Wry Crisp

The man who would be queen comes to the St. Marcus with whatever is on his mind

Mar 3, 1999 at 4:00 am
Had Quentin Crisp been born a polite, well-mannered, progressive Victorian lady in the 19th century, he would have disappeared into history. But in a true accident of birth, Crisp was born a polite, well-mannered, progressive Victorian lady in this century, and that has made all the difference.

Crisp has achieved notoriety for being himself, a man out of time but always in style. This has taken no small amount of courage. In 1931, with English society and English laws in violent opposition, Crisp "came out," to use current terminology -- or, in his own words from his autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant, "I became not merely a self-confessed homosexual but a self-evident one." This means something more than choosing the correct scarf.

And though Crisp is known for tossing off the perfect epigram, the breeziest witticism, for writing books with instructive titles such as How to Have a Life-Style and How to Go to the Movies, he is more than a colorful personality who stands out amid drab conformity. There is always a tinge of melancholy in his writing and in his persona, reflective of someone who knows what a struggle for individuality costs. He does not fit comfortably into the guise of homosexual icon, either. He's not fond of movements that would conform personal idiosyncracies for the sake of a group ideology. He has little use for terms such as "gay pride," arguing that you can't be proud of what you are, because you have no choice in the matter. You can be proud of what you do. If you're a natural redhead, so what? says Crisp. But if you dye your hair red, now you've done something of which you can be proud.

Crisp will be himself at the St. Marcus Theatre this weekend as he performs An Evening with Quentin Crisp, his off-Broadway hit that he has now revived at the age of 90. The first half of the show is Crisp saying what is on his mind; the second half is reserved for question-and-answer. The RFT had the opportunity to have its own Q&A with Crisp as he spoke from his home in Manhattan, where he has lived as a resident alien since the early '80s.

RFT: You enjoy recognition. Are you getting enough of it these days?
Crisp: Yes, but you see of course I'm only famous from 14th Street to Houston Street because I live here. But people smile at me and they say, "How are you?" and they say they've seen the show or they haven't seen the show. It's one long party, and I like it. You see, people are my only pastime. When I'm not thinking about something else, I'm waiting to be spoken to.

How do you put the show together? Is there a theme? Is it random, spontaneous?

It's not spontaneous now. It used to be spontaneous -- in fact, it was a show without a script, without direction and without rehearsal. But now I've done it so long that it has a script and each show is a rehearsal for the next show.

But really all I speak about is happiness because that's the only thing I understand. I maintain that whatever we say we're speaking about, whether it's religion or politics or anything else, we are really speaking about happiness.

That's interesting, because I've always thought that happiness was a word very important to the American way of life. It's even in our Constitution.

You see, in England people would say, "We have something better to do than that." It would be considered a frivolous objective in England. Here it's considered important, and I think it is because there are people who are not happy, who don't have any reason not to be happy. Their health is quite good, they have enough money to live on, and why aren't they happy?

I think their mistake has been that they think that happiness is out there, and happiness is in here. Always.

Are you touring to cities other than St. Louis?
I don't really tour because I go back home after each place. A woman asked me why and I said, "If you go from one town to another and then another and then another, you have to take so much luggage." And I now understand from watching television that if you consign your luggage to airport personnel they open it, take out your diamond tiara and your chinchilla cape and chuck it. She said, "Oh, I always wear those on the flight. I suggest you do the same" (laughter).

There is talk of some members of some gay-pride groups not being wholly supportive of your appearance here. Does this trouble you in any way?

It doesn't trouble me. I've lost the love of all the homosexual men in America by saying that I thought that Princess Diana was trash and got what she deserved. I can't help thinking that. She was falling about with an Arab in Paris when she could have been queen of England. It really is perverse, isn't it?

Well, I enjoyed your performance as the queen of England (in the film Orlando).

That was hell to do. I had a bodice so tight it blistered my stomach and I had two rolls of fabric tied around my waist with tape. And then a hoopskirt tied around my waist with tape and then a quilted petticoat and then an ordinary petticoat and then a dress. I could never leave the scene without someone lifting up the whole lot and saying, "Put your foot down. Now the other one." I never saw my feet during the whole production.

There's been so much talk about the word "character" and the "character issue" recently. I'm thinking that a word more important to you would be "personality."

That's right. I would use the word "personality" because "character" suggests "strength of character," "seriousness of character." It all is rather heavy. It's something you train English schoolboys to have, whereas you don't train them to have personality. In fact, you crush it if they have it. But I think individuality, personality -- those are the important things.

In a somewhat similar vein, do you see that we're becoming more of an entertainment culture?

Now you mention it, I do. American society is not divided between the haves and the have-nots, it's divided between the people on television and the people who are not on television. People who are not on television have this reverence for people who've been on television. They cross the road at the risk of losing their own life to say, "We saw you on TV." It's all you can do to restrain from saying, "Bless you, my child," because you've become sanctified.

You have witnessed this century. What changes have you seen that have most greatly affected the world?

It's gotten louder, and darker, and faster, and sexier and nastier.
I guess one out of five isn't bad.
(Laughter) When I was in Orlando someone said, Had I read the book? I said, I read it when it came out in 1928, I think, and I was 19 and thought of myself as an aesthete, so I read Virginia Woolf. I suddenly realized we never knew that Mrs. Woolf was mad. Now you wouldn't be able to keep it out of the press. She would be photographed going into a mental home. She would be photographed coming out of it. Microphones would be thrust in her face and the words "What's it like to hear voices, Mrs. Woolf?" That is what has undone everybody. They printed only what was fit to print in those days. Now they print anything.

An Evening with Quentin Crisp plays at the St. Marcus Theatre at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 4 p.m. Sunday, March 5-7. Call 995-4600 for reservations. Info: