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"I CAME in 1980," says Britisher Bette Bourne, confirming the year of his first stateside visit. "And I've been coming ever since. One day I might actually reach a climax."
Bourne's career has reached an orgasmic pitch, of sorts. The cult for Bloolips, the gonzo drag performance troupe he founded back in 1977, continues unabated, and now his illuminating solo turn as Quentin Crisp in Resident Alien has won him an Obie and surely will attract even more admirers when he hits Seattle this week. Tim Fountain's play, adapted from journals and other confessional sources, introduces us to Crisp when the notorious wit, writer (The Naked Civil Servant), and raconteur was spending the last two decades of his life (until 1999) treating New York to the flamboyantly androgynous gay persona he'd been bravely parading since the 1920s in England.
"I had eventually to concentrate on the matter rather than the manner and see what that did to me emotionally," Bourne says, acknowledging the need to avoid doing a simple impersonation of a man he knew for 20 years. Not unlike his friend's capacity for bite, most of his answers have mischievous rattles on their tails. "You see, I'm one of those actors that tend to drag the characters unwillingly toward me. And I devour them and spit them out and get Obie Awards!"
Crisp himself once maintained, "Style is being yourself on purpose," and it must involve a much more difficult sense of style to be yourself being someone else being himself on purpose. And is there even a chance to locate the man inside such extravagant self-invention anyway?
"He was always Quentin Crisp—he was very, very careful to preserve that," Bourne says. "I didn't feel he was hiding anything, and I always responded to who he was, his creation, you know. It's curious and pointless and silly and invasive to try to pick around what's behind it."
Picking around behind it, however, has long been a pastime for anyone who couldn't abide that deprecating creation, including gay men for whom Crisp, that product of a suffocated era, was a bit of a thorn.
"Quentin was the Fool to Gay Liberation, if you like, 'cause he always spoke the truth and he was roundly whipped for his trouble," Bourne posits. "He broke ranks from day one. He always said, 'As far as being out is concerned, I was never in.'"
WHEN CRISP was in Seattle himself for an appearance some years back, he addressed the martyrdom of that other great gay wit, Oscar Wilde. Several audience members, aghast at what they had expected to be a statement of kinship, booed him as he rebuked Wilde's prideful avowals of homosexual love in his disastrous trial against the Marquess of Queensbury. The decimation of Wilde is given its proper place in Resident Alien and quoted by Bourne with the same withering dismissiveness: "How can love be used in a case where the names of dozens of young men had been read out in court? Young men that Mr. Wilde had only met in braille— devoured behind closed curtains in a darkened room. He lived in a dream."
"The point about this, of course, is that Quentin himself was a prostitute—only 30 years after Oscar's downfall, you see," Bourne explains. "So the shadow of this was hanging over men in the 1920s, and it was very real for Quentin that some stupid Irish playwright had fucked up all these boys' lives by insisting on showing off and going to court."
The inner life that hid so much outer torment rarely surfaced publicly with Crisp, though hearing Bourne, both in and out of character, pay tribute to him makes clear how easy it should have been for anyone to see the agony without lifting the hard-won veil.
"He was furious at the end," he says. "He used to bang on the table and say, 'They don't know! They don't know!' And people didn't know what he'd been through. Someone once said to him in my presence—[about Quentin] going out and being spat on and pushed around and followed up the street by 50 people daily—this person said, 'Didn't it hurt?' And he colored up a bit and he said, 'Yes, it hurt.' What else is there to say? Stupid question."