Bette Bourne is a bi-continental treasure, except, as he makes clear in A Life in Three Acts—written and performed with Mark Ravenhill, recreating their actual interviews–he’s not “bi” anything. He also doesn’t define himself as a female impersonator, although as Bourne says, he’s done that, too. Instead, he was one of the first “to come up with the idea of ‘men in frocks’ ”—having fun with the kind of jokiness you might hear in a song like “I’m a Lumberjack” from Monty Python (Bourne’s legendary group, Bloolips, didn’t come on like woodsmen, though–in fact, they were doing the opposite). The troupe wasn’t portraying characters getting laughs at the expense of femaleness either; Bourne saw what he was doing as creating “a new kind of man.” The shift allows a different experience for the audience—we’re going back to the early ‘80s here, when the troupe first came to the U.S. from England—because when they performed there was no feeling of a homoerotic overlay, no masochism, no forced comparison of maleness (actually, at the endings, Bourne would come out of character and unfasten his long hair; it seemed to allow the cost of transvestism to emerge. Losing the “let’s pretend” varnish was an unsettling, political act, it always seemed to me, validating the lives of the drag queens, who like us all, were just beginning to feel the devastation of the AIDS epidemic). It did not stop the riotous enthusiasm for the shows, however—the stamping, clapping, and hollers–and when the lights came up, the realization that virtually everyone in the audience was male. This would change as the word got out–the first person I dragged to a follow-up performance, for example, was my girlfriend—of course, audiences became even more integrated in the years following with a rethinking of A Streetcar Named Desire that co-starred Split Britches.
It’s certainly not surprising to examine gayness in today’s theatre—just look at the current season, from The Temperamentals to Next Fall; Yank! to the revival of The Boys in the Band, to only name four. It was the same in 1983 in the East Village—but, in life, there were, and are, battles to be fought. Bourne feels he turned a huge emotional corner when he came out in 1970. It also allowed him to directly confront a violent upbringing and, actually, make himself a better actor—not that he was ever a bad one. If you don’t believe me, listen to him performing Shakespeare on a recording made at the Old Vic in the show—the only problem was that he hadn’t yet found a way to reveal himself within the contexts of the classical characters (of course, he was still young, too). Although he seems softer today—Bloolips called Bourne “Bossy Bette”—the character he created on stage and in real life had an edge. He showed up in court once, for example, in women’s shoes and hat, disobeying the judge, and, in an all-gay commune, when the cops broke in . . . well, I don’t want to ruin the stories. Not that some of the jokes aren’t complete filth (you’ll have to go to the show to hear them, too—Bette reminds us during the course of the play to “don’t give nothin’ away”). He also talks about Quentin Crisp—as role model and a role which he portrayed—and his mother, who protected him during the war and from his family, finally, pushing the button on guilt in her later years. Someone else is recalled as well–a woman, talking about life over a cup of tea, who tells all the boys wearing dresses, “It's all theatre really, isn't it?”
Thinking back, there was a portion of one of the troupe’s shows where Bette would announce that we were going to play, “Spot the Homosexual’ ”—except he’d pronounce it “homozezual,” or something like that. Then we’d go through a random musical list that could include anyone from Prince Charles to the president of the United States (Ronald R.). I can see the group (there were nine of them) at the old Theater for the New City on Second Avenue—they were late-night shows, of which I saw a handful over the years. The actors might be blown about by a tornado or, elsewhere, sing, “All I Do the Whole Day Through is Dream of You” using the words, “All I Do the Whole Day Through is Eat and Pooh.” Bette kept them in line like a Queen Bee.
For those that know the old acts, they’ll want more of them here—if only more of the shows were recorded (I tried to find Bette Bourne once while working on a compilation book, but didn’t know where to contact him—I thought he was in the States. Mark Ravenhill has a better idea here, anyway). All is not lost, though: Bette, does tap dance again for A Life in Three Acts, as well as sing. God, it seems so far away and yet so close in the mind’s eye. I can remember self-righteously writing a graduate paper on Bloolips, during those years, too, for a class I was taking with Frank Rich. I was afraid that the performers were being marginalized and kicked into the gay gutter. I wanted theatergoers to know that, despite the wardrobes, there was nothing to be afraid of.
There still isn’t.
© 2010 by Bob Shuman
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"Truly memorable… rich and compassionate" – The Scotsman
"A living legend… an inspired occasion…lump-in-the-throat moving" – The Guardian
"Hilarious and touching… a priceless repository of mischief and mimicry, honesty, wisdom and defiance" – The Times
A LIFE IN THREE ACTS
Mar 4 – 28
Tickets start at $30
The 2009 Edinburgh Fringe First Award winner, A Life in Three Acts, finds Bette Bourne and Mark Ravenhill on stage together. The celebrated performer and key figure in Britain’s largely unreported post-war gay liberation struggle, shares his story with his close friend, one of the U.K.’s most celebrated playwrights.
A Life in Three Acts is a living, breathing history, edited and adapted for the stage from a series of private conversations between two friends, reminiscing about the life and times of Bette Bourne. The performance is remarkably honest, by turns humorous and angry. The story moves from Bourne’s post-war childhood to his first walk across Piccadilly Circus in drag, to his seminal role in the formation of the Gay Liberation Front in Britain. He recalls his life in a drag commune, the creation of the groundbreaking and OBIE Award-winning BLOOLIPS Company, and more — painting an extraordinary portrait of both a life and a movement. To be sure, the work is more than a memoir. It is a moving celebration of the momentous upheavals and transformative achievements of one of the world’s greatest liberation struggles in history. The show comes to St. Ann’s Warehouse directly on the heels of a successful run at London’s Soho Theatre.
Presented by St. Ann's Warehouse
A London Artists Projects Production
Produced by Jeremy Goldstein
Originating co-producer Koninklijke Schouwburg/Het Paradijs, The Haugue (NL)
Direction Mark Ravenhill
Picture Researcher Sheila Corr
Associate Director Hester Chillingworth