REVIEWSTheatre ReviewsTom Williams

Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde

By Moises Kaufmangross indecency by kaufman

Directed by Michael Rashid

Produced by Black Elephant Theatre

At Raven Theatre’s west stage

Campy bar room version of Wilde’s story trivializes its legacy

It is obvious by the way director Michael Rashid staged Moises Kaufman’s documentary styled play Gross indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde that he didn’t understand nor respect either Kaufman’s work or Oscar Wilde. Instead of mounting a dramatic stylized version of Gross Indecency, Rashid decided to place the play in a gay bar filled with swishy gays who decided to stop singing karaoke one night and act out the Kaufman’s Wilde play.

oscar wilde
Oscar Wilde

With gobs of camp, groping, men kissing men and spoken in speech patterns  that ran from mumbling, to running their words so quickly as to be inaudible to screaming –  this flamboyantly awful production is more of a gay boys acting out than a serious look at the trials, foibles and failures of Oscar Wilde.  A few minutes into the production, a woman stormed out in disgust with what she saw on stage, I only wished I could have followed her.

gross indecency by kaufman

Not only was the presentation too convoluted with seven of the nine players playing many parts with wildly mixed results, but the silliness and strange tone simply trivialized Wilde’s story. Director Rashid attempted to present Oscar Wilde as a kind of patron saint for gays when Wilde never accepted the concept of homosexuality. He was about art and beauty for their own sake.

gross indecency by kaufman

All the wasted energy and inept characters only sucked the power and drama out of Kaufman’s play. I venture to believe if Oscar Wilde was to see this show, he’d garnish his walking stick and strike this cast mightily due to their crassness and vulgar antics.  I believe this production not only decimates Wilde, it is a cliche-ridden presentation of gay men. They should be offended by this work.

It is bad camp, bad theatre and poorly acted (except Kevin Bishop and Casey Chapman who tried to make something substantial with of Wilde and Bosie).  Skip this one.

Not Recommended

Tom Williams

Talk theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: October 17, 2010

For full show information, check out the Gross Indecency page at TheatreInChicago.

At Raven Theatre’s west stage, 6157 N Clark , chicago, IL, call 800-838-3006, tickets are $18 – $22, Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8:30 pm, Sundays at 3:30 pm, running time is 2 hours, 30 minutes with intermission, through November 14, 2010

16 thoughts on “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde

  • I recently saw this production as well. My take on the show, however, is quite different from the author of this article. I appreciate Mr. William’s description of Gross Indecency as, “documentary styled.” I fear he failed to apply his own term to Black Elephant’s powerful production.

    What director Michael Rashid presents to his audience is not and cannot be a documentary. The actors are presenting us with a piece of art, not a text book or a biography. The playwright’s intention need not be debated as it is largely immaterial to the discussion. The script is lifeless without a director and casts’ interpretation. A ‘dramatic stylized’ version of the play would not be the creation of a new production. Stylization is not an interpretive choice, but simply a means to a creative end. The director created something new and exciting while still honoring the script.

    Rashid made a very bold decision in setting the play in a modern gay bar. For me, the setting functioned beautifully as a dramatic device. It blurred the lines between the actors and the audience. The cast members’ gay-bar-characters reacted to and were moved by the spectacle they were creating. Therein lies the true power of this particular production. Not only do we experience Moises Kaufman’s beautiful prose, but we are forced to examine it through the lens of the modern gay man. Because of the world we live in—the same world this play is set in—the examination of bullying, prejudice, and discrimination against homosexuals is a deadly serious matter. Flippant use of a phrase like “swishy gays” to describe males behaving effeminately, singling out men kissing men, and even the unfortunate selection of the word “flamboyant” all point directly to the importance of this production. Homosexuality may not have existed as a concept in Wilde’s time, but the derogatory language toward homosexuals persists to this day.

    Though Oscar Wilde did not identify himself as a homosexual, his status as a modern day gay icon is indisputable. The power of the love story presented by Kevin Bishop and Casey Chapman is beyond reproach. In the most powerful scene of the production, four scantily clad gentlemen bombard the audience with everything that can be construed as base or wrong with the homosexual community. Simultaneously—quite literally over the top of the tangled mass of bodies—Wilde and Bosie offer a devastatingly beautiful picture of a truth that transcends sex and sexuality. They present the truth for which modern homosexuals still fight. They are a portrait of love.

    Black Elephant Theatre’s inaugural production is nothing short of extraordinary. In keeping with Oscar Wilde’s pursuit of art for art’s sake, the director, cast, and crew should be proud that they have produced something so powerful, so beautiful, and so overwhelmingly true.

  • Thomas Wrigley

    I fear that we saw a different show. I found this piece of theatre enlightening and relevant in today’s society. As the above poster pointed out – as long as people are referring to homosexual men as “swishy gays” on or off stage – there is a problem. As long as a reviewer is singling out “men kissing men” as a problem in a show which is about men kissing men, then there is an issue.

    “Gross Indecency” at the Raven theatre is a bold and breathtaking production which had me shaking at its conclusion. I also believe that it can transcend to a straight audience – as my theatre pal is a straight woman over 40 years old. It depends, I guess on the audience’s ability to suspend one’s belief and live in the setting created by the director and cast. If the concept of a modern day gay bar is dismissed from the first – then you won’t be able to grasp what this production is really about.

    To me it seems its more about modern day gay men retelling the story of Oscar Wilde – and in the process of doing this, reliving it themselves. That is, at least what I got out of it.

    You are smart in noting the solid performances by Wilde and Bosie. Even if you didn’t appreciate the approach, I feel the show could be recommended for these performances alone. Although the entire ensemble is strong and act as a unit.

    I bought the show hook-line-and-sinker, but I know some won’t. What left a distaste in my mouth is the mood in which this review seems to have been written. It sounds pretty hateful and unbiased. And, having studied Oscar Wilde my entire life: you say if he saw this production he would beat the cast with his walking stick (ouch) … from all I know of him he would have pulled up a bar stool next to the cutest guy and taken him home. To each his own.

  • I had no problem at all with the homoerotic elements of this production, but I had lots of problems with the director’s tacky and misconceived “karaoke American gay bar” interpretation. Nick says the playwright’s intent is irrelevant to the discussion because the script is lifeless without a director’s concept. Really? Has Nick ever studied playwriting (or theatre production, for that matter)? The play is ALL ABOUT the playwright’s intent. If it were not so the actors would just make it all up as they go along. That may have been preferable to what this production put on stage, which really had nothing to do with Oscar Wilde at all and everything to do with a director’s vanity concept.

  • I freely admit that I have studied neither playwriting nor theater production. It would be impossible for a play to be “ALL ABOUT” the playwright’s intent unless every production was put on in conjunction with a living playwright who gave constant input. It is impossible for any director to claim to know a playwright’s intent in the same way that it is impossible to ascribe Oscar Wilde a reaction to this production. Authorial intent is ultimately unknowable.

    Furthermore, my education does not preclude me from entering into this discussion, so that’s quite enough conceit for one thread (even parenthetically).

    Regardless, the main thrust of my review remains unchanged. For me, Rashid’s choice did work, and it worked beautifully.

  • CShindler

    If nothing else, this is all interesting conversation going on amongst people who viewed the same production and walked away with many different opinions. The commenter who seems to imply that someone who goes to Chicago fringe theatre (and pays for a ticket like everyone else) is not allowed to have an opinion on a production because he has never studied playwriting – is an insult. If this is the case, why even invite an audience? Just go around to local theatres and find actors who aren’t in shows and ask them to sit in. Isn’t the goal of theatre to reach out to people who haven’t studied theatre to draw them into the wonderful art of live performance?

    And saying this show had nothing to do with Oscar Wilde? Interesting. Regardless of if you liked the show or not, this seems odd. I think the show’s angle was to tell the Wilde story and see how it can affect the modern day homosexual.

    And interesting of all of the talk of the “homoerotic elements” and “man on man kissing” – if this shows central characters were straight, would you mention the “straight erotic elements” or the “man on woman” kissing. When you use such language you come off a certain way.

  • In light of the recent troubling events indicating a spike in the bullying of gay men, and the unutterably tragic results, this show comes along at a crucially important time. Michael Rashid has shown a remarkable amount of not only courage, but also an undeniable artistic virtuosity in his staging of this work. In addition, this entire cast of extraordinarily talented actors invested each and every moment of this production with a very timely authenticity. Thus, when the play had ended, I found myself emotionally drained, but in a way that was also a spur to feeling exceedingly proud to be a gay man. To my mind, there was not a single false note in the entire show.

    It’s rather unfortunate that Mr. Williams descended to using such imprudent terms as “swishy” in his review – and, his distaste for “men kissing men” is a very sad reflection of an all-too-prevalent prejudice in society. It quite simply was inappropriate for someone who is supposed to be a critic to let such personal anti-gay attitudes seep into his review. While he is, most certainly, entitled to his attitudes, I think he egregiously stepped over a line when he used these attitudes to flay Michael Rashid and his cast. Perhaps without intending to, Mr. Williams significantly diminished his credibility as a reviewer.

    Perhaps if Mr. Williams had followed the example of the woman who angrily left the theatre, his seat might have been left open for someone who would have seen this marvelous show for the work of theatre art that it truly is.

  • It was not my intent to insult gays only to show that the production trivialized both gays and Oscar Wilde. I guess I was spoiled by the powerful production directed by Gary Griffin at Court Theatre a few years ago

  • Normally, I would recuse myself from a conversation such as this. I am totally biased in favor of Black Elephant Theatre and its interpretation of “Gross Indecency.” I happen to have produced the show. And I can say without qualification that it has changed my life and my worldview. I would also agree while everyone, critic and audience, is entitled to their individual POV, I see no need for the distasteful and disrespectful tone of these reviewers. The intimidating elitist reply of Mr. Stead to the comments reveal a rather pedestrian and ironic response to criticism. But then, as our Mr. Wilde says, “if hatred gives you pleasure, indulge it.”

    Clearly, some of the more objective reviewers “got” what we are attempting to do to varying degrees. Clearly, we would not have chosen this show to do this way for our inaugural production if we were simply trying to please and appease as many as possible. The show itself is not for everyone. The way it’s presented is not for everyone. Why would it be? What purpose would that serve? On the contrary, our intent for this show and every show we do in the future, is to create a memorable and provocative theater experience. An experience that encourages discussions such as this long after the show is over. In that respect, I would humbly suggest we have been successful.

  • If anything, Oscar Wilde would certainly have enjoyed and appreciated the freedom of speech we have to discuss and analyze art, freedoms that were clearly unavailable in his time and place. Tom was clearly bothered by the homoeroticism of the piece, which was never an issue for me, rather than the artistic approach. Nick and Gary and Tom and all the other audience members out there are just as entitled to their opinions as I am to mine. I was invited to the show as a professional reviewer and I offered my opinion for whatever it is worth, taking into consideration the artistic intent as well as the historical basis for the play.

    I am sorry if Gary and Mark found that opinion elitist and intimidating. And without wishing to impune anyone’s knowledge or education (which I don’t believe I have done here), is it really that impossible to know or understand a playwright’s intent, whether alive or dead? We are all entitled to our opinions and one man’s art can be one man’s trash. If nothing else, hopefully this production will encourage more people to learn about the real Oscar Wilde and the progress we have made (and still need to make) in issues of sexuality.

  • The fact of the matter is this show generates genuine emotions and thoguhts long after you leave the theatre. Love it or hate it, I can not think of another show in recent years that stimulates such thought provoking discussions/ reactions.

    In that sense, this show acheives what all great theatre should.

    Oh, I also loved the show as well.

  • You’re right, Ron, good theatre does stimulate thought and discussion. But distasteful and disrespectful, Gary? Where was that? My criticisms of this production were substantive and obviously thought provoking. I had no problem at all with seeing half naked men kissing, fondling and caressing, although I can see Tom’s point that could be offensive to some conservative audiences. I have a problem with Oscar Wilde being portrayed as a gay martyr.

    There is nothing in Wilde’s life or this play to suggest he was anything but a self-absorbed, egocentric hedonist. He was also an artistic genius, brilliant, hilarious and uniquely charismatic. He was not the victim of hate crimes and homophobia so much as an unjust law and his own ego. When his lover’s father accused him of being a “posing somdomite,” he sued him for libel, which he naturally couldn’t win. If Wilde had gone to court to argue for the decriminalization of homosexuality, he might have justified this production’s tacked on point of view.

    If gay men see Wilde as a martyr, they need to understand that he never stood up for gay rights, because there was no such thing in his life. One could make the argument he was a coward in stubbornly refusing to acknowledge his true orientation but arguing feebly for his own innocence. Homophobia and hate crimes are very much an important issue that should be dealt with on their own terms, but they should not be confused with the historical court trials of Oscar Wilde.

  • Your comments were in fact disrespectful, distasteful, and condescending. They would not otherwise have generated the responses they did. To your credit, you’ve tempered your remarks, but I must say, you’ve yet to justify your criticism of the play. In your piece you compare Black Elephant’s production to Court Theatre’s several years ago. That in itself invalidates most of your comments. It goes without saying that every production has the right to present its own particular reality. If an audience or critic cannot or will not accept that reality, so be it. But to criticize a play for what it’s not is analagous to criticizing an actor for a role they’ve never played. In my eyes, you are on very thin critical ice comparing different productions in different times with different casts and budgets while expecting their objectives to be the same. Your readers would be better served by you to simply wait for a remount of “Gross Indecency” at Court and then reprint your old review.

  • Gary, you seem to have a problem accepting constructive criticism of your work, which is not surprising as artists are known to have fragile egos. I humbly suggest if you expect to survive beyond an initial debut production in the arena of professional Off Loop theatre that you learn to accept criticism in the spirit with which it was intended, or simply do not invite reviewers to your shows unless they agree to love everything you do. I see no suppression of opinions here. Tom has been very generous and gracious to provide a forum for debate on what is obviously a controversial production. Even to the extent that you and your friends defame not only his and my opinions, but also our abilities as reviewers. I wish you well in all your theatrical endeavors.

  • Thanks, Joe and I wish you well with your car problems. Both Michael and I are happy to accept “constructive” criticism, which both you and Williams fail to provide. I assure you the heat you’ve taken for your opinions is totally spontaneous. No one orchestrated any of them.
    And for your information we are scheduling an on-line chat with Michael Raschid, date and time TBD. You’re more than welcome to weigh in there.

  • Anthony Stamilio

    Wow… This is why I love theatre. I finally read these, and I’m very happy. We win Gary. 5-2 in Tom’s Court.

  • Robert Klein Engler


    –Robert Klein Engler

    The recent production in Chicago of Moise Kaufman’s 1997 play, “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” places Wilde’s name again on the lips of many gay men. The cocktail chatter at the bars about Wilde ranges from incredulity to moral outrage.

    Some say Wilde’s epigrams are brilliant, others enjoy his plays, a few recall the tragedy of his imprisonment and early death. There are even those who say Wilde is a plastic figure. Apply some heat, and we can make out of him whatever we want.

    Kaufman’s play, masterfully directed by Michael Rashid, raises not only the question of Wilde’s decision to stand trial, but also the question of Wilde’s conservatism. Among those who are more aware of Wilde’s life and work, some raise the issue of Wilde’s aesthetics, too, or note he died a Roman Catholic. In the books on gay mythology, some ask, “Did Wilde die for our sins?”

    Oscar Wilde once remarked that, unlike France, “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.” That quote may not only aptly describe American society in general, but the American gay rights movement in particular.

    Because of Wilde’s unusual view of American society, it is difficult for many Americans and especially many gay Americans to understand Wilde’s conservative love for beautiful young men. What was once beautiful for the civilized man has become “hot” for the decadent man.

    Wilde’s theory of art is fundamentally conservative and civilized. That is to say, he accepted the idea that there are objective standards for deciding what is beautiful. Wilde arrived at these standards from his education at Oxford and his own innate common sense. In Wilde’s words, “Morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace.”

    The tragedy of Wilde’s life is that while he was looking to the past for artistic standards, a place to draw the line, his society was looking to an abstract and relative future. Fourteen years after Wilde’s death, Europe would be rocked by war and Wilde’s theories would be forgotten with the rise of abstract art and modernism.

    If you’ve ever seen a picture of Lord Alfred Douglas, you must conclude that by Classical Greek standards, Douglas was a beautiful young man. It’s obvious to those who held to these Classical standards why Wilde, the conservative artists, would fall in love with him.

    This is not to say there are no other forms of human beauty recognized by Wilde. It is obvious there are, but the beauty Wilde sought out was a beauty that shown where clouds had not yet passed before the sun. What is not obvious is what to do with your life once your youthful beauty fades. The contemporary political issue of same-sex marriage is one decadent answer, but is not the answer that would have satisfied a conservative artists like Oscar Wilde.

    Echoing Aristotle, Wilde who was married and fathered children claimed, “Between men and women there is no friendship possible. There is passion, enmity, worship, love, but no friendship.” The friendship Wilde grew to value was a relationship between a young man and an older one. It was close to the kind of love we read about in Plato’s “Symposium.” This conservative friendship is hardly recognized today when we seek to institutionalize the sameness of the sexes.

    Wilde’s theory of art is not only conservative, but it is also grounded in human nature. The beautiful young man is where these two factors of nature and standards come together in material reality for Wilde. “It is through art, and through art only, that we can realize our perfection; through art and art only that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence.”

    Later on in his life, Wilde would come to learn there is a moral component to art. He may have learned this lesson after spending two years in jail. Today, many critics question Wilde’s standards of morality while at the same time ignoring Wilde’s standards for beauty. The abstract artist believes he can ignore the questions of morality simply by abolishing beauty. Wilde’s career reminds us this ignoring often is not bliss.

    When theories of art confront actual existence, it is often the theories of art that lose. And why should they not? Remember, Wilde went to Algiers with Lord Douglas. They shared a room. They did not go there as philosophers. Did they share a bed?

    While in Algiers did Wilde and Lord Douglas only think about the beautiful Satyr of Praxiteles? In this marble statue, Praxiteles the Greek, has beauty and civilization tame the passionate and irrational. Few art critics speak about that act of civilization these days.

    The acts we do speak about are the ones that took place at London’s Savoy Hotel. Perhaps the most damaging testimony against Wilde was that of Charles Parker. At the last trial, Parker said about Wilde, “He committed the act of sodomy upon me.” We do not know what happened to Charles Parker after that testimony, except for the realization that while he knew Oscar Wilde, Parker drank well and got paid.

    It is too bad that in Wilde’s life the fog of sodomy obscured the light of beauty he saw moving upward. Be that as it may, the prosecutor Charles Gill, another Oxford classmate of Wilde, pushed on through the fog. He asked Wilde, “What is the love that dare not speak its name?”

    Wilde answered, “‘The love that dare not speak its name in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of…Shakespeare…It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as ‘the love that dare not speak its name.'”

    In our age, with the rise of decadence, if you want to see where Wilde’s conservatism in art lives on, then you won’t find it on most stages or in most art galleries. If Wilde were alive today, feminist drama and abstract art, both signs of decadence, would hold few attractions for him.

    It is no accident that the director of “Gross Indecency,” Michael Rashid, set his vision of Kaufman’s play in a gay bar. To see beautiful young men, the kind that Wilde might have fallen for, your choice these days may just be between a gay bar, or a traditional Catholic church. Such a choice gives new meaning to the struggle between the ridiculous and the sublime.

    As Wilde suffered and grew older, he decided for the Roman Catholic Church. Joseph Pearce, in his book, “Unmaking Oscar Wilde,” remarks that, “Wilde’s health began to deteriorate rapidly. By the end of September (1900) he was bedridden with meningitis…He quipped that he was dying above his means…” After Wilde died, Andrew McCracken wrote that Wilde’s journey as an artist could be seen as “a long conversion.”

    Trying to stay afloat in the political and social rapids that swirled around him, rapids that looked back to Walt Whitman and ahead to André Gidé, Oscar Wilde used his standards and his wit to stay afloat. It worked for a while. But like all men, Wilde could not resist being all too human. He quipped, “I can resist anything but temptation.” That being the case, how could he resist the passing beauty of Lord Alfred Douglas?

    A hundred years later, as a gay decadence advances in America, what memory of Oscar Wilde are we left with? Some traditionalists say the example of Wilde’s life proves the highest form of art is tragedy. Each man may kill the thing he loves. Many hold the knife, others hire someone else to grip it.

    Nevertheless, few men can kill the memory of who he loves, especially if his lover is beautiful and young. Thus, Wilde finally shows us artistic standards from tradition are crucial to understanding our emotions. It’s important to be earnest in these matters: The artist forces us to remember.

    As time passed, the civilization and standards in art Wilde defended became waterlogged and sunk deep into the whirlpool of relativism. Gays, who used to be the arbiters of taste became those who would eradicate taste. Today, is gay art anything more than Tom of Finland and “Angels in America?”

    Would Wilde agree, now, that gay liberation has been bought at the price of gay degradation? I suspect he would not even understand what we mean when we speak of someone being “openly gay.” Being “gay” for the conservative artist should be overlooked the same way we ought to overlook someone being Irish.

    Yet, even if a person were openly gay, what bearing would that have on a work of art beyond offering a maudlin confession? In these declining days, it appears that Oscar Wilde, the conservative artist, survives as a drop of right in a sea of wrong.


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