The BOOKPRESS September 2000

The Real Oscar Wilde? (Part I)

Sandra F. Siegel

    I met with Moisés Kaufman in his studio in New York on September 30, 1997 to talk about his new play and about the Tectonic Theater Project. Gross Indecency: the Three Trials of Oscar Wilde had opened six months earlier in New York City at the Greenwich House, a small theater with a capacity of 200. In July, it moved to the upscale and slightly larger Minetta Lane, where it ran for over nineteen months. It has since toured widely in North America and Europe to equally enthusiastic audiences. During this commemorative centennial year of Oscar Wilde’s death it continues to contribute to the afterlife Wilde richly enjoys.
    The life of Oscar Wilde has inspired countless narratives. Some are scholarly, others are fictional, and all present themselves as authoritative. But none has merged the scholarly and the fictional with the intellectual force and informed imagination that Moisés Kaufman brings to this material.
    The brilliance of the play depends on the canniness with which Kaufman seeks a theatrical form adequate to the complexity of Wilde’s life. Kaufman locates himself within a tradition made familiar to us by Bertolt Brecht, by Jerzy Grotowski’s Polish Repertory Theater in Europe, and, among others, by Herbert Blau, Richard Schechner, Sue-Ellen Case, and Elin Diamond in North America.
    Kaufman seeks to find a persuasive theatrical form––one that will persuade an audience that similar events are occurring in our cosmopolitan contemporary world. Although, as the following interview makes clear, in Gross Indecency Kaufman meant to call attention to a multiplicity of dramatic tensions set into motion by opposing views, there is little to suggest that audiences grasped the multiple narratives or appreciated the decisions Kaufman intended them to contemplate. We readily recognize reviews as a suitable index of the reception of an artwork. Gross Indecency confirmed for some the view of Wilde they brought with them to the theater; for others, it clarified vague thoughts about Wilde they had not previously understood. But if Gross Indecency falls short of fulfilling the theatrical principles Kaufman envisioned, his most recent play, The Laramie Project, which opened at the Union Square Theater in New York on May 16, 2000, marks a turning point in the achievement of contemporary political theater.
    The Laramie Project is a version of what happened in Laramie, Wyoming following the October 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. The contrast between the brutality of the murder on the one hand, and, one the other, the innocence of Shepard, claimed worldwide attention and continues to claim the attention of Laramie. One month after the murder, Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project went to Laramie where, over the course of the next two years, they interviewed hundreds of people who were touched by the murder. The Laramie Project is as much about the murder of Matthew Shepard as it is about the actors and actresses who conducted the interviews––and responded to them. Dramatizing the event in Laramie in all of its aspects, Kaufman is returning theater to the politics of everyday life, which is where, one must suppose, it began.
    Although readers of The Bookpress may not have the occasion to view The Laramie Project––it is expected to close on September 2––Moisés Kaufman is currently preparing a new version of the play for a film to be co-produced by Peter S. Cane and Roy Gabay. (HBO and Good Machine have bought the rights.) Although it is not certain when during this season it is likely to circulate, it would be surprising, unless Moisés Kaufman has revised his view of documentary art, if the film did not seek to incorporate the experience of the performers who impersonated themselves––as well as others––in the New York production. For documentary theater, as Moisés Kaufman conceives it, inevitably calls attention to itself at the same time that it seeks to stir audiences into a fresh awareness. Its adversary is time: as there is always one more moment to include, so there are always moments that have been excluded. How did Kaufman address this in Gross Indecency and how will the forthcoming film version of The Laramie Project address this challenge? This is the question that documentary art presents and this is the subject of the conversation that follows.

(Ellipses indicate an omission where the transcription of the conversation is slightly abbreviated for the purposes of print.)

S. In writing and directing Gross Indecency you appear to have been influenced by the German theatrical director Erwin Piscator, by his experimental method as well as his conception of theater as a "living document." At the same time, there are departures from Piscator––

M. Well, you know, he was doing "the living newspaper." So this idea that the newspapers could be brought to life on the stage was very interesting. In writing Gross Indecency it was very important to portray on the stage the audience of the time, the society of the time. That was the only way that Wilde’s ideas would work as radical thought. I mean, although his ideas are still radical today, to see that I wanted to first juxtapose them with Victorian mores. And a great way to show Victorian society on the stage is by letting people use their own words. Newspapers do that. They talk about the society and the mores and in the vocabulary of their time. That was Piscator’s contribution to this play. Newspapers are a representation of what the society is. Newspapers speak in the vocabulary of the world in which they are written.

S. There were many newspapers to choose from and a range of conflicting opinions. And a wide range of conflicting opinions ion those nineteenth-century papers. When you read through them some principle of selection must have guided you?

M. Yes, there was a lot of information . . . I wanted to choose the opinions that were the most interesting and the most revelatory. . . I considered: what is the thing that’s going to reveal the most? What’s really occurring in this event?

S. You had, then, a notion of the events before you began to select?

M. Yes, I had a notion of the events before I read the first word about the trials. We have all heard about the trials . . . But the more, of course, I researched the more that notion kept changing. There were scenes written that never made it into the play. There were scenes written that I never thought of, scenes that I put in only after I saw the actors performing them.

S. Really?

M. It was a very dialectical relationship with my original idea. This is the way all art is, I think. You always start with a hunch. The hunch is very right in many aspects and is very wrong in many aspects. So one of the most important things about being an artist is that you have to throw your most precious babies away sometimes.

S. Are you saying this: you began with Piscator’s notion of "documentary theater." Then, once you got started, as you worked with the material, the play took on a life of its own?

M. Yes. There was an earlier step, a concern that precedes the specifics of Piscator. Piscator’s idea was one more tool that I used to address a prior concern. I created a company called the Tectonic Theater Project. The purpose of the company was to produce works that explore theatrical language and form. I am very interested in how theater communicates, in what constitutes a theatrical vocabulary and form. In a way that is why I was so attracted to Oscar Wilde. Because he was also dealing with form. He was also dealing with language, with creating new forms. . . The whole thing began when I got a book. . . I got a book for my birthday three years ago called The Wit and Humour of Oscar Wilde. It was mostly epigrams and funny things that one has come to expect of Oscar Wilde. The last ten pages of the book were trial transcripts. And when I hit that––I have always known that Oscar was tried and sentenced to jail––but the last ten pages of that book were part of the cross examination by Carson when Wilde is asked about art. He’s forced to defend his art in a court of law. And I thought that this was one of the most important events in the twentieth-century history of art. How can an artist justify his art in a court of law? That led me to look for the full trial transcripts. It took me something like seven months to get the book.

S. Do you mean H. Montgomery Hyde’s The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde?

M. Yes. But the original version. Because he later did an edited version. The original version is fifty years old and it is very difficult to get.

S. You must mean, then, the version published in 1948.

M. Is that when it was?

S. Yes, if when you refer to "trial transcripts" you have in mind H. Montgomery Hyde’s version.

M. I see.

S. Here, I have a copy of the book. This one?

M. There was then a revised version that H. Montgomery Hyde edited.

S. Do you mean the Dover edition?

M. Yes, the Dover one.

S. But it is this, 1948 edition, that you are calling the original one?

M. Yes, that one. ––So I read the entire trial transcripts and what became clear, what amazed me, was that Oscar Wilde was talking about art with such clarity and there was such a purity to his discourse that I found it astounding. You know in today’s world we really tend to look at art from a political standpoint, or from a social standpoint. But what Oscar is doing is talking about art from an artistic perspective. That I found really rare and I found it very important in 1997. You remember when Oscar says "The purpose of art is to stir the most divine and remote chords that make music in our soul?" Wilde advocated that art could do what up until then it was believed only religion or science could do to better the human race. He’s saying art can do this better than any other thing and in its own terms. So after reading the trial transcripts––I was very methodical about it––I read everything that Wilde ever wrote . . . and really familiarized myself with his artistic ideas . . . I came to think of Wilde as a revolutionary whose tools and weapons––he probably would have hated my using the word "weapons"––were art. He used art to force Victorian society into a dialogue that it needed to have. ––After I read everything he ever wrote I said: "Okay, the next step is to read all of the biographies by people who knew him. All his contemporaries or as many as I could get my hands on." So, I read all of the biographies by people who knew him and had participated in one way or another in the trials. And then, only after that, I read biographies by people who never knew him, people like Richard Ellmann. And the last thing I did was to look at queer theory to try to see how modern academicians were looking at Wilde. Not only queer theorists, but political scientists and social scientists and, you know, people who think of Wilde as an anarchist and things like that. . . What happened at that point––and this was the birth of the piece––is that I became fascinated by two things: one, to tell the story of what happened to Wilde, because I thought his voice needed to be heard; and second, to explore theatrical language and form. More specifically, for this piece: Can theater reconstruct history? That is a very important question. . . Because as soon as I began to do the research I realized that there were as many versions of what happened as there were people present.

S. That’s exactly right.

M. My original intention when I was writing the piece was that instead of deciding who was right and who was wrong, I would just write from this book and from what this person says; and from that book, and what that person says, and I would put them side by side and see that they were contradictory––Lord Alfred Douglas says this and Edward Clarke says "I never said that." You know, things like that. And because I’m very bad at making decisions, I said: "I’ll put it all in and eventually come up with one coherent story.

S. Did you?

M. I never got around to doing it because the moment I looked at it I saw that it would be completely ridiculous––not to mention inauthentic––to come up with one coherent story. So the problem became: how do you come up with a theatrical form that can encompass the diversity of stories? And how do you do this so that the audience is put into the position that I was put in?

S. I see. That’s exactly what I thought you were doing.

M. And I think that’s what the piece is about. It’s an attempt to create a theatrical event that will allow the audience to construct the history from the information we are giving them. . . This is not what theater usually does. But I think this is one of the things theater can do very well. So as a writer, that was the formal problem.
    But then, as a director, as soon as I got into a rehearsal room, the question became: How can an actor reconstruct an historical character? An historical character is based on the premise that this man really existed. That he really behaved a certain way. That he really looked a certain way. Now you are putting an actor on stage and you are saying: this is that person. And, of course, the moment that any actor begins to perform an historical character his idea of who the character is comes into play. So actingwise, I was having the same problem that I was having writingwise. Writingwise, I was dealing with a number of versions of a story. Directingwise, I was dealing with a number of interpretations of historical characters. And every voice was, in turn, changing or altering what I initially introduced. . .
    I ended up with the problem of how to create a theatrical piece that incorporates all those voices. I was also fascinated by the fact that our only contact with this reality was the printed word. I am fascinated by the fact that most theater in this country and in the Western Hemisphere is not like theater in Oriental cultures where there is an oral tradition; here, it’s a written tradition. So I didn’t want to lose the connection with the actual object, with the book. That’s why on stage they keep reading the book and why in the play they say: "it’s from this book" and "it’s from that book." In a way, I stage it this way to show the vulnerability of the attempt to reconstruct, from what we have read in books, something that happened between human beings.

S. You stage something like a tableau vivant as Douglas and Wilde enact, through their bodily gestures, a silent narrative of their attachment to one another; at the same time, through the sequential reading on stage of the various texts another different narrative unfolds. Dramatizing the two simultaneously itself produces a certain dramatic effect and creates dramatic meaning.

M. There are so many times in Gross Indecency that the text is used parallel to the action on stage. For example, in the first love scene between Douglas and Oscar Wilde, Douglas says to us what Wilde said to him and the physicality between them is a love scene.

S. Yes, I was quite struck by that not only with respect to what I am calling the double vision––you call it parallel actions––that inform each other––

M. Contextualizing each other––

S. Contextualizing each other and through that contextualization eliciting a different meaning for those in the audience who recognize the parallel actions. Throughout Gross Indecency, for example, the nonverbal enactment between Wilde and Douglas seems to betray Wilde’s spoken words during the trials.

M. Yes. . . what we have learned is that instead of elevating the text to a higher key––instead of the text being here and everything on stage is meant to support the text––the text can be one line of discourse and the blocking another line of discourse. It has a line of discourse and the sound has a line of discourse and, for example, when you have the boys in their underwear you have another line of discourse that says: look at this. And that brings me back to Bertolt Brecht, who was a genius about stuff like that. What he called the alienation effect is about keeping the audience thinking about what is going on rather than being entirely involved in the event. . . I think that eventually my big discovery with Gross Indecency was that it is about a group of actors trying to discover what the historical event was. As long as that is the premise, the play that you are seeing is not the story of Oscar Wilde: the play you see is a group of actors trying to reenact it. Then you have all the license in the world. Because you have acknowledged the most important version of the play is what the actors are doing. Does that make sense?

S. It does make sense. Where do they arrive in the process?

M. Well, when the actors come out on stage and when Oscar Wilde picks up the book and says: "This is from De Profundis," that is not Oscar Wilde but an actor reading to the audience from the book: "Do not be afraid of the past. If people tell you it is irrevocable, do not believe them. The past, the present, and the future are but one moment in the sight of God. The imagination can transcend them." What does that mean? It means that the actors are encouraging the audience to revisit the past in an effort to change the future, which is a daring thing to do. And I think that after they have been through the whole piece the actors go through what they want you to go through as well, which is the discovery of what happened to this great man.

S. I want to return for a moment to your appreciation of Wilde as someone whose art, in your view, is pure rather than political.

M. Well, art is always political.

S. Exactly the question I want to ask you to address. Do you think of Gross Indecency as a political play?

M. Absolutely. Highly political.

S. It seems to me it is political in a variety of different ways, but most deeply with respect to the question of Wilde. In a certain sense you are bringing him out, portraying, in your version of Wilde, his increasing acknowledgement to himself––and the world––of who he is.

M. (Laughter) Outing him you mean?

S. Yes, outing Wilde in the same way you are outing the Wilde scholar, Marvin Taylor. He hides behind his ideas, his language obscures rather than clarifies his thought. He seems parodic.

M. Oscar Wilde was a very political person and a political character. What attracts me about his discourse on art is that he is not talking about politics; he’s not thinking about politics. He’s thinking about the power of art to transform human beings. Now, of course, that is a political idea. But even when he wrote The Soul of Man Under Socialism, he was coming at it from an artistic, humanistic perspective much more than from a political perspective. . . Still, creating the persona that Oscar Wilde was in the Victorian era was a political act. Oscar himself was a political event.

S. Perhaps you are drawing a distinction between political from ideological acts.

M. Hmm. Maybe its a distinction between––I think it’s about intention. We can look back and say of course what he did was a very strong political act or a radical political act. But he was thinking of it in terms of an artistic act. So it is very important to maintain the difference between what we think and how he interpreted his own behavior.

S. Are you thinking of some particular act or are you thinking generally?

M. Generally. Oscar Wilde was the first performance artist. He created this performance persona. It was Oscar Wilde.

S. I see.

M. And by parading this persona around Victorian England he created a theatrical event on the streets of London. I was talking to someone from American Theater yesterday. He asked me why Oscar Wilde did what he did. Why did he sue the Marquess of Queensberry? Everybody was telling him not to do it. Why did he do it? That’s one of the biggest questions in the play. And what I said to him is that he had achieved such a degree of fame and notoriety that he had gone as far as he could possibly go and still promote his ideas. Imagine what would have happened if he had won against Queensberry. He would have struck a blow for art. It would have been incredible. And he might even have thought that even if he lost becoming a martyr was the next step. You know, Andre Gide said "Don’t go back to"––you know he was in Algiers before the trial––"Don’t go back, don’t go back. If you go back you know what can happen." Wilde said: "I know exactly what can happen. But I have come this far and I can only go forward now. I can’t go back."

S. I think of Gross Indecency as a kind of documentary collage––maybe that’s not a term that you would like to use––it is, by whatever name we call it, made up of documents you selected which represent your reading of Wilde.

M. Yes, our reading of Wilde.

S. Do you think of it as being faithful to the facts or as an artist, have you taken certain liberties ? For example, in the play The Picture of Dorian Gray is important as the novel that Douglas inspires Wilde to write. In fact, Dorian Gray was written before he met Douglas.

M. Right.

S. That’s, perhaps, poetic license?

M. No there are many things––the kiss is a much more specific one. I don’t have any historical account that they kissed on the lips.

S. That is clearly something that one can appreciate as interpolation. But what about––

M. Why? That’s very interesting. Why? What is the difference––

S. Between––

M. Between your example and mine?

S. My example has to do with publishing history––

M. Yes, it was published before that.

S. And the composition of a particular novel which was written before he met Douglas.

M. Right. And the kiss? Nobody says that they ever kissed. Nobody ever said that they kissed. So that it is just as much a created, fabricated event as you just described.

S. Yes, they are both fabricated. But one is a public event the truth of which we can be certain; the other is an event about which we have no direct information.

continued in Part II...

Return to Front Page