An Irish author, playwright and poet who became one of London's most popular artists in the late 1800s and a Venezuelan-born homosexual playwright may not seem to be kindred spirits at first glance. But, according to Moises Kaufman, he and Oscar Wilde have more in common than one might think.
And Kaufman would know: He is the playwright who brought the legal and social troubles of the famed scribe to the stage in Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, written about Wilde's three trials on the matter of his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas and others, which led to charges of "committing acts of gross indecency with other male persons." The play will be be presented in a benefit reading Oct. 5 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater. Staged in response to the Kremlin blocking a production of Gross Indecency in Russia, the reading will feature Sally Field, Michael C. Hall, David Hyde Pierce, Tony Kushner, Jonathan Groff, Judith Light, Darren Criss, Tituss Burgess, David Burtka, Andy Mientus, Jose Llana, Will Carlyon and Jake Shears. All funds raised will benefit the Tectonic Theater Project and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
Upon hearing of the canceled production in Russia, Kaufman said, "I was enraged. I was saddened. I had really high hopes because I loved the idea of having Oscar Wilde addressing contemporary Russian audiences. I thought that that would have been magnificent...The thing that kind of interests me the most is a playwright being powerful enough that 120 years after his imprisonment, governments are still scared of his writing and his work. To me that is the testament of the man's scope and his broadness. It's also a testament to the fact that as much progress as we have made, there are still many parts of the world, including the U.S., where we still have a great deal to go."
Politically charged works are nothing new to Kaufman, who is the author of The Laramie Project, written with members of the Tectonic Theater Project about the murder of gay student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, WY. He has also penned 33 Variations, which explored the work of Beethoven, and has directed I Am My Own Wife, the story of an East German transvestite, on Broadway, as well as Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which examined the effects of war. Gross Indecency's script was pulled from the original sources, including court transcripts and biographies of everyone who participated in the trial as well as written accounts. Kaufman also traveled the world interviewing historians and academicians, and his research led him to numerous inconsistencies in participants' accounts of the trial, such as Wilde and his lawyer.
"There were all these versions that contradicted one another, and in my naivete I thought that when I was done with my research, I would know who was telling the truth," Kaufman recalled. "Of course, when I was done with my research, I was left with was a number of different versions of the same story... How do you write a play about the impossibility of reconstructing this? So that's the form of the play: a group of actors around a table trying to figure out what happened."
First performed in New York in 1997, Gross Indecency was a critical hit and played an extended, sold-out run Off-Broadway. It starred Michael Emerson as Wilde, a role he is reprising in the Oct. 5 reading. In contrast to the 2015 cast, which features several out and proud actors, and famed playwrights Larry Kramer and Tony Kushner as the two judges, Kaufman recalled of the 1997 cast: "When we first did the play, there was no famous actor that was out. There were famous actors that had been outed because they got AIDS, but there were no famous actors who were out."
Despite the academia and research involved, the writing of Gross Indecency touched upon intimate aspects of Kaufman's childhood, which, he said, was governed by many of the same ideals as Victorian England: "Religious authority, a kind of rigor in terms of gender identity and sexual orientation, a kind of hypocrisy that Victorians were famous for — pretending that they're shocked and horrified at the most human part of ourselves while doing everything behind closed doors.
"I think that I could understand a lot of the Victorian frame of mind because there was a way in which I came from such a thing. I mean, the only difference was that there was also, in Latin America, an incredible love of pleasure and an incredible love of celebration. And I think in that way Oscar Wilde was very Latin American. So I think there's a lot of points of contact between my upbringing and the kind of ideology in which he grew up. And, that was my first play, so I was taking lessons from the master."
Many years have passed since the "master" was tried, and, Kaufman said, much progress has been made. Immediately following the Russian production being banned, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. Reflecting on the cultural shifts, Kaufman said, "We live in a very strange time of great conquests and also great defeats, and they exist side by side, so I think that thinking about theatre as a platform where we can have these kinds of conversations is pivotal to continuing to redefine the culture in which we live."
Following the Supreme Court ruling, Rowan County clerk Kim Davis refused to distribute same-sex marriage licenses, claiming her religious beliefs made it impossible for her to do so — even after a U.S. Court judge ordered her to comply with the law. She was jailed for a few days and is seen by some as a symbol of religious freedom and others as one of religious bigotry.
"What's shocking to me is how there is so much confusion about separation of church and state, about things that you are forced to do and things that it's your job to do, so there's a lot of confusion around those things," Kaufman said. "So, yes, I'm very upset about it. I also think that it is a backlash that is to be expected."
One wonders what Oscar Wilde would have written about Kim Davis, this reporter mused. Kaufman quickly responded: "I don't think he would have been kind about her behavior."
(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)