Before we left for Europe, I spent some time looking through the theater listings in London. I had this notion that one could see shows in the West End for prices that were a mere fraction of what you might get soaked for near Broadway. H ultimately pointed out that I was remembering the 80s, a pre-lapsarian, possibly even edenic time.
Nonetheless, when I saw the advert for Paul Dale Vickers’ De Profundis I was stopped dead in my tracks. A musical version of Oscar Wilde’s blisteringly painful letter written during his imprisonment? A one-man show? De Profundis: the musical?
Obviously, I couldn’t resist this opportunity; it was just too strange to be believed. It had to be seen.
I thought about reading Wilde’s original beforehand, but decided I would rather face the music (sorry) without any preconceptions and preparations beyond the sketchiest notions I possessed from memories of The Ballad of Reading Gaol (which turned out to be completely irrelevant).
So we arrived at the Leicester Square Theater on a Sunday afternoon. Its frontage was tiny, the box office where we to call for tickets invisible. A man lounging near a sandwich board on the sidewalk told us that we’d made it to the right place and thanked us for spending our money on this very shaky show. Which might be performed today if the scenery arrived from Bristol or Manchester. And no, the box office wasn’t open.
We’d been walking the streets of London and the galleries of the British Museum for about four hours at that point, so we decided to retire to a restaurant up the lane to rest our bones and slake a thirst. A waiter disdainfully if not disbelievingly took our order for two lemonades. We waited until we saw more people gathering at the theater’s door; we approached; we were admitted. The barker leaning on the sandwich board had been having us on about the scenery’s non-arrival.
We descended a rank of dark stairs by feel as much as sight and stopped when a dim light revealed a space that may have been ten feet long and six wide and that seemed to be encased in gauze, or smoke, or just light. Faces floated in the darkness above the rough plank flooring, and a gap here and there indicated a seat where we might squeeze uncomfortably into the audience. The sound of water dripping in a corner somewhere overwhelmed whispered conversations. A dim but marginally brighter square of light to my right revealed itself to be the theater’s bar; two stools sat unoccupied in front of its dimness and we dragged them closer to what we now saw more as a stage than a smoky zone of light.
Alastair Brookshaw entered from somewhere in the darkness. A bolt of light illuminated him standing in the midst of the audience, some of whom were so close to him that they could trip him if they crossed their legs incautiously. And then, for the next hour, he sang. He was accompanied only by a piano, that dripping water, and lights which sometimes burst on him like fire, sometime haloed only his face, sometimes almost hid him from our view.
Wilde had fallen in love with Lord Alfred Douglas. Bosie, as the Lord was known, hated his father. After Wilde and Douglas returned from a continental voyage, Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury, publicly denounced Wilde (but not his son) as a sodomite. Bosie urged Wilde to vengeance and countersuit. Wilde, infatuated and stupid, agreed to attempt Queensbury’s destruction. He lost the suit, was imprisoned, and Bosie had no further use for or contact with Wilde.
Wilde the writer was denied access to pen and paper for the first part of his sentence, but eventually these strictures were loosened and he began the composition of a letter to his former lover that ran to twenty hand-written sheets. And although the prison officials allowed him to write it, they forbade its delivery. Wilde kept the letter with him until his release, and passed it on to a journalist named Robert Ross; it was published for the first time five years after Wilde’s death.
The show employs a combination of recitative and song to tell Wilde’s story and to capture his state of mind during his imprisonment. The recitatives supply the backstory described above and chronicle the series of humiliations to which the author was subjected: his arrest at the height of his fame and success (The Importance of Being Earnest had recently premiered to great acclaim), his exposure to a spitting, jeering mob on a railway platform, the death of his mother, the permanent removal of his children from his custody and care. These elements are to a great extent external to the text of De Profundis itself.
The text is used to supply motifs and themes for the songs that comprise the greater part of the performance. These speak more to Wilde’s interior landscape: his determination not to be overwhelmed by hatred, which he knows will poison his spirit and preclude him from ever creating art again. The desire, the need to create is what sustains him in his depths. As the story moves towards its conclusion and Wilde glimpses the possibility of release and freedom, he is able to project a vision of light and air, of sensual delight in the smell of flowers or the caress of a breeze. These ephemeral moments of hope, these tastes of a future unencumbered by misery, are the goal that he tries so desperately never to lose sight of. Wilde lived in the hope that he would one day regain not simply his freedom, but the ability to make art, and it is with this vision and this hope that the show concludes.
How much crueler, then, to understand that these hopes proved to be little more than illusions. Broken in health, spurned by the society that had applauded his wit, Wilde fled London for the Continent shortly after his release. He died in Paris a few years later, having composed only one more work of art, The Ballad of Reading Gaol. This long poem was based on the execution of a fellow prisoner that occurred during Wilde’s own incarceration. But it is not pity that animates Wilde’s soul so much as it is a broader sense of common humanity, and an awareness of the brutality of injustice gives the poem its power.
But none of this aftermath is explicitly addressed by Vickers. It remains the work of the audience to discover the profound sorrow that snatched life and redemption from Wilde. De Profundis, the musical, is all the more powerful for leaving this conclusion unstated.
Vickers’ De Profundis ran for six weeks in the early summer, playing to very small audiences. I wonder if as many as 500 people had the chance to see it; I wonder what will become of it now. I know that it would be a shame if this remarkable piece of theater disappears from sight, although I fear that it may sink like a stone into its own black depths of Lethe. The music, as heart-breakingly lovely as it is, did not sound like the stuff of Broadway; that, along with the intimacy of the staging that was necessary to achieve the emotional impact of the performance, probably doesn’t make for the prospect of commercial success and longevity. Nor, I suspect, would it survive translation into another medium. (Almost 30 years ago, again in London, I saw Derek Jacobi bring to life a similar story of criminalized sexuality in Breaking the Code, a biographical treatment of Alan Turing’s life and death. Although Jacobi ultimately starred in a BBC production of the play, the magic of watching Jacobi, in what was largely a one-man show, shrug off his jacket and with it, thirty years of age, transforming himself from code-breaker at Bletchley to college undergraduate with a simple, mundane movement, could not be replicated on the screen.)
And so this improbable, heart-breaking, exquisite production may be lost in a welter of frenzied block-busting excuses for entertainment. More’s the pity. Wilde’s story continues to fascinate us; I only hope that Vickers’ treatment of it can be sustained as well. It deserves a place in our history.