The Return of Quentin Crisp, ‘Stately Homo of England’

It’s nice to have Quentin Crisp, the self-proclaimed

“stately homo of England,” who died in 1999 at the age of 90, back with us

again.

“I’m ready for death,” he liked to say, “but I just won’t

die.” And that’s certainly turned out to be true. His reincarnation in Resident Alien at the New York Theater

Workshop happily continues what he drolly described as “the bad luck” of his

longevity. Brought back to miraculous, uncanny life by the British actor Bette

Bourne-who perhaps I ought to mention is a man, what with the Bette and all-the

show was conceived for the Bush Theatre in London with Crisp’s full

cooperation. But, alas, he didn’t live to see it.

Having vowed never to return to England after emigrating to

New York in 1981, he went back to his homeland at the end of his life to see

the brilliant Mr. Bourne impersonating him in London (while he impersonated

himself on tour in his own renowned one-man show, An Evening with Quentin Crisp ). But he died in Manchester. I know

the feeling. For I was born there. What a fate! To be Quentin Crisp and breathe

one’s last in Manchester!

He loved the freedom and glamour of New York, though he

lived in extravagantly dusty squalor in a cluttered boarding-house room on East

Third Street. He treated the dump as his dressing room, the outside world as a

stage. You could see him from time to time strolling along the East Village

mean streets in full makeup, his hair bluish lavender, perhaps wearing an

elegant theatrical cloak with a rakish fedora, his flamboyant silk scarf

knotted in a Stars-and-Stripes diamante brooch. He didn’t give a damn, except

about appearances. He was his own invention, and he was that near-forgotten

thing or being -a bohemian, a relic

from another age, an alien noncomformist.

The one time I met him was at a buffet table after the

première of a forgettable film that he was seeing “in order to eat.” He was

unapologetically effeminate rather than fossilized campy. He possessed the

stylishness of a gentleman. He was charmingly, sweetly civil . (The memoir that made him famous was entitled The Naked Civil Servant .) He was

eccentric, good company, then and now.

Resident Alien is

directed by Mike Bradwell and written by the British dramatist Tim Fountain,

based on the life, writings and “musings” of Crisp. He had a talent to muse.

When we first meet Bette Bourne’s reincarnation of him, he’s watching a small

portable television between his legs in bed. “I must wean myself off Miss

Winfrey,” he tells us, adding in a sly aside: “It used to be thought that you

had to have talent to achieve fame, but television has changed all that ….”

The piece is set in Quentin Crisp’s East Village hovel, a

memorable re-creation by designer Neil Patel, and we’re unprepared for this

glimpse into decrepit domesticity. Crisp appears to exist in a slummy,

Beckettian half-life, where he endures at 90 under “mouse arrest.” (A surly

neighbor drops dead mice through his letter box like greeting cards.) He’s

awaiting the arrival of a couple from London, a Mr. Brown and a Mr. Black-”a

most unfortunate conjunction of names”-who will record his thoughts on “how to

be happy” in exchange for lunch. He is a man denying his own solitude, who

checks to see if the phone is on the hook as if testing his own pulse. The

phone is his lifeline. Yet he answers it guardedly. “Oh yeees ?” he says, apparently fearing the worst.

In Mr. Bourne’s talented

hands, the man he surely knew could easily become a tragic figure clinging onto

the fame game. He reveals that Crisp’s left hand is now paralyzed and that his

frail body suffered from eczema-”swathed,” Crisp tells us typically, “in these

wretched bandages to prevent me from clawing myself until the blood gushes out

of my wounds and down the stairs with a gurgling sound.” But Mr. Bourne, who

has played Lady Bracknell in The Importance

of Being Earnest (so did Quentin Crisp), is a wonderfully understated

comedy performer best known here as the creator of the queer music-hall drag

troupe, Bluelips. He’s a perfect foil for Crisp’s dry scattershot epigrams:

“Politics are not for people, they are for politicians.”

“Never get into a narrow double bed with a wide single man.”

“Never desire to be anyone’s equal.”

“My appearance is simply a leaflet thrust into the hands of

astonished bystanders ….”

On Joan Crawford: “She was radioactive with belief in

herself.”

On the proposed sainthood of Eva Peron: “A double fox stole,

ankle strap shoes and eternal life, nobody’s had that before.”

On fellatio: “Does anyone

want to take someone’s penis into their mouth? It’s so disgusting I couldn’t

bear it. Ohhh! Marlene Dietrich said that you have to let them put it in,

otherwise they won’t come back. Isn’t that wonderful? She wanted praise, not

sex. Sex smudges your makeup.”

He deflected criticism

deftly: “Someone wrote to me recently and said, ‘You are a sad, lonely,

embittered old queen who isn’t interested in anything that interests anyone

else,’ and I thought that’s right.” He was a likable, lightweight sage who

offended humorless people, including gay activists. He opposed separatism: “The

trouble with gay reservations is that they breed a terrible uniformity.” He was

challenging about the romantic canonization of “sordid” Oscar Wilde and his

“bad poetry” of Reading Gaol: “How can love be used in a case where the names

of dozens of young men had been read out that Mr. Wilde only met in Braille?”

He was a patriot for

himself-for the individual against the party line, for the Self against the

wind, on the long and unsafe road. In his youth-we forget now-he was a

revolutionary in his gentle fashion. When homosexuality was at last made legal

in England in the 1960′s, people said it would make a great difference to him.

“I said it would make no difference to me,” he responded. “No one pointed at me

and said, ‘Look at him, he’s illegal.’ They said, ‘He’s effeminate.’ That was

my sin.”

The English, he added, don’t even like effeminate women .

Resident Alien and

Bette Bourne are giving a lovely, affectionate tribute to Quentin Crisp, one of

the last individuals on earth and, we assume, in heaven.