Saturday, February 28, 2009

Theatre Review: Plague over England by Nicholas de Jongh

Plague over England.
Nicholas de Jongh.

Duchess Theatre, London
Booking to 19 May, 2009

Reviewed by John Dixon

There’s been an encouraging number of gay plays recently. Now here’s one produced last March on the fringe and revived in the West End - with a projected run till mid-May.

Plague over England concerns the arrest for soliciting of John Gielgud in 1953. The author is Nicholas de Jongh, whose study of homosexuality in the theatre, Not in Front of the Audience, well equips him to deal with the topic. He’s also a theatre critic, not necessarily a passport to being a playwright, even a play about theatre-land. Happily this is no biopic or star vehicle, no theatre-history self-indulgence or name dropping. The play gives the background to the purge, (an American Senate report categorising homosexuals as a threat to national security); the British Establishment’s response to Washington (by invoking a law that penalised men not for what they did but for what they appeared to wish to do) - and how this affected a recently-ennobled actor, who wasn’t even caught in the act, but merely smiled at a pretty entrapment officer.

The advantage of basing a play on this particular victim is that nothing is clear cut. Gielgud inhabits a double-world, between acting superbly well and being himself imperfectly. He’s unsure if he’s on- or off-stage. When arrested he doesn’t think to call a solicitor. He gives his profession as clerk, uses his first name, Arthur, that he’d dropped years before. He believes the police when assured that newspaper reporters never arrive for early morning court appearances. He’s astounded when the story breaks. Who knows about it? Who knew I was homo? How could they tell?

This naivety is caught from the start when Gielgud enters backstage rehearsing a play, lines of which foreshadow his own situation. The Mother figure, Sybil Thorndike, asks ‘When are you going to get married and settle down?’ Gielgud fluffs his lines, poo-poohs the role, and wonders why he agreed to appear in the play, rather than something contemporary.

In the postscript, twenty years later and after a seismic change in attitudes, (including the pretty policeman turning gay) Gielgud is shown accepting a role Pinter’s No Man’s Land, as a closet gay.

Several of the cast were from the original production. The lead, Michael Feast, resemblances Gielgud, in looks, dapper clothing, and voice. It can’t be easy playing another actor, even one you’ve worked with. It’s one thing for likes of Rory Bremner et al., to imitate celebrities for a couple of minutes; quite another to sustain a serious role throughout the evening and enter the nuances provided by the script.

The other actors – all excellent - had double-up roles. Celia Imrie as Sybil Thorndike and the very different proprietress of a gentlemen’s club; Simon Dutton as an Establishment lawyer and as the urbane theatrical producer, Binkie Beaumont. Poor David Burt was a lavatory attendant, newsvendor, camp barman and a valet!

The fixed set – dark polished wood - proved adaptable. Side doors led to a courtroom annex, ministerial offices, or cubicles. Two revolving panels – one for a wash-basin or dressing room table and mirror; the other for a urinal, drinks bar or desk – ensured quick scene changes.

Any limitations of the set were overcome off-stage. Gielgud stood front stage penitent, saying he’d been tired and drunk the night before, and the voice of the judge boomed out the sentence. The demonstration and the retirement party of the proprietress were off-stage. Most telling was the clapping that greeted Gielgud when he went from backstage (our stage) onstage for his first London appearance after the arrest. ‘Come on, John,’ said Sybil. ‘I’ll take you on. They wouldn’t dare boo me.’ There was a perceptible feel-good shuffle in the audience and an attempt to join in the clapping!

The worry is that the demands on the lead actor are such that the play may never reach the provincial or amateur repertoire. The impact and lesson of the work could be made wider and more lasting were a filmed version made available on video for sale, hire and in libraries.

John Dixon has had several poems and short stories published, including in Chroma. He has won a prize in the Bridport Short Story competition, and was editor/contributor to Fiction in Libraries. He is a member of the Gay Author’s Workshop and is on the editorial board of and contributor to the forthcoming GAW short story anthology ‘People my mother warned you about.’ He hopes shortly to have his novel ‘Push harder Mummy, I want to come out’ published by Paradise Press. He has read his work at launches and several local LGTB events.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Review: First Person Jewish by Alisa S. Lebow

First Person Jewish
Alisa S. Lebow

Published by University of Minnesota Press

Reviewed by Sophie Mayer

First Person Jewish could equally have been called First Person? Jewish and Queer. The first chapter in the book contains a detailed reading of D’Est, an experimental travel film shot in Central Europe by French filmmaker Chantal Akerman, a film that is only marginally vocal about her Jewishness and totally silent about her lesbianism. Chapters 3 and 4 consider the vexed question of an (in)coherent Jewish/queer identity in a number of experimental autobiographical documentaries by queer Jews, arguing that queerness is often the suppressed term which cannot be articulated in the context of secular Ashkenazi Euro-American Jewish identity – which, the book argues, is constituted through family.

Alisa Lebow, a filmmaker as well as a theorist, sets herself a tough task: she focuses on “a minority of a minority of a minority,” experimental first-person documentaries by self-identified Jews. It’s a fascinating exercise in making visible (the University of Minnesota series on documentary, in which the book is published, is called Visible Evidence). She makes visible films that are often culturally invisible – and literally unseeable. D’Est, for example, was part of an installation, an event film, while others are video projects only available from tiny distributors or university libraries. As Lebow argues, all the films are also concerned with what can be made visible, whether it’s the opacity of Akerman’s approach to the Sho’ah or Ruth Novaczek’s ever-increasing puzzle of alter egos.

What, asks the book, makes Jewishness and/or queerness visible? Secular Judaism and queer identity share an almost obsessive interest in the shifting, unstable, indefinable identity; they also share a pointed critique of the clichés and stereotypes employed to make Jewishness and queerness visible – in fact, employed one term to make visible the other, as Lebow reveals in her discussion on the 19th century Western European stereotype of the neurasthenic Jew. And both communities have vexed relationships to being visible: on the one hand, Act Up! demanded it; on the other, writers like Judith Butler have argued that it’s not that simple, and that visibility does not mean tolerance or social change. The fear of persecution attendant on visibility is never far from the surface, either.

So a number of the filmmakers that Lebow discusses, like Novaczek, Gregg Bordowitz and Jonathan Caouette, create a mirror-hall of characters to disappear into, which disconcerts the notion that any individual can ever be fully visible, but also slips the question. The counter-example Lebow provides is her own film, Treyf, made with her then-girlfriend Cynthia Madansky. Treyf documents the couple’s coming to consciousness about Zionism, in some ways suggesting that it is their lesbian identity that allows them to think oppositionally. Because they are treyf, they can think treyf (in the context of conservative American Jewry) thoughts.

Lebow’s work of auto-critique on the film is the best, and most intriguing, piece of writing in the book, not least in the honesty that judges aspects of the film a failure. Part of that failure, implicitly, is the need to explain intentions in a critical commentary, which focuses pointedly on the failures to (fully) represent Jewishness rather than questioning the will towards lesbian visibility (which has been brilliantly critiqued by Amy Villarejo in Lesbian Rule). The book at once celebrates this act of commentary, and sidesteps its centrality, its embrace of Jewish traditions of Mishnaic and Talmudic discussion and annotation that give rise (one the one hand) to the neurotic nebbish intellectual popularised by Woody Allen and (on the other) to the comic shtetl stereotype of the Jew who gives three answers to two questions, running out of hands.

There’s a queerness here as well, rising up between the lines, as seen to great effect in Michelle Citron’s CD-ROM project Mixed Greens. Citron is the filmmaker who gets shortest shrift in First Person Jewish, even though her first film Daughter Rite remains a cornerstone in feminist cinema (and a great example of shifting masks and alter egos) and her more recent work has been concerned explicitly with both queerness and Jewishness. In Mixed Greens, they intersect in three storylines (each in several scenes) that merge into one via Citron’s autobiographical portrait: the Citron family’s emigration from Dublin to Boston; Michelle’s coming out as a feminist, a lesbian, and a filmmaker; and a staged documentary history of a half-century of lesbian America. Arranged as a matrix, scenes can be viewed in any order.

Like Lebow, Citron practises auto-critique, and her book Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions also appears in the Visible Evidence series. In it, she provides a fascinating discussion of how religion, class and sexuality are and are not visible in the family home movies that she used to form part of Daughter Rite. Her patient and terrible journey of rebuilding memories of familial abuse through re-viewing the movies and her own ‘take’ on them suggests what’s at stake in Lebow’s discussion. But where Lebow concludes that autobiography is ultimately thanatography (in Derrida’s term), a voice from beyond the grave, Citron’s use and misuse of Freud (whose work and reputation bundle together neurosis, sexual desire, and constant questioning) gives new lease to bios, the life force that these films – by their existence, by their visibility – represent.

Queer theorist Lee Edelman’s most recent book, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, suggests that that the most politically subversive quality of queer people is their failure to breed. It’s an outrageous and radical suggestion, particularly as queer people have always had children, whether through IVF or ‘natural’ conception, in straight marriages, and/or through adoption. Lebow doesn’t bring up Edelman thanato-theory in her study, although it makes an interesting framework for considering why the films that she reads insist on placing individual identity within the context of a family. Lebow intimates that queerness may represent, unconsciously, the end of the line for the family inheritance of Jewishness, which several of these films mourn in the person of a grandmother. Certainly, Jews are supposed to procreate, for religious and nationalistic reasons, and non-procreation feels like both failure and resistance.

But death? In her conclusion, Lebow takes up Barbara Myerhoff and Lynne Littman’s In Her Own Time, a documentary about Myerhoff making a documentary about the Hasidic Jews of Fairfax while battling, and succumbing to, cancer. Lebow calls it a “limit case” for autobiography and cites it in defence of death’s grip on autobiographical filmmaking. Not only does this play into the stereotype of Jewish victimhood, of the deathliness of the Sho’ah being the single defining quality shared by contemporary world Jewry, but it also denies the powerful life-instinct of a filmmaker working between chemo sessions, shooting from her wheelchair and presenting her own living, dying body to the camera. Queer Jewish creation may or may not be the same thing as procreation, but it’s every bit as engaged in saying, “To life, to life, l’chaim!”

Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at


Saturday, February 21, 2009

Every Good Boy Deserves Teddies

Roundup of the 59th Berlin International Film Festival by Sophie Mayer

Only at the Berlinale could you buy a cuddly plush version of the film’s totem – the Berlinale Bear – dressed ready for the hanky code. Splendid in his black neckerchief, the teddy Bear sums up the festival spirit: queer and anarchic (yet family-friendly) on the one hand; and corporate horror on the other (25 for a teddy?!). Berlin, which is the first European festival of the film buying year, has become an increasingly important market venue for films small and large, and under its previous director was considered to have become a bit too Hollywoodised. But this year’s program has disproved that, with several politically challenging films such as Michael Winterbottom’s documentary of The Shock Doctrine and Udi Aloni’s Kashmir: Journey to Freedom which the Indian government asked to be withdrawn. There was also, delightfully, some good German old-fashioned New Queer Cinema from Monika Treut and Ulrike Ottinger. Still, the festival’s an odd compromise: you’re as likely to be given a free makeover by L’Oreal in the Potsdamer Platz as to bump into John Greyson in his luminous orange tartan bondage trousers.
Greyson’s new film, Fig Trees, is one of the highlights of a full and varied Teddy catalogue this year and I’ll sprinkle my glittering praise in a minute. Not a programme per se, the Teddy is an award given for the best film on a queer theme, including features, documentaries and shorts, across all the different programmes (which are also markets) at the festival. So, from the Competition – the most high-profile programme – there’s Sally Potter’s Rage. On the surface a satire on fashion, Rage is an indictment of the very market logic that forces stars to parade themselves on the red carpet in Berlin’s inevitable snow. It’s a reclamation of beauty from the bankers, and central to its ravishing struggle is Jude Law as Minx, a Russian-American supermodel. Minx refers to herself in the third person as “she” but the film leaves open the question of how Minx understands this pronoun for herself.

While not as centrally queer as Orlando, Rage is deeply concerned with that queerest of themes: what we say of ourselves and what (secretly) we cannot say but long to. Its compassion is amplified by its stunningly simple visual style; shot in tiny photographers’ studios using greenscreen, the film is also a message to budding filmmakers who think their projects are unlikely to get funding. Potter, a friend of Derek Jarman’s, is one of the few filmmakers committed to his mission of: make things with what you have. That ambition and excitement has been visible in a few other films at the festival, notably Kan Door Huid Heen (Can Go Through Skin), a first feature from Dutch director Esther Rots. Shot in a freezing dilapidated cottage in Zeeland, it’s not a Teddy film because its protagonists are straight, but its attention to bodily detail – both pleasure and disgust – and to the wayward paths of desire is definitely queer to me.

Of the other few Competition films with Teddy qualities, I was most excited about The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Rebecca Miller’s adaptation of her own novel. I loved Pippa in the book, the story of her self-invention as a perfect housewife to contain the chaos of her own desires, which include an SM relationship with her aunt’s girlfriend. Hearing that Julianne Moore was playing the saucy writer Kat, I was even more excited. But the film – conscious, no doubt, of the wider and more conservative audience that a film has to lay claim to in order to get a budget – plays that disturbingly erotic relationship for laughs, just one of the ways that the force of the book is blunted. Still, a newly-slender and shirtless Keanu is a pansexual delight.

But the most beautiful people on show, for me, were in two documentaries with a difference, my nominees for the Teddy. Greyson’s Fig Trees, a project eight years in the making, riffs on Gertrude Stein’s famous opera Four Saints in Three Acts to document the ongoing lives of two AIDS activists, Tim McCaskell from Canada, and Zackie Achmat from South Africa. Queering the idea of saints, Greyson weaves together an operatic meditation with an immense number of intellectual, philosophical, erotic, linguistic, and eccentric strands (something I loved in Rage as well). From the anal resonances of Stein’s “pigeons on the grass, alas” (helps if you say it in an American accent), through the resonance of TB-stricken opera heroines for PWA, to the astonishing beauties of the human voice and the body from which it emerges, Greyson’s film overflows with life that’s impossible to summarize. Sometimes the screen is split into five or six images to (not) contain it. Woven through the film, though, is a central contrast between community-based activism and its transnational connections, and corporate “social responsibility” as a kinder, softer, more fashionable globalisation. The film renames Bono’s (RED) campaign (PINK) and savagely and brilliantly attacks its hypocrisies. Another film for the sponsors to love.

Blame Canada! as someone once said so wisely. Also for the wicked five-minute short The Island by Albertan filmmaker Trevor Anderson. After an interminable shorts program (anyone looking for the new New Brutalist cinema, it’s going to come from Ukraine and it’s going to make The Death of Mr. Lazarescu look like Scrubs), The Island came as a brisk eye-refresher as Anderson walks across an endless snow prairie while his voice-over meditates on an email he received from the US suggests that he and all the faggots move to an island and infect each other with AIDS. Through animation, said island is duly imagined. Like Greyson, Anderson refuses the sentimentalities that would have him say, “Oh, and we’d never infect each other with AIDS!” Instead, he imagines PWA celebrated, feasted, and honoured. The fantasy collapses – “lonely” says Anderson, stranded in the snow – but the film still sent me out zinging.

But Fig Trees isn’t an amuse-bouche; it’s a masterwork. It echoes the pop-cult OutRageousness of Zero Patience but also the seductive aesthetic of the more recent Proteus, whose co-director Jack Lewis is Achmat’s partner. Co-incidences, resonances, echoes of earlier work, connections between McCaskell and Achmat: both the activism and the film are built on this connectivity, on queer community. That sense of an intertwinedness that keeps on growing and including other nodes, like Celtic knotwork, is also at the heart of City of Borders, a first documentary feature by Yun Suh. Drawing on her experience making news documentaries, including in Gaza in 2002, Suh documents the life and times of Jerusalem’s Shushan. A gay bar, and more than a gay bar, Shushan served as a rallying point and safer space in a city dominated by ultra-Orthodox Jews, and also a meeting-point, a bar where Palestinians and Israelis mingled freely.

The film opens on the Palestinian side of the Wall in Ramallah, following a group of young guys climbing over. Risking their lives to go dancing, you could say. But they’re climbing over to be somewhere they can be their whole selves in public, with friends. That’s a rare space anywhere in the world, and Shushan was something of a miracle. Sa’ar, the city councillor who opened the bar, is one of the film’s six subjects, but the doc is balanced so that you don’t feel he’s more important than the amazing people who make up his clientele and community.

It’s clear that Suh fell in love with kohl-eyed, languid, gorgeous Boody, who leads his merry band from Ramallah to Shushan and performs there as Miss Haifa. A devout Muslim who has utterly reconciled his faith and his sexuality, he’s almost too perfect a subject to be true. The same could be said of Samira and Ravit, a Palestinian and an Israeli, living in lesbian doctor bliss. Utterly committed to each other (although both flirting with Suh behind the camera) but under no illusions about the complexity of their situation – in that Ravit wants children, and Samira doesn’t – Samira and Ravit win this Berlinale’s Lesbian Idol hands down.

The competition’s pretty thin. Wrassling it out for most disappointing films of the festival, for me, would be a reprise of the lesbian killer motif in Lucía Puenzo’s El Niño Pez (adapted from her own novel) and Julie Delpy’s The Countess. Delpy plays Erzebet Bathory, the Hungarian countess notorious for bathing in the blood of virgin girls. There’s an Ann-Marie Macdonald play that turns this legend into a passionate lesbian horror romance, but this is not that film. Delpy’s Erzebet is bisexual, forming a close relationship with Darvoulia, her apothecary – beautifully played by the luminous Anamaria Marinca – although the passion that counts is for men. But the film suggests, in its slightly inarticulate way, that that’s because of the patriarchal trap that pincers Erzebet as a powerful woman who can pick and choose lovers at will, but is dependent on them for her sense of self. Darvoulia is the only voice of reason once the murders begin – a refreshing change as the film initially suggests that she will kill Erzebet’s young lover (puppy-faced Daniel Brühl in the Keanu Reeves role) out of jealousy.
Jealousy’s the key to Niño Pez, a strange and fierce jealousy about the relationship between fathers and daughters. Puenzo clearly realises that she has the makings of a lesbian icon in actor Inés Efron, who scorched the screen in XXY. So you get Inés in the bath, Inés in a schoolgirl outfit, Inés in the bath, Inés kissing her girlfriend at a bar, Inés visiting her girlfriend in prison, Inés pulling a gun to save her girlfriend… It’s like the Inés Efron generic dyke thriller 2009 calendar. There is interesting stuff going on: Ailín, the girlfriend, is also Lala’s (Efron) family maid. She’s Guayani, from across the border in Paraguay. But class, ethnicity, illegal workers: these issues are never woven into the story to enflesh Lala and Ailín’s passion. We don’t really know what they know of each other.

The viewer knows little more about what there is between Hamburg-based artist Sophie and Ai-ling, a Taiwanese student visiting her family in Germany. Most of their relationship is expressed through videos made by Sophie, and shown in an exhibition in Taipei after Ai-ling’s death, at which Sophie meets journalist Mei-li, who pursues her to Hamburg to discover what happened to Ai-ling. Like Niño Pez, Ghosted is told by interweaving past and present, which should give intensity to Sophie’s grief, but Inga Busch’s performance is just not up to it. Huan-Ru Ke is lovely as Ai-ling, but has barely anything to do. Maybe I liked the film less than I should Ai-ling was my second lovely Taiwanese lesbian of the day, after Ai, played by Sadrine Pinna, in Miao-Miao. Cute as a handmade button, Miao Miao is directed by Cheng Hsiao-Tse but – more importantly perhaps – produced by Jet Tone Films, Stanley Kwan and Wong Kar-Wai’s company for new Asian cinema.

If I were being as cute as the film, I’d say it was The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Chungking Express. Miao-Miao is a lonely Japanese exchange student who befriends Ai at school in Taipei, then draws Ai into her crush on CD store worker Chen Fei. But – triangles will happen – Ai is falling in love with the affectionate and beautiful Miao-Miao, who is dangerously obsessed (in a cutesy way) with Fei, who barely notices she’s alive because he’s grieving over the death of his bandmate Bei. As long as you’re not averse to Little Prince metaphors for forbidden gay love, this film is a total sugar rush that, in its simplicity, also has more emotional profundity than Ghosted (a fact that makes me wonder more about me…) Lavishly dusted with canto-pop sparkles and full of adorable metaphors about cake-baking and stargazing, Miao is the queer film for progressive parents to take their kids to – the Babylon Mitte was certainly full of them.

Bizarrely, parents could also happily take their kids to Catherine Breillat’s latest, Barbe Bleue, but probably won’t because of Breillat’s reputation. And because it’s Breillat’s version of Perrault’s conte keeps intact the age difference between Blubeard and his barely pubescent last bride. This is the tale as told between young sisters, about the adult love that they crave and fear, that they don’t understand. The younger sister (Breillat herself is the youngest) tells the older that marriage is when two people become homosexual, a statement worth musing on as well as being amused by. Although the film follows the strict hetero priorities of the fairy tale, its focus on the passionate love and hate of sisters, and suggestively between Bluebeard’s wives as each other’s successors, is actually deliciously queer.

Which all raises the question: what makes a queer film? One of my festival faves from Toronto, When it Was Blue, is showing here this weekend. It’s a dual-projection 16 mm handpainted film with live music, an exquisite and breathtaking catalogue of the natural world – shot and edited by Jennifer Reeves, whose film The Time We Killed, a lesbian film noir, thrilled Berlin a few years back. So is When it Was Blue queer? Would it show in a lesbian and gay film festival? At Berlin, the question is rendered moot as every program from the Competition to the Expanded Forum (artists’ film and video) to Generations (children’s films) includes queer films. I’ve enjoyed that a lot, for two reasons: after a few films, the gender and sexuality of the protagonists isn’t paramount (as it can be at a LGBT film festival) and yet there’s consistent diversity; on the other hand, after Fig Trees, every film in the festival – every poster on the streets – every tree in the Tiergarten – seems touched by the network of queerness.

In the film, McCaskell quotes a young Montréaler who said to him that AIDS is a lens, through which things unseen become visible and look different. In the films that stood out for me, sexuality was that lens – as politicised by AIDS, by violence, by globalisation – and it brought into focus how all film can be queer because in all films there are bodies, and towards all films we feel something like desire. As Rage explores, there is a beauty other than the one (RED) tries to sell us (by playing on our fears that we don’t have it): a beauty that, like the woman in the Hebrew prayer read at the lesbian Shabbat Samira and Ravit attend, is beyond price or prize. These films aren’t trying to sell products, or ideologies, or even themselves: they want us to look and listen and be open. That’s what makes When It Was Blue a Teddy (although it’s not, officially), that it wants us to be totally permeable, infinitely changeable, ravished by the world. What could be queerer than that?

Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Review: Radical Acts by Martin Duberman

Radical Acts: Collected Political Plays
Martin Duberman

Published by The New Press

Reviewed by Jonathan Statham

Martin Duberman is perhaps best known as a historian, biographer, political essayist and gay activist. Radical Acts is his second collection of plays and brings together four plays written and re-written between 1963 and today. Jointly they show the historian’s ‘attempts to make theatre and in particular political theatre, out of historical materials’; more particularly, the history of slavery (In White America), the life of Emma Goldman (Mother Earth), the trial of Newton Arvin (Posing Naked), the relationships of Jack Kerouac (Visions of Kerouac).

Certainly, each play takes a different political issue as its central theme, but being about politics is not the same as being political. For what Duberman’s writing signally fails to do is to carry over his acute political analyses of history into a politicised theatrical praxis: instead, with the exception of In White America to which I will return, the plays are written in the twentieth century’s most hegemonic, bourgeois form: realism.

Having said that, these are by no means kitchen sink dramas. Their locus is the podium, the courtroom and the street. But then why not explore the inherent theatricality of these forms more directly? For example, some of Duberman’s stage directions are rather more cinematic or novelistic: ‘scene shifts to Emma on another lecture platform, in midspeech’ might be effective editing but on stage it interrupts the embodied performance, defusing the performative power of her political oratory.

Implicit in his preface is Duberman’s failure to acknowledge that playwrights never write for ‘the’ theatre but only for ‘a’ theatre, a specific practice in a specific politico-economic world. Thus, Mother Earth, even as it hymns anarchism, requires a revolving stage, the kind of stage machinery typically found at the heart of the capitalist entertainment complex. As such, these plays run the risk of being not ‘radical acts’ but containment strategies, offering up the lives and ideas of radicals like Goldman and Ginsberg within the confines of the conventionally well-wrought realist drama. After all, Goldman famously declared that if ‘I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution’. And in Mother Earth, she does not dance…

At this juncture, however, let me note that as historical essays in dramatic form these texts function very beautifully: they demonstrate the double insight of a powerful historical mind combined with passionate imaginative empathy. In many ways, these texts would be make neat codas to academic studies. This would allow them to illuminate that which internally they never resolve: the relationship between history and histrionic individuality (which characterises Duberman’s protagonists).

It is in this that In White America remains a notable exception. Far from being classically realist, it is what we now call a ‘docu-drama’, a form of increasing popularity in the twenty-first century. As an historical collage, it manifestly exposes a relationship between individual experiences and the vast historical sweep of events. This is what the realist form of Duberman’s later plays cannot do: it cannot recognise the political character of history, its mosaic form; that it is, as Duberman puts it, ‘only fragmentary traces, and not the whole record of what happened’. Realism and the well-made play, however, inherently claim to tell a whole story. (This can of course be subverted; as Duberman begins to do in Posing Naked, setting the final in ‘the courtroom but not entirely a naturalistic setting’. This is nonetheless a restrained effect.)

Duberman is still perhaps right in his preface when he considers In White America only a partial success in its dramatisation of historical material (particularly, the use of narration is flawed). It is just a shame that this self-analysis pushed him not to experiment but to retreat to more conventional staging. (In this regard, if space permitted, it would be worth drawing comparison between Radical Acts and Richard Norton-Taylor’s plays for London’s Tricycle Theatre.)

The plays in Radical Acts, then, do make fascinating reading, evoking the personalities of historical figures with compelling ease. As performance texts they may not quite find a theatrical register, but as historical essays in dialogue form they provide insights which complement the more traditional forms we give to our histories.

Jonathan Statham lives and writes in Manchester.


Saturday, February 14, 2009

Queer Books We Heart

Encountering a queer book can be exciting, challenging, inspiring – even erotic. In honor of Valentine’s Day, I asked several writers to describe a queer book that has influenced them the most.

A Boy's Own Story by Edmund White
I read this novel as a teenager and discovered in White's beautifully rich prose an articulation of feelings I myself was struggling to understand. Speaking to other gay men and reading about people’s relationship to this book I’ve found that many have experienced the same thing reading this brilliant novel. It’s startling that a story so specific and entwined in it’s particular time and location can touch upon such universal feelings, taking on personal meaning to so many. It also felt brave and honest that the great betrayal at the end of the book doesn’t conform to a facile love story, but hints at impulses inherent to queer identity which have the power to divide us as much as bring us together. - Eric Karl Anderson, author of Enough

Venus and Adonis by Shakespeare
chosen by David Plante, author of The Francoeur Trilogy, The Catholic and Difficult Women.

I was somewhere between the ages of ten to twelve, just before puberty. I had a fever and for some reason was in my parents' bed (the bed I was conceived in and where I was born.) Pretentious as I was, and have always been, I thought I must read Shakespeare to be truly cultured. The complete words were bound in soft red leather. I started with the long poem Venus and Adonis. When I came to the description, seen from the point of view of Venus, of Adonis' body, something stirred in my soul-- a soul, I hasten to write, in direct contact with my body, so much so that the stirring in my soul stirred by blood,and an erection rose up in my slightly sweaty pajamas. And I recall from this moment of great psychological complexity came a simple sexual impulse that has given me, and gives me, a very great pleasure in my life.

Love Medicine and One Song by Greg Scofield
chosen by Sophie Mayer, a writer, editor and educator.

Because when I heard him read poems from this collection on CBC, as part of "Beneath the Buffalo Robe," a documentary/discussion about decolonising Indigenous sexuality, my knees melted like spring thaw. This book is a talisman for me, for its many beauties, but also because it's the frankest, clearest, most delicate and strong, most committed, most alive and most complex literary representation of bisexuality that I've ever read. And in its honest, sexy, lyrical embrace, it freed me to become something more and braver as a lover, a poet and a person.

Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir, by Paul Monette
and “Used to Dream,” by C. Bard Cole
chosen by Philip Huang, author of American Widow and YouTube contributor.

After reading Borrowed Time at 19, I came out, became a writer, and joined the AIDS movement. This is the book I mean when I talk to young gay men about their inheritance.

OK, “Used to Dream” is not a book, but in thirteen pages, this short story left me raw as a swallow of bleach. The only other piece of short fiction that comes close in impact is Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain,” but Bard’s work here is filthier, scarier, and more lovely. Maybe if we beg Bard at he’ll publish “Used to Dream” online. The story can also be found in Cole’s collection Briefly Told Lives.

Gender Trouble by Judith Butler
chosen by Riki Wilchins, author of Read My Lips, GenderQueer and Gender Theory.

The main influence on my thinking, particularly about gender, has to be Judith Butler's Gender Trouble (1995). In just the first, blazing 10 pages, she undermines most of the assumptions under which feminist theory had operated for the last two decades, and rewrites the tools by which we think about bodies, gender and sexuality. It's a bravura performance, almost rude in its relentless intelligence and willingness to undo old, established ways of thinking. Gender Trouble not only achieved the long-sought theoretical bridge between feminist and gay theory, but did so by undermining the very ideas of Woman and Homosexuality. It is, in a word, cheeky. Although the middle section strikes me as incredibly obscure pomo-babble, the beginning and ending chapters are undeniably brilliant. Perhaps even more than E. K. Sedgwick, Butler is responsible for the rise and prominence of queer theory. Her work was a giant leap forward, which no one since has replicated. I have not only drawn her ideas in Gender Trouble for all three of my books - without having drawn the well of ideas dry, or even drained it significantly – but I continually return to it for new inspiration. And every time I open it, I find something new again.

Of Drag Kings and the Wheel of Fate by Susan Smith
chosen by JD Glass, author of Lambda Literary Finalist Punk Like Me, Punk and Zen, Lambda Literary and Ben Franklin Finalist Red Light, American Goth and the newly published X.

“We all dress up as something. The queers just put more thought into it.”

I first discovered this book on-line and have picked it up through two published editions. From the very beginning, it’s filled with raw, naked poetry flirting as prose, limned and fleshed in primal, visceral honesty… It was that honesty about love and Light, of sense of self and purpose, written with an unabashed admiration and respect for life itself, the glories and discomforts, the deeper truths of what it means to be human—not regardless of physicality but because of it and its inherent fluidity—it shocked me, stunned me, grabbed my heart and head and showed me that this was a Writer writing about Life, about real emotion and sex and heart no matter how fictional the story might be.

Here, for the first time ever, I saw faces I recognized, reflections of friends, of self, of community, and the deep deep Truths inherent in being alive and in being queer.

This book moved me, moved me to bravery, to reveal Truth in my own way, to add my voice to the chorus.

A path, a way I’d never seen before, had been opened before me, a way to a world of potential and possibility, filled with characters made of words that could just possibly be flesh, could be me or you, or that person on the corner, hanging about the coffee shop in Buffalo, NY.

I dress up as an artist—and when I wear my writer clothes, it is because of Susan Smith.

The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood
chosen by Aaron Hamburger, author of The View from Stalin’s Head and Faith for Beginners

In the mid-nineties, I moved from Michigan to Prague and read a lot of Proust. Before leaving home, I’d thought it would be easier to pack one really big book than lots of short ones.

In a few months, I’d made my way through the first three books of Remembrance of Things Past, and my prose style had gone from clipped Hemingway-esque sketches to long, winding reflections that went on for paragraphs and sometimes pages. My pen and mind needed a break.

Fortunately, my roommate lent me a book called The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood, the perfect corrective to Proust’s imperial, longwinded brilliance.

The first thing that struck me about Berlin Stories was the mirror image of its subject matter in relation to my life. While Isherwood was a semi openly gay writer living abroad, teaching English in a Central European country transitioning from freedom to totalitarianism, I was a semi openly gay writer abroad teaching English in a Central European country moving in the reverse political direction.

A couple of years later, as a fully openly gay grad student in New York, I reread Berlin Stories and came to appreciate the virtues of Isherwood’s literary aesthetic. I particularly loved the disjunction between Isherwood’s clear, frank prose and his sparing divulgence of detail. Berlin Stories is told in fragments, with characters who disappear in one story and then pop up in another, or characters who form mysterious and strong emotional bonds, seemingly for no reason. My writing professor explained that these narrative gaps were caused by the constraints on open discussion of homosexuality at the time when Isherwood published his stories in England, in the mid-thirties. However, as a contemporary reader, I enjoyed the stylistic effect of a narrative that pulled readers in by forcing them to do some of the work themselves to create the stories they were reading. As I sat down to write my own stories of ex-pat life, The View from Stalin’s Head, I used Isherwood as a model, drawing a picture of a time and place through carefully selected fragments, which I hoped might tempt readers to play detective and take the time to put together.

In many ways, Isherwood’s narrative gaps are a fitting stylistic response to the lives of queer people, who almost daily have to decide what to reveal about themselves to new friends, co-workers, even strangers. And just like Isherwood’s readers, queer people also examine people for clues to see what’s under the surface, how what’s not being said may be a result of purposeful ambiguity that goes unnoticed by some audiences while speaking loud and clear to others. As queer life goes mainstream, it’s possible the need for this Isherwood strategy of evasion will lessen or even vanish. In which case, much will be gained, but what will be lost?

The Black Unicorn by Audre Lorde
chosen by Jackie Kay, author of Trumpet, Wish I Was Here, The Adoption Papers and Why Don't You Stop Talking: Stories.
Audre Lorde's wonderful poetry collection, The Black Unicorn, was a huge influence. It was so exciting to come across a black lesbian, who embraced all of her own complexities, who looked back to the past, and the women of Dahomey to give her confidence, and forward to the future. I'd never heard a voice like Audre's before and she blew me away. Other early books I loved were Patience and Sarah and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. If reading is a kind of a mirror, these books told me I was not alone.

Gender Trouble by Judith Butler and Rent Girl by Michelle Tea
chosen by Aundi Howerton

The question has been posed at to what queer texts have had the greatest influence: enter a barrage of titles. In order to narrow down the options, I’ve decided to restrict my focus to living writers, who are both specific to my geographical region and who, I feel, have produced the greatest impact on the female-bodied sector of the queer community.

I’ve selected two titles, although the influence assigned them both are more representative of their respective authors’ complete oeuvre than possibly that of the titles as independent works. The two also stand in distinct contrast to one another on a variety of spectrums, specifically those of genre, style, and audience; ultimately though, they achieve an incredibly similar goal.

The first is Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. This text was ground-breaking for queer theorists, cracking open a centuries-old yet under-developed gender consciousness and endowing it with academic relevance. At the level of the academic blueprint, the female body was offered, with this text, passport from the oppression of its patriarchal residence; and individual gender identity was infused with vibrant creativity and endless possibilities for diversification. Butler’s work marked the mitotic division of the individual’s gender axis of identity from that of the sexuality axis articulated by Foucault years earlier. Human conceptualization of self thus grew exponentially.

Across the tracks from Butler’s academia, in San Francisco’s queer punk underground, Michelle Tea’s Rent Girl offered stores of alternatives for subverting capitalism, complete with honest and sometimes painful consequences. In doing so, the graphic memoir has acted as a repossession of the female body as commodity, from as far back as its original co-opting in literature by male Realists of the 18th Century. History might look to bury Michelle Tea with the rest of the underground; the works are unlikely to feel the tug of the canon, but from them, an entire sub-genre gestates. Additionally, it would be hard to number the throngs of young, queer self-described “non-readers,” who’ve stumbled into Michelle Tea’s work, had their various personal existences justified and become, as a result, “readers.” And that’s remarkable.

Is there a queer book you heart? Please leave a comment showing your love.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Review: As You Step Outside by VG Lee

As You Step Outside
VG Lee

Published by Tollington Press

Reviewed by John Dixon

Does VG Lee use a spin-drier? She prefers pegs. She hooks her stories round titles of films (Love me or leave me) and popular songs (Holding out for a Hero). Her last novel was Diary of a Provincial Lesbian, a variant on E M Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady. She highlights characters by odd names – a dog called Him. She foists names onto peripheral characters The Blazer, Mister Bullet Head, Mister In-your-face Intrusive. In Putty, set in a funeral parlour, only when the aunt refers to her deceased sister by her first name, Dot, does the narrator, the deceased’s daughter, show emotion. In A Slice of Melon a key phrase is tagged in the opening paragraph.

When Kelly said, “Fancy a shag?” Laura replied, “Don’t mind if I do,” which seemed to satisfy Kelly, although Laura wasn’t too happy with her own choice of words. Don’t mind if I do was what Norma Next Door said to offers of tea, cake, Pringles, and Bacardi and Coke. Fortunately Kelly didn’t know Norma Next Door.

In three sentences we have situation, two characters, an alliterative name for the neighbour, brand names to give an everyday setting, and a nagging at a key phrase. And despite the ‘chatty’ tone the story is in the third person!

The non-heroic tone reads well, more so aloud, and Lee is an accomplished performer. Take this paragraph; read it out deadpan and dry.

The previous week when I’d been at a celebration for the Chinese New Year, a reliable source told me that, as an Ox, I was a possible leader of men – or in my case women. I’d asked after Joan and she was a Rabbit, pleasant but not a leader of anybody. Pat was a snake. No surprises there.

There are twenty stories in this collection, maximum sixteen pages, the earliest story dating from1992. They fall into two not-mutually-exclusive groups – amusing and observant – and dark, descriptive and bordering on the unhinged. The title of the collection is a quote from one of the stories. Recently I read an article about gardens needing to be places of excitement where your heart rate speeds up a beat or two as you step outside.

Gardens feature a lot. The lighter stories repeat items such as mirrors ( Forever Argos; Unknown Woman) pimples (Fit; Life on the Slow Train) and girls’ nights out (Fit; Holding out for a Hero). The sinister stories feature graveyards, old churches and lawn maintenance. They are in the first person, confessional, often acknowledging heartlessness. You always were a cold fish (Love me or Leave me). I am a hard unsentimental woman (Behind Glass). I’m a coward . . . Push a coward even an inch farther than their fears will sustain them, and be careful (Passing Guest).

Love is repeatedly denied. In Behind Glass, the mother confesses she sees her daughter in the cruellest way with all the closeness of motherhood without the bias of love. In Maria’s Mother - This is mine and Maria’s story. Unfortunately not a romance. In Passing Guest - This is no love story. In Love me or Leave me - I’m concerned that my story is setting up the expectation of a love affair.

These darker disturbing stories are a new side of Lee’s writing. They can only enhance her reputation. They are not perhaps – in the way the amusing stories decidedly are - material for public performance. We should be therefore grateful they are now available in one volume.

The publisher is the recently-established Tollington Press. It’s the first item on their list. Not a bad debut!

John Dixon has had several poems and short stories published, including in Chroma. He has won a prize in the Bridport Short Story competition, and was editor/contributor to Fiction in Libraries. He is a member of the Gay Author’s Workshop and is on the editorial board of and contributor to the forthcoming GAW short story anthology ‘People my mother warned you about.’ He hopes shortly to have his novel ‘Push harder Mummy, I want to come out’ published by Paradise Press. He has read his work at launches and several local LGTB events.


Friday, February 06, 2009

Review: The Room of Lost Things by Stella Duffy

The Room of Lost Things
Stella Duffy

Published by Virago

Reviewed by Eric Karl Anderson

Robert Sutton is sliding towards old age and is ready to sell the dry-cleaning business which has long been his livelihood. He teaches an eager young family man named Akeel how to manage the shop. More important than the cleaning, Akeel must learn how to deal with the colourful characters who come into the establishment. Alongside this narrative are the stories of several other characters: Dean, a drug-dealer with a strong sense of family; Stefan, a gay and attractive personal trainer who has a problem with commitment; Marylin, a kind-hearted health worker; Helen, a nanny having an affair; and a gregarious poet/seer who rides the local buses. Although The Room of Lost Things is filled with a number of fascinating characters, no character is quite as intriguing or vividly described as the city of London itself. In particular, Duffy focuses on the slightly dilapidated area of Loughborough Junction which often has a bad reputation as a rough area. But, as the author describes, there are pockets of a strong community to be found here and an interesting mixture of cultures from all over the world.

Stored in a room above the dry-cleaning shop are a multitude of carefully labelled boxes containing unclaimed personal items that were left in the clothes customers brought in. These items hint at mysteries and personal stories that number in the hundreds, but also include clues about the past of Robert himself and the reasons why he is alienated from his family. Duffy’s musing on these bits of collected belongings speak powerfully about the importance of objects in our lives and how items which were once meaningful can gradually be forgotten – just as our relationships with loved ones who are physically lost to us fade. The descriptions of Robert’s humble, solitary existence make a particularly powerful portrait of male solitude. Robert embodies a rather old-fashioned view that men must do what needs to be done while keeping their emotions carefully guarded. Duffy manages to skilfully convey this with descriptions of the character’s actions and when he does finally allow himself to open up about his feelings it is utterly heartbreaking.

Equally moving is the story of a homophobic attack made on Stefan. The incident prompts this independent character to gradually allow a greater degree of intimacy with a man he had carefully bracketed as a casual sexual partner up until this point. The assault brings up other issues such as problematic racial and religious divisions which are threaded throughout the other tales in this novel. For such a varied group of people to live in such a small area, there are often clashes, disagreements, miscommunications and occasional revelatory glimpses of understanding. Duffy conveys a strong sense of spiritual richness in a community that simmers with diverse individuals.

The Room of Lost Things is now out in paperback.

Eric Karl Anderson is author of the novel Enough and has published work in various publications such as The Ontario Review, Harrington Gay Men’s Fiction Quarterly, Blithe House Quarterly and the anthology From Boys to Men.


Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Review: Out at the Movies: a history of gay cinema

Out at the Movies
Steven Paul Davies with a foreword by Simon Callow

Published by Kamera Books

Reviewed by Max Fincher

Out at the Movies is an accessible, decade-by-decade overview of important gay and queer films that have pushed political buttons and touched audiences worldwide.

The opening chapter considers the stereotypical representations of gay men and lesbians in classic Hollywood cinema. Davies illustrates several examples of classic films that encode queerness through characterisation, reflect a gay sensibility or portray queer fear. Davies also weaves into his narrative biographical snippets of information. Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson, Marlon Brando and James Dean, all idols and ideals of masculinity in the 1950s, were all gay, bisexual or just curious. Each chapter closes with critical snapshots of the major films, and/or biographies of key actors and directors.

Along with Victim (1961), the social realist films of the early 1960s such as A Taste of Honey (1961) The L-Shaped Room, and The Leather Boys (1963) depicted queerness on screen in more honest ways. Concurrently, this was also the period that saw Andy Warhol’s films which did not shy away from showing sex on screen, with shorts like Blow Job (1963) and Lonesome Cowboys (1968). Lesbianism received frank, if rather tragic representations in The Killing of Sister George (1968) and The Children’s Hour (1963) Refreshingly, this study gives equal weight to gay men and lesbians on screen.
The Stonewall riots of 1969 prompted further positive representations, beginning with Midnight Cowboy (1969). Cabaret (1972), Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) and A Dog Day Afternoon (1975) mark an improvement in how gay life was shown on screen. The avant-garde work of John Waters and Derek Jarman explored camp in more intelligent ways, while the cult of Rocky Horror allowed straight audiences to flirt safely with queer culture, while they could laugh at camp drag antics in the international French hit, La Cage Aux Folles (1979).

William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980), a film set in the gay S&M subculture, ignited a debate about ‘positive’ representations on screen that continued in the reception of many films that dealt with the impact of AIDS in the mid-to late 1980s. While mainstream Hollywood ignored the issue, the films of Gus Van Sant, Stephen Frears and Pedro Almodovar championed realistic representations of sexually active gay men on screen in stylish, smart ways that broke away from stereotyping.

AIDS continued to be a theme in the early 1990s with films like Longtime Companion (1990) and And the Band Played On (1993). Throughout the 1990s, and the noughties, new avenues were explored in genre, especially documentaries, and subjects like drag, transexualism, hustlers and cross-generational/racial relationships treated with sensitivity. Davies exposes the crass homophobic currents in situation comedy from mainstream Hollywood, contrasted against the progressive representation in independent films. An impressive array of international examples is covered and reveals the variety of contemporary films on offer. Although Hollywood productions are still stifled by homophobia from within the industry, successes such as Brokeback Mountain (2005), TransAmerica (2005), Milk (2009), and the forthcoming, I Love You Philip Morris (2009) seem to proclaim a sea change in audiences.

Simon Callow’s reflective foreword argues how film can subtly achieve social and political changes. This entertaining study describes all those examples that have moved with the times, and documented the diversity of queer life in the last 50 years.

Max Fincher wrote his PhD at King’s College London, a queer reading of late eighteenth-century Gothic fiction that was published as Queering Gothic Writing in the Romantic Age by Palgrave Macmillan (2007). He has taught part-time on eighteenth-century fiction and women’s writing, at both King’s College London and Royal Holloway, and is an occasional book reviewer for the TLS. He is currently writing his first novel, tentatively titled The Pretty Gentleman, a queer historical thriller set in the Regency art world.