As he ages Frank McGuinness is more at peace in the war zone of sexual politics. He spoke to Joe Jackson about the long affair between the founders of the Gate theatre, Hilton Edwards and Michael MacLiammoir, the subjects of his new play, and about his own 'long marriage' to his partner of 23 years
"I'm still with Philip, after 23 years," says Frank McGuinness so casually that, frankly, it shocks me. Why? Because once upon a time - specifically 1990 when I last interviewed McGuinness - we had to rely on subtextual hints when it came to the subject of his homosexuality. Such as? My asking if imposing his own "sexual uncertainties" on to characters in his plays makes those characters "misrepresent broader realities, less disturbed lives than his own, perhaps". To which Frank could only reply, basically, "That's a fair point and I do ask myself continually am I doing that."
Clearly, the closet still was Frank's favourite room. At least during interviews.
All of which, presumably, leaves McGuinness perfectly placed to explore the similarly closeted love affair between Hilton Edwards and Michael MacLiammoir in his new play, Gates of Gold. They, of course, were the founders of Dublin's Gate theatre. But first let's find out what, exactly, happened between 1990 and 2002 that has left McGuinness so relaxed in terms of referring, in public, to his homosexuality.
"When my mother and father died, in '96 and '97, within 10 months of each other, it was shattering and I just thought, 'This is a nonsense, denying who I am,' " he explains. "I had told my mother, when I was around 30, but not my father. Then again, I never really talked to my father. We didn't have the best of relationships."
So Frank's dad never brought up the subject of his son's sexuality?
"No. But did he have to?" McGuinness replies, smiling. "I mean at the time he died I was 43 and not married! And involved in the theatre! So he should have known from all that!"
McGuinness may joke about his closeted sexuality now but he also admits that, as a boy growing up in Buncrana, his life was "extremely lonely". And that he lived in his own "fantasy world" finding emotional sustenance in the songs of "girl singers" such as Cilla Black and Dusty Springfield, even though that was seen as "not terribly manly". Nevertheless, Frank later realised that such songs fequently were about "anger, oppression and denial" - feelings he "felt strongly" at the time.
So, is McGuinness sorry that as a teenager he didn't tell, for example, his mother about his homosexuality?
"It would have made things easier for me but that was a different world, a different country," he muses. "And even when I did tell her there was the momentary panic of a typical Irish mother. But that was over very quickly. At first she said, 'Oh, it's my fault, your father's fault,' but that was more the concern of 'My God, what have you gotten yourself into?' Yet, overall, my mother was grand about it. And I had a great relationship with her."
Surely Frank's folks saw his plays and wondered why they so often featured gays? Incidentally, this year marks the 20th anniversary of McGuinness's first play, The Factory Girls, which was written within a few years of his first visit to a theatre, at the age of 19, to see Brian Friel's The Gentle Island.
"That was a shock to my system and changed my life," he remembers. But how did Frank's parents respond to his own plays?
"The only play of mine my father saw was The Factory Girls," he says. "And my mother only saw it and Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching towards the Somme. They just didn't go to see the plays, that wasn't their way. They were delighted I was doing them but far more delighted I was a lecturer! Because they saw teaching as a 'real job' and 'the oul' plays' as a sideline!"
McGuinness began teaching English literature in Maynooth during the early Eighties and now lectures in University College, Dublin. Yet let's get back to the claim that he imposes his own "sexual uncertainties" on the characters in his plays - up to and including his most recent works, such as The Bird Sanctuary and Dolly West's Kitchen. In fact one could argue that both were defined, to whatever degree, by the sound of a gay playwright crying, in a coded sense, to come out. Mightn't such plays have been decidedly different if Frank had publicly declared himself sexually a decade ago?
"I did declare myself, but not in print," he responds. "And I do believe that in my plays of the Nineties - particularly The Bird Sanctuary and Dolly West's Kitchen - my homosexuality is more clear than ever before. Though in the earlier plays it definitely is more coded. And often the key issue. Whereas in the later work it's just another part of the play."
Either way, McGuinness's plays are, he "absolutely" agrees, "about sexual politics" in the broadest sense. And often set in the context of an actual war zone.
"I'm not one of those Irish writers who seems obsessed with their childhood. I was more influenced by puberty, because that is the time Derry exploded," he explains.
"I was 15, 16, when my sexuality was developing and there was a war going on all around me. That's the time that really shaped me. There was also a sexual struggle going on inside me. So that was bound to influence the plays. Even so, most of the central characters in my plays are not homosexual. Yet sexuality itself is a core issue. Though in Gates of Gold I'm more interested in the politics of aging. And the idea of a marriage that lasts a long time. That's something I wouldn't have been interested in 20, even 10 ago. But I really don't think I bring to bear just my own experiences on all this."
Meaning Gates of Gold is not the coded story of Frank and Philip! "God no!" he says, laughing. "Though we both would be interested in the subject of aging. But neither of us is dying, as far as I know. Mind you, if Philip doesn't stop smoking maybe he will die. But one of the two men in my play is dying and the couple have been together 40 years. They're in their seventies; we're not. Though, obviously, aspects of my own relationship with Philip, and my own life in general, are bound to inform Gates of Gold."
Gates of Gold is set "somewhere between 1982 and 2002", a period that has been dominated by Aids. This, too, is a subject that burns its way - again, in a coded manner - through many of McGuinness's plays. So has he lived in terror of Aids?
"I don't feel terrorised by it but I do think that whatever form of sexuality you are involved in you must remember that this awful disease is part of the landscape," he says. "And lots of people I know did die from Aids. In fact, there was a programme on television recently about STD [Sexually Transmitted Diseases] and when someone said, 'Aids is such an Eighties thing,' I wanted to punch him. It is not. But the subject of Aids is very strikingly there in a play like Observe the Sons of Ulster...... Even if it is coded. Whereas it's actually mentioned in The Bird Sanctuary. I never wanted to write an 'Aids play', but the reality of Aids is in the writing. Yet not in relation to Gates of Gold, because these men, though they have been promiscuous, have gone beyond all that.
And "these men", though "inspired by" Hilton Edwards and Michael MacLiammoir, are "fictional", Frank stresses.
"They're even called Gabriel and Conrad, because I can't write documentaries. I'm no good at that. And what made me realise this play is a work of fiction is when it became clear to me that it's really the story of Alma, a totally fictionalised nurse who comes to take care of the dying man. And who is, herself, deeply troubled by her past but ends up being healed."
Not surprisingly. Y'see, Frank McGuinness always tries to end his plays with a "healing touch, to show that the people involved have, at least, taken a step forward". And so it is in terms of Gates of Gold.
"In fact, the last speech in the play is a celebration of marriage, of living together and lasting together so long," Frank explains. "Of course it is about two men, but I hope it will speak to an audience in general. Because I really don't think there is that much difference between a gay marriage and a straight marriage."
In the eyes of the law there is, Frank, particularly when it comes to, say, property rights, as many gays have discovered to their cost - financially and emotionally - when one dies and the other is evicted from a home the couple shared, perhaps, for all their lives.
"That is true," says McGuinness. "And sometimes you do need to be protected from the vindictiveness of families, where they take revenge in that sense. But homosexual relationships are recognised by law in countries like Holland and Denmark and, in time, will be recognised here, I believe. Because this is a matter of civil rights."
Have Frank or Philip ever encountered a family taking "revenge" on them because of their sexuality? "Fortunately not, no."
So, will they be getting married? After 23 years' "courting" shouldn't one make "an honest man" of the other!
"No, we won't be getting married!" Frank responds, laughing. "In fact, we don't even live together. Because Philip teaches in the North and I live here, so we only get to see each other every second weekend. But he is about to retire so we will be able to spend a lot more time together."
Meaning they may even have the longevity of Hilton Edwards and Michael MacLiammoir?
"Who knows?" says McGuinness, smiling in a way that suggests he hopes this may be true. "All I hope, right now, is that Gates of Gold goes down well.
Gates of Gold opens at the Gate theatre, Dublin, on April 30th
The Irish Sunday Independent, 21.4.02.