The Death and Life of Monsieur Sebastian Melmoth:
Au Théâtre du Grand Guignol
© Paul Laffoley 2003
If any two men could represent the polar opposites of nineteenth-century “fin de siècle,” my candidates would be Frederick William Rolfe (1860–1913), alias “Baron Corvo,” and Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (1854–1900), alias “Sebastian Melmoth.” Rolfe was almost unknown during his lifetime, while Wilde was perhaps the most notorious person in the world. But like all opposites, each contained elements of the other. Both Rolfe and Wilde were six-feet, three-inches tall. Rolfe, the eldest of five brothers, was born in London at 61 Cheapside Street (before it became Newgate Street), on July 22, 1860 (a Cancer on the cusp of Leo), in the shadow of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, in the last days of the London of Charles Dickens, into a Methodist family. Wilde was born in Dublin on October 16, 1854 (a Libra), at 21 Westland Row, into an Anglican family. Both men from childhood wished that they had been born Roman Catholics. Early on, Rolfe did something about it, while Wilde waited until his deathbed.
When he was twenty-six, Rolfe became a self-convert to Catholicism, then entered the seminary at Scots College, from which he was soon expelled, but not before beginning his masterpiece titled Hadrian the Seventh, a book that outlined his plan to become pope.
Wilde had always asked his father why the family was not Catholic. While living in the Hôtel d’Alsace in Paris in the last year of his life, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church on Thursday November 29 and died the next day, Friday, November 30, 1900.
Now “Baron Corvo” was extremely angry at “Sebastian Melmoth,” not because Wilde was a famous writer and Rolfe was not. And not because Wilde was openly gay and loved himself, while Rolfe was “in the closet” and hated himself. And not because Rolfe was poverty-stricken his whole life, while Wilde had a life of unbridled luxury, lechery, and lust, although he finally died in poverty. And not because Wilde was able to have a wife and family, and Rolfe did not. Wilde, of course, lost his family rights as soon as he was convicted of “gross indecency” on May 25, 1895, at the Old Baily.
What really upset “Corvo” about “ Melmoth” was the fact that, after leading a life of pure egotism and debauchery, and after many a succès de scandale, he was able to ensure himself a place in Heaven and to bypass Purgatory completely because although he spent his entire life as an unbeliever, he became a literal deathbed catechumen to Catholicism, with no chance of sinning after his conversion. Before Wilde’s famous and final remark, about the tasteless wallpaper in his hotel room, “The wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death,” he confided to his lifelong friend Robbie Ross, “I am so tired and sick now that I cannot bring myself to commit even the sin of pride.” Ross was able to fetch him a Catholic priest.
Apparently in “Corvo’s” zeal to become the pope, he did not heed the wisdom of Matthew 20: 1–16: “So the last shall be first and the first last, for many are called, but few are chosen” . . . or whatever you bargain for, remember that a deal is a deal. And the wisdom is the loving kindness of God toward those who enter the Kingdom of Heaven late that is extolled. In fact, the disparity of his life with Wilde’s became the obsession of the last thirteen years of “Corvo’s” existence.
By Wednesday, September 3, 1913, “Corvo” wrote a letter to his last benefactor asking for money. The return address on the letter was the Hotel Cavaletto in Venice, but he was not exactly writing from the hotel. The manager of the hotel threw “Corvo” out for three months for not paying his bills for ten years. “Corvo” found an abandoned gondola and wrote the following: “The last few days I have been anchored near an empty island, Sacca Fisola, not too far away from civilization to be out of reach of fresh water, but lonely enough for dying alone in the boat if need be. Well, to shew you how worn out I am, I frankly say that I have funked it. This is my dilemma. I’ll be quite plain about it. If I stay out on the lagoon, the boat will sink, I shall swim perhaps for a few hours, and then I shall be eaten alive by crabs. At low water every mud bank swarms with them. If I stay anchored near an island, I must keep continually awake. For, the moment I cease moving, I am invaded by swarms of swimming rats, who in the winter are so voracious that they attack even a man who is motionless. I have tried it. And have been bitten.”
This must have been when “Corvo’s” mind gave way to a fantasy punishment for Wilde.
This letter was written to Reverend Stephen Justin, Rolfe’s final benefactor. In the time they knew each other, Justin advanced Rolfe over 1000 lira on book sales, but Justin never recovered a penny. Justin never answered the final letter.
As a last act of generosity on the part of the hotel manager, who could see Rolfe was dying, he let him back in the hotel one more time. Rolfe was found dead at 3:00 p.m. on the afternoon on Sunday, October 26, 1913. When the British consul arrived to view the body and Rolfe’s personal effects, he saw a very neat room with the bed made, the luggage and papers ready for examination. Rolfe himself was laid out, fully clothed, with his arms folded over his chest and his hands holding a white lily. No one in the hotel would admit to being the author of this funeral tableau, which granted Rolfe a modicum of independence and dignity in death, which he could not find in life.
In Rolfe’s notebooks the consul discovered enough information, if released to the press, to cause hundreds of scandals. He also noticed (he could not miss it) a huge package, addressed and ready to be sent, with sufficient postage. The address said:
A Monsieur Max Maurey, Directeur
Théâtre du Grand Guignol
20, rue Chaptal
Arrondissement 18, Pigalle
The consul mused that the address had at the same time too much and not enough information, but he thought the mixture of naïveté that the words implied would see the parcel through any postal bureaucracy. So he sent it off.
Max Maurey (the owner of this famous French theatre of horror, which operated from Wednesday, April 13, 1897 to Monday, November 26, 1962) opened the package, which consisted of seven layers of craft and wax paper. When the contents were at last revealed, astonishment came over Maurey’s face at what he saw:
1) One cheap and worn litho of a painting by the famous French academic artist William-Adolphe Bourguereau (1825–1905), one of the teachers of Henri Matisse (1869–1954). The painting is called Evening Mood. It was completed in 1882. After appearing in a few exhibitions in the Salon d’Apollon within the Louvre Palace, it was sold in the mid-1890s to the National Museum of Art in Havana, Cuba. The image in the painting is of a nude, but coy, sixteen-year-old ballerina at the ocean’s edge at dusk with a clear sky. Not another soul exists within this Universe, except, of course, the viewer. This dainty dark-haired girl is seen standing with her entire weight resting on the second tip-toe of her left foot, while her right leg is raised and hooked behind the left heel to receive a flowing drape of almost-transparent green taffeta. Her breasts are perfect hemispheres with blood-red nipples. Her slim smooth abdomen presents a cavernous navel. Her entire demeanor is like a wild mountain daisy transplanted to the watery sand of the beach. Her head is turned from the setting sun to the viewer, waiting to be coaxed into revealing if she loves you or not. If the model were alive today and in the full bloom of her youth, she could be described by a reference to the Song of Solomon, chapter 6, verses 1 to 13 and chapter 7, 1 to 9, and also like someone seen on the website Suicide Girls.com.
2) A picture of Oscar Wilde standing wearing a black velvet waistcoat and vest trimmed in red satin, black gabardine knee breeches, and black silk stockings, finished off with black patent leather pumps.
3) A profile of Rolfe standing at attention at forty-eight years of age, dressed in a high collar and a homemade blue suede suit with fishing pockets, sporting a solid-silver-framed pince-nez, and smoking a cubeb cigarette.
4) A carefully drawn map of the Cimetière de Père Lachaise in Paris and surroundings, and how to get from rue des Pyrénées to the gravesite of Oscar Wilde, which was established in 1909 from the remains of Wilde’s first grave, located just outside Paris at Bagneux. In 1912 Jacob Epstein (1880–1959) finished a headstone-tomb in the form of a stylized sphinx. From the first, this memorial sculpture became an international target for generations of “drag queens” who plant very-hard-to-remove lipstick traces on all of the tomb’s flat surfaces.
5) A sample of the finest black velvet and backing cloth.
6) A votive candle consisting of phthalocyanine blue glass set in a pure gold filigree tripod, each of its twelve units to be set with three rubies.
7) Plans for how to revive a dead body worthy of Leon Theremin, involving solenoids aimed at the Seven Major Charkras of a supine body that have been covered with liquid crystal paint. Since 1891 liquid crystals have been known to be able to indicate even the slightest electromategnetic activity in any corpse or remains in any state of decay. “Baron Corvo” was a master inventor.
8) Plans for how to keep a disembodied head alive forever. Max Maury liked this idea a lot and asked René Berton to write a play for the “Guignol,” which Berton wrote up immediately, although it could not be produced until 1928, when the guillotining of convicts by police was banned in Paris.
9) The plan for a large lighted glass tank of Formalin (a clear aqueous solution of formaldehyde containing a small amount of methanol).
10) A copy of a scientific report on the Eucharistic Miracle of Lanciano, Italy, about an ostensorium that contains a host of bread that every once in a while turns into striated muscular tissues of the myocardium (the heart wall), and wine that turns into human blood of type AB positive, just like the blood stains on the Shroud of Turin. “Corvo” also includes instructions on how to “cat burglarize” the ostensorium from the Church of Saint Francis in Lanciano, which he said ought to be relatively easy because the reliquary was mounted on top of the main tabernacle of the high alter, and a back stairway had been provided to allow a closer look at the miraculous object.
11) The final thick packet of information to be examined by Max Maurey appeared to be endless construction notes, diagrams, and cardboard pop-up models of the various spaces Rolfe was proposing to construct inside the theatre. Rolfe’s writing was usually dense, opaque, and labyrinthine, and often so boring it took heroic efforts to read it, but since this was his last piece of prose he upped the ante with a total lack of concern for his audience. As Maurey read through the enormous pile of papers he began to realize that Rolfe was describing just one section of a front-door system. The remainder of the room or large cabinet was to project into the lobby of the theatre. The plan of the floor was a six-foot square, and the height was ten feet. All six interior surfaces were to be covered in black velvet with openings into the lobby for access only. The exterior of the six-by-ten panel was divided in two parts. At the top a six-by-one foot sign would announce: “Mesdames et Messieurs, le Théâtre du Guignol is proud to present: The Zombie Aesthetics of Baron Corvo entitled: THE DEATH AND LIFE OF MONSIEUR SEBASTIAN MELMOTH.” Below the sign was to hang a large copy of Evening Mood, five by eight feet. The large navel of the subject of the painting would be cut through the wood panel. The painting, of course, would be positioned so that when a theatre patron approached the navel, it would be at eye level. A glass panel was to be placed over the painting to protect it from the elements. This would be the only way to view the contents of the cabinet.
Now the next parts of the instructions were a lot more complex and much more speculative. At this point Maurey almost unconsciously begins to move his head from side to side in a gesture of negativity, disgust, disbelief at what he was reading, which was:
i. Retrieve the dead body and/r remains of Oscar Wilde, and place the carcass face up in a guillotine located in the long alley in front of the theatre.
ii. Revive the body at the exact moment the guillotine blade begins to descend.
iii. Quickly place the severed head into the glass case that will keep it physically alive forever, of course after reviving it and cutting off the eyelids, so the head can not sleep.
iv. The body, which is now dead again and doomed to remain so, is placed upright in the tank of Formalin, held in position by the top of the spinal column connected to the top of the tank.
v. On top of the tank is placed a medieval vitrine containing the ostensoruim.
vi. On top of the vitrine is the large picture of “Corvo,” signed in his own hand: “Yours Faithfully, Corvo.”
vii. The floor contains a diagonal cross made from white strips of cloth from an old Alb.
viii. On one diagonal twelve votive candles are laid out, evenly spaced, providing the only light source.
ix. On the other diagonal, the head case and the body case face each other from opposite corners. By this means, the forever-alive head could see the forever-dead body, the Eucharistic Miracle, and Corvo’s profile smoking, something Wilde wishes he could do but, alas, can no longer do.
x. The vocal cords of the head were to be left intact, allowing the head to scream as if the throat was being cut, or to speak the words “please kill me” over and over again
xi. In the lobby would be placed a brass plate with a detailed explanation of this strange tableaux, mentioning that this is the proper eternal punishment for one playwright, named Oscar Wilde, alias Sebastian Melmoth (1854-1900), for leading a life of undeserved luxury and notoriety, unnatural debauchery, making his conversion to Roman Catholicism on his secular deathbed, complete with the sacrament of Extreme Unction.
Max Maurey had to stop. He could not take any more of what seemed like endless notes cast into the void. After showing the stuff to Berton, Maurey just put it all in the office desk and forgot about it.
In 1928 the theatre was co-owned by Camille Choisy and a playwright named Jack Jouvin. During that year they put on the play The Man Who Killed Death many times. As luck would have it, the great French artist Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), who then was dividing his time between Paris and New York City, happened to drop in one evening when the play was being performed. Fascinated by the idea and the set, he began to ask people who did it. By coincidence, René Berton was in the audience. Duchamp asked him where he got the idea. Berton hunted around in the old office desk and pulled out “Corvo’s” papers and said, “Here, I got it from these,” and handed the pile of papers to Duchamp. Quickly scanning the material, Duchamp looked up with an astonished expression on his face and said, “May I borrow these?” “You can have them. There is no way we will ever mount this impossible tableau.” At that period in his life Duchamp was believed to have given up art for chess and a variety of collaborations. But something was going on in secret. Back in his New York City studio, between the years 1946 and 1966, he was building a special assemblage that depicts a nude female figure lying in a field with her genitals exposed, holding up a small gas lamp in front of a background landscape with clouds and what appears to be mechanically driven water-beaten doors mounted into a brick wall. The only way to see this erotic tableau is through two peep holes in a pair of old weather-beaten doors mounted into a brick wall. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has the work on permanent display along with other Duchamps, including The large Glass.
The title of Duchamp’s final work is Etant donnés: 1. La Chute d’eau. 2. Le Gaz d’éclairage, which translated into English is “Given: 1. The Waterfall. 2. The Illuminating Gas.” Most art historians claim it is the most mysterious and intriguing work of art in the twentieth century. And it represents Duchamp’s second attempt to depict the theme of yearning, voyeurism, and the inability to experience pleasure due to sexual neurasthenia, all motivated by humorless envy, which, of course, just about sums up the life of “Baron Corvo.”
© Paul Laffoley 2003