Book Report: Queers

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I happened across a playscript of sorts, a collection of monologues called Queers. It was commissioned by the BBC as part of their Gay Britannia season, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of the Sexual Offences Act. The eight scenes, all of which might possibly take place in the same pub, cover a hundred years of the history of gay men in Britain, or at least near London. It was put together by Mark Gatiss, who also directed the one-off live performances at the Old Vic. The BBC filmed performances appear to be available for purchase on YouTube, either individually or as a set.

I don’t much like monodrama as a form, as I’ve probably mentioned before somewhere in this Tohu Bohu of a blog. The occasional soliloquy can be a marvelous theatrical tactic, yes, but when a character doesn’t have anyone to interact with at all, well, it’s just inherently less dramatic, innit? So honestly I don’t know why I picked up the playscript and started leafing through it. Judged it by its cover, I imagine. Anyway, having picked it up and flipped through it, I almost immediately started weeping. So that’s all right.

The best-written of the eight pieces is probably Brian Fillis’ “More Anger”, although to be fair, that’s the one that is set in the early 1990s, the time I was nearest to an actual community of gay men. The main character is a young actor who has started getting stereotyped as the fellow who dies of AIDS early in the movie; it’s Russell Tovey in the video, who is one of my favorite film actors of his generation. It’s a devastating piece, and will probably be showing up in audition reels soon if it isn’t already.

That part is too young for me, of course. No, the one for me is “I Miss the War” written by Matthew Baldwin; a bitchy middle-aged queen sulks about change and rhapsodizes about his youth. I could slay in that part, and it would be ever so much fun. It’s a combination of sad and funny, of stereotype and specificity, of outrrrrrageousness and loneliness. And it has Polari, which I’ve lately become very interested in—Polari is the midcentury London slang of queers, actors and other sexual suspects. So bona to varder your eek, and so forth. A semi-secret jargon that functions both as a method of identifying other members of that particular tribe and as a spoof and traducing of straight norms.

There’s a thing that I happen to like, a trope where the speaker uses elaborate circumlocution to hint a thing that must not be said directly. Some of it is the double-entendre, the carryonosity, the purely adolescent sounds-a-bit-rude nudge-nudge wink-wink snigger, if you know what I mean. I admit that. But some of it is Shakespearian wit or even King James Version magniloquence. Some of it is Gilbert (and Sullivan) near-priggish circumlocution; some is Congrevian crudity; some of it ism oh, I don’t know, Austenesque reticence. I enjoy getting it, the feeling of being enough of an insider or a sophisticate or just smart enough to know what is being hinted at. And of course it’s a thing that I find less amusing in newer, brasher works that do not accept that there is anything that cannot be said.

Every generation does that, I know. Every generation has some old fogey complaining that the delicately smutty jokes of yesteryear were more rewarding than the honest filth of the present day. They weren’t all wrong, though—there is always a loss there, even if what is gained is so much greater. The speaker in Matthew Baldwin’s play is the loss part. A nasty piece of work who is just embarrassing to today’s queer revolutionaries… thank goodness that my generation, even, and certainly today’s Young Persons aren’t being funneled in to that. The loss of Polari, of rentlemen, of furtive trysts in the dark, is a loss to be celebrated—and still a loss for all that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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