Magazine article The Spectator

Wilde Times

Magazine article The Spectator

Wilde Times

Article excerpt

Let England,' wrote Lord Alfred Douglas in 1937, `bear all responsibility for what she did to Oscar', and it can at least be said that we have not borne our responsibility in the one thing Wilde would most have dreaded, silence. At this point I had better declare several interests that you may feel could influence my judgment of David Hare's The Judas Kiss, certainly the best and most intriguing new play of the year thus far, even if it has its problems.

I, quite literally, owe my life to Wilde; my father Robert was the first actor ever to play him on stage and (20 years later) screen, and he met my mother only because she happened to be the sister of the actor who was his first Alfred Douglas. As my father made his name in the role back in 1936, and got to Hollywood on the strength of it, there was a lot of Wilde around my childhood - my father's lifelong best friend was one of the two Stokes brothers who wrote the first Wilde play, one considered so scandalous that it could only ever be performed over here in club theatres before the war. Then again, I am one of about 200 authors to have published Wilde biographies in the years before Ellman made the task unnecessary, so I come to the Hare piece with enough personal and professional baggage to daunt a weight-lifter.

But enough of the background; what Hare has done brilliantly is to escape the usual plod through Oscar's life and trials from birth to the last days of illness in Paris; instead, he has taken just two key moments from the biographies, the two that still cause most debate among the experts. Hare's first act thus takes place entirely at the Cadogan Hotel on the afternoon of the conclusion of the first trial, when Wilde's friends, and indeed even the authorities, were eager for him to catch the boat train to Paris and thereby avoid arrest.

For the second act, only two years later, Wilde is out of prison, back with his beloved 'Bosie' Douglas and living in Neapolitan penury (`One cannot survive on cock alone'), while the few who still cared about them tried frantically and ultimately triumphantly to bribe them apart.

Hare has always been at his best writing about betrayal and unrequited love. On one level, The Judas Kiss is about a love that spoke its name rather too loudly for late Victorian sensibilities. If Oscar had an abiding sin, it was not of homosexuality but that of the self-publicising huckster; yet on many of its deeper levels the play is about guilt, and arrogance, and revenge, and above all else it is about a man who simply could not make up his mind to catch a train or abandon forever the lover who had landed him in Reading gaol. …

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