Actor Bette Bourne concedes it's hard not to see the late writer-performer Quentin Crisp—whose presentation of self was his art—as a fictional character.
After all, Crisp specialized in playing, well, Crisp: wry, polished, and always vivid in his signature fedora hat, flowing ascot, and deftly made-up face; no excess there. Indeed, he resembled an elegant dowager.
Crisp's best-known book was his autobiographical literary classic, "The Naked Civil Servant"; and his one-man shows, most notably "An Evening With Quentin Crisp," were a staple on the theatre scene. He was a true original, iconoclastic and witty.
But Bourne (a man who calls himself "Bette") knew another side of Crisp—the man beneath the performance. During the course of a 20-year friendship, Bourne came to appreciate the nuances, subtleties, and complexities that defined Crisp, a British expatriate who lived in the East Village and died last year at the age of 91.
It is precisely those contradictory—perhaps unexpected—elements that Bourne brings to life in his one-man show, "Resident Alien," which opened Off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop on Jan. 18. Written by Tim Fountain, "Resident Alien" is based on the memoirs and essays of Quentin Crisp.
Shuffling about the set—it's Crisp's filthy and cluttered one-room slum apartment—Bourne evokes a frail, yet delightful, idiosyncratic figure whose fey drollery belies a profound sense of aloneness. Throughout the piece, he offers a running commentary on a range of topics as he watches television, dresses, eats, and waits—mostly for company that doesn't show up. He is also keenly aware that his days are numbered. "I'm not renewable," he chuckles softly.
"I spent many happy drunken hours with him, so it's hard for me not to see Quentin Crisp as real, although he certainly invented himself," recalls Bourne, a 60-ish London native, who meets with us in his dressing room before a performance. He speaks with a marked British accent. "I wanted to create the Quentin that I knew and that was very different from the public Quentin. He never showed, for example, his pain [emotional or physical] or even talked about it. Crisp suffered from excruciating eczema. Towards the end of his life, he'd frequently say, 'I'm ready for death, but I won't die.' Yet, there was never any self-pity.
"To the gay community—whatever that means—he was like a Shakespearean clown, the jester who speaks the truth but is duly whipped for his pains. He didn't mind. He never said things to be liked."
Crisp was, in fact, a controversial figure among homosexuals. He was not big on "gay pride"; indeed, he didn't fathom it. Some might suggest he suffered from self-hate—he referred to his genitals as "that nastiness"—and had little truck with either gay marriage or gay theatre.
Still, Crisp was frequently misinterpreted, Bourne emphasizes. "No one was entirely sure to what extent he meant what he said, or was just being provocative, or perhaps a little of both. A lot of people missed his veneer of irony. He took things to their extreme," notes Bourne. "He wanted to be remembered. He wanted a significant death. He was in the fame business."
Interestingly, Crisp knew of Bourne's show—it was on the drawing board before his death—and allowed himself to be interviewed for the piece on videotape. His response to the project, Bourne recollects, was, " 'what fun!' "
Yet, Bourne refuses to address what an audience may glean from the play, short of saying, "What fun!" He feels such discussions are "not the actor's job, and would only make me self-conscious."
A Veteran Actor
Donning bejeweled rings (the kind Crisp wore) and busy outlining in blue paint the veins on his hands to suggest old age, Bourne is transforming himself into Crisp—his body language, vocal cadences and rhythms shifting slightly. His voice is higher and now there's a lilt. He describes the process as "a fusion of personalities [Bourne's and Crisp's]."
Like Crisp, Bourne sees himself as an outsider because he is gay. "Little has changed. If I go down Second Avenue as an obvious queer, I will get reactions of disgust."
Still, on some level, he celebrates his gayness. As noted, he calls himself "Bette," (pronounced "Betty") and, like Crisp, he dresses with flamboyance. He arrives at the theatre sporting a bold black and white coat and a large pink beret. In his dressing room, he is clad in a floral-patterned red dressing gown.
Nevertheless, he is profoundly different from Crisp. For starters, he does not share many of Crisp's viewpoints. "Quentin hated sex and I love it, maybe too much. I love music—all kinds. Quentin had little use for it, thought it was meaningless noise that offers no information."
And Bourne's interpersonal tone is not Crisp's. He is a reserved man—perhaps even guarded—who doesn't smile and sports a mask of studied blankness, or so it seems to this viewer. Crisp, on the other hand, was almost flirtatious when we interviewed him two years ago.
But then, Bourne doesn't claim to be a personality, but rather a veteran actor. In fact, he has been performing for close to four decades and his stage credits include roles in the leading theatres in Britain, alongside such luminaries as Ian McKellen, Dame Sybil Thorndike, and Simon Callow.
He is best known for his award-winning performance of Lady Bracknell in "The importance of Being Ernest" (a credit he shares with Crisp) and his 24-year-old drag comedy ensemble, Bloolips. He is its founder, star, and director.
Bloolips, which garnered two Obie awards, blends British music hall with American vaudeville, says Bourne, adding, its productions have "campy, over-the-top elements, but it's deep camp, meaning there is comedy, but something strong is going on at its core and the stories have lasting value. We perform plays that are about gay subjects and feature gay characters, without ever mentioning the word 'gay.' "
Bloolips has much in common with the late Charles Ludlam's now defunct Ridiculous Theatre Company, yet boasts its own aesthetic.
"Charles' group was very much about giant personalities—Lola Pashalinski, Ethyl Eichelberger—whereas we are more about ensemble acting. The Ridiculous," Bourne continues, "had a line on the comic grotesque. We've never gotten into that. We're satirical, but gentler."
An element that distinguishes Bloolips from other drag performers is the company's genial (maybe even humble) tone, Bourne comments. "Many drag performers—especially those who are straight, very angry, and put women down because they want to be women and aren't—come on as superior to the audience, snappy, with all the answers. We, however, always appear somewhat childlike in reference to our audience."
The Matter and the Manner
Whatever role Bourne plays, he approaches it seriously, he says, and is interested in neither "turns" (read shtick) nor impersonations, even if he's playing a renowned real-life character like Crisp.
"The goal is to get the matter, then the manner [voice, movement]. And as an actor feels the character, identifies with him, and lives his life on stage, the manner should disappear altogether."
One of the more daunting tasks for Bourne was getting inside the psyche of a man (Crisp) who "was always creating himself and could be in a rage when someone intruded before he was fully ready [dressed, made up]. He never wanted his image besmirched."
Bourne also hopes he's in tune with "Quentin's warmth, generosity, and humanity. Most people never knew what a wonderful pixie he was when he was in a room chatting with his friends, happy and relaxed. He was completely in this world.
"Yet, there was an element of regret at the end of his life. There was that moment when he realized he has separated himself from life," Bourne observes, citing the pertinent section in "Resident Alien."
"It's when Quentin talks about his desire to have had a sex change. He says, 'I would have opened a knitting factory. I would have been happy. I would have been a part of life. The trouble with most homosexuals is that they pretend to live. They don't actually live.' "
Bourne insists that Crisp was not guilty of self-hate. On the contrary, he says that Crisp was true to himself—"out there" to use current parlance—and paid dearly for it.
"Quentin had horrific experiences throughout his life, especially when he was a young man in London," Bourne asserts. "In the '20s and '30s, he'd walk down the streets of London followed by a mob of 50 or 60 people who would push him, spit at him, and shout, 'You filthy dirty queer.' He had seven or eight different routes home in order to avoid the crowd of men who were waiting to catch him and beat him up."
While there is no reference to his appalling personal history in the play, the man's sadness is clearly present. Bourne's Crisp is haunted, nowhere more poignantly than in his most contented moments. Indeed, Crisp's pleasure resonates with pathos.
Consider this: Crisp preparing his lunch, frying one egg—that's literally all there is in the refrigerator—and eating it with relish. "Who says life is devoid of possibility?" he quips impishly.
PQ—"I wanted to create the Quentin I knew and it was very different from the public Quentin."