Oscar Wilde is one of most famous homosexuals in history, so it sometimes surprises people when they learn that Wilde had a wife named Constance and two children. Divorced before Wilde reached the pinnacle of his fame, Constance is one of history’s forgotten women: a spirited, intelligent person in her own right, but one doomed to live in the shadow of Wilde’s legacy, as well as endure the humiliating consequences of his homosexual passions.
Thomas Kilroy’s play, The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde, now playing on the Guthrie’s Proscenium Stage, is a moody, serious, artful exploration of the dark side of Wilde’s life, told through the unsympathetic eyes of the wife whose life he all but destroyed. The stage is all soot and brick, with black, spiraling staircases that suggest DNA, implying that the Wilde’s ordeal was, among other things, a tragedy of genetics. The accompanying music is a piano and a mournful cello, and the action is buffeted by four puppeteers dressed in black who act as swirling agents of fate, helping the action along and providing several moments of theatrical grace and beauty.
Since Wilde is also one of the most flamboyant characters in history, it’s hard to imagine how a female character could out-dramatize him, but Sarah Agnew invests Constance with so much vitality and common sense that she makes Matthew Greer’s Oscar look like a bit of a buffoon. Her tongue is much sharper than Wilde’s, and carries more sting, a contrast that makes his witticisms seem frivolous and inappropriate, like a child arguing with an adult.
For the most part, the play explores the love triangle between Constance, Oscar, and Oscar’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, played with gay abandon by Brandon Weinbrenner. But it also dares to descend into the period of Oscar Wilde’s life no one likes to talk about—his two-year imprisonment for lewd behavior. Wilde’s life isn’t so funny when he’s being beaten and scrubbed by prison guards, or when Constance is auctioning off their belongings to avoid going bankrupt. Wilde may be the one behind bars, but she’s imprisoned too—by heartbreak, motherhood, and the humiliation of being forever associated with one of the nineteenth-century’s most notorious homosexuals. Talk about social suicide.
Constance and Oscar do love each other, though, and Constance’s ability to rise above her anger to support and befriend Oscar gives their love a dimension of dignity that it would otherwise lack. “Life with Oscar was theater, a different performance every night,” says Constance, so telling their life story in a theatrical way, with the children played by puppets and a chorus of sprites constantly whirling around in the background makes both literal and metaphorical sense. Wilde’s children are puppets in the sense that he pulls the strings of their lives, and they are voiceless because, really, they have no say in the matter.
The play takes several deep dives into Constance’s psychology too, but the “secret” behind her secret fall is a bit anticlimactic after all the turmoil of Oscar’s betrayals and dalliances. Still, The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde is a fascinating exploration of one of the literary world’s most curious love triangles, a play that uses art to peel away the layers of truth hiding beneath the surface of mere historical fact.
The Secret of Constance Wilde continues at The Guthrie through July 11.