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Release: Oct. 1, 1999

University Theatres 'Gross Indecency' chronicles scandalous sex trials of Oscar Wilde

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- University Theatres Mainstage will present Moises Kaufman's "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde," at 8 p.m. Oct. 14, 15 and 21-23, and at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 24, in Theatre B of the University of Iowa Theatre Building.

The play, which dramatizes the scandalous sex trials that destroyed Wilde's flamboyant career as an artist and public wit, is provocatively paired with "The Importance of Being Earnest," Wilde's satiric masterpiece that skewers pretense and conventionality. "Earnest" will be performed Oct. 7-17 in E.C. Mabie Theatre of the UI Theatre Building.

Wilde's downfall occurred in the midst of the international success of "The Importance of Being Earnest," his last and most popular play. After what the press of the time referred to as the "trial of the century," Wilde spent two years in prison at hard labor and lived only three years beyond his release -- exiled, broken in health and spirit and living under a pseudonym.

Playwright Kaufman based his play on the transcripts of the three trials that resulted in Wilde's conviction, as well as statements made by Wilde before, during and after the trials. The characters range from Wilde himself to important figures of the time, befitting his stature as a celebrity -- including Queen Victoria and George Bernard Shaw.

The result is a larger-than-life portrait -- funny, ironic and tragic -- of the consequences of transgressing social mores, amplifying ever-timely issues of art, sexuality, prejudice and censorship.

In 1895 Wilde was a married man and a devoted father, but he was also a prominent member of London's clandestine gay subculture. An affair with Lord Alfred Douglas prompted the nobleman's father, the Marquis of Queensbury, to make public accusations of sodomy against Wilde. Wilde sued for libel, but the suit had effects opposite of what Wilde intended: His secret sex life was revealed, and he was charged with the crime of "gross indecency."

As modern categories of "gay" and "straight" were not yet in existence, Wilde and his male "passionate friends" probably did not consider themselves "homosexual" in the sense of modern gay identity. But he was certainly aware of his sexual difference and his need to conceal what society considered perversion.

As "Gross Indecency" dramaturg Robb Gries notes, "His identity as a man attracted to other men primed him for a life full of paradoxes, and he incorporated them into all his work. A lifetime of pretending to be one thing while being another made Wilde extremely sensitive to hypocrisy, and he used that sensitivity to great effect in his work.

"He lived his life as a form of performance -- he played the role not only of a local celebrity, but also of a heterosexual man. In a very palpable sense, Wilde was an actor in a play of his own writing -- a play that had no intermissions, and continued 24 hours a day."

In the paradox of his personal life, Wilde craved and courted the approval and acceptance of the elite society whose pompousness and pretense he satirized in his plays, and whose moral intolerance he abhorred; he both concealed his homosexuality and flaunted it with his dress, his associations, his wit and risque double-entendres.

"The Importance of Being Earnest" was the apex of Wilde's paradox-embracing life and art, a play in which charming men use lies, false identities and manipulation to enable their romantic exploits, and manage to get away with it through the most improbable of coincidences.

After Wilde was accused and convicted of "gross indecency," the play continued its successful ways, but Wilde's name was removed from the programs.

In the century since his death, Wilde's image has undergone numerous transformations and permutations -- including witty dandy, vile pervert, artistic genius and gay icon. Recent years have seen a renaissance of Wilde, both as an artist of enduring interest, and as a symbol for contemporary social and political struggles with issues of sexual identity and social equality.

The University Theatres production of "Gross Indecency" is directed by Department of Theatre Arts faculty member John Cameron, with scenic design by Alison Ford, costume designer Kaoime Malloy, lighting design by Bryon Winn and sound design by Katharine Horowitz.

Tickets for "Gross Indecency" are $15 ($7 for UI students, senior citizens and youth). Theatergoers may choose to buy their tickets as part of a Wilde Card, which offers the second play in the tandem at half price.

Tickets may also be purchased at a substantial discount as part of University Theatres three-play or five-play season packages. Other plays in the Mainstage season are the world premiere of UI alumnus Rinde Eckert's "A Tale We Told the Queen on the Evening of the Fourth Day of our Journey to the East," Nov. 11-21; "The Firebugs" by Max Frisch, Feb. 3-13; "Orestes 2.0" by Charles Mee, Feb. 17-27; and Shakespeare's "The Tempest," April 6-16.

Hancher box office hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. weekdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and 1 to 3 p.m. Sundays. From the local calling area or outside Iowa, dial (319) 335-1160. Long distance within Iowa and western Illinois is toll-free, 1-800-HANCHER. Fax to (319) 353-2284. Orders may be charged to VISA, MasterCard or American Express. UI students may charge their purchases to their university bills, and UI faculty and staff may select the option of payroll deduction.

People with special needs for access, seating and auxiliary services should dial (319) 335-1158. This number will be answered by box office personnel prepared to offer assistance with handicapped parking, wheelchair access and seating, hearing augmentation and other services. The line is equipped with TDD for people with hearing impairment who use that technology.

The entire University Theatres season, including Stage Two productions and the Iowa Playwrights Festival, is detailed in a free brochure, "Looking Back, Looking Forward," which is available from the Hancher box office or from the Department of Theatre Arts at (319) 335-2700.