The Judas Kiss

Circle Theatre

Playwright David Hare would like us to believe that Oscar Wilde suffered through two fateful moments late in his life, the combined effect of which drove him to the grave. The conceit allows for tidy and affecting theater–but Hare has to treat truth like a tabloid would to pull it off.

Hare’s 1998 drama The Judas Kiss is a model of dramatic efficiency. Each of its two acts condenses a pivotal episode in Wilde’s life to a single scene, pinning the great Irish writer’s shoulders to the wall as his life collapses around him. The first act of the play, which starred Liam Neeson as Wilde in its original London production, takes place on the afternoon of April 5, 1895, when Wilde is holed up in the Cadogan Hotel confronting the likely possibility of his arrest and imprisonment. He has just withdrawn charges of libel against the Marquess of Queensberry, father of his former lover Lord Alfred Douglas. After hounding Wilde for years for “corrupting his son,” Queensberry had written that Wilde was “posing” as a sodomite, prompting Wilde, however quixotically, to sue. The trial blew up in Wilde’s face when prosecutors brought forth a list of 13 rent boys he’d allegedly procured. With such evidence before the court, prosecutors could not help but bring charges against him.

That afternoon Wilde had two options: flee England and avoid prosecution or face the charges with whatever shred of dignity he had left. He chose the latter–even after learning that the police were deliberately delaying issuing a warrant for his arrest so that he might catch the last train out of London. In his first act Hare imagines the hour Wilde took to reach his fateful decision. With Douglas and Robert Ross, his first lover, at his side, Wilde desperately attempts to maintain his pose as the insouciant, decadent aesthete, dithering over whether to have rice or potatoes with his lobster, all the while knowing that imprisonment is looming and that his reputation has been destroyed. The steadfast and sensible Ross urges Wilde to leave for France; the impulsive and self-absorbed Douglas begs him to stay and fight, perhaps because he believes in Wilde’s cause, perhaps because he selfishly wants his idol to remain at his side. When Douglas’s cousin George Wyndham, a member of parliament, shows up, Wilde refuses to speak with him: doing so would let the real world come crashing into the last vestige of the idyllic London he’s created for himself. Instead, Douglas pleads Wilde’s case with Wyndham, to no avail.

Hare fiddles a bit with his facts here. It was Ross, not Douglas, who pleaded with Wyndham in the hall of the Cadogan; Douglas didn’t show up at the hotel until the two men had been talking for some time. Douglas then whisked Wyndham away, spending almost no time with Wilde. Ross’s powerful jealousy of Douglas, his better-looking, more talented rival for Wilde’s affections, is eliminated–although it surely played a part in Ross’s desire to get Wilde out of London. And a third friend of Wilde’s, Reggie Turner, who was also in Wilde’s room that afternoon, never appears in the play.

But these historical revisions concentrate action that probably unfolded over several days without distorting the essential truth. And Hare uses poetic license to extraordinary effect–even if he can’t make the other characters half so interesting or imperiled as Wilde. He depicts a maddening and heartbreaking struggle in Wilde, who’s torn between prideful independence (he feels most injured when his friends presume to tell him what to do) and his crippling obsession with Douglas, which has him leashed to a self-serving and childish 24-year-old. The two years Wilde spent in Reading Gaol broke his spirit. He would die at the age of 46, only three years after his release.

It’s a bracing first act, but in the second Hare overreaches, fabricating a tragic moment that resonates with hollowness. It’s December 3, 1897. Wilde’s been out of prison for six months, living off an allowance from his estranged wife, Constance–money conditioned upon his staying clear of Douglas. But when Douglas offers refuge in a rented house in Naples, Wilde joins him, watching him screw Italian boys, unable to put a single word to paper: Douglas has silenced him, in Wilde’s view. Ross arrives unannounced, pleading with Wilde to separate from Douglas for the sake of his wife (in fact, Ross was the one who orchestrated the terms of his allowance). Then Douglas, who lambastes Wilde repeatedly for never coming clean and admitting his homosexuality in public–all the while insisting he is not an ‘invert,’ just an adolescent going through a phase–announces that he is leaving Wilde for good after his mother predicates his annual allowance on their separation. Moreover, she will buy off Wilde with 500 pounds–if he agrees to stay away from her son.

Douglas’s desertion is fashioned as the betrayal, complete with a Judas kiss and 500 pieces of silver, that destroys Wilde. But in truth the pair’s separation was neither tragic nor permanent. In Naples both were living off allowances–and both were cut off when their reunion was discovered. Wilde’s only option was a separation (so his wife would restore his allowance). And Douglas did not leave Wilde bereft: he told his mother he would only accept her conditions if she agreed to pay Wilde 200 pounds (a considerable sum considering the allowance from Wilde’s wife was 3 pounds a week), square Wilde’s old hotel bills, and pay the rent on the Naples home for another three months so Wilde would have time to arrange future accommodations. Douglas didn’t silence Wilde; the latter did a fair amount of writing in Naples, revising and adding to The Ballad of Reading Gaol. And the two men remained on friendly terms for the rest of Wilde’s life, even taking a trip together the following year. The worst that can be said of Douglas is that he rescinded his offer of a safe harbor when it became financially impossible to maintain it.

Hare’s inventions might be forgiven, but because from the beginning of the play he portrays Douglas as shallow, vain, emotionally labile, and hypocritical, it’s a stretch to ask an audience to imagine Wilde’s desertion as tragic. He instead comes off as something of a deluded fool who should have seen it coming.

Circle Theatre’s rocky production has enough community-theater trappings to keep an audience distanced. The Cadogan set is so plastered with shiny gold fabric it looks like an explosion in a wrapping paper factory, and the costumes are generally off by several decades (the black, thin-lapelled suit Wilde wears in act two belongs on Rod Serling). The wine is the shade of watered-down red food coloring, no man’s collar is pressed, and Ross’s suit coat doesn’t match his pants. More important, director Michael Matthews opens his production with a forthright bluntness that not only seems decidedly un-British but drains tension from the action. For the first 15 minutes or so Douglas, Ross, and the hotel staff await Wilde’s arrival, and rather than teasing out the complex dynamics among the characters, the actors barge through the dialogue, explaining rather than acting their scenes.

But with the arrival of Don Bender as Wilde, the production begins to find its center. As an actor, Bender is no stranger to scenery chewing, and his resemblance to Wilde both in stature and sensibility is tenuous. But he has a keen understanding of the stakes his character faces and an eagerness to let the impossibility of Wilde’s situation tear him to shreds. Although he needed a good 20 minutes on opening night to warm up, he managed to keep all of Wilde’s contradictory impulses flowing naturally, a particularly impressive feat in the second act, when he does almost nothing but sit in a chair stage left and talk. Best of all, by the time the play is over he has made Wilde’s predicament seem more complicated than one might imagine. He never simplifies Wilde’s motivations but keeps us guessing at the essential impulses driving his character.

No one else holds a candle to Bender–but then Hare doesn’t give the supporting cast much to do. The Judas Kiss is a one-man show with a seven-person cast, and Bender carries the evening admirably. The wounds he feels are genuine and deep, and despite the inflated tragedy here, noble suffering always makes for engaging theater.

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