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November 17, 2011

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As for modern journalism, it is not my business to defend it. It justifies its own existence by the great Darwinian principle of the survival of the vulgarest.

Oscar Wilde

“The Critic As Artist”

The great playwright, poet, novelist and wit Oscar Wilde was none too fond of journalists. And with good reason—the “penny dreadful” Victorian press was every bit as vicious, relentless and unconcerned with the truth as the current tabloids. Rupert Murdoch would have been in his element.

So when these papers scented blood in the water after the debacle of Wilde’s attempt to sue the Marquis of Queensberry for libel—a trial fueled by Douglas’s son (and Wilde’s lover) Alfred’s maniacal hatred for his father—they circled and struck, eager to tear holes in a man who disdained them. In a way, it was the first “celebrity trial”, and the two that followed, with Wilde himself in the dock charged with “gross indecency”, were mined for every bit of salacious testimony.

Wilde was first and foremost a subversive and his legacy survives—conservatives’ paranoia over the NEA, NPR and public television provides ample proof of that. “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book,” he wrote. “A book is either well written or badly written. That is all.” Pretty dangerous stuff to their way of thinking, and no less so now.

His three trials, and the events that led up to them, are the basis for Moises Kaufman’s 1997 play Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, playing the Chattanooga Theatre Centre’s Circle Stage for one more weekend. This complex and challenging work—challenging to stage, to act, and for the audience to immerse itself in—receives a deft and respectful handling from director George Quick. Once again, I salute the CTC for staging work that asks viewers to defy stereotypes and think, and this show’s last weekend deserves to be a sell-out.

Kaufman’s play interweaves actual trial excerpts with quotes from many other sources: autobiographies, both published and unpublished, Wilde’s prison opus De Profundis, and, of course, contemporary press accounts. With four exceptions, the all-male cast plays multiple roles, changing with only brief introductions. The first act of this production requires concentration, especially for those not already familiar with the events of Wilde’s life. But the second act catches fire, as Kaufman shrewdly inserts a scene in which a modern-day academic tries to dissect both Wilde’s sexuality and explain that he was on trial less for his sexual “offenses” than for his views on art. From this point on, as the impending tragedy ramps up, it’s riveting.

Quick has staged the play with three-quarter seating, and though this causes occasional awkward moments when an actor talks directly to one part of the audience, shutting the other two parts out, it allows for flexible, fluid movement in what is essentially a static setting: the court room.

All the real-life major players in this drama have their say: “The screaming scarlet Marquis”, an unbalanced, violent man who left the infamous card at Wilde’s club inscribed “To Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite” (sic); his beautiful but chip-off-the-old-monster son, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas; the several barristers; the rent boys, paraded one after another on the stand. And of course, Wilde himself, at first successfully disarming the court with epigrams, (“Never mind your doctor’s orders,” commands the interrogating counsel. “I never do,” Wilde replies), but flippantly and fatally noting that he did not kiss a particular young man because “he was a peculiarly plain boy.”

As Wilde, Randal Fosse evokes the artist’s stature (he was 6’ 3”), and for the most part commands his language very well. His eyes, as he gazes at the lover who will be his downfall, are expressive and full of poignancy. I would have liked to see a little more of Wilde’s penchant for the theatrical in the first trial—everything is very subdued and mannered in Fosse’s performance—but his approach is a consistent, deeply felt choice.

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November 17, 2011

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