CONTENT NOTE

‘Queer Revelry’ makes mention of death, grieving, and trauma amongst queer communities.

           [1]Lights up.

           MATTHIAS: Feel like reading your epigraph?

           SAM: Sure?

           SAM clears his throat.

           ‘His eyes, glazed with emotion, defiant with tragic intensity, met theirs for a second, and trembled on the verge of recognition; but then, raising his hand, half-way to his face as if to avert, to brush off, in an agony of peevish shame, their normal gaze, as if he begged them to withhold for a moment what he knew to be inevitable, as if he impressed upon them his own child-like resentment of interruption, yet even in the moment of discovery was not to be routed utterly, but was determined to hold fast to something of this delicious emotion, this impure rhapsody of which he was ashamed, but in which he revelled—’

           A year after my friend died, I decided to write a play about Him (or rather, to write a play about myself without Him). Soon enough, I was in lockdown feeling like shit, grappling with all the usual misgivings that come up when one chooses to make art from trauma grief—why should I be the one writing about their death? Why should I write about their death at all? Making art from His death seemed narcissistic.

           SAM: It was.

           MATTHIAS: It is.      

           His death was His, and the prospect of aestheticising it felt solipsistic to the point of being morally reprehensible. But I did it anyway. And I’m doing it now. I couldn’t resolve these conflicts or answer these questions in any satisfying way, so I wrote them into the play instead. If I was being overly dramatic, I’d write an overly dramatic piece of theatre to match. Questions of quality, of dramaturgy, were unimportant—one feels their way through writing like this. Which means I wrote a terrible play about my dead friend.

           When Joan Didion began writing her infamous rumination on grief, My Year of Magical Thinking, she reread almost all of the novels by her late husband, John Gregory Dunne. Sitting next to her daughter in her hospital room she cries coming to the end of his final novel.[2] The ‘vortex’ which Didion uses to describe her grief is full of Dunne’s wordsfrom the pamphlet dedicated to the fiftieth reunion of his class at Princeton to a list he wrote of characters that died in a novel of his.[3] How can we describe this choice to dwell on his words?

            ‘The question of self-pity’ is one of the first things Didion writes after her Dunne dies. In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis describes dwelling on the memory of his late wife as a ‘bath of self-pity’. Remembering her brings forth the ‘sweet pleasure of indulgence’. It is an action he terms ‘the wallow’, as if wallowing had been waiting to harden into a noun in the wake of grief. What do we make of these descriptions, then, Charles? Are they a sort of aesthetic ‘wallow’? Likewise, Ms. Didion, how did it feel to recount the moment you reread his novels? How did those words feel to your grief? To my mind, these are acts of revelry.

           Revelry is often defined as a kind of merry making. One revels in wine and grazing plates, or in champagne and nostalgic classics perfectly timed to play when your buzz is at its peak. Swing your ‘cups of Chrysolite’, Emily Dickinson writes, ‘And revel till the day—’‘.[4] We revel in, as if revelling takes us deeper into experience. Once inside, we can luxuriate. It’s potentially hedonistic in this way—‘With pleasure and love and revelry’, Alfred Tennyson repeats. But that depends on what exactly is the object of our revelry. John Keats ‘revel’d in a chat that ceased not’ with his mate, Charles Cowden Clarke, in 1816. There’s a sense here that revelry names the desire to preserve a moment, to arrest it from the effects of time. Who knows how good the banter with Clarke really was? No matter, revelry allows us to swim in the feeling the conversation elicited a little while longer. As such it complements a poet’s belief, characteristic of the Romantics, that the act of writing is a means by which one can dwell on and stretch out these moments of emotional euphoria and everyday sublimity.

Lights up on MATTHIAS and SAM talking in a dimly lit apartment. There’s confetti scattered around them on the hardwood floor. They’re talking, laughing; the audience can’t hear them. Behind them two windows are open to a reddening sunset. They raise full glasses and toast to something we can’t distinguish. A lofi-ambient soundscape builds around them. The sounds of crashing waves increase in tandem with that of passing lorikeets. The sun rises slowly.    

           In 1347, Walter Halliday became the Master of Revels, making him responsible for commissioning, organising, and at times censoring royal festivities for Edward III. In Henry VIII’s court the role started to resemble that of the theatre producer or dramaturg, taking ‘revel’s association with ‘making merry’ literally. That this making was inseparable from the theatrical is unsurprising. To my understanding, revelry has always been a theatrical experience; the effect it elicits is one that resembles the carefully curated euphoria of acting out emotions according to a script, or sharing in those emotions from the pulpit. In 1445, almost one hundred years after Walter Halliday became a Master of Revels, Henry VI attempted to suppress the festivities forming around funeral services on Sundays and Saint Days. The traditional vigil held before burials had started being associated with celebratory revelry, a development that was sacrilegious to Anglo-Saxon Christian beliefs. The presumption here was that revelry and death, and revelry and grief, could not be associated. One could not revel in the death of a loved one. But we do. And fuck you, we must.

           It wasn’t long after my friend died that I read Joan Didion’s My Year of Magical Thinking, not because I felt like I needed advice on grieving but because He had read it a year earlier. He posted it on his Instagram in March 2019: ‘Being without a car has meant more caffeine & books than coastal walks & beaches.’This was my act of revelry; sitting with the feeling of his absence via a book I knew He had read, keeping vigil.

           I did the same with C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces (read: 28 December 2018), Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? (read: 27 November 2018), Richard Rohr’s Falling Upwards (read: 11 December 2018), and C.S. Lewis again: A Grief Observed (read: January 16 2019). Soon after,I had the impulse to message him my thoughts or send him a rambling forty-minute voice note like we used to. But then I’d just be monologuing into a digital abyss. Perhaps there’s little difference between that and dwelling on the Instagram account of a dead friend—‘The Wallow’, Lewis might say. While following Jesus before his crucifixion, a crowd gathered, ‘mourning and lamenting’.[5] Mourning and lamenting and wallowing. I know He read the Bible almost every day.

           MATTHIAS: There were other books.

           SAM: I’m sure there were, but these are all I’ve got.

           MATTHIAS: That’s not true.

           SAM: No, it’s not.    

           He also read Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (‘Sober dancing, double dinner & reading around the fire’ – January 19th 2020) but I haven’t read that yet. Late last year, Parul Sehgal famously described Yanagihara’s novel as the ‘novelistic incarnation’ of Trauma Theory. Her ‘The Case Against the Trauma Plot’ was critical of a contemporary approach to writing character infatuated with and overinvested in traumatic experience. A Little Life, so the argument goes, uses the trauma of ‘one of the most accursed characters to ever darken a page’ to propel its plot and, in the process, affect its reader. At roughly 814 pages, it begets a reading experience akin to ‘dwelling’, ‘bathing’, and ‘wallowing’ in this character’s trauma. And, for the people I’ve spoken to about the novel—usually queer, usually traumatised—it is this dwelling in trauma that offers catharsis.

           MATTHIAS: Or something like it.

           SAM: Or something like it.    

           This dead queer friend of mine was ‘Sober dancing’ while He launched into Yanagihara’s trauma plot; he was eating two dinners and sitting ‘around [a] fire’ overlooking Wentworth Falls surrounded by a very queer community. There are issues with wedding characters to trauma, or connecting one’s reading experience to it. But to sit with a character—a queer one at that—for eight hundred pages as they navigate tragedy, and pair this with moments of revel-rous celebration and queer communion?

           SAM clears his throat.

           SAM: I propose ‘A Guide to Queer Revelry’:

           MATTHIAS: Hell yeah, okay… maximalist.

           SAM: Camp.

           MATTHIAS. Sontag walking out of The Maltese Falcon and feeling like the main character.[6]

           SAM: Wilde, tipsy, lingering on a favourite chiasmus and catching the eye of some new dandy.

           MATTHIAS: Barnes stopping beneath a dead tree in Luxembourg gardens, heartbroken, craving symbols for her depression.[7]

           SAM: Revelry is a vision of the world in terms of style.[8]

           MATTHIAS: The hallmark of revelry is the spirit of extravagance.[9]

           MATTHIAS: I’m on the beach where Frank O’Hara died—

           SAM: Deliberate revelry.

           MATTHIAS: Reading ‘Having a Coke with You’—

           SAM: Crying.

           MATTHIAS: No, not crying—writing poetry in the Notes on your phone.

           SAM: Staring at the crescent moon.

           MATTHIAS: Listening to Phoebe Bridgers.

           SAM: Crying.

           MATTHIAS: Is it romantic? Sexual?

           MATTHIAS: Yes, maybe. Pathetic? Sentimental?

           SAM: Absolutely.

SAM wanders to MATTHIAS, offers his hand. A full moon lights the empty apartment. Floor-to-ceiling length chiffon curtains move in the wind entering through the open windows. There’s a storm somewhere over the horizon. SAM and MATTHIAS dance with joy. One of them might be crying, melodramatically.    

            He was ‘sober dancing’ 200 pages into reading A Little Life. When I eventually choose to read it, I might do the same. Soon after that and He was writing poetry. I won’t do that; my poetry is terrible. But I might go for a long walk or catch a flight and pretend an ex of mine is watching me from the tarmac. Or I might write a play. These would be my attempts to revel in Yanagihara’s text, or rather to revel in the pain that emerges from reading it. In a way, these actions would transgress the bounds of the term’s association with ‘merry-making’ and ‘celebration’. Or better yet, it would queer these bounds: ‘To make merry; to have a gay, lively time and delight in it’. Really, my efforts would be an attempt to open up the term for me to place Him in it; to revel in Him and note the limitations that come with trying. For a couple hours on the anniversary of His death, I revel in the pain of losing Him by writing a version of Him that can reply to me.

           SAM: Did you ever read Angels in America?

           MATTHIAS: Did you check my Instagram?

           SAM: Yes. No, you never did.

           MATTHIAS: Then I never did.

           SAM: There’s a scene where a character asks for ‘more life’.

           MATTHIAS: More?!    

           On the first Sunday of every month, He would host a dinner for the queer people in his local area. From the church we both grew up in in He took a desire for fellowship and channelled it into fostering queer community. Of the people He invited, many were found through a now-defunct Facebook group called the ExVangelicals. This term was chosen, or so the group description said, to grieve what was lost in leaving the church—belonging, community, purpose—while putting distance between the traumas that may have instigated one’s departure.

           MATTHIAS: Revel in his holy name. May the hearts of the people who seek the Eternal celebrate and experience great joy.[10]

SAM holds up communion—Jäger in a port glass—and swigs it. The rain falls heavier outside. MATTHIAS turns His back on the audience, jumps onto the kitchen bench and tells the rain to stop. Silence.

           MATTHIAS: Show me your homosexual heroes of the faith, and I’ll show you the graves of those you put in the ground.    

           The spiritual revelry that came upon us during the Sunday service we shared so many times was different to that which came upon us in my friend’s home the first Sunday of every month. For one, it was not a matter of submission. Our revelry was not contingent on the divine; we were not reacting to a sublime affect available to believers. With Sangria, Fish tinola and Kare-Kare, crochet rugs on muddy grass and speakers brought in by friends, this revelry was carefully constructed. It was important to emphasise the intention to delight in this community. This revelry was made, and by making this intentionality transparent, strengthened, trauma and all.

MATTHIAS inhales and lifts his hands to the sky. Confetti begins to fall like rain.    

           Learning new things about Him after His death is one of those uncontainable parts of grief’s continuation. The day I learned we had the same astrological chart was also the day I had written a new scene in my play. In it, I made Him resentful.

           MATTHIAS: I’m not resentful, I’m vengeful.

           SAM: I’m sorry.

           MATTHIAS: Don’t be sorry. I’ll be mad whether you’re sorry or not.

           SAM: You should be.

           MATTHIAS: Don’t say that either. I might hate you. I might despise you.

Lightning cracks at the behest of his words.

           MATTHIAS: Don’t make me mad at you. My anger isn’t for you. It’s at them. No justice. No peace.

The rain falls harder, the ocean screams. In an instant, the curtains catch on fire. They burn slowly. MATTHIAS puts his arms out, Christ-like.    

           The day I finally returned to the beach where He had parked His car and disappeared, I revisited this scene and decided it was a projection of my guilt. His anger was never personal. His anger was motivated by injustices enacted against queer people, and queer people of colour, by the church. His love for fostering community was motivated by a deep-seated desire to uproot the church, pull it apart and use the pieces to carve out space for queer people. He deserved to revel in His anger; he made something from that revelry every day.

           It was raining, the beach was closed. There was an empty parking spot where I had sat with my Mum in 2015 and told her I dreamed of men when I dreamed of my wedding day.

           MATTHIAS: In the presence of God I make this vow.    

           The temptation to wonder whether He had parked in that spot. The desire to fold up my umbrella, turn my face to the rain, and lean into pathetic fallacy. Unfortunately, the feeling slipped through the cracks of these scripts and the grinding of a nearby garbage truck overtook the sounds of the rain and the sea. I describe it here in the hope it might give me a chance to get at ‘the wallow’ that C.S. Lewis bathed in, or fall into that vortex Joan Didion fell into. My bad play is a preservation of a moment of aesthetic revelry prompted by grief. It contains catharsis.

           MATTHIAS: And neon paint bombs.

           SAM: And dry ice.

           MATTHIAS: We’ve mentioned the confetti?

           SAM: Yeah, we have.

           MATTHIAS: Did I tell you it was a bit dramatic?

           SAM: I said I don’t want losing you to be anything less.    

           Grief is new to me now, and new to any aesthetic I choose to try and render it through. To write this article, I revisited His Facebook page and discovered that He had four copies of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray in His apartment when He died. They’ve since been donated. It is cinematic to imagine that I might come across one of them in the Vinnies on Sydney Road one day. It is alluringly theatrical. I think it will be painful no matter what. It’s Sunday and I think of going to Brunswick Church, just across the road from that Vinnies. Last month, when I attended their morning service I looked at the sound desk they used to control the Pastor’s big Madonna-style mic. It was manned by a queer couple. I thought of Him then, just briefly.

Exeunt.


[1] Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse (1927), p. 27

[2] My Year of Magical Thinking, p. 138

[3] My Year of Magical Thinking, p. 144, 148.

[4] ‘Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson’ (1955), p. 25

[5] Luke 23:27

[6] ‘Notes on Camp’ (1964), p. 6

[7] Djuna Barnes, Nightwood (1936)

[8] ‘Notes on Camp’ (1964), p. 4

[9] ‘Notes on Camp’ (1964), p. 5

[10] Psalm 105: 3-5

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