In David Hare's The Judas Kiss, the notorious and enigmatic Irish playwright Oscar Wilde is portrayed as a man of great humanity who sacrifices all for love.
Never the Sinner's John Logan is scripting the new Oliver Stone movie about football, and the joke going around is that he has his work cut out for him, trying to make it come to the same conclusion as all the other Stone flicks: that football caused the Vietnam war.
Similarly, the joint efforts of playwright David Hare and director Richard Eyre beat a path to the same door, open it just a crack and then administer a severe kick to the shins of the British Establishment. The Great Exhibition, which began their teamwork, was followed immediately by a coffee break of 18 years; but, in 1990, the collaboration kicked in again with a vengeance, and they've done six plays in a row. Three of these took after aspects of English life -- the church (Racing Demon), the law (Murmuring Judges) and the state (The Absence of War) -- and were presented back-to-back-to-back in England, the whole spread of society laid out in the course of a day. Subsequent opuses have been less grandiose, but no less socially aware: Skylight, which got to Broadway last season with (the now Sir) Michael Gambon, and Amy's View, which gets here next year with Dame Judi Dench.
The Hare 'n' Eyre agenda rarely varies, but their method of getting there frequently does. For their seventh and latest collaboration -- The Judas Kiss at the Broadhurst -- they went circuitously back a century to the trials of Oscar Wilde, the brilliant Irish wit run aground and, for all literary purposes, ruined by his foolishly frontal collision with British society (to name Names: a name synonymous with fair play -- The Marquess of Queensberry).
Wilde's last half a decade was a spectacular swan dive into self-destruction. In 1895, soon after The Importance of Being Earnest brought him to the zenith of his stagecraft, the playwright received a card at his club addressed to "Oscar Wilde posing as a Somdomite (sic)." His attempts to sue the sender -- the Marquess, who was the father of Wilde's male lover, Lord Alfred ("Bosie") Douglas -- boomeranged badly, tragically: Wilde himself wound up arrested on the charge of engaging in homosexual practices and served two years of hard labor in prison. Ill-equipped for this eventuality, he was left broken and bankrupted by the experience, and he died in exile in Paris in 1900 at the age of 46.
This dizzying fall from grace Hare depicts in two acts, which, in England, were designated "Deciding to Stay" and "Deciding to Leave." Act I finds Wilde with his libel case in shambles, being urged by friends and family to flee the country for fear he'll be charged-as-slandered. Act II views the post-prison wreckage as Wilde attempts a happy ending with "Bosie" but realizes the love he sacrificed everything for has come to naught. "I would like the audience to contemplate what it is to give up everything in one's life for love -- and whether it's worth it," says the playwright. Characters do that in Hare plays. To cite chapter and verse: Susan in Plenty and Esme in Amy's View as well as his Wilde. "What these three share is a certain stubbornness. Like: 'This is who I am. This is what I believe. If you don't like it, go away.' All three say, 'Take me just as I am,' and I must say these are my kind of people. They are people I admire most in life."
Head and shoulders above the Victorian values he delighted in ridiculing, Wilde was viewed by the powers that be as the sort of upright, forthright fellow who needed to be taken down a notch or two; alas, they took him so far down they stopped the words.
"He was completely broken by prison," says Hare. "It destroyed his physical being -- and his self-confidence. He just couldn't write again, and the reason is he could only write when he was in the closet. He was not a propagandist for homosexuality. Indeed, he would not have even known the word. The word didn't exist. The concept didn't exist. He never wanted to make a public cause of his sexuality. What destroyed him as a writer, as much as going to prison, was being outed. This was a man who chose to lie about what he was -- that was his strategy -- and the reason for that is he was a poet of concealment. His work had power because it was all by allusion. It wasn't direct. It was all in code. Plays like An Ideal Husband, Salome, The Importance of Being Earnest have a homosexual subtext that is not apparent on the surface. On the surface it's something quite different."
Our preconception about Wilde is something Hare has worked to overcome and counteract -- starting with the casting of a strapping, robust Liam Neeson as Wilde. The epicene, epigram-spouting fop of old is nowhere to be found in this portrayal. "This is a radical reinterpretation," declares Hare. "One of the things we're trying to do is fight the myth and fight the stereotype." And, no, he didn't write the part with Neeson in mind to make this point. "I wrote it, then somebody told me that it had always been an aim of Liam's to play Oscar Wilde. He almost got to do it once, but the deal fell through."
A couple of London critics couldn't quite make this casting leap, but the majority could. "The whole point," argues Hare, "is that Liam Neeson is six-foot-four, as Oscar Wilde was. He's Irish, as Oscar Wilde was. And he's open-hearted, as Oscar Wilde was.
"Liam's performance -- the generosity, the love of the man -- is so moving, but we're up against the ideas that (a) Wilde's not that limp-wristed cynic in a smoking jacket that we've all seen a thousand times, and (b) 'Bosie' is not the blond Adonis. He's not the dream date. The trouble is that it's part of the myth of Oscar Wilde that he fell in love with this ravishingly beautiful young man and became his hopeless slave. It's not true. If you look at pictures of Lord Alfred Douglas, you see he's pretty good looking but not astonishing looking. It was the man Wilde fell in love with. He loved him. It's so naive to think that it's just a question of a sort of sadomasochistic relationship in which an old man is the victim of Beauty. There was a real rapport -- a real warmth -- between these two men. They had a lot of fun together. The idea that one was just crudely manipulating the other -- no. I'm trying to make it more complicated than that because I think it was more complicated. I think they were two men who tried to love each other, and one of them failed. 'Bosie' tried to love Wilde in his own way, but he had terrible character failings. Wilde knew that and went on loving him. That's what's so inspiring about Wilde's story."
Wilde's "fathomless generosity" was the most striking discovery Hare made about the man in his research. "The first thing he did after prison was to send what money he had waiting for him back to prisoners who'd been his friends. He gave money to everybody. He never passed a beggar in the street without giving him money. He, on everyone's testimony, addressed servants in exactly the same tone that he addressed his so-called social peers. He was a man of profound humanity, who saw the whole world as equals."
Whenever Wilde comes back in style, he comes double strength. In 1960 two movies about his life and trials opened in New York in the same week -- one with Robert Morley and one with Peter Finch -- and now The Judas Kiss finds itself up against Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, in its second year Off-Broadway, and a new movie with Stephen Fry, Wilde, which bowed six days before the Broadway version.
This Wilde free-for-all leaves Hare unfazed. "Oscar Wilde's grandson told me something interesting. He said, 'There are two kinds of work about my grandfather. There's documentary work where the facts about his life are laid out, and if that's done with integrity, then it's compelling because the facts about my grandfather's life are so extraordinary that you're always interested.' Gross Indecency is an example of just laying out the facts honorably, and it makes a wonderful evening because the facts speak so eloquently. 'The other kind of play about grandfather,' he said, 'is where another artist sets off in a direction of his own, inspired by my grandfather to speculate.' That's what I have done. I think the two plays are so different -- one is the documentary, the other is a poetic treatment of the subject -- that they complement each other. I think it's good to have different works about Wilde on in town at the same time."