The Wilde One

Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde
Guthrie Theater

The end of another century and history spins like a broken record. Or so it would seem. Though the circumstances are similar, the sordid drama now playing out in front of the House Judiciary Committee and a listless viewing public seems blunt and stupid compared to the trial of Oscar Wilde for acts of "gross indecency." If nothing else, the Victorians knew how to stage a decent sex scandal.

Wilde at heart: Richard S. Iglewski plays the martyr
Wilde at heart: Richard S. Iglewski plays the martyr

Few literary figures have captured the public imagination the way Wilde has. Moderns, pundits, and academics paint him as a courageous dissident, the vanguard of the coming sexual revolution. In the anxious twilight of the Victorian age, he was a threat to the established moral order. After bringing a libel suit against the father of his youthful paramour, Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde was himself charged with the corruption of young men. Although the first trial ended in a hung jury, Wilde's detractors orchestrated a second suit and he was eventually convicted and condemned to two years hard labor. Adding a pastiche of Wilde's trial transcripts to an assortment of contemporary opinion and academic analysis, the Guthrie Lab's production of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde traces the writer's spectacular fall from grace. (The play first enjoyed a highly successful off-Broadway run last year.)

Although the phrase "trial of the century" rings empty in our scandal-numbed culture, the case of Oscar Wilde did capture the attention of the Victorian world. Along with scenes from the courtroom, Moisés Kaufman's play incorporates a swirl of public opinion through the commentary of indignant moralists, the media, and even Wilde's friend and fellow dramaturge George Bernard Shaw. The entire first act is a frenetically paced composite of these different voices. Six of the cast members take on the dozens of roles, jumping seamlessly from character to character as the plot unfolds.

Even the relatively straightforward trial scenes are interspersed with countless flashbacks and excerpts from Wilde's writing. In one particularly ingenious scene, the action jumps forward a century to an NPR-style interview with a charmingly dorky academic who speculates on Wilde's motivation, then fades back into the Victorian scenery. It's a disorienting assemblage, but the elegant staging of 22-year-old director Ethan McSweeny makes the action engrossing.

At the center of the circus is Wilde. Perhaps the first modern celebrity, he wore his vivacious personality on his ruffled sleeve and attacked his detractors with scathing epigrams. Yet if Wilde was the deity of the decadents, he was also their sacrifice. As the young Lord Alfred Douglas (a consummately foppish Jason Bowcutt) uses Wilde with artless glee in an Oedipal struggle, Wilde remains devoted. He refuses to flee England, instead allowing the court to trap him in its linguistic snares. As the trial progresses, it becomes painfully clear that Wilde will do nothing to elude the impending conviction.

Not surprisingly, the dramatic force of Gross Indecency depends to a great extent on the portrayal of its main character. Guthrie stalwart Richard S. Iglewski takes on the role with obvious pleasure, capturing the rhythm of Wilde's mordant wit and effeminate, sensual demeanor. Regrettably, though, his Wilde often exudes callow dejection rather than the cold-eyed self-confidence that shines through in Wilde's writing. It heightens the pathos of Wilde's fall but also misses some essential part of the poet's character: the persona that was larger than his personality; the reservoir of bile that fueled his art; and the mask that concealed all.

The Guthrie staging deftly captures the tragic dimension of Wilde's ruin. Except for one ponderous court scene in which four rakish gigolos offer testimony, the second act sinks into a vivid nightmare. As the trial spirals toward a denouement, the theater grows darker and a host of faceless vultures in black cloaks descend on the remains of the now-dissolute poet's estate. As the cacophony of the crowd and the indignant censure of the media increase to a fever pitch, the austere courtroom set begins to disintegrate, until finally the last remaining set pieces, two wall-sized playbills for Wilde's most famous works, come fluttering down onto the empty stage. As this chaos comes to a close, the audience is placed in the jury box and asked to judge whether Wilde was martyred for his homosexuality, blinded by his love for youth and beauty, or undone by hubris alone.

 
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