Review: The Judas Kiss, David Hare

You won’t believe me but it’s true: I didn’t know this play was about Oscar Wilde. HEAR ME OUT. I was at the library and I happened to stumble upon the drama section, and I decided I would give David Hare a try, and The Judas Kiss happened to be the title that appealed to me the most. I didn’t know until I opened it up and started reading that it was going to be about Oscar Wilde. It’s true. Contrary to what I may have led you to believe, there are things about Oscar Wilde that I do not know.

(On a subject about which I know quite a bit, Legal Sister had a birthday recently and came into the city and one of the places we went was this bar that claims to be owned by Oscar Wilde’s multi-great nephew. Misrepresentation of the facts, say I. Wilde’s full and half-sisters all died young; his half-brother died without issue; and his full brother, Willy, had one daughter, Dolly, who never had children. Hence, “nephew” is a very suspicious claim. I’ll accept “distant cousin” but I am not taken in by this “nephew” business. No disrespect to the bar. Just an observation.)

So, I don’t know. I don’t know how a play that deals with the relationships between Oscar Wilde, Bosie, and Robbie Ross, just on the eve of his arrest, and in the time following his release from prison, could fail to be my friend. I worry that maybe I am unsatisfiable with portrayals of Oscar Wilde in fiction. While loving Stephen Fry’s performance in Wilde, I thought the film overall painted rather too martyred a picture of Oscar Wilde. And — well, actually, that’s the only other fictional portrayal of Oscar Wilde I can think of right now. Two is not enough for a pattern, which means I don’t have to blame not liking The Judas Kiss on me, which means I’m blaming it on David Hare. Yay! I love it when I can blame stuff on other people!

Here’s what the problem was: Hare’s Oscar Wilde isn’t interesting. I can’t fathom how you could make Oscar Wilde uninteresting. I can’t fathom it while reading the play. I don’t have a particular fault to find in the way Hare writes Oscar Wilde’s dialogue, or the things he has Oscar Wilde do — the words sound like things he might have said, and the deeds sound like — or plainly are — things he would have done. But the end result is dull. Bosie and Robbie are dull too, which feels like a more forgivable mistake: Bosie’s nastiness is easily made one-note, and Robbie doesn’t leap vividly from the pages of biographies the way some people (hemOscarWildehem) do.

In the end I think Hare fell victim to feeling too sorry for Oscar Wilde. He doesn’t shy away from the bad decisions Oscar Wilde makes, but he makes his Oscar too plausible in defending them. Portraying Oscar Wilde as a noble martyr is tempting, I know, and it’s clear David Hare tried to avoid it. There are some moments that are clearly intended to complicate the martyrishness of Hare’s Oscar character, but they fall flat and feel fake. What feel real are Oscar’s passionate defenses of what he’s done and what he deserves. It’s dishonest to something I think was pretty key to Oscar Wilde, that not-insincere-but-nevertheless-pose-i-ness he had.

Also, there are the problems that the stakes of the play aren’t well set up, that there’s no dramatic tension, and that the emotional moments between the characters don’t feel earned. But mainly it’s that Oscar Wilde is boring. Oscar Wilde wasn’t boring, dude.

So, bloggy friends? Is David Hare just a dull playwright? Surely not. When is he at his best? I still like plays, and I am still willing to like David Hare. Recommend me something!

  • It must be frustrating to read a play in which one of your literary heroes comes off as boring, and knowing a little bit about Wilde, I know that he wasn’t boring at all! I do learn a lot from your love for him, and I sort of look to you for all things Wilde. Sorry this one was a problem book for you. I can’t really recommend any plays, as I haven’t read many, but I hope you find some good ones!