Quentin Crisp pioneer of the gay movement
Paul Capsis’ latest show Resident Alien brings to life one of the pioneers of the gay movement, the late Quentin Crisp.
After sell-out performances in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney, in this exclusive interview, multi award winner Mr Capsis talks to Robert Henderson about why Quintin Crisp inspired him and how he is even more relevant today.
A notoriously, obviously effeminate homosexual, Quentin Crisp saw his mission in life to make the invisible and hidden visible, to make people realise that homosexuals existed. This may not seem all that remarkable, except he began doing this on the streets of London in the 1930s wearing henna dyed hair, makeup and nail polish. “He was such a remarkable man” said Paul. “The way he presented himself to the world, he never hid from the fact that he was born an effeminate homosexual.”
Quentin shot to fame with the TV movie made of his autobiography The Naked Civil Servant staring John Hurt. He was able to move to New York and found some level of happiness and content. As he said, “Ms Liberty says give me your huddled masses. Well if ever there was a huddle mass it was me.”
And this wit is a large part of Mr Crisp’s longevity. In his many books, such as How to Become a Virgin, and his numerous interviews, TV appearances and performances, he was incredibly funny but as sharp as a drawer full of knives. “Although always very polite and well spoken, he spoke his mind and he said what he thought, and he was true to what he really was, he never tried to fit in any groove” said Paul. In the play you’ll get to hear what he says about Margaret Thatcher, Lady Di, and gay liberation but not with views you’d expect.
“I think that humour is what kept him alive. I imagine that is what saved him. You can imagine someone like that being murdered in the 1930s and 40s because they would have said he was just a filthy fag anyway, who cares. He always said, ‘You never answer back, you never say anything. If I ever answered back I would have been killed.’ He developed such a system, completely for survival. Here is a lesson for all of us for survival. We need none of the things we are told we need. He’s remarkable, since studying him for this play I’ve discovered.”
“As he got older, he got tougher, he didn’t change. Even when he went to America, he was still that person who spoke his mind.”
“What he experienced from living in the London from the thirties onwards, it informed him and made him basically stronger and more determined to be who was, rather than go the opposite way. If you were a weak character you would give up and try and stop the level of violence and hostility towards you, and he was just adamant they were wrong. And for that I have great admiration and even love for him.”
The play was written and first performed shortly before his death in 1999 based on many hours of interviews with the author, Tim Fountain and his writings and appearances. “Penny Arcade who knew Quentin well, she’s the only person I know who knew Quentin Crisp, and the first thing she said was how unexcited he was about the play. He wasn’t really into the idea of someone else playing him, being him. But on stage, I’m the one and only, why should I have to suffer any other Quintin Crisp? According to Penny, they were concerned they were going to laugh at him.”
You will laugh, but with Quentin, not at him. You’ll gasp at his outrageous statements, but he continues nonetheless. No political correctness for him.
“When we were creating this version of Resident Alien because of when it was written there were lots of references that would make it difficult for 21st Century audiences. My director Garry Abraham wanted to run without an internal and for us to focus on a few different sides of Quentin. There is no evidence of an inner person in Quentin. But in one rare interview done in his last year of his life, there’s a slight anger in the voice I’d not heard before. When asked why repeatedly why choose to live alone and he says, ‘Because who could live with my horrible self. When I was a child I was a terror. I drove my family mad.’ He was a real trouble maker, he used to chuck terrible tantrums. His father didn’t like him, his mother was shocked by him. Just hearing that little bit of interview enabled me to agree with the director to show another side of Quentin at a certain point in the play. I was very protective of how I wanted to portray him. The more and more I read and researched the more adamant I was I didn’t want to try to create an ‘other’ Quentin. I’d be like ‘No, Quentin wouldn’t do that, this bit is was invented by Mr Fountain’, because there’s no evidence he would have said that.”
Although he may have been disinterested in the play, he loved movies and loved John Hurt playing him on TV. “He couldn’t believe they went to so much trouble to recreate him. But they were so keen to get it right, photographing him from every angle. He greatly admired Mr John Hurt’s brave attempts to become him, that he plucked his eyebrows. The fact that John Hurt is a heterosexual playing Quentin was a little bit of nice thing to him.” Quentin said, “Mr Hurt is my representative on earth.”
“Had The Naked Civil Servant been made into a film it would have only been seen by homosexuals on the festival circuit. The fact it was airing on Television meant that everyone saw it, there were only four channels, it even made the news. Because it was shown on television, it changed his life, he got to America.”
Paul’s play is not a staging of the John Hurt movie An Englishman in New York, although both it and Resident Alien are set in his NYC life.
Above: Paul Capsis’ 2016 show 'Resident Alien' brought to life one of the pioneers of the gay movement, the late Quentin Crisp.
“What I’ve really enjoyed about doing this play is hearing people say ‘Oh I want to know more about Mr Crisp now, I want to read all his books, see all his films, I want to investigate’, that’s what makes me happy. I think Quentin deserves to be remembered and never forgotten. I think that he is going to be one of these figures that as time goes on his genius will be more realised.”
“We’ve gone into this new place where we’ve gone backwards. We used to have a community as we were all fighting together. Now it seems these ‘perfect’ men online who really feel they have a right to vilify effeminate men. The thing they hate more than anything than age or fat, was effeminate men. ‘That was my sin,’ said Quentin, ‘that I was effeminate’. I was quite moved” said Paul, “when reading his autobiography when he said, ‘Can you imagine my great disappointment when I found, that even amongst my own, homosexual men, that because of my appearance, I was asked to leave those establishments.”
In the heterosexual world it’s all right to be queer, just don’t talk about it. “Quentin made people about think about you and imagine you in the act! And for that you’re vilified. They don’t want to think you exist. It’s like these fucking Christian’s who say ‘God made Adam and Eve’ and I say ‘Yes, and Adam and Steve and everything else.’ It’s as if we just woke up one morning and decide to be gay,” rather than an intrinsic nature of who we are.”
In these days when we’re told how to behave and think, Quentin reminds us we don’t need any of it and to stand up and be yourself.