A Prison Is Hosting a Star-studded Tribute to Oscar Wilde
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A Prison Is Hosting a Star-studded Tribute to Oscar Wilde

Portrait of Oscar Wilde

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

In a small cell in Reading, England, writer and 19th century cultural icon Oscar Wilde spent two years in prison for “gross indecency” with another man.

Some 119 years later, artists, musicians and actors from around the world will return to the prison to pay homage to the man, his work, and his final years of solitude.

Reading Gaol will host the exhibition from September 4 through October 30.

During his imprisonment, Wilde was kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. The experience was devastating to his physical and mental health, and he died three years after his release, at the age of 46.

“In 1895, Oscar Wilde was one of the great celebrities of his time,” James Lingwood, co-director of exhibition, told Agence-France Presse. “He had plays on in the West End, he lived a glittering social life. Three months later he found himself in Reading Gaol. The prison regime here at the time was absolutely brutal, it broke Wilde.”

Oscar Wilde and "Bosie"
Gillman & Co, gelatin silver print, May 1893 © National Portrait Gallery, London

The central focus of the exhibition is a series of paintings, sculptures and photographs installed throughout the prison created by such artists as photographer Nan Goldin and Chinese artist Ai WeiWei.

All of the art is intended to deal with the theme of loneliness, allowing visitors to experience what life might have been like for the writer, imprisoned for his forbidden love of another man.

Musician and artist Patti Smith, along with actor Ralph Fiennes and Irish writer Colm Toibin are among the participants who will read Wilde’s 55,000-word letter to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, in a performance each Sunday.

Interior of Reading Gaol Prison
Morley von Sternberg

The prison was permanently closed in 2013, so Wilde’s cell has been recreated to be as it would have been when he was an inmate, complete with the books that he requested.

Wilde penned what was considered one of his last great works, a poem called the “Ballad of Reading Gaol,” while fulfilling his sentence. Expressing the despair of his own situation, an excerpt reads:

Right in we went, with soul intent
On Death and Dread and Doom:
The hangman, with his little bag,
Went shuffling through the gloom:
And each man trembled as he crept
Into his numbered tomb.

Jess McHugh is a digital reporter for Travel + Leisure. You can find her on Twitter at @MchughJess.

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