Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Trials Of Oscar Wilde

Ever since listening to “The Real Trial Of Oscar Wilde” on Radio Four a couple of week ago, I've been pondering the tragic downfall of this theatrical genius.

At the height of his career, Oscar Wilde was found guilty of gross indecency and imprisoned for two years. He was subjected to a harsh regime of ' hard labour, hard fare and hard bed' which left him mentally and physically exhausted. He was forced to flee to Paris after his release and he died at the age of 46 with his reputation in shatters, his health destroyed and his fortune depleted.

Oscar Wilde
Wilde, of course, was a homosexual and homosexuality wasn't decriminalised in the UK until 1967. But the late Victorian period wasn't nearly as prudish as popular culture would make us believe. There was a very active gay scene in London at the time and Wilde's sexual orientation was something of an open secret amongst the theatrical community. Wilde made very little attempt at disguising his relationship with the young Lord Alfred Douglas (aka Bosie) and everyone knew that the two were more than just good friends. Wilde's incarceration was not the result of a puritan society frowning on his immoral activities (the Victorians were generally not concerned with what went on between consenting adults, so long as it happened in private) Wilde was incarcerated because, much like Vicky Pryce in recent years, he used the law to get satisfaction in his own private vendetta. And lost.

There were two trials which led to his downfall. The first one was instigated by Wilde himself after the Marquess of Queensberry (Bosie's father) left his calling card at his club accusing him of being a sodomite. Wilde became indignant and accused Queensberry of libel. This was an extraordinarily foolhardy thing to do considering both he and Bosie had been very open and reckless in their dealings with rent boys and homosexual brothels. The onus was now on Queensberry to prove that Wilde was a depraved older man who habitually enticed naive youths into a life of vicious homosexuality.

The Marquess Of Queensberry
Wilde was smugly confident at first that he could outwit Queensberry's lawyers with his eloquence. He viewed the whole trial as a game of words which he was sure to win – after all, although Wilde readily admitted to consorting with young men of low class, it was almost impossible in an age before the ubiquitous presence of cameras to prove that any homosexual activity had actually taken place. Wilde relied heavily in endearing himself to the court by resorting to humour and witty retorts and exposing Queensberry for the pompous and blundering old fool that he was. But it was exactly this flippancy which led to his downfall. When Wilde was asked whether he had ever kissed a certain servant boy, Wilde responded, "Oh, dear no. He was a particularly plain boy – unfortunately ugly – I pitied him for it." When he was then asked why the boy's ugliness was relevant, Wilde hesitated and for the first time became flustered: "You sting me and insult me and try to unnerve me,” he said, “and at times one says things flippantly when one ought to speak more seriously.”

It didn't take long after that for Queensberry to assemble enough evidence to prove his accusation. His lawyers paid rent boys to secure their damming testimonies and Wilde was soon forced to drop the case. He was now faced with debilitating legal charges and, having so publicly incriminated himself, the authorities had no option but to arrest him for gross indecency. This led to the second trial and eventually to his own destruction.

So why did this play affect me so? Well, it was Wilde's foolhardy decision to prosecute Queensberry which intrigues me. What was he thinking? What was behind this self destructive streak? Well, the fact is that Wilde was being used by Bosie to get back at his father. Bosie had a very troubled relationship with Queensberry, whom he despised. Whereas Bosie was sensitive and artistic, Queensberry was a bully and a brute and was more interested in the art of fighting than in his son's poetry (This is the same Queensberry who composed the famous boxing rules). Queensberry looked down on his son. He considered him a sissy and a weakling and never ceased tormenting him. He was fiercely opposed to Bosie's relationship with Wilde and was dead set on separating the two. In fact he had a bee in his bonnet about older men trying to corrupt his sons. He had already accused Rosebery, the liberal statesman and future prime minister, of having a homosexual affair with his elder son Francis who worked for him as his private secretary. Francis died in a suspicious hunting accident, which some believe may have been a suicide resulting from his father's threats to expose him. Bosie was deeply affected by his brother's death and as far as Wilde was concerned, this was the last straw. Encouraged by Bosie, Wilde took Queensberry to court in an attempt to put to an end his incessant bullying, but as we have seen, it all backfired in the most tragic fashion.

Lord Alfred Douglas (aka Bosie)
The trials of Oscar Wilde were a great sensation at the time and many films, books and plays have been written about it, all of which try to illuminate what was really going on in Wilde's mind when he embarked on this spectacular feat of self destruction. Was he a fool for love? A martyr for the gay cause? A shameless attention seeker? 

A certain phrase I once stumbled upon while reading Robinson Crusoe came to mind as I listened to the play. It is a phrase which intrigues me and which has subsequently become the underlying sentiment in my forthcoming novel “The Ornamental Hermit”:
‘It is a secret overruling decree that hurries us on to be the instruments of our own destruction. Even though it be before us we rush upon it with our eyes wide open’.