Oscar Remembered

Writers’ Theatre-Chicago.

It takes a formidable intellect to tackle Oscar Wilde’s legacy. The man moved between dramatic gems like The Importance of Being Earnest and critical treatises like The Decay of Lying as gracefully as he commanded the great London dinner parties to which he was always invited and over which he unfailingly presided. Behind an exquisite facade of narcissistic witticisms Wilde zeroed in on the neuroses and pretensions of turn-of-the-century England while extolling idle, romantic pleasures, all with the passionate eloquence accessible only to true genius. By comparison tackling the legacy of Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s youthful aristocratic lover, requires little effort. Pampered by an adoring mother, Douglas spent his youth dallying at Oxford, where he edited the literary magazine for a while and failed his exams with studied nonchalance. He even printed up cards for his professors, complete with blanks to be filled in as needed, containing messages like “Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas presents his compliments to Professor Smith and regrets that he will be unable to show up an essay on the Evolution of the Moral Idea in consequence of not having prepared one.”

Douglas penned a lot of purple sonnets, fell in with Wilde, and fought endlessly with his zealous father, who repeatedly threatened to shoot Wilde on sight for corrupting his son. In later years Douglas reflected upon his relations with Wilde in the stodgy, leaden prose of a converted Catholic hypocrite: “It is hateful to me now to speak or write of such things, but I must be explicit. Sodomy never took place between us, nor was it thought or dreamed of. Wilde treated me as an older boy treats a younger one at school, and he added what was new to me and was not (as far as I know) known or practiced among my contemporaries: he ‘sucked’ me.” Without Wilde, history would probably have assigned Douglas to the realm of the curious footnote.

So a play in which Douglas tackles Wilde’s legacy has an obvious problem: Douglas is simply not up to his subject. This asymmetry befuddles playwright Maxim Mazumdar in his Oscar Remembered, a one-person chamber piece that rarely ventures beyond the predictable and oft-repeated.

Mazumdar’s Douglas, showing little passion or insight, lolls in tragic self-pity. All the expected scenes are here: Douglas beseeching his mother to like his friend Wilde, Douglas proclaiming his undying devotion to Wilde, Douglas reacting with horror to Wilde’s conviction and imprisonment. Mazumdar throws in a few of Wilde’s gems, but not nearly enough to give the evening depth. Even Douglas’s fin de siecle jaundice is curiously absent (after all, he wrote to his father, “If I shoot you, or if [Oscar] shoots you, we should be completely justified, as we should be acting in self-defense against a violent and dangerous rough, and I think if you were dead not many people would miss you”). We don’t get an insider’s juicy gossip or studied opinions but merely a scaled-down sketch of a literary giant.

Mazumdar’s biggest problem is his penchant for reenactment. The joy of a one-man show for the audience comes from real intimacy, when the actor, and by proxy the character, speaks directly to us, allowing us into a world we could otherwise never enter. But in almost every first-act scene Mazumdar has Douglas address an imaginary listener–Wilde, usually–erecting a fourth wall that feels utterly out of place. Director David Cromer does nothing to correct this flaw, and so actor Michael Halberstam avoids nearly all eye contact with the audience, instead imagining the other characters in the nebulous void just above the audience’s head to which so many solo actors unsuccessfully resort.

The second act is no better written, opening with a five-minute version of De Profundis that makes the Cliffs Notes seem meaty. But somehow Halberstam finally connects with his audience and turns in some lovely work. His final recitation of The Ballad of Reading Gaol, accompanied by the sonorous strains of Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, has the rich texture and emotion that all of Oscar Remembered should have had to do its subject justice.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Alexander Guezentsuey.