He was a legend in the business, so the business pretended not to know that he was exploiting vulnerable young people. He hid his tracks with marriage, and talk about art and political commitment, but then his secrets came out. Instead of luxury and the high life, the shame of a public trial, then prison, and then a life sentence of disgrace in bloated obscurity.

No, not him. Oscar Wilde. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in British law, though Northern Ireland did not change its laws until 1982, and Wilde’s kinsmen in the Irish Republic had to wait until 1993. The Vaudeville Theatre on the Strand is marking the British anniversary with an Oscar Wilde season, directed by Dominic Dromgoole, who did so much good work at the Shakespeare’s Globe, and featuring Dromgoole’s new company, Classic Spring.

Wilde remains Britain’s most notable martyr for gay love, though lonely Alan Turing is now running a close second. Wilde makes a curious gay icon, and not only because he was a practicing bisexual, or because he would presumably have stayed in the closet had he not been outed by the Marquess of Queensberry. Even today, some of Wilde’s activities would be the subject of criminal inquiries.

In 1895, when the Marquess of Queensberry’s solicitors were gathering testimonies for Wilde’s prosecution, a chambermaid at the Savoy Hotel described finding “a common boy, rough looking, about fourteen years of age” in a bed in Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas’s room. The sheets were “in a most disgusting state,” and bore “traces of Vaseline, soil, and semen.” Under cross examination, she had to admit that the boy could have been older—perhaps sixteen, like the servant who testified to being groped by Wilde, and being told that if he wanted to keep his job, he shouldn’t tell anyone.

If Wilde were alive today, his underage rough trade would be selling their stories to the papers. He would probably be retired in Thailand, like the disgraced Seventies’ pop star Gary Glitter, whose name lives on only in an obscene piece of rhyming slang. If Wilde had died recently, he would be the subject of a posthumous investigation, like the late prime minister, Edward Heath, and the almost unbelievably sinister television personality Jimmy Savile, a pedophile, rapist, necrophiliac, and star of numerous BBC programs. But Wilde destroyed the thing he loved, himself, in another age—an age that took its hypocrisies in different form, not always more innocently, but certainly with better manners.

Nobody twitted the manners of the English more gracefully than Wilde. For that alone, his plays deserve to be performed. Most of them, anyway. It makes sense for the Vaudeville to open this season with A Woman of No Importance for, unlike Wilde after Bosie’s father called his bluff, things will only improve from here on. This is the least successful of Wilde’s plays, and it has not been performed in the West End for twenty years. It is a credit to Dromgoole and the Classic Spring cast that they still extract an evening’s entertainment from it.

Wilde was a great comedian, capable of finding the joke in a line of aesthetic criticism, and sometimes of riding the joke into epigrammatic profundity. But at heart he was a gag merchant, rerunning Whistler’s parlor routines from the 1870s, not a dramatist. Wilde’s insights strike sparks, not flames. He could resist everything except the temptation to make daft paradoxes when genuine insight was missing, and sometimes his paradoxes are only non sequiturs. If his comedies are performed well, their occasional structural weaknesses barely matter. The jokes come so thick and fast, and the balance between the manners of the drawing room and Wilde’s nudging and winking about the homosexual subtext tips so crazily back and forth, that sometimes it is a surprise to find that this brilliant recital has a plot at all. But A Woman of No Importance, though it has the immortal lines about resisting temptation, fox-hunting, and the perpetual innocence of America, is meant to be more than a comedy.

When Wilde moved to London, he lived in Salisbury Street, across the road from the Vaudeville Theatre. He visited the Vaudeville regularly, and saw Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler several times. Ibsen was clever and fashionable, and he located the modern sexual crisis inside the most respectable families. Wilde’s plays can be seen as a glib take on Ibsen’s earnest exposures of hypocrisy. This also allowed Wilde to mask an unacceptable protagonist, the homosexual male, as a semi-acceptable one, an avant-garde woman. The same could be said of Wilde’s “socialism,” which was aristocratic and anarchistic in the style of Prince Peter Kropotkin, and which masked libertinism as economic theory.

In A Woman of No Importance, Wilde sets up Ibsen-style tension between a single mother and her son, Mrs. Arbuthnot and Gerald Arbuthnot, played here by a vibrant Eve Best and an artless Harry Lister Smith. Wilde resolves this tension through the Ibsen-style question of whether the son, Gerald, can be reconciled with his father, the bachelor aesthete and accomplished misogynist Lord Illingworth (Dominic Rowan). The twist is that the father and son do not know about their relationship when they meet, or when Illingworth, who is “polluted” by an unspecified “secret,” engages Gerald as his secretary, and prepares to take him overseas.

The subtextual joke was daring in Wilde’s day, but it sounds sordid now. Michael Bloch’s Closet Queens (2015) details how the Victorian alliance between employer and “secretary” was a frequent vehicle for homosexual affection. One of Bloch’s studies is the fifth Earl of Rosebery, who became prime minister in 1894. Rosebery, though married to Hannah Rothschild, maintained a series of personable private secretaries. One of them was Francis, Viscount Drumlanrig, heir to the ninth Marquess of Queensberry, and the eldest brother of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. The “mad marquess,” already furious about Wilde’s affair with his youngest son, believed that Rosebery was having an affair with his eldest son. In the autumn of 1895, when Rosebery was prime minister, Drumlanrig shot himself. Soon after that, Rosebery went into seclusion; he is alleged to have feared that he would be named in the libel case that Wilde had brought against Queensberry. Rosebery resigned in June 1895, a month after Wilde’s conviction.

Perhaps Wilde is alluding to Drumlanrig and Rosebery when Illingworth makes Gerald his secretary. The problem is, Gerald is Illingworth’s son. Did Wilde feel that his pederastic relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas was a motif of incest? The Victorian audience would have found the political innuendo dangerous. A modern British audience would be more troubled by the sexual innuendo. Taste changes as well as hypocrisy, and it is not hard to feel that in this case, taste has changed for the better. Not surprisingly, Dominic Rowan downplays any hint of campiness from Illingworth’s frequently camp lines. Rowan sends his one-liners over the net with all the force and grace of a Jimmy Connors forehand smash, as though he is determined to expunge the homosexual undercurrent that is so much a part of the character and the play. Do that to a Wilde play, though, and you stifle the comic energy.

There are no bad performances in this well-directed production of a badly built play, though Crystal Clarke, as the American ingénue Hester Worsley, sometimes falters under the sheer fatuity of her lines. On more solidly Wildean ground, Eleanor Bron and Anne Reid steal the show as the grand old ladies Lady Caroline Pontefract and Lady Hunstanton. But there is no “handbag” moment, only a mixed bag of Wilde’s jokes, offcuts from Ibsen, tacky ballads about dead mothers and exploited children, and odd protests of political commitment. The relationships at the heart of the play, the triangle of Mrs. Arbuthnot, Gerald Arbuthnot, and Lord Illingworth, once so modern, seem almost incomprehensible now, as though driven by a subtext we can no longer read—or wish to acknowledge.

“A Woman of No Importance” opened at the Vaudeville Theatre, The Strand, London on October 6, 2017 and runs until December 30 2017.

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