Patti Smith’s live reading of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis in the chapel of Reading Prison was always going to be an extraordinary experience. And what an intense, emotional one it was. Sitting at a simple wooden table—on a low concrete plinth of exactly the same dimensions as the nearby cell where Wilde had spent his two-year incarceration, and presided over by the stark, tombstone-like presence of his original cell door—Patti Smith parted her hair, put on her spectacles and began with a song: a few a cappella lines of Wild is the Wind.
After which came the most memorable rendition of Wilde’s long and often harrowing text, written from his Reading Prison cell between December 1896 and March 1897 to his lover Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas, nicknamed Bosie. The edited version of De Profundis read by Smith was the first one to be published in 1905, in a limited edition of 200, five years after Wilde’s death. In a nice touch, on entering the chapel, each member of the audience was handed a card—also one of 200—signed and numbered by Patti Smith, which gave a brief description of the version we were about to hear. This chosen edition takes the form of an essay rather than a letter to Bosie Douglas but—and especially when read by Smith—is nonetheless passionately heartfelt as Wilde grapples with the nature of his life, work and his own character and failings. Not to mention reflecting on love, forgiveness, suffering and the significance of Christ.
It took more than three and a half hours to read yesterday afternoon (30 October), with Smith calling a short break about two-thirds through when she, not we, felt that she was tiring. Even for those who know their Wilde, nothing here was predictable. While being utterly immersed in Wilde’s words—to the extent that if she felt she had lost her rhythm or stumbled, she would stop and begin a passage again —Smith also matched Wilde’s flashes of knowing wit with a few of her own. There were occasional pauses to quiz the audience on matters of pronunciation (“you guys are good!”); a brief aside on the meaning of the road to Emmaus; and in one especially dense, reference-clogged passage, she stopped to offer the refreshing summary that Wilde seemed to be detailing “who’s full of shit and who’s not.” She also confessed, on hearing the English accents of the audience, that her one reservation about accepting this gig was the prospect of hearing Wilde’s words spoken by this “little New Jersey mouthpiece”.
Finally, with the autumn afternoon twilight falling outside, Smith knocked her chair backwards as she stood to deliver Wilde’s conclusion that society “will have no place for me” but that it will be nature “whose sweet rains fall on unjust and just alike [who will] cleanse me in great waters and with bitter herbs make me whole”. She then ended as she had begun, with a song: this time her inimitable Wing, which left us all shivering. Wilde’s “little New Jersey mouthpiece” had certainly done him proud.
• Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison, Reading (the exhibition has been extended until 4 December)