Oscar Fingal O’ Flahertie Wills Wilde not a Sunday name but the name used by Judge Sir Alfred Wills to pass sentence. In this case, two years hard labour spent inside Reading Gaol, 1895/97. In his summing up played out over the speakers of Hull Central Library, the judge describes the eminent writer’s crimes as ‘horrible charges’ suggesting, ‘people who can do these things must be dead to all sense of shame.’ he concludes describing the proceedings as, ‘the worst case I’ve ever tried.’
Wilde Without The Boy a dramatisation of De Profundis by Gareth Armstrong, with Gerard Logan as Oscar Wilde wowed critics in Edinburgh and has continued to do so ever since. With Hull having hosted the first ‘UK Pride’ event and the site of a number of LGBT50 commemorations – nationwide programme marking 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality – it seems fitting Wilde is chosen to launch the 25th Humbermouth Literature Festival in 2017.
The one man play painstakingly constructed from manuscripts and microfiches, begins on the eve of Wilde’s release from prison. He receives a letter stating he is to be transferred in order that the expected attention his freedom will attract can be somewhat muted. Wilde is a cause celebre in late Victorian Britain, he has penned many popular and important works during the 1890s including Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, The Importance of Being Earnest and countless essays, poems and more. He is/was a paragon of high society and lived the lifestyle befitting one of such status. And yet he is undone and ultimately betrayed by his friend and lover Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas better known as ‘Bosie’ and the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, John Sholto Douglas, a Scottish noble and Bosie’s brutish father. (He lent his name to ‘Queensberry Rules’ the code of modern boxing)
Oscar Wilde was found guilty of ‘committing acts of gross indecency with other male persons’ but as Gareth Armstrong’s dramatisation of De Profundis ‘ Latin translation: ‘from the depths’ shows that this notorious case is far more complex and conniving than perhaps appears on the surface, involving manipulation, bankruptcy, sexual jealousy and deep-seated homophobia.
During Act One Gerard reads from the letters Wilde wrote to his former lover. The text is so tightly wound as to allow very little space, echoing the claustrophobic nature of imprisonment. The letters are both bilious and supercilious and after the initial enjoyment of the barbed humour – razor sharp put downs of Bosie’s character, intellect, artistic proficiency – it becomes hard going. Wilde stating that whilst in Bosie’s company he is utterly unable to write – as if the young man’s mere presence has slain the muse – is one of the more lighter moments.
Interest comes in the reappearance and examination of the infamous poem, The love that dare not speak its name. Wilde who, rightly or wrongly, believes he is God’s gift to literature, recalls the reaction from the court. It is saddening that his examples plucked from Shakespeare and the bible in defence of his nature, of the apparent elevated position of an older man’s affection for a younger one, are doomed to fail.
It is perhaps difficult for the observer to feel sympathy because of the holier than thou attitude, until later when we learn about the death of Oscar’s mother and the legal separation of the son from the father. Now the abject and deliberate cruelty become clear. A telling line illustrates this said, according to Wilde, by fellow prisoners: ‘I am sorry for you, it is harder for you, than it is for the likes of us.’
Oscar’s coping strategy is to see this thing that has been done to him, as opportunity to embark on a path to spiritual enlightenment, this action seems closer to mania: the desperate need to find God, a common occurrence amongst prison populations. Now filled with piety Wilde has become martyr for all the world’s sin.
Act Two The Ballad of Reading Gaol is more palatable. Essentially an epic poem with stark horrifying stanzas that wage war on the penal system. This text was delivered with much more theatre, movement and yes life, despite the subject matter.
Written after Wilde’s release, the verse fixes on the nature of the condemned man, using the plight of one bound for the hangman’s noose. The writing brilliantly challenges the absolutism of the law and how it is enforced. How those who are deemed to have fallen foul of it are hidden away out of sight of society, out of sight of those who would put them there, so succinctly put in the line, ‘That every prison that men build, is built with bricks of shame’ Wilde also argues that the apparent contradiction of the contentment of the sleeping man, is resolved by the knowledge that he is soon to be at peace: released from this earth and be received unto God.
Gerard, who I read in the accompanying text has been the driving force behind this project and I later learn has performed these monumental works for the past three years, excels in his portrayal of Oscar, his upright position, head up, chin raised, hands clasped just so, all contributing to bringing the brilliance of Wilde’s wit and wisdom to the fore.
The text begs to be read, and read aloud, savouring every macabre detailed rhyming couplet, such as the allegorical ‘dance upon the air’ and brief respite ‘a tent of blue’ the seldom seen prisoner’s sky.
The subtle shifts are illustrated with mood change a soft shoe shuffle as the piano music in the background quickens and becomes almost jaunty. The text is laden with religious symbolism talk of Christ and the wine-soaked sponge, stigmata and the tree used to make the cross. I rather feel that this is Wilde trying to recapture the religious fervour, he felt was the only thing left that would redeem his soul during imprisonment.
Despite the incredibly dense text and the complexity of language, Gerard’s delivery is filled with drama, tension: with a gleam in his eye delighting in the madness of it all. This almost second performance is in direct contrast to that which has gone before. The despairingly crushing misery memoir has given way to a grotesque masterpiece where the damned and the living co-exist.