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The full story behind the press release (and when twitter is ahead of both)

Thanks to the internet, journalists are no longer the sole distributors of news and critics no longer have the monopoly on opinion, but it has become a process that literally everyone can now participate in. That new democracy is undoubtedly welcome, though ironically, given the vast number of voices that are now clamouring to be heard, it is ones that have some authority that are more necessary than ever, to separate the wheat from the chaff.

So published newspaper reviews and features still have more clout than self-published blogs and random bulletin boards, and news stories that are found, validated and researched by journalists, are more useful than ones merely recycled out of press releases.

Tonight, for instance, according to the press release, the King’s Head will uncover the “world premiere” of Oscar Wilde’s final play Constance, written after his release from prison when he was in exile in France, for which he handed the handwritten manuscript to an American actress Mrs Cora Brown. And, the official story goes on, when she died, the manuscript passed onto a French writer Guillot de Saix, who put together a French translation with a colleague Henri de Briel. The latter was suspected of being a German collaborator, and (says the press release), “Wilde’s original English manuscript is thought to have been destroyed by members of the resistance movement when they caught up with him. However, a copy of the French translation survived in Guillot de Saix’s possession, and in due course was published in a French literary magazine.” That, in turn, has now been translated back into English, “recreating for the world a genuine, brand new, Oscar Wilde play.”

But on Tuesday Channel 4 culture correspondent Matthew Cain did a news story that casts huge doubts on this extravagant claim. He tracked down Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland (whose father was Wilde’s younger son Vyvyan), who now lives in rural France, and interviewed him. “What I discovered was that not only does Holland think that there are concerns with the attribution of much of the play’s language to Wilde but he doesn’t think Wilde ever wrote more than just a short synopsis for the play in the first place - and certainly never a full manuscript.”

Matthew cites evidence he was shown: “This included a letter from Cora Brown Potter to Wilde just a few months before he died in which she asked him when he was finally going to complete the play he’d promised her; various mentions of the play in French correspondence between several parties concerned in which it was only ever described either as ‘le scénario’ or ‘le scénario développé’; and letters from Guillot de Saix to his father Vyvyan - one admitting that de Saix and his colleague had constructed their French play around Wilde’s scenario rather than translating a finished script and another letting Vyvyan know that he could make any changes he wished if he thought parts of the script weren’t ‘worthy of the memory of his father’.  Incidentally these letters were written after the war, making it impossible for de Saix’s original source material to have been destroyed during a wartime raid by the French Resistance.”

The story has duly been followed up and reported on by The Guardian yesterday. Holland tells The Guardian, “It is dishonest to foist this on the public. The play should really have been billed as ‘A play based on an idea [scenario] by Oscar Wilde, written in French by Guillot de Saix, translated into English and further adapted by Charles Osborne’.” His own verdict? “It is a pretty appalling piece of work … peppered with a few aphorisms from other plays, marginally altered in order to sound a bit like Oscar Wilde.” 

And that’s the difference between a press release and an investigative news report. Now, of course, we’ll find out whether the critics agree with the grandson after it opens tonight. I’m going to see it tomorrow, and will be reviewing it for The Stage on Monday.

Twitter moves faster than any press release used to be able to, as well. My inbox is routinely flooded with them (though curiously it takes those from one leading PR agency more than a day to reach me after they have been sent out to everyone else). I immediately tweet the headline if they’re noteworthy, and watch as it is in turn re-tweeted and, more importantly, commented on. An immediate commentary ensues; on Wednesday, for instance, I tweeted news of the casting of Matt Willis as the new Fiyero in Wicked, and the cross exchanges (in every sense) started immediately: one commented, “Matt Willis as in busted Flashdance Willis? The one who can’t dance and now has to dance through life?” Another said, “Matt as Fiyero is not going to please some people, is it? I think it’s great!”

But now some theatres are cutting out the middle man of the journalist to process and distribute the news for them. Just this week the National Theatre sent out a tweet about a new production of She Stoops to Conquer that will be staged in January, that was complete news to me. Usually the National does a fantastic job of keeping journalists informed of what is going on, but here Twitter knew first.

It turns out that news of the production leaked last weekend via a story in the Sunday Mirror, of all improbable theatre sources, that “Corrie favourite Becky McDonald is quitting the cobbles - to tread the boards in a posh National Theatre play. Viewers will see her flee the Street in the New Year after screen hubby Steve gets Tracy Barlow pregnant.Becky, played by actress Katherine Kelly, 31, was cheered by the cast after revealing she had landed the leading lady role in classic comedy She Stoops To Conquer in London.”

And the National, rather than issuing a release in the usual way to follow it up after their scoop had been stolen, decided to tweet it. The National’s head of press Lucinda Morrison told me, “Twitter provided a quick and effective way for us to confirm and amplify the story.  It’s the first time we’ve ‘announced’ a show that way, but probably not the last. Personally I see it as adding to our communication options, depending on the circumstances, not necessarily replacing the traditional press release - yet, anyway!” 

Of course I want to protect my patch, but I do wonder that if journalists start becoming redundant, so will the PRs that are there to serve us - perhaps the theatres can simply employ the social media department of the marketing office to do the job for them.


A chronological history of Oscar Wilde's Constance based on published works by
H. Montgomery Hyde, Guillot de Saix and Vyvyan Holland (Oscar Wilde's son).

August 1894: Oscar Wilde writes from Worthing to actor-manager Sir George Alexander at the St James's Theatre, where The Importance of Being Earnest is being performed. The letter begins, dear Aleck, what do you think of this for a play for you?... then Oscar goes on to explain, over 3 pages, an early synopsis of Constance which was at that stage, without even a working title. He signs off with, what do you think of this idea? I think it extremely strong. I want the sheer passion of love to dominate everything. No morbid self-sacrifice. No renunciation a sheer flame of love between a man and a woman. That is what the play is to rise to from the social chatter of Act 1, through the theatrical effectiveness of Act II, up to the psychology with its great denouement in Act III, till love dominates Act IV and accepts the death of the husband as in a way its proper right - leaving love its tragedy and so making it still a greater passion. Of course I have only scribbled this off I only thought of the plot this morning but I send it to you I see great things in it and, if you like when done, you can have it for America. Yours, Oscar.”

“He had provisionally entitled the scenario Mr & Mrs Daventry, but had, in reality, the intention to name it Constance.- Vyvyan Holland (Oscar Wilde's son).

May 1897: Following his release from prison, Oscar raises money by selling exclusive rights to the provisionally titled Mr & Mrs Daventry to the American actress Mrs Cora Brown-Potter and, over the next three years, to several others including Leonard Smithers, Louise Nethersole, Ada Rehan and Frank Harris. The agreement between Wilde and Mrs Brown-Potter was reached shortly after his arrival in France, when they met in Dieppe. Mrs Brown-Potter recalls she brought her dog with her and that Oscar remarked, I will put the little dog into the play, and it will help us(the letter relating to this agreement is mentioned in the Dulau Catalogue of the sale of Wilde manuscripts). Mrs Brown-Potter intended that the principal parts in the proposed play would be played by herself and her regular partner, Mr Kyrle Bellew.

November 1897: There is some evidence that Wilde began to write Constance when he and Lord Alfred Douglas were staying together near Naples. Wilde wrote several letters to his friend Reginald Turner, finally saying on November 2, I began my play the other day, but the comedy troubles me H. Montgomery Hyde commented on this period, Wilde can have made little initial progress with the play at this period, since shortly afterwards he and Douglas decided to part

Early 1898: Wilde sells the scenario to theatrical agent Horace Sedger.

“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all. - Oscar Wilde

April 1898: Constance Wilde dies in Genoa.

Summer 1898: Oscar spent part of the summer staying in an inn near Chantemèle on the Seine with two artist friends, William Rothenstein and Charles Conder, and he seemed to have taken up the task of writing Constance again, although reported to his friend Robert Ross, I don't think I shall ever really write again, something is killed inside me. I feel no desire to write I am unconscious of power. Of course my first year in prison destroyed me body and soul. It could not be otherwise Montgomery Hyde comments on the period, how much of the dialogue of Constance Wilde wrote himself is impossible to say with any degree of certainty. However, it seems to have been a matter of fairly wide knowledge by the middle of 1897 that he had succeeded in producing something in dramatic form. For instance, his sister-in-law, Mrs. Willy Wilde, told him she had heard that he had written a brilliant play which she should like to show the manager of the Globe Theatre.”

“Wilde would have established the outlines of the plan and the characters of the protagonists during the summer of 1898 when he lived in an inn near Chantemesle-sur-Seine with the English artists William Rothenstein and Charles Conder.- Vyvyan Holland

March 1900: Mrs Cora Brown-Potter writes to Oscar Wilde asking after the play and saying how patient she had been in the matter. Montgomery Hyde comments, that she eventually got something in the shape of a draft from Wilde appears from what she told the French writer, M. Guillot de Saix, many years later.

“He [Wilde] has specifically constructed this intrigue [the screen scene in Constance] at the request of the American actress Miss Cora Potter who wished to play it with her habitual partner the handsome Kyrle Bellew who met him a number of times in Dieppe where the actor wrote at his [Wilde's] dictation the sequence of scenes and noted a number of lines- Guillot de Saix

October 1900: Frank Harris' play Mr & Mrs Daventry, based on a scenario by Wilde, opened in London to mixed reviews, Harris was confident, this bad press will make the play The play ran for 121 performances and was suspended during the mourning period of Queen Victoria, and never recovered commercial momentum. Oscar didn't like the play, he has ruined me. Frank does not understand anything. He has demolished my play!

November 1900: Oscar Wilde died on November 30 at the Hotel d'Alsace.

“I do not know where I put the copy of the developed scenario. It must be in one of the boxes in the attic storage space in my villa des Bambous in Beaulieu-sur-Mer. I'm so far away from it all now. The theatre seems to me no more than a puppet show for big children. I promise you, if I ever find the copy, I will send it to you, or leave it to you in my will - Mrs Cora Brown-Potter to Guillot de Saix, who received the manuscript before the war.

February 1936: Cora Brown-Potter dies on February 12, 1936. Interestingly, Cora's maiden name was Urquhart, the same surname as our director.

“It was long after her last interview with Oscar Wilde, and, no doubt according to the testamentary wish of Cora Potter, who died before the last war, that finally I received the precious copy.” - Guillot de Saix

October 1954: Cora Brown-Potter left Wilde's manuscript to Henri de Briel and Guillot de Saix in her will. A reconstituted version of Constance is published in Les Oeuvres Libres by Henri de Briel and Guillot de Saix, with an introduction by Guillot de Saix and Vyvyan Holland.

“How much of the text of Constance was written by Wilde, it is difficult to say. The plan which the piece develops is clearly his and much of the dialogue has the authentic stamp of my father. - Vyvyan Holland.

1994: Charles Osborne begins adapting Constance into English.

“I dislike arguments of any kind. They are always vulgar, and often convincing.- Lady Bracknell, The Important of Being Earnest

2011: The King's Head Theatre premieres Oscar Wilde's Constance, reconstituted in French and adapted into English by Charles Osborne.

“Constance is witty and dramatic and a pleasure to watch. Skilfullydirected on a very small stage, it is played with total conviction by astrong cast. The play has all the strength of Oscar Wilde's original scenario and in it his wit has survived the complexities of translation intoFrench, translation back into English and ingenious 'reconstitution'.” - Donald Mead, Chairman of The Oscar Wilde Society

Compiled by Adam Spreadbury-Maher from the introduction of Mr & Mrs Daventry by Frank Harris and Les Oeuvres Libres. No. 101 (Paris, October 1954).

After wading my way through the comment above I'm expecting a work of authentic genuis.... I may rip up the seats if disappointed.

Dr Joseph Bristow is a world leading Oscar Wilde scholar and the head of English at the University of California. He saw Constance at the King's Head Theatre on Saturday 17th September 2011, and passed this note to the Theatre.

"Constance presents us with a startling Wildean drama in an arresting style...

Constance is Cora Brown Potter's elaboration of the daring scenario Wilde sold to
her and several other people after he left jail in 1897. Until now, Brown Potter's adaptation has only been available in a French translation of the original English script that she possibly composed with actor Kyrle Bellew. Guillot de Saix, who inherited Potter Brown's script, asserted that Wilde had dictated some dialogue to Bellew.

But what matters about Constance is that Potter Brown understood the more radical elements of plays such as An Ideal Husband, which echo throughout this lusciously melodramatic work. Constance takes the scandalous drama of adultery that surfaces in Wilde's best writing in a bold direction—to the plight of a virtuous woman whose loathsome husband's sexual betrayal forces her to desert him for a lover with whom she has a child.

I left the King's Head realizing that Wilde might have truly become the Irish Ibsen of his day."

Joseph Bristow is Professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles. His most recent books are two edited collections: Oscar Wilde and Modern Culture: The Making of a Legend (2008) and The Wilde Archive: Traditions, Histories, Resources (2012). He has edited Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray for Oxford University.

"A literary punch-up surrounds this “new play” by her creator, Oscar Wilde. The great man’s grandson proclaims it inauthentic tosh, but the producers counter with various documents evidencing its provenance." - Libby Purves, The Times

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