Friday, November 03, 2006

Queer and Loathing in Belfast

Since it'’s festival time in Belfast, I took myself along to the newly refurbished Grand Opera House to see Alan Bennett'’s 'The History Boys'’. I'’d avoided all spoilers, including the recent film, so I had no idea what the play was about. It's certainly witty. Bennett'’s one-liners and parochial observations are reminiscent of Quentin Crisp at his most acidic or Victoria Wood at her most deadpan.

However, I was most struck by Bennett'’s rendering of the three gay characters - although I use the word '‘gay'’ somewhat loosely, as it isn'’t mentioned in the text. Instead, we have the camp pupil Posner using the more clinical 'homosexual' - a word Bennett would probably use to describe himself.

The other homosexuals include Hector, an aging and inspirational teacher and Irwin, a younger and somewhat uncertain rookie teacher.

Hector is forced into early retirement due to his propensity for fondling the genitals of his unfazed male pupils, while transporting them on his motorbike. Irwin agrees to 'suck off' a pupil, before ending up in a wheelchair after a motorcycle ride with Hector. We'’re left to speculate whether or not Hector's hand wandered in the direction of Irwin's crotch during the motorcycle ride, which left Hector dead and Irwin paralysed, although the suggestion that improper queer fondlings lead to death and disability was clear.

The play ends with a rollcall, which details the future prospects of the pupils. They all go on to great wealth and success, except (you guessed it) Prosser, who ends up alone, his only friends being those of unspecified identity on the Internet. Oh well, at least he remembered his beloved Hector.

Recently, I saw Alan Bennett appear on TV to talk about '‘The History Boys'’. He mentioned his male partner, which surprised me, as I'’d taken Bennett to be one of those characters who skirted around the issue of his sexual identity. Perhaps the autobiographical content and success of 'The History Boys' has encouraged him to be more honest.

What worries me is that Bennett'’s own self-loathing has produced a play in which heterosexual characters flourish while gays are doomed to lives as either pederasts or lonely outsiders. More worrying is that such lazy and old-fashioned cyphers are delivered to a public who hoot with laughter and rain awards on the play.

As an aside, the public image of the gay male was further reinforced by Marie Jones and Maurice Bessman in their underwhelming play 'The Liverpool Boat' which is running at The Docker’s Club in Belfast. Thankfully, the most offending scene, in which a grotesque stereotype of a gay man was wheeled out for laughs (and they laughed uproarously) has been removed following complaints. Although painful to watch this ill-judged caricature, its setting in a working-mens club added insult to injury. One hopes, like another famous Belfast ship, 'The Liverpool Boat'’ sinks without trace.

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