Re-Presenting Oscar Wilde: Wilde's Trials, Gross Indecency, and Documentary Spectacle
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Theatre Journal 54.4 (2002) 575-588



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Re-Presenting Oscar Wilde:
Wilde's Trials, Gross Indecency, and Documentary Spectacle 1

S. I. Salamensky


ACTOR: This is from De Profundis by Oscar Wilde:
'Do not be afraid of the past. If people tell you it is irrevocable, do not believe them. The past, the present and future are but one moment in the sight of God. Time and space are merely accidental conditions of thought. The imagination can transcend them.'

—Opening speech, Moisés Kaufman,
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde

Moisés Kaufman's hit play Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde re-presents Wilde's most theatrical spectacle for modern-day audiences. This documentary drama, like Kaufman's more recent Laramie Project, arranges research materials into staged exhibition. Concern for sound representational practices led Kaufman to struggle, as he relates, for a method that would do justice to his subject: "[H]ow," he asked himself, "can theatre reconstruct history?"

The form of the play itself, finally, became "an attempt to deal with" historiographical and ethical "questions." 2 Above all, he worried about imposing his individual, postmodern-era views onto historical material, and suppressing diversity of perspectives on the originary events. His solution was, thus, to assemble a script wholly from others' words, excerpted from already-extant research documents, adding to this only an interview with a current-day Wilde scholar. Further, he decided against traditional realist structures, choosing instead a format in which re-enacted trial scenes, readings-aloud from research documents, and cameo appearances by actors playing historical figures are patchworked together. Through these measures he hoped to present a more complex and less limiting portrait than more simplifying, totalizing conventional forms might permit. Despite—or even paradoxically due to—Kaufman's representational scruples, these objectives fall short of succeeding. As I will discuss, the play champions Wilde's side while re-endorsing the conceptual premises Wilde dedicated his oeuvre and life to fighting against. [End Page 575]

My central focus, however, is not the play per se. Indeed, the difficulty I have faced in working through this essay is that, as Kaufman's work is cut-and-pasted from materials I know well and have analyzed elsewhere, to discuss one is, inherently, to discuss the other. As in Borges's tale Pierre Menard, in which an author postdating Cervantes "authors" a Quixote identical to the first, the words of Kaufman's text are selfsame with their sources' originals.

The texts Kaufman cites are representative of those most commonly cited in scholarship: Richard Ellmann's Wilde biography, H. Montgomery Hyde's reconstruction of the lost transcripts, commonly-quoted period editorials and accounts, a Foucauldean perspective, and so forth. The quotes Kaufman selects from these documents are quite standard as well. One critic quips that the play reads like "a dramaticised dissertation," 3 and indeed, it is almost as though Kaufman had stolen the index cards from a prototypical Wilde scholar's desk, shuffled, and then staged them. It is less through authorship, in the conventional sense, than through selection, arrangement and embodiment that Kaufman's contribution establishes its expressive space. It is this process, rather than the text's recycled wordings, that I will discuss.

My primary interests here lie along two lines of inquiry sparked by my engagements with the play, its difficulties and its lacunae. The first issue is what actually was at stake in Wilde's trials that Kaufman's play misses. The second is what is at stake in Kaufman's documentary effort itself, and in the increasingly popular docu-theatre genre in general. These subjects—Wilde's representation of himself in his courtroom performance, Kaufman's representation of Wilde's performance in his own—may seem only tangentially connected. However, the epistemological curiosities in Wilde's performance, and the historiographical problems in Gross Indecency raise questions regarding what it is to re-present that multitude that is identity: one's own and/or another's; within, after, and/or for history.

Is the fair...