AN EVENING WITH QUENTIN CRISP
A review by Linda Eisenstein
|Quentin Crisp, the evangelist of grand style, charmed and captivated a capacity crowd at Cleveland Public Theatre with his wry bon mots and sly wisdom. "I am here to cure you of what makes you unhappy: your excessive freedom," he preaches with a wave of his hand. "Think of this as a consultation with a surgeon who is sicker than his patients."
The author of the classic autobiography The Naked Civil Servant and tongue-in-cheek works like How to Have a Lifestyle, Crisp in person is, simply, transcendent: funny, sophisticated, and full of joie de vivre. Frail enough at 89 to need assistance getting to his armchair, he glows with an extraordinary life force and the generosity of a born performer. His legendary wit does not disappoint; a critic could end up with terminal writer's cramp trying to take down every memorable aphorism.
An Evening with Quentin Crisp begins with a delightfully ironic self-improvement lecture how to remake yourself into a divine creature of unique style so that you may "reach the profession of being". It's a corker: full of observations about housework ("don't do it: after four years, the dirt doesn't get any worse), career ("work is a great mistake"), self-confidence, and social expectations, it's ultimately a discourse on happiness and identity.
For Crisp, "to thine own self be true" is far from simple; rather, it is a life-long journey to the interior. Identity is an artifact, part discovery, part creation. In "a world ruined by envy", it's something to be continually worked at, reduced like a fine sauce, and offered for public consumption. The provocatively funny talk is peppered with examples from teaching to politics, including would-be saint Eva Peron: "A double-fox stole, ankle-strap shoes, and eternal life. Nobody has that."
After an interval "time for a pause and a good cry" there is a rollicking question-and-answer period, with Crisp embroidering replies to any audience question written on an index card. The format provides a marvelous occasion for reminiscence and digression. At Thursday's performance there were biting anecdotes about life in England and the class system, his life on New York's Lower East Side "just beyond redemption", and using the Internet ("I don't have a demon machine"). There were even quips on Bill Clinton's woes compared to Queen Elizabeth I, whom Crisp portrayed in the film Orlando. ("People talking in public about the ruler's sexual organs? She would have had them put together and chopped up like parsley.")
Crisp is a great devotee of American movies his Bette Davis imitation is dead-on and had pungent remarks about movies and culture, from the change of a film's target audience "from a middle-aged, middle-class woman with a broken heart" to "a fifteen year old boy who imagines himself walking down the street making buildings explode".
Near the evening's end, Crisp claimed that his talk is aimed at people who wistfully "overhear the music from a party on the next block", wishing they were invited. An impish delight in his fetching black Stetson, hand-me-down clothes, and rhinestone brooch, Quentin Crisp brings the party to you, and tells you that it was yours all along. It's a lovely gift.
Read Ms. Eisenstein's 1998 "An Interview with Quentin Crisp."
Linda Eisenstein's award-winning plays and musicals have been produced throughout the U.S., and in England, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and the Philippines. Her plays have been published by Dramatic Publishing, and are available in collections by Penguin, Heinemann, Vintage, and Smith & Kraus. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in journals such as Kalliope, Kinesis, Amelia, and Blithe House Quarterly.
The author of Practical Playwriting a book of essays on the craft and business of writing for the stage she has taught scriptwriting at Denison University, Cleveland State University, E-script, and many writers' conferences. A theatre journalist and reviewer, she is the theatre columnist for angle: a journal of arts + culture and Cool Cleveland and a frequent contributor to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
A resident writer in The Playwrights Unit at the Cleveland Play House, she is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America, Inc., ASCAP, the International Centre for Women Playwrights, and the Literary Managers & Dramaturgs of the Americas. Born in Chicago, raised in San Francisco, she makes her home in Cleveland, Ohio.
This review was originally published in the Plain Dealer, September 1998.