Oscar’s Last Line

by Mark Knight

[Synopsis: A TV company recreates Oscar Wilde as a hologram and interviews him. It doesn’t go exactly as planned…]

NOTE TO ACTORS/DIRECTORS: A character’s line ending in an ellipsis ‘…’ means they trail off before the next character speaks. A line ending in a dash ‘-‘ indicates an interruption.

[A TV studio. In the control room sits Tim, the Director. The studio set is a study. Ian Prior enters. A woman, the Researcher, scurries up to him, hands him a clipboard and runs away. He barely glances at her. He sits, looking over what he has been handed.]

PRIOR: Hallo studio?

TIM: Hallo Prior.

PRIOR: Hi Tim. I’m going to read this intro if you want to get a level.

TIM: The techs say ‘yes’..

[Prior reads from the clipboard.]

PRIOR: [Reads from auotcue or clipboard] The marvels of Science have given us many things. Soaring rockets have riven the sky, Computer-enhanced microscopes that open up to us the wonder of the world of wiggling things tinier than a pin’s point.

[He pauses and looks impassively at the clipboard for a moment, then continues.]

PRIOR: Tonight is the first time that Science has given us the opportunity to meet the past. Oscar Wilde is our subject, our guest. Genetic retro-engineering married to computer-hologramics coupled with software algorithms of infinitesimal- I’m sorry.. Who wrote this?

[Tim is sitting next to the researcher. Tim speaks…]

TIM: Tell him who wrote it.

[The researcher is painfully shy and nervous.]

RESA: Umm…I did.

TIM: Turn your talkback mike on.

RESA: Sorry. [She turns it on] Um… it was me. I researched-

PRIOR: Well… I’m sorry, but ‘ the wonder of the world of wiggling things tinier than a pin’s point’? I can’t say this.

RESA: I’m not really a writer … I did ancient languages … Latin, Greek … and umm Literature… we met umm … and you said…

PRIOR: Oh. Yes. I remember you now. Sorry.

RESA: Well … I gave you the Oscar Wilde … um … stuff I’d ..you know … researched. Briefing, I mean. And you said I could have a stab at writing the intro … thing.

PRIOR: OK. Look, I’m sorry. It’s just… We’ll have to rewrite this wiggly coupling algorithm stuff. We’ll record and cut it in later. OK?

TIM: Sure, sure.

PRIOR: I know this was my idea but I still don’t know how this raising the dead stuff works.

RESA: Well-

PRIOR: No. Please. Not you. You’ve … got enough on your plate.

TIM: [flipping his mike on with a world-weary air] They take his remains & all his writing, they read the DNA, CIA, CNN, some acronym anyway – in which, they tell me, there is a record of everything that happened to him while he was alive. And then, God knows how, they program a computer to produce a sort of 3D cartoon they call a happygram of Oscar Wilde.

RESA: Umm… It’s a.. a hologram actual-

TIM:  -So whoever. But he, it, whatever, has only got as much time as we can afford to pay for on the super-computers that can handle this sort of crap.

PRIOR: Thanks Tim. You’re a cynical son of a bitch but succinct.

RESA: Um..essentially that’s right but we also cross-reference extrapolated meme’s which we can deduce from known behaviours and historical data – fixed data, or…or documented events that are corroborated by his um.. contemporaries. So, no apocrypha – though, um, I’m looking at using stories and such to provide other memes which we can map using fuzzy logic. Um.

TIM: Interesting.

RESA: Oh it is. It’s-

TIM: And suddenly I realize I don’t care. Prior?

PRIOR: Yeah?

TIM: If we don’t get a good program out of this we’re out millions. This was your idea. He’d better be worth it.

PRIOR: I hear you.

TIM: They’re just updating his… hobbygram… with his situation. I dunno… I take it that means they’re telling him how he got here and what we’re doing.

RESA: Oh wow. Oscar Wilde. Alive again.

TIM: O wow? Jeez.


TIM: Yeah?

PRIOR: Willing suspension of disbelief. Remember?

TIM: I remember I used to gag at stuff like that.

PRIOR: You used to believe in good drama. Good writing.

TIM: I used to believe the stork brought babies. Then I found out it had more to do with pork. Let’s just do the job and make some money. A tinny, techy voice in my ear says he’ll be ready in a few minutes. He’ll be appearing in the doorway.

RESA: How can pork bring babies?

TIM: I’ll show you later shall I?

PRIOR: Leave her alone Tim.

TIM: And the tinny voice tells me that this horribly expensive piece of crap just got more expensive. Jeez. Apparently we might have to pay for another 15 freaking expensive minutes while they “patch some mapping issues”. I mean what the *fug* language are they using? [To the techies on his headset] Yo. Techies. Listen! This. Is. Expensive. Don’t. Piss. About!

[Tim storms out of the control room to join Prior in the studio then stops and says to the Researcher]

TIM: Come with me so that you can translate any dreck I need translated. 

RESA: Actually ‘dreck’ is from high German, and yiddish, of course, adopted-

TIM: Whoa! You translate when I ask ‘What’s that mean?’ When I’m just talking – you don’t. Come.

[They join Prior ]

PRIOR: How you holding up Tim?

TIM: I hate this. “patch some mapping issues”? – wadda fug?

[He glares at the world in general, focusing in particular on the Researcher.]

RESA: Are you… should I translate?

TIM: NO! Yes. What’s it mean?

RESA: Well the meta-structure-

TIM: NO! By translate I mean take the crap I don’t understand & put it into words I do. Meta-structure is BLAH!

PRIOR: Tim. Stop it. You’re pissed & taking it out on a.. researcher, I mean… I’m sorry, I’m blanking on your name.

RESA: Yes. Lots of people do actually. It’s OK.

TIM: No it’s not. Say who you are. Be clear about who and what you are and what you want.

RESA: Um… well…

TIM: O jeez

PRIOR: Tim, shut it for a bit. ‘Kay? [to reseacher] Sorry. Your name is..? I can’t keep thinking of you as the researcher.

RESA: Resa.

PRIOR: Seriously? You’re a researcher and your name is Resa?

RESA: Yah. Short for Teresa. Sorry.

PRIOR: OK Resa. Nice to meet you.

RESA: I’m sorry about the wiggling…stuff

PRIOR: “the wonder of the world of wiggling things tinier than a pin’s point”

RESA: Oh. You remembered it.

PRIOR: Well.. it really did stick in my..

RESA: it was bad wasn’t it?

PRIOR: It needs work. Tim could maybe help you with it?


PRIOR: He’s a writer first & foremost. Well, a curmudgeon first but then a writer.

TIM: No I’m not. I used to be a writer and now I make a lot of money.

PRIOR: Tim doesn’t like being reminded of his achilles heel do you Tim?

TIM: [Finger to ear] -and saved by the wobblygram. They’re giving me a 3 minute countdown so big breaths everyone.

TIM: [To Resa] Come on. [They hurry to the control room] Do you know the one about ‘big breaths’?

RESA: No..um..

TIM: She replies “Yeth and I’m only Thixteen”

RESA: Um.. I’m sorry I don’t get it.

[Prior shakes his head at both of them. He sits in his chair facing the identical empty chair opposite him.]

TIM: Ok everyone. In 10, 9, 8 7, 6

[He mouths the last 5 counts and uses his fingers. Everybody looks at the doorway. On zero, Tim points at the doorway. Then Oscar speaks from an entirely different place.]

OSCAR: Gracious me! Bosie, my earnest boy.

[Oscar is not where he was supposed to be. He saunters towards Prior.]


PRIOR: Tim, it’s talkback Tim. You don’t have to shout. We could hear you on set.

OSCAR: I’m so sorry. I was always known for unpredictability, though of course, once one is known for unpredictability others expect it, which defeats the purpose. Hello.

PRIOR: Mr. Wilde, I wonder-

OSCAR: Please, call me Oscar. There should be no formalities twixt the quick and the dead.

[Tim speaks to Prior through his earpiece during the following. Oscar can’t hear of course.]

PRIOR: Right. Oscar..

TIM: Prior, get him to go back to the door. We’re sucking up computer time here.

PRIOR: .. um, welcome. We weren’t quite ready and-

OSCAR: Not ready? You’ve had over a hundred years since I … was last here. Surely you knew I was coming?

[He walks to the wingback & sits, smiling. He is enormously pleased with himself.]

PRIOR: Mr Wilde, my name is-

OSCAR: Oscar, please. And I will call you Earnest. When you are that. And Bosie when you are so.

TIM: Prior, get him to-

PRIOR: I’m not sure I understand but thank you Oscar. You just said that it’s a hundred years since you were last here. Does that mean you know you’re not…I suppose, ‘alive’ is the word I’m fumbling for.

OSCAR: But dead is the word you’re avoiding. Interesting question Earnest.

TIM: Prior!!!!!!

[Prior holds his finger to his earpiece, indicating that he is listening to Tim on his earpiece. Oscar cannot hear Tim.]

TIM: This computer’s eating up money. We’re going to have to redo the entrance. Tell the bastard to hurry. And all this Earnest Boysie stuff-

PRIOR: Bosie.

OSCAR: If you prefer, but that was such an Earnest question. Though it showed a Bosie sensitivity.

PRIOR: [finger to ear] I’m sorry I was talking to someone… Mr. W- Oscar, we started off rather badly-

OSCAR: Yes. The gentleman screaming furiously as I entered..?

PRIOR: Yes. He’s… directing this… whole thing and… Oscar, could you please repeat what you did just now when you … came in?

OSCAR: I called you Bosie.

PRIOR: Bosie. Alfred Lord Douglas. The young man you had an affair with.

OSCAR: Are we still criminals?

PRIOR: No Oscar.

OSCAR: Thank God. My Bosie, my earnest boy. I thought you him. But you are much *much* older-

PRIOR: One ‘ much ‘ would have been enough there-

OSCAR: Ha! And you have a more somber face. At any rate you cultivate an earnest expression when you address me. But the resemblance is striking.

TIM: [to Prior] Get him to cut the cackle and re-do from the top. The meter’s running for Chrissake.

PRIOR: Mr. – Oscar

OSCAR: Yes, Earnest? I shall continue to call you Earnest. And occasionally, just to confuse you, I shall call you Bosie. And if it upsets the… Director’..?


OSCAR: Tim. Well I suspect that ‘upset’ is a state he’s well used to. Of course, I shall probably confuse myself too, but a little confusion can be so charming.

PRIOR: Your charm has lasted through-

TIM: Prior for Christ’s sake! [Prior puts finger to earpiece and speaks.]

PRIOR: Tim, do you mind?!

OSCAR: Is Tim blowing piercing whistles down his tube?

PRIOR: Oh yes!

OSCAR: I was an editor and loved the speaking tube – except of course when it summoned me.

PRIOR: We need to start again. From the doorway? Making an entrance-

OSCAR: Making an entrance is very much a skill of mine.

[Oscar makes for the door]

PRIOR: And exits of course.

[Oscar stops, pleased. He grins, suddenly charming & boyish]

OSCAR: Jolly good Bosie. It’s so much more fun when the ball is struck back firmly.

[He strolls to the door.]

PRIOR: What will you say to open with?

OSCAR: Something predictable.

PRIOR: [Grins] Oh. OK.

[Oscar exits.]

TIM: Jesus, who does he think he is?

RESA: He’s Oscar Wilde.

TIM: Thank you. Ready everybody?

[Brief pause. Then Oscar re-enters, and looks around as if the room were fresh to him. He takes a deep satisfied breath and then…]

OSCAR: Ah! What a delightful room. I cannot thank you enough for inviting me to your little century. I once toured America. I didn’t realise that I was so popular that you would bring me back from the dead.

[Oscar sits.]

PRIOR: You’re very welcome Oscar.

OSCAR: Thank you, Earnest.

PRIOR: Before I ask you about your literary achievements, I’d like to ask: earlier, when you first met me, you said I reminded you of someone you loved.

OSCAR: Yes. Actually you reminded me of two people I loved.

PRIOR: I thought you said I looked like Bosie, Alfred Lo-

OSCAR: Lord Douglas. My beautiful Bosie boy. Yes you resemble Bosie – sans youth and much of his naivete.

PRIOR: and the other?

OSCAR: Me. I was an earnest, serious boy sometimes. I worked hard at cultivating a louche and foppish exterior and I am awfully good at it. But I read early Greek and Roman philosophers and theologians and debated them hotly. I had a way with English too and I found that society much prefers the playwright to the preacher.

PRIOR: I knew a little of your plays, and other writings, but not the details of your life. And then I read of the … journey of your life. It was a shock to discover so much sadness.

OSCAR: It was something of a surprise to me.

PRIOR: You once said ‘I am the only person I should like to know thoroughly but I don’t see any chance of it just at present ‘. Do you know yourself now?

OSCAR: I know what I was. I know what I thought I was. I know that I became a ghost who haunted himself. I could list my failings and a very long, Rabelasian list they would be. But in brief, I was a sad, sorry, failure. I am not indulging now, Earnest, in self-pity, that filthy wallow. Nor do I desire the pity of others. I neither deserve it nor have I earned it. I merely say what I know to be true. Knowing this, I feel I something comprehend Christ’s cry upon the cross ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabach thani ‘. Father, my Father, why hast thou forsaken me. Though, of course, God never deserts one. One deserts Him. Yet His love awaits us still. One hopes.

PRIOR: I’m sure he still loves you Oscar.

OSCAR: Thank you Earnest.

PRIOR: Earnest? Thank you.

OSCAR: It’s not necessarily a compliment. Interviewers, journalists, are often deceivers who contrive to appear earnest and honest and yet they lie like common whores on the street proclaiming their lack of disease. I accept that a writer would be biased in telling a story. It is expected of us. But journalists purport to tell the truth in a factual way which leads an ignorant reader to accept what they say as if it were the Gospel. Often I have written or read more ‘truth’ in a story or novel or play than has appeared in a whole pile of newspapers. Is it still so today?

PRIOR: Yes. Except that today journalists have more outlets.

OSCAR: So journalists play their own version of the truth game still?

PRIOR: Yes… but perhaps because we have so much space to fill up we feel we have to stretch the truth to fit. The world is awash with information now, but good writing is still as rare as ever.

OSCAR: You are a journalist then?

PRIOR: I was a writer, briefly a journalist. I suppose I am a sort of journalist/performer now. I played Earnest once, in your play ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’.

OSCAR: Just once? It cannot have been a very successful production.

PRIOR: Well, it wasn’t really a-

OSCAR: I was teasing Earnest. I am ecstatic that my work is still playing. Who got the money?

PRIOR: I… well there was a producer…

OSCAR: You seem shocked at my interest in base coin. There is no shame having a healthy appreciation of the worth, in cash money, of one’s work. I was cavalier with money before I married. But after I became a father I set to with a will. Money became a necessity. I had to provide for all my pretty chickens and their dam.

PRIOR: That’s from Macbeth.

OSCAR: Well done Earnest. Macduff speaks it when told of the murder of his family ‘What? All my pretty chickens… and their dam?’ Macduff felt a terrible guilt having left his wife and children to their fate. I empathize with Macduff. But to be aware of tragedy is easy. To be a tragedy is harder, though it took me little effort to achieve. But I dwell on my past, and the past is what a man should not have been. The present is what a man ought not to be. The future is what artists should create.

PRIOR: You were a great artist-

OSCAR: I thought so…

PRIOR: …arrogant…

OSCAR: I thought so…

PRIOR: …and a marvelous wit, and yet-

OSCAR: I was a marvelous fool. I marvel at my foolishness, as did many others. And I was punished for my foolishness and hubris.

PRIOR: You were imprisoned in Reading gaol.

OSCAR: I had hoped that we might discuss my life and avoid the unpleasant subject of my death.

PRIOR: But you didn’t die in prison.

OSCAR: Every day I died, Earnest.

PRIOR: I’m sorry.

OSCAR: No. It is for me to be sorry.

PRIOR: Do you remember much of that time? [Oscar pauses] Is it hard to-

OSCAR: It was hard labour Earnest. It was hard hearts and hard stone and hard bread and the ground broken to bury those hardened by rigor mortis .

PRIOR: You wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, in prison.


PRIOR: May I read a verse of it’


PRIOR: Yes. Please do.

OSCAR: In Reading gaol by Reading town
             There is a pit of shame
             And in it lies a wretched man
             Eaten by teeth of flame,
             In a burning winding-sheet he lies,
             And his grave has got no name.
             And there, till Christ call forth the dead,
             In silence let him lie:
             No need to waste the foolish tear,
             Or heave the windy sigh:
             The man had killed the thing he loved,
             And so he had to die.

             Yet each…no

             And all men kill the thing they love,
             By all let this be heard,
             Some do it with a bitter look,
             Some with a flattering word,
             The coward does it with a kiss…

[he pauses, clearly distressed.]

PRIOR: The brave man with a sword.

OSCAR: Thank you. I was remembering something else…
Though that last line is not as good as the penultimate. I phrase well and always say what I believe, whether it is unpalatable or not. But it is my genius, I think, to finish a phrase roundly. It is also my failing.

PRIOR: I don’t believe you ever failed.

OSCAR: So earnest. Thank you.

OSCAR: Thank you. I was remembering something else…
Though that last line is not as good as the penultimate. I phrase well and always say what I believe, whether it is unpalatable or not.

PRIOR: Were you always a talker, writer, an artist?

OSCAR: I was always a teller of tales.

PRIOR: And were you often in trouble?

OSCAR: Not for telling tales, at least not in the sense of telling lies. My trouble was that I told the truth – or rather I spoke my mind. I would always speak the thought as it occurred to me and had a facility, I have it still, for dressing the thought in the right apparel.

PRIOR: Always?

OSCAR: As near as I can recall.

PRIOR: Were you a child prodigy?

OSCAR: I don’t think so now. I thought so then. I was witty so as to fill in the tedious gaps one experiences in so many conversations. Nature, and I, abhor a vacuum, though society so often delights in the vacuous. I do not. I was never vacuous, yet at first I delighted society. But what I said and wrote was often full of truth, or at the very least, acute observation. No society likes being observed, and commented upon, so minutely.

PRIOR: And that was your downfall?

OSCAR: It gave society fuel for it’s later hatred. But I felt it more important to be honest than palatable. Though art and honesty are often strange bedfellows. I am Irish. The English, it seems, need others to make their language work it’s magic – and so we oblige. Often to their discomfort.

PRIOR: They sentenced you to hard labour, treated you like a common criminal. How did you manage, after the glitter and fame you had in London, and America?

OSCAR: At first I determined to be proud and disdainful. But soon I embraced Humility. Or She embraced me. Christ taught me the way to humility. Humility in her simple grandeur allows of no Ego, or rather she will smile at one’s attempt at hiding one’s soul in tattered threads of bluster. And then She will use little lessons to teach how to come to Her. Have you ever eaten prison bread?

[Oscar hunches forward, his eyes lidded. His speech becomes monotonic, less flowery.]
OSCAR: Coarse bread. Stone in it. Like a rasp in my throat. And the air stinking. Foetid. But we breathed the air and ate the bread. All of it. Jesus help me. I remember someone – the Chaplain, the Doctor.. – getting me white bread. I ate that. Licked it up. I licked my fingers and scrabbled for the crumbs.

[There is a long pause. ]

PRIOR: And..?

OSCAR: What would you have me couple to that Bosie-

PRIOR: Earnest.

OSCAR: You are so like my Bosie. You pry almost insolently, yet so earnestly, too. How old are you?

PRIOR: Forty three.

OSCAR: Old enough to be a father. Do you have children?

PRIOR: I.. I’m divorced. I have … daughters. Two daughters. You had two boys…

OSCAR: I … no, Constance, poor Connie, and I had two beautiful boys. They were great gifts. Vyvyan was so earnest. Cyril was so Cyril. Cyril taught me that nothing that actually occurs is of the smallest importance. I so loved them both.

PRIOR: You told bedtime stories to them which you later published?

OSCAR: Oh yes. They were the only audience I truly knew and loved. Bedtime was our time. I would extemporize, and poured forth stories for them. They would fall asleep. Had any other audience treated me in such a cavalier way I would have consigned them to hell. But when my boys fell asleep to my words I sat and watched them and loved them. Then I would kiss them but sometimes I could not leave. I would have work’s whining voice calling me but I couldn’t leave them.

PRIOR: But you left them, and your wife, finally.

OSCAR: [pause] Yes.

PRIOR: For Bosie.


PRIOR: Homosexuality was considered a heinous sin, a crime, in England then.

OSCAR: Yes. Love was a crime then.

PRIOR: And so, prison and you had to leave Bosie too.

OSCAR: Yes … I … loved him.

PRIOR: And your family..?

OSCAR: My son, Cyril, had a red schoolbag. It was almost salmon red, a pinkish red. He loved it but was teased by his Nanny and school friends for delighting in such a girlish object. I am what I am, but I loathed the thought that he might become like me in that… girlishness.

[Oscar takes a deep breath and quotes… ]

OSCAR: Yet each man kills the thing he loves
              By each let this be heard
              Some do it with a bitter look
              Some with a flattering word
              The coward does it with a kiss…

I kissed them. I kissed them. And they said ‘Goodbye Papa’…

[He cries & tries to run to the doorway. He trembles but struggles to hold onto his composure. Then his image freezes. The mouth moves strangely & we hear his voice.]

OSCAR: ተጠናቀቀ…

[Everyone focuses on Oscar, frozen, face screwed up in pain. The lights sputter on & off.]

TIM: I don’t believe it.

[He runs to the set, shouting as he goes, RESA following.]

TIM: The bloody super-computer crashed. I’m not paying for this you bastards. I’m not paying for a busted video game…

[He stops, panting. He’s not used to running. And he’s upset by Oscar’s pain. ]

TIM: [He goes to RESA] What’d he say? What was that last thing he said?

RESA: [Crying] ተጠናቀቀ. It’s a version of Amharic. It means ‘It is completed’. ‘It’s finished’.

[Tim comforts her awkwardly. Prior watches them.]

PRIOR: I think that might be good TV.

TIM: You’re a git Prior. 

[He holds Resa gently as the lights fade.]

Graphic of "It is finished" in Amharic
“It is finished.”

© 2023 Mark Knight  All rights reserved.

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