By Albert Williams
"To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim....It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors," wrote Oscar Wilde in the preface to his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. But Wilde knew better than he let on: it's really the artist more than his audience that a work of art reflects. And it's the teasing game of psychological revealment and concealment that makes Dorian Gray such a gripping tale more than a century after its publication. Wilde's aphorisms about the amorality of art and the coming of a "new hedonism" may seem obvious, even precious, to us now; his one-liners, while witty, often pale in comparison to the brilliant epigrams he concocted for his later drawing-room comedies; and the tale's shock effect has long been diminished by its familiarity. But the triangular relationship at the story's core makes for enduringly potent drama because its three participants are aspects of the writer's own struggles with his sexual identity, his mission as an artist and philosopher, and his role in a hypocritical society bent on mocking, admiring, and finally persecuting him.
Wilde wrote to a young painter a few years after the book's publication--and shortly before his own homosexuality was exposed in the scandal that destroyed his career and hastened his death--that Dorian Gray "contains much of me in it. Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks of me: Dorian what I would like to be." The conflict between the three men--Basil the idealistic artist, Henry the cynical sensualist, and Dorian the malleable young aesthete torn by the opposing influences of his friends--embodies the tensions that marked Wilde's flamboyant career and led to his ruin, just as it is the source of the magic that sets the story's supernatural action in motion.
Unfortunately, it is this connection between the three principal characters that adapter-director John McCrite misses in his new stage version of Wilde's novel. The show's many flaws seem to indicate that McCrite was in over his head, artistically and technically, but the limitations of the acting and production would be less bothersome if McCrite's script explored the turbulent psychological subtext of Wilde's suggestive, atmospheric text. Instead, McCrite gets bogged down trying to make explicit what in the book is implicit; determined to drag the hints of homosexuality out of the closet, he blunts rather than heightens the erotic and emotional nuances.
First published in 1890 in the American magazine Lippincott's, The Picture of Dorian Gray is on its surface the sort of gothic horror story British literature seemed to have a monopoly on in the Victorian era. (The story was part of a package commissioned by Lippincott's that also included Arthur Conan Doyle's second Sherlock Holmes thriller, The Sign of Four.) Its basic theme was a staple of its genre: evil disguised by beauty, elegance, or propriety. Where Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, written a few years earlier, imagines its hero expressing his baser side by becoming a physically distinct personality, Dorian Gray tells of a painting that absorbs the visual effects of its subject's debauchery. The model of boyish perfection and innocence at age 20, Dorian Gray is painted by Basil Hallward, who intends never to exhibit the picture because, he admits, "I have put too much of myself into it"--and because he wants to keep the beautiful youth for himself, at least on canvas. But Basil's friend Henry Wotton, a cynical aristocrat with a taste for opium-drenched cigarettes and extramarital affairs ("the one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties"), wants to share Dorian with the world--and the world with Dorian, whom he sees as an ideal apostle of the "new hedonism" he advocates. His vanity pricked by his companions' very different flatteries, Dorian wishes aloud that he could sell his soul for eternal youth and beauty--and later discovers his prayer has been granted, as the effects of his increasingly decadent and conscienceless lifestyle register not on him but on the portrait, which he keeps hidden upstairs in (fittingly) his former nursery.
McCrite is hardly the first person to guess that Basil and Henry are homosexuals; Basil, infatuated with Dorian, comes off as sexually repressed, while Henry--like Wilde, not to mention plenty of other Victorian husbands--probably cheats on his wife with other men, preferably from the lower classes. The book never makes these matters plain; indeed, Wilde muted the text's homoerotic undertones when he expanded it for publication as a book the year after its appearance in Lippincott's. McCrite uses both versions of the text as his source--giving to Basil, for example, the original form of a revealing speech that was later used as evidence against Wilde when he was tried for homosexuality: "I have worshipped you with far more romance of feeling than a man usually gives to a friend."
Whether Dorian is gay is less certain; his principal romance is with an actress, Sibyl Vane, who commits suicide after he rejects her (because she gives a poor performance in Romeo and Juliet--the sin of "bad art" being the one unpardonable in Dorian's book). McCrite flirts with the notion of an attraction between Dorian and Henry but doesn't pursue the idea. Still he leaves no doubt as to the numerous other relations Dorian has with both women and men--or the use of hard drugs by some of Dorian's playmates, including one fellow whose addiction leads him to be cut off by his wealthy male "companion."
McCrite depicts Dorian's libertinism in various melodramatic, unintentionally campy vignettes--including a ludicrous orgy sequence (choreographed by Tomi Paasonen in what might be called the Agnes de Mented style of dream ballet), complete with Dorian looking absolutely awful in drag (highly unlikely; Dorian is nothing if not image conscious). Equally hokey are the scenes of Dorian plagued by bouts of guilt, represented by fluttering lights, sheet-metal thunder, and offstage voices spookily whispering his name. McCrite loses track of Henry and Basil somewhere about the middle of the second act; though they reappear now and again, they stop developing as characters about the end of act one.
The actors don't help matters. Ian Novak, a nice-looking fellow but hardly the "Adonis" and "Narcissus" Wilde describes, is a bland Dorian who never registers the character's profound emotional changes. David Krajecki's Lord Henry is all smirky posturing, far too obvious for this supersophisticate, and Brian Goodman's handsome Basil comes off as an infatuated puppy rather than a brilliant artist seething with repressed passion. Ironically, given the misogyny that permeates many of the script's witticisms (including some lifted from other sources, such as The Importance of Being Earnest's jibe at a rich widow whose hair has gone "quite gold from grief"), the strongest performance comes from Andrea Stevens as two women ruined by their relationships with Dorian, the naive Sibyl and Lord Henry's married cousin Gwendolyn; Stevens subtly distinguishes the two roles, and her handling of Sibyl's heartbreak when Dorian spurns her--a teenager's grief taken to suicidal extremes--makes for the show's most powerful scene.
Catherine Ross's set design is the production's one ingenious touch: a huge gilt picture frame broken into several pieces that literally frames the action. The famous picture itself is a disappointment--a rather drab painting of young Dorian that when lit a certain way reveals a fungus-faced old man behind the original image--as is McCrite's clumsy handling of the horrific climax on the cramped stage. This is surely a matter of technical and financial limitations, but the mark of a skilled off-Loop director is the ability to find imaginative solutions rather than try to force a concept to work when it can't. Given the richness of Wilde's original text, far too little of which makes it into McCrite's script, a more word-based, less visual approach to the story might have improved this ambitious but disappointing effort.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Uncredited photo from "Dorian Gray".