Writing Oscar – The Confessions of Dorian Gray

24 Oct

It’s almost two years since writer, producer, director and all round whizz-kid Scott Handcock first mentioned to me the idea of an audio series about the continuing adventures of Dorian Gray. I remember we were in the hipster magnet that was Cardiff Arts Institute, and I drank far too much coffee. I think it was Scott who suggested the opening episode could have Gray meeting Oscar Wilde; the idea being that Wilde based his novel on real events.

Much like Harry Potter’s Slytherin.

I went away and thought about it, but nothing more was mentioned until earlier this year, when Scott told me The Confessions of Dorian Gray had been green-lit by those very nice people at Big Finish. By then I’d had some vague idea that Wilde and Gray’s encounter would revolve around his semi-apocryphal* last words, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death, one of us has to go.” (*Semi-apocryphal because while he is recorded to have said those words, it wasn’t on his deathbed.) Traditionally the line has been read as a witticism, up there with King George V’s “bugger Bognor” and Pancho Villa’s “Tell them I said something”. What if, I wondered, Wilde was deadly serious? What if there was something genuinely malevolent about his wallpaper?

Had he lived in the 1970s, Wilde may have had a point.

One thing I hadn’t considered, while essentially off my face on caffeine, was that any story featuring Oscar Wilde would have to include dialogue spoken by Oscar Wilde, aka one of the wittiest men who ever lived. Suddenly, with a first draft deadline looming, I realised I had some research to do.

A major source of inspiration was Joseph Pearce’s The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde. Pearce, in going back to the letters and diaries of all the central players, eschews a fashionable and more contemporary “queer theory” reading of Wilde’s life and work (he’s particularly scathing of Richard Ellman’s biography, on which the film Wilde was based) in favour of an analysis of Wilde the man, with a refreshing emphasis on his religious beliefs. Certainly, Wilde’s spirituality – his Anglican upbringing, his mother’s nascent Catholicism, his eventual slide into a kind of decadent agnosticism before a last minute, deathbed conversion – is  more interesting than much of what went on in his private life, though of course the two are often inextricably linked.

What struck me, after reading Pearce and others, is that Wilde often defies most modern attempts to categorise him. He was  a Catholic and a heretic; a loving husband and father and a frequenter of male brothels; a strident intellectual who was capable of being infuriatingly glib. He doesn’t fit neatly into any of the boxes a modern observer might want to squeeze him.

For example, this man was surprisingly good in a fistfight. Seriously.

These contradictions are most apparent in Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Before starting work on my script, I went back and read it for the first time in almost 20 years. I remembered struggling through it as a teenager. The language was a little florid, a little too sensual, for my liking. I seemed to remember four or five pages of stuff about flowers and fragrances before anything resembling a plot kicked in (it’s actually two paragraphs, but still…), and the dialogue was all so arch, so vaguely pleased with itself.

Get past that initial Wildean smugness, however, and you’re in for a ripping yarn. Wilde’s prose – when he’s not waffling on about curtains and incense – is nowhere near as leaden as some of his contemporaries (yes, Stoker, I’m thinking of you), and his characters are often wonderfully observed. The few scenes of violence are genuinely shocking. Even now, Basil Hallward’s murder remains spectacularly gruesome, and very cinematic; a kind of proto-Hitchcock.

From ‘Dorian Gray‘ (2009)

Of course the novel has its flaws. It was, after all, a first novel by a writer more accustomed to the stage. It borrows heavily from Joris-Karl Huysmans’ À rebourswhile never quite daring to credit the book in name (it’s referred to, euphemistically, as a “book bound in yellow paper”). Even so, it’s nowhere near as daring as its literary forebear, a novel whose protagonist throws a “black banquet” (black decor, black-dyed food, guests dressed in black) to mourn the passing of his sexual potency. As controversial as it apparently was on publication, there’s something about The Picture of Dorian Gray that feels like “decadence light”, “diet hedonism”, an idea borne out by Belknap Press’s 2011 publication of the slightly more salacious – though not exactly pornographic – “uncensored version” of the text.

Most unforgivable of all are those moments when Wilde falls in love with the sound of his own voice. Certain dialogues –  in which Dorian, or Lord Henry wax lyrical about art and beauty – may provide the novel with a philosophical thrust but they also bring the plot grinding to a halt, particularly in the novel’s last act. When Gray leaves London and travels off in search of new sensations and experiences, we are treated to page after page (after page) about rugs and fabrics, music and fragrances, which add very little to the novel, do some damage to its pace and structure, and are often lifted wholesale from other sources. In these passages, Wilde is most of all like the Little Britain character, Dame Sally Markham, padding out his novel with any old guff.

Still, Dorian is a fascinating character. Predatory, sexually ambiguous, and often quite unsympathetic, he is a challenging anti-hero to adapt for any other medium. One thing that struck me, reading the novel a second time, was just how antisemitic he can be, describing Sybil’s theatre manager as a “hideous Jew”, a “horrid old Jew”, and “oily”. Wilde wrote the novel 25 years after Charles Dickens felt appropriately disgusted with his own antisemitism in Oliver Twist (1835) to make amends with the heroic Jewish character of Riah in Our Mutual Friend (1865). Is the throwback racism in Dorian Gray the character’s, or Wilde’s? Well… That’s probably for another blog altogether.

Let us never speak of this again.

I would say that our Gray, the Gray who appears in Confessions, is a changed man. For one thing, he isn’t dead. (We’ve taken some liberties with the source.) Hopefully, he’s a little more sympathetic than Wilde’s smug, misogynistic racist, without having been transformed into too much of a goody two-shoes. We’ve been very lucky in landing the very talented (and very handsome) Alexander Vlahos as Dorian (yes, I know that with it being a series of audio plays we could have had a buck-toothed Mexican midget playing him, but it kind of helps knowing our Dorian would be equally convincing on-screen) and Gavin & Stacy and Belonging star Steffan Rhodri is a revelation as Oscar.

Future episodes, written by Scott Harrison, Gary Russell, the aforementioned Scott Handcock, and Joseph Lidster, take Dorian kicking, screaming, and gallivanting his way into the 20th Century, promising some spine-tingling adventures for our handsome hero along the way, and I for one can’t wait to hear them.

SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION KLAXON.

 

Author

David Llewellyn is the author of six novels, most recently Ibrahim & Reenie, which you can buy here.

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