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“A Wilde Ride”

A Wilde Ride

Cynthia’s Column  October 2009

Every time I go into detail about the internal machinations of the writing process several of you thank me, so let’s open the hood and take a look at what’s cooking inside CW’s writer brain.

Last winter, director Jon Kretzu and one of the Artists Repertory Theatre’s actors, Michael Mendelson, (who played the hilarious sister-in-law Kristee in Holidazed) approached Marc Acito and I about the possibility of doing a stage version of Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.  We talked about it, but Marc wasn’t interested.  I had lunch with Jon and ran it around the track a few laps at a tiny table in the Driftwood Room at the Deluxe Hotel half a block away from A.R.T.

I didn’t quite get it.  I don’t love Dorian Gray.  I was more interested in Wilde and Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas, his beautiful young lover.)  But Wilde and Bosie have been done often and extremely well.  The film “Wilde” a few years ago starring Stephen Fry and Jude Law was exquisite and for my money, couldn’t be improved on, particularly in terms of actors born to play the roles.

Jon suggested maybe combining Dorian Gray with the Wilde/Bosie story and playing them both at once with the actors playing Dorian and the artist, doubling as Wilde and Bosie.  At that moment this struck us both as possibly a wonderful idea.  So I stocked up on bios and research material and in April set sail for Europe on our Writers Cruise and spent the Trans-Atlantic journey reading everything Wilde.

At the end of the cruise I had half a dozen books completely flagged and highlighted and no idea how it could ever be a play.  In London I wandered around Wilde and Bosie’s home turf.  I went to ten plays in the West End in nine days.  Saw The 39 Steps, the raucous four-actor stage version of the Hitchcock movie and got some good ideas from that.  But by the time I got home I knew I didn’t have a play.

I tried everything.  I even resorted to mentally turning it into a sort of English Music Hall Vaudeville with Wilde’s trial played as a Punch and Judy number, but it was no use.  Wilde/Bosie and Dorian Gray had almost nothing in common.  D.G. is a horror novel, a Faustian story of making a deal with the devil.  I perceived Wilde and Bosie’s story as a tragic love story, a sort of Romeo and Julio set in the terribly restrictive morality of Victorian England.  To do them together would be like shuffling the cards and playing alternate scenes of Sweeney Todd and The Importance of Being Earnest.  A bad idea no matter how I looked at it.  So I took Jon to lunch and told him the bad news.  No play.  No way. Call it a day.

A short time later I was bemoaning the loss of all that time and energy and research to my critique group (The Big Brain Trust) on the back deck of my home in Wilsonville.  And an amazing thing happened that has happened to me before.  While I was explaining why it didn’t work and couldn’t work, my brain figured out how it might work.  How it could work and should work.  The story of Wilde and young Bosie has been told a zillion times, but not Bosie’s story.  Not after the age of 23.  I said, “You know, Bosie should be the protagonist.”  And a huge lightbulb went off in my head.  A bell rang.  I instantly got that shiver up the spine that let me know that, yes, I had made a sudden sideways turn onto the right path here.

I went back to the research books and focused on Bosie After Wilde.  Bosie had a hard time.  After Wilde’s conviction, imprisonment and death shortly thereafter, Bosie went straight, got married, had a son, lost his family, was plagued with lawsuits and infamy and poverty and tons of great story stuff.  And there was someone else that appeared whose story had never been told.  Someone for whom Wilde’s tragedy had also been tragic.  Oscar’s son Cyril who never saw his father again after the age of 10.

The next thing I knew I saw a play forming quickly in my mind.  I saw Jon and Michael at the PATA acting auditions in June and told them I got the play.  “It’s called The Wilde Boy and I’m having a reading at my house on August 17.  You’re both invited.”

A side-bar here.  At this time, I had not written a single word of the play.  But I knew (from years of having no discipline but writing sheaves and reams of pages) that if I told my brain that actors and others were coming over to hear my new play on August 17, that by the 17th of August I would have new play.  Deadlines are my lifelines.

And the play emerged from the London fogs of 1915 and poured itself onto the pages, as if at least three ghosts were helping it along.  The curtain rises, lights come up on a parlor in winter.  Middle-aged Lord Douglas, alone and bankrupt, receives a late visit from a young man, a stranger, with a grudge.  It turns out to be Cyril and the play unfolds.  And when Douglas tries to explain the past, he becomes Wilde and the younger actor becomes young Bosie.

On August 17, not only did Michael Mendelson read Douglas and Wilde, but Jon Kretzu baked a fabulous chocolate caramel gateau to mark the occasion.  We had 23 people in my living room to hear the birth of a new piece.  We laughed and cried and I got masses of feedback and notes.

The experience of hearing good actors read a new play aloud to an audience?  The actors were wonderful, but it was still somewhat excruciating.  I sat there thinking, “It’s working.  I’ve got them.  It’s alive!  No, no. Wait.  It died.  It’s totally dead.  No, wait, it’s alive again” in a continuous loop for the whole 90 minutes.  For the next week I breathed life into the dead parts and cut and buried some of them.  Polished the rest.  And now have a clean, shiny new play ready for the next reading, submission and hopefully, production.  I will keep you posted.

This is how the engine works, at least in this writer-brain.  And I must say I am extraordinarily grateful to my brain for being able to perform complex tasks like digesting a thousand pages of research and regurgitating a full-length play that makes sense, is touching and true and is something new.  Thank you, Writer Brain.  You are totally worth the fortune I’ve spent in my lifetime feeding you the very best books, plays and movies.  Yet, even as I catalogue and analyze how the engine works, I am humbled by how astonishingly magical it still seems to me.

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