H and I saw The Pride on Saturday, which is a play I’ve been vaguely intending to see for a while and now I’m kicking myself for not having got off my arse earlier because it was wonderful, just wonderful. I mean, slightly on the edge of didactic but it articulated such a lot of ideas I hold so deeply and dearly that I can’t really look at it with any sort of usefully critical eye.
The play is set in 1958 and 2008, and moves fairly fluidly between the two eras, and between two sets of characters, played by the same actors, sharing the same names. But it’s not really a simple “then and now” sort of play; instead it uses its three characters and two time periods more reflectively (something only emphasised by the enormous tarnished mirror that makes up the otherwise rather austere set) not merely to demonstrate how things have changed but to explore how they haven’t.
In the 1950s, actress-turned-illustrator, Sylvia introduces Oliver, the writer for whom she is currently working, to her husband Philip. Sylvia is obviously fragile, Oliver is obviously homosexual, Philip is obviously repressed: it’s a quiet, brutal tragedy waiting to happen. And it does. God. It does.
Meanwhile in the present, Oliver and Philip – now both openly gay, one a journalist, one a photographer – are struggling to make their relationship work because Oliver is unable to stop seeking out anonymous sexual encounters. Sylvia, in this timeline, is Oliver’s brash best friend, upon whom he is somewhat over emotionally dependent. I found present-Oliver a little wearing – charming, histrionic, self-destructive (but we’ve all been, or fallen for that lost boy, at one time or another) compared to his proud and vulnerable, desperately seeking, counterpart in the past. By contrast, Philip’s decency and passion shines through in 2008, whereas in the past, trapped in cowardice and shame, he betrays love, every kind of love, in every way imaginable. Hard enough to forgive the man, still harder the world that made him so.
There’s an implication of some sort of cosmic link between the past and the present – occasionally overplayed by having 50s Philip being spooky behind the mirror – but I largely preferred, and interpreted, the connection as largely symbolic. Oliver’s sense of loss and bewilderment, I think, is very real – for, in truth, we must all share of it, this history of hidden, denied and betrayed love.
For that is basically what The Pride is about: the simple, basic, utterly fundamental right to love, and to, well, to put it bluntly to take pride in that love. Maybe it’s a sentimental message, but then maybe I’m a sentimental man. But as much as there are things to celebrate, there are also questions to be asked. There is no denying the cruelty of repression, but is an expectation of promiscuity any greater acceptance? Both these extremes are, after all, rooted purely in sex. There’s an extent to which Philip-in-the-past and Oliver-in-the-present mirror each other: they have both been twisted into the worst of themselves by the expectations of their society, a society that continues to define … non-straight (for lack of a better, all-encompassing word) identity solely by sexual behaviour. And don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against sex, casual or committed, anonymous or intimate, but essentially what the 1950s are saying is “men can’t have sex with each other” and what the 2000s are saying is “of course men can have sex with each other” and what is being lost, pushed away, rejected, downplayed, denied is love.
For me, who I sleep with is largely incidental to my identity. Who I love is the fucking world.
I guess it’s human nature to relate the thing that affects you to the thing that’s currently important to you, but as I was sitting there in the dark, my hand sneakily tucked into H’s, I got to thinking about romance and me. I’ve been reading romance since March, but I read fast and I read a lot, and while I wouldn’t call myself an expert, I think I can probably say “hey, I like this genre.” And you know what bores the living shit out of me? The somebody somewhere – and there’s always somebody somewhere – dissing the genre. And it’s not that I don’t think people don’t have the right to say whatever they like (people would probably criticise Jesus if he descended from heaven covered from head to toe in chocolate) or that I feel particularly defensive or troubled by the books I like … but it’s just boring, you know? I really do dislike being bored. That’s the kind of thing you take personally.
“Wish fulfilment” gets bandied around a lot, I find. Fantasy and wish fulfilment.
And I was sitting there, watching The Pride, and thinking about all the love lost to history, I found myself asking: is this mere fantasy, the desire to find love, and have that love be accepted, have that love be valued and not dismissed as lesser, or different, to other loves? Is that mere wish fulfilment?
Because, to me, it feels goddamn fundamental.
To me, it feels like hope.
In 1958, when Oliver tells Philip he’s in love with him, he says that the world taught him to be ashamed of those desires, but what he feels is “honest and pure and good.” He continues: “I felt that I had a pride. A pride for the person I was.”
And, there in the theatre, not at that moment, but later, I felt a little pride too. For who I am, and what I want, and what is written and read: all these stories of love.