By Chris Wallace
“I’m dying beyond my means,” Oscar Wilde famously said as he faded away, poor and ill, in the room I’m lying in bed in – Room 16 at L’Hotel, 13 Rue des Beaux-Arts, formerly the Hotel D’Alsace. It was a dive back then but even so was beyond a broke and broken Wilde’s ability to pay.
Living in exile under the pseudonym “Sebastian Melmoth”, he’d debunked from another Paris hotel leaving debts behind and then began racking more up at the Hotel d’Alsace. Framed on the wall of Room 16 today is heartbreaking correspondence from a sympathetic management pressing “Monsieur Melmoth” to pay his bill, and from “Sebastian Melmoth” to a friend back in England pressing for the writing money owed him to be sent so he could relieve his dire circumstances. “I am…in the gutter,” he wrote.
So will Europe be if it doesn’t get a grip on the economic crisis garroting this great continent. Greece, Italy, Spain… They’re beautiful, talented, sick, indebted Sebastian Melmoths. Germany is the proprietor of the Hotel d’Alsace writing polite, increasingly urgent notes for payment. It’s like a bad comedy of manners. This audience member wants to shake the key cast members by the shoulders and say: “Sort it, mate. Sort it. It’s not brain surgery!”
There are periods of history we’ve all read about, shaken our heads and wondered how the principal players could have been so blind to the consequences of their actions. Running up trade barriers and drastically cutting government spending in the Great Depression, for example. Being slow to recognize Hitler’s lethal intent is another.
That’s what it’s like here right now, watching the key players make deal after unenforceable deal in a bid to preserve a single currency continental Europe. The same elevation of hope over reality that underpinned the Euro’s creation in the first place is blinding leaders to the fact that it’s the single currency itself that’s blocking resolution of Europe’s problem.
The Euro is stopping the structural adjustment necessary to resolve the deep economic imbalances between European states. Greece isn’t Germany and it’s never going to be, no matter how much Euro-dreamers might want it to be. Nor will Italy and most other EU states. The quixotic effort to head off the awful consequences of dismantling the single currency policy as part of solving the crisis appears set to lead to far worse consequences: a “disorderly collapse of the Eurozone” as economists clinically put it. Pause for a moment and contemplate what a “disorderly collapse” might look like for the women, men and children of Europe on the ground.
Around the world everyone is holding their breath to see whether Sebastian Melmoth is going to pay his bill, come to some sort of arrangement with management or just up and die. Australia’s role in all of this? We’ve got the best economic numbers of any developed economy in the world and the sun keeps on shining. Our historic mission, if the entertainment media is anything to go by, seems to be to spread some of that sunshine around our gloomy northern hemisphere friends.
The theatre trade press in London this week pointed to Australia as the West End’s new incubator for musical theatre – both for cost reasons (productions can be mounted, proved and put on the road more cheaply than elsewhere) and because of our incredible depth of stage and technical talent.
Meanwhile in New York Hugh Jackman is the hot ticket in town playing sold out shows at Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre in a show shimmering with Australian heat and light. If you want to understand just how big an Aussie entertainer can get, google “Hugh Jackman Keeps His Pants On”. The New York Times’ Ben Brantley describes him as Judy Garland without the angst.
But back to Sebastian Melmoth. Oscar Wilde died on 30 November 1900. “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death,” he famously said . “One or other of us has to go.” As the wits say, the wallpaper won – but only Round 1. Continually in print, he is one of the English language’s most translated, most quoted writers. As Robert Mighall wrote on the anniversary of Wilde’s death: “If Shakespeare didn’t say it, Wilde probably did.”
And I can report that L’Hotel, the contemporary successor of Hotel D’Alsace, has dealt definitively with the wallpaper problem. Room 16 is beautiful, the now emerald peacock-print wallpaper and wainscoting a friendly gesture towards its famous ex-tenant. It’s safe for “Sebastian Melmoth” to return. I’m keeping a lookout for ghosts with attitude and plenty of good lines. Who knows? He might drop by.
This first appeared in the Canberra Times, 17 December 2011