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Cloud 42

at Stage Left Theatre

“Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known,” Oscar Wilde wrote in his 1895 essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” That individualism, Wilde thought, makes art magnificent; history has shown it also makes art dangerous, at least for the artist. When Wilde was tried for engaging in illegal sexual relations with other men, the cross-examination focused as much on his “immoral” novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, with its heavy hints of its hero’s homosexuality, as on Wilde’s personal behavior. The conflict of values manifest in the controversy Wilde’s writing provoked 100 years ago is very much alive today–it’s the crux of the debates surrounding “Dread” Scott Tyler’s flag-on-the-floor exhibit, Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, and certainly the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective. Is art’s function simply to “cultivate our better selves, refine our tastes, and nourish an appreciation of beauty for its own sake,” as suggested by the Chicago Tribune in a recent editorial, or can it–should it–also provoke, question, even offend? Can good art only be tasteful, or moral? Is there such a thing as “moral” or “immoral” art?

The late Richard Ellmann, whose authoritative critical biography Oscar Wilde was the inspiration for the new play Living Up to My Blue China, rightly noted: “Among the writers identified with the 1890s, Wilde is the only one whom everyone still reads.” Wilde’s paradoxical bons mots may sound affected today, as they must have in his own time, but they don’t sound antique; from the piercingly witty one-liners he concocted for his novel and plays to the painfully heartfelt outpourings of his epic rumination on love and loss, De Profundis, Wilde speaks in a remarkably modern voice. Whether we approve of him or not–and Wilde continues to stir controversy, though I don’t think British schoolboys are whipped for reading his books anymore–we have no trouble recognizing the energy and spirit of his dazzling and defiant tone. The laws and conventions of a society may change in 100 years, but the iconoclasm that satirizes those laws and conventions always has its place–even if that place is on the edge of a precipice.

Wilde walked too close to that precipice for his own good. Long before he became actively homosexual, at the age of 32 (by which time he was the married father of two children), Wilde had cultivated an extravagant and suspiciously sissified public image as the quintessential dandy-aesthete. The homosexual innuendos in Dorian Gray seemed, both to sympathetic and to hostile observers, to confirm the rumors about his “indecent” activities with young men. Yet rather than ignore those rumors or strive to quell them, Wilde confronted them head-on and orchestrated his own demise when he filed a libel charge against the powerful Marquis of Queensberry, the father of Wilde’s fickle boyfriend Lord Alfred Douglas, because Queensberry had publicly accused Wilde of “posing” as a sodomite.

Was Wilde a martyr? A freedom fighter? Or just a vain fool? Living Up to My Blue China, putting forth a different explanation, takes a cue from Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan: “I thought I had no heart,” says the scandalous heroine, Mrs. Erlynne. “I find I have, and a heart doesn’t suit me . . . it spoils one’s career at critical moments.” A more cynically self-protective man–such as the shallow and faithless Lord Alfred, whose callous behavior during his lover’s crisis marks him as one of the true unmitigated shits in literary history–would have played society’s game and gotten off easy. Wilde, trusting in the basic tolerance of his fellow man, put his heart into his art and refused to concede the prosecutor’s insistent claim that Dorian Gray was an “immoral” book and evidence of its author’s “immoral” life-style. Wilde was sentenced to two years at hard labor and died at age 45, two years after his release from prison.

Adapted and directed by Patrick Trettenero, Living Up to My Blue China draws most of its text from Wilde’s work–which guarantees a play full of wonderful writing. Beginning the action in Wilde’s jail cell, with Wilde reading aloud as he writes De Profundis for Lord Alfred (was ever a greater work written for a more unworthy reader?), the play unfolds in flashbacks (with particular emphasis on the trial) and excerpts from his writing. There are laughs aplenty–deep, rich, solid laughs, the kind of laughs that engage both the brain and the belly–but as Trettenero’s intelligent selection of material proves, Wilde was more than the king of the one-liner; he was a versatile and elegant stylist who could evoke melancholy or whimsy with grace and conviction. Trettenero’s arrangement of the material also effectively highlights themes in Wilde’s work and life: the outsider colliding with established proprieties, the pain and pleasure of love, the fragility of beauty and genius.

More than one critic has noted Wilde’s aesthetic and philosophical ambivalences–his alternate embracing of Catholicism and paganism, sensualism and puritanism, aestheticism and anaestheticism. Seeking to translate this notion of spiritual duality into stage terms, Living Up to My Blue China has Wilde played by two actors. Oscar I sits in prison watching as Oscar II takes the witness stand, and each also takes on other roles: Oscar I plays Dorian Gray while Oscar II enacts Dorian’s suave corrupter Lord Henry Wotton; later, Oscar II turns up as John the Baptist from Salome, while Oscar I does a fiendishly funny drag turn as Lady Bracknell from The Importance of Being Earnest. (Salome is played by a real woman, though Wilde himself posed as the infamous seductress in a rather outrageous photograph.) But there is no clear scheme for which Oscar plays which other roles, nor is it clear what relation the two Oscars have to each other.

The production is blessedly lucky to have Harry Althaus playing Oscar I. With his thick lips, pale skin, dreamy gaze, and “coy, carnal smile” (as Wilde’s friend Max Beerbohm said of Wilde’s), Althaus bears a remarkable resemblance to the man he plays; and he projects just the right persona–brave and wise and vulnerable and compassionate and smug all at once. He lacks the vocal resonance Wilde was famous for, and he’s too young to be believable as a man in his 40s; but he is convincing in a way that other far more famous and polished actors who have played Wilde (Vincent Price, Peter Finch, and Robert Morley among them) were not.

The other four actors in the cast unfortunately don’t display Althaus’s affinity for the material. Tom Blanton, as Oscar II, is much handsomer than Althaus, but it’s not clear whether that’s a comment on Wilde’s optimistic self-image or merely an accident of casting. The only really wrong piece of acting is Patricia Acha’s sexless Salome, who tentatively runs her hands across John the Baptist’s bare torso as if she’s afraid someone will think she means it. As far as Todd Hensley’s lighting and Jerome Stauduhar’s costume and set design go, the production values are negligible. No matter. This is a play first and foremost about words–and ah! what words.

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