Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde

Court Theatre

Death of A Salesman

Goodman Theatre

By Albert Williams

The truth is seldom pure and never simple. –Oscar Wilde

The protagonists of Death of a Salesman and Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde might seem at first to have little in common. Willy Loman, the traveling salesman of Arthur Miller’s 1949 drama, is a fictional character, though he’s modeled on Miller’s uncle Manny Newman; Victorian playwright Oscar Wilde was real, though his persona was a self-invented fiction. Wilde was an Oxford-educated aesthete, dandified and insolent, who took pleasure in shocking and satirizing his elegant, hidebound world and delighted in paradoxical epigrams–“If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out”–and radical critiques of conventional morality: “Children should not be drilled in that calendar of infamy they call European history, but [in] how art might offer a new history of the world.” Miller’s Willy is a working-class stiff from Brooklyn, a macho guy who spouts inspirational platitudes about living in “the greatest country in the world” and about how being “well liked” always “wins the day.” In 1895–the year Wilde was sucked into the legal morass on which Gross Indecency focuses–he was about 40, in the prime of life and at the height of his career, with two hits running in the West End simultaneously. Willy is 63 in the late 40s, a road-weary old man in a workplace run by a younger generation that just finished fighting a world war: he’s struggling to stay afloat on a salary that keeps shrinking even as his mortgage and installment-plan payments keep mounting. Willy would have found Wilde confusing and probably obscene; Wilde would have thought Willy pathetic.

Yet Gross Indecency’s Wilde and Death of a Salesman’s Willy have a commonality of soul. Both are men of words whose rhetoric–no matter how outlandish in Wilde’s case or cliched in Willy’s–expresses a deeply felt belief in who they are. Both are dreamers, creators of personal truths derived equally from experience and fantasy. Both, unfortunately for them, have a taste for chippies: Willy committed adultery with a brassy secretary he met on the road, and Wilde kept company with a string of young working-class men whom he later called “gilded snakes [whose] poison was part of their perfection.” Neither man can quite reconcile his lofty ideals with his tawdry appetites; living in societies whose rules contradict the realities of human nature, both men are forced to lie–then are persecuted for being liars. Wilde’s ruin comes in the English law courts, where he’s convicted of “gross indecency”; Willy is punished by the accusing silence of his estranged, embittered son. Both are finally destroyed.

Their fates are the stuff of tragedy, simultaneously individual and social. And their tragedies are at once timeless and terribly timely, as America wrestles with its response to a president whose “sin,” to use his own word, was to do what many older men do–find passing pleasure with a young companion and then lie about it. Like Bill Clinton, Willy and Wilde are scapegoats, symbols of the sexual and ethical weaknesses they share with their persecutors. Biff Loman, Willy’s son, is a womanizer himself, yet he can’t forgive Willy for cheating on his loyal, long-suffering wife; Wilde, Gross Indecency makes clear, was prosecuted by government officials who wanted to deflect attention from homosexuals in their own political party. But Willy and Wilde do more than just offend the public morality of hypocritical societies; more potent than all the finger-pointing and hand-wringing by political and media demagogues these days is these works’ reminder that it’s absurd to try to pinpoint anything as subjective and slippery as personal truth.

Gross Indecency, originally presented last year by New York’s Tectonic Theater Project (the off-Broadway production is still running) and now receiving its Chicago premiere at the Court Theatre, is drawn almost exclusively from preexisting sources: court transcripts and newspaper articles; correspondence and commentaries by such Wilde contemporaries as George Bernard Shaw, Frank Harris, and Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas (aka Bosie); biographical accounts by H. Montgomery Hyde, Sheridan Morley, and others; and, crucially, Wilde’s own writings, including his essays “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” “The English Renaissance in Art,” and “De Profundis,” his jailhouse tract. Moises Kaufman, the play’s author and original director (special credit is also given to dramaturg Stephen Wangh), has eschewed conventional dramatization in favor of a semidocumentary style–not in order to arrive at objective truth but to point out how elusive, perhaps illusory, objective truth is in matters of the heart.

Tracing Wilde’s downfall, Gross Indecency begins with his ill-advised libel suit against Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry–who publicly accused Wilde of “posing” as a sodomite because he was outraged at the writer’s intimate relationship with his son–then charts how that suit’s failure led to Wilde’s prosecution for “gross indecency,” a category broad enough to include most homosexual activity (no legal hairsplitting about “sexual relations” was necessary). Eight actors serve as narrators while slipping in and out of various roles, ranging from Bosie and Queensberry to an array of attorneys, reporters, and male prostitutes (who testified under a prosecutorial grant of immunity–sound familiar?). A ninth–New York actor Harry Althaus, an ex-Chicagoan remembered for his work with the now-departed Cloud 42 theater company, including a drag turn as the mother of an eight-year-old serial killer in The Bad Seed–plays Wilde, a proud, confident, eloquent eccentric gradually beaten into self-doubt and finally self-loathing and an early grave by the relentless efforts of his enemies and a two-year prison term.

For his staging of this fascinating, fast-moving play, Gary Griffin has imported a storefront aesthetic to Court’s elegant little gem of an auditorium. The simply designed production (Jeff Bauer’s set employs drapes, a few tables and chairs, and a stern portrait of Queen Victoria) begins with a blunt, strident energy as the actors loudly, harshly declaim their lines and angrily bang gavels. Later it softens to heighten the contrast between Wilde’s eloquent idealism and the coarse factuality of his accusers’ evidence, including indiscreet gifts and peculiar stains.

Griffin supports the play’s central conflict–between Althaus’s superb Wilde and John Reeger’s vindictive Queensberry (Reeger’s resonant baritone frighteningly embodies patriarchal authoritarianism)–with actors more often seen at such theaters as Live Bait, Trap Door, Victory Gardens, and Famous Door. Among them are Krishna Le Fan as a comely and loyal Bosie; Roderick Peeples as a blatantly bigoted judge; John Judd as Wilde’s attorney (who took the case only after Wilde gave his “word as an English gentleman” that the charges weren’t true–the problem was, Wilde was Irish); and handsome, hunky John Jordan, Steven Rishard, Darrell Stokes, and Timothy Hendrickson, who start out in suits as members of the press, then strip to undies when they portray whores of a different kind.

Kaufman’s canny juxtaposition of texts illuminates Wilde’s controversial position in British society, reminding us with what deadly ease celebrity can turn into notoriety; it’s clear that Wilde was prosecuted not just for his homosexuality but because his provocative writings stirred such unease among the establishment. (A scene from The Picture of Dorian Gray, enacted by Bosie as the beautiful but doomed Dorian and Wilde as his love-struck portraitist, Basil, exemplifies the writer’s hotly debated elevation of beauty over morality.)

By the play’s end it’s clear that Wilde’s case was not about “truth” and “lies” but about conflicting truths. (“A man rightly accused of homosexuality is perfectly entitled to plead not guilty…if he believes, as Wilde certainly did, that homosexuality is not a crime,” the play quotes Shaw as saying.) Gross Indecency reminds us that sincerely sought truth is complex, ending not in answers but in more questions. Ultimately the mysteries of Wilde’s downfall–why he pursued his lawsuit, why he didn’t leave England to escape prosecution, to what extent he understood the nature of his sexuality, the sincerity of his postprison penitence–remain mysteries: this is a courtroom drama with an ending that solves nothing.

No such ambiguity remains at the conclusion of Death of a Salesman: Miller’s lament for the common man clearly indicts a capitalist society that feeds people false dreams of success, then discards them. But Miller’s examination of “the unbroken tissue that was man and society,” as he puts it in his 1987 memoir, Timebends, also movingly takes into account the frailties of human nature, as a decent family is destroyed because its members–Willy, his wife Linda, and their two sons–fail to unify their individual truths in a single shared understanding. Biff, a onetime high school sports star turned drifter and chronic thief, is paralyzed by festering rage at his father’s adultery, which he accidentally discovered; Willy, unable to admit the cause of Biff’s anger, can never make peace with the son he desperately loves; Happy, the younger son, continually promises to settle down and marry but can’t stop chasing the skirts; and Linda, a practical hausfrau who sews torn stockings and keeps track of the family’s debt, clings to the doomed hope that her increasingly disoriented and suicidal husband will make a second start. It’s a depressing portrait to be sure, but one that can touch an audience deeply if it makes them identify with the characters’ fragile hopes.

Director Robert Falls’s great failing is that he never lets viewers feel for a second that the Lomans might make it. Granted, Willy’s destruction is preordained; we know he’ll die, not only because the title says so but because we’ve probably seen the play before, if not onstage then on film or in TV versions. Yet if we don’t feel that maybe this time Willy will succeed, there’s no reason for us to sit through this long, depressing play. Falls’s staging signals doom and gloom from the start: neither Richard Woodbury’s dissonant industrial-jazz score nor Mark Wendland’s dark, clunky turntable set suggests the poetry stirring in Willy’s twisted soul. So his self-sacrificing effort to leave Biff a legacy has no tragic resonance–there’s no grand emotional height from which to fall.

Brian Dennehy (a big, hulking actor in the mold of Lee J. Cobb, who was the original Willy) effectively conveys the character’s smaller moments: at least for viewers sitting close to the stage, his eyes capture Willy’s shifting mental state, from terrified confusion to happy reverie to alert excitement. But Dennehy’s voice lacks the color and variety needed to bring to life Miller’s attempt to fuse a contemporary American vocabulary with the formality and eloquence of Greek tragedy. Strong support comes from Kevin Anderson as Biff, Elizabeth Franz as Linda, Ted Koch as Happy, Kate Buddeke as Willy’s bit on the side, Steve Pickering as Willy’s bottom-line boss, and the wonderful Howard Witt as the Lomans’ sardonic yet compassionate neighbor Charley. But Dennehy’s limitations and Falls’s downbeat conception keep this stolid revival from attaining the transformative power this great, flawed play can achieve.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Gross Indecendy theater still by Dan Rest/ Death of a Salesman photo by Eric Y. Exit.