April 1997


Spring comes when Spring comes never anymore
Over the barren plough land of my years
But I, who always feared the Spring before,
Have found at last an ending to all fears.
When God, when knotted-winds across the sky
Scourges the white or weeping clouds of rain,
Or, from the bed from which it loved to lie
Drags by its emerald hair the sleeping grain,
Convulses in an agony of birth
Trees that were old and only longed to die
Or with a rash of flowers infects the earth,
These things are like a rainbow in the sky.
If God ordained all this, he did ordain
That I who wanted love, should be alone.
I am some kindred miracle of pain.
I asked for bread. He gave me precious stone.

Mr. Purdy has been called "the outlaw of American literature." If he is, he is the most gentlemanly urbane outlaw I have ever met. He has sent me over the years a number of his novels, which I read and liked. Now he has written a play called Foment, possibly his first and only drama. I rushed to see it. It is about a cult religion and the disciples who vie with one another for the attention of their leader — at least I think that is what is about, because (even in the tiny Greenwich Street theatre) the actors could not be heard. This is because of the difference between American and English dramatic training.

When I was only English and lived in a rooming house in London, a girl stayed for a little while in our house. One day while sitting in my room, she confessed that she had been to a drama school in Miami. I pounced forward because I hold that you cannot teach anybody how to act. To my question she replied, "They taught me to be a burning candle in an empty room." I'm glad to say she was laughing when she said it but she meant it. In England you do not learn to be a candle in an empty room. Instead, you learn how to make a huge noise for a long time without becoming tired.

The day after I saw Foment, the television news was full of a story about a cult somewhere in America whose devotees all committed suicide. A journalist in England called to ask my opinion about this phenomenon. I seem to have become a latter-day Bernard Shaw — with all the loquacity but none of the wisdom. My opinion is sought about everything. I said that if one found one had great power over other people, it must be tempting to see how far one could go. Could one persuade them to part with all their money? To give up their lives? The journalist seemed to have accepted that, but it remains a mystery. The word "charisma" presumably has been hiding in the pages of the dictionary for ages, but has recently crept out into the open. I take it to mean the power to convince without the use of logic. Before there was this latest event there was a Mr. Jones who's followers were convinced to commit suicide, which they did. Then there was Waco.

After that disaster a televisonary interviewed two people who had tarried for some time in the compound in Texas. They looked just like ordinary people (they didn't even wear sandals). In reply to the interviewer's question they said, "Well everything seems so awful, and he seemed to have something." "What did you think he had," they were asked — not "what was so awful" which would seem to me to be the revealing question. This seems so strange a viewpoint, especially in America where everything is so wonderful, where happiness reigns down from the sky, and everybody is your friend — if you are white. I have lived in Manhattan for 16 years, I have never worked. I wonder about looking ridiculous, smiling fatuously at strangers. What more would anyone want? Why go into a sort of a cross between a prison and a convent and submit one's children to the unwelcome attentions of a prophet-shaman-high priest. I will never understand it. Recently, I went at the invitation of Ms. Arcade to the ruined school on First Avenue where she gave a performance which would have got her and her entire audience arrested, and then said that "Life in America was awful." I forbore to point out that she and I had both come there in our own street clothes, sat on chairs, said whatever came into our heads, and received loud applause. What did she want, for God's sake?

After all this, I went to see the Trials of Oscar Wilde. What a difference! Every word spoken with inescapable and grim clarity. I had forgotten there were three trials: first the one in which Wilde sued the Marquis of Queensbury for libel; the second where Mr. Wilde was sued by the Crown, which could not reach a verdict; and the third, where all of the weird little friends of Mr. Wilde were called as witnesses which condemned him to two years imprisonment. What a hypocrite he was! He even deceived his counsel pretending he was innocent making a long speech about the love that dare not speak its name. It was surely too late to speak of love.

When I was young (if I ever was) and was swanning about the West End of London, all of the boys "on the game" thought that Wilde was an English lord who had thrown the world away for the love of a beautiful boy called Alfred Douglas. Nothing could be further from the truth! Wilde was an upstart Irishman, getting to know a lot of East Enders in braille in darkened rooms in Oxford who had been procured for him by Lord Alfred, with whom he was involved in a murky squabble about money. In De Profundis, Wilde accuses Lord Alfred for causing his downfall.

Why they ever met again after the imprisonment, I cannot imagine. Lord Alfred's father promised his son financial support if he never saw Wilde again. Mrs. Wilde did the same for her husband if he never saw Lord Alfred again. Both lost a steady income certainly not for love.

With no scenery and precious few changes of costume, all this is made shockingly clear in this play. It is a masterpiece.

Copyright © 1999–2007 by Quentin Crisp and Phillip Ward,
from Dusty Answers (forthcoming), Mr. Crisp's final book.
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