Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde

Moisés Kaufman Play Examines
Art and Morality

Nélida Nassar  09.01.2012

Directed by Liz Fenstermaker

Harris: Brooks Reeves; Queensbury, Gill, Lockwood: David Lutheran; Wood: Derek McCormack; Carson: Gabriel Graetz; Oscar Wilde: John Geoffrion; Lord Alfred Douglas: Kyle Cherry; Parker: Luke Murtha; Sir Edward Clarke: Matthew Murphy; Mavor: Morgan Bernhard; George Bernard Shaw: Tom Lawrence; Atkins: Joey Heyworth; Professor Marvin Taylor:
James Bocock
Stage Manager: Kevin Parker; Costume Designer: Pamela DeGregorio; Lighting Designer: Erik Fox; Sound Designer: J. Jumbelic: Dialect Coach: Susanna Harris Noon

Bad Habit Productions
The Boston Center for the Arts
Calderwood Pavilion, the Wimberly Stage
527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA
Until September 2, 2012

“I have always been interested in how society deals with the ‘other,’ and how one survives in the world when you don’t belong in it.” states playwright Moisés Kaufman of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. The Venezuelan author focuses on Oscar Wilde’s three trials that mired Victorian England of 1890’s attempting to elucidate the mysterious question of belonging.

Kaufman compiled trial transcripts, personal correspondence, interviews, newspapers, plays, novels and other source materials to write the script. The play tangentially ponders Oscar Wilde’s (John Goeffrion) literary fame, but focuses on the writer’s affair that started in 1891 with Lord Alfred Douglas (Kyle Cherry) known affectiontaely as ‘Bosie.’ At the time Wilde was married with two sons. In 1895, Wilde sued Bosie’s father for libel as the Marquis of Queensberry (David Lutheran) had offended him by leaving with the Albemarle Club doorman a note on his calling card: “To Oscar Wilde posing as sodomite.”

The first trial revealed damning evidence against Wilde. On the insistence of his counsel (Brooks Reeves), he agreed to withdraw the criminal libel prosecution and consented to a finding of the charge of “posing.” A few hours after the verdict, the public prosecutor
(David Lutheran) issued a warrant against him. He was arrested, tried a second time resulting in a hung jury. A third trial for gross indecency followed with the consequence
of a guilty conviction.

In May 1897, Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor for “indecent behavior”
or sodomy. During his time in prison he penned De Profundis, a monologue and autobiography addressed to Bosie. He also took up the issue of inhuman prison conditions and inmates’ rights in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which he wrote on his release in 1897.

Exiled in disgrace and broken by prison, poverty, hard drinking and despair, in 1900 at aged 46 he died in Paris while living in a cheap hotel. The script describes the toppling
of a celebrated author, poet and playwright from the apex of English society to ruin and humiliation.  His plays are still widely produced and his work is respected in the canon
of literature.

Bad Habit Productions embraces successfully the play’s challenges. The performance takes place in courtrooms that have a minimalist, circular stage setting giving intimacy and containment to the trials while bringing audiences close to the action. Alas, the circular setting at times made it difficult to hear the actors with their back turned. The stage has two tables, a typewriter, and two video screens on which photographs of Oscar Wilde in languished poses are projected as well as an interview with Professor Marvin Taylor as James Bocock.

John Goeffrion’s portrayal of Wilde is brilliantly done with wit and a slightly devious dandy posturing. He succeeds in rendering Wilde’s life trajectory that transformed him with each trial from a fashionable, flippant London society and literary figure to a man broken by the disclosure of his sexual relationship with Bosie. He also accurately projects Wilde’s social butterfly personality which was admired and accepted by an artistic circle. His works mocked the very London society with which he was involved and celebrated.

Pamela DeGregorio, the costume designer dressed Oscar in distinguished and historically accurate finery from the cane and scarves to the green carnation adorning his lapel.

Brookes Reeves, stepping in for Matthew Murphy and playing barrister Edward Clarke presents a powerful summation on behalf of his client Wilde.  His closing arguments: “clear from this fearful imputation one of our most renowned and accomplished men
of letters of today and, in clearing him, clear society from a stain” evoked tears from
the audience.

Tom Lawrence as George Bernard Shaw had unflinging support for Wilde. He is a convincing orator attempting to displace the artificialities and hypocrisies of the court proceeding against Wilde. Gabriel Graetz as the prosecutor Carson leveled accusations and demeaning slurs.

There are numerous roles varying from newspapers announcers, to blackmailing
male prostitutes played by Luke Murtha as Parker with Matthew Murphy as Clarke;
Morgan Bernhard as Mavor; Tom Lawrence as Shaw and Joey Heyworth as Atkins. The
characters speak directly to the public rather than to each other. The roles are
performed with bravado.

Wilde did his best to turn the proceedings into a joke with flippant answers. Always the artist, he seemed to be reaching for creative, witty replies. Kaufmann respected the most memorable trials moments integrally bringing forth Wilde’s powerful deftness with
words.  In particular, when the two Oxford educated Wilde (John Geoffrion) and Carson (Gabriel Graetz) engage in a semiotic, rhetorical pas de deux. Wilde defends the poems against Carson’s suggestions that they were immoral or touched on homosexual
themes. “There is no such thing as an immoral work,” rather “books are well written, or badly written.”

Or when Carson asked about a suggestive letter addressed to Lord Douglas: “Was it an ordinary letter?” “Certainly not,” Wilde answered, “it was a beautiful letter.” “Apart from art?” Carson wondered. “I cannot answer any questions apart from art,” Wilde replied.

Carson (Gabriel Graetz) toys again with Wilde asking about Lord Alfred Douglas “What is ‘the Love that dare not speak its name?” Wilde’s erudite and passionate response is: “‘The love that dare not speak its name’ in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as the ‘Love that dare not speak its name,’ and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so the world does not understand. The world mocks it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.”

The play’s legerdemain weaves Wilde’s various personae and beliefs that remain with us today. Was Wilde the first modern dramatist, or the last of the Victorian playwrights? Was he an aesthete who subverted philistine values, or pandered to bourgeois taste? Was he an Irish nationalist, or an Anglophile, a socialist, or a shrewd literary entrepreneur, an immoralist, or a new kind of moralist? Was he a philosopher, or a court jester? A pioneer of “gay theory,” or someone who never quite came to terms with his own sexuality? Wilde’s embrace of the aesthetic school’s extravagances were that the beautiful in life was the only thing worth pursuing while ugliness was the thing to be avoided.

Of course there is a truth in Wilde’s beliefs. But the fallacy of the aesthetic doctrine of that day, as many understood it, was that it narrowed the Greek ideal of beauty to a focus on physical or material beauty. The play attempts to posit these insistent questions.

Kaufman re-examines Wilde’s iconic figure with poise, intelligence and wit. Wilde’s persecution resonates with our era. His tragedy came from attempting to turn morality
into art at an age that viewed art as an extension of morality. Art and morality remain incessantly confronted. As American turns ever more conservative and fundamentalist
the issues that plagued Wilde become an increasing part of the mainstream of political
debate and controversy.

Wilde’s trials were about his alleged indecent behavior as much as about his writings. Besides remaining a gay icon, Wilde was a revolutionary who defied authority,  rebuffed conventions, and fought for the oppressed. Above all, Wilde was a courageous soul and spirit. He defied the establishment for which he was dearly and unjustly convicted and punished yet the work survives and continues to amuse and inspire.

Originally Published in Berkshire Fine Arts

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