I am grateful to the Grand Rapids Ballet for inviting me to come and sign copies of Oscar’s Ghost during the May 11 performance of their new ballet The Happy Prince.
It was an ambitiously original performance in an era when even many larger companies often rely on old standards to attract a guaranteed audience. (Swan Lake anyone?)
Choreographer Penny Saunders was inspired by the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde, which she found “haunting and beautiful.”
That “haunting” tone was evident throughout the ballet in the musical selections, lighting, and choreography. It had a surreal quality especially as the light tone and colors of the first act shifted into darkness as the story progressed. I was a bit surprised when I arrived at the theater and looked at the program to see that the ballet was less the stories of Wilde than the story of Wilde.
The underlying drama was Oscar Wilde’s rise and fall with The Happy Prince, The Selfish Giant and other tales used as narration as metaphors for the playwright’s own life much as the 1997 film Wilde used The Selfish Giant as a metaphor for Wilde’s relationship with his sons.
Of course, as the author of Oscar’s Ghost, I have some opinions about the depiction of Robert Ross and Bosie Douglas in the production. The Happy Prince depicts the De Profundis/Robert Ross narrative about Wilde, which presents Ross as Wilde’s constant, ever-loyal good influence set against Bosie as Wilde’s passion and bad influence. The program describes Ross as “the helpful swallow to Oscar’s Happy Prince, offering him support and compassion, throughout his life.” Choreographically, Ross appeared, in the form of dancer Nigel Tau, as a calming presence, with a hand on the shoulder of Isaac Aoki as Wilde, after scenes of chaos.
Bosie, danced by Matt Wenckowski, by contrast, was described as someone who Wilde could not satisfy. “Bosie does little to repay him, dragging Wilde deeper into an illicit world, acting incredibly rude towards Constance, and antagonizing those who disapprove of the two men’s relationship.”
You can see how the illicit world looks in ballet in this clip.
Bosie was a man of moods, and he did clash with a number of people, especially in his later years. There is little evidence, however, that Constance and Bosie were at odds before Wilde went to jail or that he was rude to her. In fact, Bosie wrote of her in his autobiography in complementary terms. It does not appear that Constance was aware of her husband’s sexual orientation or habits until it all came pouring out in court.
If you have read Oscar’s Ghost you will know that Oscar did not need to be dragged into the red light district by Bosie or anyone, that some of his other friends were as instrumental or more, in introducing Wilde to “the gutter.” Also Wilde had been playing with the idea of a passion that burns so bright it destroys its object in his writing long before Bosie appeared on the scene. For example in his play Salome, in which Salome wants to see John the Baptist’s head on a platter not for theological or political reasons, but because she loves him and is so determined to kiss his lips she is willing to have him decapitated to do it. It was as much artistic fashioning as actual history and the prison context that made Wilde depict Bosie as a fatal passion in De Profundis and in letters to Robbie Ross.
The entire feud between Ross and Douglas after Wilde’s death was sparked by another question: whether Bosie abandoned Wilde when the money ran out. Bosie sued the author Arthur Ransome for libel for making such a claim. He prepared to go into court to show that he had not abandoned Wilde at all. In fact, he had lived with him, supported him financially and had only separated from him because of insurmountable outside pressure from families on both sides. (At one point when they were living together in Naples, a representative of the British consulate actually came to their house to let the couple know that England disapproved of their living arrangement.)
In court, Bosie did prove that he had not abandoned Wilde, which was supposed to be the whole point. But a strange thing happened. Thanks to personal letters that Bosie had written to Ross when they were close friends, which described events that left little doubt to his sexuality, as well as a dramatic reading of previously unpublished parts of Wilde’s prison manuscript De Profundis (through which Bosie sat pale, emotionally overwhelmed, and flipping through pages of the Bible for comfort) the trial became less about whether Bosie had abandoned Wilde than whether he had been his lover.
The lawyer for Ransome asked the jury to put aside the question of abandonment and not to reward a person who was as guilty as Wilde of homosexual crimes. The judge instructed the jury in the same vein. The jury found in favor of Ransome, not because Bosie had abandoned Wilde, but because he had not and this disgusted them. Even so, the opposite impression was passed down through history. In fact, Bosie and Oscar remained close until Wilde’s early death in 1900. “Somehow he is my life,” Wilde told Reggie Turner.
These historical quibbles, however, are small matters when it comes to the performance. I can’t say, for example, that the idea that Bosie abandoned Wilde was clear to me in the staging of the ballet, and in choreography Bosie and Constance being in conflict can be as much a depiction of the tension of the whole social situation rather than a specific episode of historical rudeness. The stories of ballets exist as a frame on which to hang choreography more than the ballet exists to tell a story. As George Balanchine said, “In ballet a complicated story is impossible to tell. We can’t dance synonyms.”
The choreography had substantial modern influence, a tone which I found most effective in the third act after Wilde’s downfall. Unfortunately, during Friday night’s performance there were problems with the sound system which caused the dancers to perform passages in silence. This is impressive in its own way. (One of the reviews of a performance of my partner Valery Lantratov’s tour with Rudolf Nureyev mentioned the sound going out and Valery dancing his entire variation without music, which garnered him a standing ovation.) But in the second act, after a loud pop, the curtain closed to deal with the technical difficulty which did interfere with the momentum of that bit of the show. Once the act resumed, however, the pause was quickly forgotten.
Congratulations to all involved, and thank you for allowing me to be a small part of the evening.