Echoes of Incarceration

Lucy Winkett reflects on a poignant concert at St James’s featuring Simon Callow’s moving recitation of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’.

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Church Window Mask

On Friday 2 February at St James’s, a remarkable concert took place.  A joint presentation by St James’s and the inspirational prison project Fine Cell Work featuring our own very good friends Soul Sanctuary Gospel Choir this concert mirrored the very first launch concert for this project which had been held at St James’s 25 years ago.

As part of the concert an unusual recitation took place. The actor Simon Callow recited ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’, published in February 1898 by ‘Prisoner C33’, later confirmed to be the playwright Oscar Wilde.  The recitation took almost 30 minutes, and such was the skill of the actor, that the audience sat spellbound.

Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for 2 years with hard labour for the newly instigated (in 1885) crime of gross indecency. A monstrous law that was designed to prevent men from forming intimate relationships with other men.  During his imprisonment, Wilde was subjected to the ‘separate system’. This was a particularly cruel regime, where prisoners spent 22 of 24 hours alone in their cell, and when they were allowed out, one hour for chapel and one hour for exercise, they were required to wear masks and hoods so that they could not see another’s face or connect with another human being. Even in the chapel, the pews were built especially high so that each prisoner said his prayers isolated and alone.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol has a deceptively cheery rhythm, with rhymes to match. It’s 19th century swashbuckling style belies the description of the bleak and lightless existence that Wilde endured in prison.  It follows the execution by hanging of a fellow prisoner in confronting detail, and was, last Friday,  a hard listen, even while the poetry rung around the church.  The emotion, despair and distress of Wilde, subject to unjust laws in an unjust society just for being gay, was embodied by Simon Callow himself who seemed quite spent by the end of the performance.

In LGBTQ+ history month, and as Lent begins this Wednesday, Wilde’s question is one to ponder.  His refrain is that ‘Each man kills the thing he loves’.  A complicated and contested meditation on what psychologists might now call ‘self sabotage’.

Even in a more accepting society with laws protecting the freedom of people of different sexual identities to express love and commitment, there is so much still to do. And this is especially urgent in the church, where deeply held opposing views are still the subject of synod debates, points of order, legislative considerations.

But just as important as the repealing of the laws such as the one that condemned Wilde to the isolation of prison then, are the stories we tell, the songs we sing, the poetry we write in order to express the wonderful variety of human beings within the teeming variety of creation made by God.

As Lent begins, our commitment is to pray, to immerse ourselves in the love and mercy of God, to ask to be energised and enlivened by the radical welcome that God offers to all people. And to find ways, continually to challenge the prejudices within each one of us, within our communities, societies and hearts:  and live the abundant life that Christ came to bring all of us.

All of us. Without exception.