Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions, by Frank Harris

The Story of “Mr. And Mrs. Daventry”

(See page 534)

There has been so much discussion about the play entitled “Mr. and Mrs. Daventry,” and Oscar Wilde’s share in it, that I had better set forth here briefly what happened.

When I returned to London in the summer of 1899 after buying, as I thought, all rights in the sketch of the scenario from Oscar, I wrote at once the second, third and fourth acts of the play, as I had told Oscar I would. I sent him what I had written and asked him to write the first act as he had promised for the £50.

Some time before this I had seen Mr. Forbes Robertson and Mrs. Patrick Campbell in “Hamlet,” and Mrs. Patrick Campbell’s Ophelia had made a deeper impression on me than even the Hamlet of Forbes Robertson. I wished her to take my play, and as luck would have it, she had just gone into management on her own account and leased the Royalty Theatre.

I read her my play one afternoon, and at once she told me she would take it; but I must write a first act. I told her that I was no good at preliminary scenes and that Oscar Wilde had promised to write a first act, which would, of course, enhance the value of the play enormously.

To my surprise Mrs. Patrick Campbell would not hear of it: “Quite impossible,” she said, “a play’s not a patchwork quilt; you must write the first act yourself.”

“I must write to Oscar then,” I replied, “and see whether he has finished it already or not.”

Mrs. Campbell insisted that the play, if she was to accept it, must be the work of one hand. I wrote to Oscar at once, asking him whether he had written the first act, adding that if he had not written it and would send me his idea of the scenario, I would write it. I was overjoyed to tell him that Mrs. Patrick Campbell had provisionally accepted the play.

To my astonishment Oscar replied in evident ill-temper to say that he could not write the first act, or the scenario, but at the same time he hoped I would now send him some money for having helped to make my début on the stage.

I returned to tell Mrs. Campbell my disappointment and to see if she had any idea of what she wanted in the first act. She was delighted with my news, and said that all I had to do was to write an act introducing my characters, and that I ought, for the sake of contrast, to give her a mother. Some impish spirit suggested to me the idea of making a mother much younger than her daughter, that is, a very flighty ordinary woman, impulsive and feather-brained, with a mania for attending sales and collecting odds and ends at bargain prices. Full of this idea I wrote the first act off hand.

Mrs. Patrick Campbell did not like it much, and in this, as indeed always, showed excellent judgment and an extraordinary understanding of the requirements of the stage; nevertheless she accepted the play and settled terms. A little later I went to Leeds, where she was playing, and read the play to her and her “Company.” We discussed the cast, and I suggested Mr. Kerr to play Mr. Daventry. Mrs. Patrick Campbell jumped at the idea, and everything was settled.

I wrote the good news to Oscar, and back came another letter from him, more ill-tempered than the first, saying he had never thought I would take his scenario; I had no right to touch it; but as I had taken it, I must really pay him something substantial.

The claim was absurd, but I hated to dispute with him or even appear to bargain.

I wrote to him that if I made anything out of the play I would send him some more money. He replied that he was sure my play would be a failure; but I ought to get a good sum down in advance of royalties from Mrs. Patrick Campbell, and at once send him half of it. His letters were childishly ill-conditioned and unreasonable; but, believing him to be in extreme indigence, I felt too sorry for him even to argue the point. Again and again I had helped him, and it seemed sordid and silly to hurt our old friendship for money. I couldn’t believe that he would talk of my having done anything that I ought not to have done if we met, so as soon as I could I crossed to Paris to have it out with him.

To my astonishment I found him obdurate in his wrong-headedness. When I asked him what he had sold me for the £50 I paid him, he coolly said he didn’t think I was serious, that no man would write a play on another man’s scenario; it was absurd, impossible —“C’est ridicule!” he repeated again and again. When I reminded him that Shakespeare had done it, he got angry: it was altogether different then — today: “C’est ridicule!” Tired of going over and over the old ground I pressed him to tell me what he wanted. For hours he wouldn’t say: then at length he declared he ought to have half of all the play fetched, and even that wouldn’t be fair to him, as he was a dramatist and I was not, and I ought not to have touched his scenario and so on, over and over again.

I returned to my hotel wearied in heart and head by his ridiculous demands and reiterations. After thrashing the beaten straw to dust on the following day, I agreed at length to give him another £50 down and another £50 later. Even then he pretended to be very sorry indeed that I had taken what he called “his play,” and assured me in the same breath that “Mr. and Mrs. Daventry” would be a rank failure: “Plays cannot be written by amateurs; plays require knowledge of the stage. It’s quite absurd of you, Frank, who hardly ever go to the theatre, to think you can write a successful play straight off. I always loved the theatre, always went to every first night in London, have the stage in my blood,” and so forth and so on. I could not help recalling what he had told me years before, that when he had to write his first play for George Alexander, he shut himself up for a fortnight with the most successful modern French plays, and so learned his métier.

Next day I returned to London, understanding now something of the unreasonable persistence in begging which had aroused Lord Alfred Douglas’ rage.

As soon as my play was advertised a crowd of people confronted me with claims I had never expected. Mrs. Brown Potter wrote to me saying that some years before she had bought a play from Oscar Wilde which he had not delivered, and as she understood that I was bringing it out, she hoped I would give it to her to stage. I replied saying that Oscar had not written a word of my play. She wrote again, saying that she had paid £100 for the scenario: would I see Mr. Kyrle Bellew on the matter? I saw them both a dozen times; but came to no decision.

While these negotiations were going on, a host of other Richmonds came into the field. Horace Sedger had also bought the same scenario, and then in quick succession it appeared that Tree and Alexander and Ada Rehan had also paid for the same privilege. When I wrote to Oscar about this expressing my surprise he replied coolly that he could have gone on selling the play now to French managers, and later to German managers, if I had not interfered: “You have deprived me of a certain income:” was his argument, “and therefore you owe me more than you will ever get from the play, which is sure to fall flat.”

A little later Miss Nethersole presented herself, and when I would not yield to her demands, went to Paris, and Oscar wrote to me saying she ought to stage the piece as she would do it splendidly, or at least I should repay her the money she had advanced to him.

This letter showed me that Oscar had not only deceived me, but, for some cause or other, some pricking of vanity I couldn’t understand, was willing to embarrass me as much as possible without any scruple.

Finally Smithers, the publisher of three of Oscar’s books, whom I knew to be a real friend of Oscar, came to me with a still more appealing story. When Oscar was in Italy, and in absolute need, Smithers got a man named Roberts to advance £100 on the scenario. I found that Oscar had written out the whole scenario for him and outlined the characters of his drama. This was evidently the completest claim that had yet been brought before me: it was also, Smithers proved, the earliest, and Smithers himself was in dire need. I wrote to Oscar that I thought Smithers had the best claim because he was the first buyer, and certainly ought to have something. Oscar replied, begging me not to be a fool: to send him the money and tell Smithers to go to Sheol. Thereupon I told Smithers I could not afford to give him any money at the moment; but if the play was a success he should have something out of it.

The play was a success: it was stopped for a week by Queen Victoria’s death, in January, and was, I think, the only play that survived that ordeal. Mrs. Patrick Campbell was good enough to allow me to rewrite the first act for the fiftieth performance, and it ran, if I remember rightly, some 130 nights. About the twentieth representation I paid Smithers.

For the first weeks of the run I was bombarded with letters from Oscar, begging money and demanding money in every tone. He made nothing of the fact that I had already paid him three times the price agreed upon, and paid Smithers to boot, and lost through his previous sales of the scenario whatever little repute the success of the piece might have brought me. Nine people out of ten believed that Oscar had written the play and that I had merely lent my name to the production in order to enable him, as a bankrupt, to receive the money from it. Even men of letters deceived themselves in this way. George Moore told Bernard Shaw that he recognised Oscar’s hand in the writing again and again, though Shaw himself was far too keen-witted to be so misled. As a matter of fact Oscar did not write a word of the play and the characters he sketched for Smithers and Roberts were altogether different from mine and were not known to me when I wrote my story.

I have set forth the bare facts of the affair here because Oscar managed to half-persuade Ross and Turner and other friends that I owed him money which I would not pay; though Ross had discounted most of his complaints, even before hearing my side.

Oscar got me over to Paris in September under the pretext that he was ill; but I found him as well as could be, and anxious merely to get more money out of me by any means. I put it all down to his poverty. I did not then know that Ross was giving him £150 a year; that indeed all his friends had helped him and were helping him with singular generosity, and I recalled the fact that when he had had money he never showed any meanness, or any desire to over-reach. Want is a dreadful teacher, and I did not hold Oscar altogether responsible for his weird attitude to me personally.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30