Had Wilde taken the advice of his friends and ignored Queensberry’s insult, the Crown could not have initiated a case against him without opening a box of evils: the prospect of lodging similar charges against a large segment of the English ruling classes, including, perhaps, the prime minister and members of the royal family. Maurice Schwabe, the friend who introduced Wilde to his procurer of young men, was the nephew of the solicitor general, Sir Frank Lockwood, who would prosecute Wilde successfully in the second of his trials for gross indecency, after his first trial had ended in a hung jury. According to testimony at Wilde’s first trial, Schwabe was seen in bed with Wilde in a Paris hotel. “Leave that for the moment,” an assistant prosecutor told his witness. The testimony was not heard again. “If all persons guilty of Oscar Wilde’s offense were to be clapped in gaol,” wrote W.T. Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette and a family-values man of the period, “there would be a surprising exodus from Eton, Harrow, Rugby, and Winchester, to Pentonville and Holloway.”
Wilde had given money, jewelry, and dinners at West End clubs and restaurants to the young prostitutes whom Queensberry’s detectives had found. Though he had solemnly sworn to his lawyer on his word as an Eng-lish gentleman—he was, of course, Irish—that there was no basis for Queensberry’s insult, Wilde knew better than anyone else that his activities were more than enough to sustain far graver charges. When midway through the trial the presence in court of the young men became known, Wilde’s counsel was appalled and urged that Wilde drop the case against Queensberry immediately, before his erstwhile companions were called to testify. Wilde, no less alarmed, instantly agreed. He was made to admit that Queensberry’s insult was justified and served the public interest. The testimony of prostitutes could be challenged but if the jury believed them Wilde would be destroyed. His counsel hoped that Wilde’s admission would end matters before further damage was done. It did not.
Within hours after Wilde dropped his suit, Queensberry gave the public prosecutor the prostitutes’ statements. On this evidence the Crown immediately brought charges against Wilde. He was arrested that evening at the Cadogan Hotel, taken to Bow Street for arraignment, and carried off the next day in chains to Holloway Prison. Michael Foldy suggests that Wilde was prosecuted upon the instigation of Liberal Party politicians whom Queensberry had threatened to blackmail if Wilde went free following the failure of his libel action. But the Crown could hardly have failed to indict no matter what the Liberal politicians did, if they did anything. The newspapers had covered the trial in detail and were awaiting Wilde’s arrest. A cover-up was out of the question. The Liberal leaders may have feared that Wilde’s prosecution would call attention to an affair that their prime minister, Lord Rosebery, may have had with his personal secretary, Queensberry’s older son, Lord Drumlanrig. Rosebery himself is said to have urged leniency, but Balfour, concerned for the party’s future, was heard to reply, “If you do you will lose the election.” The Liberals lost the election anyway. What Queensberry may have said to the politicians and what they may have done as a result is unknown. Wilde would have been tried for gross indecency whatever the Liberal politicians did. It matters even less whether, as Foldy suspects on the basis of scant evidence, Queensberry was secretly giving evidence against Wilde to the Crown. The statements by the young men that he gave openly to the public prosecutor were enough to incriminate Wilde.
When Wilde learned a day or two before the trial that these young men were ready to testify in Queensberry’s defense, he ignored the warnings of his friend Frank Harris that to pursue the case would be “suicide.” At first Wilde was disposed to take Harris’s advice, but Douglas argued furiously against it, and Wilde, as always, was unable to resist Douglas’s demands. Wilde’s solicitor, who should have known from the beginning not to believe Wilde’s professions of innocence, may have decided, as both Ellmann and Hyde suspect, to proceed with the suit because he wanted to be involved in what was certain to be a historic trial. Perhaps Wilde and his solicitor believed that the prostitutes would refuse to testify for fear of incriminating themselves or that the jury would not believe them if they did testify. They seem not to have anticipated that their testimony could be purchased by the Crown in exchange for immunity and by Queensberry for a few pounds. By foolishly taking his unwinnable case to court against the advice of Harris, Shaw, and his other friends, Wilde became his own prosecutor.
Why Wilde undertook this foredoomed action despite the warnings of his trusted friends, including among others André Gide, is inexplicable except as self-destructive folly inspired by his obsessive submission to Douglas’s caprices. His philosophical beliefs obliged him to challenge a dishonest society. But to risk his freedom and reputation and the safety of his wife and two sons aged nine and ten in order to dramatize a philosophical principle is another matter. Wilde’s great weapon against Victorian hypocrisy was his pen and what he called his “personality”—his self-created identity—which, as he must have known, would be denied him in prison. In De Profundis he admits to Douglas that his decision to bring charges against Queensberry was an act of weakness. “You said,” Wilde later wrote,
…that your father had been an incubus to [your entire family]: that they had often discussed the possibility of getting him put into a lunatic asylum…that if I would only come forward to have him shut up I would be regarded by the family as their champion… and that your mother’s rich relations themselves would look on it as a real delight to be allowed to pay all costs…. The solicitor closed at once, and I was hurried to the Police Court. I had no excuse left for not going. I was forced into it…. I thought but to defend [you] from [your] father, I thought of nothing else.
Douglas, meanwhile, thought only of staging a confrontation in which he and Wilde would denounce his hated father in court, oblivious or indifferent to the risk that he was asking Wilde to face. “My mother divorced him; he harassed her for years and by turns neglected and ill treated us. He’s despicable and mad,” Douglas told Wilde. Unfortunately for Wilde, so was Douglas. He was bitterly disappointed when he was not asked to testify against Queensberry because, as Wilde’s lawyer told him, the question before the court was Queensberry’s accusation, not Douglas’s quarrel with his father. By calling attention to his intimacy with Wilde, Douglas’s testimony could have benefited only his father’s defense.
Wilde too may have thought the courtroom was a stage from which to savage Queensberry. On the first day of the trial he pelted Edward Carson, defending Queensberry, with cleverness. The Importance of Being Earnest was playing in the West End. Perhaps, like Jack Worthing, he believed he could play Oscar in court and Wilde in town with impunity. He soon learned differently. The previous summer, when he was writing The Importance of Being Earnest and troubled by Queensberry’s threats if he failed to break with Douglas, he had already consulted his solicitor. He may have anticipated trouble to come when in the play he joked about Holloway Prison, to which he would be taken less than a year later. Algernon is told that unless he pays an overdue restaurant bill at once he must appear at Holloway “not later than four o’clock; otherwise, it is difficult to obtain admission.” Algernon replies that he is “really not going to be imprisoned in the suburbs for having dined in the West End.” Wilde was sent to Holloway partly because of the dinners he had bought at the Savoy and Kettner’s for his casual lovers.
When his arrest became inevitable after his acceptance of Queensberry’s insult, Wilde surely knew that the play was over and that he should now take his friends’ advice and flee for his life to France. Instead he stayed. The Bow Street magistrate who issued the warrant for his arrest seems to have given him ample time to reach the Channel. But he was still under Douglas’s spell. Ellmann thinks “his stubbornness, his courage, and his gallantry also kept him there,…that he disdained to think of himself as a fugitive, skulking in dark corners instead of lording it in the limelight.” More likely Wilde himself didn’t know why he stayed. When the detectives came for him he was half drunk. He left behind a half-packed bag but took with him a yellow bound book.
In De Profundis, which Wilde wrote in prison amid the wreckage of his life, he said to Douglas,
What is loathsome to me is the memory of interminable visits paid by me to the solicitor Humphreys [the father of Travers Humphreys] in your company, when in the ghastly glare of a bleak room you and I would sit with serious faces telling serious lies to a bald man, till I really groaned and yawned with ennui. There is where I found myself after two years’ friendship with you, right in the centre of Philistia, away from everything that was beautiful, or brilliant, or wonderful, or daring. At the end I had to come forward, on your behalf, as the champion of Respectability in conduct, of Puritanism, in life, and of Morality in Art. Voilà où mènent les mauvais chemins!
But Wilde evades the necessary question. Why did he not ignore Queensberry’s denunciation as his friends urged and tell Douglas that he would not risk his freedom, his place in the world, and his family’s safety so that Douglas could publicize his family quarrel in a court? His friend Frank Harris advised him to let Douglas and his father fight it out themselves. His usual lawyer, George Lewis, whom he had not consulted earlier in the Queensberry matter—and whom Queensberry himself had briefly retained until Lewis found the relationship intolerable—told him on the day he was to be arrested that “I am powerless to do anything. If you had had the sense to bring Lord Queensberry’s card to me in the first place, I would have torn it up and thrown it in the fire, and told you not to make a fool of yourself.”
Douglas had previously suggested that Wilde consult Lewis, whose advice Wilde had always sought in the past, but when Wilde approached him Lewis was already committed to Queensberry. Wilde may have failed to consult Lewis sooner, for fear of being told to ignore Queensberry’s insult, which would have led to a quarrel with Douglas. Wilde may also have wanted to go to court for fear that unless he silenced Queensberry legally he would be hounded until he ended his affair with Douglas, which he was unwilling or unable to do. Whatever Wilde’s motives, Douglas was at the center of them. Wilde indulged him recklessly with his time, money, and affection. When, after his imprisonment, Wilde was penniless in Paris and Douglas had inherited å£20,000 on the death of his father, Wilde asked if Douglas could settle a small sum on him. Douglas refused indignantly. “I can’t afford to spend anything except on myself,” he told Wilde, and accused him of wheedling “like an old whore.”
“Self-sacrifice,” Wilde had written, “[is] a survival of the mutilation of the savage, part of that old worship of pain which is so terrible a factor in the history of the world….” Nonetheless he placed himself on the altar with no better excuse than that he “was forced into it” by Douglas and his family, as if his will had failed him at the most important moment of his life.
In the same passage from De Profundis in which he blames Douglas for forcing him to lie to his solicitor, Wilde wrote melodramatically, “People have thought it dreadful of me to have entertained at dinner the evil things of life, and to have found pleasure in their company. But they, from the point of view through which I, as an artist in life, approached them, were delightfully suggestive and stimulating. It was like feasting with panthers. The danger was half the excitement.” But these young men were anything but panthers. They were unemployed grooms and valets of poor character and low intelligence whom Wilde had hired for sexual, not intellectual, stimulation. For Wilde to call them evil was to accept the official morality which he scorned. They were rough trade, no more, no less. Wilde’s frisson was a product of his own imagination.
The boys were harmless and weak-willed. They had nothing more sinister in mind than some clumsy blackmail which Wilde ignored. Jerusha McCormack, the editor of Wilde the Irishman, a collection of essays, thinks that overwrought passages like this explain why Shaw called De Profundis a “comedy.” It was not. Wilde had always been addicted to overstatement. His bathetic excesses in his letter to Douglas can be explained by the conditions in which he composed it.
In An Ideal Husband, which opened a few months before the trial, Sir Robert Chiltern, echoing Pater, says: “I tell you there are terrible temptations that it requires strength, strength and courage to yield to. To stake all one’s life on a single moment, to risk everything on one throw, there is no weakness in that. There is a horrible, terrible courage. I had that courage.” In the play Gross Indecency, which consists largely of the transcripts and other published accounts of the trials, these lines are read in counterpoint to testimony by a boy named Wood that Wilde had taken him home one night to Tite Street when his wife and children were away. “We went up to a bedroom, where we had hock and seltzer. There an act of the grossest indecency occurred.” In the theater the counterpoint is searing. The other actors gasp.
In a later scene Wilde admits that “I ruined myself…. This pitiless indictment I bring without pity against myself. I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease…. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my genius. I grew careless with the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me and passed on…. I forgot that every little action…makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one does in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud from the housetops.” By now Wilde’s aesthetic edifice has collapsed. Amid its wreckage one finds the ashes of wanton desire, a lapse of manners, a squalid insult to the family he would soon ruin, and his own ruin.
Wilde was asked by the prosecutor, “What is the ‘Love that dare not speak its name’?” In Gross Indecency Wilde replies as he did in the Old Bailey,
The “Love that dare not speak its name” in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo…. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man when the elder man has intellect and the younger man has all the joy, hope, and glamour of life before him. That it should be so the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.
But Wilde was not indicted for providing intellectual guidance to young men for whom he had “deep spiritual affection.” He was on trial for behavior whose details were considered too offensive to be included in the trial transcript, much less in the press at the time, or in our time, though in fact they are unremarkable. By the time Wilde made this speech his case was lost though he may not have known it. For the good of his soul he might as well have been truthful and declared his sexuality. Rather than attribute unlikely motives to King David and Michelangelo, Wilde might have said that the law was wrong and that his behavior and that of countless other men (and women) in the privacy of their beds was, in itself, morally blameless and nobody’s business but their own. With an epigram, Christ his hero saved Mary Magdalene from being stoned by hypocrites. Wilde had the genius and the conviction to assert a corresponding moral truth for his own times. Since he lacked the necessary courage, perhaps he should have said nothing and spared posterity his disingenuous analogies. Upon completion of this speech a stage direction asks the cast to provide “loud applause, mingled with some hisses,” as in fact were heard at the trial. The play’s epigraph is Wilde’s remark that “the truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
It is Wilde’s demoralization in the face of his own dishonesty under cross-examination that forms the dramatic core of Gross Indecency, a play which Wilde would admire for having more nearly grasped the truth about his contradictory nature than any other account, including Ellmann’s rather too complacent, if otherwise admirable, biography. The downfall is all the more poignant since the playwright has granted Wilde great generosity of spirit, brilliance, and the courage to act out his own life before the world until it becomes impossible for him to do so any longer. Wilde in Moisés Kaufman’s version comes closer to being a tragic figure than one expects to find in the contemporary theater.
During an interlude a narrator interviews a professor on the subject of Wilde’s sexuality. After some academic bumbling the narrator asks, “Why isn’t Wilde telling the truth about his desire for men?” The professor replies, “…Yes he lied but, it doesn’t…(chuckle)…I’m on very slippery moral ground here. Ethically it doesn’t bother me that he lied. Alas, what they were trying to do I think was fix homosexuality, to contain the disruption which Wilde presented, and this is a disruption of all kinds of things, of class, of gender, of hum sexuality, hum and they did that, very successfully. But of course by that point he had released these ideas into Western culture that you know…are still there.” So despite his reticence in court Wilde reveals himself at the end, and lends a hand to the Zeitgeist.
Kaufman gives Wilde the last word. “I had genius, a distinguished name, high social position, brilliancy, intellectual daring. I made art a philosophy, and philosophy an art. I altered the minds of men and the colors of things. There was nothing I said or did that did not make people wonder. Whatever I touched I made beautiful in a new mode of beauty. I treated art as the supreme reality and life as a mere mode of fiction. I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me. I summed up all systems in a phrase, and all existence in an epigram.”
Five years after Wilde’s death De Profundis was published in England by Robert Ross, Wilde’s executor. A friend wrote Ross that “its reception seems to me remarkable, unprophesiable five or six years ago. Perhaps before we die a tablet will be put up in Tite Street on the house where he used to live.” On October 16, 1954, two years before the Wolfenden Report, a plaque was placed on Wilde’s house by the London County Council and dedicated by Compton Mackenzie. Wilde had already become a much admired and widely read writer. Dorian Gray had been made as a film in 1945, followed by The Importance of Being Earnest in 1952.