Oscar Wilde undertook to complete his second play, The Duchess of Padua, by 1 March 1883, and he signed a contract to that effect:
…a first class Five act tragedy to be completed on or before March 1st 1883 – Said tragedy to be the property of Miss Mary Anderson and her heirs forever.
In return, he was to receive $5,000, although just $1,000 was paid in advance with the balance falling due if, and only if, acclaimed American actress Mary Anderson approved his completed manuscript.
As Wilde had every expectation that his play would be accepted, he saw no reason to economise. He used Anderson’s advance to secure a suite of rooms on the second floor of the Hotel Voltaire, overlooking the Seine in Paris. When his friend Robert Sherard called on him, he saw evidence of industry scattered all about the living room; ‘a glance at these sheets showed that many of the lines had been written over and over again’, he recalled.[i]
Wilde and Sherard, a great-grandson of poet William Wordsworth, met in Paris early in 1883 and got along exceptionally well. Since Sherard was estranged from his family and struggling to make a living as a writer, Wilde treated him to dinner at the celebrated restaurant in the Hotel Foyot. Making light of the cost, he declared: ‘we dine with the Duchess to-night’.
It’s thought likely that the contract between Wilde and Anderson was amended since he did not dispatch his completed manuscript until 15 March and he offered no word of apology.
He following up with a long and exceptionally revealing letter outlining the approach he had taken to: ‘the masterpiece of all my literary work, the chef-d’oeuvre of my youth’.[ii]
Noteworthy, at this early stage, is his absolute conviction that an element of comedy was essential in even the darkest tragedy, since no audience, he believed, would weep unless it was first made to laugh.
When Anderson turned the play down, Sherard was there to witness his friend’s muted reaction:
…he gave no sign of his disappointment. I can remember his tearing a little piece off the blue telegraph-form and rolling it up into a pellet and putting it into his mouth, as, by curious habit, he did with every paper or book that came into his hands. And all he said, as he passed the telegram over to me, was, “This, Robert, is rather tedious”.
Several years later, on 26 January 1891, Guido Ferranti, ‘A new Italian Love Tragedy’, opened at the Broadway Theatre in New York. A long and largely positive review by William Winter of the New York Tribune announced:
The authorship of Guido Ferranti has not been disclosed. There need not have been any hesitation about it – for he is a practised writer and a good one. We recognise in this work a play that we had the pleasure of reading several years ago, in manuscript. It was then called The Duchess of Padua. The author of it is Oscar Wilde.
Actor-manager Lawrence Barrett, who had first expressed interest in The Duchess in 1882, acquired the play and, with Oscar’s agreement, amended the title to shift the emphasis onto the male lead.
Five weeks after opening night, Barrett, aged fifty-three, fell ill on stage and died shortly afterwards. Mina K. Gale*, the actress who played Beatrice to Barrett’s Guido acquired the rights, but Oscar, desperate for money by then, insisted she was limiting his royalties by performing his play infrequently: ‘This is of course extremely unjust to me’, he raged in a letter to her in December 1891.
Had he known it, he could have taken consolation from the fact that he was on the cusp of enormous success with his fourth play, Lady Windermere’s Fan.
*Mina Gale was managed by Mary Anderson’s actor brother Joseph, who was married to Lawrence Barrett’s daughter Gertrude. Joseph Anderson was also involved in negotiations with Augustin Daly and Ada Rehan for ‘A Good Woman’ a.k.a. Lady Windermere’s Fan.
To discover why Anderson rejected The Duchess of Padua and how Wilde exacted his revenge you’ll have to read Wilde’s Women.
[i] Sherard, Real Oscar Wilde, p.218
[ii] Letter to Mary Anderson, 23 March 1883, Complete Letters, p.196