First English

SALOME | A TRAGEDY IN ONE ACT
TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH OF OSCAR WILDE
FIRST ENGLISH EDITION, one of 500 copies
[Author’s collection]

EARLY TRANSLATIONS OF OSCAR WILDE’S SALOMÉ

Wilde’s play Salomé was published in the 1890s in two languages, and the bane of each was a lordly limitation.

First was the original work that Wilde wrote in French—albeit with a little help from his friends. Rehearsals in 1892 for a London production based on the French draft were unexpectedly derailed by the Lord Chamberlain who deemed the drama too decadent to be staged. One presumes that incestuous and homoerotic desire, murder and necrophilia were a tad more taboo in those days—and the autocratic aristocrat refused to grant it a license for the theatre. Undeterred, Wilde proceeded into print and the play appeared in book form as Salomé: Drame en un acte — or what is now referred to simply as the original French edition (1893).

Next was the troublesome task of translating the text into English. This time the noble impediment was altogether more predictable because it was Wilde’s paramour and translator of the play himself Lord Alfred Douglas—or Bosie to his friends if he had any friends left after characteristic bouts of squabbling and fraught correspondence about his lingua franca with all concerned.

“Schoolboy” Translator

Romance Linguistics

Owing to the personal discord between various participants and the 23 year-old Douglas, his work on the translation has often been maligned in mainstream commentary. But such a conviction conveniently overlooks the fact that Wilde’s conversational French was grammatically unsatisfactory, and the composition artistically unsuited to an English version. Little wonder that Wilde, who had himself received native assistance with the finer points of the argot, did not translate his own work himself, and never repeated the experiment.

So it might be a more sympathetic view of then Douglas translation to accept that literary style is notoriously difficult to render harmoniously at the best of times—never mind the complications converting Wilde’s repetitive symbolist subtleties from the gendered Gallic into the neutered syntax of stodgy old Anglo-Saxon.

In any event, the task was clearly a tall order for his willful lily-like lordship and consequently authorial corrections and editorial diplomacy were requisite to Wilde’s French play eventually being Anglicized about a year later as Salome: Tragedy in One Act, or the First English edition (1894).

So we have the French and the English editions, and these twin pillars of publication have provided an orthodoxy accepted by all studies of Salome to date, namely that the Douglas translation of 1894 marked the first time the English-reading world had been privy to Wilde’s controversial French play.

So far so good; but not so fast.

What if a hitherto unheralded full synopsis of the play and a partial translation in English was already in the public domain long before Bosie got his hands on Oscar’s feminine nouns?

Moreover, would it not be a noteworthy addition to the bibliography of Salome if such an English translation not only existed prior to Douglas’ ‘First English’, but also that it appeared in print on the very day after the French edition was published?

“Mais non!” I hear scholars protest, “c’est pas possible?”

Continue reading First English

Pony Tale

Rare postmark of the short-lived Pony Express (1860-61)

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.

Continue reading Pony Tale

Wilde’s Prison Interview?


Wilde’s Prison Interview?

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.

Continue reading Wilde’s Prison Interview?

Cloak of Mystery


THE FIRST APPEARANCE OF OSCAR WILDE
AS A CHARACTER ON SCREEN—BUT WHO WAS IT?

In charting the cultural rehabilitation of Oscar Wilde in my article Finding Oscar, I alluded to the first appearances of him as character on screen.

I made reference to the well known bio-pics about Wilde released in 1960; before those he was in episodes of two separate UK and American TV series in 1958; and the erstwilde earliest Oscar could be found in a Canadian TV drama series of 1955.

Now the bar has been lowered. Predating all of those Oscars was this brief portrayal (above) by a quite Wildean-looking actor complete with cane and green carnation.

The problem is that nobody seems to know who he was.

Continue reading Cloak of Mystery

Rediscovered

Restored by John Cooper © 2020

A Rediscovered Photograph of Oscar Wilde

In my last article I alluded to how that erstwhile sinner, Oscar Wilde, had achieved the exalted air of sainthood. Unfortunately, for collectors of Wildean memories, with that classification comes the cliché that a good man is hard to find.

And nowhere is that maxim manifested more in Oscar Wilde’s case than in the promised land of lost pictures. On the artifact scale of hardness-to-find, the rarest commodities are gold dust, hen’s teeth, and, finally, previously unseen photographs of Oscar Wilde.

At least that was the case until earlier this year when this late in Wilde’s long posthumous existence (what the American Indian appropriately dubbed the happy hunting ground), unearthed a little-known, and even less seen, image of Oscar. That photo has now ascended to the canonical next life as Sarony 3A. For Wildeans, that one discovery alone would be normally be rapture enough. However, now another rare photograph has appeared from the digital clouds.

It is worthy of investigation.

Continue reading Rediscovered

A Saint With A Past

A Sinner in Saint Louis

During his visits to America in the early 1880s, Oscar Wilde was merely a controversial figure. His fall from grace was more than a decade hence; or, to employ his own ethical framework, he was still a sinner who had a future.

This idea forms a part of Wilde’s redemptive aphorism in which he differentiates saints and sinners in just one respect: the passage of time. 


The only difference between the saint and the sinner
is that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.

A Woman of No Importance (1893)


Wilde’s dictum has devolved so much into the public domain that it is often misattributed to the ancients, so I shall not dwell upon it beyond noting that Grayson Quay recently provided an interesting, although circular, analysis of it here.

Besides, now that the Sinner in question has ascended to Saint Oscar—just as he once amusingly styled himself [1]—his quotation has reached the finality of QED. Nothing remains except for me to use it as a shaky segue into another saint with a Wildean past: namely St. Louis, Missouri and Oscar’s visit there in February 1882. 

The strain is worth the while, however, as it gives me the opportunity to focus on the two proximate men in the splendid St.Louis cartoon above.


Continue reading A Saint With A Past

Destroyed By Fire

dafoe-house.jpg

In my now completed itinerary of Oscar Wilde’s lecture tour of across North America in 1882, you will find logged the more than one hundred hotels or houses where Oscar stayed while lecturing, and illustrated are all the different lecture theatres, music halls, and opera houses where he spoke.

A commonality emerges among most of these venues, and it is exemplified in the phrase most often repeated in the chronicle: Destroyed by Fire—a common occurrence for many public buildings during an era of open hearths, gas lighting, indoor smoking, and a general lack of fire-resistant materials.

Some of the buildings Oscar visited suffered this fate more than once, but none were burned down more times than the Dafoe House in Belleville Ontario.

Continue reading Destroyed By Fire

One By One

Oscar-1

In a recent post I highlighted the difference between an illustration and a photograph of Oscar Wilde in the same pose—the result being that the photograph was the more authentic.

But what happens when there are differences between two versions of the same photograph?

In this case the image is Sarony No. 1—the famous iconic headshot of Wilde. The one on the right is the more familiar.

They do not quite look the same. But which one is a good egg, and which one is a Wilde goose chase?

Let us take a gander.


Continue reading One By One

False Bottom

Here we see an illustration and a photograph of Oscar Wilde in the same pose.

In a recent post I drew attention to the photograph (which is from the collections of the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin), as it has recently taken its place among the list of known Sarony photographs of Oscar Wilde.

The reason for the photograph’s belated addition to the canon is that it does not appear to have been previously published, nor was there any digital example online—so it is true to say that it had never been widely, if at all, circulated.

And yet, its existence should not come as a complete surprise to Wilde scholars. To understand why, we must consider the part played by the corresponding illustration.

Continue reading False Bottom

Sarony 3A

New Sarony Photograph Identified

A rarely seen image of Oscar Wilde has recently been added to the series of photographs taken by Napoleon Sarony on January 5th, 1882.

Its rarity is evidenced by the fact that it does not appear to have been been published in any publicly available print medium to date, nor anywhere else previously online.

However, a proof print of it has lain dormant in the extensive Wilde holdings of the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin—in the James McNeill Whistler collection to be precise—and their copy might be the only extant print.

To see how this photograph re-emerged and how it affects the total count of known Sarony images of Oscar Wilde, let’s start the ball rolling.

Continue reading Sarony 3A