How Quentin Crisp changed my life and inspired a play

Mark Farrelly on the inspiration for Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope

Mark Farrelly, writer and star of Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope

Mark Farrelly

I was touring in a Noel Coward play. On a shelf in my digs, I found a copy of Quentin Crisp’s autobiography The Naked Civil Servant. It was one of those very few books that I read cover to cover. I howled with laughter but also started thinking a little bit about life.

I had heard of Quentin Crisp before that but, like a lot of people, I hadn’t taken much notice. In many people’s imagination, he’s reduced to merely a very camp figure, like a cross between John Inman and Boy George. And he just simply wasn’t like that at all. I was amazed to read in the book about the chosen degradation and the isolation. He didn’t shut himself off but he didn’t rush out to find people either. He said: ‘Just stay right where you are and wait for society to form itself around you’.

Once I finished the book, I started trying to find Quentin on YouTube. I saw an interview with him done by ITV in 1968. It was just filmed at his flat in Chelsea. There was no structure to it, it was gorgeously random, they just pointed the camera at him and let him talk. When I watched that, I thought, there’s the seed of a really good piece there.

However, rather than just take that snapshot from the 1960s or just do a play about his later years, I wanted to do something that hadn’t bee done before: I wanted to do both, and show the dovetail between them. The idea sat in my head for about three years and then I sat down and started writing the play exactly a year ago.

The first half of the play is set in his flat in London in the ‘60s when he’s acquired his wisdom and his experience but it’s like, what do I do with it? At that point, he thought he’d done and said everything you could do and say and that that was it; he was just like a character in a Beckett play, waiting to die. He said, ‘I’ve reached the end of my personality.’

The second half is set in New York 30 years later after The Naked Civil Servant was televised (starring John Hurt) and he became famous and moved to America. So there’s a big time jump and you see what he became as a result of all his experiences. I leave it to the audience to make the connection between these two very different periods and look at the journey that he went on between them.

Why is Quentin Crisp still relevant today? Because his overriding message was ‘you must be yourself’. In his case, that happened to be having dyed hair, lipstick, painted nails, open-toed sandals (so you could see his pedicure) and an effeminate voice. He was not doing that as an argument for gay liberation, he was just saying, this is what I am; and you must be what you are.

And I think a lot of people struggle with that. It’s something that I’ve worked on very hard with myself. I’ve been through two bouts of therapy, and it’s only when I really stuck with it the second time that I realised I’d spent the first 30-odd years of my life – I’m 37 now – doing a very good impersonation of myself. Because it was such a good impersonation, there wasn’t much of a need to break out of it, until other things started to go wrong with my life.

It was about that same time that I discovered The Naked Civil Servant. And Quentin is one of the people who I’ve looked to for inspiration and courage. People want you to be a certain thing, they want you to be that familiar person who fits into a certain slot. And Quentin always said, well, forget all that, just be what you are, no matter what the cost. In his case, the cost was very substantial.

There’s a big section in the second half of the play when he talks about what he called the ‘journey to the interior’. I would feel like a sham if I was offering that to audiences and I hadn’t at least tried it myself.

It’s 15 years since Quentin died. His books are no longer widely available, the John Hurt film was 40 years ago, and there’s just not a lot of Quentin out there. I wish there was someone somewhere doing him in some theatre every day of the year so you could just drop in and spend some time with him. It’s up to people like me, and whoever else wants to have a go, to breathe some life into Quentin and keep him out there. Otherwise, where is he?

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