Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand

Decadence, Conspiracy and the Most Outrageous Trial of the Century

by Philip Hoare

Review by Cathleen Myers

Those of you who enjoyed the recent movie Wilde and the play Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde may be surprised to know about a similar trial in the Spring of 1918 in which the long-dead but far from forgotten Wilde once again found himself on trial. If you want to know the rest of the story, don’t miss Philip Hoare’s Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand, one of the most readable courtroom drama analyses in recent years, which deserves a film of its own.

For entirely political reasons, radical Conservative MP and journalist Noel Pemberton Billing made it his personal crusade to stop the first London production of Wilde’s Salomé by writing an article accusing its star, the beautiful American modern dance pioneer Maud Allen, of Lesbianism and accusing the play of advocating sexual perversion and her supporters of treason. The bi-sexual Miss Allen, oblivious to the fate of Oscar Wilde, sued Billing for criminal libel and the subsequent trial was the most well-attended and well-publicized trial since Wilde’s own trials in 1895. The newspapers followed the story with an obsession that crowded all other issues - including the Great War still being fought across the channel - to back pages.

Although the Bench’s most formidable master of sarcasm, Justice Darling, was selected to preside over the trial (the government vainly hoped he could keep a lid on Billings’ wild treason accusations since some very high-ranking people were implicated in the scandal), Billings’ principal evidence was a mysterious "book" allegedly compiled by the German government, allegedly containing the names of some 10,000 British gays and Lesbians in government and Society who could be blackmailed by the Germans into jeopardizing the war effort. The "book," needless to say, was never produced in court. Billings, however, did produce Oscar Wilde’s former lover Lord Alfred Douglas, now a loyal Conservative, as his star witness against the play. Talk about deja vu!

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