In 1895, with two plays running concurrently in London's West End (The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband), Oscar Wilde -- a most liberated personality living in a stern era -- brought a suit of libel against the Marquess of Queensberry. Queensberry (the man who crafted the Queensberry Rules for boxing) had publically denounced Wilde as a "posing sodomite." For three years Wilde had been in a turbulent affair with Queensberry's son, Lord Alfred Douglas, a young man half Wilde's age. With Douglas, Wilde -- the married father of two -- adventured into the "rough trade" of male prostitutes (he later compared the thrill of this experience to "feasting with panthers"). Although he was clearly at risk for being exposed for the darker nature beneath his glittering persona, Wilde sued the father to further endear himself to the son, the object of his intense infatuation. It was an act of hubris that would destroy him.
"A lot of what this is about," says director John Going during a break in rehearsals for Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, "right at its core, is that Oscar lies on the stand. He denies having had affairs with men. A lot of the question is, does he have a right to do that? George Bernard Shaw has an argument, and his argument is that he had every right to lie on the stand because he believed it was not a crime. And because he personally believed it was not wrong, he had the right to lie. Talk about resonance."
Jay Russell, who plays the great 19th-century aesthete in Moises Kaufman's drama, observes other notable -- and unnerving -- parallels between the scandal and trials that brought Wilde to ruin and recent events involving sex and lies: "Lurid, specific information is forced to come out in the trial in the same way we're reading in the paper about the cigar. Should we know about that? But we kind of want to know. But maybe we shouldn't."
"The whole idea of people saying we should forget about this dumb thing," Going continues, "it's so important. In the play there's a sense that Wilde had so many other things -- like his interest in art -- that was so much more important than this stupid thing. But this is the thing that got everybody riled up because it was sex. We're sex-crazy. We are. The Victorians were. We still have a lot of Victoriana about us, too, even though we're more liberal -- supposedly. Sex is what we're interested in, so it becomes paramount."
Any further comparisons between the fall of Wilde to charges of sodomy (or in the Victorian euphemism, "gross indecency") and the impeachment of Bill Clinton end with a comparison of the men themselves. Clinton is destined to be little more than the Andrew Johnson of 20th-century American politics; Wilde remains -- nearly 100 years after his death -- a delight and an inspiration to theatergoers, to artists, to any who care about beauty and care less about convention. It's doubtful there will be a revival for the man who gave us "It depends on what 'is' is," but for an explanation of the current Wilde revival, there's no need to go further than the wit, profundity and clarity of Wilde's own words, such as these from Gross Indecency: "I have never come across anyone in whom the moral sense was dominant who was not heartless, cruel, vindictive, log-stupid, and entirely lacking in the smallest sense of humanity. Moral people, as they are termed, are simple beasts. I would sooner have fifty unnatural vices than one unnatural virtue.
"The real enemy of modern life, of everything that makes life lovely and joyous and colored for us, is Puritanism, and the Puritan spirit. There is the great danger that lies ahead of the age.
"Puritanism is not a theory of life. It is merely an explanation of the English middle classes." And the Republican party.
Kaufman's play presents the story of Wilde's downfall through multiple perspectives. Kaufman employs a variety of narratives and points of view, some of which are in opposition to or come in conflict with one another. Excerpts from the trials, Douglas' autobiography, modern cultural criticism examining the meaning of the trials, and Wilde's own writings are all used by Kaufman. Although this methodology might sound more like a literary exercise than dramatic exposition, Gross Indecency is a moving theatrical experience. Russell, as he works to construct a character based on the elusive, multifaceted Wilde, finds himself sometimes emotionally drawn into the situation of the play and says he must guard against his own feelings intruding into the artistic process: "The whole thing is so sad. Part of the roller coaster of rehearsal right now is that I'm seeing this is really sad." Russell bursts into an expression of extreme anguish, then returns to calm. "It's about getting on top of that and letting the audience realize that and having the character rise above it."
Although the recent film Wilde, starring Stephen Fry, portrayed the writer as a sympathetic martyr, Going and Russell find that Kaufman's play presents a more complex portrait. "He brought a lot of it on himself," Going comments. "If he hadn't brought the suit of libel against Queensberry, probably none of this would have happened.
"All his best friends said, 'You're crazy.' He had opportunities to get out of the country, to go to France and let things cool off, but he wouldn't. He was at the top of his profession and the world, and I think he felt invincible: 'I can do no wrong. Nobody can touch me.' There's an arrogance there that made him go through with his thinking, 'I know I'm guilty, but they'll never prosecute me.'"
"And the other guy," Russell adds, "the Marquess was a putz, basically. 'He's a laughingstock, and I'm me!"'
"And that's what makes for wonderful drama," Going concludes, "which we know from the Greeks. Somebody who is basically a great man but who has a flaw, and his flaw is his downfall. It gives this a lot of dimension and power."
To watch Gross Indecency is to see a brilliant personality brought down by dull prejudices and gray morality. Yet as the life is squandered, the art that gives meaning to that life lingers beyond the dimming of the stage lights. As Wilde has become a homosexual martyr, a hero of transgression, an ancestor of a fabulous sensibility that has passed through this century in characters as diverse as Noel Coward and Todd Haynes (Wilde serves as a patriarchal antecedent to glam-rock in Velvet Goldmine), what is most inspirational is his indefatigable belief in the redemptive power of art, a belief that, sadly, also sounds strangely distant now that the arts have been bombarded with crude criticisms over the last decade -- not coincidentally, over matters of homosexuality -- from the keepers of that same puritan spirit Wilde presciently saw as the "great danger that lies ahead."
"The object of art," Wilde wrote, "is to stir the most divine and remote chords which make music in our soul.
"Man is hungry for beauty. There is a void.
"We spend our days looking for the secret of life. Well, the secret of life is in art."
For Russell, Gross Indecency is more than an opportunity to play a great part. "It is rare that you get to say things in a play that you feel so deeply," he says, "and that you feel should be heard. There are things Wilde says about art and life that you can never hear too many times -- lessons that you constantly need to learn."
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde opens at 8 p.m.
Friday, Jan. 8, and runs through Jan. 31 at the Loretto-Hilton Center.