Oscar Wilde's lost play about a loyal wife gets world premiere

Story has clear echoes of playwright's own troubled home life

By Kate Youde
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:34

A little-known play attributed to Oscar Wilde is to be performed for the first time, promising fans new insight into the dramatist's colourful life.

The 107-seat King's Head Theatre above a pub in north London stages the world première of Constance in September, with actors normally more accustomed to treading the boards at the National Theatre vying to appear. Producer Adam Spreadbury-Maher, the theatre's artistic director, said Constance was a "major discovery" as it was the only play written by a Wilde "who has known the depths of depression" after his fall from success and imprisonment for gross indecency with men.

"It is a Wilde we have never seen before on stage, and that is why it is so important and ought to be included in his collected works," he said.

Wilde outlined the plot for Constance, which shares its name with his wife, in a letter to actor-manager George Alexander in 1894. But it is believed he started writing the play only after his release from prison in 1897, when the exiled Wilde sold "exclusive rights" to the story to various different people.

Wilde's manuscript ended up with the American actress Cora Brown Potter, before passing to French writer Guillot de Saix following her death. He and colleague Henri de Briel put together a French translation, which appeared in a French literary magazine in 1954. At the time Wilde's son, Vyvyan Holland, said the play seemed to be his father's.

According to the author and theatre critic Charles Osborne, who translated the French version back into English, de Briel was suspected of collaborating with the Germans during the Second World War, and members of the resistance probably destroyed Wilde's original text.

The plot centres on a rich industrialist and self-made man, William Daventry, and his loyal, well-connected wife, Constance. An illicit union between Daventry and the wife of one of their guests leads Constance to protect her husband. But she later leaves him, and the action moves from Twickenham to Lake Constance at the foot of the Alps.

Franny Moyle, whose biography, Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde was published last month, said there were parallels between the character Constance and Wilde's "constant" wife.

"It's very interesting that in the play she does fall for someone else and she's pushed to doing it because that does happen to Constance Wilde," she said.

John Stokes, emeritus professor of English at King's College London, who is editing Wilde's journalism, said it promised to be a "fascinating production" but urged caution about assuming these were Wilde's exact words. He said the French text was "very problematic".

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