I dreamed of him last night, I saw his face
All radiant and unshadowed of distress…
So begins “The Dead Poet,” Lord Alfred Douglas’s brief elegy to his lover and friend, Oscar Wilde. A celebrated poet in his time, Douglas is now best remembered for his long though fitful relationship with Wilde, but My Scandalous Life, the new play by Thomas Kilroy at the Irish Rep, paints a fuller and more interesting picture.
Essentially two long monologues delivered by Douglas in old age, the play unsurprisingly opens with a reference to Wilde. But in its small, polished way it gives the complex Douglas—stunningly handsome as a young aristocratic, but embittered and litigious in middle age and then an apparently lonely old man—his due.
Douglas died in 1945, outliving Wilde by a full 45 years but his own wife by just one. As the play opens, with the sounds of World War Two crashing overhead, he has moved into the downstairs room of his wife’s flat as she lies dying upstairs. Though separated, they have remained friends; “marriage,” as he describes it, is “one of the most dreadful institutions in human history,” but theirs wasn’t quite a marriage of a man and woman in love in the usual way: Determined to renounce his homosexuality after Wilde’s death in 1900, Douglas fell for Olive Custance, a woman whose masculine side appealed to him (and vice versa). Now the old man bitches about her pounding on the ceiling for his attention.
He also tries, with limited success, to use his adult-onset Catholic faith to soothe his lingering bitterness about his enemy Robert Ross, Wilde’s other lover and literary executor, also long dead. He speaks to us in a kindly if arch manner, but snaps at Olive’s loyal maid Eileen, who gives as good as she gets. (Played with fire by Fiana Toibin, it’s a small role I wouldn’t have minded seeing expanded.)
But the deepest part of the story, as Kilroy presents it, concerns Douglas and Olive’s only child, Raymond, who went insane and spent most of his adult life in an asylum. Upon Olive’s death he comes home and takes her place as an unseen presence upstairs, where Eileen tends him. Rather than any long-past struggles with his sexuality, it is Douglas’s profound sadness at not having been able to help his son that emerges as the principal emotional drama of his life and of this play. His story of when he first spotted “the look of the animal on the human face” of the five-year-old boy is as chilling as his final vision of himself and his son united for all time in a “Stygian paradise” is touching. (Though we don’t hear any of Douglas’s poetry, the language Kilroy crafts for him is enough to convince us of the man’s bona fides.)
Do these feelings represent the historical Douglas? Consulting a couple of the numerous biographies would shed light on that question, no doubt; those who remember Douglas today mostly know of him as Wilde’s lover, though some of us English majors also remember him as the author of a batch of memorable Victorian-era poems—and that’s about all. In any case the focus on Raymond makes for an arresting monologue that elicits an eloquent, masterful performance from veteran actor Des Keogh, who calls the Irish Rep his “spiritual home” here in the U.S. and certainly owns the Irish Rep‘s small downstairs theater where My Scandalous Life runs through March 6. John Going directs the technically flawless production.