Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Merlin Holland: The Picture Of Dorian Gray

By | Published on Thursday 14 January 2016


This month sees the staging at Trafalgar Studios of an adaptation of Oscar Wilde novel ‘The Picture Of Dorian Gray’ co-written by the renowned writer’s only grandson, Merlin Holland, in collaboration with playwright John O’Connor.
To find out more about the play, what makes this staging different from previous productions, and his other work on Wilde, I put some questions to Holland, ahead of the upcoming London run.

CM: Tell us about this adaptation. It’s a popular tale, with a theme most are familiar with, but apparently this staging sheds new light on Wilde’s original story…?
MH: I wouldn’t say ‘new light’ exactly; more what Oscar had originally intended. It was first published in a magazine and caused a storm of protest from the critics because of certain mildly homoerotic passages. Rather uncharacteristically, Oscar removed them from the book version he had published a year later and it’s this slightly censored version which everyone reads today. Our play reincorporates some of those deletions and emphasises them in context, giving a sharper focus on Dorian’s slide into depravity.

CM: What made you want to write this play?
MH: To try and bring my grandfather’s work to the stage in as pure a form as possible and preserve what we saw as the three main elements: the psychology of the main characters; the wit of Lord Henry; and the dark Faustian story. ‘Dorian Gray’ has been adapted many times for stage and screen but almost always with extra bits thrown in by the adapters to make their mark – even whole chunks of new dialogue. But it’s slightly pointless trying to compete with the original, so we’ve remained as faithful to it as we can.

CM: Did the fact that you are a descendant of Oscar Wilde make it easier to access the materials you needed to do this?
MH: Not really. After Oscar’s arrest in 1895, his creditors held an auction at his house and all his possessions – books, manuscripts, paintings, everything – were sold off. They’re all in libraries and institutions or with collectors round the world now. The fact that I’ve spent thirty years studying his life and work and know where most of the stuff finished up, is what has helped. But I probably wouldn’t have done that if I hadn’t been related to him.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the other things you have written about your grandfather?
MH: I brought out a small pictorial biography in 1997 and a revised and much enlarged edition of his letters in 2000 for the centenary of his death. Then it was while preparing an exhibition for that centenary that the court transcripts for his disastrous libel action against the Marquess of Queensberry surfaced. Everyone assumed they’d been destroyed and I published them in 2003. They threw some fascinating new light on that trial, as a direct result of which he went to prison.

CM: How did your collaboration with co-writer John O’Connor come about?
MH: Mainly because of the book on the libel trial. John wanted to write a play about Oscar’s trials – his failed libel trial and then his prosecution by the Crown for ‘gross indecency’ as homosexual acts were then termed. We seemed to hit it off at once – probably the Irish in both of us. He brought the theatrical know-how and I provided the history. Once we’d done that in 2014 it seemed natural to try and work on something else with Oscar and Dorian Gray was just waiting.

CM: How involved have you been with this production? Have you been attending rehearsals?
MH: Not as much as I would have liked, living in France as I do, but Peter Craze, the director, and John and I have an excellent rapport and we see eye to eye over practically everything. I’ve learned a great deal from working creatively with two professionals and the versatility of our cast of 4 playing 21 parts is astonishing, almost worth the price of a ticket alone.

CM: Do you expect the play to have a life after its run at Trafalgar Studios? Is there any possibility that it might tour?
MH: It would be nice to think so. It did tour twice round the UK last year, sometimes in the most unlikely locations and difficult conditions but audiences ‘suspended their disbelief’ and loved it. Part of its charm is the compactness of its staging and the very gifted actors who have made it come alive. Might it have the same appeal with a few more in the cast and a bit more space on the stage? I don’t know. Perhaps, but I still like it as it is.

CM: What’s next for you?
MH: Back to my desk to finish a book about the afterlife of Oscar and all the trouble he’s caused in the last 115 years and helping to prepare an exhibition on Oscar in Paris which will open at the Petit Palais in September. More adaptations for the theatre? It’s quite addictive…

‘The Picture Of Dorian Gray’ is on at Trafalgar Studios from 18 Jan-13 Feb. See this page here for more information and to book tickets.


Photo: Emily Hyland