A walk on Wilde’s other side
Theatre Notes Vit Wagner. Toronto Star
25 June 1998
Moises Kaufman, author of the Off-Broadway hit Gross Indecency: The Three Trials Of Oscar Wilde, is irritated by Paul Miller’s approach to the Toronto premiere of the play.
Specifically, Kaufman objects to the two-wheeled manner in which Miller, who is playing the title role, transports himself to rehearsals.
“What is it with Toronto? With this bicycling and all these sports?” says Kaufman, a Venezuelan-born resident of New York.
“I should put a rider in the contract for Gross Indecency to the effect that if you want to be in this production, you must not participate in any sports for two months prior to the production’s opening.”
The play, a co-venture between Toronto’s TaurPro Entertainment and New York producers Chase Miskin and Leonard Solway, opens tonight at the Canadian Stage Theatre, 26 Berkeley St.
Kaufman is having a bit of fun. But he might have a point.
Miller, who has had several featured roles at the Stratford Festival, is a confessed lover of the outdoors whose leading-man looks and trim physique do not exactly conjure images of the great Irish playwright of the Victorian age. Aerobics, it is safe to say, did not number among Wilde’s many passions.
Miller, appearing unconcerned, is convinced the audience will be able to suspend its disbelief. “I look nothing like the man,” he admits. “I’m a full 4 inches shorter than he was and a few pounds lighter.
“But I’m not worried about historical accuracy. The play has its own story to tell. It isn’t necessarily a biography or a documentary about the life of Oscar Wilde. It a story about a man in a given situation, facing a given set of circumstances.”
Miller also allows that he did not see the play during its successful New York run, nor has he biked down to the nearest multi- plex to catch Stephen Fry in the current biopic Wilde.
“I’d like to stick with my own impression of him,” he explains. “Plus my understanding is that the film is so completely different from the play. So I’ll wait and see it later.
“Never having played a historical figure before, I just wanted to get an impression of the man. I read a biography, but the main thing I’ve done is read his plays and poetry, just to get a better sense of the mind at work there.”
Wilde’s writing, including such enduring texts as De Profundis, The Importance Of Being Earnest and The Picture Of Dorian Gray, is very much the subject of Gross Indecency. The play focuses on Wilde’s unsuccessful attempt in 1895 to sue for libel after the Marquis of Queensbury’s denunciation of him as a sodomite. This was followed by the crown’s indictment of Wilde for his sexual liaisons with young men. Evidence presented at the trial included excerpts from the author’s work, which the authorities interpreted as proof of his suspect morality.
Kaufman, who directed the New York production and is serving as an adviser here, was inspired to write the play after reading transcripts of the trial at the end of a book on Wilde’s famously aphoristic wit.
“Everybody involved in the theatre knows Oscar as the court jester, as the great satirist poking fun at Victorian society. The transcripts struck me because they are about Wilde defending his art in a court of law.
“I thought: My God, that is one of the key events of the history of art in 20th century. What is the relationship between art and society? Can art be defended in a court of law? Can you judge art by morality? What is morality?
“And as soon as I heard Oscar’s answers, I thought: This is an Oscar I had never known before. I had never known that his philosophical argument was so much larger than what we knew about him. It left me with a sense of awe.
“In a way he was so far ahead of his time that we’re finally ready to hear what he’s talking about. I don’t know about Canada, but in the United States there is a big argument going on about art and society, art and morality and all these things. There’s a great confusion about what the purpose of art is.”