Monday, June 26, 2017

Conrad Alexandrowicz: The Wines of Tuscany

Two decades after the “cocktail” transformed HIV-AIDS into a manageable long-term condition--for those who respond to the drugs, and who can afford and have access to treatment--AIDS memoir has slipped from the central place it held in gay literature during the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. Many of those works--in turns searing, elegiac, angry, urgent, tender--were the crucibles in which a generation of queer men refined the hard-won truths of their spiritual lives.

Among the most moving works for theatre that came out of the crisis was Victoria-based playwright Conrad Alexandrowicz’s The Wines of Tuscany (1996).  

For me, the opening monologue, in which Ben narrates his unashamedly sexualized recurring dream of Christ’s Passion, is a courageous assertion of the non-dualtiy of flesh and spirit. In this, it stands beside the homoerotic devotional imagery of the photographs of John Dugdale and of Oscar Wolfman, beside Keith Haring’s AIDS altarpiece at the Episcopal cathedrals of New York and San Francisco, beside Terrence McNally’s reimagining of the life of a queer white-trash Texan Christ in his play Corpus Christi. 

By happy circumstance, I had a chance to unleash my inner groupie in admiration for his work when I found myself introduced to Alexandowicz in a Toronto museum last month. He kindly agreed to share here some words of introduction to the play, along with Ben’s opening and closing speeches.



This play is a one-act physical-theatre duet for male performers about memory, pleasure, and loss. It is also about wine, food, architecture, sex and opera. The play is set to a score composed of original material as well as excerpts from operas by Verdi and Mozart, and uses dialogue, movement and song to convey its narrative. 

The piece is essentially a man's reminiscence of the last trip to Italy taken by himself and his lover, who has since died of AIDS. Long-time opera- and wine-lovers, the two make one more tour through Tuscany in search of the ultimate red wine experience. As his lover's illnesses worsen, the search becomes more desperate, and wine comes to represent a magical substance that can provide an aesthetic experience so powerful that it is an elixir of life. The journey is therefore about the quest to prove that beauty, like love, is stronger than death. 

The Wines of Tuscany originated at Vancouver's New Play Festival and was subsequently produced twice more in that city. It then toured to Calgary, Edmonton, Victoria and Toronto, where it ran for six weeks at the Tarragon Theatre. It has won numerous awards.

A one-act dance-theatre duet for male performers

[Setting: A large painted backdrop portrays a composite of typical elements of Italian high Renaissance architecture. . . . There is a living room setting downstage right, a couch and carved chest with a wine bottle and glass. . . . The lights come up on the last crashing measures of La Traviata: Violetta dies of consumption as Alfredo, his father, the doctor and the maid all howl in anguish. The chords fade away as Ben is discovered on the couch down right. He sits up, pours a taste of Il Grigio da San Felice, Riserva 1990, sniffs the bouquet, tastes it, and then begins to address the audience]


BEN: I had the dream again. [Music: the Preludio from La Traviata]  Under a black sky, stinking of sulphur, promising the rains of doom, I see the crucified Christ twisting like an animal impaled alive on a spit. He's been stripped of the usual ragged loincloth; he has a huge, raging erection. [Edward stands and begins to move]   He's pumping the air with his pelvis. Suddenly he's coming... wildly, magnificently, endlessly. This shower of cum is bestowed over the assembled multitudes below, who receive it into their hands like fallen gold, ecstatically; a magic transforming fluid that has the power to heal and restore. I understand that this Christ was sent from the hand of God the Father to heal the world, and he's been punished for it. And God's in his heaven, weeping as gods sometimes do when they can do nothing to help. So his son does the only thing left in his power: he performs this magnificent last miracle, this stupendous, epic orgasm, generated from the superhuman pain of his all-too-human tormented body. From his seed will grow clear sight, calm thinking, the benefit of the doubt. The hand extended to the one who calls out, palm open, no questions asked.
The dream changes, exactly the same way, every time. He appears. [Ben crosses to Edward. They variously dance, slide, roll and run together throughout the rest of the speech]  His eyes like chocolate truffles, his shiny, springy hair; his shapely hands. It's him alright, it's actually him! I gasp, with amazement, with horror even. Then I begin to weep. And then I get hard, just like always: I'd only to look at him and I'd get hard. I'd think of him on the bus or subway, and get a lump in my jeans. Very embarrassing before getting off: the old ladies sitting with their shopping, their eyes at crotch level.
In this dream we're on a train travelling north to Siena. The idea is to get away from Rome as soon as possible. I love the sprawling mess of this city; these many cities from different ages piled together, but he finds it oppressive, and appalling, especially the traffic, which seems to be lethal to everything that walks the earth. You think they're actually trying to run you over, but when you wade out into the river of FIATS in front of the Victor Emmanuel monument, they all slow down just enough so you can cross; they part like the Red Sea did for Moses and the children of Israel. It's a miracle: what better place to experience a miracle than the Eternal City? He always said they only avoid killing pedestrians because of the inconvenience and expense of lawsuits. [Edward brings the chairs to centre stage. Train scene] 

We're on this train, going to Chianti, for the wines of course, and I'm gazing out of the window at the parade of hill towns passing by, rosy stone in the morning sun, each with its immaculate bell-tower gravely lifting its head toward the heaven of Giotto and Palestrina. He always let me have the window seat. I turn to my right, and there he is. I turn to my right, and there he is. I turn to my right... [Edward falls in slow motion to the floor]  Ah, tu fosti il primo oggetto che sinor fedel amai, e tu l'ultimo sarai ch'abbia nido in questo cor.

SCENE 18 [Ben moves to the side of the couch]
BEN: He fell. The stairs of the pensione. All the way down. And sustained multiple fractures in his left leg because his bones were so weak. We made it to Rome, but they wouldn't let us on the plane. By then he had pneumonia again. If you're that sick they won't let you. It's a long flight, the liability and all that. So, he's still there. Where he always wanted to be. He'll never leave now. It was worth it: he was lucky enough to find out.

I want to be saved. I go to bed at night repeating those words to myself like an old Italiana telling her rosary. “Somebody save me, somebody take me home.” But nothing can save us, certainly no Chianti Classico, or Vino nobile or Brunello. And no one is coming to take us home. This is it: we've arrived. There's only one other place to go. You pay the boatman a small fee, because there's no end to tipping, no matter what, and if you're lucky, he'll get you there quickly. Plague has come before. It comes again. And the water of life can do nothing in the face of it.

In my dream the crucified Christ comes down from the cross. The look in his eyes is infinitely sad. He shuffles towards me with his hands extended in front of him. The wounds are still bleeding, but, there's music coming from them. You take another sip of the best stuff you've brought back from your trip, and listen. It's the most beautiful sound you've ever heard! 

[Music: The sublime trio “Soave sia il vento” from Mozart’s Così fan Tutte. Ben simply sits and listens to the music, then pours another glass of wine, stands, toasts and drinks, all in slow motion. He sits down, then lies along the couch, one arm framing his head, as the lighting produces a complex sunset effect timed to the music. Long fade to black]  

(Cast photo from the Tarragon Theatre production of 1997)

Saturday, June 24, 2017

"Any god who is mine  but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol."
--Abraham Heschel

Monday, June 19, 2017

"The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me."
--Meister Eckhart

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Household Gods

Maybe it's odd to call the shelf above my desk an altar. It's actually a blocked-in window frame from before this cottage was expanded 60 or 70 years ago. It's not as though I have a practice that's anchored to the space--unless the whole of my time at my desk is a kind of practice. Perhaps I should just call it a reminder of some things that sustain me and energize my life, carried from winter quarters to summer quarters and set out here for as long as this migration lasts.

To the lower left, a statue of Hanuman that held the ring I received from the man I used to live with, for the year after our relationship ended.

The decorated box I worked on for two months last summer.

Above it, a poor inkjet copy of Josef Kozak's "Cernunnos," who for me is also Shiva, Jesus, and the stud of my dreams, all rolled into one.

The mala I use to count breaths during centering prayer, draped over one of a trinity of ceramic phalluses slip-cast by Abwoon.

The singing bowl I bought at the gift shop of Wildwood during Body Electric's Dear Love of Comrades retreat fifteen years ago.

An icon from the shrine of Julian of Norwich that a sometime lover and friend of thirty years gave me on my fiftieth birthday. Which was way too fucking long ago.

A Shiva Lingam given to a friend of mine by a closeted gay man in Varanasi, and gifted me in turn.

Around another of Abwoon's slipcast phalluses, to the left, a talisman made by Badger from a smooth river stone and twisted recycled copper wire.

In the foreground, the clutter of my desk.

Ask me at the end of the summer what it all means.

And the box:

Antique hardware store drawer, beachcombings, cropped Tom Bianchi photographs, acrylic paint. Slicing up Bianchi's sexy, commodifying images of buff circuit boyz helps me work through my deep ambivalence about his pictures. On the one hand, I blush to say I find them riveting. On the other hand, I find the ethics of his project deeply unsettling. Yes, his pictures celebrate joyous and unashamed male eros. But they also create very little space for those of us whose DNA doesn't make the grade, and who haven't spent twenty hours a week at the gym for the last five years.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Not So Long Ago, In a Place Not So Far Away: A guest post by Hoppergrass

On the cusp of summer's arrival (or sort of), thanks to Hoppergrass for his reflections on what we've lost, and we could regain.

Not so long ago, in a place not so far away, men and boys swam naked.

Philip Gladstone, "The Twenty."

They undressed, showered, eliminated and horsed around together. I thought about this during a recent trip to Iceland, where trans-generational communal showers are ubiquitous at geothermally heated swimming complexes and at natural hot springs. Every facility had a large sign in the (un)dressing room instructing the patrons to "shower nude" before entering the waters. In the gang showers, there were fit 20-30 somethings, flabby elders, gangly teens, prepubescent boys, along with toddlers and infants in readily-available plastic highchairs that allowed their responsible-adults to shower unimpeded. I observed no evidence of embarrassment, no shame, no averted eyes nor intentional exhibitionism as soapy hands washed bodies, pits, genitals, and ass-cracks. These weren’t clothing-optional or nudist facilities: the mixed-gender pool area required bathing suits.  


When did this all change in North America? 

In the late 19th century, as idyllically photographed and painted by Thomas Eakins, male trans-generational nude swimming was commonplace.

While mixed-gender bathing required full-torso garments for both women and men until after WW II, when men began routinely to expose their chests, the acceptance of men naked together in and around water persisted through mid-20th century America as they swam in schools, at the Y, and at private athletic clubs. 

Between the end of WW II and the rise of hippiedom, prudery progressively covered genitalia in all-male environments. As an early adolescent in the late 1950’s at boy scout camp, we still went skinny-dipping. I wonder how often that happens now. 

When did men and boys start feeling a fear of nakedness in front of other males? Why do even men cruising gay bathhouses today walk about with towels around their waists? Why do some gay men at “clothing-optional” resorts wear swimsuits not just to lounge but while in the pool or hot-tub? 

Not long ago I visited a hot springs north of San Francisco frequented by people of all genders and sexual orientations. Although the bathing area was designated “clothing optional”, only a few women wore bikini bottoms, and all men were nude. And then, in the more conservative East, my grandson and I were naked in an old-fashioned gang shower alongside a mix of boys, teens, men and elders -- most showering uninhibitedly, though a few wore their swimsuits as they soaped and rinsed. There I overheard an exchange between a preschooler and his grandfather, a child’s inquiry answered directly and accurately, without embarrassment: 

"I have a penis and you have a penis."
"My penis is little and your penis is big." "
Yes, But your penis will be big when you get big."
For way too long, I lived with a negative body image, and in particular felt deep anxiety about cock size. I wonder whether an easily accessible zone of shared social nudity among men would have helped me recognize earlier that I was just fine, right where I belonged on the spectrum of male anatomy. I wonder how much youthful (and adult) anxiety about the variety of male bodies, young and old, the restitution of shared nude swimming might defuse.

Paintings by Philip Gladstone.