By Joseph Hurley
“My Scandalous Life” By Thomas Kilroy • The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd St., NYC • 212-727-2737 • Through March 6, 2011
No aspect of the previous performances Des Keogh has given at the Irish Repertory Theatre could have suggested the depth and precision of the extraordinary work he delivers as Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas in Thomas Kilroy’s play, “My Scandalous Life.”
Douglas is, of course, the “Bosie,” the young aristocrat whom Irish playwright Oscar Wilde had first met in 189l. The relationship between the two men dominated the final decade of Wilde’s life. In 1900, when Wilde died in Paris, at age 46, Alfred Douglas was 30.
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Bosie, Douglas’s childhood nickname, was born into a wealthy, titled Scottish family,. He lived until 1945, a fact which will come as a surprise even to people familiar with many aspects of Wilde’s life.
Dramatist Kilroy’s 90-minute play takes place in 1944, when Bosie was 74 and in the final year of his life. At that time, he was living in the flat owned by his dying wife, Olive Custance. The couple had married in l902, two years after Wilde’s death.
Similarly, Wilde himself, as impoverished as Bosie, had been married during their long relationship. Like Olive, Wilde’s wife, Constance exerted some control over her husband through the money she doled out to him in small increments. The difference between the couples lies in the fact that, while Constance Wilde survived her husband, Olive Douglas did not. Her character dies during the course of Kilroy’s play in the upper rooms of the flat she leased in London’s Hove section.
While his wife is expiring upstairs, Bosie is isolated on the parlor floor, attended only by Eileen, a cheeky Irish maid played with spirit and verve by the unfailing Fiana Toibin, a delight who has far too little time on stage.
Apart from those few, brief appearances by Eileen, “My Scandalous Life” approaches being a confessional monologue, with actor Keogh’s Bosie baring his soul for the enlightenment of the audience gathered in the W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre. The Irish Rep’s small subterranean space, has seldom if ever been better used than with this show.
Much of Keogh’s previous work has veered toward a kind of tolerable sentimentality. This is not the case with his performance as the declining, self-loathing Bosie.
Kilroy’s Bosie, as rendered, relentlessly and unforgivingly, by the brilliant Des Keogh, is one of the finest, strongest, most disciplined performances ever seen on either of the Irish Rep’s two stages.
Bosie, who converted to Roman Catholicism in 19ll, spent much of his later life in bitter opposition to Robert Ross, Wilde’s first lover. Ross was a loyal friend who appointed himself the great writer’s literary executor.
In 1912, Ross published the unexpurgated version of “De Profundis,” the letter Wilde wrote to Bosie during the two-year prison sentence the writer served as a result after being convicted of Gross Indecency in 1895. Upon the appearance of Wilde’s letter, Bosie sued for libel, and formally denounced his former lover.
Douglas and Olive had a son, Raymond, in his early forties at the time Kilroy set his play, who spent much of his life in mental institutions, having been diagnosed as schizo-affective, and committed to St.Andrew’s Hospital, Northampton. In 1923, Bosie, who had become a successful poet, was sued for libel by Winston Churchill. Douglas was convicted and imprisoned at Wormwood Scrubs for two years.
It remained for Thomas Kilroy, and Des Keogh, to tell the whole story of Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas, better known as Oscar Wilde’s “Bosie.”