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The Trials of Oscar Wilde: How the notorious courtroom drama was brought to life

John Gorick and Rupert Mason in The Trials of Oscar Wilde. Photo: Emily Hyland

The real story of the trials that led to Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment returns for a UK tour this month. Merlin Holland tells Nick Smurthwaite about recreating the event using the transcript of his grandfather’s own words


Five years after its first run, The Trials of Oscar Wilde [1] is set to return for a 10-week tour around the UK. It tells the real story of what happened during the trials that led to Wilde’s imprisonment in Reading Gaol, based on the original court transcripts, which only came to light in 2000.

The shorthand transcripts were adapted for the stage by the playwright’s grandson, Merlin Holland, and actor and director John O’Connor. It first toured the UK in 2014 and ran for a month at London’s Trafalgar Studios [2].

In an introduction to the published script, Holland, who has written extensively about his grandfather, describes the unexpected appearance of the transcripts – left by an anonymous donor at the British Library – as “the holy grail of Wilde studies”.

He writes of the discovery: “We now had nearly 85,000 words instead of the mere 30,000 known until then. Having Oscar’s own words rather than paraphrases or, even worse, words he never uttered, puts him in a rather different light. Using the actual words he spoke in court, we can feel what it was like to be in the company of a flawed genius.”

It was commonly thought Wilde began at the libel trial with a boastful catalogue of his achievements, but the transcripts revealed that he answered questions put to him with a simple “yes” or “I did”. At times, the man famed for his wit and strong opinions appeared flustered and unnerved.

Merlin Holland. Photo: Ed Wright [3]
Merlin Holland. Photo: Ed Wright

There were three trials. The first was an action for libel, brought by Wilde against the Marquess of Queensberry, father of Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, which backfired after Queensberry’s lawyers produced damning evidence from London’s homosexual underworld.

The second trial, prompted by the director of public prosecutions bringing an action of gross indecency against Wilde, resulted in a hung jury; and the retrial found him guilty as charged.

The Old Bailey Sessions Papers, which normally gave detailed summaries of its cases, unaccountably said of the libel trial: “The details of the case are unfit for publication”, and gave the barest of details of the subsequent prosecutions by the Crown. Such cases of so-called ‘gross indecency’ were clearly considered unfit for Victorian sensibilities.

It wasn’t until 1912, 17 years after the trials, that Oscar Wilde: Three Times Tried was published, purporting to give an accurate record of what happened in the courtrooms in order to dispel “the vague fog of obscenity” surrounding them.

According to Holland, most of the material seems to have been gleaned from newspapers of the time. It remained the ‘official’ account of the trials until the legitimate shorthand transcripts were discovered at the turn of this century.

Holland says: “When the person who owns the transcripts brought them in to the British Library as I was helping prepare an exhibition about Wilde marking the centenary of his death, they insisted on remaining anonymous.

“After the exhibition was over, I was given permission to edit and publish the transcripts. I suggested they be put on long-term loan to the British Library in case people thought I’d made it all up. That was agreed as well and that’s where they are now.”

Holland now lives in France, where Wilde spent his final years after being released from Reading Gaol. Does he ever tire of being known as Oscar Wilde’s grandson? “Not really, because his life is an endlessly fascinating subject,” he says.

“I often wonder if and when the Oscar Wilde bandwagon will finally run out of steam. But what other British author has been fictionalised on stage and screen as often? So much of his work and life is now part of popular British folklore.”

A scene from The Trials of Oscar Wilde. Photo: Emily Hyland [4]
A scene from The Trials of Oscar Wilde. Photo: Emily Hyland

One of Holland’s greatest regrets is that he did not broach the subject of his grandfather’s fall from grace with his own father, Vyvyan, who died in 1967 when Holland was 21 – three months after homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK.

He says: “I wish I’d been able to ask my father all sorts of things, but when you’re a teenager, you are sublimely selfish and concerned only with your own pleasures and preoccupations. He wrote an autobiography in the 1950s, but I think an awful lot got left out because of the attitudes of the time. I have a file of letters that my father received after it was published, from people unaware that Oscar was married with children.”

Everyone loves a courtroom drama and this one features the wittiest man who ever lived

Holland’s co-author, John O’Connor, also the play’s producer, is looking forward to taking The Trials of Oscar Wilde to a wide variety of venues. He says: “It can work almost anywhere – we’ve performed it in a wooden barn, a Victorian courtroom and a Scottish cattle byre – and the audience takes the role of the jury, so they are part of the drama. Everyone loves a courtroom drama and this one features the wittiest man who ever lived.”

In the UK at least, the world has moved on, and Wilde is now a revered cultural figure. But, as O’Connor points out, it is still illegal to be gay in 78 countries and punishable by death in five. He says: “In that context, this is a story that urgently needs to be told.”

The Trials of Oscar Wilde opens at the Theatre Royal Windsor on March 26 and tours until June. Details: europeanarts.co.uk [5]


[6]
A clipping from The Stage – a review of Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1900, 5 years after the trials.

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive [7]

Reading Gaol theatre plans boosted by council support [8]