Kitted out in a lavender gauze scarf, flashy gold embroidered shirt, and bejeweled lapel pins, actor Brian Edward brings Quentin Crisp’s wittily aphoristic autobiography to life in his one-man show The Last Word by Quentin Crisp. The world-premiere performance, which is adapted by Edward and Phillip Ward from Ward’s book of the same name and directed by Spencer Whale, draws on interviews with and writings by Crisp himself before his death in 1999 at the age of 91, and offers a glimpse into both Crisp’s own idiosyncratic life philosophy and the history of what it was like to live as a genderqueer individual in the twentieth century.
The first half of the solo performance recreates material from Crisp’s own one-man solo show An Evening with Quentin Crisp, in which Crisp shares advice and instruction on how to “create a lifestyle,” complete with pithy Wildean bon-mots and plenty of namechecking iconic avatars of style like Andy Warhol, Eva Peron, Elizabeth Taylor, and Mohammad Ali. Scattered throughout are ironic “messages of hope” along the lines of “never sweep the place where you live because after the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.” Impersonating Crisp at his coyest, Edward drips with the mixture of sly humor, flamboyant iconoclasm, and acerbic cynicism that made Crisp a sought-after dinner companion/performer.
But as the second half of the performance makes clear, Crisp was also a lightning rod throughout his life, drawing a mix of accolades and disdain from both the conventional and queer communities (his controversial dismissal of AIDS as a “fad” and description of homosexuality as a “disease” rightly enraged the latter). After the intermission comes the “frightening part of the program”: Crisp, at 90, looks back on a life lived on the isolating margins of both communities and realizes, all too late, that he has never been gay, but rather a woman – and that he would have been most happy had he had the opportunity to transition when young and live life quietly as the (female) owner of a country wool shop.
That image may be what is most sobering and surprising about The Last Word by Quentin Crisp: it’s hard to imagine this oversized, extroverted personality finding contentment as the dowdy, reclusive owner of a knitting establishment. Where The Last Word intrigues most is where it opens the door for contemplation of similar contradictions, as, for example, when Crisp claims, on the one hand, to find value primarily in people while, on the other, demolishing conventional ideas about love and commitment; or when he seeks to draw a distinction between himself and Oscar Wilde while all too strikingly putting his similarities with Wilde on display.
Perhaps most valuably, the peek this performance provides into the vicissitudes of queer life in the twentieth century vividly spotlights how rapidly the discourse around gender nonconformity has evolved – for the better – since Crisp’s death in 1999. The Last Word renders visible the sea change in the social and legal status of LGBTQ+ folks in the last few decades, and makes clear that despite all of the work that has yet to be done, history is moving in the right direction.