The Golden Lion on King Street is a theatre pub that has lost its theatre. Until 1957 it was the stage door watering hole for The St. James’s Theatre, one of those grand 19th century monuments so enthusiastically demolished by 20th century bureaucrats. Despite the protests of some of the greatest actors of the age, the theatre was pulled down for no very good reason: it was just old at a time when being old was unforgivable. A great pity. Apart from anything else, The St. James’s Theatre was the scene of Oscar Wilde’s greatest triumph, and one of the settings for his tragic fall. It’s a very familiar story but it remains endlessly fascinating, and more complex than the legend allows.
On Valentine’s Day 1895 the St. James’s saw the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest, a production starring the St. James’s charismatic manager George Alexander, a regular collaborator of Wilde’s. As the play was in progress, John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry lurked outside, clutching a bouquet of vegetables that he intended to throw at Wilde. Queensberry was furious with Wilde because of the playwright’s association with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas, forever known by his pet name of ‘Bosie’. But Wilde had been tipped off, Queensberry’s ticket to the show was cancelled and he was denied entry to the theatre. The premiere of Earnest was the apotheosis of Wilde’s career – but Queensberry was soon to have his revenge.
Four days after Earnest‘s first night, Queensberry visited Wilde’s club, the Albermarle, 13 Albermarle St., just north of Piccadilly; unable to find Wilde, he scrawled a note on one of his visiting cards and left it with the hall porter. The message read:
To Oscar Wilde posing somdomite.
The porter read it and wrote the time and date of its receipt on the reverse. It was unseen by anyone else until Wilde went to his club ten days later. On receiving the note Wilde considered leaving the country – but he was staying at a Piccadilly hotel, couldn’t pay his bill and thus felt trapped. Wilde was hounded not just by the mad Marquess but by the mad son: the toxic combination of the provocative note left at his club and the spitting hatred Bosie felt for his father pushed Wilde into suing Queensberry for libel. This was an extraordinarily bad idea. For all his brilliance, Wilde was a vulnerable outsider: an Irish writer of ambiguous sexuality, with expensive tastes but an uncertain income, he was ill-placed to launch a libel action against a vengeful aristocrat with a taste for pugilism. Years later, in a letter to Bosie, he deplored the way he was goaded into pursuing the case: ‘… on the one side there was your father attacking me with hideous card left at my club, on the other side there was you attacking me with no less loathsome letters. […] Between you both I lost my head. My judgment forsook me. Terror took its place. I saw no possible escape, I may say frankly, from either of you. Blindly I staggered as an ox into the shambles’. With a pithy turn of phase, he also recalled the preliminary consultations with his lawyer: ‘… in the ghastly glare of a bleak room you and I would sit with serious faces telling serious lies to a bald man …’.
Queensberry’s homophobic fury was driven by grief. In 1893 his eldest son Drumlanrig had died in a hunting accident, killed by a round from his own shotgun. At the time of his death Drumlanrig was Private Secretary to Gladstone’s Foreign Minister, Earl Rosebery. The verdict was accidental death but rumours of suicide abounded, implying that Drumlanrig had sacrificed himself to spare Rosebery scandalous revelations. Queensberry suspected that Drumlanrig was having an affair with Rosebery and blamed him for his son’s death. Queensberry followed Rosebery across Europe in the hope of confronting him publicly but was prevented from doing so. Thwarted in pursuit of his primary quarry, Queensberry was further incensed by Wilde’s relationship with Bosie, which he saw as mirroring the one between Rosebery and Drumlanrig. (Ironically, news of Drumlanrig’s tragedy caused Wilde to scrap his plan to dump the troublesome Bosie.) Wilde was a far easier target for Queensberry’s rage: by the time Queensberry left his card for Wilde at the Albermarle Club, Rosebery had become Prime Minister.
As per the Cleveland Street Scandal of a few years earlier, the establishment was vulnerable when it came to homosexuality, with sexual transgression across class boundaries being especially taboo. Wilde’s lunatic libel case merely exposed his own sexual tastes, as Queensberry’s legal counsel announced his intention to call rent boys known to Wilde as witnesses for the defence. Wilde withdrew his suit, leading to Queensberry’s formal acquittal. Within hours, Wilde was arrested on charges of sodomy and Gross Indecency. The Crown prosecuted Wilde (now bankrupt as a result of costs from his libel suit) not once but twice, as the first trial resulted in a hung jury. Once Rosebery’s name was invoked by Queensberry in connection with Wilde it was inevitable that Wilde would have to fall. He was convicted at the second trial and sentenced to two years hard labour. Wilde’s demise is generally viewed as a pristine example of Victorian repression and hypocrisy, but sympathy for Wilde’s persecution (exemplified by Richard Ellmann’s deeply-felt but very partisan biography) tends to obscure an element of coercion in his dealings with at least some of his sexual partners. If Wilde came to court today, it’s likely that the outcome would be much the same; one doesn’t have to look far for recent parallels.
The site of the St. James’s Theatre is now occupied by a bombastic office block, although Wilde’s portrait appears on a commemorative wall frieze that merely emphasises the theatre’s absence. (As with the plaque commemorating the vanished Adelphi Terrace, what is the bloody point of memorialising buildings that should never have been pulled down in the first place?) The Golden Lion remains an engaging pub, and one can imagine how exciting and atmospheric it must have been after a first night. Whether or not Wilde himself ever came here to drink is uncertain; he probably would have swanned off to Kettners or The Cafe Royal straight after a show. But I bet Queensberry came in for a sharpener, vegetables in hand, blood on his mind.