||Caressing Unknown Flesh
by R. M. Vaughan
To Hell with Objectivity. I feel no need whatsoever to be anything less than ecstatic over the arrival, finally, of a book of selected plays by Sky Gilbert. Like many Queer writers, I am in debt to his ferocious, fearless quest for the truths of living "outside" the normal, for the joy and ugliness of always being The Other.
When nobody else would say the four little A I D S out loud, Sky Gilbert wrote beautiful, hurtful elegies. When everybody else (including many gay men and lesbians) denied, denied, and denied again the gorgeous lusts of gay men and lesbians, he wrote detailed manuals to Desire and played them to packed houses. As the Queer movement slips into the banalities of the mainstream, and "passing" for straight is dressing for success, Gilbert is still, to paraphrase the New York drag queen Miss Banji Realness, "out the closet, down the hall, through the door, gone downtown, an' bought some shoes!"
Should every emerging Queer playwright mincing (or stomping) across the boards of Canadian theatre pay some token of what they owe to Gilbert and buy This Unknown Flesh, it will quickly outsell all the pale volumes of coy domestic dramas currently being peddled as our national stagecraft. It might even teach a few players just where they come from.
Many people will read it and wonder, reasonably, Where have these plays been hiding? Gilbert himself is hardly the quiet, light-under-the-bushel sort-if anything, the media is frequently more concerned with Gilbert the activist than Gilbert the author. But, as Robert Wallace points out in his lucid, memoir-driven introduction, the culture is only beginning to catch up to his confrontational style and the unbuttoned sexuality his work thrives on.
Wallace reminds the reader that in Gilbert's hyper-theatrical plays, "the border separating on- and off-stage life is ambiguous, if not arbitrary," and that the "unknown flesh of the queer body is as much a theatrical construction as a corporeal entity with material limits." And therein is the key to his long absence from the "respectable" dual industries of publication and promotion. Because he makes Queerness mutable, free, and, like a happy virus, transferable from performer to watcher, it follows that the very qualities that make his plays great also make his plays great threats. You could catch Queerness at a Gilbert play, and, even more frightening for the subscription set who dominate what is read and performed in the nation's venues, you might warm to the fever.
More than any of his contemporaries, Gilbert respects Desire. Not to mention madness, filthy minds, and lewd talk. But underneath the intentionally vulgar, but oddly shiny crusts of his plays lurks a profound inability to judge. While so much Canadian theatre wallows in crime and punishment scenarios dappled by traumas of the week, he gives us characters we can neither love nor deny, worship nor shun.
"Face this character," his work demands.
We are freed by his plays because he audaciously expects his audiences to be smart and thoughtful and not to need "the well-made play": the kind that so neatly ties our shoes and helps us with our coats when the house lights come up. Not that Gilbert couldn't write the classic three-act number in his sleep, but, rather, as a rich socialite once told me, it's only when you understand manners and form that you can smash both with panache (and be loved all the more for the splinters).
Small gems, like In Which Pier Paolo Pasolini Sees His Own Death in the Face of a Boy, Pasolini/Pelosi, and Hester: An Introduction, detail Gilbert's continuing obsession with obsession. Where does madness collide with love, or with danger, and is either so bad? Gilbert's metatheatre coup is to position the viewer both as voluntary insider-a witness for the defence-and as court illustrator, able only to see glimpses, lines, and shades of the complexities of conscious and unconscious need. Full plays like Theatrelife, one of the sharpest, most acerbic, and most quotable plays ever written by a Canadian, and the new play More Divine, a philosophical puppet-show-cum-epic-poem, prove that Gilbert's ability to match headgames with heartbreak, tropes with titillation, remains unmatched.
These plays are the brilliant coins at the bottom of Canada's stuffed cultural purse. But all that will change with their publication-as Gilbert's currency sees the light of day, expect it to become happily grubby with use.
If This Unknown Flesh doesn't lead to a flood of Gilbert revivals, it's only courage and vision that will keep his plays off Canadian stages.
Several months ago I argued in print that Sky Gilbert was simultaneously the most un-Canadian and Canadian of playwrights. Although one misses the usual Canadian scenarios-unhappy miners, Prairie families bundled against the cold blasts of sexual repression, anything about the Wars-one always sees a fluidity of identities displayed; a shifting character ground that is inherently Canadian in being both derailed and conflicted. As a nation, we don't really know who we are-so it is only natural that we produce a playwright who refuses to pin his characters to anything as flimsy as a singular truth.
A litmus test: on the day that I wrote this review, two tiresome academics argued on the radio about whether or not Shakespeare could possibly have been a bisexual. The horror felt in both camps was stupidly evident. In such a climate, This Unknown Flesh becomes more remarkable with each reading. Less a book than an event, its damned brilliance becomes harder to deny with every step outside its pages and back into the timid flow of our main streams.