History and ethics

David Hare’s play The Judas Kiss, originally written in 1998 but revived in the West End in 2012, deals with historical events and raises questions about the fictional treatment of real life issues. This is a play about two incidents in Oscar Wilde’s life, firstly his arrest on the afternoon following the collapse of his libel trial and secondly the reconciliation with his lover, Bosie Douglas, two years later on his release from prison. Act One deal with the hours in the Cadogan Hotel when he had to decide to flee or stay to be arrested. Act Two the day when Bosie and he parted in Naples, Bosie giving him a kiss which Hare believes is the Judas Kiss.

Bosie is portrayed as two times betraying Wilde, leaving him at crucial moments. This is historically wrong, notably for the day of Wilde’s arrest. It is true Bosie was not there are the crucial moment, but he was visiting the House of Commons to seek support for Wilde. What happened in Naples when the two men were briefly reconciled is more complex, but the issues are not merely ones of interpretation. As Hare understands, and discusses in his introduction, dealing with real people and real incidents demands a particular integrity. The question posed by the play is whether Hare meets the criteria he set out himself in a little known but very important essay, which was not reprinted in either of the two Faber editions, (the 1998 single volume and the later collected plays Vol 3. (1))

In this essay he writes of “The familiar problems which lie at the heart of all biographical fiction… the form presents real ethical difficulties. …there is something distinctly dubious in showing people saying and doing things which they are perfectly entitled to insist they did not actually say and do…. asked… to write a film about Sylvia Plath… (and) her husband… it would not just be presumptuous of me to invent some speculative version of their marriage. It would be morally indefensible”.

This is true. But the same rule applies to the Bosie-Wilde relationship, and the familiar view that Bosie betrayed Wilde when facing the authorities, and later to loneliness and exile. How well does the play stand up in this ethical light?

The basis for assessment.

Hare argues that the play takes us to incidents ‘for which we have only sketchy records’. This is truer for Naples than the afternoon in the Cadogan Hotel. There is considerable information about the arres of Wilde. Of the major sources, the letters of 1962 had much valuable information, and the Richard Ellman biography (2:1987) had more. Both were available to Hare in 1998 along with other information. The Ellmann biography draws on eyewitness writing, of which Wilde in De Profundis (the prison letter, blaming Bosie Douglas for his downfall) and Bosie in his Autobiography are the most important. Together with Wilde’s letters, collected in 1962 by Rupert Hart Davis, there was a body of evidence available for Hare to draw on. How well did he use this information?

In the first Act, the hours in the Cadogan Hotel before Wilde’s arrest, there are at least three major errors of fact which bias the play against the admittedly unpleasant Bosie Douglas.

(1) Hare puts Bosie on stage, before Wilde has arrived, to tell Ross that Wilde has written a letter to the Evening News stating why he withdrew his libel action against the Marquis of Queens-berry, Bosie’s father. Ross did not need Bosie to tell him. Ross had in fact drafted the letter, and though this was not set out in the 1962 version of the letters – it was made clear in the later 2000 version – Hare should have known that Ross and Bosie had both been with Wilde when the letter was written as Ellmann had noted that after the end of the First trial Wilde had gone “to the Holborn Viaduct Hotel,. Douglas, his brother Percy, and Robert Ross accompanied Wilde, and in the hotel he wrote a letter to the Evening News”. (3)

(2) Ross stayed with Wilde when he went to the Cadogan Hotel, but Bosie went off to see his cousin George Wyndham MP in parliament to get him to persuade the Home Secretary to drop a prosecution of Wilde. Ellmann states on the basis of other evidence gathered by Montgomery Hyde and previously published, “Douglas was off trying to see his cousin the MP George Wyndham, and stir up influential friends”. The betrayal thesis depends on Bosie being indifferent to Wilde’s fate. He was not. He was the most faithful of friends and the Letters show that he was visiting Wilde in prison up to the date of his conviction.

(3) Bosie was not in the hotel and thus the crucial scene where he promises to stay with Wilde (4) but then is persuaded by Wyndham to leave Wilde is false. While Wyndham did go to the Hotel, and was not allowed into the room where Wilde was sitting, it was Ross who saw him not Bosie. The subsequent development in which Ross says he had promised his mother to flee rather than be with Wilde when arrested, but then decides to stay and thus becomes heroic, is wholly mistaken. Ross was paid by his mother to go, and left.

In fact it was Bosie who stayed and Ross who fled. Ellmann says “”Douglas elected to stay, though he appeared to be in greater danger than the others” (6). The first Act thus gives an inverted view of what actually happened in the Cadogan hotel, raising serious issues about the historical accuracy of the portrayal and, to the extent that Hare should have known from published material what had happened, the ethical aspects of the drama he has invented.

The events in Naples had only the later writings of Wilde and Douglas to back them up, but the reality is as both men knew they depended financially on the women in their lives, and both were able to cut of the funds. And both – Mrs Wilde and Lady Douglas, Bosie’s mother – had every intention of doing so. Bosie had to leave or starve. This is clear from their situation, indeed Wilde makes clear in De Profundis that Bosie had no money and had ruined Wilde financially by his demands for money. Bosie Douglas is a feckless and unattractive man. But he was never going to be able to resist his mother once she threatened to cut off the funds.

Betrayal requires some degree of freedom – Douglas did not have any. Nor did Wilde, when his wife threatened to cut off his allowance. While the Betrayal theory makes for good drama, and Rupert Everett in the West End revival made a good fist of portraying Wilde and won awards for doing so, the actual play deserves no plaudits. It is depressing to read the New York Time Out quoted as saying “Hare has taken a history and pieced it together with heroic grace. Vastly rich, sophisticated and heartbreaking”. The only people whose hearts should be broken are those who care about historical truth.

(1) The introduction is not in the Faber single volume version of 1998, isbn 0-571-19431- 1

but was published in The Wildean 11, July 1997. The play may have been written in the same year as the Film Wilde. Quote is pages 4-5. This 1997 essay has not appeared in the 1998 single volume edition, which has no introduction, and the introduction to the 2008 Volume 3 – 9 and a half pages covering 4 plays – is insubstantial. See Judas Kiss HARE. The volume is in the F&F Contemporary classics series, isbn 978-0-571-24113-2.

(2) Richard Ellmann OSCAR WILDE, Penguin 1988. Heavily criticised for innaccuracy by Horst Schroeder, his second edition of corrections ‘Additions and Corrections to Richard Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde has few criticisms of Ellmann’s version of the Cadogan hotel hours.

(3) Ellmann op cit p428

(4) Faber play script op cit p52-54

(5) op cit p56

  1. Ellman op cit p 430

25th January 2016

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