Our last class made me think about the idea of the courtroom as the theater and Wilde’s demeanor while on trial.
The courtroom has many times been referred to as a theatrical setting, with the aspects of storytelling and drama playing into the workings of a trial. This particularly applies to highly publicized trials, such as Wilde’s. His was the “trial of the century,” and a condemnation of Wilde in the sense of his sexuality and his work. It was a serious matter for his reputation, and more importantly his life. But, as we saw from Gross Indecency by Moises Kaufman, Wilde was not so serious while testifying. He still used his wit to poke fun or when giving answers to the judge/prosecutor. We knew Wilde had an affinity for using this wit based on the characters he wrote in his stories, but why would Wilde not take a more somber tone for his own trial for gross indecency?
And added to this question, as we have discussed before, in some ways Wilde has written his own demise into existence through his stories, particularly with The Importance of Being Earnest. He seems to predict his fate, which prompts interesting ideas about predestination, but also makes me think that Wilde knew that, because his feelings were criminalized, that his sexual actions were unignorable and could lead to his downfall. But, even if he knows this, and then it comes to semi-fruition with the trial, what made him choose to go to the trial rather than leave the country?
I think that Wilde stayed in England based on a series of unfortunate events but had a witty demeanor during the trial because he had a lot to prove to Bosie’s dad and to the people of high society. His status as an outsider, whether through his Irishness or his sexuality, made it so he had to work to fit in. And, I think he was determined to stand up for himself against Bosie’s father, who tried to shame him into exile. Wilde worked hard to build a successful career and good reputation for himself, and given his status as an outsider, it was important to keep that. Part of that reputation was his wit and cleverness, two things that were maintained during the trials. If Wilde were serious in demeanor, I think the people who were trying to criminalize him for his actions would have won in a different sense.
Throughout this semester, we’ve discussed how Oscar Wilde attempted to live as art through the way he presented himself, from the way he dressed to the way he spoke. Wilde’s modus operandi of living as art is extremely apparent through the way he behaved during his first trial in Gross Indecency. Throughout the first trial, Oscar Wilde behaves in his typical Oscar Wilde fashion: as the most intelligent and witty person in the room. It’s almost as if Wilde believed that just based on the virtue of being clever he could get out of any trouble.
Wilde living as art and entertainment is most plainly exhibited when he is examined by Edward Carson. Carson brings up excerpts of Wilde’s letters and works to prove that Wilde has had relations with men, making Queensberry’s claim fact as opposed to libel. However, for every excerpt that Carson brings up, Wilde only has a witticism to say in response. When Carson reads out Wilde’s romantic letter to Bosie, Wilde responds that the letter is art and is therefore meant to include beautiful phrases. Only an artist such as Wilde could have written that letter. Carson replies, “‘Your slim gilt soul walks between passion and poetry.’ Is that a beautiful phrase?” (35). Wilde only responds with, “Not as you read it, Mr. Carson. You read it very badly” (35). Wilde has enough confidence in this trial to directly insult the lawyer examining him. It’s as if he believes this trial is just another stage to entertain his audience and that he won’t face consequences as long as he’s entertaining.
Wilde getting questioned about his work is where he triumphs in this trial. Here, he proclaims that no art is moral or immoral, it is only well or poorly written. He also claims, “I rarely think that anything I write is true” (39). He reiterates the ideas we have read in other works of his, and through this, he makes a convincing case that nothing he has written can really be used against him. This part of the trial reminded me a lot of “The Decay of Lying” where Wilde makes a case that lying is essential to being entertaining. That’s what this part of the trial is: a string of entertaining lies.
However, where Wilde falters is when the questioning moves away from his works and towards his relationships with young men. He can’t make up pretty lies when the evidence is staring him in the face. He’s forced to give up this libel suit when the young men that Wilde has had relations with are threatened to be brought in. Being art wasn’t enough to save Wilde in the end.
I have been increasingly fascinated by the ways in which feminism plays a role in Wilde’s work and life. I do not think, like Kiberd, that Wilde had any sort of “lifelong commitment to feminism,” however, I find that his work includes a diversity of roles for women that I haven’t found in other classic works by male authors (40). Wilde’s women are not as confined to tropes, and while they do not actively fight against societal standards, they often work from within the system to make their own agency.
But as we continue reading, I have been thinking more and more about how the threads of feminism in Wilde’s work connect to his own identity as a decadent and as a queer man. We have talked a bit about how many decadents had the tendency to focus on the beauty of the male form and disregard the female form, but after reading “Gross Indecency,” I have been thinking more and more about how queer men and women would’ve interacted and related to each other.
This inclination was mostly stirred by Queen Victoria’s lines in the play, relating to the punishments for homosexual relations. The fact that the law only applied to male homosexuality was surprising to me, and even more so was Queen Victoria’s statement that “Women don’t do such things” (Kaufman 68). I would think that this law and the statement by Queen Victoria about it, especially considering the greater context of it being enacted by a female ruler, figurehead or otherwise, would cause a great deal of anger and strife between queer men and women. While queer women were confined in other ways, in this area, they had less pressure to conform and mask their queerness than their male counterparts.
But this type of anger is not really present in Wilde’s work. Sure, there are a lot of emotions of anger and grief at society and the double standards it contains in his writing, but he never targets these emotions onto women. And to me, this feels like a really cool aspect of Wilde’s strange feminism that I would like to explore more of.
One instance of intrigue in Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde is how judges and prosecution alike equate the crime “gross indecency” to be worse than murder. It reminded me about our conversation last Wednesday in class when we talked about how Wilde might have “created” the death ending for queer people in media with The Picture of Dorian Gray. But then we also emphasized how this narrative may have manifested because there is no other outcome for queer people but death when they end their bloodline and go against society’s heteronormative model. Placing the act of “gross indecency” above murder interested me based on our conversation.
Narrator 4 says: “I would rather try the most shocking murder case that has ever fallen to my lot to try than be engaged in a case of this description” (125). The judge also directs to Wilde: “…the crime of which you have been convicted is so bad that one has to put a firm restraint upon oneself to prevent oneself from describing, in terms I would rather not use, the sentiments which must rise to the breast of every man of honor who has heard the details of these three terrible trials… People who can do these things are dead to all sense of shame, and one cannot hope to produce any effect upon them” (126). In this closing statement by Justice Wills, who delivered Wilde’s sentencing, I found more said in the transcript through the link https://www.famous-trials.com/wilde/335-statement, which further aides the argument that gross indecency is elevated as a crime, viewed as worse than murder. So why exactly is “gross indecency” worse than murder? Wilde’s “influence” and “corruption” have to be a significant component of this view. Gross indecency entails a sexual deviation towards something more focused on pleasure and sensuality. Justice Wills states that Wilde “has been the center of a circle of extensive corruption of the most hideous kind among young men,” placing Wilde in the occupation of ringleader who yields all the influence. To deviate from the sexual norm towards something which does not have a reproductive purpose and is seen solely as an activity of pleasure is equivalent to murder: the murder of duty, of normative sexuality, of reproduction, of sex’s purpose. It is a bad thing that Wilde has submitted to pleasure, according to the trial, even when pleasure elicits happiness. The trial believes that Wilde has committed several acts of murder based on the several men he has committed gross indecency with.