Academic journal article Theatre Research in Canada

Sky Gilbert, Daniel MacIvor, and the Man in the Vancouver Hotel Room: Queer Gossip, Community Narrative, and Theatre History

Academic journal article Theatre Research in Canada

Sky Gilbert, Daniel MacIvor, and the Man in the Vancouver Hotel Room: Queer Gossip, Community Narrative, and Theatre History

Article excerpt

[B]oth performances of queerness and performances of gossip may transform and contort relations, expectations, and interpretive activities in ways that are eccentric, turbulent, and unpredictable.

--Nick Salvato, "Editorial Comment: The Age of Gossipdom"

In the fall of 1980 Tennessee Williams was offered the prestigious appointment of Distinguished Writer in Residence at the University of British Columbia. Although the pressures of giving multiple university lectures soon overwhelmed him, Williams's time in Canada was made significantly more attractive by the Vancouver Playhouse, which was preparing to stage a new version of his play The Red Devil Battery Sign. Directed by Roger Hodgman, the revised and considerably shortened version of Red Devil ran for a month. Reviews were mixed and the production proved as unsuccessful as previous attempts in Boston (1975), Vienna (1976), and London (1977).2 While Red Devil failed to make a lasting impression on Canadian audiences and critics, the legacy of Williams's visit inspired a number of colourful stories, some of which paint an unflattering picture of the playwright. On one occasion he apparently gave an endless, alcohol-inspired rendition of "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" at a party; on another night he lost one of his socks in a restaurant; and during a preview of Red Devil he proceeded to fall asleep (Lederman R1). However, several people who met Williams at the time have shared their fond memories of him. Among others, these include a volunteer at Vancouver's gay TV station, GaybleVision, who interviewed the famous visitor (Rowe) and a second young man, an aspiring playwright, who received a letter of encouragement from Williams (Emberly). The Artistic Director of the Vancouver Playhouse recalled that Williams was "the easiest writer I've ever worked with" (qtd. in Page 94), and one of the actors in Red Devil remembered how Williams, despite some occasionally odd behaviour and comments, "was great in rehearsal, [...] very funny and charming" (qtd. in Lederman R1) and willing to rewrite dialogue that did not work. One story in particular, however, has had a significant impact on English-Canadian theatre history. This story recalls how, on several occasions, Williams invited young men to his hotel room and asked them to read from the Bible in nothing but their underwear. Told and re-told countless times in queer circles, this story would eventually inspire two playwrights to write plays based on Williams's 1980 stay in Vancouver: My Night with Tennessee by Sky Gilbert (first produced at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto in 1992) and His Greatness by Daniel MacIvor (first produced at the Arts Club Theatre in Vancouver in 2007).

While Williams's influence on American playwrights is well-documented (see Kolin) and Louise Ladouceur has outlined his impact on Quebec theatre, (3) this essay attends to Williams's legacy on English queer theatre north of the 49th parallel. I specifically reflect on how the gossip surrounding the playwright's visit to Vancouver has influenced the narratives of gay communities and in so doing contributed to queer theatre history in Canada. I argue that Gilbert and MacIvor, influenced by their respective agendas, transcend the localized specificity of the initial piece of gossip to convey more general insights on the human condition and to create a narrative about sexual longing, success and failure, and fear of loneliness. Moreover, my reading of the plays sheds light on how both authors deploy gossip as a tool to articulate a process of sexual and cultural ostracism, thereby fostering a dialogue with the past. This dialogue across time marks a crucial and pedagogical task in gay and queer theatre as a means to address the ongoing needs of an ever-changing community and to remind its members of previous generations' political struggles to overcome their state of marginalization.

As Rosalind Kerr reminds us in the introduction to her volume on Queer Theatre in Canada (2007), the history of queer theatre in Canada, despite important pioneering efforts, is largely untold. …

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