“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” – Oscar Wilde
Review by Michael Koegel
Oscar Wilde seems to have been quite aware that he would leave a lasting legacy regarding both his literary and public exploits, but it’s doubtful that he anticipated his role as martyr; a symbol for persecuted gay men well into the 20th century and beyond. In Moises Kaufman’s compelling play, we witness in two-and-a-half gripping hours Wilde’s two-and-a-half year ruination; from celebrated literary virtuoso to destitute pariah and unceremonious death. In New Deal Creative Arts Center’s production of the play, directed by Teresa Gasparini, we learn the details of Wilde’s downfall with perfect historical accuracy, and with the added gift of hindsight.
The play, a cleverly compiled assortment of actual court testimony, memoirs (some never published), and snippets of media coverage, reconstructs The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. Kaufman’s extensively researched play becomes all the more engrossing because of it’s near-documentary, presentational style. The term “Playwright” when applied to Kaufman’s labors on Gross Indecency takes on the literal meaning of the word: he’s both craftsman and writer here.
Kaufman’s real skill is the way he seamlessly blends his original material with that of historical documents with such grace. Actors step in and out of character to narrate their own stories. The audience knows exactly where the primary source material comes from because the actors name their sources as they quote them.
Wilde was a poet, a writer, and an editor who lived the effete lifestyle of the Victorian Intellectual. His stance was unapologetically his own, but he seemingly existed in a bubble, mingling only with like-minded, moneyed, liberal intelligentsia, which may have skewed his understanding of the larger world. Outside of that bubble, his work, and by extension his morality, was constantly rebuked by conservative members of his society and elements of the mainstream and establishment press. Wilde responded to his critics with witty retorts and veiled invective, and treated them as if he were swatting away flies. When he hit his stride as a playwright in the 1890’s, he was writing mildly subversive plays involving the double lives of their main characters, which was his milieu. At the same time he was mocking the hypocrisy he saw in his critics’ behavior.
Wilde’s double life (he was married with two children) was hardly a secret, and involved his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, a handsome, spoilt young man with whom Wilde was consumed. Lord Alfred’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, suspecting the worst, confronted Wilde and his son over the nature of their relationship, and eventually left his calling card (essentially Victorian Twitter) at Wilde’s club publicly calling out Wilde for “posing” as a sodomite (famously misspelled as “somdomite”). Presumably Quuensberry stopped short of accusing Wilde of being a sodomite because to do so would have required him to implocate his son as guilty of the same. Goaded on by Lord Alfred who had a particularly contentious relationship with his father, Wilde made the ill-advised move to sue the Marquess for Libel. Thus began the saga of the three trials.
It’s almost impossible to overstate the sensation these trials had on the public: think O. J. Simpson. Wilde appeared to badly underestimate the readiness of society, which celebrated him while his behavior was veiled and closeted, to tolerate it unveiled. Wilde’s martyrdom became a foregone conclusion when the sensation it created public conjecture that such “indecencies” as Wilde was accused of might be being practiced by members of the controlling party in the Houses of Parliament and to announce it as acceptable could topple the government; an almost nostalgic reference to a time when consisting with a prostitute might actually be fatal to a politician’s career. But, while there is much in the play that will appear to modern audiences to reflect outdated Victorian morality, the real power of the play is in how much of the attitudes and hypocrisy will seem tragically current.
In Gasparini’s production, even the entrance of the actors, all men, all dressed in dark and serious tones, is startling and dramatic. They take their positions barricaded behind various tables and desks, only Wilde (Austin Lightning Carrothers) sits vulnerably in a straight backed chair center stage, at first cockily, and then defensively folding his legs above the knee.
Carothers as Wilde is far more handsome than Wilde was, which makes it even easier to envision Wilde seeking out prostitutes not out of any desperate clandestine need for companionship or sexual gratification, but rather for thrill of the experience of youth and beauty, an extension of his view of life itself as art, which Wilde argues that it was. Carrothers never loses his cool as Wilde, in fact he effectively conveys that Wilde is operating on a plane above that of the other characters. He is measured and composed while everyone around him seems to have their heads buried in documents while yelling double-time, a cacophony of anger and accusation, while Carrothers sits serenely in the middle of it all.
Mind you, there is plenty for the rest of the cast to be yelling about; sodomy is serious business for the other characters. As emotions go, anger trumps compassion, and Joe Eriole, playing two different attorneys who cross-examine the star witness, succeeds in finding chinks in Wilde’s quick-witted armor, while tossing out barbed accusations of his own. Eriole is an excellent sparring partner for Carrothers. The first act dialogue between Carrothers and Eriole, Queensberry’s attorney Sir Edward Carson, positively crackles.
Thom Webb, well cast as the loutish Marquess of Queensberry (yes, the same Queensberry after whom boxing’s Queensberry Rules are named), is a loud brute of commanding presence and little patience; passionately denouncing the very existence of his son, Lord Alfred, played soberly and engagingly by Kevin Douchkoff. He’s not someone you’d want to go a few rounds with, and it’s easy to understand his bewilderment with, and disappointment in, his son.
Unfortunately, the bile and bewilderment that propelled Queensberry in the 1890’s has survived completely intact over a century later. Substitute any gender or demographic stereotype and bias for “somdomite,” and the Marquess’ dialogue can be heard in our public discourse today. Douchkoff and the balance of the cast, Scott Woolley, Chuck Fager, and Jared Fais combine to bring to life the material with an immediacy which makes clear that Wilde’s trials are not a mere historical artifact.
Gross Indecency is being produced by The New Deal Creative Arts Center, an organization with the mission: “Making arts accessible to a wide range of audiences (by) providing year round programming in fine, visual, literary and performing arts.” The play’s run reflects that mission. Its opening night was presented in an art gallery at The Poughkeepsie Trolley Barn, where audience members were allowed to peruse the art before the show and during intermission. It’s remaining shows will be at the LGBTQ Center in Kingston on Saturday, June 22, and the —- in Newburgh on Friday, June 28, making it a three-county tour in spaces which are, themselves, celebrations of history, art and social justice, all during gay pride month.
There is an aspect of guerrilla theatre to this production. There is no stage lighting, no raised stage. Instead of diminishing the experience, these spare and stark choices actually enhance it; it forces the audience into the ephemeral realm of the recorded dialogue of this “real life” courtroom drama. All that is left is a compelling theatrical experience – the actors and the audience on the same level, not just in the same space, but literally the same room. We are the jury.
Photo Credit: Louisa Vilardi