Bodies that Matter (was Re: Mistress Judith)

Peter Kilander peterk at
Mon Nov 22 09:58:53 PST 1999

Martha Nussbaum:
>Thus the one place for agency in a world constrained by hierarchy is in the
>small opportunities we have to oppose gender roles every time they take
>shape. When I find myself doing femaleness, I can turn it around, poke fun
>at it, do it a little bit differently. Such reactive and parodic
>performances, in Butler's view, never destabilize the larger system. She
>doesn't envisage mass movements of resistance or campaigns for political
>reform; only personal acts carried out by a small number of knowing actors.
>Just as actors with a bad script can subvert it by delivering the bad lines
>oddly, so too with gender: the script remains bad, but the actors have a
>tiny bit of freedom. Thus we have the basis for what, in Excitable Speech,
>Butler calls "an ironic hopefulness."

New York Times November 22, 1999

Quentin Crisp, Writer and Actor on Gay Themes, Dies at 90 By ALEX WITCHEL

Quentin Crisp, the British-born writer, raconteur and actor who found fame at 59 when he published "The Naked Civil Servant," an account of his openly homosexual life in London, and who found happiness when he moved to New York at 72, died yesterday in Manchester, England. He was 90.

Crisp was in Britain for a new run of his one-man show "An Evening With Quentin Crisp," which was to have opened Monday.

The flamboyant Crisp gained attention in the United States in 1976 when a dramatized version of "The Naked Civil Servant," starring John Hurt as Crisp, was shown on American television to enthusiastic reviews. In The New York Times John J. O'Connor wrote that it was "a startling, thoroughly fascinating portrait of one of those exotic creatures who adamantly refuse to behave 'properly' in this world, thereby making the rest of us examine our own behavior to a closer and often more valuable extent."

A resident of the East Village since 1977, and of the same single-room-occupancy building on Third Street since 1981, Crisp was a neighborhood celebrity known for his wardrobe of splashy scarves, his violet eyeshadow and his white hair upswept à la Katharine Hepburn and tucked under a black fedora. His nose and chin were often elevated to a rather imperious angle, and his eyebrows were painstakingly plucked. When he played the role of Queen Elizabeth I in Sally Potter's 1993 film "Orlando," Village residents bowed before him on the sidewalks as he passed.

He was so well known for the prickly wit that earned him comparisons to Oscar Wilde that he regularly received mail addressed to "Quentin Crisp, New York City, America." After a lifetime of being pointed at, snickered at, even spat at, Crisp learned to welcome attention, even to court it.

Quentin Crisp was born Denis Pratt on Christmas Day, 1908, in Sutton, a London suburb. He was the youngest of four children born to a lawyer and a former nursery governess. In "The Naked Civil Servant," Crisp, who changed his name as an adult, wrote of a tortured upbringing and young adulthood at the hands of a vociferously homophobic society. But rather than live unobtrusively, he decided in his early 20's to dedicate his life to "making the existence of homosexuality abundantly clear to the world's aborigines."

He made a career of flaunting his effeminate manner and dressing in women's clothing, and for such provocations, he would be rejected and even physically assaulted. "I suppose it's logical," he said. "I abuse them, they defile me."

Unable to find employment in 1930's London, he resorted to prostitution. With his mother's help he eventually found work as a book illustrator before beginning to model nude in subsidized art schools on a government stipend, hence the title of his autobiography. "Maybe it's true that artists adopt a flamboyant appearance," he once observed. "But it's also true that people who look funny get stuck with the arts."

Crisp performed "An Evening With Quentin Crisp" Off Off Broadway at the Players Theater in 1978, and it earned him a special Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience.

Richard Eder, reviewing the production for The Times, said Crisp had offered "a witty, touching and instructive evening," adding: "Despite his extravagances, perhaps because of them, there is nothing sectarian about Crisp. Both in words and in his fussy, faintly self-mocking gestures, he asserts his identity. But what he draws out of it is universal: gaiety -- in the original sense of the word, for once -- and themes common to all of us: the need for courage and individuality, and the ground of tragedy on which they are exercised."

Among his books are "How to Have a Lifestyle" (Methuen, 1979), "How to Become a Virgin" (St. Martin's, 1984) and "Resident Alien" (Alyson Publications, 1997), a compilation of his pieces for New York Native, the gay newsmagazine.

Crisp was famous for never turning down a party invitation or a free meal. But despite his gregarious social nature, he was fond of claiming that he had never fallen in love. "You can fancy someone, wish them well or enjoy their company," he said. "That's all I can do with anybody. But when Miss Streisand sings, 'People who need people are the luckiest people in the world,' she's being funny. When you need people, you're finished. I need people, but not any *one* person."

"A woman in England once told me, 'All people are the same to you.' But that's not true," he continued. "They're different but equal. I've spread my love horizontally, to cover the human race, instead of vertically, all in one place. It's threadbare, but it covers."

He leaves no immediate survivors.

Moving to the United States, Crisp maintained, was his proudest achievement. He loved Americans, he said, for "their belief that personality is the greatest power on earth." One anecdote he often told had him standing on Third Avenue, dressed and made up as usual when a passer-by stopped.

"When he noticed me, he said: 'Well, my! You've got it all on today!' And he was laughing. In London people stood with their faces six inches from mine and hissed, 'Who do you think you are?' What a stupid question. It must have been obvious that I didn't think I was anybody else."

As cherished a character as he was by many, Crisp had his detractors, especially gay men of younger generations who decried his claim that gay pride was an oxymoron. "It's not normal to be gay," Crisp said, "and I think it's very weird to think that it is."

"I don't know why gay people want to be separate but equal, anyway," he said in a 1997 interview. "That means they want to be cut off from nine-tenths of the human race. 'I have nothing in common with them,' they say. Why, you have everything in common but the funny way in which you spend your evenings."

His provocative comments aside, Crisp's homosexuality was always front and center in the way he lived, filtered through his particular mix of pride, anger and wit. "When I was coming to America," he recalled, "I went to the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, and the man asked me, 'Are you a practicing homosexual?' And I said I didn't practice. I was already perfect."

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