DOASKDOTELL DRAMA, MUSICAL OR PLAY REVIEW of Gross Indecency, The Laramie Project, 33 Variations


Author: Kaufman, Moises

Title:  Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde

Where seen: Guthrie Lab Theater, Minneapolis (1998)

Director: (Published by Vintage)

Performance time:


Recording available:

Relevance to doaskdotell: freedom of speech in art

Review Drama Review: Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde (1998), By Moises Kaufman, Published by Vintage; also The Laramie Project (2000)

I saw this, staged arena style, at the Guthrie Lab Theater in Minneapolis on Decembe 6, 1998.

The play depicts Oscar Wilde's contribution, not so much to "gay rights" but to the notion of human pyschological, aesthetic, and intellectual freedom. The play has a definite didactic flavor: the narration sometimes overtakes pure drama (often necessary in history plays).

The story concerns Wilde's three trials in 1885. In the first trial, Wilde prosecutes Lord Queensberry for libel for accusing him of carrying on an indecent relationship with the Lord's son, Bosie. The trial focuses not so much on the evidence that homosexual acts took place as on the "subversive" nature of Wilde's writings, particularly the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. In the novel, Wilde had portrayed his philosophy of what we could call "aesthetic idealism" (the antithesis of a moralistic or religious "aesthetic realism"), which has its "pagan" roots in Hellenistic culture. For a (psychologically feminine) older man to love and mentor a (psychologically masculine) younger man for the psychological benefit of both was seen as a cultivation of new forms of beauty for its own sake. (Wilde claims he loved a young man's "spirit" but in fact that spirit was visually symbolized by a young man's body, as in Dorian Gray.) Art could impress these values upon people, and thereby liberate them from the oppression of a social caste system and from a corrupt, self-perpetuating state. The best political system for human freedom was, in Wilde's terms, no government at all. Wilde was indeed a libertarian, or perhaps anarchist. The artist, in Wilde's view, had the hidden power to mold the psychological values of ordinary people and a larger society.

In fact, the narration of the play explains that the trials of Oscar Wilde marked the beginning in western civilization of the pre-modern concept of a "homosexual" as a separate kind of person with inclinations that are inherently subversive and narcissistic. The notion of homosexuality as a character disorder, as developed in my own DADT book, seems to have been born in these trials. By treating it this way, society could avoid painful (for some people) psychological exposure. (Whether this really starts with Victorianism is debatable; other authors like Andrew Sullivan trace all this back to Aquinas). The military, in particular, has been able to exploit this notion of the homosexual as parasitic and disruptive. Sodomy laws are based on similar notions.

Wilde's trials may indeed have contributed ultimately to the development of a "gay community" to which one either belongs or doesn't belong. They may also have contributed to the distaste we perceive today when an older person shows an "interest" (gay or straight) in a much younger person.

Based on the evidence from the first trial, the Crown immediately charges Wilde with "gross indecency" (sodomy or buggery) with various young men. An important point was that these young men were not of his age or social class (they were legal adults). Wilde is given the chance to leave the country but refuses and insists upon defending his moral convictions. In the end, the judge sentences him to two years at hard labor in what he considers one of the "worst cases" he had ever heard.

Here are a few impotrant Wilde quotes:

"The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame."

"To judge… the immorality of an artist is to ask the court to do what it is wholly unfit to do."

This play is more effective than the 1998 film Wilde, starring Stephen Fry and Jude Law. Athough, in this arena stage play, Bosie comes across as a poison apple whereas in the movie (played by Jude Law) he seems pretty clean cut.


This is a good place to mention the 1945 MGM film The Picture of Dorian Gray, based on Oscar Wilde’s novel set in 1890’s Victorian London. The film, directed by Albert Lewin and starring George Sanders as a pseudo-homosexual lord who “corrupts” a young pianist, Dorian (great with those Chopin etudes), played by Hurd Hatfield.  Angela Lansbury (later in Manchurian Candidate) gives a wonderful preview of her autumn. The film is shot in razor-like black-and-white, making the English table settings sparkle, with the portrait of Dorian alone in Technicolor.  When Dorian’s portrait is created, the portrait, hidden from sight most of the time, ages into a hideous monster while Dorian stays an exuberant 22 while he turns into a psychopathic killer.  The ending, when the picture (suddenly in garish paint-color) is assassinated and the man becomes monster, is true horror.  He looks worse than The Elephant Man.  Of course, Wilde’s philosophy is what comes through with a cutting edge. The worst thing a man can lose is his youth? (Is it?  Victorian and Judeo-Christian morality, among other things, was supposed to retain a respect for elders.) Better is the lord, whose hobby was to manipulate the feelings of others while having no feelings of his own.


A more recent effort play by Moises Kaufman is The Laramie Project, presented by the Tectonic Theater Project and recently performed in Minneapolis at the Illusion Theater on the rapidly renewing Hennepin Avenue. The director is Michael H. Robbins. Eight cast members take turns playing various Laramie, Wyoming residents in reliving the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard and the subsequent trial.  Shepard himself is never portrayed (compared with the MTV film Anatomy of a Hate Crime). The stage is multi-furcated, with impressive backdrops of the Wyoming countryside (which I visited in 1994) projected as from a film strip.  The script does tend to read a bit like a college recitation, with the various issues (homophobia, “live and let live,” smaller town sociology, capital punishment) are explored, and there is not a lot of plot-related tension among the characters as is usually expected in screen or play writing. The medical reports are particularly chilling.  The fear of the attending policewoman that she could have become infected with HIV is explored and thoughtfully treated.  (I was not aware that Shepard had been HIV+ but it appears that if so it likely would have remained dormant for many years and would have been treatable with the newer drugs.)  The by Matthew Shepard’s father statement at the sentencing of the second defendant is most touching. 

On Nov. 26, 2004 ABC “20/20” aired an interview by Elizabeth Vargas, in which Russell Henderson and Allen McKinney claim from prison that the murder was motivated more by drugs and money that homohatred, something hard to believe given the details

 HBO (with Good Machine) first aired a film version of this play on March 9, 2002.  The link is  The cast included  Dylan Baker, Clancy Brown, Tom Brewer, Steve Buscemi, Nestor Carbonell, Mark Webber (from Storytelling, as Aaron McKinney), Joshua Jackson, James Murtaugh. The film is very much like the play: it seems like a docudrama, a sequence of interviews and incidents, and does not have as much impact as the MTV film “Anatomy of a Hate Crime.”  The ambivalence or negative perception of many of the townspeople to homosexuality comes across, even as they deplore the crime. The issue as to whether Matthew “hit on” the two perpetrators first is well covered by the bartender’s interview, when he describes how Matthew used to stake out his own territory. The anti-gay protests at the funeral are quite shocking.

33 Variations, opening in the summer of 2007 as a preview at the Arena Stage in Washington DC, both written and directed by Moises Kaufman, layers the story of Beethoven’s composing his famous Diabelli variations with that of a dying musicologist researching the composition and the daughter reluctantly caring for her. The blogger discussion is here.



Related reviews: Anatomy of a Hate Crime


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