Even before the actors take their places, the set for Frank McGuinness's new play, Gates of Gold, appears to make a promise. Half of the stage is a drawing-room, furnished with a divan and lounge chair upholstered in lipstick red. At the back of this room is a tall, larger than life, gold-framed, lighted portrait of two men, in profile, the blond gazing upward, the brown-haired man staring straight ahead, their heads side-by-side. (Such sitters would have felt the warmth of one another's cheeks.) On the other side of a slightly indicated wall, there is a bedroom. A king-sized bed thrusts its foot toward the apron of the stage, toward us. We are going to see what happens in the bedroom of those two men.
Those in the audience, at the Gate Theatre in Dublin, have heard the publicity. This will be a play about the Gate's founders, Hilton Edwards and Micheál Mac Liammóir. Their lives have been dramatized by Frank McGuinness, one of the best Irish playwrights, and perhaps the first regularly to represent homosexuality non-comically on the Dublin stage.
From the 1930s to the 1960s, it went without saying that Edwards and Mac Liammóir had something like a same-sex marriage, but that's just it - it went without saying. The sexuality of their partnership was hidden in plain sight. The Boys' never 'came out'. Yet while they were in the closet, nearly all the people of Dublin were in the know, and thus in the closet with them. Are you aware that the Army Chief of Staff, Eoin O'Duffy, used to have his official car wait at Parnell Square until the end of evening performances at the Gate? That was a popular gossip item in the 1930s; one would wink about what the super-conservative founder of the Blueshirts would do with the painted star of Hamlet. Or one might repeat the joke about the Gate and the Abbey being 'Sodom and Begorrah'. Catholic Ireland was more tolerant and kindly toward homosexuals than Protestant England, or so the story went. The latter-day Oscar Wildes and Roger Casements were safe in Dublin, but one expected even the most famous homosexuals to show respect for the gods of Church and Family. This could be done through a minimal exercise of discretion. In short, by lying.
Now, the stage set whispered, we were going to see the truth.
But were we? The programme note by Thomas Kilroy warns playgoers that this play is not like Michael Frayn's play about Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, Copenhagen.Frayn tries to fit a factitious conversation into a nest of factuality. What McGuinness has done is largely unconstrained by the known facts of the lives of Edwards and Mac Liammóir, and of Mac Liammóir's sister and her son. They inspire four of the five characters on stage:
Conrad, the director, played by Richard Johnson, is and is not Hilton Edwards (1904-1982).
Gabriel, the actor, played by Alan Howard, is and is not Micheál Mac Liammóir, ne Alfred Willmore (1899-1978).
Kassie, the actor's sister, played by Rosaleen Linehan, is and is not Marjorie McMaster, nee Willmore (1897?-1970).
Ryan, Kassie's son, played by James Kennedy, is and is not both Christopher McMaster (1925-1996) and Patrick Bedford (1932-1999).
Alma, the private nurse, played by Donna Dent, is not to my knowledge based on a historical character.
In the play, we learn that the director, Conrad, had a sexual relationship with the actor's sister, Kassie, and has courted her son, Ryan, as a boyfriend; it is strongly suggested that he has been successful in the latter enterprise, and there is also a far more tenuous suggestion, late in the play, that Conrad could be Ryan's father. It's obvious that McGuinness offers these possibilities not as an historical speculation about Edwards and Mac Liammóir and some of the people close to them, but as part of an imagined drama that is not to be taken as the theatrical equivalent of a roman-á-clef. One might note from the details given above, for instance, that Mac Liammóir's sister was older than he was, and predeceased him; neither is the case with Kassie in the play. Mac Liammóir was seventy-nine when he died; the dying Gabriel in the play is in his sixties, and Kassie in her fifties. Christopher McMaster was Mac Liammóir's nephew, and Patrick Bedford was his heir (features combined in the character of Ryan in the play), but McMaster was fifty-three and Bedford forty-six when Mac Liammóir died, while Ryan is only in his twenties in Gates of Gold.
While no inferences can be drawn about the models from the handling of the characters in the play, the two central characters evoke a homosexual point of view new to the Dublin stage. Gabriel (the actor) is terribly upset at the possibility that his partner Conrad is having an affair with his own nephew and heir. Gabriel is not morally indignant, but jealous. He wants Conrad to be his and his alone, and he wants Ryan to be his alone too, an endlessly forgiven, overgrown dote.
This plot delivers a delightful shock of moral reorientation. In Gates of Gold, the utter absence of conventional moral indignation about the sensational relationship between Conrad and Ryan - the silence of something not being said ('he's my nephew, you monster!') - is as good as the dialogue, and that is no little praise.
As well as what this play puts in that's false about the lives of Mac Liammóir and Edwards, it leaves out prominent features of their characters. One that I miss is the cod-Irishness of Mac Liammóir................................................................
This whole story of the great actor's counterfeit Irishness is left out of Gates of Gold. It was the most shocking and delightful aspect of Christopher Fitz-Simon's double biography, The Boys (1994), for those who did not already know of it from Micheal O hAodha's The Importance of Being Micheál (1990). It would seem to be an obvious motif for a drama drawing on the life of Mac Liammóir. In the play Gabriel's claim to a variety of exotic parents and birthplaces, and Kassie's reiterations of these along with some further nativity narratives of her own, constitute a recurring joke. But none of these stories involves on the banks of the river Lee in the city of Cork, or anywhere else in Ireland. The joke about Gabriel's origins may be an inside one, relying on the audience's knowledge of both the facts and the myth of Willmore/Mac Liammóir. Yet evidently McGuinness had something else on his mind than a true-to-life biodrama, or even a play about being homosexual in Ireland, rather than somewhere else.
The sound design for Gates of Gold involves a drum and flute interlude between the scenes. The drumbeats clearly evoke heartbeats. The sound design converts the on-stage bedroom into a hospital room in an intensive-care unit, the heart monitor's volume having been turned up. The patient is Gabriel, the actor, brilliantly played by Alan Howard. (To overact on purpose, while suggesting the psychological reality that motivates the overacting, cannot be an easy thing for an actor to carry off.) From the first scene of the play, in which Conrad, the director, 'auditions' a resident nurse (Alma, played by Donna Dent), we are made to understand that this play is a deathwatch.
Conrad (to Alma): This is a man who has distinguished the theatrical profession for more than forty years.........
Gabriel (in purple silk dreeing gown, making up at the vanity in the bedroom): The bitch, I'm only thirty-three.
Conrad: Can you prepare him for dying?.... Gabriel doesn't like the truth..... He believes himself still to be a beautiful man.... Can you respect that lie....?
Alma is not much for lies. She thinks there's no devil, no god, just people. She's not afraid of life. She knows the two men are queers, and doesn't give a tinker's curse. So she gets the job, helping Gabriel to die.
These relations between lying, theatricality, homosexuality and death are at the heart of the play. Introducing himself to Alma, Gabriel proffers outlandish fictions of his own origin - his father was a cowboy from Lima, or a priest in Spain; his mother was a trapeze artist. The origin is always exotic and never the natural and real one. Gabriel sprang from his own capacity for fabulation.
He also flamboyantly acts out his passion to Conrad. 'I love you' is not how Gabriel indicates his attachment: 'Has there ever been any man whom I hated more than you?.......... I divorce you - I divorce you - I divorce you.' Quickly enough, the 'painted tart' and his minder shift to a re-enactment of their personal legend:
Gabriel: Then will we take a risk? Start a company?
Conrad: Start a theatre?
Gabriel: Christ, yes. We're young enough. We'll do work that no one else does, the great Europeans, new plays the like of which this country - this city -
Conrad: We shall turn this town into -
Gabriel: A new Athens?
Conrad: I was thinking of Sodom.
Gabriel: That's more realistic
Conrad: We shall conceive a child in Sodom -
Gabriel: Not a child, a place, a palace, and we shall open the windows and the doors, and the gates that lead -
Conrad: To this our theatre.
Gabriel: So long ago.
Conrad: We did do it.
The mercurial, role-playing, vamp and tramp actor keeps his love alive by temper tantrums, followed by scenes of kiss-and-make-up, right to the door of death.
What does theatricality have to do with homosexuality? Micheál Mac Liammóir was fond of repeating a story of how he first heard the name of Oscar Wilde. Once Mac Liammóir had achieved worldwide celebrity with his one-man show, The Importance of Being Oscar (première, 16 September 1960), the first hearing of Wilde's name evidently seemed to him to have been an annunciation of his personal destiny. In With One Pulse, Mac Liammóir recalls that it was in 1911 that he asked his father, 'What was wrong with Oscar Wilde?'
A silence followed, then his mother, crying 'For God's sake!' , left the room. 'Listen to me, my boy,' his father said, 'Never as long as you live mention that man's name if there are women in the room........ He did something worse than go with the wrong sort of women. He turned young men into women.'
'My God,' Mac Liammóir has himself silently exclaiming, 'that's the man for me!' He saw Wilde as a scarlet-clad magician in a pantomime, turning 'dirty-nosed little boys into gorgeous, glamourous girls.'
The moral of this rite of initiation is that homosexuality involves playing the part of another, involves, that is, the capacity for gender transformation. Sex without procreation, it is implied, is always a simulation, and the simulation involves protean, imaginative variation. Such incitement to imagination, Gabriel claims, is one of the added allurements of homosexuals on stage and off: 'We forced [Dubliners] to use their foul fascinating imaginations. We were men who loved each other.' How is it, people wondered, that they do so?.
In this first production of Gates of Gold, directed by Patrick Mason, it is a truly theatrical pleasure to watch Alan Howard allude to a whole wardrobe of the past actorly costumes of Gabriel. He is by times a jealous Othello, a Hamlet with antic madness, a Lear wounded by ingratitude, and a Medea whose passion has made her childless.
The Medea impersonation comes near the end of the show, and the end of Gabriel's life. Drawing Conrad to his bed, Gabriel passionately points to Conrad's place on the mattress. There in that bed, in all the love they made, they killed their children, because their love was non-procreative. The passion disappeared like smoke, like water under the bridge, nothing left behind.
In this way, non-procreative love is like theatre-work. Conrad explains to Gabriel's sister (and his own ex-lover) Kassie that he wanted a child because he wanted a legacy. And she - played by a brilliant and brassy Rosaleen Linehan - declares that women too, when they love a man, want just one thing, a baby. This seems a rather low estimate of the heterosexual attachment to put into the mouth of a woman, but it was in fact Mac Liammóir's view, and perhaps the practice of his sister, Marjorie Willmore, in marrying McMaster. Conrad goes on to say that he has worked with all his strength, and he believes in that work, but what has he achieved? Nothing. Yesterday's performance disappears like smoke, like words writ in water, like yesterday's orgasm. The plays may remain of Shakespeare, but nothing of Richard Burbage, the star of the Globe. Is the life of the actor, of the director, of the homosexual worth it? Of anyone, for that matter? Does the species exist merely to perpetuate itself? At this metaphysical and pessimistic note, on the other side of the split stage, the failing Gabriel screams in mortal pain, and the lights go out.
Gates of Gold is a more tender meditation on themes of sexuality, theatre, and death than Welle's Othello [discussed in section 6]. It leaves a good taste in one's mouth. True, the plot does not have any single basic conflict at its centre. An old actor is deathly sick; his nurse, nephew, sister, and lover look after him; and at the end of ninety-five minutes he dies. That's it, with a variety of incomplete but suggestive subplots attached to the deathwatch. One subplot - the questionable romantic and familial position of gabriel's nephew Ryan (satisfactorily repellent in James Kennedy's performance) - leads to no denouement. However, it does start into life important themes: the desire of homosexuals for offspring, the desire of older men for younger ones, and jealousy within a marriage of inconstant partners. The subplot in which Alama the nurse is haunted by the ghost of her twin brother, ddead by virtue of drunk driving, is least convincing of all, in spite of Donna Dent's best efforts. Yet it too does its thematic work. It dramatizes the interinanimation of people's psyches, our propagation of selfhood by association. This is another aspect of the sexuality-theatre-death complex. All the associative work with profound issues, developed from laugh-line to laugh-line, makes this a very satisfying play.
But I must admit I did not like the ending. Gabriel calls Conrad to his bed. Come, get into bed, one last time, hold me, and tell me a story. Fully clothed, Conrad sits against the headboard and puts his arm around Gabriel. As Conrad reprises one last time the story of the Boys and their Theatre, gabriel is sinking away. When the story is done, he delivers a deliberately hammy 'last words of the great actor': 'Open the door. Open the gate. The gates of gold.'
I have two problems with this close. First, these are not good enough to be famous last words. McGuinness could do better. Second, and far more importantly, when Conrad comes to bed, he should take off his street-clothes - calmly, ritualistically, completely. We should see the naked body of the male lover, and by rights Gabriel should get to see it too, with fondness, one last time. Then Conrad should slip into bed, take Gabriel in his arms, and tell that same story. From the very beginning, the bed on stage has promised such candour. The shying away from the body - getting clothed into bed, after such a passionate appeal - seemed unnatural, as though the actor Richard Johnson knew he was being watched by three or four hundred people, and didn't want them looking over his anatomy. That seemed to me a pity, as if it were an acknowledgement that we have come some way in recognition of all too human loves, but not far enough to face the naked male body.