Reading Oscar Wilde’s Anti-Athleticism Through Contemporary Mainstream Gay Culture

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To get it out of the way, Neil Armfield’s production of David Hare’s Oscar Wilde play The Judas Kiss — which takes place at the later end of Wilde’s brief life, just before the author goes to prison and then not long after — isn’t particularly good. The production, now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, amplifies some of the flaws in the play’s script, particularly in making Wilde’s betraying boyfriend character a two-dimensional brat, when charismatic three-dimensional brats certainly exist and are far more interesting. Even Rupert Everett’s woebegone Wilde felt at times hammier than necessary, landing punchlines in such a way that he just sounded like he was saying “punchline.”

But one thing the show draws upon that resonates in a contemporary way is the depiction of Wilde as an early gay icon who had no interest whatsoever in athleticism or physical self-betterment, and whose stance as someone about to face imprisonment was resolutely sedentary. In this respect, at least, he’s a world away from the norms of gay culture in 2016, given how highly body-conscious and gym-centric today’s mainstream gay culture is. His disdain for the athletic burdens of British masculinity means he’s fascinatingly disjointed from the idealized masculine body types and fitness braggadocio that dominate the contemporary gay mainstream.

The Judas Kiss depicts a Wilde whose inactive ideal informs both his body type and his overall life philosophy. In response to whether he should flee England rather than be arrested, he says, “I am cast in a role, my story has already been written. How I choose to play it is a mere matter of taste.” In this play, Everett’s movements are scarce: the actor who played the lithe Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream here takes on a presence that’s totally lugubrious — because, really, who wouldn’t be in that situation? — and amusingly slothful, as a matter of taste.

Enwrapped in a not-that-fat-fat-suit, Everett’s form is lumbering, and when he sits down in a chair — and stays in that chair — his (fake) flesh seems to droop into the comfort of it. In the second act of the play — after Wilde has endured prison and the damage it’s done to his spirit and body, and is shacked up with his near-sociopathic (again, to this production’s detriment) boyfriend Lord Alfred Douglas, aka Bosie — his body type becomes particularly pronounced against the play’s minimalist tapestry of sculpted actors’ flesh. In this act, Bosie has just spent an evening — in the same small chamber that Wilde is staying in — being devoured by essentially an Italian sex robot, whose only role in this play is to then walk around the stage and sit in different too-comfortably naked positions on it.

We see how Bosie’s superficial ideals have distracted him from the man in the chair — and led him to enact those distractions pretty much right in front of the man in the chair. Perhaps because it’s a contemporary play, there’s an emphasis on muscle fetish trumping all else: love is for the wordless naked beefcake, while the flabbier Wilde stews in his idle intelligence — and so-idle-as-to-be-stale love — from within the chair he’s selected to live out a bulk of his final days in.

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.