Mention Oscar Wilde and two primary archetypes of the man arise: the literary figure and the homosexual. Regarding the literary figure-a behemoth force of wit and lingual gymnastics-Wilde's renown would never have faded from the annals. Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Ernest are just two of his literary atom bombs.
Regarding the other archetype, it was undoubtedly Wilde's own egotism and pride that established him as the Alpha Homosexual during three trials in 1895, the outcome of which cemented the “gross indecency” laws that were used to persecute homosexuals for a half century to come, and still remain in small degrees today.
Quick historical recap: Wilde began relations with a young poet, Sir Alfred Douglas. Douglas' father, Lord Queensbury, publicly accused Wilde of sodomy. Wilde brought charges of libel. He lost. Queensbury brought charges of “gross indecency.” The jury hung. The third trial convicted Wilde to two years hard labor. The labor destroyed the writer's life and will. He died two years after his release.
The tale of Wilde has been recycled ad nauseum. But in 1997, author Moises Kauffman resuscitated the old tale within the zeitgeist of modern America. He presented the Wilde trials as docudrama-proceedings interspersed by actual documents and newspaper reports-that played both on modern society's need for factoids and our current fascination with judicial fate, as seen with shows like Court TV.
“People certainly like to see the skill of... cornering somebody with cross examination into revealing information, the expose that happens,” says Denisa Reynolds, who is producing the Diversionary Theatre's run of Gross Indecency: The 3 Trials of Oscar Wilde. “It's human life boiled down to one moment in time. What Moises does is step in and out of the courtroom all the time, so within the framework of the court trial we have vignettes of reality, of relationships between people that step outside of the court.”
The trials had all the ingredients for a Hollywood blockbuster: sex, celebrity, political power, amazing dialogue, censorship, threefold reverses of fate and questions of not only morality, but also privacy and the role of the artist.
“The trials at the time were the hottest ticket in town,” says Reynolds. Her set designers have constructed the Diversionary as an old theatre, milking the spectacle that was the Oscar Wilde trials.
“Him being labeled as he was, we lose the political side of Wilde,” she says. “We lose how seditious his views were: no war, an idea of negotiating relationships with other countries and people as opposed to imposing your will upon them. These were things that would certainly concern the most powerful country in the world at that time, which was Victorian England.
“[It's similar] to the way America is perceived by the rest of the world right now. This country has not only ruined the rest of the world but also the way it views its artists as well.”
In speaking separately about the play, both Reynolds and Farhang Pernoon, who portrays Wilde, refer to the same quote that exemplifies how Wilde was simultaneously indispensable and dangerous to Victorian England:
Children should not be drilled in that calendar of infamy that they call European history, but should learn in a workshop how art might offer a new history of the world with the promise of the brotherhood of man, of peace rather than war, of praise of God's handimanship... whenever a community or government attempts to dictate to the artist what he is to do, art either entirely vanishes or becomes stereotyped or degenerates into the low and ignoble form of craft. The form of government that is most suitable to the artist is no government at all.
Such seditious wit was common in Wilde's trial commentary. In finding the right person to play Wilde, Reynolds sought someone who could exude that mastery. Once she found Pernoon, however, the two also worked on the contradictory goal of showing Wilde's less awe-inspiring, human aspects.
“Farhang and I have worked very, very hard on finding Wilde's foibles. He's a complete human being,” she says, “which means he's capable of being petty, he's capable of being jealous, he's capable of being small-minded, he's capable of having a temper, he's capable of being prideful and vain. He can't be a martyr, or else there's no interest in the piece. And by the same token, those that attack him can't be villains, with the moustache twirling behind the aspidistra.”
“We don't want to paint a mythical picture or the tragedy is lost,” Pernoon says. “The tragedy is about someone so human and so real and so vital. We wanted to get away from rhetoric.”
Aside from the tension of Puritanism versus human freedom, Kaufman's portrayal of the trials questions the role of art itself in society. The modern parallels aren't lost on either Parnoon or Reynolds.
“[Wilde] was forewarning us, ‘Don't lose this precious, precious vein of life.' The whole idea of censorship is as poignant today as they were back then, and even more so,” Pernoon says.
“We're in a situation where the NEA is going to be rapidly diminished, where we have a president who has no comprehension of art,” Reynolds adds. “So I think there are very strong parallels and what it's telling us is that we haven't really learned anything. As the famous saying says, ‘If we do not learn from the mistakes of history we are condemned to repeat them.' And I think that [Gross Indecency] says that and has a resonance that goes far beyond the trials of Oscar Wilde.”