Sex, Lies, and a Sealed Fate: The Fourth Trial of Oscar Wilde
by Douglas Linder

Fourth Trial of Oscar Wilde: Summation for the Prosecution

This summation was delivered as part of a community forum after a production of Gross Indecencies: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde at the Missouri Repertory Theater on February 20, 2000.  The purpose of the forum, which included this prosecution summation as well as a defense summation, was to illuminate the issue of whether Oscar Wilde was responsible for his own downfall.  (The views presented herein are not necessarily my own, but rather were presented to stimulate debate.) To see a program for the event click here: program. DL

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, more than a century has passed since twelve jurors at Old Bailey in London declared the defendant, Oscar Wilde, guilty of gross indecencies. Some of you know the facts of that case; some of you don’t.  Wilde’s troubles started when he was 37 and began a relationship with Alfred Douglas, then a 21-year-old aspriring poet.  The intense relationship attracted the concern of Alfred Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, who took increasingly desperate steps to end it. Wilde frustrated and frightened by Queensberry, decided to sue Queensberry for libel when the Marquess accused him of “posing as a sodomite.”  The suit backfired.  Private investigators hired by Queensberry turned up several young men—prostitutes, mostly--willing to testify that Wilde committed gross indecencies, and soon the celebrated poet, author, and playwright found himself convicted and sentenced to two years hard labor in Reading Gaol.

You are not here today to reconsider that verdict of 1895. Your task is a more difficult one.  It will not be such a simple matter as applying the law to facts as you find them, but to assess responsibility for the tragic fate that befell one of England’s most celebrated literary figures.  Does the blame for Wilde’s conviction and imprisonment lie primarily with the Oscar Wilde himself, or does it lie with the late-Victorian society that judged him?

In the minutes that I have with you this afternoon, I hope to convince you that Oscar Wilde was not a man of heartstopping honesty and courage, as Wilde’s defense attorney this afternoon might have you believe.  To the contrary, this theoretician of decadence-- this apologist for hedonism, this celebrator of idleness—wasted not only his own considerable talents, but caused great damage to the reputations and lives of many young men.  Far from being a man of honesty and courage, Wilde attempted to make dishonesty a virtue and exhibited weakness of body, mind, and spirit.  Wilde was the instrument of his own destruction….

The defense will argue that anyone but Wilde is to blame for his fate: his nemesis Queensberry is to blame; his lover and Queensberry’s son, Lord Alfred Douglas is to blame; homophobic Victorian England and overzealous prosecutors are to blame. No.  As tempting as these other targets are, Oscar Wilde has no one to blame but himself. Five sins, I submit—one for each letter of his name—led to his downfall.

W, dear jury, is for WASTEFUL.  Wilde wasted his great talent.  At the very height of his talents—after Salome, Dorian Gray—what does Wilde do?  He spends evening after evening chasing young men half his age, and with not a fourth of his artistic sense or intellectual firepower.  Rather than seeking intellectual stimulation or aspiring for truth and beauty, Wilde seeks sex.  He chases, he eats excessively, he chases, he smokes, he chases, he drinks too much, he chases some more.  As Wilde himself admitted, “ Desire in the end became a malady.” What works might readers and theater-goers of his and future generations been able to enjoy if he had been able to focus on his God-given talents as an artist?  Three years out of prison Wilde is dead, as a result of complications from an ear infection developed in prison.  What a waste!

That Wilde was guilty of the sin of waste there can be no doubt.  Don’t take my word for it--take Oscar Wilde’s.  Writing from prison Wilde had this to say:

“I became the spendthrift of my genius and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy.  Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in search of a new sensation.”

Because of his what Wilde called his “perverse pleasures” he was—he said regretfully--“forced to send long lawyer’s letters” instead of “making beautiful and colored musical things.”  Waste: that as Wilde saw it, was his REAL CRIME.

Wilde once again, in his prison letter De Profundis: “I am really ashamed of having led a life unworthy of an artist.”  My weakness has “narrowed my imagination and dulled my more delicate sensibilities.”

“I,” ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is for INDECISIVE.  Uncertain about how to respond  to Queensberry’s slur—“To Oscar Wilde, posing as a Sodomite”--, a statement published only on a card left with a club porter, Wilde allowed himself to be egged into an ill-advised libel suit by his Lord Alfred Douglas.  Against the advice of  true friends—men of letters such as George Bernhard Shaw and Frank Harris—Wilde lets his young lover make the call to sue.  As Harris tells the story, Shaw, Harris, Lord Douglas, and Wilde were having lunch at the Café Royal shortly before the libel trial was to open.  The suit is pure folly, Harris and Shaw argued.  “You must go,” the two writers tell Wilde.  Then Douglas, getting up from the table says, “You’re telling him to run away shows that you are no friend of Oscar’s.”  Wilde, following his young lover out of the restaurant agrees.  “It is not friendly of you,” Wilde says….Even more revealing is Wilde’s indecisiveness at the conclusion of his libel trial—Queenberry’s lawyer had revealed his trump hand: a bevy of young men waiting to testify as to their sexual encounters with Wilde.  Wilde sits in a chair in Room 53 at the Cardogan Hotel.  Everyone knows what will happen next if Wilde fails act quickly: he will be arrested at charged with gross indecencies.  His friend Robert Ross tells him to catch the train to Dover, then the ferry to the safety of France.  His wife, Constance, urges him to go.  Meanwhile, the magistrate, in an act of sympathy, has delayed issuing Wilde’s arrest warrant to allow him to catch the last train to Dover.  Wilde sits in his pathetic state of indecision, immobilized as the precious minutes of his freedom tick away.  He drinks glass after glass of hock and seltzer to steady his nerves. Then its too late, the knock comes at the door….Get up, Oscar.  Get on the train, Oscar.  Go, Oscar.  It’s too late, Oscar.

L stands for  LAWLESS.  Wilde thought himself, as a great artist, above the law; a Nietzchean superman.  He tried to secede from society.  He fled from what he saw as the banality of ordinary life into his own solipsistic universe; a paradise of his own design.  Oscar Wilde wanted to live in a place and time such as Ancient Greece, with its ideals, values, and toleration of same-sex passion between older and younger men.  But he lived in Victorian England, and was bound by its laws.

In De Profundis, Wilde writes: “I am one of those who are made for exceptions, not laws.”  Laws are for ordinary people, Wilde believed, not those with his great intellect, taste, and talent. Aesthetics are more important than ethics. Wilde once wrote: “Even a color scheme is more important in the development of an individual than a sense of right and wrong.”  That’s a remarkable statement.  Let me read it again:  “Even a color scheme is more important in the development of an individual than a sense of right and wrong.”  With priorities like that, is it any wonder that Victorian Society saw Wilde as a threat to its moral evolution?

Wilde not only convinced himself that he was immune from the criminal laws of England, but he showed a contempt for anyone who suggested otherwise.  Wilde’s scofflaw attitude—his contempt for English laws and values--is apparent from his trial testimony.  He does his best to turn his trial into a carnival, a big joke.  He is not just witty, he is flippant.

D stands for DISHONEST.

The job of an artist is to lie, Wilde declared: “the world is too depressing to write about.”  The job of a trial witness, however, is to tell the truth.  Wilde didn’t.  Wilde was barely on the witness stand for one minute when he uttered his first lie, declaring himself to be 39 when his true age was 41.  A common lie, a harmless lie, perhaps in most circumstances, but not in a trial.  The first thing Queensberry’s lawyer did on cross-examination was to expose Wilde’s little lie and make the jury wonder just what else he might have been lying about.

One of those other things he had been lying about was precisely what Queensberry accused him of doing: seeking sexual pleasure from young men.  Had Wilde only been forthright about the matter, his downfall might have been avoided.  When Wilde visited his lawyer, Edward Clarke, to ask him to press a libel suit against Queensberry, Clarke had one final question of Wilde before he took on the task..  “I can only accept this brief, Mr. Wilde, if you can assure me on your honor as an English gentleman that there is not and never has been any foundation for the charges that are made against you.”  Wilde replied that Queensberry’s charges were “absolutely false and groundless.”  Not only did Wilde’s dishonesty contribute to his own downfall, but it caused deep embarrassment to one of England’s most respected solicitors.

Finally, “E,” dear jury, stands for EXPLOITATIVE.  It was perhaps the greatest of his five sins.  Wilde exploited young men, some less than half his age, then left them to endure the shame and humiliation that accompanied his downfall. As witnesses in a celebrity trial, their reputations were irrevocably damaged; guilt and shame were a part of the rest of their lives.  Parker, Wood, Atkins, all the boys of Wilde.  The Monica Lewinskys of Victorian England.  And what of Constance Wilde, Oscar’s wife, and Vyvyan and Cyril, Oscar’s two young children?  Wilde  exploited them too.

Writing from prison after his conviction, said this of his sexual encounters with boys or young men half his age:

“They, from the point of view through which I, as an artist in life approached them, were delightfully suggestive and stimulating.  It was like feasting with panthers.  The danger was half the excitement.  I used to feel as the snake-charmer must feel when he lures the cobra.  They were to me the brightest of gilded snakes.  Their poison was part of their perfection.”

Feasting with panthers…Luring the cobra….Wilde understood the danger of what he was doing.  Danger to his reputation, danger to the happiness of his wife and small children—even danger, it turns out to his liberty.  Yet, he feasted, he lured—and he paid the price.  Many people may understand the psychological impulse.  Many may have similar impulses…But most people consider the consequences of their actions, the harm that they would bring those around them. “For he who lives more lives than one, More deaths than one must die.”

It is no defense, I submit, that Oscar Wilde intended no harm to the panthers.  He may have treated them—at the time--with kindness and decency.  But he did belong in their wild world.  He was from another. Wilde was a middle-aged man.  A married man. A man of intelligence, talent, wit, and accomplishment. Like the traveler who accidentally introduces a non-indigenous species that wreaks havoc in a new ecosystem, Wilde brought an infection from his world to that of his panthers.

How do we know that the boys of Wilde felt shame and humiliation?  We know because they said so.  The words of his victims.  And yes, they were victims, though they may have willingly participated in satisfying Wilde’s sexual fantasies.  Wilde exploited these down-on-their-luck boys, boys who did what they did because of their economic circumstance.

Wilde: Wasteful, Indecisive, Lawless, Dishonest, Exploitative.  The Five Sins of Oscar Wilde.

Finally, let me say a word about Queensberry, the villain of the play.  Ill-tempered and unpleasant?—yes. Eccentric?—yes. Paranoid?—probably.  But there is an important fact about Queensberry—not mentioned in the play—that puts his hostility to the relationship between Wilde and his son in a different light.  Queensberry had another son, his eldest, named Francis Douglas.  Francis Douglas also was (most likely) involved in a homosexual relationship.  His lover was believed to be none other than the Prime Minister of England, the Liberal Pary Leader, Lord Rosebery.  At the time of the suspected relationship, Roesbery was Foreign Minister; Francis Douglas his private secretary.  Francis Douglas died in October 1894—just before Queensberry went on his rampage against Wilde.  His son’s death was called “a hunting accident.”  We know now is was that his son most likely committed suicide and that the rumored scandal was the cause of it.  This background may not make you like Queensberry—or like what he did he did to Wilde—but it may help you understand him.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, do your duty.  Convict Oscar Wilde of being responsible for his own downfall.

Response to Defense Summation

“Society is to blame,” says Wilde’s able defense attorney.  “My client was merely a radical individualist—Oscar Wilde was just doing his thing.”

How easy it is for one generation to judge another!  From our vantage point at the start of a new millennium, the defense asks us to see Victorian English society as homophobic, intolerant, constraining, even cruel.  Even if it was all those things—and I don’t suggest that it was—how does that compare to American society in 1895, the year the case of Plessy v Ferguson was argued before our Supreme Court—with the Court upholding a state law that forced black citizens to ride in second-class railcars?  And I wonder what judgments those in the 22nd century will make about our society and its laws?  Will they condemn our society as immoral for allowing experiments on primates?  Call us shortsighted for destroying forests and wetlands?  Find us homophobic for not permitting same-sex marriages?  Label us cruel for locking up young people who experiment with drugs?  They might—and they might be right about all those things.

Let us not lose sight of the fact that the people of Victorian England in 1895 were, on the whole, decent folks who were neither especially backward nor especially intolerant.  Interestingly, the Criminal Amendment Act of 1885, the act under which Oscar Wilde was charged  and which made illegal the committing of “gross indecencies,” was progressive legislation.  Prior to 1885, sexual assaults on boys over the age of 13 and falling short of rape were not crimes.  The impetus for the new law—its main purpose—was to protect boys, not to punish consenting adults.  Interesting also is the fact that prosecutions for consensual homosexual conduct prior to the Wilde case were about as rare as they are in the United States today—and that homosexual conduct at the time (especially in English boy’s schools) was widespread.  The conduct may have been illegal—indeed, in some American states it remains illegal in the year 2000—but it was almost never prosecuted.  What offended Victorian Society about Wilde’s conduct was not so much that involved sex with other males as that it involved sex with a considerable number young male prostitutes.  Wilde, let us not forget, was not prosecuted because he was the lover of a social equal who happened to be male—he was prosecuted for his participation in a not-very-discreet prostitution ring.  Had Wilde merely pursued a relationship with a male of his own age—especially one in his own social class—he never would have found himself in the dock at Old Bailey..

So jurors, Oscar Wilde must bear responsibility for his own downfall.  More than  that, Wilde is to blame for bringing down with him the toleration—such as it was—that homosexuals previously enjoyed.  What before Wilde was –in the mind of the English public--foregiveable sin, after Wilde became perversion. After the Wilde trials, every male-male relationship of any intensity became suspect, every effeminate gesture raised an eyebrow, and the arts and homosexuality became firmly linked in the public mind.  That is what Wilde brought on.

“And all men kill the thing they love,
But let all this be heard,
Some do it with  a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word:
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword.”

Oscar Wilde killed the thing he loved.  He killed himself.  Jurors, do your duty and convict Oscar Wilde of being responsible for his own downfall!

Oscar Wilde Trial Page