Reliving Oscar Wilde's shocking downfall

The Trials of Oscar Wilde, John Gorick, UK Tour (Courtesy of Emily Hyland)
The Trials of Oscar Wilde, John Gorick, UK Tour (Courtesy of Emily Hyland)

Merlin Holland presents The Trials of Oscar Wilde in the Mill Studio at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre from Thursday, May 23 to Saturday, May 25.

The show offers a dramatisation of the libel and criminal trials of Oscar Wilde.

Thursday 14 February 1895 was the triumphant opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest and the zenith of Wilde’s career.

100 days later, he found himself a common prisoner serving two years hard labour.

The piece was co-written by Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland and by John O’Connor. For John, it all started when he was showing a Greek friend around London: “We stopped at the statue of Oscar Wilde at Charing Cross station and she asked quite simply why did Oscar Wilde go to prison, and I thought about it and I realised that I didn’t really know. I knew he went to prison partly because he was gay, but I didn’t really know any of the circumstances of the case. I was quite embarrassed about it. I had been in Oscar Wilde’s plays and I had directed Oscar Wilde’s plays, but I realised I couldn’t answer this very simple question. I did a bit of digging and realised there was so much I didn’t know.”

One of the most striking discoveries was that within 100 days of the opening of The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde had gone through three trials and had been sent to prison: “It was the greatest triumph of his career, and yet within three months, he was sentenced to hard labour and he never saw his children again. He was made bankrupt and eventually left the country. Outside of Shakespeare and Sophocles, I can’t think of any greater tragedy or swifter fall from grace, and I just thought what an amazing subject for a play. I tried to find the transcripts of the trials, but they had been lost or they had been suppressed by the government of the time. They were considered obscene.

“But for whatever reason, they were lost until Merlin (Holland, Oscar Wilde’s grandson) was curating an exhibition about Oscar Wilde at the British Library, and someone turned up at the British Library with a complete transcript of the libel trial. Merlin wasn’t allowed to say where it came from. The person that provided it wanted to remain anonymous.”

Merlin used it as the basis for a book, Irish Peacock and Scarlet Marquess.

“The transcript was all in shorthand and done by several different people. The job of editing it was quite a big one, but I read it and thought it was amazing. Everyone loves a court room drama, but it just so happens that this one featured one of the wittiest men that ever lived.

“There are a few times that we hear Oscar Wilde’s voice, and we tend to think of him delivering well-honed epigrams, but this was him under pressure and speaking off the cuff, but he was still incredibly witty and incredibly clever…. but maybe number-one court at the Old Bailey was not the place to be incredibly witty and incredibly clever…”

The first half of the play is the libel trial. The second half of the play focuses on the events of the two criminal trials: “Merlin is a great Wilde scholar. He has a great knowledge of the texts and all things Wildean, and from that point of view, he was great. It gives us that historical connection, but Merlin was scrupulously objective about the whole thing. We don’t paint him as an angel by any means. He is very much warts and all, but the impression that you come away with is that Wilde was incredibly reckless, but above all that this was a great injustice.”

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