It’s always interesting when an unfinished creative work from an old master is released posthumously. Recent examples of this phenomenon include the publication of Lolita-writer Vladimir Nabokov’s The Original of Laura (Nabokov died in 1977 and the book, what little there was of it, was finally published in 2009), or the release of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Children of Húrin (Tolkien died in 1973 and Húrin , pulled together from several incomplete drafts, was published in 2007.) But the latest example of this phenomenon to hit our radar? A new production by a North London theatre group of a lost play written by Oscar Wilde! Or, more appropriately, “attributed” to be written by Wilde.
The original text of the play, titled Constance, is theorized to have been destroyed during the Second World War – so the only “copy” of the play that exists is a French translation that was published in a French literary magazine in 1954! Wilde’s son, at the time, “said the play seemed to be his father’s.” Author and theatre critic Charles Osborne re-translated the French text back to English for the new theatre production. The play is set to premier in September.
What’s interesting is that controversy often follows these kinds of posthumous releases. They often exist as curiosities more than full works (allowing people to speculate what the work would have looked like if it had been completed) and, in a lot of cases, their releases go against the authors wishes! Franz Kafka wanted his unfinished writings to be destroyed (they were all eventually published), and Nabokov had similar wishes for the incomplete draft of The Original of Laura. And because The Original of Laura was more a hint or a sketch of a work than an actual novel the critical response to the book was almost universally negative (with most of the scorn going to the executors who decided to release it.)
Reservations should probably similarly come with the new production of Wilde’s Constance. An article on the production by The Independent quotes John Stokes, the editor of Wilde’s journalism, as “[urging] caution about assuming these were Wilde’s exact words.” Stokes said the French text was “very problematic.”
Nonetheless, these unfinished works still provide us new content from revered and long-dead artists. And if they can give us new insight into the life of the author (as the producer of Constance says the play does of Wilde) and if it gets people buzzing about, discussing, and re-examining an old master in an age of content overload – it can’t be an entirely bad thing!
For more on the play and the new production, including how the plot has interesting parallels to Wilde’s personal life, read the The Independent article here.
And for a comprehensive run-down of unfinished creative works (posthumously released or otherwise) check out the Wikipedia article on the subject here.