will be in petticoats [*an advertisement for foundations garments].

On the scrim stage left a magic-lantern slide is projected. After enough time has elapsed for the audience fully to comprehend the projected picture, the scrim shall rise, taking the projected image with it.

The actors are revealed onstage, posed in the same positions they held in the photographs: a tableau vivant of the photographed scene. The costumes should be identical to those in the picture. The actors “come to life” and begin the scene. The idea is to create the feeling that the slide has dissolved into living actors. Any props, such as tables or chairs will be revealed with the actors. There will be no background scenery once the slide has disappeared; the actors must evoke the place. The process should be the same for most of the slides featured in the program.

This scene features two men, one mature and the other younger, posed in front of a woman’s lingerie or corset shop, perhaps the kind found on Broadway or Fifth Avenue. They are waiting for their wives, and are dressed in high period New York style with top hat and walking stick. The slide dissolves.

YOUNG MAN

I think she is a genius.

MATURE MAN

My dear boy, no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals.

YOUNG MAN
But I don’t understand?

MATURE MAN

That is the point. You should never try to understand them. Woman are pictures. men are problems. If you want to know what a woman really means—which, by the way, is ways a dangerous thing to do—look at her, don’t listen to her.
YOUNG MAN

But women are awfully clever, aren’t they?

MATURE MAN

One should always tell them so.

YOUNG MAN

How can a woman have so much power as you say she has?

MATURE MAN

The history of women is the history of the worst form of tyranny the world has ever known. The Tyranny of the weak over the strong. It is the only tyranny that lasts.

YOUNG MAN

Still, there are many different kinds of women, aren’t there?

MATURE MAN

I find that, ultimately, there are only two kinds of women in America: The plain and the scarlet. The plain are very useful. If you want to gain a reputation for respectability, you have merely to take them down to supper. The other women are very charming. They commit one mistake, however. They paint in order to try and look young. As long as a woman can look ten years younger than her daughter, she is satisfied. As for conversation, there are only five woman in this city worth talking to and two of them can’t be admitted into decent society.

YOUNG MAN

Really! There are good women in America, aren’t there?


MATURE MAN

Far too many.

The MATURE MAN exits stage right, and a period slide portrait of Lily Langtry is projected on the stage-left scrim. The YOUNG MAN takes center stage as WILDE crosses to him and hands him the sunflower and returns to the podium. Alone, YOUNG MAN recites to the portrait:

YOUNG MAN

A lily girl, not made for this world’s pain,
With brown, soft hair close braided by her ears,
And longing eyes half veiled by slumb’rous tears
Like bluest water seen through mists of rain;
Pale cheeks whereon no love hath left its stain,
Red underlip drawn in for fear of love,
And white throat, whiter than the silvered dove,
Through whose wan marble creeps one purple vein.
Yet, though my lips shall praise her without cease,
Even to kiss her feet I am not bold,
Being o’ershadowed by the wings of awe.
Like Dante, when he stood with Beatrice
Beneath the flaming Lion’s breast and saw
The seventh Crystal, and the Stair of Gold.

Lights out on YOUNG MAN and up on WILDE.

WILDE

Charming, utterly charming. Indeed, American girls are little oases of pretty unreasonableness in a vast dessert of practical common sense.

The YOUNG WOMAN rises from a planted seat in the audience. She addresses WILDE in the English tones of one of the actual paying customers.

YOUNG WOMAN

Excuse me, Mr. Wilde, but I feel that they are far to pretty. These American girls carry off all the good matches. Why can’t they stay in their own country? They are always telling us that it is a paradise of women.

WILDE

It is, my dear. That is why, like Eve, they are so extremely anxious to get out of it.

YOUNG WOMAN

What is more, one never knows who their parents are.

WILDE

American women are wonderfully clever in concealing their parents.

YOUNG WOMAN exits near the stage and takes her place for the next slide.

WILDE

As for American men, they are entirely given to business. They have, as they say, their brains in front of their heads. At an age when we are still boys at Eton, or lads at Oxford, [*a boy clerking or apprenticing] they are practicing some important profession, making money in some intricate business. [*Men at work] Real experience seems to come to them such sooner than it does to us. I can stand brute force, but brute reason is quite unbearable. There is something unfair about its use. It is like hitting below the intellect.

[*Affable young men] The young men are, nevertheless, especially pleasant, with their bright eyes and their unwavering energy. If the English girl ever met one, she would marry him; and if she married him, she would be happy. [*More affable young men] For, though he may be rough in manner and deficient in the picturesque insincerity of romance, he is invariably kind and thoughtful. America must be the only country in the world where Don Juan is not appreciated.

On the scrim stage right, a slide shows MATURE WOMAN and YOUNG WOMAN strolling in a well-groomed park. They are dressed with beautiful bonnets and parasols. The slide dissolves.

MATURE WOMAN

Men always want to be a woman’s first love. That is their clumsy vanity. We women have a more subtle instinct about things. What we like is to be a man’s last romance.

YOUNG WOMAN

You don’t mean to tell me that you won’t forgive a man because he never loved anyone else? I think it greatly to their credit. It is much to be regretted that a wife should be so persistently frivolous under the impression apparently that it is the proper thing to be. It is to that I attribute the unhappiness of marriages.

MATURE WOMAN

My dear, I don’t think the frivolity of the wife has ever anything to do with it. More marriages are ruined nowadays by the common sense of the husband than by anything else. How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly rational being?

YOUNG WOMAN

Then, tell me your conception of the Ideal Husband.

MATURE WOMAN

The Ideal Husband? This couldn’t be such a thing. The institution is wrong.

The stage goes black. Alternately on the two scrims, various slides of period caricatures, drawings and cartoons of WILDE are projected with voice-over one-liners by various of the company.

MATURE MAN

I sometimes think that God in creating man, somewhat overestimated His ability.

YOUNG WOMAN

How many men there are in modern life who would like to see their past burning to white ashes before them!

MATURE WOMAN

. . . I don’t like compliments, and I don’t see shy a man should think he’s pleasing a woman enormously when he says to her a whole heap of things that he doesn’t mean.

YOUNG MAN

Women are sphinxes without secrets.

Lights back up on WILDE.

BLOCK 5: MARRIAGE & DIVORCE

WILDE

[*A wedding] Marriage is not a thing one can do new and again, except, of course in America. On the whole, howeer, there is a great success in the states and it is due partly to the fact that no American man is ever idle and [*dinner party] partly due to the fact that no American wife is considered responsible for the quality of her husband’s dinners. In America, the horrors of domesticity are almost entirely unknown. Of course married life is merely a habit, a bad habit. (WILDE looks up to see that no slide has been projected onto the scrim. He pauses momentarily, then continues, hoping the slide projectionist will catch up with him.) But one regrets the loss of even one’s worst habits. (WILDE looks up again. When still no slide appears, he takes several pages of his lecture notes and tosses them over his shoulder. He clears his throat before going on.) [*A hotel of boarding house] The Yankee habit of living in hotels and boarding-houses does away with any necessity for those hideous têtes-à-têtes that are the dream of engaged couples and the despair of married ones.

On the scrim stage left, the slide shows the interior of a typically American men’s club. A possible choice is the tennis club and casino at Newport, RI, designed by Stanford White. The men are relaxing over a game or papers, and they smoke cigars. The slide dissolves.

MATURE MAN

The amount of women in this city who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It is simply washing one’s clean linen in public.

YOUNG MAN

With all due respect to you, Sir, I believe that girls do not flirt with the men that they marry. They do not think it right.

MATURE MAN

That is nonsense.

YOUNG MAN

It isn’t. It is a great truth. It accounts for the extraordinary number of bachelors that one sees all over the place.

MATURE MAN

Well, once they are married, then, they flirt with their husbands. Even across the dinner table. That is not very pleasant. Indeed, it is not even decent . . . and this sort of thing is enormously on the increase. Furthermore, it’s most dangerous for a husband to pay much attention to his wife in public. It always makes people think that he beats her when they’re alone.

Several slides of the women in various locations and activities are shown without commentary. Among them, one is upside down and one is jammed in the projector. Finally, a slide appears of the two women sitting at a table and chairs with afternoon refreshments. The slide dissolves into the scene.

MATURE WOMAN

You see, it is a very dangerous thing to listen. If one listens, one may be convinced and a man who allows himself to be convinced by an argument is a thoroughly unreasonable person.

YOUNG WOMAN

Ah! That accounts for so much in men that I have never understood, and so much in women that our husbands never appreciate in us.

MATURE WOMAN

(With a sigh) Our husbands never appreciate anything is us. We have to go to others for that!

YOUNG WOMAN

(Emphatically) Yes, always to others, have we not?

MATURE WOMAN

My husband is quite hopelessly faultless. He is really unendurably so, at times. There is not the smallest element of excitement in knowing him.

YOUNG WOMAN

Mine is quite as bad; he is as domestic as if he was a bachelor.

MATURE WOMAN

My poor dear. We have married perfect husbands, and we are well punished for it.

YOUNG WOMAN

(Laughing) My husband would say it was they who were punished.

MATURE WOMAN

Oh, dear, no! They are as happy as possible. And as for trusting us, it is tragic how much they trust us.

YOUNG WOMAN

Perfectly tragic.

The women form a tableau which is replaced by a slide of the identical scene as the scrim closes around the actors. Several slides of domestic scenes follow without commentary, then a slide of a theater marquee is projected, followed by a slide of a famous American comic actor of the period. The lights come up on WILDE.

WILDE

I once saw a well-known American actor perform a scene in pajamas. There has since been the greatest sympathy for his wife. It throws a lurid light on the difficulties of their married life.

* * * *
[At the time Brian and I assembled Nothing But My Genius, only two Wilde bio-movies had been released (Oscar Wilde, 1960, with Robert Morley as the writer; The Trails of Oscar Wilde, also 1960, starring Peter Finch); since 1986, of course, Stephen Fry made Wilde in 1997. On stage, Wilde had been portrayed in an obscure French play, Le Procès d’Oscar Wilde (The trial of Oscar Wilde) by Maurice Rostand (1934), and somewhat less obscure English one, Leslie and Sewall Stokes’s Oscar Wilde (1938, the basis for the 1960 film of the same title), then in Moisés Kaufman’s Gross Indecency: The Trials of Oscar Wilde in 1997.

[I’ve edited the front matter of the script a little, but the scenes themeselves are presented just as Brian and I composed them 25 years ago. I didn’t get Brian Drutman’s permission to post this project, though he owns half of it. I’m afraid I don’t know where he is or what he’s doing now. I’m sure he won’t object to sharing our effort with readers on ROT.]

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