In 1993, playwright, actor and Dublin Gay Theatre Festival founder Brian Merriman played the lead role in a production of the musical La Cage aux Folles, staged in the Olympia.
The musical focuses on gay couple Georges, manager of a nightclub featuring drag entertainment, and Albion, his partner, the star attraction.
Merriman played the lead role because nobody else would play it in Dublin at that time, which was the year homosexuality was decriminalised, he says. “I won a best-actor award, and I was never cast in a straight role again.”
Now, two decades on, in post-marriage-quality-referendum Ireland, things have changed.
Merriman has a new play exploring Oscar Wilde’s lovers opening Monday at the Sean O’Casey Theatre in East Wall. It’s called Wretched Little Brat, and a lot of cast are straight.
“They’re delighted to play gay roles; it’s another dimension to their roles, and there will be no consequence for them,” he says.
As a society, Ireland has come a long way in its attitudes towards LGBT people, but in order to go further, it is important to look back and unpack the histories and the narratives that shaped much of the prejudices and stereotypes of gay people in the twentieth century, he says.
And Wretched Little Brat is an attempt to do that.
Caught in the Crossfire
Instead of focusing on Wilde, played by Brian Graham Higgins, the play centres on the lives of the people around him, particularly his two lovers, journalist and art critic Robbie Ross and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, who, because of his hold over Wilde, was described by George Bernard Shaw as a “wretched little brat”.
“Up until now, Wilde has always borne the brunt for everything that has happened to him,” Merriman says, “the argument of the play is in fact that he was dominated by people around him and caught in a story of revenge and excess.”
Wilde got snared in the troubled and bitter relationship between Bosie, played by Sean Doyle, and his father, the Marquess of Queensberry, who suspected the pair were more than just friends.
After threatening his son with financial ruin and a good “thrashing” if he continued his relationship with Wilde, he publicly insulted Wilde by leaving a visiting card at the writer’s club, on which he’d written the now famous words: “For Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite”.
Wilde, against the advice of his friends Robbie Ross (played by David Flynn) and Shaw, but with the support of Douglas, sued the Marquess of Queensberry for libel.
It was the greatest mistake of Wilde’s life. To prove himself innocent of libel, the marquess had only to prove that what he’d written was factual. He managed to get several male prostitutes to testify that they’d had sex with Wilde.
The case became a huge scandal and would result in criminal charges being brought against Wilde and, eventually, two years’ hard labour.
By telling the story through the people around Wilde, Wretched Little Brat gives audiences a very different perception of it, Merriman says.
It’s very interesting when you look at the wider effect of the Wilde story, he says, and “how all these stereotypes were embedded into society and the consequences for gay people as a result of it”.
What came out of the Wilde trial and the scandal it caused was a view of gay life that shaped much of the twentieth century, says Merriman: “shame, destruction of family, imprisonment, criminality, brothels, excess, all that kind of stuff that was connected with the Wilde story.”
This became the norm of what it was to be gay in the eyes of society. “These were the only stories that were allowed to be told and discussed,” Merriman says.
In the play, Merriman says, he examines who told these stories, who created them.
“For example, Alfred Douglas turned into his father,” he says. “He started to sue Robbie Ross and tried to convict him of being gay. He brought boys to the witness stand he too had had sex with, and nobody charged him.”
The life of Robbie Ross is the antithesis to society’s prejudiced view of what it was to be a gay man, Merriman says.
“He was a guy who settled down, had long-term partners, kept a low profile when he could, helped out in defending people caught in criminal investigations and offered them employment, and gave great support to young artists and new writers,” he says.
“He lived a life that was accepted in society. He was even a guest in 10 Downing Street. But that isn’t the norm that came from that period in time,” he says.
Merriman became interested in and began researching the story of Wilde when he played him in a 2000 production of the Chelsea Affair, a musical about Wilde and Douglas.
He started reading a great deal about Wilde and the people around him; the more he did, the more he became fascinated with it, particularly with elements not often told.
George Bernard Shaw, he found out, was a key element in Wilde’s story.
“His role in the play – and he has quite a substantial role – is very interesting,” he says. “He’s kind of like an honest broker in it.”
Prime Minister Asquith and his wife, also feature in the play. When Douglas brought Ross to court to try and get him convicted as a gay man, Asquith invited Ross to 10 Downing Street and asked him to take his stepdaughter to the theatre the following night in an effort to help his case, Merriman says.
“It’s time, really, in the twenty-first century, to start unpacking the prejudices, the stereotypes and the agendas that fitted a particularly morality or religion or whatever,” he says.
Wretched Little Brat explores the underpinnings of a society struggling to contain a view of its own invented morality, and through the fascinating but tragic story of Oscar Wilde exposes the once widely held and narrow perception of what it was to be gay.
“It’s another chapter in what will be a long book to place gay culture in the heart of theatre, where it has blossomed and developed, especially in the last while,” says Merriman.
Wretched Little Brat runs in the Sean O’Casey Theatre, St Mary’s Road, East Wall, Dublin 3 at 7.30pm nightly 16-21 November. Tickets €13/15/18 from www.gaytheatre.ie.