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wilde's profound despair laid bare


Oscar Wilde's De Profundis lends itself perfectly to stage adaptation for the simple reason that it requires no adaptation: acted well, it transfers from page to stage without adulteration, its potency and human drama the very stuff of theatre.

Conor Maguire is currently presenting it as a lunchtime performance at Theatre Upstairs at Lanigan's Bar on Eden Quay in Dublin, and makes a terrific job of it. Getting the balance right between Wilde's self-loathing, his self-pity, and his emotional desperation is no easy task, and Maguire wrings it for every nuance without in any way descending into either bathos or mock heroics.

De Profundis is the letter Wilde wrote to Alfred Douglas ('Bosie') from Reading Gaol as his sentence drew to a close. The erstwhile lover on whom he had unwisely and tempestuously lavished his adoration, leading to his own social and artistic destruction, had abandoned him: there had been neither word nor letter from the man on whom Wilde, as he bitterly reminds 'Bosie" in the letter, had spent £25,000 in the course of their affair, an enormous sum in the 1890s.

The anguished rhetoric of the piece is extraordinary in its detail; but it remains a revelation of Wilde the man and artist more in what it does not say as what it does, as it sets out to catalogue in minute detail the development of a human path to destruction. Early on, Oscar entreats 'Bosie' to "read it til it kills your vanity", a vanity in which the older man had taken such pride when the petulant young aristocrat was his recognised plaything. He castigates himself for his betrayal of his standards by embarking on such an "unintellectual friendship," which he now believes to have led inevitably to "ethical and moral degradation".

But even as he painstakingly examines the glory and reward of artistic endeavour and its ability to help the soul soar, and even as he excoriates Douglas for taking him from its path, he admits "no man, great or small, can be ruined but by his own hand".

And ultimately, as Wilde, facing ignominy, loneliness and poverty in the outside world, defiantly proclaims his belief in the power of renewal and redemption, we, the audience, are faced with the ugly reality: that his few remaining years were spent in a degrading shadow-life far removed from endeavour of any kind.

And Conor Maguire manages to encapsulate it all: quite an achievement.

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