The Importance of Being Oscar

Aesthete Oscar Wilde is the talk of the town again as the Guthrie Lab mounts a play about his trials

With this action, the stage was set for tragedy, and it's here that the curtain rises on Gross Indecency, revealing a Wilde in the throes of blind love and touched by hubris. The suit was more than a mark of his love for Bosie, however: It was a chance to shine. "I think Wilde wanted the debate to be about art," McSweeny says, "because it would allow him to show his wit and talk circles around the rest of the planet."

But what Wilde couldn't know is how quickly this trial would devolve into a defense of his art, a probe into his moral character, and a condemnation of his homosexuality. The trial focused on Wilde himself and his appetite for young men. Witness after witness shocked the court with tales of the author's sexual exploits, until at last Wilde was forced to withdraw his case. And by then, the damage was done: Almost immediately, the Crown issued a warrant for Wilde's arrest, charging him with violating an 1885 criminal law forbidding acts of "gross indecency" between men.

Wilde's reputation has undergone considerable rehabilitation in recent years, in no small part due to the visibility and acceptance of homosexuality in the wider world. But reshaping Wilde into the role of martyr or hero isn't easily done. Guthrie veteran Richard Iglewski, who will play Wilde opposite actor Jason Bowcutt's Bosie in the Lab production, says he's struggled considerably with Wilde over the years: "The more I read, and the more I thought about Oscar and the trials, the angrier I became. I kept asking, Why? Why did he pursue this trial when everybody in the world except his lover Bosie was telling him that he couldn't win and that he should leave the country?"

In fact, Wilde seemed to suffer from inertia as his fate unfolded. He bypassed a chance to flee the country (as Bosie did), but also failed to fight, to strike at the heart of the law that crippled him. "He didn't stand up and say, 'This is an outrage that this law exists,'" McSweeny says, "and he was perhaps even in a position to do that and get away with it, because he did have such celebrity. Instead he tried to fight the law on its own terms and insist that the facts were untrue."

Wilde's waffling in the witness box has likewise made him a slippery character for gay iconographers. Though Wilde's status as England's most famous homosexual remains almost undisputed, his closeted nature makes him a prickly posterboy for gay rights. Wilde and Bosie lived together in France for two years after he was released from jail, but neither took on the role of dissident. Wilde died in 1900, and Lord Alfred Douglas married and later became a Nazi sympathizer.

But does the gay-rights movement owe anything to Wilde? "If you believe that the most homophobic event is better than complete silence, Wilde helped gay liberation," says University of Minnesota English professor Andrew Elfenbein. "His trial was such a big event that sex between men had to be talked about, whereas before it was hushed up. But I think Wilde has less to do with gay liberation than with representing what became known as 'gay sensibility': a quasi-aristocratic interest in beauty, the fine arts, and impracticality; sharp, sometimes bitchy wit; and a leaning toward an 'effeminate' self-presentation."

And that stripe of gay sensibility is fading, Elfenbein notes, as people come out and the definitions of what it means to be queer multiply. "To a degree," he says, "the current interest in Wilde might be thought of as a nostalgic farewell to this mode of gay sensibility, which no longer seems adequate to the sheer variety of people who now self-identify as gay."

McSweeny too resists the deification of Wilde as a political activist, a subversive, a dissident, or early homosexual hero. "We have an ability to see in Oscar Wilde everything we want to see," the director says. "People are constantly labeling him. People think that he was a postmodernist, but he wasn't a postmodernist. He was a Victorian. We can't take him out of his world."

The director admits, however, at least one element of Oscar Wilde reflects our view of the postmodern world. "The truth about him is somewhere more in the realm of someone who lived a tremendous number of contradictions in his life," McSweeny says. "And maybe that's what ultimately makes him postmodern, that he lived and embraced contradictions."

Wilde put it another way: "Consistency," he wrote, "is the last refuge of the unimaginative."

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