"Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde" Review-Promethean Theatre Ensemble presents a thought-provoking and enthralling play

“Gross Indecency: The Three Trials Of Oscar Wilde”, by Moises Kaufman, is currently in production by Promethean Theatre Company at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., through December 18th.  Thoughtfully directed by Brian Pastor, compellingly staged, and starring Jamie Bragg as Oscar Wilde and Heather Smith as Bosie Douglas, with a very strong supporting cast, the play tells the facts-not just the story/myth about the sacrifice of Oscar Wilde, playwright, poet, essayist, lecturer and author, to the Victorian British laws against sodomy.

Jamie Bragg, Heather Smith

 This is a very well done, well-acted and smart play. Its language is taken almost entirely from scholarly biographies of Oscar Wilde, autobiographical writings and letters, the accounts in the media of the day, and the writings of George Bernard Shaw. The beautifully enunciated- or in Wilde’s case, drawled- dialogue gives the audience the opportunity, in 2 and one-half hours of great verbiage and fine ensemble acting to examine what transpired at the time and form out own opinions about the much-written-about affair(s). Kudos to dialect coach Catherine Gillespie.

 

 The facts are these: Wilde was enamored of the third son of The Marquess of Queensbury, one Lord Alfred Douglas, aka Bosie.  The Marquess, a famously vicious and choleric individual, long caught up in terrorizing his family, took exception to the flagrant relationship between the men, and left his card at Wilde’s club. The card and the message he wrote upon it “ For Oscar Wilde posing Sondomite”, became Exhibit “A” at the first trial. Incredibly, the case was brought by Wilde himself, against the Marquess, for libel!

 

 Queensbury was forced to defend himself. He could avoid conviction only by proving the charges were true, and that there was some “public benefit” to having made them. Predictably, his agents rounded up evidence of Wilde’s homosexuality, as well as of his predilection for young male prostitutes, with the object of demonstrating how Wilde corrupted these persons.

Cameron Feagin, Jamie Bragg

Wilde was forced to drop the charges, bankrupting himself in the process by then having to pay Queensbury’s legal costs, and leaving himself open for the prosecutions that followed, for “gross indecency”. He was convicted, sentenced to 2 years hard labor, suffered enormously in prison, and died early, a broken man. One important point, however: his most compelling works, “De Profundis” and “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”, were written after his imprisonment.

 

This reviewer, a veteran trial lawyer, who previously read upon its publication one of the books upon which the play is based, (“Oscar Wilde”, by Sheridan Morley 1976), within the first half-hour of this performance formed the same conclusions I came to years ago- that Wilde sowed the seeds of his own destruction at the hands of the English Courts. He repeatedly and foolishly believed and acted upon the belief that his thinly wrought fame, based upon a handful of “epigrams”, one novel, and several very similar plays, coupled with his supercilious anecdotes about his belief in the supremacy of art, would win the day against his repeated perjury.

 

Make no mistake about it- this is a man who sacrificed himself, his wife, and his children, not to love but to vanity. It is also true- and this may be the one point not sufficiently explored in the production- that he chose not wisely or too well.  Alfred Lord Douglas, half Wilde’s age, (as were the bevy of young male witnesses from the “lower classes” who testified that Wilde paid them for sexual favors) was also half the humanitarian - he later became a famous Nazi sympathizer and published anti-Semite.  

Jamie Bragg, Cameron Feagin

How could Wilde have failed to foresee that he would lose?  Why didn’t he listen to advice and counsel? What made him stay in England when his friends and advisors secured for him a boat with which to cross the Channel to France? In the aftermath of his misguided lawsuit literally six hundreds of prominent gay men had to flee the country where they had been tolerated despite the law. Is there any evidence that Wilde’s selfish acts brought more tolerance or swifter legal repeal of unfair laws? On the contrary - the laws persisted for another 70+ years.

Despite or perhaps because of the catastrophe that ensued due to his near - suicidal choices, one develops a pity for Wilde during the performance. The cast did a superb job- as did the prosecutors, one of whom was a college classmate of Wilde’s - at snaring and entrapping the unfortunate author in his own braggadocio. In today’s world of LGBT advocacy, one can see how Wilde’s story could easily become a cause celebre.

Heather Smith, Jamie Bragg

However, this playwright, this director, and this cast wisely and honestly have not portrayed these lawsuits as a series of trials engendered in the cause of individual human rights. Nonetheless, despite the fact that Wilde’s spurious case against Queensbury was actually brought to deny Wilde was gay, a century and two decades later, we can look back with more than a glimmer of understanding of his need to lie and to try to hide behind his notions of art.

 

Jamie Bragg did a pitch-perfect job as Oscar Wilde- she used consistent mannerisms and caught the famous smirk. She also tossed off the lines with the style- and alas, the chagrin, they deserved. Cameron Feagin and Kevin Sheehan as Sir Edward Carson and Sir Edward Clarke, respectively, were decidedly barrister-like, and maintained the distinct personalities some people think trial lawyers do not have! Heather Smith and Ross Frawley as Queensbury and his son were as smarmy a couple of upper-class creeps as one could wish- and Smith was a convincing young man in love. Bragg and Smith were the only actors with one part to play. The rest of the cast, including Jennifer Mickelson, Kraig Kelsey, Steve Lords and Kat Evans narrated as well as effortlessly performed multiple roles; there was no difficulty understanding the segues between characters and narration.

Jamie Bragg, Heather Smith

 

The play is thought provoking and enthralling; it’s highly recommended.

For information and tickets to this and other great performances by Promethean Theatre Ensemble and at City Lit Theater, go to the Prometheantheatreensemble website and the Citylittheater website

 

All photos by Tom McGrath TCMcG Photography

 

 

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