New Notes on Camp
Drag Queens in Romancing the Throne
Let us now praise gay men. Armed with tierce wigs, dangerous pumps, elegant gowns, and daggered puns (sounds a bit like Stonewall, n'est-ce Pas?), the Hasty Pudding's Romancing the Throne has achieved a monument to camp, a piercingly funny edifice to the fine art of bombastic play. I do not mean to imply that gay is camp is gay (or even, God forbid, that the Hasty Pudding is gay). But gay men have always had a particular propensity for camp, and if this year's show is any indication, gay men still contribute a great deal to the preservation and perpetuation of one of culture's most vital and vibrant expressions. Oscar Wilde would be proud. From his grave, I can hear him call, "You better work, girlfriends."
Like most Harvard undergraduates, I am (regrettably in some ways) a child of the eighties. I bought my first Village People album just last year and have had subsequently to search through numerous vintage music stores to feed my addiction to disco (If anyone know where I can find a copy of the original 8 minute remix of Donna Summer's " Last Dance"...). I have read about Studio 54 and heard many delicious stories of its wonders, but I have only the experience of contemporary nightclubs pumping with house music as a faint allusion to the campy Disco Decade.
My experience of the raw play of unmitigated camp has always been tainted with a somber awareness of the seriousness of the eighties, specifically the epidemic which began in 1981. As it silently and invisibly roared through the discos, the cabarets, the bars, and the community at large, the unsuspecting party continued, but when people began to get sick, the campy seventies faded into a short lived dream of the past.
Romancing the Throne is a fine tribute to the spirit of the seventies, as well as the spirit of camp. In true (and false) for.n, its characters parade the carnival of artifice and wit. But the eighties are still with us. Toward the end of the first act, with delicious poise and speckled by light bouncing off a disco ball, Princess Diana Loneliness, played by Bart St. St. Clair, quips a triumphant line from Gloria Gaynor's classic " I Will Survive," which has taken on new and unforseen meanings in the era of AIDS.
The musical is a delightfully aware a journey into the wonders of artifice, decadence, play, wit, theatricality, self-parody and stylization. It references such eclectic sources as the environment, gay culture and feminism but treats them lightheartedly matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential. In all important matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential."
Adam Feldman's Morgana Prettiface, a flaming cornerstone of the production, rivals Joan Collins seductively bitchy Alex is (the Dynasty gay icon of the 1980's)--she's wonderfully charming because she's so delightfully evil. Bart St. Clair delivers his performance with great finesse, versatility, and fun. And Brian Martin's Tess provides a colorful parody of New Jersey chic, which leaves an indelible (indewibo) impression (impweson) upon the unsuspecting critic (cwidduck). In fact, most of the female leads display a refinement of drag seldom witnessed beyond the confines of Manhattan and San Francisco. They work it and they work it good. At times its just good, but usually it's so completely awful it's great Seldom has kitsch been given such lively treatment.
With the exception of the sardonic jester (John Berman), who embodies jaded urban humor at its best, the male characters are generally insipid. Thankfully, their female counterparts easily cover for this lack,... so to speak.
However, Skip Sneeringer's Galahad Lasnight personifies the stereotype of foppish, self-inflated Harvard straight male. Intoxicated by himself and with his chinhigh in the air, Mr. Sneeringer achieves a remarkable jibe at the Old Boy Network His coxcombic and self invested flatness provide a nice backdrop for the men in heels to strut their stuff. It just goes to support some things I've always suspected: that men in heels tend to be far more interesting than men in boots, and that men in boots can be as plastic as men in heels. Frankly men in boots become quite dull after a while. Day in, day out, men in boots, men in boots.
Not coincidentally, the Pudding's audience in New York is largely comprised of gay men, who, to be sure, are connoisseurs of camp. In recent years, gay friends in New York have reported that the Hasty Pudding has been less entertaining than in years prior. I suspect the reports will be quite different this year. In fine form and playful wickedness, camp is back. Move over Madonna, Rupaul's here, and she's more fierce than thou. A-men.
From the paneled offices of the members and trustees of the Pudding's Graduate Board to the more conservative sectors of campus, I can here the distant mutterings. "But the Pudding's not gay. It's all just good ol' fun. It's certainly not gay. It has nothing to do with sexual orientation." But it is, and it does.
Whenever and wherever men cross dress--whatever their persuasion--it is gay and it's not gay because of some "natural" propensity gay men have for cross dressing. It's gay simply because gay men and drag queens are repeatedly confused and conflated. The art of cross dressing has developed with a concomitant development of gay culture. Oscar Wilde's legacy embodies the meeting of these two identities. As a brilliant writer, he exalted the camp aesthetic for art, and as a gay man, he modelled himself into a living monument to camp. To Wilde's credit, he never allowed the harsh conditions of his life to penetrate his undying belief in the campy aesthetics of dandyism.
It is no small coincidence that he shining scene stealers (with a only a few notable exceptions: Mr. Geyer and Mr. Berman) are out gay men. Adam Feldman's smile brightens the entire stage while his intriguing wickedness provides the dramatic tension (Wilde: "wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others.") Bart St. Clair easily wins the heart and earns the laughter and admiration of the audience. And Brian Martin's nosy, gleaming, gum smacking support buttresses the entire plot. I offer three snaps, air kisses, and a curtsy to these fine actors. To the rest of the cast and everyone else, gay or non gay, who worked on the production, I offer thanks for bearing the torch Oscar Wilde carved into a work of art.
Camp and cross dressings are only two aspects of "gay sensibility," but like Morgana Prettiface's smile and Princess Diana Loneliness's dancing, they illuminate the pantheon of gay culture with undaunted charisma. Gay men and drag queens have a symbiotic relationship, as do gay men and camp. Despite conservative rhetoric about boys-will-be-boys-by-being-girls, camp and homosexuality cannot be served from open another, simply because they've been blurred too often. In the name of propriety, we cannot simply refocus our gaze and separate the two into distinctly autonomous categories.
Despite the careful rituals of closing the plot with exclusively male-female pairings and of never allowing two men actually to kiss on stage, Romancing the Throne can-kiss on stage, Romancing the Throne cannot conceal its gay reference: characters snap with the greatest of ease; dragons" lithsp; queens tirade about men and relationships; classic disco moments bellow from painted lips; and many other gay (in both sense of the world) moments percolate through the show. It's refreshing to know that--despite all the recent tensions around gay issues and despite the prevalence of AIDS--a vibrant torch can still light up the stage. We will survive.