By Moises Kaufman
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Just the first act of Moises Kaufman's play Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, which opened last Friday on the Mainstage of the Loretto-Hilton Center, might have you thinking that the playwright was merely dramatizing a portion of a libel suit Oscar Wilde, playwright and man of letters, had brought against the father of his male lover for having styled him a sodomite. The Oscar Wilde we see is impertinent -- mugging to the courtroom, fruitily playing with his voice, scattering banal witticisms and double entendres like stale bread before enchanted ducks. Dull realism, in short.
But Act 1 is a setup. The second act opens with a skilled short characterization by young Kevin Orton of a modest, somewhat shy and admirably serious contemporary American Wilde scholar in a fatuous TV interview. He refuses to reduce three of the most important trials of the modern age to a simplistic explanation based on pure homophobia. Wilde's downfall, he tries to explain to someone unwilling to listen, has social, political and even lexicographical dimensions that defy soundbite summary. Orton's young critic occasionally sniggers in embarrassment over his own inability to be dishonest, and his body language bawls for rescue from the smirking, vacuous interviewer.
The rest of the act is phantasmagoria -- the young male prostitutes Wilde patronized testify in their underclothes; Wilde answers questions with quotations from his published writings; Wilde argues with and solaces his young lover. And Jay Russell, the young, slim, entirely winning actor who plays Wilde, gives us a man living like a hard, gemlike flame as Wilde imagined himself doing.
Oscar Wilde is a towering figure of English-language letters. Perhaps he did not invent modern literature, but no one disagrees that modern poetry in English began with him and Walt Whitman. If we go along with the assertion that Arthur Rimbaud was the first modern poet in general, then the last 100 years of poetic achievement owe their triumphs to a pair of hebephiles and a catamite. Deal with it.
Wilde would have been safer had he spent more time with letters and less with teasing the Establishment, for it destroyed him. He brought a libel suit against the brutish father of his young lover for accusations of homosexual behavior -- then seriously against the law -- but the defense easily proved that Wilde was indeed a sodomite and had consorted with men half his age and not of his social station. Wilde withdrew from the suit, but he was arrested and tried, and when one jury could not agree, was tried again and convicted of gross indecency. He served two years at hard labor and died at the age of 46 only a year after his release from prison. Had he been convicted of the same offenses only a few years earlier, he would have been pilloried in London's fish market, where women would have beaten him to death with large fish. The statutes that sent Wilde to prison may seem brutal today, but they were positively enlightened compared to those they replaced.
So Gross Indecency turns out not to be, as its subtitle might indicate, a courtroom drama, and that is a blessing for Wilde's admirers, because he behaved foolishly and badly at both the first and second ones, responding to serious questions with frivolous wisecracks and paradoxes. He seemed to underestimate the intelligence of the judges and opposing attorneys not to understand how dangerous his situation was. As a matter of historical fact, he did not present a particularly dashing figure, either. According to Max Beerbohm, who knew him, Wilde was grossly overweight, and the beautiful clothes he wore seemed to do nothing to conceal the results of gastronomic dissipation. The play, however, does present matter even more sad: Wilde could not bring himself to do what other men -- including lords, bishops and distinguished generals -- had done and flee the country. According to Frank Harris (who might have been played with a much more strident American accent), Wilde began by thinking powerful friends would intervene and it would all go away; later he sank into lassitude and seemed unable to think, let alone take action.
Gross Indecency loads its two-and-a-half hours with either most of the important history of the Wilde trials or with their implications, yet it is never pedantic. Its director, John Going (who was responsible for last spring's wonderful production of Wilde's An Ideal Husband and last summer's Opera Theatre triumph Don Pasquale), has moved from comic realism to a darker, more complex and fluid state. There is laughter, of course, perhaps more than necessary, but Going does not make the mistake of making Gross Indecency a tragedy. He gives us something along the lines of a documentary film. Reality and the surreal mix, however; fact becomes poetic and fiction is prosaic. James Wolk's scenic design is compelling and ironic, from the Queen Victoria with a 5 o'clock shadow that dominates Act 1 to the bright-crimson background with undertones of fascist public art that dominates the second act. Besides Russell as Wilde, the cast includes John Rensenhouse, Jeffries Thaiss, John Michalski and, in three different characterizations, the amazing Thomas Carson. Four young actors -- Quin Gresham, Ted deChatelet, Brett Hemmerling and the previously mentioned Orton, do very well by a number of parts.
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde really needs more than one viewing. First, you need to get past its beguiling theatricality, which somewhat stuns you. Second, you have to get past your own knowledge of and opinions about Wilde (or at least I did) in order to listen to Kaufman. Finally, one viewing seems insufficient for a play so loaded with imagination and art on so many levels. Kaufman's play has plenty to say, and it's probably worthwhile to go back again and get as much of it as possible.