Divine Justice for the Soul

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Review of 'Saint Oscar', Terry Eagleton, Bookmarks £3.50

On the other side of the Strand from Charing Cross station is a strange statue to one of the street's most famous residents and its most gifted ever writer. An iron bust of Oscar Wilde looks up from a concrete coffin which bears the legend, 'We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars'. Walking past, I always find it reassuring to place my hand on Oscar's head and spare him a quick thought, destroyed as he was by the British state, dead at 46, a man of rare humanity.

When Terry Eagleton read extracts from his little-known play Saint Oscar to a packed audience in Manchester in aid of the Bookmarks libel fund appeal, he brought the house down. Now Bookmarks and the writer have done us all the great service of reprinting this gem of a play, and enabling a wider audience to share in its insight, wit and bawdy humour.

Eagleton has written a play that reclaims Wilde from the usual nonsense written about him which seeks to reduce him to a figure of ridicule and pity, the author of his own tragic downfall. For a man often still portrayed as a sinner, Eagleton redresses the balance persuasively.

Wilde's most famous works - The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Importance of Being Earnest - explore the themes of how we represent ourselves to others, and how we can be true to ourselves. Eagleton uses these themes to investigate Wilde's life and thought, his Irishness and his socialism. In this 'theatre of ideas', as Eagleton puts it in his useful introduction, there is hardly any action, but there is marvellous dialogue, a chorus which peppers the play with some piquant songs, and some great one-liners ('Sweet Bosie, how I love him. What bollocks.')

The play begins shortly before Wilde's trial for 'gross indecency'. We are introduced to Oscar's wonderfully melodramatic mother, Lady Wilde. She has as many contradictions as Wilde himself. She is a Protestant gentlewoman and a Fenian, more renowned for her high society literary salon than her Republican poetry. She reminds Oscar of his roots, and of Irish history: 'The Irish have no history. It belongs entirely to the English.'

Next, Eagleton introduces a fictional socialist, Richard Wallace. He makes reference to Wilde's delightful and passionate pamphlet The Soul of Man Under Socialism. Wallace locates the trial and the late-Victorian obsession with the family within the logic of capitalism. 'Your cause and the workers' struggle are the same,' he insists.

In the first part of Act Two, Wilde is cross-examined by his boyhood friend and old Trinity College classmate Edward Carson. Drawing loosely on the court transcripts, Eagleton gives us a memorable trial scene. 'Homosexual behaviour is as English as Morris dancing, if somewhat less tedious', is Wilde's unsuccessful defence. The chorus now represents the renters who willingly give graphic and damning evidence.

Carson's summing up is cleverly written. We see exactly why Wilde's irreverence and iconoclasm were so dangerous to the British state, and why they needed to silence him. Wilde received the maximum sentence of two years hard labour. I always found it hard to imagine Wilde in prison, but Eagleton realises him beautifully, full of humility and humiliation. He is briefly visited by his beloved Bosie, the despicable Lord Alfred Douglas, who understands nothing of his own part in Wilde's downfall.

Out of prison, deserted and in exile, we finally meet Oscar in a Paris bar, begging his old friends for the price of a few glasses of wine. Wallace, who has now inherited his father's business, sees him and comes over to talk. His socialist enthusiasm has waned, but not Oscar's. 'Wallace: The most we can hope for is a rather more humane form of capitalism. Wilde: Don't be absurd... That's like saying the most you can hope for is to get the pox in one ball only.'

The play ends with an almost apocalyptic premonition of Sir Edward Carson in military uniform, with the chorus now as drummer boys. Carson created the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1912 to oppose Irish Home Rule, and he marches off shouting, 'No surrender!'

Eagleton wrote Saint Oscar in 1989, at the height of the 'Troubles', and he successfully locates Wilde's story within the wider history of Ireland. Field Day, the influential theatre group that first performed the play (directed by Trevor Griffiths, starring Stephen Rea) was established in 1980 in Derry as a means to explore Irish cultural identity. It involved many of the best writers and actors from the north of Ireland and beyond, including Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney and Tom Paulin, and it produced not only plays but also pamphlets on culture and theory.

I wholeheartedly recommend this play. It is a funny and insightful read which helps to deepen our understanding of Oscar Wilde, artist, Irishman, comrade, saint.