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

Oscar Wilde was little more than a bad poet with a razor wit and Liberace tastes when he first visited America more than a century ago. Touring the country's lecture halls with his observations on the English Renaissance, the Irish-born writer arrived in Minneapolis-St. Paul in the spring of 1882, nearly a decade before he'd begin writing the comedies that would earn him both praise and vilification in Victorian society. His Twin Cities appearances failed to ignite much enthusiasm among the locals, but his dandy attire didn't escape notice: "Somehow it always strikes the average American that a man who wears a velvet coat is either an ass or a variety of actor," sniffed the Minneapolis Evening Journal before going on to declare Wilde's speech "utterly commonplace and stale" and delivered in an "execrable" manner.

In some sense, the velvet-clad playwright remains the talk of the Twin Cities and America--which would undoubtedly delight Wilde, who once wryly noted, "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." Several of Wilde's works enjoy perennial productions--Lady Windermere's Fan recently appeared at Park Square Theatre and the Guthrie Theater completed a run of The Importance of Being Earnest this summer. The author's own life has become the subject of a film starring Stephen Fry, a Broadway play starring Liam Neeson, and a long-running off-Broadway production of Moises Kaufman's tour de force Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.

With a fresh production of Gross Indecency scheduled to open at the Guthrie Theater's Lab space this month, the locals would do well to prepare for another round of Wilde gossip. The play, set to run Nov. 13 through Dec. 6, serves as a kind of sober counterpoint to the antics of The Importance of Being Earnest, says Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling. Cobbled together from trial transcripts, historical notes, and original sources, Gross Indecency exhumes and enlivens the scene that surrounded England's "trial of the century," a three-part legal circus that put Wilde's homosexuality, morality, and art under the microscope. Ultimately Wilde was convicted for committing acts of "gross indecency" and sentenced to two years hard labor. "It's very emotional," Dowling says of Kaufman's play. "You realize that this is not just a drama from someone's imagination. This actually happened to a real individual."

But the tragedy of Wilde's fall is made only more acute by his astonishing genius and tremendous potential. Before the trials began in 1895, Wilde was at the top of his form as a playwright and at the height of his popularity as a personality. "It's the James Dean factor," says Gross Indecency director Ethan McSweeny, whose award-winning production of "Never the Sinner," about the Leopold and Loeb trials, closed in New York in June. "It's the tragedy of a man cut down in his prime."

"This is a genius we're talking about," Dowling adds, "a genius in his early 40s. Had Wilde not been tried and convicted and come out a broken man, who knows what great works he would have produced?"

Wilde's rise to fame and fortune as the leading playwright of late-Victorian England began, perhaps rather inauspiciously, with an Irish birth. The English, of course, have always looked down their noses at the emerald isle's residents, and Wilde's parentage won him few friends when he arrived at Oxford in 1874. His father was a Dublin surgeon and eye specialist. His mother wrote poetry under the pen name Speranza. Oscar too became adept at using words. At college, he became a star pupil, absorbing the high-minded aestheticism of his day and penning classical-style poems. It was those well-developed ideas about art and literature that, after a stint as editor of a women's magazine, became fodder for the lectures of his American tour.

Wilde published a novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in 1890, then turned his attention to dramatic works. In the span of four years, he produced Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest--all biting social satires that set London's elite abuzz. Wilde had at last propelled himself to success by infiltrating and mocking the very society he wished to join. In the words of theater critic Finton O'Toole: "With his Oxford education and accent, his aristocratic airs, and his assumption of a prominent place at the best London dinner tables, [Wilde] is the ultimately example of the provincial conquering the metropolis. His performance was so assured, so arrogant even, that within no time at all he was telling the English how to be English."

Wilde's professional success, however, masked an increasingly complicated private life. In 1884 he married, only to discover a few years later that his attraction to men was irrepressible. He began arranging sexual liaisons with "rent boys" and developed an extended romance with one young man. Dorian Gray hints at Wilde's preoccupation with same-sex relations, and his poetry often alludes to "the love that dare not speak its name." In 1891, Wilde met Lord Alfred Douglas--the love of his life and the tool of his eventual undoing.

Bosie, as Wilde called his lover, was the son of the Marquis of Queensbury, a rough-edged man who hardly approved of his son's newfound passion for the playwright. Convinced that he could drive Wilde away by threatening his reputation, the marquis left a card at Wilde's club, accusing the writer of being a "posing Somdomite," a misspelling Wilde would later ridicule. Bosie, a hot-headed youth who despised his father, was furious. He persuaded Wilde to sue the marquis for libel.

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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