It may sometimes seem like we are living through an age of finger-pointing paranoia unprecedented since the Taliban-esque era of the post-Civil War Puritans; but we have been here more recently, and a couple of centuries closer than the seventeenth. Change ‘paedophile’ to ‘homosexual’ and place not a harmless, has-been pop culture court-jester in the dock, but the most rapacious wit of the English theatre at the height of his artistic powers. It’s 1895 and Oscar Wilde is on trial for gross indecency.
Here was the original opportunity for powerful people blessed with self-righteousness and possessing a vested interest in a specific outcome to cut someone down to size and wilfully break them whilst summarily trashing their reputation for generations to come. Yes, Wilde’s vain arrogance and notion of his genius elevating him above the kind of punishment anyone in a less privileged position would have expected to receive did him no favours, but he was damned and doomed the moment he made the suicidal decision to sue the Marquess of Queensbury for libel. The failure of Wilde’s prosecution against the father of his lover and the subsequent trial it led to has been covered by numerous books and documentaries in the 120 years since it was staged at the Old Bailey and it is not my intention to go into the finer details of this. However, when one peruses the process before, during and after the event, the parallels with developments over the past two to three years are uncomfortably familiar.
Queensbury was prepared to stick by his accusation of Wilde posing as a sodomite and the defence painted a portrait of Wilde as a decadent and depraved sexual predator addicted to corrupting minors, mostly rent boys the playwright himself referred to as ‘gentlemen’s grooms’, something the defence achieved with ease via the hiring of private detectives to tail a man not known for introvert tendencies. Revelations in the libel trial that led to its collapse then led to Wilde being arrested on charges of sodomy and gross indecency. The fact that Wilde had been forced to pay Queensbury’s legal costs for the failed libel case meant he was already broken financially; now it was time to break him completely.
It was hardly a challenge for the prosecution in Regina Vs Wilde to persuade some of the young men whose services Wilde had enjoyed to be called as witnesses; after all, their own role in the affair would have been cause for imprisonment should they have refused, a potent weapon for the law to threaten them with. Therefore, the Victorian netherworld of male prostitution was ‘trawled’ for those prepared to come forward, play the victim, and denounce Wilde. Although Wilde’s closest friends remained loyal, fears of guilt by association forced many to flee abroad and effectively abandon him to secure their own safety.
The mainstream media as it existed at the time was much the same as the mainstream media today, relishing the prospect of a household name being brought down by a sex scandal, and public opinion of the playwright they had celebrated with such gusto was dictated anew by salacious press coverage. Wilde’s plays suddenly disappeared from the theatres and even male chums who would previously have linked arms in public (a common practice often referred to in Dickens novels, for example) abruptly separated now that this innocent gesture of bonhomie had acquired a sinister taint. Interestingly, when Edward Carson QC – Queensbury’s barrister at the libel trial and later the ‘founding father’ of Protestant Ulster – asked the Solicitor General if Wilde could be spared a further trial when the jury failed to reach a verdict, Frank Lockwood expressed the opinion that there was too much political pressure to allow Wilde to walk away a free man. So, back in the dock went Wilde.
The words of the Judge at the final trial, the one that resulted in Wilde being sentenced to two years’ hard labour, certainly have a ring of uncanny relevance to them, when he described it as ‘the worst case I have ever tried’. Remember, courtrooms then were just as accustomed to hosting trials involving brutal, barbaric murders as they are now, but homosexual acts were regarded as beyond the pale. His sentence may only have been two years, but the hard labour aspect was bound to leave its mark on a man whose strength was with words. Wilde’s health deteriorated rapidly during his spells at Pentonville and Wandsworth, where he endured the physically crippling cruelty of the treadmill, and it took the intervention of a reforming MP to persuade the authorities to move Wilde to a prison prone to a less harsh regime where he could see out the remainder of his sentence.
He was eventually transferred to Reading Gaol, but the actual transfer, which involved travelling by train, included a moment on a station platform when he was recognised by a member of the public; it didn’t take long for a jeering, spitting crowd to surround the man who had become used to being surrounded by crowds of a more adoring nature. The Mob was doing its duty as Wilde was incarcerated in an enlightened institution where three small children imprisoned for poaching rabbits were amongst his fellow inmates.
The sad story of Wilde’s swift decline, with his life coming to a premature end in Paris just five years after his original arrest, had an equally devastating impact on his nearest and dearest. When the scandal had broken, Wilde’s wife Constance had gone into Swiss exile with her two young sons and changed the family name to Holland, denying her children contact with their father and fobbing them off with little white lies. But as her youngest son Vyvyan later recalled, the shadow of scandal that dogged the family reflected the disgrace that Wilde, his works and those who had been associated with him were now blackened by: ‘The thought that any moment an indiscreet remark or a chance encounter with someone from our former lives might betray us was a sword of Damocles constantly hanging above our heads’.
Holland made a prescient point in his 1954 autobiography, ‘Son of Oscar Wilde’, when he spoke of it being a cruel irony that ‘Oscar Wilde should have been singled out by fate to suffer for all the countless artists who, both before and since his day, have shared his weakness.’ It took many years (and the gradual passing of the generation that had gaoled him) for the suppression of Oscar Wilde’s works to be tentatively lifted. The restoration of his reputation as a great artist was then slowly followed by a changing moral climate that enabled the appalling punishment inflicted upon him to finally be recognised as such by a wider audience than merely his loyal devotees. But how long before a radio station can play ‘Leader of the Gang’ again? How long before a repeat channel will rerun ‘It’s A Knockout’ or ‘Jim’ll Fix It’? Probably when George Osborne relocates to a rented maisonette in Middlesbrough and can be sighted on a bench outside his local Aldi armed with a roll-up and a can of Special Brew.
When Jonathan King compared his arrest, trial and sentencing to that of Wilde, I remember my reaction at the time being guided by idle cynicism, coming to the conclusion that his claim was another extension of the inexhaustible ego the man had seemed to project down the cathode ray tube for most of my life. I now stand corrected. He was right and I was wrong. The Yewtree test-case that was the Jonathan King saga is evident with the benefit of hindsight to be a resumption of something that needed a new sexual bogeyman and a new age of puritanical (not to say hypocritical) morality to give it a fresh impetus. The headlines are the same in 2015 as they were in 1895; the forces of ‘justice’ are the same in 2015 as they were in 1895; the ruthless and vindictive determination to pursue and get a result at all costs is the same in 2015 as it was in 1895; the general public’s willing gullibility to accept the agenda is the same in 2015 as it was in 1895; and the fear of being seen to condone the crime and the man by voicing common sense and an alternative to the consensus is exactly the bloody same.
Nail your colours to the mast, o seekers of truth, but be prepared to have those colours diluted by rotten eggs, animal faeces, projectile saliva and the flame of a match. For now, we are firmly out in the cold. But, hey, at least it’s one of the few places left we can still smoke.