There is a famous photograph of Oscar Wilde and his lover,
Lord Alfred Douglas, taken in Naples in 1897. Sitting behind a littered table, the middleaged playwright has the pouched, melancholy look of a walrus at bay.
His health is bad. In another three years, he will be dead. Twenty-sevenyear-old Lord Alfred, known as “Bosie,” stands possessively beside him, looking like a petulant schoolboy. The picture summarizes Wilde’s period of European exile that followed his tragic conviction and two-year imprisonment for gross indecency, a term that under English law then included all forms of homosexual lovemaking. Wilde, who at the time of his prosecution had been at the pinnacle of his career—two hit plays were on the boards in London, including his masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest—spent the final four years of his life in poverty, his reputation in tatters.
Since then, Wilde’s fortunes have steadily revived, to the point where his story has now entered the popular imagination. Currently, he is the subject of two major stage plays and a feature film, all of them purporting to shed new light on his downfall. No doubt, the man who once wrote that the only thing worse than being talked about was not being talked about, would have enjoyed the attention. He might also have been amused by the various versions of himself now parading in the public eye. In the British film Wilde, directed by Brian Gilbert, the Irish-born writer is idealized as Bosie’s saintly, long-suffering lover. In the courtroom drama Gross Indecency—a Toronto production of the off-Broadway hit runs until Sept. 5—New York City writer and director Moisés Kaufman portrays Wilde as a very public, spirited declaimer of his own beliefs about life and art. And British playwright David Hare’s The Judas Kiss (now running in New York with Liam Neeson in the lead) shows a sadder, more private Wilde, driven by a deep current of fatalism.
Wilde’s resurgent popularity may have something to do with the approach of the 100th anniversary of his death in 2000. More important, he is also emerging, particularly in the gay community, as an early hero of the battle for sexual liberation. This is a delicate point, however, since in the courtroom
Wilde repeatedly tried to cover up his own homosexuality. Wilde has become an icon of the artist as outsider and rebel as well, battling middle-class materialism and bad taste. When he defiantly declared that “all art is quite useless,” he was in fact praising its special separateness from society’s obsession with getting and spending. Certainly, this is Kaufman’s view. “Victorian society— the Industrial Revolution—was directed towards building factories and making England into a great power,” says the Venezuelan-born playwright. ‘Wilde was advocating something completely different: a life of introspection and development of the human spirit, a life in which art was more important than buying things.”
Of course, people bought tickets to Wilde’s plays and made him rich, so any
argument about his anti-materialism has its limits. The film Wilde brilliantly conveys how thoroughly the Irish outsider had adopted the luxurious lifestyle of the English upper classes. It is also notable for the sensitive performance of Stephen Fry, the tall, fleshy actor who looks startlingly like Wilde, and who creates a much softer portrait of the man than the hard glitter of his own writing suggests. As well, the film offers many vivid scenes of male lovemaking—something that g would have seemed impossible just a few § years ago—although not everyone has I been impressed. A reviewer in fab, a Canadian gay magazine, complained that the kissing “is unconvincing and sloppy. You can almost tell that the straight actors were uncomfortable with some of the scenes.” The film generates considerable pathos around Wilde’s fall, but does not penetrate as far into his contradictions as the two plays. Kaufman has built his script entirely from contemporary court records, writings by Wilde and his friends, and newspaper accounts, creating a hardedged documentary where actors switch roles, use a minimum of props and almost no set. Gross Indecency masterfully re-creates the sense of danger and scandal surrounding Wilde’s prosecution. It also shows how the author’s penchant for cleverness fatally undermined his defence.
But Gross Indecency cannot match Hare’s play in uncovering the private Wilde. The first half of The Judas Kiss ü attempts to solve the persistent riddle of why Wilde did not flee England when it became clear that the Crown’s case against him would almost certainly succeed. Hare’s imaginative answer shows Wilde as a complex man whose celebrated sense of style was not a superficial pose but deeply connected to his moral instincts. The play’s second half is a moving depiction of his final, 1897 break with Bosie in Naples. It shows Wilde’s disillusionment as he realizes how little the young man for whom he has ruined his life loves him. (It was Wilde’s lawsuit against Bosie’s hated father that brought his own homosexuality to public notice.)
It is impossible to say how close these various portraits come to the real Wilde. For a man who talked and wrote so much, he remains something of a mystery—a sphinx who will undoubtedly provoke future eras to invent the Wildes they need.
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