The BOOKPRESS September 2000

The Real Oscar Wilde? (Part II)

Sandra F. Siegel

...continued from Part I

M. But that is only one of the readings that is possible. To me, I am never saying in the play that Dorian Gray was inspired by Lord Alfred Douglas. I have created a piece of blocking that creates a certain energy between the two actors. And a certain love effect between the two actors which dramatically I needed. I needed another love scene between the two of them and I thought this will be it. So what you are doing is that you are projecting onto it: "Oh, this means that." So that this whole distance between the event––and what you are doing with it––is what we are fascinated with. Exactly that. If we have somebody reading statistics about AIDS and two men come together on stage, you are going to think they’re going to die, or they’re sick, you will build the rest of the story. And that’s why it is so important that Gross Indecency is a group of actors telling a story, a group of actors and the audience, too, creating a story. So in terms of how factual it was: yes, most of the things that are in Gross Indecency came from books, factual information. But did Oscar really behave the way Michael Emerson is portraying him? I don’t know. We will never know. This is what we think he behaved like. But we don’t know. That’s why, when you call this a "documentary collage," I don’t know. Documentary theater is a very specific genre. I don’t think Gross Indecency belongs in it.

S. I see.

M. I think that to say it is documentary is true in as much as it is based on documents. Collage: absolutely, because some of our formal research goes into how to create a narrative from different events. So those two things are true. But I would never think of it as a documentary collage. I think of it as––I don’t know. Ten years from now somebody will think up a name for it. Right now I don’t know what it is.

S. I mean, it is based on documents and we are meant to believe in the veracity of those documents. Yet, insofar as they contradict each other, they undermine each others’ authority.

M. But there is another step. There is one more contradiction that encompasses all contradictions. Our recounting of the story changes it. So our pretense is we are a group of actors, a theatrical group, trying to find out what the story is. And, as such, take everything we say with a grain of salt: it is we who are telling the story.

S. Yet, in the interlude Marvin Taylor is the object of parody, is he not?

M. Well, you know, it is very interesting. That whole thing with Marvin Taylor: it is the thing that is most talked about in the play. Which is kind of amusing. Because Marvin saw it and he didn’t feel that he was being parodied at all.

S. Marvin Taylor is not your invention?

M. No. And he speaks like that. So as much as you think it’s a parody, it’s a real guy. "Uhm," "Uhm," "Uhm." He does that. The way that the actor rehearsed it is that I taped the interview and I gave him the tape. He listened to the tape and what he enacts on stage is what he heard on the tape.

S. I thought he was a fictional character.

M. Marvin Taylor exists. You can interview him.

S. He’s at NYU?

M. He’s a Wilde scholar at NYU and co-editor of the book Reading Wilde.

S. I didn’t notice his name as the editor.

M. He is a co-editor. There are four editors.

S. So you didn’t mean the interlude between acts to serve as a parody or as a comic turn ?

M. You know, Mike Nichols came and saw the show and he said the scene completely changes your perspective of the show because it says that there was no conception of the homosexual as a social subject. The idea of homosexuality didn’t really exist as such. . . Foucault talks about it as well. As long as homosexuality wasn’t a construct you didn’t know what you were. What Wilde does is go back to the Greeks and more specifically to the Spartan model of male-male relationships in which men were together. They went to war, they were extremely manly, masculine, and they made love. They had wives and they had mistresses and they had their lovers. So they were not defined by their relationships to members of the same sex. That is the model that Wilde was trying enact. So the question is why isn’t Wilde telling the truth? Why doesn’t he say that he slept with those boys? And the answer I think is a very valid one. It is because his concept was much more about aestheticism than it was about homosexuality. He didn’t think of himself as a homosexual. He thought of himself as an artist. He was basing his creative nature on the classic Greeks. Which was the same source for the Italian Renaissance. You know, people talk about the Italian Renaissance as a return to the classic form of ancient Greece. In the same way Wilde was looking at the Renaissance and ancient Greece for models of how to construct his persona. . . .I’m getting really, really intellectual here. But I think it is in answer to your question. So what does Marvin do? Marvin recontextualizes the whole event to try to make us understand what Oscar’s project was.

S. You really meant that scene to be taken seriously? The syntax is broken. Sentences are shaped oddly––

M. Well, it is exactly as he speaks. I didn’t touch it. It is exactly how the man speaks. I agree with what Ben Brantley said: "Marvin Taylor puts forth a series of ideas that are nonetheless true for being portrayed amusingly or for being portrayed with some comedy ..."

S. I see. . . Of course, then, my reading is probably one of many different interpretations of the play, which you welcome. I rather thought that you were trying to––

M. ––make fun of him.

S. Well, not so much making fun of him. I thought you were trying to reveal something about him that he tried to conceal from himself.

M. Well, that’s interesting. But the truth about that scene is that it’s very delicate. If it goes too far it becomes vaudeville, almost. And it becomes very funny. But if it’s played correctly, it works. Sometimes they go too far and sometimes they don’t go far enough. It’s a very difficult scene.

S. Yes, that is true. On the several occasions on which I saw the play I was struck on seeing the play several times how different each performance was.

M. You know that scene is very interesting. I wanted very much to have it in. Everybody in the production voted and it was split right down middle: kill the scene; keep the scene. The actors kept asking: Is it going to work? Is it going to fail? Is it going to ruin the play? Formally, it is one of the strongest departures from the narrative of the play.

S. Yes, it is.

M. Finally, we said we’ll do four previews and then we’ll decide what to do. Can you imagine how difficult it was for an actor to go on thinking that this might be cut? It was incredibly painful. In the first two performances it was either too dry or too funny. Too dry or too funny. Over and over and over. Until finally in the fourth performance, on opening night, we found it. And there was this glow from the actors that said "Ah, we did it. We conquered this terrible, horrible, difficult thing."

S. So Marvin Taylor’s point of view is not being juxtaposed against the implicit view that the play enacts? "What is the meaning of the trials?" In the interview the actor who plays Moisés puts that question to Marvin Taylor, the Wilde scholar. The scholar’s response is oddly incoherent.

M. Did you think it was incoherent?

S. Well, his hesitations, his broken sentences, his expletives, all paced as though he was breathless, so breathless that he had something so important to say he was unable to speak. He was unable to speak because––

M. That’s nice.

S. He was unable to speak because something he had to say was yet unspeakable. Obviously, this is why I am thinking that you were, in some way, outing him. He is trying to comment on the meaning of the trials when, in fact, everything that precedes and follows is Moisés Kaufman’s theatrical response to the same question. Your response is rather different. The juxtaposition between what "the scholar" has to say and what we are being shown by your vision are dramatically played against one another. That is one of the sources of satire or parody.

M. Ben Brantley used the word "satire," too. Observations are not less true because they are presented satirically. I agree with him.

S. On another topic: the principal text that you use for the play is H. Montgomery Hyde’s Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.

M. Yes.

S. Do you have any idea about how he came to put this material together?

M. You know there are huge fights about that. You know that?

S. I do know that. What do you understand the fights to have been about?

M. People say that he went to the reporters and he got the information from the reporters.

S. Well, you know, he says that himself. He did not pretend otherwise.

M. Yes, he says that himself. But then, other people say that he made up a bunch of the stuff. And other people say that he, you know, I mean, there are different versions and then he also got it from...but there wasn’t a court stenographer at the time.

S. That is true. There was no court-appointed stenographer who recorded what was said in the courtroom.

M. So there is no––you know the transcripts are not like what we think of as transcripts.

S. That is exactly right. So that what is reported to have occurred in the courtroom is rather like Thucydides’ speeches in his History of the Peloponnesian Wars. He presents the actual speeches of actual people. But when he doesn’t have access to what was, in fact, said, he invents what, according to their character, or according to the circumstances, they would have said. And he tells us, in his introduction to his History that there is some invention in his account.

M. That’s why it is very important that one of the first things that happens in the play is that the audience is told: "It is from this book." They put it there and they put the light on it.

S. And an audience watching the play will think that book is authoritative.

M. Which it is. I think that we all think that it is an authoritative book. And how much of it was right or wrong? Well, you know people will make their own decisions just as we are all making our own decisions.

S. By the way what about the unpublished memoirs of Clarke? That is quoted from––

M. From different sources.

S. From different sources, Chiefly H. Montgomery Hyde, is that right?

M. Ah, no, actually, Part is from Carson’s books. I mean there are different places were they talk about them. Ellmann talks about Clarke’s unpublished memoirs.

S. But the unpublished memoirs themselves, you––

M. I never saw the memoirs.

S. In fact, so far as we know, they do not exist.

M. Right. No, No. No. They do exist. I think they exist. I’m not sure. I think they exist and they are locked up somewhere. But I got them from others’ sources.

S. Sources such as H. Montgomery Hyde, for example, who thanks Clarke’s grandson?

M. Yes. Oh, I got a letter from the grandson of Oscar Wilde yesterday.

S. From Merlin Holland?

M. Saying that he wants to come to see the show, that he’s heard great things––

S. He is a lovely, generous man. I’m certain he will be very responsive to your play.


Sandra Siegel teaches British thought at Cornell University. Her book on Oscar Wilde is forthcoming.

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