You know what’s really magical? The genuine feeling of excitement and anticipation that rippled throughout a packed out Reading Town Hall last Thursday when everyone’s favourite Wildean fanatic – Stephen Fry – presented the inaugural University of Reading Town Hall Lecture on Oscar Wilde. I know I certainly felt privileged to be there!
Be warned, Oscar Wilde and Stephen Fry are two of my idols so I had a bit of an overload and walked out of the lecture with reams
(7 pages) of notes – these are just the highlights!
Stephen Fry’s First Encounter With Oscar Wilde
What was extraordinary about it was it never occurred to me that language was an art – that language itself could dance in your head.
After warming up the sold-out hall with some witty anagram-based jokes, Fry quickly launched into the details of his first encounter with Oscar Wilde – his passion for the writer was completely contagious from the get-go. He recounted catching part of a film on TV and hearing one particular quote: “I hope, Cecily, I shall not offend you if I state quite frankly and openly that you seem to me to be in every way the visible personification of absolute perfection”, describing how he’d always thought that music was an art but it had never occurred to him that language could be too.
Something broke inside me.
After tracing the quote back to The Importance of Being Earnest, he wasted no time immersing himself in all the Wilde books he could unearth in the library before stumbling upon The Trials of Oscar Wilde, which led him to a further revelation: “I recognised in myself the same nature that brought Oscar Wilde such disgrace”. Thankfully, Fry realised that he needn’t be condemned to the same fate as Wilde, sending him on a quest for literature that would change his life.
Aestheticism is a Philosophy
Stephen Fry also delved into the definition of an aesthete. We all know that Wilde was famed for his wit, giving rise to quotable lines like: “Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit”. Fry explained that this humour stemmed from Wilde’s aestheticism – a philosophical, moral position. He used the analogy of looking out a window to explain further: we see everything made by nature as beautiful and man-made constructions as ugly. Yet aesthetes believe if we can only create ugliness it strikes a dagger into the heart of man, because it’s a tragedy that man can’t create beauty.
The Ballad of Reading Gaol
Of course, we eventually had to get round to Wilde’s imprisonment – the impetus for the talk was Reading Prison’s closure. At first Fry described the difficulties he faced when starring in the biographical film Wilde, having to reconcile the colourful, promising aesthete with the dark, broken prisoner. He had visited the prison earlier that day and painted a depressing picture of long, thin solitary cells designed to prevent communication between prisoners – a terrible fate for “a lord of language”.
Silence fell over the room as Stephen Fry read out a haunting excerpt from The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and chose to end his talk by reminding us of Wilde’s many faces – from social poison, to comedian and finally an immortal scholar.
He’s a Prince of Bohemia, a friend of all students, of all outsiders, all people who want to touch that thing called art.
Finally the floor was opened up for a Q&A and I got the first question in! After embarrassingly fiddling with the microphone for 30 seconds and helplessly gushing to Stephen Fry, I eventually got round to asking whether he thought Wilde always possessed a darkness and knew what fate awaited him because of his “nature”. After hearing Reading Gaol read aloud it’s hard to ignore the visceral darkness inherent in his words, contrasted with the confident lightheartedness of his earlier satirical works. Fry was generous and enthusiastic in his reply, responding by reading out an extract from ‘De Profundis’ (I feel like he was just waiting for someone to bring it up!).
The entire audience were completely entranced by Stephen Fry’s loquaciousness, his personal passion for Oscar Wilde and the writer’s doomed yet glittering life from start to finish. Fry somehow managed to choose exactly the right words for the occasion and had the sold-out hall captivated the entire time with his cleverly interwoven biographies and Wildean wit.
Now excuse me as I go catch up on some more Wilde…