Similarly, in the first act of the play, Oscar Wilde is preparing for something of a last supper — or last long lunch, really — a rather fitting theme for the play that amplifies the betrayal of Oscar Wilde’s love by Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas to Biblical weight. But as the fat-ish suit and a large chunk of dialogue surrounding his excitement for said lunch — partially a way to avoid addressing the direness of his situation — indicate, Wilde’s relishing of sensory pleasures was often enjoyed sitting down. The pleasures had to, and would, come to him. It’s pretty goofy as a premise for an act of a play, but all our hero wants in this pre-incarceration scene is some lobster and a kiss from the beautiful boyfriend who’s utterly shitty to him, and to sit down while enjoying them.
Ashley H. Robins writes in Oscar Wilde: The Great Drama of His Life , “it must be borne in mind that Wilde had an idle disposition of which he himself had been aware as far back as his Oxford days,” that “from the physical standpoint he was very lethargic,” that he stood by the notion that “the only exercise was to talk, not to walk,” and that he took a hansom cab to go to very nearby destinations. She cites a letter in which he said, “I must frankly confess that, by nature and by choice, I am extremely indolent. Cultivated idleness seems to be the proper occupation for man.” In Kerry Powell and Peter Raby’s Oscar Wilde in Context, the authors feature an apparently homophobic (or perhaps at least dandyphobic) Victorian cartoon called “Aesthetics v. Athletics,” in which a caricatured Wilde shrugs in his dandyish formalwear as he’s stampeded by sportsmen.
The Judas Kiss draws from these biographical claims and uses them to paint a highly self-aware and self-amusedly (as a defense from an otherwise punitive society) slothful character, with Hare’s Wilde himself saying he once “took a cab to a dinner party three houses away,” an act of “individual protest against the mindless cult of athleticism.” Here, he hyperbolizes that his purpose in all things is “to expend as little energy as possible.”
Wilde’s own tastes in men here clearly aren’t divergent from the gay norm — his love is for a younger, fitter man (as opposed to Robbie, the older man who still loves him, unrequitedly), who eventually sets his gaze on yet an even fitter man. And so Wilde himself enacts the hierarchizing of gay lust, wherein there’s an idealization of the sculpted “masc,” even among more effeminate men. (The exception is Robbie, who longs for Oscar “just as he is” — and yes, that is a quote from Bridget Jones’ Diary and not The Judas Kiss).
In 1906 (six years following Wilde’s death), Wilfred M. Leadman wrote in an essay in the Westminster Review, “Oscar Wilde enunciated doctrines utterly alien to the engrained Puritanism and athleticism of the English people… The man who, in this country, places art before muscle or sets the individual will above the conventional law seems sure sooner or later to come to grief.” And this production of The Judas Kiss, in all its fictionalized dramatics, emphasizes this, with Wilde in his final days scarcely moving, and rather existing as his transgressive self that the world would — by stripping him of funds, a reputation and love — both destroy then ultimately monumentalize.
“In Victorian times, the sport of bodybuilding revived, and this led to the gym becoming a modern social institution,” Erick Alvarez posits in (the relatively gym-culture-positive) Muscle Boys: Gay Gym Culture, expounding on how a resurgence of interest in the Greek ideal of the male form — incidentally, right around the time this play takes place — would pave the way for the sculpted corporeal ideals of contemporary gay culture. (And likely reactionary subcultural classifications, where body types like “bear” exist as a box that’s counter to a pervasive norm.) In Body Image: Understanding Body Dissatisfaction in Men, Women and Children, Sarah Grogan notes that studies suggest gay men are less comfortable with their bodies than heterosexual men, saying that “This may relate to the pressures from the gay community to have an acceptably muscular body, within a mainstream cultural context where gay men are more ’embodied’ than heterosexual men, and where there is a cultural expectation of body consciousness among gay men from within and without the gay community.” Of course, the bodily dissatisfaction doesn’t stop at a mere abstract: Salon writes that “gay men are up to three times more likely than heterosexuals to have a clinical or subclinical eating disorder…Of men who struggle with eating disorders, around 42% identify as gay or bisexual.”
Oscar Wilde’s shameless anti-athleticism, in this current (period) play performed today, reads as not only an ultimate nonchalant fuck-you to the heteronormative society that’d bring him down, but also as the memory of a refreshing icon who was so charming and talented as to have been monumentalized perhaps both despite and in small part because of his refusal to move. (If he had fled, his tale would likely have been less tragic.) Even a generally unsuccessful production that acknowledges this is doing something worthwhile.
There’s one recurring image throughout this play that seems potently linked to the idea of gay culture as one that’s particularly “embodied.” In both acts, at one point, the whole stage goes dark and a spotlight moves all around Wilde’s rooms, and around the sedentary Wilde. Of course, it could be suggesting the idea of an early surveillance culture of gossip, but it also could be an illustration of Wilde’s selfhood, as a man who — especially as this play depicts him — was staunchly not embodied. On one end of the room, there’s Wilde/Everett in his weathered body suit, and in another, there’s this perspicacious light, having transcended the body and crawled across the stage, knowingly illuminating the structure of everything.