BLOG Michael Tomlinson

NWR Issue 113

The Trials of Oscar Wilde

The play produced by Mappa Mundi and shown at Aberystwyth Arts Centre on 3 May, was jointly written by John O’Connor and Oscar Wilde’s grandson, Merlin Holland. It explores the reasons why Oscar Wilde’s status as playwright (having been at its peak after the triumphant opening of The Importance of Being Earnest on 14 February 1895) was destroyed by two trials and his conviction for gross indecency less than one hundred days later. Great use is made in the play of Wilde’s own words taken from the transcripts of the trials.

The first trial, of criminal libel, was brought by Wilde (played here by the excellent Steven Elliot), against the Marquess of Queensberry. The Marquess, unhappy with Wilde’s relationship with his son Lord Alfred Douglas, went to Wilde’s club and publicly left a note accusing Wilde of sodomy. When this trial failed, Queensberry persuaded the crown to bring a trial against Wilde for gross indecency.

The play was a little uneven overall. Some scene setting at the beginning of the first act seemed hasty and the scene with Queensberry’s note could perhaps have been incorporated more subtly. It isn’t until the adversarial spats between Wilde and the prosecuting barrister that the play really got going. There was much pleasure to be had in Wilde’s precise use of language and Queensberry’s barrister’s inability or unwillingness to understand it. However, Wilde’s overconfidence led him to his incriminate himself, leading to the collapse of the trial.

The second act began with the second trial but the impetus and energy of Act One seemed to have dissipated. Once again, the adversarial sections of barrister and witness brought the play to life. Francois Pandolfo played several witnesses for the prosecution in various voices to great comic effect. These were young working class men supposedly preyed on by Wilde. Pandolfo’s characters’ clothes were cleverly rearranged and exchanged by Elliot as Wilde in a series of mimes of seduction, so that there was no loss of momentum in the trial scenes. The summing up of the two barristers (one for the crown, one for Wilde) was also clever and energetic, as each took turns addressing the judge, one sentence and one argument at a time.

Unfortunately, a couple of things jarred. With no explanation, one of the witnesses was not cross examined. By contrast, I wouldn’t have missed the voiceovers of excerpts of dialogue from The Importance of Being Earnest which seemed an unnecessary distraction. There was a poster for the play up on set and it seemed like we as the audience were being directed too obviously. There was too, mention of the poem, ‘Two Loves’ by Lord Alfred Douglas, which famously ends with the line: ‘the love that dare not speak its name.’ Did that line really need to be repeated on three occasions?

The impression left is of a man who saw no reason to be bound by the mores of his time and perhaps more damagingly flaunted his disregard of them. He had gone too far for his enemies and, cloaked in self regard, failed to see the danger until it was too late. Wilde was imprisoned for two years and ended his sentence at Reading Gaol. He was released in May of 1897, his health ruined and his ‘reputation’ destroyed, dying an exile in Paris on 30 November 1900.


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