Brian Edward and Phillip Ward both grew up gay. But while they were born two decades apart and hundreds of miles distant, they had something else in common: the influence of a man named Quentin Crisp. It’s a legacy they’ve teamed up to foster in the stage show “Quentin Crisp: The Last Word,” which gets its world premiere this week, in Pittsburgh.
Crisp was a British wit, author and TV personality of the late 20th century. He was born in 1908, as Dennis Charles Pratt. He rose to fame largely on the strength of his 1968 autobiography, “The Naked Civil Servant,” in which he detailed the difficulties of growing up gay and effeminate in a country where gay sex was a crime. (The book’s title references Crisp’s many years as an artists’ model on the payroll of the Ministry of Education.)
A British TV movie, starring John Hurt, followed in 1975, and Crisp gained a wider platform to expound his philosophy of personal style – the idea that only by figuring out who one really was could one live life to the fullest, even in the absence of beauty, talent, and money.
It wasn’t just Crisp’s own style that made him famous, with his swooping silver hairdo, tinted lavender, and his rakishly tilted fedora. His message, too, resonated with audiences for his popular one-man stage show – which he called “straight talk from a bent speaker” and “a sermon from a priest more sinful than you are” – as well as viewers of his numerous talk-show appearances, and beyond.
Ward, for instance, grew up “in the hills of Eastern Kentucky in the early ’70s,” and it was “a pretty frightful time to be a gay person,” he said. He discovered Crisp as a teenager by watching “Naked Civil Servant.”
“To see this man on television, in 1975, provided encouragement to be oneself, at all costs,” Ward said.
Brian Edward was born in Pittsburgh in the early '80s, but as a military kid grew up itinerant. He spent his high school years in the Berkshires, in Massachusetts, and first encountered Crisp via his memorable turn as Queen Elizabeth I in the 1992 arthouse film “Orlando.”
As Edward sought out Crisp’s writings, the effect on him was similar to what Ward experienced two decades earlier.
“Just that example of living in such a way that is so true to your inner self, regardless of what your surroundings may be,” said Ward. “It was just, 'OK, well, this is how to live' … because, you know, it brought a lot of joy.”
As an adult, in the 1980s, Ward moved to New York City, where Crisp himself had relocated. The two men met – Crisp was famously accessible, with the number of his home phone, on the Lower East Side, legible to all in the Manhattan phone book. In the last decade or so of the older man's life, Ward became his friend and personal assistant, even taking dictation of the final volume of Crisp’s autobiography, “The Last Word.” Crisp died in 1999, at age 90, and Ward became executor of his estate and director of the Quentin Crisp Archives.
For his part, after high school, Edward returned to Pittsburgh to study acting at Point Park University, and stayed to act and write. He also became host of the online arts magazine ’Burgh Vivant, and kept up with Crisp in his own way. In 2018, when “The Last Word” was published, he read it. Inspired one night – he acknowledged that a glass or two of wine might have been involved – he emailed Ward and suggested doing a new stage show incorporating the newly published material.
“What impressed him was my knowledge and respect for the Crisp legacy and the fact that I’m 38 and that, as he sees it, it’s my generation that’s going to carry on that legacy,” said Edward.
While other stage shows have honored Crisp, Ward said “The Last Word” is the first sanctioned by the estate, and the first based entirely upon Crisp’s own words. Edward, directed by Spencer Whale, plays Crisp wearing a wig and a version of his trademark outfit.
“So I have a twenty-something [director], thirty-something-year-old [actor], two individuals presenting to a newer generation, a newer audience, and I find that really exciting,” said Ward, who planned to attend the entire eight-performance run of the show in Pittsburgh.
Act 1 reprises Crisp’s own solo show, and such bon mots as “Never try to keep up with the Joneses. Drag them down to your level. It’s cheaper!” Crisp pays homage to such diverse icons of personal style as Elizabeth Taylor, Muhammad Ali, and Eva Peron. Act 2 draws heavily on the eponymous book. It includes Crisp’s revelation, dating from just months before his death, that he no longer considered himself gay, but rather transgender. Had gender-confirmation surgery been available to him when he was young, he says, he would have availed himself.
While Crisp is little known to younger people today, among older generations he remains a gay icon.
“I really believe he was the reincarnation of Oscar Wilde, and a very elegant gentleman,” said Richard Parsakian, an LGBTQ advocate who owns Eon Fashion Antique, in Shadyside. Parsakian moved to Pittsburgh in the early ’70s, after college. He recalls the stir Crisp created.
“It’s amazing to hear him speak the truth without any regard to what people think about him,” he said.
The “Last Word” script also touches on ways in which Crisp deviated from prevailing attitudes. Although he rose to fame in the wake of the Stonewall riots, for instance, Crisp disdained politics and protest movements, saying that they compromised people’s individuality. He also said that while in England he was disliked by mainstream society — more for being effeminate than for being gay — and embraced by the queer community, the situation in the U.S. was just the reverse. And indeed, Crisp sometimes chided gay people for a certain cultural conformity, and for seeming to desire acceptance by mainstream society.
Crisp’s apparent provocations are part of what keep him relevant today, says Tim Haggerty, director of the Humanities Scholars program at Carnegie Mellon University and co-director of the Pittsburgh Queer History Project.
“He was such a refreshing character because — and even to this day — there is this emphasis for gay men, and lesbians, and to a lesser extent the larger LGBTQ community, a movement towards normalization,” said Haggerty. “Here he was kind of reveling in his otherness. And thank God! … You can’t spend your life worrying about whether someone’s going to like you.”
“For lack of a better term, it’s the politics of being fabulous,” Haggerty added.
“The Last Word” is produced by the Quentin Crisp Archive with the assistance of ’Burgh Vivant.
The show is staged at City Theatre’s intimate Lester Hamburg Studio Theatre, on the South Side. There are eight performances starting Thursday.
Edward and Ward will participate in question-and-answer sessions following both Sunday matinees. The final performance, on Feb. 16, will be attended by Crisp’s grand-niece Michele Pratt.