New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play – and here he describes what they reveal about the man

In this age of high-profile celebrity trials we shouldn't forget that one of the very first opened at the Old Bailey on 3 April 1895. It promised to be one of the most sensational of the decade; an upstart Irish playwright had taken an irascible Scottish aristocrat to court; my grandfather, Oscar Wilde, was suing the Marquess of Queensberry for criminal libel.

For nearly four years Wilde had been conducting a tempestuous love affair with Queensberry's third son, Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, much to the disgust of the Marquess who had tried to force his son to end the relationship. Unable to do so, he finally left a badly spelt visiting card at Wilde's club a few days after the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest, accusing him of being a "somdomite". Egged on by Douglas, who detested his father and wanted nothing better than to see him behind bars, Wilde set in motion the libel action which was to cost him his freedom, his reputation, his art and, ultimately, his life.

On the third day of the trial, Wilde withdrew his prosecution after the defence, in justification of the libel, had started to make damning revelations about his relationships with London rent-boys. But as an exercise in damage limitation it was a failure, for Queensberry then instructed his solicitors to send all their evidence to the Director of Public Prosecutions and Wilde was arrested the same evening. Within three weeks he was back in the Old Bailey, this time in the dock, charged with "gross indecency with other male persons" under Section 11 of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act. The jury failed to agree on a verdict; a retrial was ordered and on 25 May (less than 100 days after the opening of Earnest) he was sentenced to two years' imprisonment with hard labour.

So much for the facts – documented, verifiable, rehearsed ad nauseam in a hundred biographies. But what actually took place in the courtroom and behind the scenes during those seven weeks? The Old Bailey Sessions Papers, which normally gave detailed summaries of most cases simply said of the libel trial, "the details of the case are unfit for publication" and of the two prosecutions by the Crown they gave the barest of details in a few lines.

The newspapers were less squeamish, but their reports were necessarily shortened versions of the proceedings and filled with circumlocutions like "unnatural practices" and "indecent acts". It wasn't until 1912 that Oscar Wilde: Three Times Tried was published anonymously, purporting to give an accurate record of the trials in order to dispel the "vague fog of obscenity" surrounding them. No sources were given for the material but most of it seems, on analysis, to have been gleaned from contemporary newspapers, though still "with due regard to discretion". That record was reprinted more or less word for word in 1948 in the Notable British Trials series and, in the absence of any other documents preserved at the Old Bailey or in the National Archives, it remained the only account of Oscar Wilde's trials for the next 50 years.

It was in 2000, while I was helping prepare an exhibition at the British Library to commemorate the centenary of my grandfather's death, that someone appeared in the library with the shorthand transcripts of the libel trial as a possible exhibit. There are moments of discovery in any research field which are akin to the euphoria of sporting triumph or sexual climax; this was one.

In his own words: Oscar Wilde in 1882 In his own words: Oscar Wilde in 1882 (Heritage Images)
If there was a holy grail of Wilde studies, finding his words taken down in shorthand at one of the major events in his life would come quite high on the list of nominations.

The elation once over, I started to assess the implications. For a start we now had nearly 85,000 words as against the mere 30,000 known until then, and having Oscar's own words rather than paraphrases or, even worse, words he never uttered, put him in a rather different light. Far from starting his examination-in-chief with a boastful catalogue of his achievements: "I am the prosecutor in this case... I took a classical scholarship and the Gold Medal for Greek," and so on, he simply answers the relevant questions put by his counsel with a sober "yes" or "I did". This was a gift when John O'Connor and I came to dramatise the proceedings, as it provided a natural crescendo from demure and then confident, through recklessly witty ("Did you ever kiss him?"; "Oh, no, never in my life: he was a peculiarly plain boy"), to flustered and unnerved. He also spends more time than we previously thought defending his writings against the charges of immorality and obscenity, as well as declaring under cross-examination that he loved Alfred Douglas, a statement totally absent from all printed accounts until then.

Apart from being able to use the very words that Wilde uttered in court, the other major difference between this and previous attempts to present Wilde's trials as drama for the stage lies in the way they were abridged. In the course of the three cases, Wilde spent more than eight days in the Old Bailey and to reduce this to a mere two hours of well-paced theatre required the art of the surgeon's scalpel rather than the butcher's cleaver. Essentially there were three main elements to each trial: Wilde's relationship to Douglas; his defence of his art; and his consorting with rent boys and blackmailers. Each had to be represented in the right proportion and with extracts long enough to keep as much of the natural dramatic tension as possible, then the components sewn back together to form a credible whole. The result, as Peter Ackroyd said of the published transcripts, is as good as being in the gallery.

When the Irish Peacock took the Scarlet Marquess to court, he took on the British Establishment and passed, as he said, "from an eternity of fame to an eternity of infamy". It was his last public appearance as a free man, but his fight, although insanely quixotic, was fought with all that style and conviction we have come to expect from Oscar Wilde.

'The Trials of Oscar Wilde', St James Theatre, London SW1 (www.stjamestheatre.co.uk) 10 to 12 July. Merlin Holland will talk about 'The Downfall of a Decadent' before the play on 11 and 12 July

Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Go figure: Matt Parker, wearing the binary code scarf knitted by his mother
comedy Mathematician is using comedy nights to teach and preach sums
Arts and Entertainment
Ryan Gosling in 'Drive'
filmReview: Ryan Gosling is still there, but it's a very different film
Arts and Entertainment
Urban explorer: Rose Rouse has documented her walks around Harlesden, and the people that she’s encountered along the way
books Rouse's new book discusses her four-year tour of Harlesden
Arts and Entertainment
Shock of the news: Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Nightcrawler’
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Franco Zeffirelli's production of 'Aida' at Milan's famed La Scala opera house
operaLegendary opera director in battle with theatre over sale of one of his 'greatest' productions
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
art
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
art
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
books

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

books
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes