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The (drag) queen's speech: Talking with Terence Boyle
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2015-03-03

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Terence Boyle traces his ancestry to Protestant Northern Ireland, but he is, himself, Catholic and teaches at the Jesuit-affiliated Loyola University. The openly gay Boyle's play, allegedly based on the Biblical tale of Cain and Abel, is titled The Queen's Speech—and that's "queen" as in "drag."

The Biblical book of Genesis recounts the tale of Adam's two sons, whose bitter rivalry was exacerbated by Abel emerging their father's favorite, spurring his jealous brother to slay him in a moment of anger. As his punishment, Cain was banished, destined to roam forever among strangers, the scar upon his forehead identifying him immediately as the fratricidal wrongdoer.

Boyle's protagonist, by contrast, is an English boy born in London during the turbulent years following World War II, an only child whose facial birthmark is construed by his father to symbolize the "mark of Cain"—ensures paternal rejection even before the arrival of his sister Abeline increases his filial alienation. In the navy, his penchant for clowning in cross-gender garb earns him the acceptance of his peers, so that when we meet him, it is as the drag diva, Sugar Cane, making ready in her dressing room for what she informs us is her last performance. As she dons her artificial trappings, she recalls the past events—and lovers—leading up to this fatal night.

The popular impression of Drag Queens as angry social outcasts, vacillating between shrill defiance and cringing self-pity, dates back at least to Miss Destiny in John Rechy's City of Night ( 1963 ) and Lanford Wilson's Lady Bright in The Madness of Lady Bright ( 1964 ). Activists in 2015 have criticized this stereotype as offensively outdated, but this, Boyle maintains, is precisely why he chose to have his heroine adopt a persona deliberately drawing on the exaggerated behavior now almost abandoned by progressive cross-dressing entertainers.

"Growing up amid the tensions on the border of Northern and Southern Ireland taught me a lot about Protestants and Catholics demonizing each other as a means of justifying their prejudices," Boyle said. "Drag is an affectation, yes, but when we look beneath the affectation, we find the individual. It's what Sugar SAYS—the queen's speech—that should guide your understanding of who she is, and to achieve that understanding, you must look beyond superficial appearances."

Essentially a monologue ( albeit augmented by ghostly voices and screen-projected images from the speaker's consciousness ) delivered by an emotionally agitated narrator engaging in one last desperate stand against persecution and loss, the play's text offers few clues to the veracity of the history recounted in what may be the final moments before her arrest for the ( possibly accidental ) murder of her sister.

"In the Bible's original story of Cain and Abel," Boyle said, "we don't know why Abel was his father's favorite. Likewise, we are never sure how much Sugar understands her past—or her present, for that matter. Since we have only her testimony, it's up to us to decide whether we believe her or not. Will the role she played in Abbey's death be declared involuntary manslaughter, and will she be acquitted?" He shrugs, "YOU decide."

Boyle said he makes no secret of the influence of his own contradictory background upon his writing, which includes many works based on the mystery plays dominating medieval drama—not, he cautioned, for religious reasons, but for "their quest to explain the complexity of human nature," The literature of this period, he admitted, could be "didactically simplistic in its search for the Divine, while still reflecting a need to believe in a greater good, a greater justice, and a shared morality."

On a more personal level, Boyle said, "You write about who you are and what you know. In the United States, I'm aware of my different accent, my different sense of identity, and my embrace of a commercially unpromising aesthetic—but I feel like an outsider in Ireland, too. Subcultures—not just gay, but any kind—can provide a place of security, though not necessarily acceptance, leading to subcultures within subcultures and so on into infinity."

He smiled ruefully, adding, "Maybe the experience of seeming a stranger in a strange land is simply a part of being human—living within the human condition."

The Queen's Speech plays March 9-10 and March 14-15 at the Klarcheck Information Center on the Loyola University Lakeside campus. Admission is free.


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