La Sainte Coutisane, or The Woman Covered with Jewels is an unfinished and mostly lost play by the Irish writer Oscar Wilde. Its fragmentary script was first published in 1908, more than seven years after Wilde's death. The title La Sainte Courtisane means "the holy courtesan" in French.
Oscar Wilde began writing La Sainte Courtisane in 1894, in between working on Salome and The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde had almost finished La Sainte Courtisane when his work on it was interrupted by his 1895 arrest, trial and subsequent imprisonment. Before gong to prison, Wilde entrusted the almost completed manuscript of the play to the author Mrs. Leverson. She traveled to France, where Wilde went to live in exile after his release from prison in 1897, with the express intention of returning the manuscript to him. He took it back but then left it behind in a Paris cab. Robert Ross, Wilde's former lover and loyal friend, searched in vain for the lost manuscript. A little of La Sainte Courtisane survives, however, in the form of two full scenes and part of a third from an earlier draft of the play. The three scenes appear in the edition of Oscar Wilde's Collected Works published by Methuen in 1908. They are accompanied by an introduction by Robert Ross that explains how the play came to be lost and summarizes what Ross could remember about the rest of it.
La Sainte Courtisane has a historical setting, taking place in the Middle East during the early years of the spread of Christianity. There are four characters in the three surviving scenes of the play. The two main characters are a young Christian hermit named Honorius and Myrrhina, the courtesan of the title. Myrrhina is a beautiful and wealthy woman from the Egyptian city of Alexandria who has had many lovers, including kings and emperors. She has heard of a handsome young hermit who refuses to look on the face of a woman. Intrigued, she has sought him out and plans to seduce him. The two remaining characters are simple working men who provide some information about Honorius before the character appears.
The play is based on the idea that all people who successfully convert someone else to their beliefs lose some of their faith in those beliefs as a result. Honorius converts Myrrhina to Christianity but loses all of his faith in the religion in the process.
The Hungarian-born German composer Rudolf Wagner-Régeny set the surviving fragment of La Sainte Courtisane to music in 1930.
The scene takes place in a valley in the desert. There is a cave in front of which is a large crucifix.
Two men see Myrrhina arrive. One of the men thinks Myrrhina is the daughter of the Emperor. The other thinks she is a goddess. They are both afraid to look at her because her clothes are covered with a great many bright jewels. They fear that they will be blinded by the dazzling light from the jewels. Myrrhina asks the men if the desert is home to the beautiful young hermit who will not look on the face of a woman. The men tell her that it is and that he lives in the nearby cave. The First Man says that the cave used to be home to a centaur that fled in terror when the hermit arrived. The Second Man disagrees and says that the cave used to be home to a unicorn that knelt down and worshiped the hermit when he arrived. The two men say that, unlike them, the hermit never does any work. They leave him food because they think nobody else will. They think that the hermit may have offended one of the gods, probably the moon, and been driven mad as a result. The men say that they think the hermit's name is Honorius because that is what three lepers who went to him to be cured called him. The hermit was unable to cure the lepers because of some sin they had committed. The men have also heard a voice within the cave call the hermit Honorius. They think the voice belongs to the God the hermit worships because they have not seen anyone else enter or leave the cave.
Myrrhina asks the two men to tell Honorius that someone has come from Alexandria to see him. The two men refuse to disturb the hermit because they know it is the time when he prays to his God. They admit to being afraid of Honorius, although they do not now why.
Myrrhina calls out Honorius' name and asks him to come out from his cave. She speaks to him of her beauty and of the life of luxury and pleasure that she leads. She also speaks of the many lovers she has had and of the things they were prepared to do to prove their love for her. Those lovers include kings and emperors as well as gladiators, athletes, sailors and slaves. Myrrhina says that she can take Honorius away from the desert and bring him to her house in Alexandria where he will know luxury and love.
Honorius replies that the only true love is the love of God. Myrrhina asks who Honorius' God is. He tells her that she can see the image of his God on the cross outside the cave. He begins to tell Myrrhina the Biblical story of the birth of Jesus and says she can be saved if she repents of her sins. Myrrhina tries to tempt Honorius again by speaking of beauty. He replies, "The beauty of the soul increases until it can see God", and calls on her again to repent.
Myrrhina finds the manner in which Honorius speaks to her strange and is upset by how he looked at her scornfully.
The third scene is incomplete.
Some time has passed. Honorius has successfully converted Myrrhina to Christianity. She confesses to having come to the desert with the intention of tempting Honorius so that he would know sin, and consequently death. She believes, however, that it was really God who brought her to the desert so that she could be converted. In the process of converting Myrrrhina, however, Honorius appears to have lost all of his Christian faith. He now thinks that Myrrrhina was right in wanting to live for pleasure alone. He wants to go to Alexandria. He asks Myrrhina to come with him, although he is prepared to go to the city without her. Myrrhina refuses to leave, wanting to stay in the desert and become a hermit herself. She begs Honorius to stay in the desert too.
According to the 1908 introduction by Robert Ross, Honorius goes to Alexandria to "pursue a life of pleasure" and Myrrhina is murdered by robbers.
- The word "courtesan" originally meant a female courtier. By the 17th century, it had come to mean the mistress of a king or other important man. It is now used as anther word for "prostitute", especially a high class one who charges a lot for her services.
- On April 6, 1895, Oscar Wilde was arrested on charges of "gross indecency", being suspected of having had sex with other men. He was found guilty at his trial and sentenced to two years hard labor He was released from prison on May 18, 1897. Wilde drew on his experiences of imprisonment to write the poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
- The same theme appears in Wilde's 1889 short story "The Portrait of Mr. W.H." although the belief dealt with in that story is one in a theory concerning Shakespeare, rather than a religious one.
- Text of Oscar Wilde's La Sainte Courtisane on Wikisource.
- Free public domain audiobok of La Sainte Courtisane from LibriVox. The recording also includes a reading of A Florentine Tragedy, another unfinished and posthumously published play by Wilde.