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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Turning Points: The Judas Kiss and Wildean Imprisonment

By John Cooper

The Judas Kiss, coming to the BAM Harvey Theater May 11—Jun 12, marks a historic return to BAM of the Irish poet, dramatist, and wit Oscar Wilde. This is not, of course, a return of Wilde the playwright, whose works have been staged several times at BAM over the years. It is a return in the sense of the reappearance of Wilde on stage.

No one has appeared as Oscar Wilde at BAM since Wilde himself spoke 134 years ago on a nationwide lecture tour. It is a fitting parallel because Wilde was actually playing a part—masquerading as the poster boy for Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, a comic opera poking fun at the aesthetic movement.

A lot has changed since Wilde lectured at BAM on that cold February evening in 1882, not least the venue. Back then, Oscar Wilde took to the platform of the original Leopold Eidlitz building on Montague Street, where he was greeted by a large and mostly positive audience. It was a somewhat stuffy talk on what he termed the English Renaissance in Art—a movement that had existed ever since Oscar had dreamed it up on the boat to America a few weeks earlier.

Excerpt from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb 3, 1882
Wilde’s pose as the “apostle of the beautiful” led to much ridicule from the public and press alike. But Oscar took it all in stride. He confirmed as much to his audience during the Brooklyn lecture, when he told of being recruited by the English art critic, John Ruskin, to build roads for a small village. “The scoffers used to come down and stand on the bank and jeer us,” he said, “but we didn’t mind it much then, and we don’t mind it at all now.”

It is evident from this, as he told a reporter in a dressing room interview at BAM, that Wilde was savoring his public speaking engagements. But, he added, he hated the traveling. Railroads, he opined, consisted of those that are intolerable and others that are simply unbearable. If this sounds like a carefree Wilde, it was—he was young and successful. But the fates were gathering back in Britain, where many turning points in Oscar Wilde’s future were about to reveal themselves.

The first of these were the traditional milestones of marriage, family, and career, which Wilde soon abandoned for a more subversive approach—one closer to his true artistic nature. He described the life of an artist as “a long and lovely suicide” and so eventually after reaching the heights of fame, Wilde found himself drawn to the role of the most visible victim of Victorian morality: the homosexual.

In De Profundis, Oscar Wilde’s long prison letter to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, he wrote the two great turning points in my life were when my father sent me to Oxford, and when society sent me to prison.” Certainly, these were major events in Wilde’s life. But, of the two, his prison sentence with hard labor for homosexual offenses caused the most lasting upheaval. It was a tragic period diametrically opposed in mood and over a decade removed from Wilde’s college life and lecture tour, but its effects still resonate.

At BAM we see such an example. In The Judas Kiss they are the wounds revealed at the broken heart of two conversations that Rupert Everett, as Wilde, conducts with his inner circle. They are the turning points in Wilde’s life that form the bookends to his imprisonment for homosexual offenses in 1895. The play is aptly styled for its drama. The conceit in the title—the betrayal kiss of Judas—is a metaphor for the eventual arrest of Wilde. The biblical allusion is not misplaced. Wilde often saw himself as a Christ-like figure, susceptible to the red rose-leaf lips” of Bosie—the pet name for the young Alfred Douglas—the passion of the crossroads of Wilde’s life.

Tom Colley, Charlie Rowe and Rupert Everett in The Judas Kiss. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
But playwright David Hare realizes that Wilde’s analysis of turning points is too simplistic, or, for the play’s purpose, too impersonal. He intuits that great movements of life often crystallize in small moments of love. So in place of any deus ex machina in Wilde’s downfall, the play focuses on human turmoil. The first act depicts one of the most wrenching episodes in Wilde’s storyhis decision to face trial rather than flee justice. It becomes a dialogue in the shape of an internecine love triangle between Wilde, Douglas, and Robert Ross (Wilde’s former lover and later literary executor) unraveling under the stresses of opportunity, influence, fatalism, hubris, and defiance. People are still analyzing Wilde’s motives.

It also marks the end of the beginning for Wilde, and the second act is well-crafted enough to defy cliche—marking, alternately, the beginning of the end. It is set after Wilde’s release from prison where we witness his attempted reconciliation with Douglas. It is a moment into which Wilde channeled all hope of salvation only to be abandoned for a second time. The gambit of turning points ends here for Wilde, for he reaches the point of no return. He is left to face life as an outcast—often in extremis, occasionally in excess, but always in exile.

Two years later, Oscar Wilde died in an obscure Paris hotel at the age of 46. He died not knowing that his life would be reappraised. Not knowing that his lifestyle would be rehabilitated. Not knowing that, on the stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a lost soul of the Gay Nineties would be re-embodied by a star of modern gay culture. The Judas Kiss is not just a vehicle at the endpoint, it is a road map identifying the start of that journey.

The US premiere of David Hare’s play The Judas Kiss is at the BAM Harvey from May 11—Jun 12.

John Cooper is a historian, scholar and writer who has spent 30 years in the study of Oscar Wilde. He is a member of the Oscar Wilde Society in London and former manager of the Victorian Society in America. Online, he is a blogger and creator of the noncommercial archive Oscar Wilde in America.

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