Oscar Wilde was a larger-than-life writer, full of flamboyant, witty swagger. To critics who dared question the morality of his work, he famously declared, "There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all."
But for all of Wilde's literary success, his own story was not ultimately a happy one. The married father met and fell in love with Lord Alfred Douglas, and for this he was put on trial and eventually ruined, both emotionally and financially.
The Alley's fiery production of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde explores the ramifications of Wilde's public condemnation, both for Wilde himself and for those who live in his wake.
Moises Kaufman's script -- which is part lecture, part courtroom drama -- builds strength slowly, like an enormous and overburdened locomotive. For Wilde's story is heavy with historical, political and academic baggage. Dozens of books tell his tragic tale, each coming to its own conclusion.
Hundreds of writers have picked at Wilde's prose, hoping to discover something new. Somehow Kaufman manages to spin together the disparate truths of Wilde's sensational life, revealing the man's complexity and his passion as the play moves toward its angry end. And the Alley has wound Kaufman's ideas into a powerful production.
John Feltch's muscular direction burns up the stage with energy. And Kevin Rigdon's minimalist set evokes all the solemnity of a courtroom while allowing the actors room to move through the boundaries of time and place. Four young actors sit downstage at dark library tables behind high stacks of books. In turn each jumps up, recites some fact about Wilde's life, then announces the literary source. Meanwhile, in the courtroom, Wilde (Jeffrey Bean) explains how his troubles started.
Apparently the beautiful Lord Douglas (Gregory Wooddell), Wilde's young lover, had a very nasty father. This brutal man, the Marquis of Queensberry, was unhappy with his son, and, being a bit of a nut, he used Wilde to get at his boy. He publicly accused Wilde of "posing [as a] somdomite [sic]," a charge Wilde furiously denied. In fact, though historians agree that Wilde and Douglas were indeed lovers, Wilde sued Queensberry for slander, only to abandon the suit when he realized he was in over his head.
This first trial was the beginning of the end for Wilde. He was to go through two more, but as a defendant (the state looked at the evidence in the first trial and bowed to the public sentiment against Wilde).
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These terrible facts only scratch the surface of Kaufman's play. More salient are all those unanswered questions. Why did Wilde lie? Why did he sue Queensberry in the first place? Why didn't he escape to France when he had the chance? Why did he become an icon of the gay-rights movement when he vehemently denied his own sexuality? These are the questions that make Wilde's story so compelling, so sad and so, so bitter.
Bean's soft-haired, sallow-skinned and exquisitely rarefied Wilde makes us want to know him. And with Wooddell, it is easy to understand why Wilde would fall so foolishly in love. Wooddell's golden-haired Douglas, all decked out in dandified ruffles, is lovely to look at and convincingly in love. The rest of this all-male cast brings lots of brawny vitality to the stage, providing energetic support throughout the night.
This play accomplishes a lot in two short hours. It tells Wilde's history even as it questions the very notion of a unified history. Kaufman's script embraces the many versions of Wilde's story. As the program tells us, it was Wilde himself who said that "the truth is rarely pure and never simple."
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde runs through May 1 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. (713)228-8421. $31-$46.