By Joseph Hurley
A MAN OF SOME IMPORTANCE: OSCAR WILDE AND THE PERFORMING ARTS. At the Jefferson Market Regional Library, 425 Avenue of the Americas, at Tenth Street, NYC. Thursday, Nov. 30.
Dublin-born literary giant Oscar Wilde died in a shabby Paris hotel on Nov. 30, 1900. Precisely one hundred years later to the day, a diverse collection of some of the most talented individuals in the American theater gathered in the auditorium of the Jefferson Market Regional Library. They were there to celebrate the event with a two-hour program composed of readings from the Irish giant’s writings and from those whose lives he touched.
The literary portion of the evening, after remarks from Alan J. Pally, the New York Public Library’s special events producer, and comments by Jacqueline Z. Davis, the recently appointed executive director of the Library’s Performing Arts division, kicked off with a high. Charlotte Moore, the artistic director of the Irish Repertory Theatre, read a section from "The Days I Knew," the autobiography of Lillie Langtry, in which the noted 19th century actress recalled her first meeting with Wilde, whom she found to be a bizarre but impressive man.
Wilde’s teeth, according to Langtry, were of a greenish cast, and his long, graceful fingers featured "nails shaped like filberts." The writer was apparently smitten with the actress, visiting her dressing room frequently, always bringing with him, in lieu of a bouquet, which he couldn’t afford, a single lily in honor of her name.
That, according to Langtry, was the source of the rumor that Wilde was frequently seen wandering the streets of London, carrying just one lone amaryllis bloom.
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Two noted playwrights followed, first Peter Shaffer and then Edward Albee. Shaffer, who wrote such plays as "Equus" and "The Royal Hunt of the Sun," recalled that when he first came to live in New York, 50 years ago, he had a job with the Public Library in the acquisitions department.
Someone commented that Wilde’s original, handwritten version of his most famous play, "The Importance of Being Earnest," was contained in a series of four copybooks, one dedicated to each of the play’s four acts.
The fledgling playwright argued that such a thing was not possible, since the play was composed of three, not four, acts. As it turned out, Shaffer’s visitor was right, and there had been an earlier version of Wilde’s 1895 classic, a version in which much time was devoted to certain metaphysical wanderings, and the "romance": between two of the play’s secondary characters, the Rev. Chasible and the eternally virginal Miss Prism, was developed to a greater degree than is the case in the work as the world knows today.
Playwright Albee expressed his astonishment that a country as small as Ireland could have produced the astonishing flood of significant literary figures that it has, and that it continues to churn out with the likes of Seamus Heaney.
Albee read a few lines from a poem, "Oh Who Is That Young Sinner," which the poet A.E. Housman wrote and dedicated to Oscar Wilde.
Actress Cherry Jones, a resident of the West Village and a regular customer of the Jefferson Market Library, followed with a particularly insightful reading of the poet’s "The Ballad of Reading Goal," a selection that bore an ironic tinge, since the small, packed auditorium had once been a jail itself.
It had, in fact, been the scene of the arrest and brief incarceration of an earlier actress, M’ West, when "Sex," a play which she had authored and in which she was starring on Broadway, offended the sensibilities of some of New York’s official moral guardians. The year of West’s arrest was 1926.
The program’s final theatrical participant was another long-term Village resident, Kim Hunter, who read a brief excerpt from Wilde’s "De Profundis."
Mary K. Conwell, the Library’s deputy director of the organization’s branches, gave brief rundown of the history of the Jefferson Market Library, pointing out that, despite the fact that the building had often been cited as one of the city’s most interesting architectural structures, it had even more frequently been threatened with possible demolition, a fate from which it was finally saved in November 1967, when it became a part of the New York Public Library system.
In addition to the essentially comic incident involving M’ West, the structure, in its judicial days, had also been the scene of the trial of Harry Dexter Thaw, who had murdered architect Stanford White over the latter’s affair with Evelyn Nesbitt, a chorus dancer who became known as "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing," in honor of the vaudeville number for which she was most widely known. The year of the trial was 1906.
Following Conwell, New York City Council member Christine Quinn took the podium and read a large, framed proclamation honoring the date as the hundredth anniversary of the day on which Oscar Wilde had died. She commented that, while visiting New York on at least one confirmed occasion, in 1882, the poet stayed at 48 West 11th St., a few streets away from the Jefferson Market.
Actresses Jones and Hunter closed the evening, with the former reading from Richard Ellmann’s biography of Wilde, and the latter reciting a poem called simply "Sonnet," which the poet has written late in his life.
The Public Library’s programs honoring and commemorating Oscar Wilde, with Pally producing, will continue through the end of April.
Normally, such a series of literary events would take place in the system’s Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center, but since that branch is currently undergoing extensive renovations, the Wilde evenings will take place at a variety of venues around the city, some of them units of the library, and others donated for the occasion.
Among the donated sites is the Irish Repertory Theatre, where, on Monday evening, actress Moore directed a staged reading of Wilde’s "The Importance of Being Earnest," with a cast including Danas Ivey, Helen Stenborg and Barnard Hughes.
All of the New York Public Library’s programs dedicated to the memory of the outrageous and tormented Dubliner are open to the public and free of charge, and linked under the overall title "A Man of Some Importance: Oscar Wilde and the Performing Arts."