Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde

It is hard to believe today that so much was made of Oscar Wilde's homosexuality (a word that did not even exist then) in the late 19th century. He was considered to be one of the greatest writers of his time and yet, because of the homophobic attitudes of the Victorian Brits, he was persecuted and then prosecuted in England. Despite his popularity, his refusal to deny who and what he was, Wilde was found guilty in 1895 of gross indecency. Gross indecency (male homosexuality) was believed to be the most heinous of all crimes at that time. Due to his unwillingness to bow down, Wilde became the original gay icon and fighter for human rights.

Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde is an acclaimed play by Moises Kaufman that is based on transcripts from the actually cases involving the writer. Many of the cases were so avidly followed they were claimed to be the cases of the century in that part of the world. As being gay did not exist back then, it was not seen as a choice or lifestyle, the act of male homosexuality (as they disbelieved that there were lesbians) was seen rather simply as immoral behaviour. Oscar Wilde was flamboyant and arrogant in whatever he did from writing to the way he spoke to the way he dressed. He refused to deny who he was for anyone. This attracted the wrong kind of attention to him and once he started to seduce younger men then it seemed to be too much for British authorities to overlook. The British authorities were given the opening they needed to jail Wilde oddly enough by Wilde himself. He brought the Marquis of Queensbury to court on a charge of trying to wreck Wilde's reputation by claiming him to be a 'sodomite'. Wilde ended up having to withdraw the charge when the Marquis lawyer threatened to bring several of the young men whom Wilde had had romances with to the stand. This the British authorities could not ignore and arrested Wilde under the charge of gross indecency. Because of his popularity, he was even given the opportunity to flee elsewhere in Europe, but refused to do so as he did not see anything wrong with what he was doing. Wilde was tried, found guilty and jailed for being a homosexual. The play is not only about the personage that was Oscar Wilde but is an interesting look at a society that was willing to sacrifice one of its greatest writers in order to keep up appearances.

It is an ambitious undertaking for any theatre troupe to perform a work by Wilde as they are usually quite witty, verbose and depend quite a bit on the delivery and timing of the actors. This play, even though it is not actually a work of Wilde's, involves many of those characteristic and this group pulled it off admirably. The play is a rather ingenious stitching together of court transcripts, letters, newspaper articles and other documentation from that era. A large percentage of the play takes place in a courtroom, but that sterility (and as Wilde is involved there is really never a dull moment) is counterbalanced by flashbacks and reenactments of pertinent occurrences. Director Zach Fraser has assembled a small (9 actors) cast who perform all the parts and are all quite good. He uses these 9 actors to play many different characters each, except for Anderson as Wilde, and their movement in and out of the different characters is half of the fun. It definitely allows him to keep the pace high. The excellent Don Anderson portrays Oscar Wilde and he gives him the just the right amount of pomposity and dry wit needed. This is the third play in which he is portraying Wilde and he has him down pat. The gestures, the intonations and facial expressions are all bang on. Another standout is David Potter, especially in his role as the Marquis of Queensbury. He is delightful in his portrayal of the character's wickedness and close minded attitude towards homosexuality. Definitely the strength of the play is its script in that even Oscar himself would have considered it and its use of the English language to be a work of art. It also gives us new insight into the man that was Oscar Wilde; he really becomes a true human being rather than simply a brilliant writer. The only negative thing I can say about this night of high quality theatre is that be prepared to sweat it out during the play. It was so hot in the theatre that at any one time roughly half of the audience was using their programs as fans in an attempt to stay cool. It was, however, a small price to pay to see this interesting, witty and well-acted play.

The arrest and jailing of Oscar Wilde shows us how society unfairly expected a human being to justify his loves and love life. The legal systems tried to insinuate itself into the bedroom of the nation and it is definitely an area they, for the most part, should stay out of. You will come out of the play wanting to fight for gay rights and human rights in general. It definitely gives you something to talk about and think about after you have left the theatre. If you are a fan of Oscar Wilde and good theatre go and see this play which is running until September 2, 2006.

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