October 16, 1997


Wilde In, Wilde Out

Bentley's "Lover" Dramatizes Parallel Paths


by Rob Kendt


The title is a bit off, Eric Bentley admitted in a recent interview about Lord Alfred's Lover, his play about the final days of Oscar Wilde and his bete noire, Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, which has its Los Angeles premiere this week in a staged reading by the Purple Circuit in commemoration of what would be Wilde's 143st birthday (Oct. 16).


"It's an irony," said Bentley, 81, who in addition to penning his own plays (Round 2, Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?) gained a name as the premier translator of Brecht into English. "Wilde is known as Lord Alfred's lover, but I think if they were ever lovers, it was for a very brief time, if at all. Alfred certainly had a big crush on Wilde, and Wilde liked to be seen running around with a good-looking young lord. But I think that was all there was to it."


Douglas gets the historical distinction, though, because it was the indignation of his father, the Marquess of Queensberry, at his son's association with Wilde that led to the notorious 1895 trial which ended up with Wilde in jail for "gross indecency," an ambiguous rubric for the very specific crime of homosexual sodomy (which also provides the title for Moises Kaufman's currently running Off-Broadway hit, based on trial records).


But, as Bentley's play dramatizes, there was much more to the story than the trial. The events that followed, and the arc they completed in both Wilde's and Douglas' lives, are the subject of Lord Alfred's Lover--and the locus of its relevance for today's in-and/or-out gay people.


"In jail, Wilde denounced homosexuality and his former life--like Galileo in jail denying that the earth goes 'round the sun," said Bentley. "He was in such a hysterical state, I suppose he thought he meant it. He may have temporarily forced himself into believing that."


When he got out of jail, though, Bentley said, "For the first time he told himself that he was gay, and went through what we would call coming out." Bentley bases this judgment on letters Wilde wrote near the end of his life, when he was living in a shabby Paris hotel. Before that awakening, as Bentley pointed out, Wilde was accused by Queensberry mainly of "posing" as a sodomite--and in any case the pre-trial Wilde was all about role-playing and artifice, so who knew?


Douglas was another piece of work: A conscious, declared homosexual in his Oxford days, and in many respects the one who initiated Wilde into what there was of a Victorian gay subculture, Douglas recanted after Wilde's trial, married and became a Catholic, and even hired ghost-writers to pen books excoriating his former associate and friend.


"What I try to present in the play is two men, Lord Alfred and Wilde, whose lives are parallel in some ways," said Bentley. "Wilde was a gay man who finally recognized it at the end, whereas Alfred knew from the start, but was a hypocrite and tried to disavow it."


It's easy to see how these two diverging paths are still with us. The closets may be emptying out, but we've learned that openness that doesn't necessarily uncomplicate sexuality. For an illustration, check out A Noise Within's exquisite new production of Noel Coward's Design for Living. And, obviously, check out Lord Alfred's Lover, presented in a staged reading by the Purple Circuit at the First Stage in Hollywood, Oct. 16-18, with proceeds to benefit the Theatre Collection of ONE Institute/Gay and Lesbian Archives. For info, call (213) 666-0693.


Wilde's birthday, incidentally, is also being celebrated by the London premiere of Wilde, a promising new biopic starring Stephen Fry, Jude Law, Vanessa Redgrave, and Jennifer Ehle, which has yet to pick up an American distributor.