Trial and Error

A local theatre company stumbles through its walk on the Wilde side.

In 1895, when the Marquess of Queensberry--he of the boxing rules--stopped at the private club of Oscar Wilde and left a card addressed to "Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite," the stylish Wilde, a master of the exquisitely crafted sentence and pointed aphorism, might well have had the man prosecuted for bad spelling and vague syntax. Instead, Wilde took him to court with a charge of criminal libel. Three trials later, Wilde found himself imprisoned for two years with hard labor for "gross indecency with male persons." Wilde's two hit plays then running in London's West End closed immediately, and he was reduced to penury, his family instantly disintegrating. Upon his release, Wilde wrote hardly anything more and was dead within three years, age 46.

This story is familiar from biographies, editorial prefaces to such Wilde works as The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Ballad of Reading Gaol, queer studies seminars, and a pair of movies released in 1960, one starring Robert Morley, the other, Peter Finch. But it gained new currency in 1997 with the Off Broadway production of Moises Kaufman's Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. The play was acclaimed in New York but panned when it moved to London; here in Tucson, as the inaugural production of the attractive Wilde Playhouse, it fails to generate a strong reaction in either direction.

The Marquess of Queensberry, by all accounts a most unpleasant fellow, had been hounding Wilde, who was carrying on an affair with the Marquess' son, Lord Alfred Douglas, whom Wilde called "Bosie." Wilde's first trial, which he initiated himself, came to grief when Queensberry lined up several young men to testify that the allegation of sodomy was not libelous, but all too true. Wilde quickly withdrew his suit, only for Queensberry to press the Crown to prosecute Wilde for "gross indecency"; in England, male homosexuality (but not lesbianism) was a misdemeanor drawing hard time, and remained so until 1967.

Wilde's second trial, this time with him as the defendant, ended in a hung jury. A third trial brought the conviction.

Throughout, Wilde found his work being attacked in court--no longer merely in the press--as immoral. Wilde countered that aesthetics, or at least his aesthetics, were divorced from morality; there are no immoral books, he insisted, only badly written ones. More pertinent to the English judicial system was Wilde's lifestyle, which the writer made inseparable from his artistic stance: Homoeroticism intertwined with aesthetics created a design for living.

As for the immorality of his taste for 20-year-old men like Bosie and his habit of consorting with "rent boys," who were essentially young male prostitutes, Wilde consistently maintained his innocence in court, even though his proclivities were widely known. As the avidly heterosexual George Bernard Shaw pointed out, since Wilde didn't recognize homosexuality as a crime, he was perfectly entitled to plead not guilty of it.

In Gross Indecency, as Wilde gives his own testimony and the "rent boys" are brought forward to explain their role, and even Bosie has his say, Kaufman raises questions about who was the victim and who was the victimizer. The play argues that Wilde couldn't have corrupted young men already rife with corruption, particularly since sodomy was widely practiced in Victorian England even as it was strenuously condemned. The love that dared not speak its name did, at least through Wilde, readily show its face.

Furthermore, Wilde seems to have been his own victim. He had several opportunities to flee to France; even Queensberry was willing to look the other way long enough for Wilde to put the English Channel between himself and Bosie. Yet Wilde refused to save himself, either through flight or appropriate testimony on the witness stand. That lack of instinct toward self-preservation seems Wilde's true perversion of human nature.

Gross Indecency is full of Brechtian, self-aware theatricality, the script sorting through a mélange of trial transcripts, memoirs, biographies and Wilde's own writings, much of the material read almost as footnotes by a pair of narrators (there were more in New York) and by the main characters stepping briefly out of their courtroom surroundings.

Yet there's something vital missing from this script. Kaufman gives us the documented telegrams, but where are Wilde's epigrams? Kaufman has allowed very little of the authentic Wildean spirit onto the page, so it's up to the director and actors to make this more than just a postmodern visit to Judge Judy. And that's where the Wilde Playhouse production begins to flounder.

While this production eschews the contrivances and hoochie-coochie tastelessness of the Off-Broadway and London versions, in eliminating the clutter it fails to suggest that anything lies beneath the script's stark surface. Director Maryann Green moves the actors around the stage efficiently, but she doesn't move their souls.

The best actors are those portraying the characters who walk on the Wilde side: James Hesla as Wilde; Stephen Elton as his attorney, Sir Edward Clarke; and Michael Mandel as his lover, Bosie. Thanks to both Mandel and Kaufman, Bosie comes off remarkably better here than in most other sources; he actually seems sincere, not the self-serving, duplicitous lout he is commonly made out to be. Kaufman hasn't given Elton much to work with, but Elton does make Clarke seem principled, sincere and quick-witted.

Hesla looks the part of Wilde and delivers his lines well enough, but there's little in his performance that convinces us that this is Oscar Wilde rather than Bill Clinton or Kobe Bryant or any other high-profile schmuck caught in a sex scandal. True, Hesla shows us Wilde's pride and dignity slowly crumbling away, but where is the contemptuous superiority that must have so infuriated Wilde's adversaries? On occasion, Wilde's testimony is reduced to the simple word "no," but Wilde, I think, would have weighted every "no" with an unspoken paragraph. Here, "no" simply means "no," which is important to remember on a date but hardly makes for compelling theater.

This lack of specificity is worsened by the actors' generic American accents. These characters never come across as real people in a particular time and place, 1895 London. Furthermore, although several characters are intended to read from books, making the patchwork research-paper nature of Kaufman's drama explicit, at least one actor clearly wasn't off script by opening night. Factor in a minimal use of sound, and lighting best seen from the front of the stage even though half the audience sits stage right and left, and the result is less a production than a costumed reading.

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