We remember Oscar Wilde today primarily for his epigrammatic wit -- the nineteenth-century bons mots that have lost none of their sharpness or humor over the intervening decades. This was a man whose last words were supposedly "Either that wallpaper goes or I do."
Wilde's theories of aesthetics, his faith that beauty superseded conventional morality, his adherence to Walter Pater's precept that "to burn always with this hard gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life" helped shape the cultural and intellectual currents of his time. Wilde was imitated by a horde of young artists, lampooned by Gilbert and Sullivan and attacked from the pulpit. In 1895, he made the mistake of suing the Marquess of Queensberry, who had left a somewhat illiterate card at Wilde's club denouncing the writer as a "posing somdomite." Queensberry was the father of Wilde's young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie), and as madly thundering an old Victorian as one could imagine. He defended himself against the libel charges by saying that his accusation against Wilde was true. Pretty soon he was in the clear, and Wilde himself was in the dock, accused of "gross indecency with male persons." The jury deadlocked, but Wilde was retried, found guilty and sentenced to two years' hard labor in Reading Gaol.
Although "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" is one of the most moving poems Wilde ever penned, the experience broke him. He never wrote another play. He lost all contact with his wife and two children. Upon his release, impoverished and reviled, he went to Paris and died there three years later. (Because he asked for a Catholic priest to administer last rites, I'm guessing the wallpaper quote was apocryphal.)
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde
Theatre on Broadway, 13 South Broadway
Presented by the Theatre Group
Through November 22
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Playwright Moises Kaufman has painstakingly re- created Wilde's ordeal in Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, using transcripts of the proceedings, Wilde's own writings (particularly "De Profundis," the long, long letter he wrote to Bosie from prison) and the memoirs of other onlookers and participants, notably George Bernard Shaw. This is a fascinating intellectual exercise, and it has unearthed some real gems. Who knew that prostitutes capered in the streets when Wilde was sentenced? Or that 600 gentlemen fled England that very night? It's fascinating to learn that a French newspaper commented that the prosecution of Wilde was an example of how England treated her artists, while an American newspaper huffed that it exemplified how badly English artists behaved. And in this day and age, Wilde's comment that "an aesthetic education, which humanizes people, is far more important even for politicians than an economic education, which does the opposite" carries all kinds of delicious associations. Nonetheless, Gross Indecency doesn't work as a play. It's static, talky and very long. The playwright even footnotes as he goes along, so the actors are always giving attributions for words about to be spoken, telling us that what follows is from Bosie's autobiography, or an unpublished manuscript of Sir Edward Clarke, solicitor. There's barely a flicker of Wilde's familiar wit, and though it's sad to see his fall from confident literary star to haggard, broken man, better-chosen quotes from his own writings might have helped us actually feel for him.
Of course, it's impossible to watch this display of vulgar Victorian hypocrisy without thinking of the bigots who infest our current society. Those opposing same-sex marriage or any other affirmation of gay equality usually insist that what they're against is not equal rights, but giving homosexuals special consideration. Look more closely at these people's writings, speeches and selective use of biblical quotation, however, and you'll find exactly the kind of unhinged loathing that motivated the Marquess of Queensberry and the lawyers, editorialists, politicians and clergymen who did his bidding.
Using actors of varying talents, Nicholas Sugar has staged a clean, spare production. Gregory Brent Johnson's Wilde is most convincing as the preening popinjay of the early scenes, but less so later, when he needs to communicate the writer's anguish. C.J. Hosier is strong in several roles, and Marc Burg makes a seductive and appropriately pouty Bosie. (Bosie hated his father, the Marquess, and it was at his young lover's insistence that Wilde initiated the original suit.) Steve Wilson's Marquess seems to me more caricature than characterization. Scott Curl has all kinds of stage presence, but he, too, tends toward caricature -- particularly in his portrayal of a modern-day academic dissecting the Wilde trial. Sure, the man is ridiculous, but some of what he says is worth hearing, and playing him strictly for laughs distracts from it.
There's a lot of interesting stuff in this script, but I think I'd rather have read it while sitting in an armchair with a cup of tea at my elbow than watched it played on the stage.