Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde
The Trials of Oscar Wilde: Deviance, Morality, and Late-Victorian Society
Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy, and the Most Outrageous Trial of the Century
Wilde thought he was the symbol of his age. In fact he was a prophet of the century to come. He died in pain and penniless in a cheap Paris hotel room in 1900 at the age of forty-six, perhaps of a prison injury to his ear. Had he lived he might now be remembered as England’s most articulate—and most extreme—theorist of modernism, of the evolution, that is, of the Romantic idea that the objective world is, as he called it, “fictional,” while reality is created by the “critical” imagination in its various artistic forms. There is no telling what plays he might have written had he lived another thirty years. Wilde thought of Christ as a kindred spirit. He called him the “precursor of the romantic movement in life,” an artist who spoke permanent truths to the beliefs and customs of the day. “The highest criticism,” he wrote, perhaps with Christ in mind, “is the record of one’s own soul.” Wilde was an absolutist of subjectivity, an apostle of what in degraded form is now called self-realization, and thus a hero of the present age, admired by the antinomian young and the subject of many academic articles and books. Gross Indecency, a highly praised play based on Wilde’s three trials, has been playing to full houses in New York for a year. Another play about Wilde, written by David Hare and starring Liam Neeson, will soon arrive here from London.
Though Wilde believed that art and morals should remain separate, his aesthetic creed implies a moral corollary. “The supreme vice is shallowness.” He meant taking the world at second hand rather than creating from one’s sympathetic imagination a personal reality. “I think the realization of oneself is the prime aim of life,” he said at his trial. Three years before his death, as his brutal incarceration was ending, he wrote a long letter, eventually published under the title De Profundis, to his sometime lover and treacherous friend, Alfred Douglas. “I treated Art as the supreme reality,” he told Douglas, “and life as a mere mode of fiction.” Wilde hated and defied the fiction of the closet. Within his own circle he made no secret of his sexual preference. “In art as in politics,” he had told an American lecture audience, “there is but one origin to all revolutions, a desire on the part of man for a nobler form of life, for a freer method and opportunity of expression,…[one that] will create a new brotherhood among men….” But at his trial for committing acts of gross indecency, his courage failed him. He lied about his sexual encounters.
This was his tragic hour. It could not have been avoided. He was not shy about declaring his sexuality. He was terrified of prison and disgrace, despite the bravado with which he joked about the advantages of incarceration during his trials. His loss of nerve cost him his supreme moment of self-realization. He was found guilty as charged nevertheless. Christ on the Cross also had second thoughts about his mission. But by then he had no choice. He had nothing left but his faith. Wilde had a choice but was merely human. He betrayed his idealized self.
Public “indecency” had always been forbidden in England. A criminal law amendment of 1885 proscribed such acts between males in private as well. It was under this amendment that Wilde was tried and sent to prison.1 Though Wilde was sentenced to two years at hard labor, gross indecency, a misdemeanor, was not the ultimate sexual crime. Sodomy was. Had he been charged with this felony and found guilty he could have been sent to prison for life. Wilde’s biographers disagree over the legal meaning of sodomy at the time. Richard Ellmann writes that Wilde was accused “of soliciting more than twelve boys…to commit sodomy.” Montgomery Hyde, however, claims that “only one of the witnesses…[suggested] that Wilde had committed sodomy,” and “this may have been due to a misunderstanding…of the precise meaning of the word.” For Hyde the precise meaning is pedicatio, or anal penetration, which, as of 1962, when Hyde wrote, “still carrie[d] the maximum penalty of life imprisonment.” Wilde did not practice anal sex. He preferred fondling, mutual masturbation, and the performance by him upon others of fellatio. In a recent book Michael Foldy maintains that two witnesses, Parker and Wood, said they were sodomized by Wilde. Parker is the witness who may have misused the term. Wood accused Wilde only of unspecified acts of “indecency.” If Hyde is using the term correctly, Wilde could not have been convicted of sodomy.
The treadmill and other brutal punishments ruined his health and shattered his spirit anyway. His friend George Bernard Shaw thought he was right to lie. The law, not Wilde, was indecent, Shaw said. The literal-minded Shaw didn’t see that it may have been the lying as much as it was the law that destroyed Wilde. Richard Ellmann concludes his indispensable biography with this assessment: “We inherit his struggle to achieve supreme fictions in art, to associate art with social change, …to save what is eccentric and singular from being sanitized and standardized, to replace a morality of severity by one of sympathy. He belongs to our world more than to Victoria’s.” He is our contemporary in another sense as well. He was an exile within his own time and place. Torn between the laws of his own nature and those of his alien city, his delicate mechanism failed.
In this sense he anticipated the profound revolution of consciousness that continues to shape, for better and worse, the modern sensibility: the transformation, or deconstruction, or to use Wilde’s term, the criticism, of the general culture by one’s personal vision. No wonder he was assailed by the system whose sustaining fictions he relentlessly challenged. At his sentencing the judge told Wilde with cold hatred that this was “the worst case I have ever tried,” and regretted that he could not impose harsher punishment than the law allowed: an extravagant denunciation even then for the performance of harmless and widely practiced sexual acts, which, though illegal, were usually overlooked by the courts. His frenzy suggests the deeper fear that Wilde was not simply guilty but poisonous, that, if left unpunished, he might actually succeed in upending English society as he had urged readers of his critical writings to do and had himself attempted with increasing success in his plays. That Wilde had taken his working-class lovers to fashionable clubs and restaurants may have added to the judge’s distress. When Wilde was touring the United States in 1882 Henry James had also been revolted by him. He told Mrs. Henry Adams, who had called Wilde “a noodle,” that she was right not to receive him, and himself called Wilde a “fatuous fool, a tenth-rate cad, an unclean beast.” When a petition for clemency was circulated after Wilde’s conviction, James declined to sign, saying he was never one of Wilde’s friends. One looks as far afield as Lenny Bruce to find a comparably disturbing modern counterpart.
Perhaps it is not too much to say that Wilde’s cruel punishment and early death foreshadowed subsequent and far more brutal attempts to impose cultural uniformity upon entire populations as a defense against the revolutionary individualism which, as Wilde foresaw, formed the unsettling—or anarchic—spirit of the coming age.2 But it was not the state that singled Wilde out for punishment. Wilde himself, against the advice of those who cared the most about him, provoked his own indictment and downfall. The loss to literature and what Wilde liked to call philosophy is incalculable.
Wilde wrote in De Profundis that “most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their life a mimicry, their passions a quotation…. One realizes one’s soul [only] by getting rid of all culture.” In such statements Wilde anticipated Picasso’s claim that “art is what na-ture is not,” and echoed Nietzsche perhaps unwittingly since he may not yet have read him. Wilde stood at opposite poles from Dr. Johnson, who called such radical subjectivity “impertinent autobiography,” as well as from Matthew Arnold, who agreed that “the true function of criticism is to see the object in itself as it really is,” an impossibility according to Wilde, as Arnold’s criticism proved. In his dandyish persona and his aesthetic extremism Wilde baited more than Victorian hypocrisy. He was challenging English common sense in all its historic majesty. His punishment would prove far worse than W.S. Gilbert’s gentle mockery of his “attachment à la Plato for a bashful young potato.”
He wanted England to join the aesthetic and intellectual revolution that was beginning to rattle the Continent and disparaged Pater, his Oxford mentor, for not taking to the barricades in the name of this new Renaissance. He advocated a transcendent socialism, which for him meant the absolute freedom to do as one likes: in other words, anarchy. He wanted England to become a work of art. Understandably, England resisted with all its might. Wilde, an Irishman, misread the English temper, but he saw more clearly than anyone else in England at the time, including such visionaries as Wells and the Webbs, the momentous transformations to come.
At the first of his three trials Wilde was asked by Queensberry’s lawyer to say what he meant when he wrote, “A truth ceases to be true when more than one person believes in it.” Wilde replied, “That would be my metaphysical definition of truth: something so personal that the same truth could never be appreciated by two minds.” In the unlikely event that Wilde’s answer meant anything at all to his unimpressed examiner, he might have dismissed it as adolescent Platonism, and he would have been half right. Yet Wilde’s radical epistemology foreshadowed future upheavals in art and literature and reflected an intellectual ferment which had already challenged biblical certainties about human origins and would soon challenge Newtonian certainties about time, space, and matter.
Wilde’s fatal encounter with the law was his own doing. Though his promiscuity and his intense attachment to Douglas were known within his circle and beyond and had subjected him to blackmail as well as to violent threats from Lord Queensberry, Douglas’s half-mad father, the law took no notice of him until he forced its hand by suing Queensberry for libel for having called him a “posing somdomite [sic],” a lesser insult than calling him a sodomite in fact, but easier to defend if Wilde sued for libel and less compromising to Douglas. Though Montgomery Hyde takes Wilde’s word that he never “walked down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in his medieval hand,” as Gilbert had said of him, there was much else, including the implied sexuality of The Portrait of Dorian Gray, on which Queensberry could rely for his defense. Shortly before the trial began Queensberry’s lawyers had taken statements from several young prostitutes whom Wilde had patronized. These statements were revealed to Wilde and his counsel in the course of discovery as late as the first or second of April. There was still time for Wilde to drop his suit. The trial was not set to begin until the third. Wilde did nothing.
Ellmann writes, "When it was pointed out to Queen Victoria that women were not mentioned [by the new amendment] she is reported to have said, 'No woman would do that."' Ellmann believes this unlikely exchange.↩
In the last years of World War I, according to Philip Hoare in Wilde's Last Stand, an English proto-fascist named Billing acquired a large following with the false claim that the Germans had compiled the names of 47,000 English homosexuals at the highest levels who were subject to German blackmail. Hoare believes that had England lost the war the charismatic Billing might have become England's Hitler. "At its centre [of this presumed conspiracy] was the allegation that the 47,000 were ruled by the still extant cult of Oscar Wilde." After the war the radical right split into diverse factions. Billing was charged with libel. A sympathetic jury found him not guilty. The unsuccessful prosecution was led by Travers Humphreys, who twenty-five years previously had represented Wilde in his disastrous libel action against the Marquis of Queensberry and then in his defense against the charge of gross indecency. Later "Humphreys lobbied for the repeal of the anti-homosexual Labouchère Amendment of 1885, widely seen as a 'Blackmailer's Charter,"' under which Wilde had been convicted. In 1956 the Wolfenden Committee, whose findings led to the "decriminalising of homosexual activity in Britain," noted Humphreys's efforts. Wilde's ordeal dramatized the fear that homosexual acts endangered society. Later his example led to the belief that laws against such acts were themselves a danger to society.↩
Ellmann writes, “When it was pointed out to Queen Victoria that women were not mentioned [by the new amendment] she is reported to have said, ‘No woman would do that.”’ Ellmann believes this unlikely exchange.↩
In the last years of World War I, according to Philip Hoare in Wilde’s Last Stand, an English proto-fascist named Billing acquired a large following with the false claim that the Germans had compiled the names of 47,000 English homosexuals at the highest levels who were subject to German blackmail. Hoare believes that had England lost the war the charismatic Billing might have become England’s Hitler. “At its centre [of this presumed conspiracy] was the allegation that the 47,000 were ruled by the still extant cult of Oscar Wilde.” After the war the radical right split into diverse factions. Billing was charged with libel. A sympathetic jury found him not guilty. The unsuccessful prosecution was led by Travers Humphreys, who twenty-five years previously had represented Wilde in his disastrous libel action against the Marquis of Queensberry and then in his defense against the charge of gross indecency. Later “Humphreys lobbied for the repeal of the anti-homosexual Labouchère Amendment of 1885, widely seen as a ‘Blackmailer’s Charter,”’ under which Wilde had been convicted. In 1956 the Wolfenden Committee, whose findings led to the “decriminalising of homosexual activity in Britain,” noted Humphreys’s efforts. Wilde’s ordeal dramatized the fear that homosexual acts endangered society. Later his example led to the belief that laws against such acts were themselves a danger to society.↩