It was 20 years ago when diminutive, flamboyant Quentin Crisp became the toast of New York with his confessional gay solo show, An Evening With Quentin Crisp. The solo built on the success of Crisp's landmark autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant, published in 1968 and later adapted into a film that made a star of John Hurt (who played Crisp).
This past summer, Crisp brought his solo back to New York for a couple of weeks, under the auspices of the Glines Theatre (which is dedicated to gay-themed works). Crisp's return was so popular, he came back again on his 90th birthday, which also happened to be Christmas Day, Dec. 25, for another six-week run. Now an An Evening With Quentin Crisp will play one night only at Philadelphia's Wilma Theatre, July 14.
As in Crisp's 1978 solo (which won a special Drama Desk Award), the Evening offers his tart observations and audience Q&A. An example of his philosophy: "Never keep up with the Joneses; drag them down to your level. It's cheaper."
Asked how his recent material compares with his previous solo, Crisp told Playbill On-Line (Apr. 29), "Well, I don't think it will be different. I talk first, for about three quarters of an hour. Then there's an interval, in which people can write down questions. The lights are put up in the second half, so they can also talk to me from where they sit."
And what is there to talk about? "I really only understand happiness," said Crisp. "So I can tell people how to be happy." Some pointers: "First of all, never work. I've lived here 18 years in New York and never worked. I rely on the kindness of strangers, like Blanche DuBois. Also, never do any housework. I'm sure I'm right about that. All the women in the world are in a blind rage by half past ten in the morning. They're worn out by all that sweeping and dusting. Lastly, you must never expect happiness to be `out there.' It's all in here." Asked how he got his theatrical start, Crisp replied, "I'm not an actor. I was forced on stage by my English agent. He was putting on a show directed by a woman in whom he was interested. He said to me, in a dreamy Hungarian voice, `We don't want to waste the lunchtime hours, so maybe you could go on and talk to be people. It doesn't matter about what.' It became a routine. No direction, no script, no rehearsals. I went straight onto the stage. We were frequently down to three people. And when we were, I got off the stage and sat and talked to them."
With the media's increasing acceptance and exploration of gay issues, the question arises as to whether it's become easier for Crisp to live and work in his unique idiom. "There's no difference to me. I'm the same forever. Only the way people see me has changed. And, well, back then I couldn't do other than I did. I looked so odd. I behaved so oddly. Even the boys who liked me at school would say, `Do you have to stand like that? Do you have to say things are "lovely"?' I tried to be a schoolboy and was a hopeless failure. I was a failure every time I pretended to be a real person. At the same time, I know people in England who liked the old days, liked the fact that their guilty secret was never known. They don't like that homosexuality is currently taken into account in any circumstances. If two men share an apartment today, people say `I wonder what's going on there.' In the old days, it was `I wonder how they split the rent.' The new way leaves people naked, and they don't really like it."
PBOL asked Crisp why America has gone on a passionate binge for all things Oscar Wilde, from Gross Indecency to The Judas Kiss to the recent Stephen Fry film. "Every few years Wilde wakes up and we all talk about him," said Crisp. "When I was young and swanning about the West End, we thought he was a nobleman who had thrown his life away on love. But really, his life was as sordid as anyone's could be. He consorted with boys Lord Alfred procured for him, and he met them in darkened rooms. I think he got what he deserved."
Continued Crisp, "I knew someone who went to prison twice as long and never wrote any of that terrible poetry. And he went on with his life -- shaken -- but he got on with it. Wilde was broken by it, which showed he knew just what he'd done."
An Evening With Quentin Crisp at the Wilma will be followed by a "Fundraising Super-Party" at the nearby 2.4 Club on James Street. Tickets for the show only are $25; for the party only, $20. For both: $40. Call (215) 546-STAGE for information, or check out Crisp's webpage, http://www.quentincrisp.com and/or the Wilma's page, http://www.wilmatheater.org.
-- By David Lefkowitz