In the 125 years since my grandfather wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray there have been dozens of attempts to bring it to the screen or put it onto a stage. It must be said that almost all of them have been fairly dismal and blighted, one imagines, by the spectre of the author intervening, offended as much by the abridgments, as incensed by the shameless embellishments of adapters trying to out-Oscar Oscar. So why court possible disaster by trying to turn his only novel into a play one more time? Frankly I should never have even considered it had I not worked with John O'Connor last year on a version of Oscar's trials based on some recently discovered court transcripts.
It was while I was preparing an exhibition at the British Library in 2000 to commemorate the centenary of Oscar's death that these full transcripts of his disastrous libel action against the Marquess of Queensberry were unearthed. I published them in 2003 and they threw a rather different light on what had happened at the Old Bailey back in April 1895. There was greater emphasis in the trial on literature and Oscar defending himself and his work - specifically Dorian Gray - against the attempts by the defence's lawyers to imply Oscar's guilt by association with it and thus prove justification for Queensberry calling him a sodomite. They portrayed the story as an 'immoral and obscene work' depicting 'sodomitical and unnatural habits tastes and practices . . . and calculated to subvert morality and to encourage unnatural vice.' Strong stuff to describe a book which we give to our teenagers today to teach them about Oscar Wilde and the power of well-written prose. Needless to say on publication of the transcripts, the Press was less interested in the idea of a late Victorian author defending his art than in quizzing me over possible new revelations about the rent-boys Oscar consorted with. 'Your poor father; he also wrote, didn't he? Sometimes one would never think so,' wrote Rebecca West to my own father back in the homophobic late 1950s.
It was while John and I were distilling the main elements of this trial into manageable length for our play, that it became clear to me that he was in court not just for 'gross indecency' as homosexual acts were quaintly called then but also, indirectly, for being the author of The Picture of Dorian Gray. He had written it in the winter of 1889 at a point in his life when he was hovering, with a wife and two children, on the edge of literary respectability, and it was published in June the following year in Lippincott's Magazine. The critics at once condemned it as 'a poisonous book, the atmosphere of which is heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction' and written 'for outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys.' which is as close as they could allow themselves to an outright accusation of the story's homosexual overtones. The oblique reference was to a police raid the year before on a notorious male brothel in Cleveland Street involving young employees of the General Post Office with members of the aristocracy, and the subsequent Establishment cover-up. 'To get into the best society, nowadays, one has either to feed people, amuse people, or shock people,' Lord Illingworth remarks in A Woman of No Importance. Unfortunately, in taking his own advice, Oscar cannot have foreseen the danger to which he would be exposing himself five years later.
Once the succès de scandale had died down, Oscar set about expanding the story to have it published in book-form, which it was the following year. As well as adding new material, rather uncharacteristically, he toned down some of the more overtly homoerotic passages but always denied publicly that any adverse criticism affected his decision. In adapting it for the stage, we have reintroduced a few of those suppressions from the magazine as well as others from the original manuscript, in order to reflect Oscar's original intentions. These passages, significant as they are, will be largely unknown to the general public, who read the novel today as published in its book-length version. One in particular, where the painter confesses his love for Dorian was made much of at the Queensberry libel trial: 'It is quite true that I have worshipped you with far more romance of feeling than a man should ever give to a friend. Somehow I had never loved a woman. I suppose I never had time.'
Reducing an 80,000-word book to two hours of visual entertainment while keeping all the main story-lines, the humour, the dark psychology of Dorian and maintaining a dramatic narrative was challenging. Lord Henry's relentless epigrammatic utterances, for example, though sparkling on the printed page had to be carefully pruned. But we've left him more than enough to be the Wildean figure that he is.
With its homoerotic undertones and Dorian's obsession with his youthful good looks, Oscar Wilde's work resonates more than ever with aspects of celebrity culture in 2015. A 'Dorian Gray Syndrome' has even been identified by a German psychologist. Over the years the book has contributed hugely to Oscar Wilde's posthumous reputation throughout the world. Nonetheless, it is a sobering thought that The Picture of Dorian Gray, which now figures on the A-level English curriculum, should have contributed, even marginally, to putting my grandfather behind bars 120 years ago.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is on in January at London's Trafalgar StudiosSuggest a correction