It’s been 59 years since Roger Gellert’s Quaint Honour shone a light on the collateral damage from the institutional repression of homosexuality. View from the Cheap Seat founding father Kenneth Tynan called it “honest and informative” and right he was, then and now.
In 2017, the orgiastic public school system of God fearing boys; child farms run on Victorian values; with its unfortunately named fagging ritual (that’s boy serving older boy, without the homophobic and misogynist graft later spun off from the term), mentored by bullies (older boys) and given moral instruction by pederasts (masters) is a greater abstraction. But the threat to rationalism and freedom of thought from religion and educators (see Paris Lee’s long running spat over Transgender Rights with Germaine Greer) is not.
Gellert’s exploration of power and hypocrisy is a fascinating historical snapshot; originally performed a decade before the 1967 Sexual Offences Act. A great cast, spearheaded by Harley Viveash, sell it absolutely as both period piece and tragedy; the intimacy of the Finborough Theatre, with its wrap around seating, perfect for a story that pivots on closeness, collusion and the education of innocents.
We have an older boy, Tully, goaded by his casual lover and “fag” to seduce Hamilton (Jack Archer), an androgynous stutterer. Initially it’s a test of his potency and power, later his first experience of true love. The play’s a bildungsroman for both characters sans the empowerment that typically concludes such arcs. The public school system and society-at-large won’t allow either boy that. The conditioning of language means there’s not the vocabulary to discuss it in anything other than exceptional terms. Gellert’s piquant dialogue, however, does a great job with the words available.
As a critique of ‘50s England, it’s devastating. Tully, forced to bury his instincts under a veil of daytime respectability and deference, privately flirts with fascism, valorizing war and its suspension of moral regulation. He sees male camaraderie and, naively, freedom from oppression; a rational proxy for his own anti-establishment fervor and homosexuality. His favourite literary character is Shakespeare’s Richard III. Behind charming talk of plum cake and caring not a button, there’s a radicalized 17 year-old.
Sexuality driven underground, caged, is ugly then, and potentially exploitative, and this sad thought lingers over the final act; an impassioned and historically brave defence of homosexuality and higher reason – love, imagination and freedom of expression, which doubles as a heartbreaking reaffixing of manacles.
Hamilton’s appraisal of the affair is as a piece of “wartime” exceptionalism – a gay brief encounter. But that implies it’s once again peacetime. It isn’t, and for millions of LGBTQ people in Britain and around the world it still isn’t. Consequently, it’s a quaint honour to see Gellert’s play revived and a reminder that every generation needs to re-fight the same battles, as those enemy soldiers just keep coming.