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Town Players will benefit from a solo performance planned for Sunday, June 11, at The Little Theatre.
Featuring the talents of Johnson Flucker, Work Is The Curse of The Drinking Classes will be a fully staged, costumed, one-actor production that finds the famous author and playwright Oscar Wilde alone and near destitute, in a Parisian café in August 1898. In a production he has been staging since 2015, Flucker plays the poet, novelist, essayist, playwright, and truth-teller who — penniless and near friendless — reflects on his past, present, and prospects for a not-too-promising future.
The play is brimming with Wildean epigrams and anecdotes. It is, according to Mr Flucker’s website, “at once hilarious and heartbreaking while being completely contemporary in its critique of people, the press, and politics.”
Work Is The Curse of The Drinking Classes was written in 1978 by the playwright, actor, and scholar Neil Titley. Gathering many of Wilde’s disparate themes, subjects, and styles into a form rarely found together in his individual works, the solo show weaves a dramatic and personal and intellectual portraits of one of the most well-known figures of the 19th Century.
Quoting Wilde’s writings extensively, the play shows the author “at his most sarcastic and tender, resilient and vulnerable, as well as relentlessly critical of his world while being continually self-effacing,” according to program notes by Town Players.
A professional singer for 40 years before becoming an actor, Johnson Flucker discovered Work while studying singing in London in 1981, according to his website. He was able to attend performances by the playwright being staged at King’s Head Public House in Islington. Mr Flucker was “smitten and bowled over by the play and the performance,” he wrote in part.
Thirty years later, with a purchased copy of the playscript in hand, Mr Flucker was able to contact Mr Titley. With the playwright’s permission, Mr Flucker has been staging Work for two years.
“I began performances about two years ago, but worked on it for a full year before I performed it,” Mr Flucker said May 26. “It’s 70 minutes worth of text, so that’s a fair amount to memorize.”
Within a year of debuting the show, in 2015 the production was named Best Period Piece at United Solo Festival in New York City.
Town Players of Newtown board member Nick Kaye saw one of Mr Flucker’s performances earlier this year, in Thomaston.
“It’s a great one-man show,” Mr Kaye said May 26. “Johnson does a fabulous job. You really believe that he’s Oscar Wilde. It’s great.”
One of the things Mr Flucker admires about the Irish playwright, novelist, essayist, and poet was Wilde’s wish to improve the world.
“He was genuinely interested in making the world a better place, largely by exposing hypocrisy,” Mr Flucker said. “He in particular had his finger on the pulse of his own society.”
That statement refers in large part to the period Wilde spent in prison toward the end of his life, having been convicted in May 1895 of gross indecency and sentenced to two years of hard labor. Upon his release in May 1897, Wilde did what he could to try to reform prisons, writing letters to everyone from the prison warden to newspapers, trying to expose what he had seen and experienced.
“There were atrocities going on” in London’s prisons, Mr Flucker added. “One story he had heard was about three young boys, brothers, who had been arrested, for poaching rabbits. One of the boys was so young, they did not have a uniform in that boy’s size. This crushed Wilde.
“We get a taste of some of these heartbreaking prison stories” during the presentation of Work, the performer continued. “On the other hand, there is much light, and lovely, and outright funny stuff in this play.
“This play really is a good opportunity to get a wide range of Wilde’s output,” he added.
Mr Flucker continues to enjoy the show.
“The segment which describes his career as a journalist is very fine, and the whole sequence that speaks of his prison, and his trial, his confinement, and his release, is exceptional,” he said. “And then how he begins to piece his life back together, his lack of regrets, and realizes that we’ve become fully human when we evolve at all times.
“He was unhappy with the concept of the static person, a person who gets to a certain point and stops evolving.
“I always find something new to do with it,” he said. “When I read a part, it will make me go dive for the original source, not unlike browsing in the library, the old-fashioned way, when you see a book two or three books away from what you were looking for, and you look at that.”
His desk is messy, Mr Flucker admitted, but not covered with multiple Wilde sources. Instead, the performer is among those enthralled with Richard Ellmann’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, now out of print and highly coveted biography about Wilde, originally published in 1969.
“He gives sort of a timeline, and the narrative story that one would expect in an eighth grade report, but he is also forever referencing the work,” Mr Flucker said. “The book is something of a miracle. Even with a double pass at that book, you’re never going to get all of it.”
An Enjoyable Show For All
Nick Kaye says those planning to attend the June 11 benefit can enjoy the show without being deeply steeped in all things Wilde.
“A familiarity with the works will help them,” said the board member and fellow actor. “Johnson brings that character to life anyway, whether you know about Oscar Wilde or not. You believe in the character that Johnson portrays, and he brings insight to Oscar Wilde, and the way he lived his life, and the times he lived them in.”
Mr Flucker agrees that attendees will enjoy the performance, regardless of their familiarity with the oeuvre of Oscar Wilde. Many of Wilde’s observations and comments have transferred very well from the late 19th Century.
Mr Flucker pointed out one favorite Wilde parables, written following his prison stint, in which Satan drives a hermit/holy man insane by whispering to him that the man’s brother had been made bishop of Alexandria. The hermit, Mr Flucker said, became “enraged with malignant jealousy.”
“When I first came across that story I nearly fell out of my chair,” he said. “It addresses human jealousy, and in particular the secret desire to see friends fail. I think it is fair to say that a number of people have secret desires from time to time.”
He pointed to similar sayings being uttered by Frank Sinatra (“He said ‘It’s not enough to succeed. Your friends have to fail,’” said Mr Flucker) and Gore Vidal (“He said something very similar: ‘Every time one of my friends succeeds, I die a little bit,’” said Mr Flucker), both decades later.
“Sinatra and Vidal showed that this theme is so much more than the 19th Century,” said Mr Flucker. “There is this universality that Wilde hints at in human nature.
“Yes we are good. Yes we are kind and merciful,” he added. “But we are also deeply flawed, and sometimes jealous, at the very least.”
Wilde’s thoughts and insights of human nature has translated so well, contemporary audiences are able to relate to the character in Work.
“One needs only to have lived in this world, and seen the silliness and that goes on in the world, the hypocrisy that goes on in the world, and that in fact we are all of us, a mass of contradictions, and we are all trying to work it out,” Mr Flucker said, “to enjoy the performance.”
Johnson Flucker’s presentation of Work Is The Curse of The Drinking Classes will be performed at 2 pm Sunday, June 11, at The Little Theatre, 18 Orchard Hill Road. All tickets are $20. Proceeds will be put toward upgrading the theater’s lighting and sound system. The theater is looking to put in a stage manager’s booth and also install LED lighting, among other upgrades, according to Nick Kaye.
A preview of Mr Flucker’s performance can be viewed here, in a five-minute video hosted by vimeo.