The Judas Kiss…Wit and Wilde
Where does one start with a star vehicle spotlighting a celebrated actor, a renowned playwright and an historical figure of great cultural and social importance? Perhaps then we should begin at the beginning, with Oscar Wilde, the Irish wit, aesthete, icon of gay liberation and, ultimately, tragic figure who is compared, not unjustly, to Jesus Christ in David Hare’s 1998 drama.
The most popular stage writer of his day, Wilde’s professional reputation was temporarily overshadowed at the end of his life by his private reputation—as either sexual deviant or sexual martyr, depending on your viewpoint—when he was convicted of gross indecency (a Victorian term for minor acts of homosexuality), the charges having been brought against him by the Marquess of Queensbury, who also happened to be the father of Wilde’s young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas.
That part of the tale is well known. What is not always remembered, or often overlooked, is that Wilde had the marquess arrested first, for libel, after he accused Wilde of “posing as a sodomite.” Wilde’s decision to press charges was supported by a number of his close friends and not just the vengeful Alfred, hoping to get back at his father, as playwright David Hare would have it.
When asked to defend “the love that dared not speak its name,” he gave a flowery but elegiac description of a love of the most ennobled sort…
Regardless of motive, it was not a smart move as the marquess was forced to prove his allegations in court, resulting in Wilde’s conviction. Historically, it’s hard to say which of the two, Wilde or Lord Alfred, a.k.a. Bosie, contributed most to Wilde’s downfall. What is clear is that in the process the destruction of the man was nearly complete, while his stature as a writer has never been in doubt.
During the trial, which is not dramatized in Hare’s play, Wilde’s flippancy may have won him points for being amusing, but also greatly undermined his credibility. When asked to defend “the love that dared not speak its name,” he gave a flowery but elegiac description of a love of the most ennobled sort, all but evading the issue at hand, though the world would soon know what it really meant.
The play opens with a distracting trifle, a sex scene between a bellhop and a maid in the Cadogan Hotel in London where Oscar is about to make a fateful choice: to stay and face charges or to flee. Bosie soon arrives along with Wilde’s former lover, Robbie Ross, and the action is set in motion. Bosie urges Wilde to stay and fight, while Ross begs him to leave on the hour, knowing it to be the saner course. But Wilde will not disappoint Bosie.
Only an outright breakdown on Oscar’s part when he and Ross are alone cues the watcher that more is going on beneath the surface than his witty posturing will allow.
Act I is an old-fashioned drama of ideas and speechifying. Even when adorned with the famous Wildean wit it comes across as heavy in Hare’s hands. In part, it’s because Hare has chosen to make Bosie the sole villain, and thus amplifies his faults—spoiled, vain, promiscuous and contemptuous—while giving him few redeeming qualities to show why Wilde loves him to the point of risking his reputation and life. Ross, on the other hand, is more well-rounded, torn by his love for Wilde and his jealousy of Bosie.
The ball bounces back and forth—stay or flee, stay or flee—till the argument turns tedious. Even Oscar thinks so, demanding wine and a lobster dinner, as though what hangs in the balance—his fate—could not possibly be more important than pleasure. Only an outright breakdown on Oscar’s part when he and Ross are alone cues the watcher that more is going on beneath the surface than his witty posturing will allow. More’s the pity, as we don’t entirely side with him in his hour of need.
The play’s second half belongs neither to Wilde nor Hare, however, but to its star,
One must not, however, mistake historical reality for its dramatic counterpart, which has a better chance of succeeding if only by dint of authorial omnipotence. That Act I does not entirely do so is in part because it feels suspiciously like a setup for better things to come. Thankfully, it is.
Act II resumes in Naples, with Wilde and Bosie reunited after Wilde’s two-year sentence has made him a broken man. But Bosie’s promise to help Wilde get back on his feet has fallen flat due to lack of money. In the meantime, Ross arrives on a mission from Wilde’s wife, Constance, to remind Wilde of his promise to avoid any future association with Bosie on pain of financial retribution. And so the drama resumes.
The play’s second half belongs neither to Wilde nor Hare, however, but to its star, Rupert Everett, as he sculpts out a figure of great tragic nobility, sad, lost but ultimately noble as he goes to his doom, like Christ carrying his cross up to Golgotha. It is riveting.
Wilde, now a convert to Roman Catholicism, confides to Ross that the only fault he finds with the “greatest story ever told” is that Jesus was betrayed not by a loved one, like the apostle John, but by Judas, a near-stranger. Wilde finds the dramatic possibilities of the former to be stronger and more appealing, believing himself to have succumbed to such a fate himself. The audience, however, will be forgiven for wondering why.
Mr. Everett gives us something of the Oscar Wilde we believe we know and love: funny, outrageous, slightly ridiculous, but always morally centred…
In the nearly two hours Wilde and Bosie spend onstage together, there is little to convince us that Wilde has made a morally correct, if judicially appalling choice. While Hare may believe that in the wayward Bosie, a young man of few redeeming qualities and almost certainly no great importance, he has given Wilde his John, he has not. Ross would have served better in that regard, but in fact Ross was Wilde’s unappreciated defender.
Yet the act is still glorious. Despite Wilde’s desperate, broken state, Mr. Everett gives us something of the Oscar Wilde we believe we know and love: funny, outrageous, slightly ridiculous, but always morally centred as he faces his final predicament: the loss of love. Here, in fact, is the Wilde who gave us transcendent works like The Happy Prince, who sided with the poor, the lost, the neglected, and the morally wayward, as was to be his fate. And this is Everett’s triumph.
In transitioning from the first act to the second, it feels as if we had set out at noon on something of a utilitarian scow bound for who knows where, only to find ourselves at sunset on a sailing vessel of the most beautiful, fragile sort. It is not the death barge of a Carthaginian queen sent to her final rest, but rather one of a spiritually ennobled, though physically and mentally bankrupt Irish queer whose rashness set the stage for a century of rebellion on behalf of the love that dared not speak its name till he broke the taboo.
David Hare’s The Judas Kiss starring Rupert Everett as Oscar Wilde; directed by Neil Armfield at the Ed Mirvish Theatre in Toronto from March 22 through May 1, 2016.
Jeffrey Round is the author of nine novels, including the Lambda Award-winning Lake On The Mountain, and a poetry collection, In the Museum of Leonardo da Vinci. His first two books, A Cage of Bones and The P-town Murders, were listed on AfterElton’s Top 50 Greatest Gay Books. He is a founding member of the Naked Heart Festival of Words.
Tags: A Writer's Half-Life
, David Hare
, Ed Mirvish Theatre
, Jeffrey Round
, Jesus Christ
, Lord Alfred
, Lord Alfred Douglas
, Marquess of Queensbury
, Neil Armfield
, Oscar Wilde
, Rupert Everett
, The Happy Prince
, The Judas Kiss…Wit and Wilde