De Profundis

Conor Maguire in 'De Profundis' at Theatre Upstairs.

Conor Maguire in 'De Profundis' at Theatre Upstairs.

De Profundis is the letter that Oscar Wilde wrote in Reading Gaol in 1897, addressed ostensibly to his former lover, Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. After Wilde had served two years penal servitude on a conviction of “gross indecency” his health had failed. The compassionate transfer to Reading meant he finally had access to writing materials. De Profundis, published posthumously, is more than a letter, although the questions posed and charges made against Bosie are many and pointed. The document is also, importantly, Wilde’s self-examination and apologia for his life choices.

Conor Maguire’s one-man show makes use of a bare set – just a cramped table and stool, a bed frame aslant on the floor and the projection of a small framed shape of light on the wall to represent a window. These choices invest his narration with the requisite claustrophobic regret and recrimination. In pre-set the audience enters to the strains of Beethoven’s 'Moonlight Sonata', and the hunched figure of the fallen poet and playwright penning his work, costumed in a stylised rendering of prison garb.

Maguire’s voice is resonant and his delivery measured, lending gravitas to the piece. These attributes are sometimes at odds with the young actor’s good looks, which can convey, in distress, a hint of petulance rather than the desired remorse.

Part of the blame must go to Wilde, however. The text of De Profundis, as poignant and searingly honest as it can be at times, is often evidence of an unreconstructed Wilde, convinced of his superior genius – “I am made for exceptions not laws”. Contemporary Irish audiences can be excused a bit of scepticism – in different context we have heard this defence too often of late.

Where Wilde’s letter gains literary merit is in his tribute to the beauty of the natural world from which he has been banished. In prison, he claims, “it is always twilight in one’s cell and in one’s heart”. Wilde’s letter also recalls his Hellenic Studies, and the Greek exaltation of the unadorned and elemental in life. Maguire does well to place emphasis on these points, and is most compelling in these sections of the narrative.

Mothers figure significantly in the text. Wilde was unable to attend Lady Wilde’s funeral, and is acutely aware of the shame he has brought on his family’s name. Maguire also includes in the abridged text Bosie’s mother’s prophetic assessment of her son’s shortcomings. Bosie, intoned the imposing Marchioness of Queensbury, suffered most from vanity but was also “all wrong about money”. The penury Wilde suffered from his indulgence of the young man was as ruinous as his conviction.

At times one forgets this is a letter, and indeed forgets about Bosie altogether. This may be the effect of Wilde’s powerful language, his own self-focus, or the stripped down quality of Maguire’s interpretation. The poignancy of Wilde’s anticipation of his release within a few months, and his dreams of a long seaside holiday are coloured by our knowledge of the fate which befell the writer after he left his cell.

Oscar Wilde is a figure of legend, especially in Dublin. Conor Maguire has undertaken a difficult task in bringing this famous literary letter to life on the stage, and has largely succeeded.

Christina Hunt Mahony, who directed the Center for Irish Studies at the Catholic University of America, now lectures in Trinity College. She is the editor of Out of History: Essays on the Writings of Sebastian Barry.

  • Review
  • Theatre

De Profundis by Conor Maguire

21 May – 1 June, 2013

Produced by Conor Maguire
In Theatre Upstairs @ Lanigan's

Abridged, directed and performed by Conor Maguire