No longer a theater, it may have been just another empty converted office building symbolic of a Midwest hollowed out by recession, but it was still there. Unlike so many of the Wilde’s lecture venues which were lost to fire in gaslit days, surely, one thought, this building had survived that fate.
But no, and here’s what makes the loss a little more personal.
Just a day earlier I had been discussing which city from Wilde’s lecture tour that I would most like to visit. No kidding. I said St Joseph, Missouri. One reason was that both Wilde’s hotel and lecture theater were extant, and very few cities that can boast that—although there is one fewer now.
There was also much history attached to the city, and I have already featured the story of Wilde’s hotel on this blog here: Oscar Wilde’s Pony Tale, and thankfully that building remains. But we must now bid farewell to Wilde’s lecture theater. Somewhere, the grand chandelier grows dim one last time.
Today is April 14, a date noted in history for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the sinking of the Titanic. Not that Oscar Wilde had much to do with either event, although he once met the former President’s widow, Mary Lincoln, when she was living in retirement in New York City; and two of his friends died in the Titanic disaster.
But April 14 is also the 161st anniversary of the opening of the short-lived but historic Pony Express, and this, surprisingly, does give me an opportunity to talk a little about Oscar Wilde.
by John Cooper With the kind assistance and guidance of Rob Marland and Matthew Sturgis. *
The artist Banksy has recently demonstrated that deliverance from Reading Gaol remains a popular concept. But, as you might imagine, Oscar Wilde’s real life liberation from the prison was an even more newsworthy event back in 1897.
Oscar himself attested to the potential for a public invasion of his privacy. This is what he wrote to his dear friend, Reggie Turner, just prior to his release:
Already the American interviewer and the English journalist have arrived in Reading: the Governor of the Prison has just shown me a letter from an American interviewer stating that he will be here with a carriage on Wednesday morning for me, and offering any sum I like if I will breakfast with him! Is it not appalling?
(Complete Letters, 829).
The archive photograph of Reading Gaol (above) curiously portends such a carriage handover. But, of course, no interview took place outside Reading prison—appalling breakfast or otherwise—nor could it, because Wilde was not discharged from the prison system at Reading. He was spirited 43.8 miles away to be released from Pentonville Prison in London, his first place of incarceration.
This subterfuge, and others along the way, protected Wilde’s seclusion well enough, and so history has chronicled Wilde’s removal from Reading free from the Fourth Estate.
But now it is time to reconsider the event—particularly for those who might underestimate the doggedness of the Victorian press. Could it really be possible that, in fact, there exists a hitherto forgotten prison interview?
As remarkable as this sounds, it appears that a media dialogue of sorts could have taken place with Wilde at Reading Gaol.