Saturday, August 18, 2012

Trying Wilde

Exhibit A in the three trials of Oscar Wilde.
The contrasts over at the Boston Center for the Arts these days couldn't be more intense. You can choose - as Boston's mainstream critics have all insisted you should - to be body-slammed in the Roberts Studio Theatre by the rock 'em-sock'em identity-politics of The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.

Or, you can tiptoe into the Wimberley next door, and slowly be drawn into what could be the subtlest and most absorbing production of the year.

I'm talking about Bad Habit Productions' Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, which runs through August 26th behind the curtains (appropriately enough) of the Wimberley, right up on its stage, in a startlingly mature production from new director Liz Fenstermaker, who has generally drawn remarkable performances from a cast of some of the best actors on the fringe.

Now I know we need all kinds of theatre.  And Chad Deity and Gross Indecency do have some similarities (they're both about stereotypes - and closeted gay men, for instance!).  But only Indecency is about actual people - indeed historical figures - even though Moisés Kaufman's transcription of the records and recollections surrounding the destruction (or self-destruction) of Oscar Wilde pulls off a startling trick: it's over-stuffed with period detail, yet it remains essentially a mystery.
Now in Chad, playwright Kristoffer Diaz never leaves the blackboard; his idea of a "drama" is to pin the audience on the mat and deliver a funny, hip lecture; he tells you exactly what you should think every single minute.  Kaufman's M.O. is entirely different; indeed, he hints at so many possible explanations for the courtroom drama that sent  the most glittering literary artist of the belle époque to hard labor (for "gross indecency") that we leave the theatre all but scratching our heads over the whole tragic episode.

What leaps out at you about Bad Habit's take on the text is how deeply director Fenstermaker appreciates this paradox.  She understands that just as Victorian society operated as a kind of social maze, in which all modes of pleasure were tolerated as long as they remained disguised, so the historical record of the trials of Oscar Wilde is itself a kind of screen, suggesting but never quite revealing the true nature and intents of its protagonists.

Although at some moments, I wondered if Fenstermaker hadn't kept things too subtle - a few darker bolts of passion (and despair) might have flickered between Wilde (John Geoffrion) and the gorgeous source of all his woe, Lord Alfred Douglas (known as "Bosie," at left), who egged his older lover on to sue his father, the Marquess of Queensberry (yes, that was his actual title) for libel.  You may have heard of the Marquess (below right) elsewhere - he was so hysterically butch that he actually sponsored the code of rules for boxing that remains in effect today (its great innovation was requiring the use of gloves in the ring).

Queensberry took off the gloves when it came to Wilde, however. Determined to end the playwright's hanky-panky with his son (whose elder brother had died a few years before, in a shooting accident that itself may have been a gay suicide), he left him an insulting card at his club (the offending doc, at top), labeling the self-consciously florid author "a posing Somdomite" (sic).

Homophobic and illiterate - you couldn't ask for more, could you, in a dowager queen of the gentleman's sport of boxing.  But the Marquess (unexpectedly) had his complexities, too - his relationship with his son was tortured, but not impossible to understand, and he was more aware of the ubiquity of homosexuality in his society than you might imagine; Queensberry even asked that mercy (of a sort) be extended to Wilde before the legal machine had had its full way with him.

The Marquis of Queensberry
And you could easily argue it was Wilde who sealed his own doom - once he had initiated libel charges against Queensberry, it was inevitable his many dalliances with rent boys (and blackmailers) would surface.  He was a "somdomite" - yet somehow convinced himself that a witty command performance of his famous artistic "beard" could obscure that fact, even before the testimony of his sexual partners. Or did he imagine Queensberry's defense would be so inept, or so embarrassed before the facts of the author's activities in the London demi-monde, that it, like Wilde himself, would be unable to describe the love that dared not speak its name?

Either way, Wilde was guilty of a tragic self-deception - because once the evidence of his behavior had been laid before the Crown, he was immediately in danger of prosecution for the crime of "gross indecency" (sexual congress between men - but not women - had been outlawed in Britain only about a decade before).

Wilde still had his sympathizers, however, and the legal system lumbered at a suspiciously slow pace throughout his prosecution (one trial even ended in a hung jury).  Meanwhile artsy aristocrats fled London like lemmings as the proceedings ground on (the trains to Dover, and the ferries to Calais, were packed).  But Wilde stayed put, even when told he had only hours left before the summons for his arrest arrived.

The question is - why did he stay?  Bosie himself, the love object sparking the whole debacle, soon took flight for the Continent (as it was inevitably asked why Wilde was standing in the dock, but not he).  This is the one question which moves like a spectre behind the veil of Kaufman's text: how could this grand, delightful performer of the gay persona cooperate in his own punishment? Did a buried vein of self-loathing drag him to his doom?  Some hidden core of Catholic guilt?

These questions I suppose will always echo through the legacy of the case (and indeed, discoveries of various letters after Kaufman completed his text have only complicated certain mysteries around Bosie). Wisely then, this production leaves such enigmas to haunt us till the final curtain. In the meantime, we get to savor a series of poised and articulate performances that most of our local Equity houses would be hard pressed to match. John Geoffrion may not much resemble Wilde, bu he captures beautifully the delightful, self-satisfied sparkle of the wit (as many noted in amazement, Wilde could carry off dazzling epigrams even under cross-examination).  He also nails the vulnerable moment when Wilde first stumbles (letting it slip that he would never have kissed a certain man, because "he was not beautiful") - it  lets you know immediately that without the perfection of his self-performance, Wilde would prove utterly at sea.

As Bosie (both at left), newcomer Kyle Cherry is almost as good; he looks just right, and when coiled on a Victorian settee, this young actor exudes a palpably spoiled and unstable charisma. Meanwhile, as his antagonist, the Marquess,  David Lutheran is always effective - but sometimes I felt there was a more sympathetic, or at least complicated, dimension to be found in his dastardly deeds. Elsewhere the work was always polished, and often absorbing:  Gabriel Graetz brought just the right amount of professional zeal to the prosecution, while Matthew Murphy communicated a touchingly confused sympathy as the defense.  Character turns by Brooks Reeves and Tom Lawrence were likewise mature and convincing, while Joey Heyworth and Luke Murtha made a believably practical pair of rentboys.  But actually the entire cast deserves mention, so kudos to Morgan Bernhard, James Bocock, and Derek McCormack as well (and I shouldn't forget their dialect coach,  Susanna Harris Noon).  Bad Habit has made a good habit of noteworthy productions of British drama (An Ideal Husband, Arcadia); Gross Indecency now ratifies that sterling run as a triple crown.


  1. Dear Mr. Garvey,

    Thank you for your very insightful and observant review of Gross Indecency (of which I happen to be in the cast). I am pleased to let you and your readers know that the play's run has been extended through to September 2. Small theater companies in Boston such as Bad Habit Productions deserve exposure, and I'm grateful for your attending the performance and sharing your thoughts about it.


    Matthew Murphy

  2. Glad to hear it, this production deserves a longer run!

  3. I note that more than one critic has referred to our production as a British drama, which strikes me as odd. Setting and accent aside, the playwright is Venezuelan and his theatre company is based in NYC. :-)

  4. Hmmm. All the lines are British, aren't they? But if you like, I'll amend the last sentence to "Bad Habit has made a good habit of noteworthy productions of British drama (An Ideal Husband, Arcadia); Abusos Deshonestos now shows they're just as good at Venezuelan drama, too!

    Somehow it doesn't have the same ring to it.

  5. Queensberry was not illiterate. He was a bully and a hater of gay people but he knew how to spell. When he wrote "somdomite" he was hedging on a libel charge (libel in the upper class of London of that day was rampant due to stomping out of code Duello) that he knew Wilde would bring against him. Wilde did sue him first for libel and try to get the older man thrown into jail at the crazed pushing of Bosie. If you read De Profundis this is one of Wilde's great life regrets: Not just strategically (because) it ended him in Reading Gaol--but morally, because once he learned how harsh and rotten prison was he felt horrible for having wished that another man. Even an asshole like Queensberry. In Gaol he learned empathy for murderers. Queensberry was just an old drunk bigot is pain and shame. After Gaol, Wilde remained Gay, but with great remorse for the way he had treated his wife, and for in many ways the flippancy with which he had treated his fellow man. He attempted to renew his Catholicism. He was denied, and then worked as a reformer with fellow Irishmen (mostly socialist rebels) to establish a critique of the British penal system, and other Victorian "Mores" like child labor and child prostitution. So yes, Wilde is an important gay icon, and hero for the gay upper class, but as a heroic artist he belongs even more to all of the poor and the repressed, the victims of unjust confinement, state-sanctioned murder, and abuse wherever they may be. That's why the world needs more of his fairy tales right now, and less of his queer theory. Foucault does a better job with that. Wilde knows how to sing the inferno up. Then down again.

  6. Also the great question of "Why did Wilde stay!?" actually isn't a mystery or deep question. The letters of his friends, his own prison writings and of Robert Ross all confirm that his mother came to him in the 11th hour, scolded him hard, and ordered him to remain and "Fight like a man." i.e. for his wife, child and good name as a successful, respected London light. He obeyed his mother, did not flay to gay paree, and fought for his mytho-poetic Celtic, Greco-Roman manhood (no respecter of sexual proclivity). Talk about a Volumnia: Mama Wilde.