Gross Indecency traces the arc of Oscar Wilde's ruin
Your sonnet is quite lovely, and it is a marvel that those red-roseleaf lips of yours should be made no less for the madness of music and song than for the madness of kissing. Your slim gilt soul walks between passion and poetry.
— Letter from Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas, read at Wilde's trial
England's Aesthetic Movement postulated that beauty is everything; that art exists only for its own sake and should not be expected to express any meaning beyond itself; that artificial and human-made objects are superior to the offerings of nature; and that the goal of life is to experience fleeting moments of perfection intensely, to "burn always with this hard gemlike flame," as Walter Pater put it.
Oscar Wilde, with his dandyism and galloping showmanship, brought tremendous wit and humor to the Movement — "One should either be a work of art or wear a work of art," he once said, and also pronounced that "Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art" — but for all his self-parody, he took aestheticism very seriously. So it was natural for him to frame his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie), the affair that eventually destroyed him, in elevated and deliriously sensual language. But in Moises Kaufman's Gross Indecency, Wilde is in the courtroom, battered with questions about his sexuality, and his entire glittering and carefully constructed worldview eventually crumbles. The play is an artful pastiche of excerpts from surviving trial transcripts, news articles, participants' memoirs, biographies and Wilde's own writing, with a group of actors moving fluidly from role to role.
The real-life legal proceedings began when Wilde, at Bosie's instigation, sued Bosie's father, the Marquess of Queensberry, who'd left a card at his club calling him a "posing sodmomite [sic]." The Marquess pressed the truth of his allegation and was exonerated; then Wilde was placed on trial for gross indecency. Eventually found guilty, he was sentenced to two years' hard labor and lost everything, including contact with his wife and two children. After his release he wrote only one poem, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," which in some ways violated his own aesthetic, since it is an extraordinary and deeply emotional description of the horrors of the prison system. He died of an ear infection picked up during his incarceration.
But at the start of the proceedings in Gross Indecency, Wilde, well-played by Chip Persons, is in fine fettle. He's smirkingly confident, full of witty bons mots, contemptuous toward his questioners. Until he slips. Asked if he had kissed a particular young man, he responds, "Oh, no. He was an extremely plain boy" — and slowly, as the prosecutor presses question after question, realizes what he's said.
The play is multi-layered, and about more than the disintegration of Wilde's life, or the intrusion of reality into a set of glorious artistic fictions. Wilde's tragedy has obvious contemporary relevance, from the debate about gay marriage here to the persecution of gay people in such countries as Uganda, where, under the influence of American Christian fundamentalists, the government has attempted to make homosexuality punishable by death. But Wilde's thinking about his plight, and the understanding of his Victorian contemporaries, would have been very different from that of modern gay-rights groups. At one point in Gross Indecency, a present-day academic talks about the way homosexuality has been constructed over the centuries, and whether Wilde was lying when he denied his own sexual proclivities. Jim Hunt plays the role with delicious comic squirminess, but the man makes good points.
There are also issues of class and culture, and of the role of the artist. Kaufman has suggested that Wilde was persecuted as much for his subversive art as for his sexuality — but Wilde had two successful plays in performance at the time of the trial. And while The Picture of Dorian Gray was hugely controversial, it was primarily because of the novel's homoerotic subtext.
Director Stephen Weitz has mounted a sometimes incisive production. Michael Bouchard makes Bosie — whom many biographers blame for Wilde's downfall — more a stolid Englishman than a seducer, and there's a bit too much shouting in the second act. But overall the cast is solid, and interesting newcomer Haydn William Winston brings truth and subtlety to a number of smaller roles, including a conflicted rent boy and a bristling George Bernard Shaw.
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