Jonathan Clark



Though Oscar Wilde became one of the most famous playwrights of Victorian England, he died penniless and disgraced. Meningitis took his life in a French hotel in 1900, about which he said, “I am dying as I have lived––beyond my means.”
The reason for his destitution was being charged and imprisoned for “gross indecency,” a law which came with a maximum two-year penalty. Moises Kaufman’s factual play Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, playing now through August 26 at the BCA, deals with this aspect of the great writer’s life with historical detail. The play consists of excerpts from books, essays, biographies, autobiographies, newspaper articles and court transcripts. If this sounds too heady or uninteresting, be assured that Kaufman’s play and Bad Habit’s production ensure that there is an emotional resonance that comes with the facts. Be prepared to be enraged, informed and, most importantly, moved.
For many years, Wilde (Geoffrion) had a relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas (Kyle Cherry) that Douglas’s father (David Lutheran) found unacceptable. After threatening his son many times, the Marquess of Queensbury finally left a card at one of Wilde’s clubs which had the words “Oscar Wilde––posing somdomite” [sic] written on them. Wilde took Queensbury to court for libel, only to drop the charges once a number of young men came forward to support Queensbury’s claims. These men led to Wilde’s arrest and eventual imprisonment for two years.
Kaufman’s script does an excellent job of communicating all of the many forces behind Wilde’s prosecution. There were many factors. First was Lord Douglas’s relationship with his father, which propelled him to push Wilde to fight his accusations. Then, there was Parliament’s wish to squash these sorts of “activities” among its members, as it had been a “problem” at this time, and Wilde’s example would be a crushing blow to their “decadence.”
Bad Habit’s production deftly keeps all of these aspects in careful balance. The source material constantly changes, each one announced by a cast member. This kind of juggling and switching could easily become tedious, but director Liz Fenstermaker keeps it fast-paced but never messy. The production design, simple though it may be, worked excellently, the audience feeling as if they are the jury of these trials.
While the entire cast performed very well (the young accusers, played by Morgan Bernhard, Joey Heyworth, Derek McCormack and Luke Murtha, were particularly enjoyable), John Geoffrion as Wilde and Kyle Cherry as Douglas were the standouts. So much rests on these performances and they step up and take full charge of the roles. Geoffrion plays Wilde as proud and extraordinarily witty (as we know Wilde to be) but with an undercurrent of pain and sadness. And when Cherry’s Douglas looks across the stage at Wilde, that simple gesture communicates more than what the script provides. By the end, Wilde is broken, and we the audience felt as if we’d seen that descent.
I’ll spare you the paragraph about this play’s continued relevance in this day and age, but I would like to comment on a few things that shocked me about these trials. First, every time Wilde’s “crime” is mentioned, the lawyers, even zealots of propriety, referred to it simply as “the gravest of crimes.” This is repeated over and over. Wilde’s trials took place 117 year ago. That’s it. And still smart thinking people actually believed that sodomy and homosexuality were worse than murder and rape. Something else worthy of note: the “gross indecency” law wasn’t fully repealed until 1967.
After leaving this wonderful production, I couldn’t help but think of a quote of Jonathan Swift’s: “When a true genius appears, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

Bad Habit Productions
GROSS INDECENCY: THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE
by Moises Kaufman
Directed by Liz Fenstermaker

Playing at the BCA Calderwood Pavilion till Sept. 02

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