Oscar Wilde’s time in Reading Gaol, where he was imprisoned from 1895 – 1897 on charges of homosexual acts, marked a devastating turning point in his life. Before his trial against his lover’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury, whom Wilde sued for libel after the Marquess publicly accused him of sodomy, Wilde was at the peak of his career, having just debuted "The Importance of Being Earnest." A mere 15 weeks after its debut, Wilde would be in prison.
Reading Gaol took a horrible mental and physical toll on Wilde. He was confined to his cell for 23 hours each day, and forbidden from speaking with anyone during the one hour he was permitted outside. Mental illness and poor hygiene were rampant. Halfway through Wilde’s sentence there, Reading held its first execution by hanging in 18 years, an event that would inspire Wilde’s "Ballad of Reading Gaol." After his release, he would live only three more years, dying from cerebral meningitis in a shabby Paris Hotel in November, 1900 at 46 years of age.
Now, 116 years after this death, Reading has been transformed into a massive tribute to Wilde, its most famous prisoner.
Reading ceased to be an active jail in 2013 and sat empty for some time until the multidisciplinary art group Artangel received permission to stage a Wilde exhibition there.
Running through October 30, “Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison,” features the works of writers, performers and artists including Colm Toíbín, Patti Smith, Steve McQueen, Nan Goldin, Ben Wishaw, Marlene Dumas and Chinese artist and former prisoner Ai Weiwei.
The exhibition offers the chance to step inside the cell where Wilde passed so many hours and takes visitors on a self-determined journey through the prison’s main atrium, wings and cells.
Only 100 people are admitted at a time in order to convey how quiet the prison was when Wilde was there. As James Lingwood, Artangel’s co-director, told the New York Times, “One of the things that was very important to us was that the soundtrack to the whole experience be silence. When Oscar Wilde was here, prisoners were basically kept on their own in their cells almost all the time, and there was almost no sound. We want people to be deeply moved, to reflect.”
Works of visual art hang throughout Reading, and headsets allow visitors to listen to recorded readings.
Each Sunday, a different performer (including Ralph Fiennes, Colm Toíbín and Ben Wishaw), sit in front of the old door to Wilde’s cell and do a full, six hour reading of “De Profundis,” the 50,000 word letter Wilde wrote while at Reading.
As noted in a recent article, Wilde has been undergoing something of a renaissance in recent years, but, given its setting, this exhibition may just be the weightiest tribute yet.
For more information, visit ArtAngel’s website.