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The importance of being Oscar

City Theatre play finds a leading man of letters on trial for his morals

Friday, February 19, 1999

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Morality on trial. A rich and influential man accused of committing immoral acts is summoned to defend himself in public hearings wracked with legalisms, subterfuge, skullduggery and a media circus that affects the outcome of the trial.

  From left, Heath Lamberts as the Marquess of Queensbury, Richard McMillan as Oscar Wilde, Douglas Rees as barrister Sir Edward Clarke and Martin Giles as Carson in "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde." (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

Sound familiar?

The Trial of the 20th Century in some ways parallels the Trial of the 19th Century - the prosecution (or was it persecution?) of Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde. By the mid-1890s Oscar Wilde was widely considered one of Great Britain's leading intellectuals. Eccentric, probably. Successful, certainly. Publication of his plays, novels, stories and literary criticism always caused a stir. Crowds packed his lecture tours, drawn by the urbane wit and fey attire that had become Wilde's trademarks.

In 1895 at the height of Wilde's popularity, British nobleman the Marquess of Queensbury publicly referred to him as someone "posing as a sodomite." Wilde sued him for libel. Queensbury provided incontrovertible evidence about Wilde's private lifestyle and successfully defended the suit.

He then turned the evidence over to the state prosecutor, who twice tried Wilde on charges of gross indecency - Victorian legalese for homosexuality. The rich playwright, author and co-founder of the aesthetic art movement suffered for two years at hard labor in a British prison. His possessions were auctioned to pay court costs and his plays were no longer in demand. Wilde left prison destitute, exiled himself to France, changed his name and died within a few years.

  A Wilde Life

~1854: Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde born in Dublin, to a father who was an ear surgeon and a mother who was an Irish nationalist and poet.
~1871-74: Studied classics at Trinity College, Dublin.
~1874-79: Studied at Magdalen College, Oxford (UK).
~1878: Won the Newdigate Prize for his poem "Ravenna."
~1879: Settled in London, and began to dress flamboyantly and champion the current aesthetic movement ("art for art's sake").
~1881: Published the volume "Poems."
~1882: Undertook an exhilarating one-year lecture tour of North America.
~1883: Published the play "The Duchess of Padua."
~1884: Married Constance Lloyd and lived in Chelsea (London). They had two sons, Cyril (1885) and Vyvyan (1886).
~1887: Became editor of Woman's World and wrote "The Canterville Ghost."
~1888: Published "The Happy Prince and Other Tales."
~1891: Wilde's only novel, "The Picture of Dorian Gray," is published and criticized for its "immorality." He also began his sexual relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, son of ninth Marquess of Queensbury.
~1892: Achieved popular success with "Lady Windermere's Fan"; poetic drama "Salomé" is banned in England for its portrayal of biblical characters.
~1893: "A Woman of No Importance" is produced.
~1895: Enduring masterpiece, "The Importance of Being Earnest," is produced.
~1895: Unsuccessfully sued Marquess of Queensbury for libel for declaring him a "sodomite"; was in turn sued by the marquess and arrested and found guilty of homosexual offenses under the Criminal Law Act of 1885; sentenced to two years hard labor at Reading Gaol.
~1897: Wrote the bitter letter "De Profundis" to Lord Douglas; released from prison in May and spent his days in France, Italy and Switzerland under adopted name of Sebastian Melmoth.
~1898: Reflected on prison experiences in "Ballad of Reading Gaol."
~1900: Died in Paris on Nov. 30; buried at Père Lachaise cemetery.

Stage Preview:

'Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde'

Where: City Theatre, 57 S. 13th St., South Side.

When: Through March 14. Tuesday-Friday 8 p.m.; Saturday 5:30 and 9 p.m.; Sunday 2 p.m.

Tickets: $19-$28. 412-431-CITY.


Wilde on Law

"To be entirely free, and at the same time entirely dominated by law, is the eternal paradox of human life that we realize at every moment. ... I like no law at all; were there no law there'd be no law breakers, so all men would be virtuous."

Wilde's prosecution was perceived as either a cold example of morality on trial or the strict interpretation of applicable laws. The same perceptions have surrounded the Clinton impeachment trial, a fact that hasn't gone unnoticed by those involved in the City Theatre production of the Moises Kaufman play, "Gross Indecency."

Kaufman based his drama on actual transcripts from the Wilde trials. For the sake of literary clarity and aesthetics, text from the three trials is transposed and laced with witticisms from Wilde's literary career. Producing director Marc Masterson has transformed the City Theatre stage into a 19th-century British courtroom with the audience serving as both jury and gallery. Canadian actor Ric McMillan plays the notorious intellectual.

"Transcripts are generally very dry," he says, "but this is fascinating because you see the elemental man. You see him at the peak of his career and at the bottom of it."

McMillan says he was drawn to the play when he first saw it performed a few years ago in Toronto. It's an "actor's play," he says, rife with Wilde's off-the-cuff irony and rich, prepared oratories delivered during his defense.

Kaufman, however, has been cautious with rights to his script, scrutinizing where it is done and by whom. As a result, "Gross Indecency" is rarely performed. McMillan says he knows of a dozen New York actors who had hoped to land parts in this rare production.

"[Wilde] was quite a self-invented creation," McMillan says. "As the play starts he talks about imagination. Time, space, all those aspects of life are transcended by the imagination. Wilde lived in a rarefied atmosphere . . . he called art. He called it beauty. He called it, I guess, perfection."

But playing the self-invented eccentric is more complicated than McMillan had imagined. Despite Wilde's penchant for literary paradox and his notorious reputation as a Victorian-era dandy, McMillan's research revealed a more reserved and contemplative man than history recalls. During the trials, which attracted reporters from as far as Continental Europe and America, Wilde was performing before his biggest audience. His defense of a life in search of beauty was eloquent and laced with humor, yet he was occasionally tripped up by the legal logic of his prosecutor.

"That all makes it extremely difficult to perform," says McMillan. "He is an Irishman ... trained at Oxford, so he understands the mechanisms of his sentences, but he writes in an oral tradition. When you're rehearsing a Wilde piece it's always difficult to learn because when you hear it spoken it makes perfect sense, but when you're learning it, its rhythms are totally different than your own. In this play Kaufman merges his own words and style, text from several trials and Wilde's written work. It's a bitch to learn, but when you learn it there is no better way to say the sentence."

In the second act, Kaufman refers to himself by name, a device McMillan calls "an interesting conceit."

"It's funny because there are sections when Moises' voice is very strong," he says. "The audience expects to see the whole trial, but Kaufman interrupts the flow to show these other aspects of [Wilde]. It's important to show Wilde's wit. It works brilliantly."

On Crime and Punishment

"There is no essential incongruity between crime and culture. We cannot rewrite the whole of history for the purpose of gratifying our moral sense of what should be. ... A community is infinitely more brutalized by the habitual employment of punishment, than it is by the occasional occurrence of crime."

In staging "Gross Indecency," Masterson's staff researched everything from the buttons on Victorian garments to the layout of British courtrooms. Phil Smith, a Pitt English professor who co-authored the first publication of some of Wilde's recently discovered notes, was recruited to offer advice. "Oscar Wilde's Oxford Notebooks," by Smith and Michael S. Helfand, is a combination of the authors' insight and the random notes compiled by Wilde during his formative Oxford years. As the subtitle suggests, the questions posed by the young Wilde and the conclusions he arrives at show "a portrait of mind in the making."

  Actor Richard McMillan: "Wilde lived in a rarefied atmosphere ... he called art. He called it beauty. He called it, I guess, perfection." (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette

"We thought Wilde wasn't being taken seriously," says Smith. "There was this image of him as a flippant coiner of paradoxes who was fascinating in a way to people who wanted to capitalize on his status as a notorious gay. We thought, well, he's an intellectual, too."

Smith says he advised the cast to project a fuller image of Wilde and his contemporaries. While it's true that Wilde dressed flamboyantly for his time in knee breeches and fur and velvet coats with sunflowers or violets in his lapels, he did it for a reason.

"Wilde went out of his way to call attention to a set of ideas that he truly and strongly believed and felt he had a philosophical basis to promote," says Smith. "He believed that increasing the amount of beauty in the world was an important thing to do. It had something to do with making life better and improving social conditions."

Smith's and Helfand's research reveals a young scholar craving knowledge and experience in any form. By the time of the trials, Wilde was a fortysomething intellectual rebel with a cause whose sarcasm and mocking of Victorian values rattled both the aristocracy and the lower classes. Smith sees parallels in modern times.

"I think the prosperity of the 1980s - buy a bigger house and a bigger sport utility vehicle - is comparable to what occurred in Western Europe in the 19th century," he says. "There was an expansion of the moneyed class. As people began to get rich, a middle-class ideology became very important to them. If they were blessed by prosperity there had to be some moral aura that stood for what they are.

"It's not unlike a certain self-satisfaction in the 1980s ... a puritanical justification of those advantages that has found a voice for itself in the Christian Coalition and other conservative and moral associations in the United States."

On Life

"Life is terribly deficient in form. Its catastrophes happen in the wrong way and to the wrong people. There is a grotesque horror about its comedies, and its tragedies seem to culminate in farce."

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