The Emperor Caligula, Gross Indecency, and the Killing of Oscar Wilde
|Kettner's Main Room|
|Kettner's Private Dining Room|
Losing the first trial led to Wilde’s arrest for violating the following statute:
|Wilde and Douglas|
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Nov.2-20 at Studio Two, Riffe Center
The judge’s sentence mandated that Oscar Wilde be kept at “hard labour” for two years. What did that entail? The answer is that hard labor was manufactured cruelty designed by the Victorians to teach the prisoner how much his crime upset society.
Or there was the “crank.” It consisted of nothing more than a large handle in the prisoner’s cell that had to be laboriously turned (churning the contents of a bucket of sand on the other end). It could be calibrated by the warder to require greater and greater strength to rotate, with the usual punishments for faltering.
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And sweated on the mill,
But in the heart of every man
Terror was lying still.
And twilight in one's cell,
We turn the crank, or tear the rope,
Each in his separate Hell.
When Wilde died he was only 46 years old. This great man—dead at 46.
I want you to think about what the British attitude to homosexuality did to poor Oscar and, by extension, to the world. Oscar Wilde was the author of a number of much-admired plays, the most famous of which is “The Importance of Being Earnest,” still listed as one of the top five comedies ever written. It had just opened in 1895 as the trials began, and was forced to close almost immediately when the scandal started (though the producers tried to distance themselves from the author by taking his name off both the playbill and the banner outside the theater). How many more plays, novels, poems, children’s stories, might he have written if he’d lived thirty or so more years? Or if he’s been born at a time when science and society understood that sexual orientation is not a chosen trait; it’s fixed by genetics.
The poet A. E. Houseman understood what was going on. During the trials he wrote the poem below, but it wasn’t published until after Houseman’s death.
And what has he been after, that they groan and shake their fists?
And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air?
Oh they’re taking him to prison for the colour of his hair.
In the good old time ’twas hanging for the colour that it is;
Though hanging isn’t bad enough and flaying would be fair
For the nameless and abominable colour of his hair.
To hide his poll or dye it of a mentionable shade;
But they’ve pulled the beggar’s hat off for the world to see and stare,
And they’re haling him to justice for the colour of his hair.
And the quarry-gang on Portland in the cold and in the heat,
And between his spells of labour in the time he has to spare
He can curse the God that made him for the colour of his hair.