Thursday, 18 June 2015

Review. The Inaugural University of Reading Town Hall Lecture. Stephen Fry on Oscar Wilde. Reading Concert Hall. Thursday 4 June.

There is no doubt that Stephen Fry is both eloquent and erudite and so clearly the best choice to present this inaugural lecture. However, my first concern was whether Fry's large celebrity presence would eclipse the true subject, Oscar Wilde. 

However, I am glad to state that on the night all was well. He demonstrated his enthusiasm and love of Wilde's poetry, prose, and drama to his rapt audience.He blended his own life into the sad tale of ‘Oscar’ by recounting how after coming across The Importance of Being Ernest he found himself overwhelmed by the play’s brilliant use of  language. This led him to the local mobile library, in his native Norfolk, to look further, first the play itself and then, the Complete Works. It led to many discoveries both literary and personal.

Although the plays had been the initial trigger for him, he spoke of Wilde in the broader sense, seeing him as more than a playwright and poet but as a true philosopher. As examples, he made particular reference to Oscar’s other writings such as the Soul of Man under Socialism and De Profundis.

De Profundis was written between January and March 1897, very close to the end of his incarceration at Reading where he was serving a two-year sentence. At the prison, Wilde was merely ‘Prisoner C3.3.’ He later used that as a pseudonym for his other eminent poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The ballad recounts the tale of his fellow prisoner Charles Thomas Woolridge; a former soldier tried before Berkshire Assizes, sentenced to death, and finally hung in July 1896.

The prison looms large in Reading, still casting its sinister shadow over the Abbey and the Kennet. Wilde’s cell is intact and Fry was lucky enough to have visited it the day of the lecture. I hope that one day we may have that privilege, as it is a significant part of literary history and a dark episode in the town’s history.

He finished his lecture and took a few questions from the audience. His responses further demonstrated his passion for his subject. The evening was no dry academic treatise but an entertaining, enlightening, and best of all, accessible. One could feel the enthusiasm. I feel sure that many will have gone away with a new respect for Wilde, to see the man in a new light and maybe to look beyond his plays, and make new discoveries. I sincerely hope so.

This review first appeared in the Newbury Weekly News.