Escape Artists: Queer Theatre in London

A LOVELY SUNDAY FOR CREVE COEUR by Tennessee Williams Print Room @ The Coronet 19 September, 2016 THE PRIME OF MS. DAVID HOYLE by David Hoyle The Chelsea Theatre 17 September, 2016 LONGING LASTS LONGER by Penny Arcade Soho Theatre 22 September, 2016

Escape and escapism have long been central themes in theatre, and even moreso in Queer theatre: escaping conformity, loneliness, and death, queer artists have found themselves the voices of those longing for escape, and indulging in escapism. By exploring the transgressive acts of drag and performance art, queer artists even expose and explore the means of escape themselves, making them truly Escape Artists. While it may be unfair to lump these three theatre going experiences here together, they nonetheless made up one week of theatre going in London, and left me thinking about the nature of LGBTQ theatre and Queer art.

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur’ is a very late (and seldom revived) piece by Tennessee Williams, one of his last Broadway efforts, first presented in 1977. Although the piece is written in the 1970’s, it returns Williams to the St. Louis of his youth, in the 1930’s, and to four unmarried women making up four faces of spinsterhood, each trying to battle not just loneliness, but being alone itself. There is Dorothea, a young school teacher anxiously waiting for a phone call from a beau; Bodey, her landlady and flatmate, a hefty matron who is hoping to engage Dorothea to her twin brother; the prim Helena, who wants to steal Dorothea away to move in with her to a much chicer address; and Miss Gluck, an addled spinster, haunted by death and terrified of being alone in her own apartment. Together in Bodey’s garishly over decorated apartment, they make up a sort of sideways ‘Golden Girls,’ but with Benzedrine and bourbon instead of cheese cake.

The comedy centers on their interactions, and Williams bends the desperation of his characters towards farce. The women are vividly poetic, from the bull headed Bodey, whose hearing aid emits ear splitting feedback; to Miss Gluck whose blind panic about death gushes out of her in streams of unintelligible German (and in a more private way). The play is rich with incident, and the characters have fantastic turn of phrase (‘Sometimes depression is simply being realistic’). The piece becomes more of a chamber piece, however, as characters are allowed discursive speeches about their private lonelinesses, which impede the pace of the farce and muddle the tension of the play.

In ‘ A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur,’ Williams plaits together four of his recurring themes: escape, propriety, death, desire. Escaping death and loneliness is much on the minds of these women, and Tennessee Williams himself. Williams once described modern life this way: “We're all of us sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life.”

Trying to scratch messages to the other prisoners is a deeply human, and deeply transgressive, and even revolutionary act for Williams’ characters. It is the human spirit fighting against the crushing loneliness of our modern life. In the final moments of ‘A Lovely Afternoon for Creve Coeur,’ when Miss Gluck is left alone onstage, shuttered into the decrepit apartment, he have a glimpse of the horror all of the women are clawing to escape.

Transgression is very much on the mind of David Hoyle, whose performance piece, ‘The Prime of Ms. David Hoyle, takes the form of a class room. The walls of the theatre are chalked over with math equations and quotations, and a gallery of educational and instructive images for the minds of the young. In this transgressive classroom, Ms. Hoyle is aided by Perfect Ben (who, in calf socks, shorts, and a school blazer, is pretty perfect); and Simone Simone, a silent drag artist who lounges about, perfectly removed from the goings on about the room. She is a of the highlight of the performance, a perfect, studied clown in a dress, who allows us to see the humanity in her boredom. Whether passing out snack and juice to the ‘class,’ or adding equations to the backboard, she does so with the pained focus and pace of a snail on rough sidewalk, and to hilarious effect.

The piece may attempt to overturn conformity (the class is repeatedly addressed as “boys, girls, and those of your evolved enough to have transcended gender”), but the political bullets are sprayed recklessly and scattershot, and rarely hit their marks. Still, the shock of Hoyle’s direct address ‘lessons’ and his in your face manner is a direct descendent of the transgressions of earlier Queer theatre, and he works to create an atmosphere where upending conformity is the artist’s work. Mocking and overturning the idea of a class room, Ms. Hoyle does so to look the nature and practices of education. Acting the teacher while making aware and uncomfortable with the role of teacher is Hoyle’s transgression. After all, as Charles Ludlum, the great drag artist and founder of the Ridiculous Theatre said:

“You are a living mockery of your own ideals. If not, you have set your ideals too low.”

Penny Arcade began her career escaping as a teen from her suburban Connecticut home to end up a part of Andrew Warhol’s The Factory in the late 1960’s. Now 66, she is a sort of Escape Artist, breaking out of conformity and recounting a life of escape- while offering a cutting and brilliant indictment of escapist culture in ‘Longing Lasts Longer. A product of radical changes, her voice is loud, strong, confrontational (‘everybody says they love you- until you tell them the truth’), and brash. Her delivery is like a smack in the head by a tough loving aunt: ‘What's the matter?!?! You should know better.’

Her monologue is in part a love letter to the lost idea of cities, where conformity was escaped and individuals could lose themselves in the sanctuary and solitude of a crowd. The freedom to be an individual , to risk, lived in that paradox, providing a deep, nurturing sanctuary and anonymity amidst so much noise, movement, and other people. There was, to Penny Arcade, a courage and freedom to be a part of a crowd: noisy, boisterous, unruly – but one. The art of living life in a civil society.

Crowds are now abandoned for packs, where comfort is found in following a leader, and pushing out differences. Penny Arcade makes much of ‘The Cupcake Pack,’ rushing from trendy cupcake shop to cupcake shop, finding security in a conformity which is sold to them as individuality and creativity. In skewering this pack, Penny Arcade draws from the work of Edward Bernays, a Viennese social scientist whose work with manipulating crowd-think is regarded as the birth or modern marketing, and was embraced by Madison Avenue in the 1950’s. Bernays first iterated the idea of the “integrated spectacle”: creating a social experience so pervasive, so overwhelming that drowns out divergent thought or feelings. If a marketer can manage the “integrated spectacle,” He can then control whatever message he wishes to put forward, or, as Penny Arcade succinctly describes it: “They have hijacked our attention span to rent it back to us in little pieces” Afraid of the sanctuary of the crowd, we eschew it for a pack; terrified of being disconnected, we have sold our anonymity, abandoning the idea of identity and replacing it with target market.

Penny Arcade’s amazing encapsulation of this age of escapism is belied by her performance: she is damn funny, moving, and engaging. As an artist of escape, she admonishes against the idea of nostalgia. She is not nostalgic for an earlier time, she says: she is longing. Nostalgia is a vague wish to return to a hazy image of the past. Longing is a form of grieving, mourning what is lost and cannot be restored. And longing lasts longer. *Penny Arcade : Longing Lasts Longer will be coming to the La Peg Cabaret in Philadelphia December 16th @ 10:30. Information will be available through fringearts.com

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