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Banksy Does Oscar Wilde

Abby Zimet

Banksy's latest work “Create Escape,” adazzling merger of tribute to Oscar Wilde and spotlight on prison abuses, shows an enterprising prisoner climbing down high red brick walls on knotted bedsheets ending in a typewriter to escape HM Prison Reading, formerly Reading Gaol, where Wilde served his two years of hard labor from 1895 to 1897 for "gross indecency" - being gay. In his accompanying, exceedingly cool video on Instagram, Banksy repeatedly juxtaposes TV artist Bob Ross softly burbling about the Joy of Painting with his own frantic, real-time, in-the-dark stenciling and painting. At the clip's end, Ross soothingly declares, "Painting to me represents freedom - I can create the kind of world I want to see and be a part of" as Banksy's drone footage pulls back to show the massive, barren prison grounds behind the forbidding wall. Reading was closed to prisoners in 2013, but it remains known as the subject of Wilde's final, searing poem  "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," which describes a hanging during Wilde's time there, captures the cruelty and bleakness of life behind bars, and is widely viewed as an impassioned call for prison reform. Wilde wrote the poem in 1897 while staying with a friend, Robert Ross (see Bob Ross); he had been freed but he was broken - "Something was dead in each of us/and what was dead was hope" - and died soon after.

On July 7, 1896, the jail hanged Charles Thomas Wooldridge, a former trooper in the Royal Horse Guards convicted of cutting the throat of his wife Laura Ellen: "The man had killed the thing he loved/and so he had to die." According to the poem, Wooldridge, 30, was given three weeks to live. Wilde describes his fellow-inmates' harrowing lives up to then - "I walked with other souls in pain," where "every stone one lifts by day/becomes ones heart by night," with "that little tent of blue/which prisoners call the sky" - and the quiet dread of watching Wooldridge await his death - in daytime, "Walking silently round the yard, horror stalked before each man/and terror crept behind," at night, "Each man trembled as he crept/into his numbered tomb." Wilde had seen the doomed man "but we made no sign...A prison wall was round us both/two outcast men were we...And what should human pity do/pent up in murderers' hole/what word of grace in such a place/could help a brother's soul?" In the end, they hung him "as a beast." Wilde declines to judge the laws as right or wrong; he simply knows "every prison that men build/is built with bricks of shame/and bound with bars lest Christ should see/how men their brothers maim." To ensure Wilde's then-notorious name didn't appear, the poem was published under the name C.3.3, which stood for cell block C, landing 3, cell 3. It was a haunting end - "By all forgot, we rot and rot/with soul and body marred" - but thanks to Banksy for reclaiming him.

The vilest deeds like poison weeds
  Bloom well in prison-air:
It is only what is good in Man
  That wastes and withers there.

Abby Zimet

Abby Zimet

Abby has written CD's Further column since 2008. A longtime, award-winning journalist, she moved to the Maine woods in the early 70s, where she spent a dozen years building a house, hauling water and writing before moving to Portland. Having come of political age during the Vietnam War, she has long been involved in women's, labor, anti-war, social justice and refugee rights issues. 

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