Friday, 23 August 2019
Wouldn’t you be? I’m an old gay writer. Nobody cares much about me anymore. But just as my ‘decline’ began, a young whippersnapper appeared. He quickly became the new god of the gay art scene. And he’s cute as a button to boot.
In case you’re wondering; yes I have seen some of Xavier’s flicks — and, I kinda like them.
Which is another problem. This made me really jealous; the guy is not only cute, and a great actor, but he can direct!
Well now I can relax because there’s nothing to be jealous of.
Xavier Dolan has been knocked off his pedestal — a victim of political correctness, intersectionality, and the ’woke folk.’
What I interpreted all these years as a rejection of my writing had nothing to do with me. It’s just that what used to be the called ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ — and became (briefly, in my heyday) ‘the love that won’t shut up’ — is now, well, pretty much over.
I haven’t seen Dolan’s new film The Death and Life of John Donovan. But my critique of the reviews of this film has nothing to do with whether the critics are right or wrong, and everything to do with the cultural prejudices that dominate their writing. Angelo Murreda in The National Post refers to the film as “a comparably minor story…about a relationship between a gay actor unable to live frankly in public and an awkward pre-teen in search of a friend.” The Globe and Mail’s Kate Taylor is even more explicit in her dismissal of the film’s subject matter: “I am prepared to believe that a rising actor in the early 2000s in New York would be as firmly closeted as Rock Hudson in the 1950s, but I’m not prepared to believe it’s still society’s fault.” Wow.
When Kate Taylor was a theatre critic she never seemed very fond of my work. But I never dared imagine she was homophobic. It’s now clear to me that she always thought gay men were repulsive, annoying whiners. It’s just that now she can be completely comfortable about expressing her homophobic views in a culture climate that believes homophobia is over, that feminine boys are probably asexual and trans anyway — and that all us privileged fags should just shut up.
This cultural shift will not pan out well for anybody, gay or straight. There are (have you noticed?) lots of tortured young men out there, many conflicted about their sexuality and its relationship to masculinity, some of them with guns — some of them who are ‘incels’ — and some who are shooting up gay bars.
Pretending that homophobia does not exist will not make them all go away.
But hey— let’s look at the bright side.
I’m no longer jealous of Xavier Dolan.
Thursday, 8 August 2019
“It is as dangerous for society to attract and indulge authors as it is for grain dealers to raise rats in their granaries.” - Anton Chekhov
Right now it is very difficult to be an artist. I feel for you.
When I started writing in 1966 it was very different. It was the era of abstract expressionism and conceptual art — fiction was the domain of the new French anti-novel, the ‘new criticism’ dominated poetry,’ and Bergman ruled film. Susan Sontag just published her ground breaking essay Against Interpretation (READ IT NOW!). Artists were suspicious of work with a clearly articulated message — or even of art with a meaning. Instead, artists were rebels, aesthetes and dreamers. They created — for passionate reasons they themselves could not fathom — works that some did not understand. But nevertheless somehow the greatest of these works communicated — not about the latest ‘issues’ in the news — to people who were moved, upset, angered, and inspired by art’s form, style, grace, wit, craft, and, yes, well, beauty.
Today, art is a very different matter. We are told that every artist must have a clearly articulated message, and that message must be the correct one. What is correct — and what is not — are both relentlessly argued on social media. Christian publishers will give you money to write a ‘Christian’ book. Social justice publishers will give you money to write a book that articulates the principles of social justice. Everyone will want to know what you have to say, and there are lots of rewards for saying whatever is considered by the ‘powers that be’ to be ‘the right thing.’
You must not expect to get support from libraries, universities, arts councils, publishers — in fact institutions of any kind. You must stand alone, outside. Digital media is now the conscience of the world, decreeing that there are two points of view — right and left. They world knows (and rightly so) that these ruling dichotomies are deeply threatened by artistic work.
Knowing all this, will you still want to create?
I suspect so.
Because you must, because you can do nothing else, because your art is your life.
So do it.
(How? On the sly, in secret, 'privately circulated to friends’ — however you can.)
You may be called ‘amateur’ because at one time professional standards were wholly aesthetic; now they are merely ideological.
But remember, ‘amateur’ means ‘lover.’
So always remember, you are not a preacher.
You are a lover.
Friday, 26 July 2019
Bracken Hanke is a lovely little girl who likes to dress up in high femme fashion with lots of make up. She looks absolutely fabulous in her costume and should be encouraged to dress up (as should all the young!) in any way she wishes.
However, Bracken is not a drag queen.
I blame Bracken’s parents for putting her on display in the new CBC documentary Drag Kids and encouraging her to assume an identity to support a cause. What’s the cause? Facilitating a ‘no gender’ universe. What’s my problem with all this? There is such a thing as gender, and drag is very much a part of gender and sexual politics — past, present, and future. And you can’t — and mustn’t — erase history.
What is a drag queen? A drag queen is a gay man who is noticeably effeminate in his daily life. Gay men who do drag are often ridiculed and bullied for their femininity and even shamed on online gay ‘hook up’ apps (‘no fats, no femmes, please’). They dress up (usually) as a glamorous, feminine women in social situations or for performance. A drag queen does not desire a sex change, or desire to be a woman, or even desire to spend a significant amount of time dressed as a girl. Drag is a way for gay men to deal with the psychological effects of the homophobia that is directed against them by straight people who consider us second class citizens, because it is assumed that because we are effeminate we play the much despised ‘passive’ part in sexual relations.
Also drag is a lot of fun, and a way for gay men to celebrate their feminine side.
So why should I care if some little girl’s parents are calling her her a drag queen?
Well this little girl can — of course — call herself anything she wants. And yes it’s great that women can enjoy the experience of dressing up in drag, that is, the thrill of ‘acting’ femininity rather than simply assuming that they must be feminine because they are women (this is what Judith Butler talks about). But for a female of any age to call herself a drag queen is deeply insulting to gay men.
A drag queen is not just a guy in a dress; he is part of a passionate and brave tradition of fighting the patriarchy. Drag queens populated Molly Houses in 18th century England — where gay men gathered for same sex parties, and dressed up for mock wedding and birthing ceremonies. In 1969 drag queens were on the front lines of the Stonewall riots. They finally stood up to the police and changed the world, inventing gay liberation. Drag means this: you are looking at a man — not a woman — in a dress, and men have every right to wear dresses, to be sex objects, to be passive partners in sex, and to explore their femininity.
Should a white woman like Rachel Dolezal call herself black? No. Should a perfectly abled person use a disabled parking spot? No. Should someone put on some medals and call themselves a war hero? No. We drag queens have fought with our blood, our tears — and yes sometimes our lives — for the right to be proud pansies, girly boys, and men who have sex with men.
And no one has the right to take that away from us.
Wednesday, 10 July 2019
(I have to lose weight for an upcoming — minor — operation, and this is the diary of how it makes me feel)
Sunday, 7 July 2019
(I have to lose weight for an upcoming — minor — operation, and this is the diary of how it makes me feel)
I’ve lost 20 pounds and I am starting to enjoy looking in the mirror again. I was standing outside a restaurant on Church street and a man came up to me and started flirting. I know he was flirting even though I’m very unadept at this. Interesting that he is someone I have had my eye on for years, I’ve seen him making moves in bars and thought hmmm…he’s so sexy and so what’s the word …assertive? Unlike me. He said “I went down to the beach today, took off my clothes you know…but it was so windy.” NOT too much information at all. He touched me twice in one conversation and I have never met him before. (Flirting 101 — touch them lightly, casually, but not offensively.) So what does it mean to be desired, and why does it matter? Well first of all I’ve been living this tragical life because I’ve always been a big burly threatening-looking man so ergo, albeit, therefore, duh everyone expects me to come onto them and I’m just not constitutionally capable of doing that. You have to come onto me. So I’ve missed out on so much because the outside of my body has been sending a message my inside can’t deliver. I get women for this reason. (Their bodies send the message that they are weak and yielding personalities when so many are not. Get it?) Anyway, all my personal pain aside, men are not desired, are never — not the way women are, our bodies are not culturally fetishised and it is all that I have been desperate for all my life really is to be desired, and all it takes is twenty pounds. I know you don’t like it — when I say ‘you don’t like it’ you don’t like that, right? Speaking for you when you’re not there, that’s what you don’t like, right — but you are there, aren’t you? You are reading this? — no, now this blog is getting too meta. What I am saying tho is you don’t like it when I talk about men being desired -- it’s a huge cultural taboo. But just go to Shakespeare, go to Two Noble Kinsmen. Shakespeare is unabashedly unaware of this taboo it seems, for the knights are young and beautiful and help each other put on their armour before they fight each other ‘oh did I pinch you?’ — the one kinsman says to the other. The other might reply: ‘You mentioned caring about the injury to my supple, young, tender, hard, sun-grazed, lightly furred, dapple flesh, no, I don’t mind. I know that we are set to do battle against each other, and perhaps kill each other, but you hope my armour doesn’t pinch.’
Wow. Is that love? Desire? Obsession? Or just plain nuts? So this guy who is flirting with me (his name is Gilbert, by the way, that’s his first name, like my last, so we are in effect Two Noble Kinsmen — or perhaps ignoble ones) I don’t know if he’s beautiful on the inside as well as the outside as Shakespeare would have it, probably not, after all, we talked about the weather. Well I shouldn’t hold it against him - or rather I would love to hold anything against him I could. We must all talk must about the weather sometimes, mustn’t we? (Chateaubriand did, it’s what Barthes liked about him.) But what matters is that this man who desires me is violating an ancient taboo by worshipping my body not because I am a warrior but only because I look like one (I am doing a passing imitation of a warrior now that I am leaner) and of course our sex, if we ever have it, will not be generative — a cardinal sin — it will only be for pleasure, it will be for the orgasm alone, so put that, as they say, in your pipe and smoke it.
Wednesday, 3 July 2019
(I have to lose weight for an upcoming — minor — operation, and this is the diary of how it makes me feel)
Sublime encounter. It’s spring, I unbutton my jacket, displaying my body. A man, very handsome, slender, immediately responsive, kisses me, No one ever believes of course that such an encounter with a stranger can be loving — but it was. It’s a revelation; now everything is related to my diet, my body. I’ve been talking with my friends much to much about what I eat, which really means what I don’t eat. I have to apologise to my friends constantly for always returning to the subject of food. It’s an obsession. But now — this. This — reward. No, not a burger and fries. The beauty of a man. The confidence of going into a certain situation where men are being gay together and instantly matching up with someone who is instantly attracted to me, and not coincidentally, he is someone I am attracted to also. Almost annoyed to find out that it has always been this easy. There is another world. And is that a bad thing? Well of course it is; one can only access these men with their perfect bodies by eating healthy food and losing weight. Another revelation; my newly discovered resentment of fat people. I did not think that would happen. I have lost just 13 pounds but it is two belt notches and a significant amount of belly fat (or it certainly seems significant to me). And now I look at fat people with disgust. And suddenly everyone is fat. Or that just what comes of being eternally hungry?
Monday, 1 July 2019
It’s been three days and my weight loss has slowed down (apparently it was water weight…huh?) but I went to see Mathew Bourne’s Swan Lake and now I have to do ekphrasis. This is when a writer describes a painting. Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake was like a painting. I went there fully expecting to go ‘oh la-te-da a bunch of gay men dancing around and being really erotic with each other in tights how lovely, snore!’ And it was a little bit like that until I figured out that the plot was very Oedipal (or should I say anti-Oedipal) in a gay way. The young prince, who resembled me in every way except looks, is locked in a love/hate relationship with his beautiful, imperious and scornful mother. He goes to the park and falls in love with a swan (a very sexy male dancer) and then the party! Oh the party! Everyone is dancing sexy and then the prince has to compete with his mother for the beautiful swan man —who is wearing leather pants. The leather pants was the best part. I’ve never seen leather pants in a ballet before. Anyway I won’t tell you the end but yes I will — the young prince kinda ‘gets’ the gorgeous swan guy when they are both dead, which kinda sucks (but hey, it’s a ballet). I got lost in it. The leather pants dance scene was so sexy and imagine competing with your mother for a guy (something I kind of feel like I’ve been doing for my whole life) and all the guys were strutting and slapping their thighs and punching each other and pulling themselves towards each other — and then anyway — it was just all about the way sex is. For awhile I was that ballet. I was crying. It was more real than my real life.
Is that a problem?
Friday, 28 June 2019
Thirteen pounds. A bit terrified, called the Nutritionist, is that too much weight to lose? She says, — everybody says — don’t worry, it’s all water. Okay. She lets me replace my melba toast with bread though, just to be sure.
I should be happy. I know I should, and I am, I’m weighing myself now (haven’t done that in years), I’m not so ashamed of what I weigh and I even looked at myself naked in the mirror and I can totally see it, I look like a regular size person tending to fat — not a fat person. That’s all very good and I should feel happy — but when I visit my therapist we decide that I want to be one with everybody. Are you ready for that? In other words I don’t know how to be separate from people; I either have to fuse with them, which means we have being the same person, or I have to be rejected. As you can imagine this has caused some problems in my personal life. Could it be also why I am so obsessed with beauty? You know someone once said about me ‘You always seem to be surrounded by beautiful young men’ and I thought sure yeah why not? Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? But now I’m wondering if my obsession with beauty is an obsession with being one with another beautiful person so that he is beautiful and I am beautiful and — mirrors. Narcissus.
Or can we just leave beauty out of this please? That is, out of this analysis. Beauty is a given. Meaning it’s precious. You can’t touch it.
Wednesday, 26 June 2019
Late last night I met someone who caught my fancy earlier; he was short and slim and handsome and wearing ripped white pants. After stuff happened, he was adamant ‘I’m twenty-seven. How old are you how old are you how old are you?’ I kept saying ‘very old.’ He guessed — ‘thirty” and ‘thirty two?’ I said ‘I am your grandfather —you just had sex with your grandfather.’ But he wouldn’t give up so I finally told him the truth: ‘sixty-six.' It didn’t phase him; he asked me to put my number in his phone. His name is Donny and he is from Tel Aviv, and we talked about my visit there two years ago.
Tuesday, 25 June 2019
A beautiful young waiter was nice to me. This sounds so pitiful. What is beauty? In medieval times one would prostrate oneself before the beloved like a dog. (‘Spaniel.’) Beauty is over, is it not? I am antique to talk about it; immediately you say — what kind of body fascist is he? And what particular type of person is beautiful? But I am adamant, it is about the shape of the neck the curl of the eyelash, the shy look, the man planting his two legs firmly on the ground. But why physical? Oh why so physical? I wish I could answer that; I wish I could answer why I think that if I lose weight I will be more ‘attractive.’ What is attractive? Why not just seek to be a better person? But, nevertheless, I have a body, it has ‘needs’ — as the pejorative cliche goes, and it does things, and wants to do things, and demands attention: to be taken care of (or not). We all have bodies, don’t we? We all may harbour different fantasies of what is beautiful; but must we relinquish the term? I speak in defence of beauty; a beauty that I attest will never go away. Try and deny it; it will assail your eyes and your desires. And go on, admit it, you will always believe somewhere, deep inside you, that what is beautiful on the outside must be beautiful on the inside too.
Monday, 24 June 2019
Cramps. Not stomach cramps, muscle cramps. Not clear on what that is? Skin…tightening? Surely it’s too early for that. Anyway there was one incident — a guy on his bike almost ran me over, and usually the guys on bikes who almost run me over just continue on their way, but this one — totally out of the blue — terribly chatty! “Oh I don’t have a notch in my belt,” he said and I had no idea what he was talking about and he says “You know I don’t have notch in my belt for all the people I run over with my bike,” and I laughed and said no of course not. And then I realised that he was kind of cute and giving me very positive energy. Again…could it be — the weight loss? It’s only been five days but a delivery guy on a bike, chatting? And then he asked me where MacDonalds was because he was delivering something there (to — MacDonalds?), and I told him and he seemed happy. That’s all basically. Except — some random guy at the bus station told me a joke: “Why did the prune ask out the banana? Because he didn’t have a date.” Haha, he wasn’t cute so it doesn’t count. I know that sounds awful, but with this weight loss thing I’m really obsessed with — am I getting more attractive or not? And by that of course I mean — attractive to guys that I am attracted to (isn’t that what being more attractive means? Getting the guys you want?)
Sunday, 23 June 2019
Another incident — quite cheering — not to make a mountain out of a molehill but I was standing outside Starbucks in the rain and right out of the blue this guy asked me directions. No biggie except that he was tall dark and handsome and extremely masculine and he treated me like just another dude, which obviously, I’m not. I was wearing a touk and t-shirt which I suppose might make look kind of cool, but I just had to assume that already I was giving out skinny vibes that made me much, much more attractive.
These days discussing the sex life (or twitter chat) of an artist, or discussing the morality of immorality of the work itself — is what passes for informed aesthetics.
I am not the first to notice this.
But now it’s getting personal. I can’t figure out if a movie is good or bad anymore— at least not from reading all the dumb, ham-handed reviews.
Here are three recent movies that have been badly — and misleadingly — reviewed.
I'm setting the record straight.
- LATE NIGHT I haven’t seen anything Mindy Kaling’s done (my bad) since The Office which I loved her in. Well she’s great in this. And she’s written a witty, touching comedy; no small feat. But everyone keeps taking about how great the politics of this film are, when truth be told — they’re lousy. Emma Thompson plays a female late night talk show host, ala Jimmy Kimmel. Right. Lightbulb? I mean, um, look around? There is no such creature. Mindy Kaling, why are you criticising white women for a privilege they haven’t attained yet? Not even Joan Rivers could get white male execs to grace her with a late night talk show. So my review is the reverse of all the other ones — ‘Kaling is a great writer with bad politics.’
2. ROLLING THUNDER REVUE This documentary is being criticised because some of the talking heads are actors not real people. The dumb critics seem to think this is bad, or immoral, or unethical — or some such rot. How stupid can you be? This film lies because a) Scorsese wants us to remember that documentaries don’t always tell the truth, and b) Scorsese is demanding we be skeptical of media these days. Get it? So how dumb are you, critics? And how smart is Martin Scorsese?
3. ANNA In case you’ve missed it (and I’m sure you have) this is a film by Luc Besson. The reviews were all snide, calling it sexist (it isn’t). Then I realized that Luc Besson is ‘Fifth Element’ Luc Besson and a very skilled filmmaker. I go. It’s great -- and I hate movie violence and complicated plots and I’m certainly not turned on by kickboxing women (although I did act in a movie once called FACE THE EVIL starring a kickboxing Shannon Tweed — and she did turn me on by showing me the ring that Gene Simmons gave her). Turns out that Besson has been accused of rape (the charges were dropped) — and the unwanted touching of five women. Oh — I get it, so now his movies are suddenly all bad? But they’re not. However there’s no arguing with people who think that assholes make only lousy art. Hey - how do I tell you that most great artists are assholes?
These are all great movies. But the critics were wrong about them; go see for yourself.
Saturday, 22 June 2019
I went to the mall and bought some earphones. A man with a slender physique and long fingers who worked at The Source was unusually nice to me. I couldn’t help but think it was because I had already lost a little weight and was feeling lean, streamlined and very attractive. He was a very nice man — laughed quite a bit — and was very friendly to me, and he seemed to understand my preference for Skull Candy (the earphones that is). He really cheered my day, and, I thought, gee, I’m on the right track with this diet business.
Friday, 21 June 2019
(I have to lose weight for an upcoming — minor — operation, and this is the diary of how it makes me feel. I know I promised I would never do this on a blog but hey, times change. And apparently if you tell people about your diet it helps to keep you on it. So here goes! Anyway this isn’t really a blog, it’s a prose poem. I know that poems on my blog have gotten me into trouble before but I’m going to try not to think about that.)
Day One and Two
Nothing to report: I didn’t leave the house.
Wednesday, 12 June 2019
Yes, it’s contrary to all your instincts, and your instincts are right, and I’ll tell you why. No, no there are no drag kids. The utter selfishness of this concept is beyond my comprehension.
Okay, this is what happened. Every since AIDS especially (and before that too) gay men and lesbians have been trying desperately to get straight people to like them — especially the straights who will always hate them, i.e. the religious right. This is all instead of realising themselves as queer people, growing, changing, loving, sexing. This means that these new conservative gays and lesbians have to present themselves as non-sexual (or so they think) as they know that straight culture is hypocritical, and claims not to be sexual. So — it follows — the quickest route to being loved by straights is to say ‘I’m not sexual. Being gay or lesbian is not about sex, sex is not important to me, I’m just the same as you.’
So, are you still with me?
This new gay and lesbian alliance with the new non-sexual trans theory is part of this. Gays and lesbians are now happy to ally themselves with theories that say ‘it’s not about sex, it’s about gender’ and after years of having conflicted feelings about drag queens, conservative gays and lesbians are now willing to accept drag queens if they too — like the academic, theoretical wing of trans theory -- are non-sexual.
Well what could be more non-sexual than reading stories to kids? And let’s not stop there. Why not dress up little boys in drag — because drag isn’t sexual at all, is it? Just like being gay isn’t sexual.
We’re all very innocent, right, all us gay people — we wouldn’t know sex if it slapped us in the face.
Let me tell you something. Little boys should not be encouraged to do drag. Sure, they can dress up and play around in any way they want to — let them do what they want — but only with each other in private — please don’t get involved and supervise them, that’s just sick, and always has been.
Drag is all about getting laid, telling dirty jokes, camp, threatening the patriarchy, and rocking the sexual desires of straight men; it is about the sexual fetishisation of femininity and fashion and makeup. It’s about, to quote Lou Reed —Taking a Walk on the Wildside! Drag is essentially sexual and queer and it will never stop being that way, no matter how many times drag queens read stories to children or lead drag workshops.
So, I think it’s time to stop.
This desexualising of our gay and lesbian culture, is selfish, misguided pathetic attempt for approval that has finally reached the point where it is hurting the helpless.
Thursday, 6 June 2019
I’ll tell you what Pride used to be like.
I remember getting ready for the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre Pride float — this would be approximately 30 years ago.
We always decided on the concept first.
Of course I can’t remember the concept we chose — all I remember was my job was to suck off a dyke sporting a big, fat, black dildo.
Conundrum. What to wear? Well, I had a sailor shirt, and I knew I could get a sailor hat at the army surplus on Yonge street, both of which would go well with the tight, white sexy shorts I would jam myself into (the ones where you could see everything).
I also decided that I would have to go on a diet so that I would look super sexy and fabulous on the float. I went on the banana diet, which was basically just bananas (I think you were allowed some oranges for variety). At the time I was also drinking pretty heavily which I didn’t intend on stopping, so by the time it got to Pride I had a pretty severe stomach ailment, but: I was skinny!
The day of the parade our float was waiting in line and a very officious Pride Official (aren’t they always very officious?) marched up to our float and said “Sorry, you can’t do that, there’s no more s/m on the floats.” You see, the woman I was sucking off was a very tall Asian woman dressed entirely in leather, and of course, she was bare breasted. We got angry at the official and then decided to ignore the orders from officialdom. (I know that because there are pictures of me, —in some book somewhere — sucking off — Joy — that was her very apt name — Joy!)
Anyway, that was the beginning of the end.
The reason explicit sex was banned from the floats was because children would be there.
If only we could get rid of the kids!
No, I don’t mean shoot them, I’m not that insane, I mean why can’t we NOT TAKE THEM TO PRIDE? Pride is a celebration of sexuality. Do children have sexualities? Nope, they don’t. Despite what some nutty trans theorist may tell you. Children are often polymorphously perverse (look it up) but of course they become adult sexual beings and make choices about behaviour and labels after they reach puberty (times have changed so much that some may disagree with me even on this). There are family oriented pride events for children, can the children be there, not at the parade?
Or better yet, why not celebrate Pride at night — like the Mardi Gras in New Orleans — and everyone get down and sexy and grungy and very very dirty? Celebrating sex? Remember sex?
Oh dear…..I fear…I’m very old fashioned.
But Joy….can you hear me? Joy…are you still there?
Joy…I’m thinking of you!
Sunday, 19 May 2019
Visiting the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp outside Berlin was eye opening for me, perhaps not for the obvious reasons. It was not — like camps such as Auschwitz and Majdanek — so much focused on immediate extermination as it was on a death that came more slowly — through starvation, lack of proper medical care, torture, and overwork. The distinction might seem like hair-splitting, but I would propose that what happened in Sachsenhausen exemplified the Nazi philosophy. ‘Those who deserved to live’ had to be separated from ‘life unworthy of life.’ It is true that at Sachsenhausen some were murdered quickly and in cold blood (Soviets, for instance, where killed here immediately, much the way Jews were in other camps). But many prisoners at Sachsenhausen were not immediately killed, and the ones who survived did so because they had the fortitude to live through the often meaningless and torturous jobs that were assigned them. In this way the propaganda on the entrance gate ‘arbeit macht frei’ (work will make you free) became a nightmarish truism.
Nazis were obsessed with those that they felt did not ‘contribute’ to society. This should remind us that what makes humans humane is taking care of those who may seem to ‘contribute’ less — for instance, those who cannot, for whatever reason, take care of themselves. It should make us think of the inscription on the Statue of Liberty — ‘bring me your tired, you poor, your huddled masses.’ But it should also make us think about the distinctions that we make today — especially in the digital capitalism — between who is ‘productive’ and who is not.
The mega-corporations that dominate global capitalism consistently hire only those who will produce the most goods for the cheapest pay; and humans are gradually being replaced by machines, because machines are cheaper, faster and ultimately, more productive.
In reality, all that makes us human also makes us useless in terms of productive work — our capacity to love, to experience fear, to be inspired, and to have pity for others. Big capitalism would have us believe that modern mega-corporations like Apple and Google are interested in hiring radical thinkers and generous souls; in truth they are interested in people who ‘radically’ and ‘generously’ serve the company’s profit margin.
To think otherwise is to believe propaganda on the level of ‘arbeit macht frei.’
Oscar Wilde made much of the notion that all great art is useless. And though I do not mean to suggest that we do not need science or technology, our ability to achieve in those realms is not what separates us from what is not human. No, it is those things that cannot be quantified or qualified, it is all that can be felt, imagined and dreamed; our sensitivity, our creativity and our imagination that makes us unique and ‘worthy of life.’
As humans, we must value what is ‘useless’ about us, for it is the essence of what makes us good and beautiful.
The lesson of history lies before us.
Please believe me.
We value ‘use,’ over all else, at our peril.
Monday, 13 May 2019
There were no standing ovations at the Berliner Ensemble in Germany last night. I have just seen Endstation Sehnsucht (A Streetcar Named Desire) directed by Michael Thalheimer and designed by Olaf Altmann — and ‘from the English by Helmar Harald Fischer.’ Though I adore this play on the page, I have never seen a production of Streetcar that I liked. No arguing with Marlon Brando’s performance; but Vivien Leigh was just too over the top for me (where is Jessica Tandy when you need her)? Nevertheless the performances in Kazan’s 1951 film are so iconic as to have blotted out this play as play.
Anyway, the title of this German version translates as ‘Destination Yearning” (Destination Nostalgia is a literal translation). It seems to me to be somewhat of an adaptation (I don’t speak German so I was unable to read the program notes) but it strikes me that the English subtitles provided were not identical to the play that I have read so many times. Some text - here and there — was definitely changed and/or excised. It doesn’t really matter though, because this interpretation made this old play seem so alive to me. Thalheimer and Altmann have apparently collaborated before; the design and direction were unique and unforgettable.
Realism is abandoned — as one might expect from a theatre espousing Brecht— and the set is nothing more than a ramp carved into a kind of cave in a massive wall (very technically difficult, I would think for the actors to act on). From the beginning this speaks to Blanche’s tragedy — as characters are constantly falling down or climbing up. Often they speak directly to the audience. At the back the walls light up at certain moments (the ‘coloured lights’ mentioned by Stanley) accompanied by heavy metal music.
There were three major differences in this production and any other production I have seen. First, the class issues in the play were perfectly clear — Stanley and Stella’s working class friends were yelling and laughing (one section I will never forget was just a woman laughing savagely in the dark for what seemed like a whole minute) in ways that reminded me of my Hamilton Hardcore working class neighbours. Second, Stanley wasn’t sexy, nor a brute (he had a pot belly) he was simply horny, somewhat violent man — like so many others. And Blanche was definitely horny too; in their first meeting she was clearly seducing him — it was her a mode of survival. All of this makes the play clearer as treatise; finally the fog of sentiment has been cleared away. Blanche is not fragile, she is a biting, scratching, desperate woman, very much as Stella describes her — misused by life and discarded in a pile of furs and fake pearls at the bottom of the ramp/cave at the end. Stanley isn’t a hot guy you might secretly want to rape you, he is just a working class man, caught in a web of his own male privilege and the class exploitation imposed upon him.
The audience must think; but still, I was crying all through. All about the acting; the gestures — fierce, moments of repetition — haunting. Blanche whispering ‘Stella Stella Stella Stella' — a hiss. Stanley at the end, saying over and over again ‘everything’s going to be alright' until it becomes a yell. A production unafraid to be politically incorrect and completely real — oddly without a speck of old-fashioned ‘realism.’ We will not see the likes of this in Canadian theatre, for obvious reasons. And there was no standing ovation — like I see those oafs in the audience do for every bad play we see in Toronto. In Berlin, the audience just clapped and clapped and clapped (and clapped), because there was nothing left to do.
Friday, 10 May 2019
I have to say a few words about Jennifer Phipps, who died very recently. I met her at the Shaw Festival when I was working there in the early 1980s. I had been brought in from Toronto by Christopher Newton to assistant direct, and due to my relationship with Christopher some of the actors seemed to view me with some suspicion. Not Jenny. We got to talking and I told her about my frustrations being away from my Toronto theatre company and I mentioned that I had written a play called Jungle Boy, about an incestuous relationship between a mother and a son. She immediately expressed interest: “I’d love to read it darling.” She always used that word — it always made me think of her as an old time movie star. I never thought that a big Shaw actress would be interested in acting in one of my plays; but in no time we worked it up and presented it in the Shaw lobby to an audience that was made up of an acting company somewhat bewildered by our efforts. A couple of years later I wrote a play about Cocteau called Radiguet, and I needed someone to play the role of a madwoman; Jenny enthusiastically agreed to star in the play at the tiny Poor Alex Theatre in Toronto; it was the first play that I directed Edward Roy in (of whom she was very fond).
No one has said several things that it is important to say about Jenny. She was an enormously charming, generous woman. She loved gay men; I’m not sure why, but I knew that it wasn’t just me, but the fact that I was gay, that was so attractive to her. She was an enormously talented actress, highly underestimated because she was so kind and modest (not like her old friend Joan Collins, at all!). To work with her was a lesson in acting; her work was very instinctive and real. If you put a prop anywhere near her it was in danger of being used — perhaps in ways you had never imagined, so you had to be careful! I saw her at Shaw in a definitive performance in Coward’s perfect comedy Hay Fever, and she was perfect in it, as the dotty Judith — so full of love and insanity that she kept me in stitches from the moment she walked on stage.
I had written a play for her in the 80s called Cheri (inspired by the Colette novel) which was rejected by Urjo Kareda at Tarragon. The play was lost, but when I happened to see her a couple of years ago I rewrote it for her and we tried to do it again together, but she became ill.
And this is the final thing. At one of the rehearsals for Cheri, I asked Jenny her age, and it unleashed a tempest: “Oh I don’t tell my age darling,” she said “because it’s become an issue. Because they think that someone who is 84 years old can no longer act. And it’s because I’m an old woman. It’s not fair. It doesn’t happen to old men!” Her fury frightened me somewhat but I sympathized, because I know she had struggled — despite her magnificent record at the Shaw Festival — with finding work during her last years. If anything were to come of Jenny’s death it might be that artistic directors should remember their old actors. Being old isn’t very popular these days; but Christopher Newton had a practice in his company that I truly respected; he always made a place for them, even if it was a butler, carrying a tray. We could do worse than remember them.
Sunday, 24 March 2019
Most people know me as a drag queen, a gay playwright and/or activist. So often — when I tell them what my 9-5 job is university professor — they say: “Good for you!” Yes, I’m not kidding. It is ‘good for me’ that I somehow triumphed over my crazy effeminate queerness and managed to snag a job. They do everything but pat me on the head.
I feel somewhat the same way about Calum Marsh’s latest article in the National Post: “Why Queer Eye makes me cry. Every. Time.”
Well ‘Queer Eye’ makes me cry, it really does, but for quite different reasons.
Calum says that the old show ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’ was out of date because of ‘the stylish queen stereotype.’ Now, the show has been ‘revitalized’ with an ‘earnest unpretentious spirit’ of ‘infectious positivity.’ He portrays the queer-eyed-guys as therapists who help people by — instead of just dressing them up — encouraging them, for instance, to eat more healthily, and to gain confidence.
Okay, got it. But these queer-eyed-guys are still helpers. The message of the show is that homosexuals are the world’s perpetual personal assistants. Gays don’t have a life of their own. (God help us if Netflix were flooded with shows about the real life stories of modern gay men!) No. Gay men exist to facilitate straight lives; to make straight lives better.
This justifies our existence, somewhat, because — without our knack for decorating, dressing and therapizing — we would be — for most people — merely pretty ornaments and/or dangerous sex fiends.
All of this flies in the face of history. Without gay men we would not have the modern novel (Proust) or the modern computer (Alan Turing). We would be without great scientists like Leonardo Da Vinci, George Washington Carver, and Alfred Kinsey. We would not have some of the most beautiful fiction ever written (Thomas Mann, Truman Capote, D.H. Lawrence, James Baldwin, Yukio Mishima) We would not have some of the most beautiful music ever composed (Handel, Lully, Saint-Saens, Tchaikovsky, Poulenc, Samuel Barber — and Schubert too, though the musicologists get very angry about this one!). Without gay men we would not have some of the greatest paintings ever created (Caravaggio and Michelangelo — to name two you might have heard of!), or two of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century (Wittgenstein and Foucault), as well as an ancient philosopher you also may recognize (Plato). And without Bayard Rustin — Martin Luther King’s closeted, gay, unheralded right hand man — we would not have the modern civil rights movement.
Oh yes, and we also happen to dress very well, and we also happen to be very good at helping heterosexuals sort out their inevitably screwed-up lives.
(Just try being a heterosexual! I tried it once; it was a nightmare!)
So Calum — why are you so obsessed with our modern Netflix identity as the ‘world’s personal assistants’ as opposed to our actual role in human history, which is being a major force in creation of human knowledge?
Can you answer that one for me, Calum, huh?
Tuesday, 12 March 2019
I shall have to wait until I’m dead before someone reads this essay and agrees with me.
Seeing Glenda Jackson in King Lear (previewing in New York City presently) was an enormous pleasure. She is an amazing actress and an amazing woman. At 82 to take command of this role in the way that she did — it was awe inspiring!
I agree with non-traditional casting in general — and by this I mean that characters should be played by actors of any colour or gender — except in cases when such casting changes the meaning of the play in ways that are not intended.
This is what happens in Sam Gold’s production of King Lear.
Here is the first thing you will not agree with in this essay: Shakespeare was a feminist. ‘But,’ you say, ‘what about the fact that the leading characters in most of his plays are men — and his characters often say such awful things about women?’ True. But I would suggest that all Shakespeare’s tragic heroes suffer a crisis of masculinity — one that nearly destroys the patriarchy and kingship. Macbeth and Hamlet both find it difficult to act in manly fashion, and both Antony and Othello are brought down by their love of women. Lear is absolved of masculine privilege and his kingdom to boot — and ends up naked on the heath cursing thunder. Shakespeare is suggesting that Lear’s experience is a good one for a sexist, patriarchal male king.
Glenda Jackson is fully capable of presenting all the subtlety, strength, intelligence and hurt that is Lear’s. (At one point when she is wheeled forward slumped in a wheelchair, and she looks so much like Stephen Hawking — it will break your heart. And the ‘butterflies in a cage’ speech — it’s worth waiting for!). But Glenda Jackson is not a man. Part of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy is to bring a man with a male body and a penis under his clothes to centre stage and then humiliate him. The point is to decimate the male. This humiliation must be real or there is no drama. It is pointless to humiliate a woman in such a fashion. In fact doing so short circuits the feminist message. Are we to infer that women are just as bad as men? That they are responsible for the same sins as men?
One thing we can say for certain is that there is a patriarchy and male leadership is responsible for much of what is wrong with the world; this is what Shakespeare is saying. That message is undermined by putting a woman in the role; the play then becomes a less feminist play.
This is the problem with many stagings which attempt to correct the sexism of these old plays; it is done with no real understanding of the message of the play, or the message that non-traditional casting sends.
With Jayne Houdyshell’s brilliant portrayal of Gloucester in the the same production I have no casting problem. The character of Gloucester is not principally about the poisonous patriarchy; it is principally about blindness — it is about perception and reality. Thus, it makes no difference if a man or woman plays the role.
Years ago, I asked an artistic director of colour (who I won’t hold responsible for her remarks here) what her opinion was of what was then called ‘colour blind’ casting. She said: “As long as the play is not a contemporary political one, where it would unintentionally change the meaning of the play, it’s an important thing to do.”
Because Shakespeare is, phenomenally, still ‘our contemporary’ — I must say, I agree.