The Naughty Pixie

Bette Bourne Brings Quentin Crisp Back to Life

In Resident Alien, which begins previews this week at New York Theatre Workshop, English actor Bette Bourne plays Quentin Crisp. Of course, the part of the famously eccentric author, raconteur, and self-described "stately homo of England" was played on a daily basis for nearly seven decades by Crisp himself; when the 90-year-old performer died in November 1999, he was in Manchester touring one of his latest one-man shows. Bourne at that time was down in London, starring in the original run of Resident Alien and receiving some of the best notices of his career. His remarkable fusion with the role of Crisp is strangely apropos. The two men may have been diametrically opposed on many subjects, but they have always shared a certain heightened theatricality.

"Quentin developed a personal revulsion against gay sex," says Bourne, quickly pointing out a major difference between the two of them. "I have always been very enthusiastic about sex—probably beyond the call of duty." But it was their homosexuality that motivated the two men to each create distinct identities for themselves.

Crisp invented his name (he was born Dennis Pratt in 1908) and carefully constructed a character for himself, aided with heavy makeup and dyed hair. "He decided that he was an effeminate queer," Bourne explains. "And, as he put it, he extended his private life into his professional life and merged the two. That was his identity." Gay politics, though, were anathema to Crisp, who later stirred up controversy by making disparaging remarks about coming out. "But he was a living example of what we were all struggling towards, in a way," says Bourne. "He came out in the '20s and was out there for 70 years. That was a time when the shadow of Oscar Wilde's trial and humiliations was still very big."

Bourne as Crisp: "You were a fool if you tried to compete with him."
photo: Mark Dovet
Bourne as Crisp: "You were a fool if you tried to compete with him."

Bourne came out in his early thirties while an actor in the commercial West End theater. He attended meetings of the Gay Liberation Front in 1971, but soon gravitated to a drag commune, a then unpopular fringe of the gay movement. Dropping out of both mainstream theater and conservative gay politics, he adopted the name Bette, and with a group of other drag queens funneled gay activism through his own theatrical company, Bloolips. (Bourne shared Obie awards for his 1981 Lust in Space and for 1991's Belle Reprieve, a collaboration with Split Britches.) "We rushed into our frocks because we thought we wanted to understand something about our feminine side," Bourne explains. "It was a rather obvious and enormous move for me. I was a motorcycle rider from a sort of butch East End leather-and-jeans bracket."

Bourne's first encounter with Crisp was hardly encouraging for the actor, who was 16 at the time. He glimpsed Crisp standing outside London's National Portrait Gallery in full makeup and hennaed hair. "I was shocked and horrified," Bourne recalls. "I thought, 'Who is that disgusting pervert?' But it probably rang a very loud bell in my head." They were "properly introduced" to each other in New York in 1980, after Crisp immigrated to America. Bourne says he forced Crisp to attend the Bloolips shows in New York, but reports "it was a bit too gay liberationist for him—he just never got it."

Like Crisp, Bourne is a pretty good raconteur. Listening to the actor regale them with Crisp stories, writer Tim Fountain and Mike Bradwell, artistic director of London's Bush Theatre, hit on the idea of creating Resident Alien as a vehicle for Bourne. Crisp readily agreed to being impersonated, giving permission to plunder all his writings for the play. "He said, 'Oh that would be fun, and you know, someone was going to write a musical on my life, which would have been wonderful!' "

Unlike Crisp's own stage presentations, the NYTW show presents both a public and private view of the man. Resident Alien is set in the notoriously scuzzy room on East 3rd Street where Crisp spent most of the last two decades of his life. In Bourne's one-person piece, Crisp reflects on his life and holds forth on a wide variety of subjects—sex tips from Marlene Dietrich, euthanasia, surviving on TV—as he prepares for the arrival of guests.

"He was a naughty pixie," Bourne recalls. "And he had a brilliant mind. He used to say books are for writing not for reading, but he must have read everything. You were a fool if you tried to compete with him. You put a penny in and off he went. His policy was that you say what you have come to say. And I think he worked very hard to get it absolutely right." Bourne is also among the few who caught a glimpse of Crisp with the public mask off. "He'd just be in his filthy dressing gown and there would be remnants of makeup," Bourne reports. "He used to have one or two days when he just didn't go out so he could recharge his batteries."

"One of the problems acting Quentin," Bourne explains, "is hearing his voice and trying not to impersonate it in terms of burlesque. And you can't escape it really, because his drollery is somehow enmeshed in that distinctive voice. I find that the most satisfying evenings are when I don't think about his voice at all. You see, he believed that you could only judge style by the content and you could only reach content through the style."

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