Oscar Wilde on Marriage Equality
“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” Oscar Wilde
This Wilde quote introduces the script for Moisés Kaufman’s Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, produced by Walking Shadow, a play of quotation and appropriation.
Quotes, papers, books, and documents abounded in the production. As I entered the Theatre Garage before the show started, I was greeted by a pre-show of sorts; actor Craig Johnson sitting at a desk to the side of stage reading from a pile of books. We both watched the audience as they filtered into their seats. Johnson, who would later be playing Oscar Wilde, starts the play by saying, “This is from De Profundis by Oscar Wilde,” and then reading from the book itself. The direct introduction of quotes is a device that would continue throughout the show, as Gross Indecency is a script largely comprised of source materials; three parts trial transcripts, one part personal correspondence, one part excerpts from Wilde’s published works, and just a dash of modern commentary where we witness a re-staging of in interview between Kaufman and Professor Marvin Taylor (a Wilde scholar who teaches at New York University).
During the show, the actors dress and undress in view of the audience, a stylistic choice requested by Kaufman, who cited Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht as his influences in the script. Appropriately for a Brechtian production, Johnson’s Wilde is introduced with a whimsical gestus that immediately captures Wilde’s playfulness, wit, and lofty detachment while he stands in a cage that doubles as a witness stand. This Wilde is not the Wilde we will see at the end of the trials; each trial taking its toll until he is completely destroyed.
For historical context: Wilde sued the Marquess of Queensberry for libel after Queensberry accused Wilde of being a “somdomite” even though Wilde was indeed sleeping with Queensberry’s son. The trial ended with Queensberry’s acquittal but the evidence gathered against Wilde prompted the Crown to put Wilde on trial for “gross indecency with male persons” and ended in a hung jury. The third trial was a repeat of the prior but Wilde was sentenced to two-years imprisonment and hard labor.
The trials were staged by Amy Rummenie, one of Walking Shadow’s Artistic Directors, with the force and speed of a train by an accomplished ensemble headed by Johnson. The effectiveness of this production rested in Johnson’s well-crafted performance of Wilde’s dissent, the overall energy of the cast who used the, at times florid and technical language, to drive the action rather than get lost in the words, and the timeliness of the trails when juxtaposed with the current gay political struggle for acceptance. The timeliness was outlined in the director’s notes:
“For a play about events that took place 118 years ago, the story is alarmingly current: highly publicized trials that effect fierce discussion about the morality of laws that attempt to reach into the bedrooms and hearts of a society.”
As Rummenie notes, this production seems particularly timely as Minnesota just became the twelfth state to legalize same-sex marriage. Governor Mark Dayton signed the bill ten days after the close of Gross Indecency and the bill was passed only six months after the voters struck down an amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman this past November. The speed and force of this movement is astonishing especially when you consider that the Stonewall Rebellion, which many consider to be the birth of the gay movement and annual Pride parades, occurred forty-four years ago this June.
The Stonewall Rebellion marks the shift when homosexuals began fighting back and organizing. Since then there has been a tension within the movement between the more conformist-minded and the radicals. Conformists have pursued an assimilationist’s approach to acceptance. A conformist would say, “We are just as normal as any straight person. We are accountants, dentists, and teachers. We pay taxes.” Where as a radical might say, “We are happy to not be like straight people trapped in a pre-scripted expectation of love and marriage. We are free to love whomever and however we choose.”
This abbreviated, queer history is relevant to Gross Indecency because this is the context in which Walking Shadow and modern audiences are situating Wilde’s narrative. It’s remarkably easy to appropriate Wilde as a gay man persecuted for a homosexual identity, that didn’t quite exist yet. It’s more complicated than that and Kaufman in his interview with Taylor includes a sliver of commentary to problematize Wilde as a gay icon after the first act—affirming that it wasn’t only the issue of homosexuality that brought Wilde to trial “but the role of art, with effeminacy, with the Irish in England, with class” and that Wilde was “being tried for his subversive beliefs about art and about Victorian Society.”
Today we have many "realities:" who we are in-person, who we are on social media, our avatars, our handles. We are now capable of creating as many realities for ourselves as we desire.
Wilde’s criticism of the overarching structures of Victorian Society caused those structures to come toppling down on him and in this respect the play is far more interesting as commentary on the role of celebrity and artistic censorship. It’s problematic for modern day audience