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Guest Blog: John O'Connor On THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE

Guest Blog: John O'Connor On THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE
The Trials of Oscar Wilde

Is there anything we don't know about Oscar Wilde? His plays are always in fashion and there are countless biographies, films and documentaries about the great man. Social media is full of Wildean quotes which fit neatly into 280 characters, and his image is now as famous as Che Guevara or James Dean.

Having directed and occasionally acted in Wilde plays myself (including one memorable occasion when I had to fly to Rome to play Lady Bracknell at 24 hours' notice), I thought of myself as a bit of an authority. That was until I showed a Greek friend around London and we stopped at the sculpture of Wilde opposite Charing Cross Station. She asked a deceptively simple question: 'Why did Wilde go to prison?'.

I racked my brains for an easy answer but none was forthcoming. I knew that his imprisonment was due to his sexuality, but beyond that I was in the dark. Suitably chastened, I decided to do some digging...

Most of what I discovered shocked and astonished me. For a start, Thursday 14 February 1895 was the triumphant opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest and the zenith of Oscar Wilde's career. Yet within 100 days he found himself disgraced, bankrupted and sentenced to two years' hard labour. Was there ever a more dizzying fall from grace outside one of Shakespeare's tragedies?

Guest Blog: John O'Connor On THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE
The Trials of Oscar Wilde

It didn't take a genius to work out that this story would make a great play. I wondered what had actually happened during the trials and what Wilde had said. Was he persecuted or the author of his own downfall? Everyone loves a courtroom drama, but this one would feature the wittiest man who ever lived.

I wrote to Merlin Holland, who is Wilde's grandson and the sole executor of his estate. He had written an excellent book called Irish Peacock and Scarlett Marquess, based on the transcripts of the libel trial that were thought lost but then discovered after 100 years. Merlin also thought this would make a wonderful play and generously offered his time not only to answer my questions but to co-write the script with me.

Wherever possible, we have used the original words spoken in court. The first half of the play deals with the dramatic events of the libel trial - Wilde vs Queensberry - as Oscar goes from Prosecutor to Prosecuted in the space of three devastating days. The second half carefully reconstructs the criminal trial - Regina vs Wilde - from newspaper reports, eyewitness accounts and documentary evidence.

We tend to think of Wilde speaking in perfectly constructed epigrams, but in court we hear his unguarded words, spoken under pressure and off the cuff. He stumbles and evades but also surprises us with flashes of lightning wit and defiance. This is the closest thing to seeing him in the flesh. The audience has a ringside seat at the so-called 'trial of the century' and can feel what it's like to be in the company of a flawed genius, as this less than ideal husband is tragically reduced to a man of no importance.

Things have moved on a long way since Oscar was on trial for daring to be different, so what relevance does his story have to our world today? Well, according to the charity Stonewall, same-sex relationships are still illegal in 72 countries and in eight of those are punishable by death. It's important to remember that in 2019 artists and writers are still being imprisoned or killed for being thorns in the side of the establishment.

The true story of the 1895 trials confirms to us that Wilde's wit is incomparable, his humanity a triumph, but his tragedy makes him a figure of universal importance.

Find tour dates and venues for The Trials of Oscar Wilde here

Photo credit: Emily Hyland

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From This Author Guest Blog: John O’Connor