Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, June 12, 2001

The cast of the Yellow Brick Theater production of "Gross
Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde" squeeze into the
tiny Yellow Brick Studio. At left, Richard MacPherson plays
Wilde, whose quips and lifestyle didn't endear him to British
courts. The other actors are, front row from left, Todd
Middleton, Paul Niiyama and David Schaeffer as the
Marquess of Queensberry. In the top row, from left
are George Russell, David Starr, Rick Crump, Noah
Johnson and Lani Hansen as Queen Victoria.

The importance of being decent

By Scott Vogel

What does it mean to be decent? It's a word denoting a course of action that few of us take issue with, at least at first glance. Doing what's decent is, more often than not, the appropriate (if not particularly exciting) thing to do. But let's investigate this further. Let's say you want your life to be one unbroken string of decent moments. By what criteria are you to decide if you're acting decently or in-?

Our trustworthy arbiter as usual is Webster's II, which defines indecent as "offensive to good taste." Good taste? Suddenly decency doesn't sound like a wholly terrific thing. After all, good taste is a matter of, well, taste, inextricably bound to the arbitrary whims of the populace, and specifically the small conservative subset that's perennially obsessed with such things. To be decent, on the other hand, is to be "marked by conformity to traditional standards of propriety or morality," which also sounds less than desirable. So to recap, a decent person is a conformist slavishly bound to the arbitrary whims of the populace.


The foregoing skewed semantic lesson was brought to you by the committee to revive the posthumous reputation of Oscar Wilde, led by playwright Moises Kaufman, whose documentary drama "Gross Indecency" makes its Hawaii debut tomorrow at The Actors' Group's Yellow Brick Studio in Kakaako.

Not that Wilde needs any help. With the exception of Shakespeare, his comedies are performed more often than those of any English language playwright. His life has been the subject of countless films and plays, his biting wit has spawned its own adjective (Wildean) and his epigrams (i.e., "To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance") have never been so endlessly quoted. Are we really to feel sorry for Oscar Wilde, and could his final martyrdom at the hands of the British courts really be the subject of a dramatically interesting evening?

MacPherson and Johnson, who plays Lord Alfred Douglas.

Absolutely, if the New York critics, who discovered this work in an obscure theater Off Off Broadway, are to be believed. Kaufman's play, which is entirely composed of transcripts from Wilde's obscenity trials and autobiographical material written by Wilde and others, would seem to be something of a snooze. But Oscar was so rich, famous and admired/loathed, and his end so ignominious and tragic, that the trials -- which brought about this reversal of fortune -- were far from your average court cases. They were instead the battlefield on which one man fought and lost against the twin terrors of a benighted legal system and an even more benighted vox populi. And it all turned on the definition of decency.

The first trial was really precipitated by Wilde himself, and based on a note written by the Marquess of Queensbury accusing the playwright of being homosexual (the word he used was sodomite, or actually "somdomite" -- Queensbury was a terrible speller). Wilde sued him for libel, notwithstanding the fact that there were many men in London willing to back up Queensbury's claim, a few of whom later testified at the trial. Needless to say, Queensbury was not convicted of libel; rather the evidence brought against Wilde became the basis of two subsequent court cases, the state having charged him with gross indecency, Victorian England's affectionate term for the love that dare not speak its name.

"On the day that Wilde was arrested for gross indecency, 600 of the top leading men in London quickly left town to go to Paris," laughed Brad Powell, who is directing a cast of 11 in TAG's production, learning a great deal about 19th century mores in the process. "Up until this trial the word 'homosexuality' had no negative connotation. It was just considered matter-of-fact. Wilde himself did not even use the word homosexuality. He was into what he called the Greek Hellenistic style of relationship where you loved anything that was beautiful, be it man, woman, art or pleasure. He considered himself an emancipated man who appreciated beauty in all forms."

Still, when you get right down to it, Wilde wasn't in it for the art history lesson. He liked guys, or as he once memorably put it, "anything becomes a pleasure if one does it too often." But it was a pleasure with a price, in this case two years of hard labor in a Reading prison. Wilde's possessions, including his house, were sold at auction, and his plays in the West End (both "The Importance of Being Earnest" and "An Ideal Husband" were running) quickly shuttered. Upon his release from prison, Wilde spent the remaining years of his life in France but never really recovered from his years of confinement, dying in Paris in 1900.

In the present instance, Wilde has something of an ally in actor Richard MacPherson who, while acknowledging the playwright's martyr-streaked biography, seems equally tuned into Wilde's prankster side, even showing up in full-blown fop attire for the audition. "I know when I walked around, people were a little bit startled, but that was the point," MacPherson said. "I had an interesting, very long jacket that you would find in India, with a Victorian cut, and a ruffled shirt. And I parted my hair so I had bangs."

In short, MacPherson packaged himself, much as Wilde once packaged himself, creating a persona suffused with extravagance, excess and just a hint of scandal. Wilde seemed to understand celebrity as few did in the 19th century, and it was a course he would unwittingly teach to generations of publicity hounds to come. But all of Wilde's prescience and intelligence couldn't save him from the collective blindness of Victorian England, which is what makes his story larger and more engrossing than the particular issues it embraces. In not-so-gentle ways, "Gross Indecency" reminds us again of the helplessless of the individual, no matter how distinguished, when thrust into the hands of the mob.

"It's kind of like 'Titanic' and 'Pearl Harbor'," laughed Powell. "You know how it's going to end but you keep hoping that something will be done to help the guy."

On stage

What: "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde"
When: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow. Regular schedule: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays, and 4 p.m. Sundays through July 8.
Where: Yellow Brick Studio, 625 Keawe St.
Cost: $10
Call: 591-7999

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