‘Silly Old Fairy’: The Ageing Queer Abroad in Literature
A protagonist—white, male, gay, and middle aged—takes a trip to Europe. There, he finds himself confronted with his ageing and, repulsed, tries to hide it. Armoured with the disguise of youth, he preys on young boys, whose vitality only reminds him of his own mortality. And then he dies. Dies for beauty, the author claims, though the reader sees the grisly, sweaty, perfumed truth: it’s all so sordid.
It is a trope peppered throughout twentieth century literature; an army of Panama-hatted over forties, with green carnations in their buttonholes and young Italian men on their minds, but a remarkably specific/niche trope, nonetheless. So what are writers like Everett, Williams, and Mann trying to achieve by including such a protagonist in their pieces? Perhaps they are simply depicting something they, as queer men of the twentieth century, have observed; or perhaps they suggest that queerness must adapt. In creating the young twink ideal, from Bosie to Chalamet, queer culture has embittered and disparaged gay men over the age of forty: these characters’ predatory behaviours are insidious and desperate attempts to restore their youth, thanks in part to a queer culture that worships the young. These same sordid stories of white, pederastic love have been told to death, hence the brutal end of the three protagonists. Their deaths make this essay something of an obituary, to the expiring trope of the ageing queer abroad.
Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912) is a story that has gained new relevance, with its protagonist, Aschenbach, quarantined in cholera-stricken Venice. However, upon rereading in lockdown, what jumped out to me was not Aschenbach’s poor attempts at social distancing, but his pederasty. Aschenbach holidays in Venice and lusts for a fellow tourist, the fourteen-year-old Tadzio—a transgressive lust that Mann insists is merely classical aesthetic appreciation.
Aschenbach is pathetic yet predatory. Early in the text, on the ship over to Venice, he watches a group of young men, and is repulsed by one of their number. The man he mistakes for a youth is, on closer observation, in fact ‘not a youth at all’. He mocks the pantomime of the ageing man: ‘the dull carmine cheeks was rouge, the brown hair a wig, his turned up moustaches dyed [and] the unbroken row of yellow teeth, too obviously a cheap false set. Aschenbach was moved to shudder.’ Why though is he so repulsed? Perhaps the ritual of make-up and costume is too performatively vulgar; perhaps he feels cheated, a pederast robbed of perceived youth; or, more convincingly, Aschenbach is horrified to see in this man something of himself. Later in the text, dying of cholera and desperately attempting to impress his Tadzio, Aschenbach dyes his hair, wears new perfumes, rouges his cheeks, and becomes the very grotesque he earlier derided. ‘The presence of that youthful beauty that had bewitched him’, Mann writes of Tadzio, ‘now filled him with disgust of his own ageing body.’ Repulsion and attraction are bound so close, in this queer obsession with youth.
Aschenbach’s fatal holiday in Italy is just one of many tales of a fleeting European love affair. It reminded me of the amount of queer texts with an older-younger dynamic that take place in Europe, particularly with connections to Italy: The Neoplatonics, Giovanni’s Room, even the modern queer favourite, Call Me By Your Name. In Giovanni’s Room, Jacques, an American businessman, and Guillame, a club owner, both wealthy and ageing, turn to showering young men with money in return for sexual favours. Their transactional relationships with these men are made especially contemptible by Baldwin’s emphasis of Jacques’ age, and Guillame’s ugliness. They are comical characters, and yet lingering beneath that playful grotesque is a sinister lasciviousness and troubling attitude to youth and sex. Beginning with Death in Venice, I began to track this pederastic, pierrotic figure, finding him next in Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer (1958).
Williams’ distinctly Southern Gothic play is set in the hothouse of a Louisiana mansion, as the Venable family attempts to settle a dispute regarding the rumours surrounding the violent death of their late relative Sebastian. The play consists almost entirely of Sebastian’s cousin Catherine’s account of his death on a Spanish beach and of the conflicting pleas from Sebastian’s mother, Violet, who attempts to remain ignorant to her son’s homosexuality, ageing and abuses. Though unseen onstage, the late Sebastian’s predatory presence haunts the play, right down to the carnivorous plants in the hothouse setting.
Despite the graphic nature of Catherine’s account, Sebastian’s queerness is never explicitly addressed. His homosexuality, for the first half of the play at least, is only really hinted at through descriptions of him as sensitive and fair, and the allusion in his name to the queer-co-opted martyr, Saint Sebastian. Violet acts as gatekeeper to his memory, depicting him as saintly as his namesake. Her Sebastian is ‘chaste’, ever-young, and perpetually in search of beauty, always insistent ‘upon good looks in people around him; he had a perfect little court of the young and the beautiful, whether here in New Orleans or on the Riviera, or in Venice’. This coding of queerness is unsettlingly implicit in an otherwise graphically explicit play, but the obsession with youth and beauty foreshadows Catherine’s disclosure of his predilections: ‘I think he recognised some of the boys, between childhood and older’.
Though Violet Venable keeps herself firmly in the dark, the audience is never in any doubt of Sebastian’s partiality for young boys, his paedophilia reflected in the violence of his death—arguably also a graphic symbol for the societal hostility to queerness. The boys swarm him, and when he reappears, dead, he is ‘naked as they had been naked, and they had devoured parts of him’. The foreigner, fetishistically feasting on their culture and their children, is in turn eaten himself. Indeed, his role as a foreigner as well an older gay man is important. The American Sebastian is a distinctly white figure: Williams refers to the whiteness of his silk suit, his hat, even the pills he takes. This whiteness reinforces the image of predatory colonial behaviour, the old white man starkly contrasted with the ‘dark naked children’ he preyed upon. In Catherine’s memory of Cabeza de Lobo, he becomes a sordid grotesque and Violet’s eunuchoid effigy of her late son crumbles. Just like Aschenbach, Sebastian pursues youthful beauty in a vicarious desire to recover it in himself, presuming safety from judgement in a country far from his own.
Though sixty years have passed between Williams’ play and Rupert Everett’s biopic of Wilde’s final years, The Happy Prince (2018), the trope has endured. The ageing queer has staggered from Venice, to Cabeza da Lobo, and this time settled in Paris. Unlike Mann and Williams, Everett writes after the legalisation of homosexuality, and is therefore afforded more explicit queerness in his film. Despite this time difference, the situation of the fictionalised Wilde is similar to Aschenbach and Venable, save for the fact that his travels are no holiday, but exile after imprisonment.
Half an hour into The Happy Prince, there is a scene in which Wilde sits on a deck chair in Dieppe, staring at a group of dandies on the shore, in a scene that feels heavily inspired by the death of Aschenbach, sitting in a deckchair watching boys play in the water. It seems that Everett has benefited from the time between Death in Venice and his own film, allowing him to write his Wilde somewhat in response to his predecessors. Wilde’s death in the film, in the squalid Parisian hotel room is as much a death for the character as it is for all three of the figures, and for the trope itself.
Eight minutes into the film, Wilde applies rouge to his sagging jowls in a dirty mirror. It is like watching a mortician embalm a corpse; Everett’s Wilde is a greasy, bloated cadaver, shuffling around Europe with absinthe-numbed lips leaking drool. He is far from the glamorous, quipping witticist hailed as an icon by those who read his plays; he is not a likeable man. Looking markedly like Toulouse Lautrec’s portrait of the vain and ageing writer, red lips pursed like a hideous doll, Wilde sits in a Parisian gin palace, flirting with a young male prostitute easily half his age. The prostitute and his brother bear an uncomfortable cinematic resemblance to Wilde’s two sons who but minutes before were onscreen in a flashback, being comforted by their father. This parallel adds an unpleasant seediness to Wilde’s sexual tastes. Plying the boys with cocaine and absinthe, turning the younger boy into his older brother’s pimp, Wilde’s predatory nature is made all the more obvious; his pantomiming efforts to make himself look young do little to soften the abrasive edge of his abuse. ‘Be careful’, says Firth’s character, Reggie, ‘he’ll eat you’. It is a disturbing reminder of Venable’s fate.
It is important to remember that, although Wilde’s homosexuality was pardoned, the alleged ages of the boys he consorted with continue to tarnish the writer’s reputation. Through the grotesque vanities The Happy Prince’s Wilde employs to regain his youth, as if to trick the young boys, Everett reminds us of the problems of creating a ‘gay icon’, a mythos around prominent queer figures. By turning the memory of Wilde into a harmless, witty social flâneur, a ‘silly old fairy’ as Morgan’s Bosie jokes, we sanitise him to a dangerous degree: just as he creates a façade of rouge and hair dye to disguise the seamy persona beneath, gay icon culture denies the problematic human realities of the figures it champions. Perhaps the ages of Aschenbach, Venable, and Wilde are used as a mere motif by their writers, indicative of just how dated icon culture is. Early twentieth century queerness may have been dominated by white masculinity, but Everett’s mumbling, shuffling aged Wilde shows us that this age of the ‘iconic’ cisgender white gay man has reached its expiry date: Oscar Wilde must make way for Jeremy O. Harris, so to speak.
It is common in literature of the twentieth century for writers to punish their characters for queerness; Mann, Williams, and Everett, as queer men themselves, don’t. Instead, their characters die for trying to cheat the passage of time, die for the societal hostility to their queerness, die for the abuses and perversions they commit in the name of pursuing youth and beauty. Their trips to Europe are as doomed as their attempts to regain their youth. In the continental summer heat the ageing men swelter to the point of humiliation. Their linen suits don’t hide their middle-aged paunches; the bright riviera sun makes their greying roots obvious; Aegean waters wash the rouge from their cheeks.
Torn apart and eaten, Sebastian is the victim of a visceral, predatory death made manifest in a way his abuses were not. Aschenbach’s fate is more pathetic but nonetheless a condemnation of his lifestyle: he reaches out to Tadzio, dancing stygian in the sea, and expires on the beach. He had defended his pederasty with classical romance, and so in death he is taunted with imagery of a prepubescent Charon and a venetian Styx. Wilde too is an ageing martyr at the altar of pederastic aestheticism. He is punished by the state for the ‘gross indecency’ of his homosexuality, and for that the viewer sympathises. But he is further punished by Everett, for going back to Bosie, the boy who ruined him; for frittering the last of his money on Parisian adolescents and sycophants; for, even in his exile, seeking opulence and luxury on the continent, sampling European boys like some pederastic buffet. For this, the viewer’s sympathy wears thin.
We look then to Everett’s The Happy Prince, the most modern of these three pieces, as something of a moral guide (a notion the aesthete at the film’s centre would have abhorred). As Wilde lies dying in the damp Parisian hotel room, staring at the now infamous wallpaper, choking on his own sick, we are confronted with the pitiful reality no amount of rouge or hair dye can conceal. The twentieth century queer obsession with youth and the white gay man is dated, dying, perfumed shit. In its place, we can hope, is a more diverse queerness, a queerness less Von Gloeden and Vidal and more Vaid-Menon, one more tolerant, one less sordid, and one with distinctly fewer Panama hats.