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La Sainte Courtisane

by on 3 July 2020

Spirituality and Sensuality in Equilibrium

La Sainte Courtisane

 by Oscar Wilde

Teddington Theatre Club, zoomed until 28th June, then on-line on YouTube

Review by Thomas Forsythe

There was a short time in Oscar Wilde’s life that his writing embraced the spiritual.  Two plays in particular, Salome and La Sainte Courtisane, concern Christian subjects.  Both were written in 1894, ironically the year before his conviction for gross indecency.  If there were a burgeoning faith for Wilde, his experiences in Reading Gaol seems to have extinguished it.  Nevertheless, Salome remains his masterpiece, free from the destructive cynicism otherwise typical of Wilde.   Who knows, La Sainte Courtisane may have eclipsed it … had it ever been finished.

Ada_Esther_LeversonWhile Wilde was preoccupied with his trials, La Sainte Courtisane went into abeyance, and when he was committed to prison in May 1895 he entrusted the work into the keeping of his friend, the novelist Ada Leverson whom he called “The Sphinx”.  Mrs Leverson travelled to Paris, where Wilde stayed on his release in May 1897, specifically to restore the draft to him.  Having taken her back to the Gare de Nord, Wilde left the manuscript, forgotten, in their taxi.  In truth though, the steam had gone out of the project.

Fragments of the work do, however, exist, but no-one has ever attempted to stage it.  It was therefore quite a bold move for TTC included La Sainte Courtisane within its Wilde Weekend, a continuous reading of Wilde’s full canon.  So, what a shame that it should first see the light of day in the middle of the night.  What could be more perverse than a world premiere at half-past-one in the morning!

Director Clare Cooper’s rehearsed reading seized the mood of La Sainte Courtisane, which Wilde, pre-incarceration, described as amongst his “beautiful coloured, musical things”.   Here was one of the few readings in the Wilde Weekend epic to have regard to the setting.  Notably, the Christian hermit in the piece is seen translucently through a gauze, an inspired presentation of his mysticism.

The story takes place in later New Testament times at an unspecified location in the Levant. Myrrhina, the courtesan of the title, is a hedonistic aristocrat who travels to a mountainous desert with the sole aim of seducing Honorius, a Christian hermit, away from his devotions and anchoritic life, tempting him with luxuries and with her implied sexual favours.

So far, the plot is strongly redolent of Salome.


Myrrhina though is testing her personal powers.  Calling to Honorius, she describes her sumptuously adorned bed.  She tempts him with extravagant riches.  She catalogues lovers she has had, from kings of many lands; muscular athletes, gladiators and wrestlers, whom she has massaged with perfumed unguents; to sailors on the wharf, “drinking black wine and playing dice”.   Myrrhina offers to rescue him from his dusty and secluded state with myrrh and spikenard and physical love.

StCourtJamesHonorius is impervious to her advances.  “I will have no love but the love of God” he affirms and offers her the redeeming love of Christ.  He tells of the birth, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus and explains “the beauty of the soul increases until it can see God”.  In riposte to her offers of her body, he tells her that in God she will have an incorruptible body.  Honorius implores her to repent of her sins.  She is not impressed and scorns his words.

Then, with a suddenness that defies credibility, everything flips.  Honorius asks to be taken to Alexandria to “taste of the seven sins”, whereas Myrrhina rebukes him for mocking saying she has repented and would like to find a “cavern in this desert” to make her “soul worthy to see God”, all in barely under two minutes.   A Damascene moment perhaps, but it is more likely that these last two minutes are a separate fragment from the main body of the extant work and that Wilde had written it with much more action between scorn and redemption.


The action at the beginning of La Sainte Courtisane is by way of an introduction to the two principal characters.  Two men walk along a desert path towards the hermit’s cavern.  It is a habitual journey to take sustenance to the holy man.  They are not quite sure why, but they are highly superstitious polytheists.  They have “pockets full of gods”, so presumably are hedging their bets with by also taking a punt on the hermit.  They are, though, genuinely in awe of Honorius and will not look at him or even say his name.  Equally, they are in awe of Myrrhina, the daughter of an emperor they believe, who could also be a demi-god, so perhaps should avoid looking at her too.  They are certainly impressed by her wealth.  Moreover, the dwelling of Honorius, referred to variously as a cabin and a cavern, was given to him by the previous occupant, either a centaur or a white unicorn.

These unnamed men are played John Wilkinson and Daniel Wain as jaunty and joking Yorkshiremen: nothing against Yorkshiremen, but why?  The delivery of their lines and their demeanour does not square with the words they say.  Dressed in matching fedoras and waistcoats, they have a cocky air which belies their fearful words.   However, James Hall’s portrayal of the enigmatic Honorius is spot-on, and Sarah Perkins excels as Myrrhina.  With head-jewels and pouting painted lips she oozes with the character’s sensuality.  Nevertheless perhaps she was holding back a little, as one felt that she wanted to unleash the deliciousness of her words and really savour them.

With its delicate poetic balance of spirituality and sensuality, and set in her figurative “classical landscape”, Clare Cooper has a potential cracker here, in spite of its fragmented text.  A fully staged version would really zing.

Thomas Forsythe, June 2020

Photography by Joseph John Elliott, David Gareja and Teddington Theatre Club

La Sainte Courtisane may be seen on YouTube as part of Wilde Weekend (at 10hrs 31mins)



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