Saturday, June 21, 2008

the secret fall of constance wilde

Saw this last night at the Guthrie. The set was a grimy Victorian way station and four black-clad "puppeteers" put Oscar Wilde, his wife Constance, and his lover, Alfred Lord Douglas, through the scenes of their tragic story. The costumes and set were perfect and the performances were very impressive. Marcela Lorca directed, and I wonder if this is her first time as a director at the Guthrie. In the past, she's been the movement director. Anyway, I think she did a fabulous job. Impeccable, save a couple dance numbers by the puppeteers that I could have done without. The production was mesmerizing. I loved the brooding, otherworldly music sung by the puppeteers and played on piano and cello.

Too bad the play itself was unworthy of such a high-caliber production. Playwright Thomas Kilroy claims that he was attracted to the story of Wilde's love triangle by the unknowns. Why did Constance continue to give money to Wilde until her death after he had treated her so horribly? After being accused of gross indecency, why did Oscar stay in England instead of fleeing?

After I spent half the night thinking about this play, I've come to the conclusion that it suffers from two major problems: clashing themes that give it an uneven, out-of-proportion feel, and what I can only describe as "falseness."

Falseness first. This play would have us believe that Oscar Wilde loves his wife. I see no evidence of that in the play beyond the very beginning when they first meet. The play does a very good job showing how completely and utterly consumed by self Oscar is. As such, he is incapable of love. At one point in the play I almost gasped in disbelief. Constance finally asks Oscar for a divorce. He pleads with her that she not divorce him. He says words to the effect that "if you divorce me I will be obliterated," thinking only of himself, of course. She continues to insist. Then he says something else, but I'm not going to paraphrase because I just don't remember. It was a strong expression of love. Constance replies something like, "Just when I think I know what I'm doing, you go and say something like that" and they embrace. I'm sorry, but that's not love. Those are pretty words. Though Oscar sees how miserable he makes his family, in the play he never makes the slightest effort to change his vile behavior.

The playwright's answer to why Oscar Wilde faces his charges instead of fleeing is that he feels he must stand up to the forces in the country who "hate love." I assume this refers to the uptight Victorians who do not accept flagrant homosexuality. So Wilde is supposed to be some sort of savior figure for gays. (Like he needs additional self-importance.) This is all conveyed in a perplexing scene between Constance and Lord Douglas, where Lord Douglas persuades Constance to write a note to Oscar expressing her support for his staying to face the charges rather than fleeing. But then it seems that Lord Douglas never delivers the note. We don't know why. And it completely baffles me why Constance would write this note of support in the first place when she has just learned that Oscar's behavior included the corruption of young boys and other depravities.

Which brings me to the conflicting themes. *spoiler alert* The climax of the play is an immensely disturbing scene revealing that Constance suffered sexual abuse by her father. However, it is strangely anti-climactic after all of the horrors her husband has put her through. See what I mean by a proportion problem?

Speaking of proportion problems, I saw this morning that several reviewers warn that there is nudity in the play. Nudity? That was very far from being the most disturbing scene in the play. It's brief and not frontal. The Guthrie website discloses that there is "smoking." Uh-huh. No one mentions the shocking depiction of child abuse, nor the fairly explicit homosexual make-out and groping scenes. I suppose it is considered gauche now to notice such a thing as being any different from a heterosexual make-out, grope scene.

Oscar Wilde is very disappointing as a character. He is not sympathetic in any way, shape, or form. We keep hearing about how complex and interesting Oscar is, but all I could see was a big baby. Constance, on the other hand, seems formidably intelligent, strong, and free of pretensions. It is unclear what she sees in Oscar as time goes by. Lord Douglas is a cretin. Most of the time he is the stereotypical gay man: mincing, preening, and supremely shallow. So when occasionally he's given some lines of insight or supposed wisdom, you're not sure if it's meant in earnest or in irony.

I wonder how the gay community reacts to "The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde." I wonder if they are uncomfortable with the stereotypes. To some extent they obviously want to be portrayed as monogamous upholders of family values who want nothing more than marriage and adoption rights and the opportunity to help those less fortunate--the stylistically-challenged. This play does not depict that.


Ave said...

That sounds pretty intense, What did J think of it?

Cate Ross said...

Nice review. I was so unhappy with the play that I couldn't stand to return after intermission. Thank you so much for doing such a thorough and articulate summation of what I "missed."

Calandria said...

It was pretty bad, wasn't it? I can't believe they chose to do that play at the Guthrie. I think it bothered me even more because the production was so good. They could have done a wonderful production of a GOOD play, you know?