Adam (Nick Hern Books) is a play based on the true story of a young trans-gender Egyptian who has to contend with various pressures, hostilities, and sanctions (domestic, political, sexual). Adam begins as a girl from a traditional Mid-Eastern family that is fundamentally paternalistic. Called “princess,” she struggles with the conflict between her outer biology and inner feelings to be a male, eventually defying her parents (to the point of creating a rift with her chauvinistic father, and being cast out of her home as a result), surviving physical and psychological abuse at work and by the local police, and eventually being forced to seek asylum (as Adam) in Scotland. The playwright renders two Adams (an Egyptian and a Glasgow one), at different ages, who also play other roles as well: the title character’s parents, a Manager, a Stranger, a Home Office Representative, a GP, a translator, a Mental-Health Nurse, et cetera. First performed by the National Theatre of Scotland in August 2017, it is vivid theatre, highly charged, witty in parts, and deeply affecting.
For one thing, it is a stark reminder of forces that come to bear oppressively on any group that must defend its sexual identity as anything other than an illness, a sin, or crime. But where some such groups (gay or lesbian) resort to a hostile or inappropriate superciliousness, transgendered groups do not—at least on the available evidence to date in theatre—Adam refuses this tone. Instead, it stays rooted in its own time and place, indulging in amusing references to pop culture (especially the Lord of the Rings, Sex and the City, and Alien movies), tracing the psychological burdens of enforced evasion, where the deeply troubled protagonist is pressured to lie about his true feelings, but who, eventually, as a 19-year old courageously refuses to subscribe to any guilt about what he has done to his body. Adam may be physically and psychologically scarred at the end, but he proudly repeats to his mother her own dictum: “a beautiful thing is not perfect.”
Adam plays a palpable role in changing the boundaries of theatre when it comes to sexuality because its transgender theme is destabilizing, especially following the earlier sociological issue of bisexuality in gender identification and practice. If bisexuals are often accused of wanting to have it both ways (of being greedy, in witty parlance), transgender people are even more of a condemned muddle to proponents of fixed sexual identity. The play also implicitly raises the tension between essentialist and social constructionist ideologies. The former asserting gender and sexuality as biologically determined traits; the latter arguing for a redefinition of sexuality in different cultures and eras. After having survived (just barely) abuse, assault, exile, hunger, and condemnation in his native country and abroad (with their own respective oppressions of religious decree, family custom, and sexual politics), Adam finally feels more secure, more natural in his reconstructed gender because to him, the new gender is the real thing, his essence.
Turning to Queers (Nick Hern Books) the British anthology of eight monologues performed on the BBC and skilfully curated (with succinct introductory commentary) by Mark Gatiss, we find a celebration of evolving mores and political milestones in British gay history. Among the eight characters who deliver monologues are a young soldier on a railway platform who recounts seeing a devastated Oscar Wilde on his way to prison; a young tranny who appears to be a “perfect gentleman;” a woman married to a gay man; a young actor confronting sexual stereotypes and a lover infected with AIDS; and a man who celebrates the advent of legalized gay marriage. This is range enough, but it is extended by monologues spoken by a gay black man on the fringes of sub-culture; an older waspish, hilariously camp gay; and a teenager commemorating his first full gay experience after the House of Commons lowered the legal age for gay sex to 18.
What is especially fascinating about all these monologues, beside their superb evocations of character and tone, is their settings in time. They were all curated for the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act in Britain, and each of them marks points on a locus of British gay history, starting in 1917 (“The Man on the Platform”) when a law was crafted to ensnare “indecent” males; passing to 1929 (“The Perfect Gentleman”) and a back story involving a real-life woman living as a man; moving into the forties and an entrée into a queer black demi-monde (“Safest Spot in Town”); and then the later fifties (“Missing Alice”) and a middle-class wife’s discovery and acceptance of her husband’s gay side. The textures change, as well, evoking a little Rattigan in “Missing Alice” and more than a touch of camp sophistication in “I Miss the War.” The 80s and 90s bring out an eerie gravity under the billowing shadow of AIDS, with gay characters (a young actor in “More Anger” and a young teenager in “A Grand Day Out”) battling clichés, health crises, legal injunctions, and societal prejudices, culminating in “Something Borrowed,” a colourful monologue by a man, joyous over his impending gay marriage and its sliver of legal liberation.
There is no weak monologue in the collection but some pieces go deeper and more vividly into their subjects. What unalloyed pleasure there is to be had in the sheer language and character-sketches! Some of the monologues are guaranteed to affect different readers in various ways. I was especially touched by Mark Gatiss’s young soldier on the railway platform who experiences the ugly and the beautiful all in a single day, his heart beating to the different vibrations, just as I revelled in the sheer style of Matthew Baldwin’s camp 60-year old Jack, with his bawdy humour and momentary flips into polari (London slang). The English certainly have a way with words, and even their didacticism can have a cachet, as in the final monologue—Gareth McLean’s romantic “Something Borrowed” that revives the memory of Oscar Wilde through a brief quotation while exultantly making its case for authoring one’s own life to the damnably futile consternation of straight society. Of course, it should be duly noted that these monologues were devised for television rather than the stage, so this accounts for their literary weight.