note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
One of the unforgivable tragedies of great literature is the legal persecution and defamation of genius author-playwright Oscar Wilde, whose life and career were ruined in 1895. He was accused of committing “gross indecency with male persons,” convicted, and sentenced to two years’ hard labor in prison. Wilde was skewered in the courts, imprisoned, and died of meningitis, poor and abandoned, at age 46.
Wilde, who was married and had two sons, was a not-so-closeted gay in Victorian England, where “such behavior” was denounced as unnatural and criminal. As Wilde’s popularity as a satirical playwright of social consciousness soared internationally , and his most popular plays were acclaimed in England’s most famous theaters, he also published his one, great novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”.
Son of wealthy parents from Ireland, Wilde lived extravagantly, beyond his means, and according to his own rules, likes and dislikes. His flamboyant personality and quotable phrases made him a favorite among elite society, men of letters, especially in America, and he was adored universally for his clever works, glibness and quick wit. To Wilde, his art and writing came first. They were inseparable from his lifestyle. Unfortunately Wilde’s love affair with a handsome young man, Lord Alfred Douglas, outraged the youth’s father, John Douglas, the Marquess of Queensberry, precipitating Wilde’s downfall. In Bad Habit Production’s presentation of Moises Kaufman’s play, “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” performed at the Wimberly Theater in an extended run through Sept. 2, the audience and actors are intermingled, at the same level, to heighten the play’s intensity. The play is set on the Wimberly stage, with the audience seated on all four sides. Unfortunately, this approach is ineffective at times, as theatergoers must crane their necks to see individual actors as they bear witness, give testimony, and perform re-enactments. And when the actors’ backs are turned, while facing each other, sections of the audience have difficulty hearing them. That’s a shame, because the cast is outstanding. So is Kaufman’s play, which includes trial transcripts, personal correspondence, interviews, quotes, and other startling historical and biographical material, given today’s change in society’s attitude, especially towards homosexuality.
Wilde’s trial were ticked off by young Douglas’ intense dislike for his father and urging Wilde to sue him. The elder Douglas left Wilde his card in a public place, calling Wilde a “posing Somdonite” (sic. sodomite, or homosexual) to humiliate the author. Wilde eventually withdrew his suit against Douglas, as evidence about his homosexuality mounted. The second trial, this time against Wilde, ended in a hung jury.
The third trial was Wilde’s undoing. His own testimony, superciliousness, belief in his right to write whatever he wished, and his quest to elevate art and literature (he called it an English renaissance of art) was used against him. He claimed the line from his “Dorian Gray” novel - “the love that dare not speaks its name,” was artistic license, taken from Shakespeare. Prosecutors claimed otherwise, citing Wilde’s procurement of “rent boys,” and their testimony, true or trumped-up.
Director Liz Fenstermaker fastidiously maintains the play’s split-second timing and irony. Two monitors, beaming artifacts and a modern-day expert’s take on the trials, lend authenticity. However, I question witnesses’ use of a centrally-placed divan, depicting and damning Wilde with their testimony.
Kaufman insinuates several politicians in the court were also closet gays and feared exposure. He adds Queen Victoria suddenly passed a law condemning homosexuality, thus targeting and scapegoating Wilde. They closed his plays, auctioned off his belongings, and banned him from seeing his wife and two sons, who changed their last name to Holland.
Kaufman’s attention to detail is praiseworthy, but I wish he included more about Wilde’s background, family, and, public and political fickleness.
Although actor John Geoffrion is bald (Wilde had a flowing mane of dark hair) he magnificently captures Wilde’s superior demeanor and wit; and Kyle Cherry’s portrayal as Wilde’s beloved Alfred Douglas is sterling. Derek MCCormack, Gabriel Graetz, Luke Murtha, Matthew Murphy, Morgan Bernhard, Tom Lawrence and James Bocock round out the cast.
BOX INFO: Bad Habit Productions has extended its production of Moises Kaufman’s play, to Sept. 2 at the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA) Calderwood Pavilion, Wimberly theater-in-the-round, 527 Tremont St., South End, Boston. Performances are Sept. 2, at 2 p.m.; Aug. 30 at 7:30 p.m.; Aug. 31,Sept. 1, at 8 p.m. Advance tickets, $18; day of show, $23. Visit bostontheatrescene.com or call 617-933-8600.