The Trials of Oscar Wilde
European Arts Company dramatise the epic courtroom battle between the witty playwright and Edward Carson
In the course of three months in 1895, the Old Bailey – London's main courthouse – put on as spectacular a show as could be seen in any theatre, in the shape of a trio of highly publicised trials, which transformed a literary genius into a social outcast.
Today’s tabloid press would have gorged on the trials. They had it all: celebrity, the aristocracy, illicit sex, heated legal exchanges, witty ripostes and political intrigue, all wrapped around complex intellectual debate concerning issues of art and morality.
As those fast-moving events gathered pace, playwright and novelist Oscar Wilde became the author of his own downfall, turning from a celebrated dandy into a sad, spurned criminal, as far as the establishment was concerned – a mere hundred days had seen a fall from grace worthy of the darkest Greek tragedies.
European Arts Company, based in Maidstone, Kent, is soon to arrive in Northern Ireland with a new play, co-written by artistic director John O’Connor and Merlin Holland, grandson of the man at the centre of three of history’s most memorable legal controversies.
The Trials of Oscar Wilde catalogues in intriguing detail the remarkable turn of events, which began with the triumphant London opening of, arguably, Wilde’s greatest play, The Importance of Being Earnest. He was at the height of his career, feted for the brilliance of his wit, his scathing social satire and his apparently effortless skills as a dramatist.
But little did he realise that he was poised on a precipice and that very soon his colourful private life would become public property, a scandalous free-for-all. Brimming with pride and self-confidence, Wilde believed himself to be untouchable, invincible. Within a few short months, however, the whole brittle edifice of success had turned to dust.
'Outside of Shakespeare, Wilde’s was the most dizzying tragic fall there has ever been,' claims O’Connor. 'Everyone loves a courtroom drama, particularly when it centres around the wittiest man who ever lived. But while I knew a lot about Wilde’s work, having directed and appeared in a number of his plays, I knew nothing about the trials.
'You may think you are well informed about a public figure, then something pops up and makes you look at him again. Wilde is endlessly complex and interesting, but I was not even aware that there had been three trials, in the first of which he was the plaintiff and in the next two he himself was on trial.
'For the purposes of our drama, we have condensed the three into two. The first is the ill-advised libel action which Wilde took against the Marquis of Queensberry, the father of his young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. Four days after The Importance of Being Earnest opened, the Marquis sent Wilde a misspelt card, worded ’To Oscar Wilde - posing as a Somdimite'.
'The counsel for the defence was Edward Carson, another Dubliner, who had attended Trinity College with Wilde,' O'Connor adds. 'Among their many differences, the two were politically opposed, as Oscar and his mother were Home Rulers, something which may add a little spice to our performances in Northern Ireland.'
In their historic courtroom confrontation, Wilde flagrantly underestimated undermined Carson. Showing off and shamelessly playing to the gallery, he unleashed his effortlessly scabrous wit onto the various scenarios of indecent behaviour levelled at him. But it was a reckless decision, doomed to backfire with disastrous consequences. One famously witty exchange signalled the start of his undoing:
Carson: Did you become intimate with a young man named Conway?
Wilde: Oh, yes, at Worthing.
Carson: What was his Christian name?
Carson: Do you know that his previous occupation had been selling newspapers on the pier at Worthing?
Wilde: No, I had no idea that he had any connection with literature in any form.
'Wilde was on top form, cracking jokes and attempting to belittle Carson,' O'Connor explains. 'But after a while, the jury started scratching their heads and asking what is this urbane, well-bred man doing with an uneducated newspaper boy, dressing him up and taking him for dinner? Slowly the noose was tightening.'
The libel suit was eventually withdrawn but soon Wilde found himself in the dock, charged with multiple gross indecencies with a number of young men. Following an impassioned closing speech by Edward Clarke, Wilde’s defence counsel, the jury deliberated for over three hours before concluding that they could not reach a verdict on most of the charges. Wilde was released on bail to enjoy three weeks of freedom until the start of his second criminal trial.
'The British establishment decided that the verdict was wrong and a second trial was ordered,' says O'Connor. 'This time, the jury returned a different verdict: guilty on all counts except one. It marked the start of Wilde’s downfall and two-year imprisonment. He was a broken man. Three years after his release, he was dead. In the play we have merged those two trials together, as, effectively, they were one and the same.'
This new play is being premiered at a particularly apposite time. Same sex marriage may have become legal across the water, but in Northern Ireland it is still not permitted. Nevertheless, the debate rumbles on.
The Wilde trials marked a new low in harsh, intolerant public attitudes towards homosexuality. Where previously there had been a degree of pity and compassion for those engaged in same-sex relationships, in the aftermath, homosexuals were viewed as a threat to decent society.
Art suffered too, becoming associated with homoeroticism, while many people who enjoyed relationships with others of the same gender began to feel worried and frightened. It’s tempting to say that times have changed, but have they really?
'Oscar Wilde received two years hard labour for what was essentially consensual sex and it's fascinating to see this production, 119 years later, in light of equal marriage coming into effect,' reflects O'Connor. 'While all this seems like a long time ago, It is sobering to think that in 2014 being gay is illegal in 78 countries and, in five of those countries, it even carries the death penalty.
'What happened to Wilde is happening to people right now in countries such as Russia, India, Nigeria where their love is still regarded as "the love that dare not speak its name".'
When the idea of attempting to create a first-hand account of those fascinating courtroom exchanges, O’Connor turned to Holland, author of the highly acclaimed book The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde, which had provided him with invaluable material during the early research stages.
'Merlin’s book is, as you would expect, extremely authoritative. It is beautifully edited and annotated. This is the company's first new play. Over the years, we have produced a number of plays by Wilde and until now our work has concentrated on new takes on the classics.
'This piece neatly brings together those two strands. As far as source material is concerned, the transcripts of the libel case were only made public in 2000. The transcripts of the other two trials are nowhere to be found, they have been disappeared, suppressed or hidden.
'I wrote to Merlin telling him that I would like to link up with him on an idea for a new play about Wilde and, to my surprise and delight, he offered to co-write it with me. Writing for the theatre is a new experience for him. We have been collaborating for six months and he has been most generous in making available his huge wealth of knowledge of all things Wildean.
'We have used the existing transcripts, Wilde’s letters and writings and newspaper reports to create a piece that comes as near as possible to capturing the experience of being present in those courtrooms in the company of this iconic figure.'
As its name suggests, European Arts Company’s vision is wide-ranging and international. It arrives on these shores fresh from a triumphant tour of Italy with Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, during which it played to capacity audiences of, in total, over 150,000 people. Its impressive back catalogue includes works by Chekov, Pinter, Beckett, Jane Austen, Dickens and George Orwell.
'We did things a bit back to front,' recounts O’Connor, who has been at the helm of the company for 12 years. 'We are based in Kent, which is virtually France, so Europe is very much on our horizon. Our first tour, in 2002, was to Greece. Our first tour of the UK was not until 2005/6. But we do enjoy coming to Ireland, North and South.
'I have Irish connections myself. My father was from County Mayo, though I grew up in London. This will be our fourth time in the North with a play that we believe will have a strong resonance. Edward Carson is a pivotal figure in the play, as well as in the history of Northern Ireland. We are aware of the way he is regarded there by the two communities. It will be intriguing to gauge the reactions of our audiences.'
The Trials of Oscar Wilde plays the Riverside Theatre, Coleraine on May 14; Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey on May 15; Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast on May 16 – 17; and Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick, on May 18.