I was recently watching some Trinity Players enacting their own production of the last days of the tragedy of Oscar Wilde.
Once again, the figure of Sir Edward Carson was wrongly presented as the ruthless prosecutor of the great playwright during the latter's trial for sodomy.
And though it was depressing that this travesty should be perpetuated by actors from the university which had been graced by both Carson and Wilde, it was confirmation of the power of myth over fact, even in academe.
Sir Edward Carson had nothing whatever to do with the prosecution of Oscar Wilde for consorting with rent boys. Wilde had begun his tragedy by suing the Marquess of Queensberry, the father of one of his male lovers, for criminal libel, after Queensberry had left a calling card with the words scribbled upon it, ‘To Oscar Wilde, posing as Sodomite’.
The criminal libel charge which Wilde brought was a very serious one indeed, which could have resulted in Queensberry being fined heavily and imprisoned. The judge at the Old Bailey was, like the two lead-counsel for the prosecution and defence, an Irishman and graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Henn Collins.
I repeat. Wilde was the pursuer of legal action. Queensberry was the defender, and representing him was Edward Carson, who had initially refused the brief, on the grounds of the spuriousness of the allegation, and his own personal acquaintance with the playwright.
It was only when it was clear that Wilde had actually been consorting with teenage rent boys that Carson agreed to accept the brief. So, the hypocrite and the liar in this case, the man who wanted to deny the truth about his own sexuality, was Wilde. Yet history — or rather a mythic rewriting of history — has seen fit to occlude that central and defining truth.
Certainly, no contemporary observer could possibly have predicted how mythology would in time transform popular perceptions of the entire affair. For firstly, Carson, who spoke with a strong Dublin accent, was a far more outwardly appealing person. He was, for example, one of the first students at Trinity to play hurling. Wilde, on the other hand, for all his undoubted genius, was also a relentless poser, a tiresome fop and an affected dandy. Moreover, that trial had ended with Queensberry being acquitted and costs being awarded against Wilde. Carson had nothing whatever to do with the subsequent prosecution of Wilde for sodomy; indeed, he tried to prevent it.
He approached the Solicitor General, Sir Frank Lockwood, who was personally supervising the prosecution, and urged that Wilde be left alone. “Can you not let up on the fellow now?” he asked. “He has suffered a great deal.”
“I would, replied Lockwood, “but we cannot; we dare not. It would at once be said, both in England and abroad, that owing to the names mentioned in Queensberry's letters, we were forced to abandon it.”
One of those names was Lockwood's own nephew, who was in the extended circle of homosexuals with whom Wilde was associating. In other words, Lockwood was prepared to implicate a family member in what in those days would have been regarded as a sordid and criminal vice ring, rather than to be seen to be failing in his duty. So, far from there being a conspiracy against Wilde, the prosecution was conducted in order to show that there was no conspiracy in favour of the Solicitor General's family. Mythology has turned Carson into a villain, even though he had done his best for Wilde, despite Wilde's wholly meretricious and disingenuous charges against his client. This mythology is probably based upon Carson's subsequent and treasonable association with the Ulster Volunteers, but also with what is now the politically acceptable nature of Wilde's sexual antics.
But had the playwright been sodomising teenage rent girls, rather than teenage rent boys, he surely would not have acquired the iconic victim-status that he now holds in modern culture.
I've written about this before: to no avail. Myth is always triumphant, because the duty of myth is to create a community united around a common narrative, which is only partly related to reality, if at all. This is not an Irish weakness, but a human one, common to all cultures, in which elements of truth are bound into a tale which has a satisfying moral outcome.
Yet Helen of Troy was possibly a one-eyed transvestite from Assyria. Ulysses was probably a goat-herd from Anatolia who had a profound aversion to the sea.
No doubt Queen Elizabeth was actually an Irish washerwoman from Drogheda and Ivan the Terrible knitted tea cosies. There's nothing we can do about this weakness for the congenial and unifying tales. We have to accept that all societies have their own versions of them.
But the least we can do is to try to avoid building current politics on perceived interpretations of the past, because they are almost certainly wrong: moreover, it is surely not unreasonable to hope that students do not re-enact such myths as fact, especially about graduates of their own college. Trinity, please copy.