The fatal love affair between the legendary Irish poet, wit and dramatist Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred (Bosie) Douglas still captivates each new age. It's apparent now that their names will be forever linked, which Wilde anticipated and in despite of himself ensured.
In The Judas Kiss, now playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, playwright David Hare has come to some rather stark conclusions about the flaxen haired object of Wilde's fascination.
For a man who delighted in frivolity and fun, there is something otherworldly and even saintly about the way Wilde submits himself so nakedly to love. As Wilde's writing and Hare's play make clear, it's the only thing the Irishman holds absolutely sacred, because for him it is the highest form of beauty, and so a thing to be treated with genuine reverence.
“The everyday world is shrouded. We see it dimly. Only when we love do we see the true person,” Hare's Wilde says. “Love is not the illusion. Life is.”
Actor Rupert Everett, 57, plays Wilde the way the English tend to see him and as Hare has written him, as a great man of letters brought low by offstage prejudice and hypocrisy. We are given moments of wit and flashes of intellectual brilliance and the chalk outline of the fierce little human tragedy in which Wilde played.
But Everett's Wilde occasionally hews closer to Dorian Gray than Oscar, partly as a result of the script and partly as the result of his own Oxbridge hauteur, in which not the faintest glimmer of Wilde's Irish heritage can be found.
Each generation seems to have its own Oscar, and so apparently does each country and playwright. For some he's the incendiary Irish dramatist eviscerating the high Victorians in the wisest and wittiest English heard for hundreds of years.
But for others he's a tragic figure, an unlikely Prometheus who rises high and then after an all too brief moment of glory falls low, stripped by scandal of his reputation and accompaniments.
Hare's play clearly tends in the latter direction, and he clearly wants to understand something fundamental about his subject. Why did Wilde stay in London on the eve of his arrest when the British establishment, the police and courts, even some of the press, clearly wanted him to take his licks and flee to the continent where the scandal of being openly gay was not quite a career killing offense?
What made Wilde decide to face them all down and go to trial in 1895, when he was just another powerless Irishman facing the British judicial system? Why brazen it out when he knew and they knew there was no possibility of mercy?
The Judas Kiss goes a long way toward answering these questions, which can be summarized simply: for love. It's an impulse that mystifies the British but makes perfect sense to Celtic -- and Wilde might say, artistic -- temperaments.
Wilde, Hare reminds us, loves Douglas with an un-ironic, near to religious adoration that means he will risk who he is, what he has achieved, his literary reputation and even his life and freedom in pursuit of that love.
That Douglas, the whey-faced scion of an insane family, neither appreciates nor fully reciprocates what is being done in his honor is made plain very quickly. Hare skewers the young aristocrat (played by a pitch perfect Charles Rowe) by revealing his cynicism, his calculation, and his inability to show compassion without first being asked.
The asymmetry, this dance between the adored and the indifferent, makes The Judas Kiss a near forensic examination of the illusions we create and the reality that destroys them. It also makes the play very sad, but then Wilde's fate and the loss to world culture were both inestimable and profoundly sad.
It's a mysterious thing to love with Wilde's abandon, to submit to every arrow, to overlook irony, to walk though fire. But Hare shows us that when given the choice between following his heart or living an unauthentic life, a choice Wilde faced repeatedly, he chooses love, even when it will lead to a jail cell or crushing poverty.
Hare wants to understand his elusive subject and Everett wants to capture Wilde's essence, but when both come face to face with the transcendent impulse that guides that last years of his life they are struck silent. It's strange to love like that in an age like ours.
The Judas Kiss plays through June 13 at BAM. For tickets visit www.bam.org.