How it’s New York: New production of David Hare’s play The Judas Kiss about Oscar Wilde.
How it’s Irish: Oscar Wilde, the Irish poet, dramatist and wit.
Guest blogger, John Cooper, creator of the documentary archive Oscar Wilde In America, previews the revival of The Judas Kiss at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), a play that focuses on two crucial moments in Oscar Wilde’s downfall.
The Judas Kiss, coming to the BAM Harvey Theater May 11—Jun 12, marks a historic return of the Irish poet, dramatist, and wit Oscar Wilde. This is not, of course, a return of Wilde the playwright, whose works have been staged several times at BAM over the years. It is a return in the sense of the reappearance of Wilde in person.
This is significant because no one has appeared as Oscar Wilde at BAM since Wilde himself spoke there 134 years ago on a nationwide lecture tour. The performance by Rupert Everett, who plays Wilde, is a fitting parallel because Oscar was also playing a part—masquerading as the poster boy for Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, a comic opera poking fun at the aesthetic movement.
A lot has changed since Wilde lectured at BAM on a cold February evening in 1882, not least the venue. Back then, Oscar Wilde took to the platform of the original Leopold Eidlitz building on Montague Street, where he was greeted by a large and mostly positive audience. It was a somewhat stuffy talk on what he termed the English Renaissance in Art—a movement that had existed ever since Oscar had dreamed it up on the boat to America a few weeks earlier.
Wilde’s pose as the “apostle of the beautiful” led to much ridicule from the public and press alike. But Oscar took it all in stride. He confirmed as much to his audience during the Brooklyn lecture, when he related the story of being recruited by the English art critic, John Ruskin, to build a road for a small village. “The scoffers used to come down and stand on the bank and jeer us,” he said, “but we didn’t mind it much then, and we don’t mind it at all now.”
It is evident from this, as he told the reporter in an interview in his dressing room at BAM, that Wilde was enjoying his public speaking engagements. But, he added, he hated the traveling. Railroads, he opined, consisted of those that are intolerable and others that are simply unbearable. If this sounds like a carefree Wilde practising his bon mots, it was—he was young and successful. But the fates were gathering back in Britain, where many turning points in Oscar Wilde’s future were about to reveal themselves.
The first were the traditional milestones of marriage, family, and career, although Wilde soon abandoned these for a more subversive approach—one closer to his true artistic nature. He described the life of an artist as “a long and lovely suicide” and after eventually reaching the heights of fame, Wilde found himself drawn to the role of the most visible victim of Victorian morality.
In De Profundis, Oscar Wilde’s long prison letter to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, he wrote “the two great turning points in my life were when my father sent me to Oxford, and when society sent me to prison.” Certainly, these were major events in Wilde’s life. But, of the two, his prison sentence with hard labor for homosexual offenses caused the most lasting upheaval. It was a tragic period diametrically opposed in mood and over a decade removed from Wilde’s college life at Oxford and lecture tour in America, but its effects still resonate. At BAM we see such effects played out. In The Judas Kiss they are the wounds revealed at the broken heart of two conversations that Wilde conducts with his inner circle.
The conceit in the title—the betrayal kiss of Judas—is a metaphor for the eventual arrest of Wilde. The play is aptly styled for its drama and the biblical allusion is not misplaced. Wilde often saw himself as a Christ-like figure, susceptible to the “red rose-leaf lips” of Bosie—the pet name for the young Alfred Douglas—whose Judas kiss led to the passion of the crossroads of Wilde’s life.
But playwright David Hare realizes that Wilde’s analysis of turning points is too simplistic, or, for the play’s purpose, too impersonal. He intuits that great movements of life often crystallize into small moments of love. So in place of any deus ex machina as Wilde would have seen his downfall, the play focuses on the human turmoil. Hare identifies that the real turning points in Wilde’s life formed two conversational bookends to his imprisonment for homosexual offenses in 1895.
The play opens with the first of these: one of the most wrenching episodes in the Wilde story—his decision to face trial rather than flee justice. The dialogue shapes itself into an internecine love triangle between Wilde, Douglas, and Robert Ross (Wilde’s former lover and later literary executor) acting under the stresses of opportunity, influence, fatalism, hubris, and defiance. People are still analyzing Wilde’s motives.
If the first act marks the end of the beginning for Wilde, the second act is well-crafted enough to defy cliché, for it marks the beginning of the end. Set after Wilde’s release from prison, we witness his attempted reconciliation with Douglas. It is a moment into which Wilde channeled all hope of salvation only to be abandoned for a second time. A play of turning points must end here for Wilde, for he reaches the point of no return. He is left to face life as an outcast—often in extremis, occasionally in excess, but always in exile.
Two years later, Oscar Wilde died in an obscure Paris hotel at the age of 46.
He died not knowing that his life would be reappraised. Not knowing that his lifestyle would be rehabilitated. Not knowing that, on the stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a lost soul of the Gay Nineties would be re-embodied by a superstar of modern gay culture. The Judas Kiss is not just a vehicle at the end of that journey, it is a road map identifying the place from which it started.
This article first appeared in the BAM Blog and is reposted here with permission.