Trial of the century
Riveting courtroom drama at Chico State illuminates the downfall of Oscar Wilde
Perhaps the best way to understand the continuing fascination with the 1895 trials of Oscar Wilde—this play, Gross Indecency, ran for more than 600 performances in New York—is by comparing them to similar celebrity courtroom dramas that took place a century later: the O. J. Simpson trials.
At the time, both were considered “the trial of the century” for their star quality, the lurid nature of the charges and the ways they revealed fault lines in the larger society.
Moisés Kaufman’s 1998 play is based on the book of the same title by H. Montgomery Hyde, which was also the basis of the 1997 film Wilde. There have also been several biographies, including Richard Ellman’s magisterial Oscar Wilde of 1987.
Despite the abundance of material, Kaufman’s play is anything but redundant. Drawing on actual documents—letters, Wilde’s writings, court transcripts, newspaper and other accounts—the playwright manages to compress the trials into a two-hour compilation that illuminates not only the many social forces at work during the trial, but also its intensely intimate and painful human drama. In many ways Wilde brought his downfall upon himself, and the play soon takes on the quality of a classic tragedy.
As brilliant as he was, Wilde suffered from a dangerous combination of naïveté and grandiosity that was enhanced, perhaps, by his outsider status as an Irishman in England. The son of highly accomplished parents—his father was a prominent doctor and historian, his mother a poet—he was a brilliant student who rebelled against the conventions of Victorian society, cultivating an effete aestheticism that he touted as a revolutionary artistic philosophy and, ultimately, beginning a far-from-secret sexual life with young men.
When the father of one of these young men, Lord Alfred Douglas, slipped him a card accusing him of “posing as a somdomite” (the original was misspelled), Wilde, instead of shrugging it off, took the father to court, accusing him of libel. Later, when that move had backfired and led to his own indictment on “gross indecency” charges, he refused to flee the country as his friends urged, lapsing into disastrous indecision.
The trials, as it turned out, were as much about the supposed dangers his art posed as his sex life. They took place in the Central Criminal Court of the Old Bailey in London. For this production, director Joel Rogers and set designer David Beasley have opted for a three-quarters stage, with the Wismer Theatre audience arranged on three sides, looking down on barristers’ tables and witness docks.
There are 40 different characters in the play, ranging from Queen Victoria to Wilde himself, played by nine student actors, all men. It’s a huge challenge, not only because of the many quick role changes, but also because so much of the dialogue comes from written sources and lacks the informality of normal speech. Some of the best scenes were those taken directly from the court transcript, with its natural speech rhythms.
I watched the final dress rehearsal Monday evening and was impressed by the young actors’ determination and commitment. Some were stronger than others, of course, and all need to work more on developing natural speech cadences where appropriate (please, less declaiming). But overall they did remarkably well. Most important they let the play come through in all its philosophical, political and human complexity.
Ultimately, England was on trial here, not Oscar Wilde. He may have been naïve not to understand how dangerous his behavior was, but as this play makes clear it was the hypocrisy, political calculation and bigotry of society that destroyed a great writer. As we well know, such bigotry is still very much among us.