A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 7 - Autumn 2015

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From Bow Street to the Ritz: Oscar Wilde’s Theatrical Career from 1895 to 1908 by Michael Seeney pp 177
(The Rivendale Press, High Wycombe, 2015) ISBN 978 1904 201 26 7

reviewed by Michelle C. Paull

The Rivendale Press has an eminent tradition of publishing specialist scholarly works, often privileging works focusing on ‘History of the Book’ research. The latest volume expands this detailed academic approach to literary history and reception to the theatrical field as well. Michael Seeney’s book on Wilde’s plays during this period rights the wrongs of the established critical assumption that Wilde’s plays disappeared from the London, and indeed the international stages immediately after his arrest in London on 5th April 1895 – the date Seeney’s volume takes as its starting point.

Seeney’s evidence meticulously illustrates that the accepted consensus that theatres went ‘dark’ on Wilde after 1895 until, at the very earliest six, if not thirteen, years later, is very far from the case. Seeney has explored a vast range of theatre programmes and playbills in addition to conventional critical resources and it is this research of such previously little reviewed that allows Seeney to demonstrate an important fact. While it is true that ‘Wilde’s name largely disappeared from the stage for many years’ (p11), this was often simply because his name had been removed from the programme, playbill and advertising for the plays, rather than because the plays themselves were not being produced on stage.

Choosing the timespan of the date of Wilde’s arrest to the date of Robert Ross’s acquisition of Wilde’s copyright as the chronological period for his book, Seeney can only focus on what he terms ‘the four comedies’ – Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband – partly because of the weight of evidence there is to provide and partly because they were the only plays performed in Britain during this period. As Seeney points out ‘during this period the four comedies were not only performed all over Britain and Ireland, but in Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa and China’ (p11). The American productions during this period ‘would need another volume in their own right’ (p11).

The volume is beautifully illustrated with carefully chosen examples of a selection of programmes and playbills for these productions. Many are rendered in vibrant colour detail, rarely achieved by a publisher Rivendale Press is to be commended for its high-quality presentation of the artefacts. This is particularly important in a book of this kind, where the reader needs to be able to see and interpret the visual material very much as they would have appeared to the public at the time. A pair of posters for A Woman of No Importance is particularly arresting; a vibrant red background features the figure of a woman in the fashionable black silhouetted- style, so beloved of the Victorians, with the plays’s title above her. The second poster features a mirror image of a silhouetted man on the same red background – whose cigarette smoke drifts above him to form the words ‘A Man of No Importance’. Because of the precision of the printing of this poster, readers are able to see that the lines of the man’s smoke complicate the depiction of the word ‘man’ , so that it can also be read as ‘woman’ on the ‘male’ poster. The complex consideration of gender politics in the play is thus rendered in a clever visual shorthand.

The opportunity to have this kind of scholarly material and analysis of theatrical artefacts which have often been considered unimportant in theatre criticism is rare and welcome. Seeney shows how the programmes and playbills demonstrate that the conventional understanding of Wilde as persona non grata during this period is misleading. Perhaps audiences did go to Wilde’s plays not knowing they were by the author during this period. But Seeney’s work shows how much audiences continued to enjoy the shows by their continual re-stagings.

Seeney’s research may also suggest that even if audiences were aware of Wilde as the playwright whose works they were watching, they may not have cared – they remained enthralled and engaged by Wilde’s plays despite all the claims of public outrage at Wilde’s personal life at the time. Work such as Seeney’s helps to re-write conventional critical assumptions about Victorian sensibility. Seeney’s book shows that Victorian audiences were far more sophisticated than our nostalgic representation of them suggests, since they were able to separate their enjoyment of Wilde’s work from his biography in a way that post-modern critics such as Roland Barthes would have been proud to witness.

Seeney’s chronology of the plays form the second part of the book and his research offers the proof of his thesis. In October 1895 alone for example, only 6 months after Wilde was arrested, there were five productions of The Importance of Being Earnest in Britain and, almost unbelievably given the influence of the Catholic Church, three in Ireland. As Seeney shows, Wilde’s plays remained popular and produced throughout his lifetime, the public bro-ha-ha did little to stop his popularity with the paying-public.

This is an essential book for all Wilde scholars and those interested in Wilde’s theatre. Seeney’s style is thorough, detailed and accessible. It is very much to be hoped that his volume on the American productions of Wilde’s work will not be far behind this one.