The Importance of Being Oscar Wilde
“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” So said Oscar Wilde in “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
Topher Alan Payne, who portrays the writer in an upcoming Hilberry Theatre production, echoes this when talking of the circumstances presented in “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.”
Moises Kaufman’s documentary-style play is set around the legal proceedings that resulted in Wilde’s imprisonment for homosexual acts in an atmosphere that also was anti-artist and anti-intellectual. “It’s interesting there are so many unknown factors within the story of the three trials,” said Payne. “The playwright does a great job in capturing viewpoints from all the different people involved.
“It’s not just a representation (of the courtroom events),” Payne said. “It has a lot of artistic spin on it. It hits the audience in an effective and entertaining way, peppering in opinion with dramatic scenes from the trials.”
Director Blair Anderson said, “The style of the play, alternating between narrative address and dramatic characterizations, forces the actors to be more facile in their acting choices.”
“The play asks what the truth is,” said Payne. “Is there one real truth?
Wilde originally was harassed and hounded by the Marquess of Queensberry, the father of Lord Alfred Douglas, the young man Wilde was close to, Payne explained. “But Queensberry had a history of stalking multiple other figures before Wilde. There’s historical evidence that another son had a relationship with a highly-placed government official. Queensberry couldn’t go after that man and went after Wilde instead.”
Payne said another theory is that Wilde was trying to protect Douglas from other revelations that could’ve been made about him, and that it also was possible some witnesses lied on the stand about Wilde.
Anderson said, “Too often we tend to quickly ‘categorize’ famous people using certain adjectives based on our limited knowledge of them. Oscar Wilde was much more complicated than simply being ‘gay/homosexual’ or a ‘clever playwright’ or ‘aesthete’ or ‘flamboyant queen.’
“The approach to our production is to see the many facets of this gem, Oscar Wilde, that we think we know. The trials, as depicted by the playwright, provide a remarkable prism for an audience to see brilliant moments of clarity as well as clear moments of anguish.”
“Wilde is the first historical figure I’ve played,” said Payne, who’s in his third year in Wayne State University’s graduate theater program. The actor has been reading everything he can about Wilde to “get into his mindset.”
“It’s mind-blowing and fascinating,” he said. “There are a couple recordings of Wilde’s voice. But without videos, I can be true to nature of character instead of mimicking a persona.
“Having grown up as a gay man in Texas and Oklahoma, I pull up my own emotions to use to create the character,” Payne said.
That legal battle resonates today, said Payne. “There are still 24 states where gay people aren’t protected in workplaces.
“There are specific occurrences in my life I can relate to, but it was a different world. This is about a man’s life and going to prison for homosexual acts.”
Payne, who taught high school for three years before pursuing his master’s at Wayne State, recalls anti-arts and humanities attitudes, such as fathers who didn’t want their sons to take a theater class, and divisive fights over whether students could read “Huckleberry Finn” or a particular book about the Vietnam War.
And he finds those themes in this play.
“People were calling Wilde names, saying ‘an intellectual’ as if it was a dirty word”, Payne said. “The arts were on trial. But Wilde said the arts are the only civilizing influence in the world, that without it people are barbarians.”
Anderson said, “Oscar Wilde was extremely interested in advancing theories of Aestheticism’s emphasis on beauty and the appreciation of art rather than finding social, political or religious meanings in artistic works. He said, ‘One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.’
“The irony is that he was forced to make a living as a writer,” said Anderson. “He used his facile wit to create his theatrical works. (But) his plays certainly did not reflect his theoretical beliefs. His comedies of society were a mirror of his social perspective where he both reveled in and despised Victorian society. And he was able to straddle that unique tension.”
Asked what Wilde would be doing if he were alive today, Payne looks at many contemporary artists who have been criticized, even condemned, for who they are or what they say. “I think of Boy George, Roseanne, Lady Gaga,” Payne said. “Wilde would be like a music star – doing something presentational & exciting. He liked to say things to make people think and wonder, to make them stop in their tracks.”
Anderson said, “His lifestyle can be seen as a precursor to the likes of Andy Warhol or David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust. Underlying all of these artists there resides, sometimes, tortured souls or curiosities that are seldom seen by any given public or audience.
“‘Gross Indecency’ is very much about where art leaves off and life takes over.”