THE LAST ACT
The final act is the most important one in a drama, and a dramatist generally begins his work at the end. We sit out a long evening at the theatre in order to see the last act or `how it will go.’ But in the significant lives of certain men people like to ignore the last act, because it is uncomfortable and might show how the godless fare at last. He who wrote the operetta .Boccaccio had to append the last act to it; the jovial Florentine became a priest and delivered lectures on Dante’s Hell, though he only reached the seventeenth canto. Voltaire’s last hours, when he took the sacrament, might furnish a subject for a tragedy like the second part of Faust. Heine announced his conversion, which took place in 1851, in the preface to the Romancero: `I have returned to God like the prodigal son, after I had fed swine with the Hegelians for a long time.’ This preface should be printed before every collection of Heine’s poems. Hegel singing penitential psalms on his death-bed might form the subject of a fresco painting for the entrance-hall of Berlin University. But the most affecting final act is Oscar Wilde’s description of his prison life in De Profundis. He was the so-called renaissance leader, who disinterred heathenism with its false worship of beauty, which contains the foulest of all. Kierkegaard would have called him the aesthete, the Sybarite cold as cast iron, the egoist round whose petty `I’ the whole world was to revolve in order to understand him alone. Many, led astray like him by the seducing spirits of his youth, remained fairly free from public punishment. Wilde seems to have been picked out to furnish a startling example, for his position, at any rate in his own country, was almost that of an idol.
What he wrote lacks originality; it is whipped-up foam; glazing which, when washed off, leaves no texture; it is as restless as cross-lights, or like a mirror in a public restaurant, in a labyrinthine hall with deceptive lines and false perspectives; it runs out of the hand like albumen or frog-spawn; it is perverse as in Dorian Grey, the hero of which should have lost his youth by nightly excesses, while on the contrary it is only his portrait which changes.
The last act was played, and that outdid all horror, was so horrible that Wilde himself could not describe its details, which, however, oral tradition has preserved in a Swedenborgian legend.
De Profundis arouses pity and fear, and one would gladly acquit the man who was perhaps the victim of his delusion; a worldly tribunal would not have judged him if he had not himself appealed to it, and that indeed for a wrong done him. It was what our renaissance-critic called a `piece of stupidity’ when he made Wilde out to be a martyr of `hypocrisy,’ as he called justice. Wilde however seems to have taken another view of the matter to his impartial defender: `A day in prison on which one does not weep is a day on which one’s heart is hard, not a day on which one’s heart is happy. Once I had put into motion the forces of society, society turned on me and said: “Have you been living all this time in defiance of my laws, and do you now appeal to those laws for protection? You shall have those laws exercised to the full.” A man’s very highest moment, I have no doubt at all, is when he kneels in the dust and beats his breast and tells us all the sins of his life.’
The `joy of life’ whose perfume he had inhaled at Oxford through Pater’s Renaissance now began to grow sour.
`Clergymen and people who use phrases without wisdom sometimes talk of suffering as a mystery. It is really a revelation.
`Behind joy and laughter there may be a temperament coarse, hard, and callous. Pain, unlike pleasure, wears no mask. There are times when sorrow seems to me to be the only truth. The secret of life is suffering.’
Let us add that Wilde derived his most dangerous doctrine from Baudelaire and Shakespeare’s sonnets. And let us close with the new view of the Renaissance which he attained to in prison: `To me one of the things in history the most to be regretted is that the Christ’s own renaissance, which has produced the Cathedral at Chartres, the Arthurian cycle of legends, the life of St. Francis of Assisi, the art of Giotto, and Dante’s Divine Comedy, was not allowed to develop on its own lines, but was interrupted and spoiled by the dreary classical Renaissance.’