Hear Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince,” Performed by Orson Welles & Bing Crosby on Christmas Eve 1944

The most beloved fables have sur­vived for ages, passed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion in one form or anoth­er since time immemo­r­i­al. It speaks to the genius of Oscar Wilde that his chil­dren’s sto­ry “The Hap­py Prince” has attained that sta­tus despite hav­ing exist­ed for less than 130 years. In that time it has cap­ti­vat­ed read­ers, lis­ten­ers, and view­ers (includ­ing the likes of Pat­ti Smith) in the orig­i­nal text as well as in a vari­ety of adap­ta­tions, includ­ing an orches­tral per­for­mance, an ani­mat­ed film, a read­ing by Stephen Fry, and a rock opera. It also pro­vid­ed mate­r­i­al for a num­ber of radio broad­casts in the 1930s and 40s, includ­ing the one above, a read­ing by Orson Welles, Bing Cros­by, and Lurene Tut­tle.

Welles takes the Wildean role of the nar­ra­tor. Cros­by plays the tit­u­lar prince immor­tal­ized in stat­ue form with­out hav­ing ever, iron­i­cal­ly, expe­ri­enced hap­pi­ness in life. Tut­tle, a pro­lif­ic actress of not just radio but vaude­ville, film, and tele­vi­sion, gives voice to the swal­low who, left behind when his flock migrates to Egypt for the win­ter, alights on the prince’s shoul­der. In their shared lone­some­ness, the bird and the stat­ue become friends, and the prince asks the spar­row to dis­trib­ute his dec­o­ra­tions to the peo­ple of the impov­er­ished town around them. What comes of these self­less deeds? The answer resides, with the rest of the sto­ry, in the hal­lowed realm of myth.

Welles, Cros­by, and Tut­tle’s per­for­mance of “The Hap­py Prince” debuted on the Philco Radio Hall of Fame on Christ­mas Eve 1944. It proved pop­u­lar enough that two years lat­er, Dec­ca com­mis­sioned the actors for anoth­er per­for­mance of the sto­ry and put it out as a record album. In becom­ing some­thing of a hol­i­day tra­di­tion, Wilde’s immac­u­late­ly craft­ed tale of com­pan­ion­ship, sac­ri­fice, and redemp­tion has sure­ly turned a few gen­er­a­tions on to the work of one of the sharpest wits in west­ern his­to­ry. The prince and the swal­low may come to an unfor­tu­nate end on Earth, but they enjoy the recog­ni­tion their deeds have earned them in the king­dom of heav­en. Wilde’s own short life closed with a series of dif­fi­cult chap­ters, but now we all rec­og­nize the pre­cious­ness of what he left behind.

Find more read­ings of Oscar Wilde clas­sics in our col­lec­tion, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stephen Fry Reads Oscar Wilde’s Children’s Sto­ry “The Hap­py Prince”

Watch Ani­ma­tions of Oscar Wilde’s Children’s Sto­ries “The Hap­py Prince” and “The Self­ish Giant”

Pat­ti Smith’s List of Favorite Books: From Rim­baud to Susan Son­tag

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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