Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Tom McGrath.
In his introduction to the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde commented that “there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book; books are well-written or badly written.” This sentiment could be applied to Wilde’s life as well: he viewed his own thoughts and actions as artistic rather than subject to morality. However, this ran at odds with British law at the time: a proclamation by Queen Victoria in 1885 had stated that “any male person” who commits an “act of gross indecency” with another male is guilty of a misdemeanor. Still, when the Marquis of Queensberry accused Wilde of being a sodomite (because he was seen about with the Marquis’s son, Lord Alfred), Wilde—instead of shrugging it off—chose to take the Marquis to court for libel…a dangerous choice when the accusation was true.
In Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, playwright Moises Kaufman (The Laramie Project) uses trial transcripts and other historical documents to recreate Wilde’s prosecution of Queensberry and his subsequent trials for violating the Queen’s law. Like Laramie, which it predates, this play uses multiple narrators to achieve its end. An ensemble of nine (of which two portray Wilde and Douglas exclusively) creates the dozens of voices heard in the trials and the press. The result is a fast-paced rendition of the inevitable fall of Wilde, who today is a gay icon but who at the time was seen as flamboyantly flouting the establishment. But this play is more than a simple history lesson: it is also a love story and a tale of pride that goeth before the fall. Kaufman’s play makes it clear that Wilde truly loved Lord Alfred. He might have had dalliances with other young men, and he might have been married himself, but the evidence suggests that Lord Alfred was special to Wilde in a way no one else had ever been.
Promethean Theatre Ensemble has mounted this play before (in 2016), and returns some of the same cast members to this version. Playing Wilde once more is Jamie Bragg, whose demeanor throughout the first trial is perfect: she brings to Wilde the “flippant” and artistically erudite manner that failed utterly to ingratiate him to the opposing side. (In fact, it is clear that not only Wilde’s actions but his art is on trial for indecency here.) Bragg’s Wilde is cocky and full of himself, certain that there is no way he can ever be caught out on the lie he is telling. Lord Alfred is also played by a woman, Heather Kae Smith, another veteran of the 2016 show. Smith’s Lord Alfred is the missing half of Wilde’s life. Director Brian Pastor has them mimicking and completing each other’s hand movements throughout the play as if they are a single soul. Smith is just as good in scenes arguing with Lord Alfred’s bigoted father (Jared Dennis, who is an imposing figure as Queensberry); the love and hate that balance themselves in her character are both clearly portrayed.
The ensemble is excellent as a whole, with additional standout performances by Kevin Sheehan, Kat Evans, and Brendan Hutt. Pastor makes sure that the various characters they portray, without the aid of any differentiating costuming at all, are distinct and clear. But ultimately this play falls on the two leads, and Bragg and Smith proudly portray these men who are guilty of “the love that dare not speak its name.” We are told that Wilde did not see himself as a “homosexual” because, in the first place, that word did not yet exist, and in the second, he would denounce as unfitting any attempt to label the kind of man he was. But he clearly was a man who loved other men—he even acknowledges this in a private meeting with Evans’ Harris, a good friend—in an era when that was seen as dangerous and immoral. Bragg and Smith show that love throughout the production in every action and line they deliver. But Wilde’s homosexuality is simply a fact of his life and, though the subject of all of these proceedings, not the thing that makes him tragic. That would be the stubborn, egotistic, and self-destructive streak in him that, despite advice from friends and lawyers, led him to challenge Queensberry in the first place and then, having lost that battle, to stay in England when (as we are told several times) the government would just as soon he fled to France, where he would have been safe from prosecution.
The design team too is outstanding. Uriel Gomez’s costumes, using homemade touches like multiple safety pins creating shimmering designs on long Victorian-like coats, are remarkable as a powerful visual. Charles Blunt’s lighting is simple but perfectly handled. And original music by Jonathan Guillen, utilizing unusual sounds of his own creation, sets the tone throughout. This is a real team effort, and it pays off.
Wilde was an aesthete whose love of art far surpassed his recognition of secular law. He saw in his work the ultimate in justifications.
“There is nothing I said or did that did not make people wonder,” he said. “Whatever I touched I made beautiful in a new mode of beauty. I treated art as the supreme reality and life as a mere mode of fiction.”
Too late, he came to understand that he lived within this “fiction” and it had power over him. Gross Indecency is a powerful and important portrayal of both Wilde’s brilliance and the “indecency” of contemporary law in dealing it. Today, with our government once again seeking to hold LGBT people down, with new “morality” laws popping up almost daily, it’s frightening to see, despite the strides which the community has clearly made, how far we have to go.
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar WIlde is a Promethean Theatre Ensemble production now playing at Strawdog Theatre 1802 W. Berenice, Chicago, until Mar 23. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.