Rialto Note:
Friends Growing Up
9 April 2015

Here I’ve been writing about the gloomy old Sitwells, when I could have been writing about gloomy old New York, beset with a gloomy non-spring. The grey days are chilly, damp, and raw. The nights are interior, lamp-lighted, and much easier to take. They are also shorter, which makes them even less unwelcome. Mornings are the worst; they entirely lack the pop and dazzle that give one a reason for getting out of bed. If I were rich, I’m afraid that I should shed all my scruples about servants, and sink back into a well-pillowed life of being waited on, hand and foot.

One of the scariest things about ageing, were it not so comfortable, would be the ennui-free pleasure of utter idleness. This pleasure is somewhat metabolic: have something to eat, and it comes to an end. Do anything at all, beyond paying the simplest visits to the bathroom, and you are cast out of Eden. I have always harbored the suspicion that I’m a malingerer at heart, lazy and good for nothing; and now I know that suspicion is warranted.

Notwithstanding all of which, I’ve done a good deal of running around. In addition to cleaning up the “royal mess” that seems to have been triggered by the arrival of the glass curtains, and preparing Easter dinner, I’ve been to the theatre, to see Bathsheba Doran’s play, The Mysteries of Love and Sex. Hell, I went to the theatre to see Diane Lane, whom I have worshipped since A Little Romance, made when the actress was fourteen. Now she’s fifty. She is just about the most attractive woman in the world, half gorgeous sweetheart, half just the opposite. (Unfortunately, the folks at the Academy see only the outer half, but that’s tinseltown for you.) I ought to clarify: “just the opposite” does not mean “real bitch.” It means “inner-directed human being.” Paradoxically, it is easier to be a stable, centered woman if you are good-looking and good company, but it is harder to be perceived as such.

Another thing about getting older is that I no longer worship movie stars. I admire them. I admire them as they are, and don’t think about what I can’t see.

The play was well-crafted. The dramatic moments — or, I ought to say, the expanses of dramatic dialogue, punctuated with “dramatic” silences, so typical of Anglophone dramaturgy since Miller and Pinter — were always cut short in good time, usually with a sassy line that made light, if not a joke, of the proceedings. The Mysteries of Love and Sex is about two young people who have known each other since they were nine years old. When we meet them, they are about to graduate from college, and it soon becomes clear that the don’t ask/don’t tell regime that their friendship has provided, as a means of avoiding questions about their inconvenient sexualities, is about to crumble. Charlotte (Gayle Rankin) is the daughter of Howard, a “New York Jew” (Tony Shaloub) who writes successful detective novels, and Lucinda (Ms Lane), a Dixie belle; Jonny (Mamoudou Athie) is the black boy next door. It emerges that both are gay, something that it is much harder for Jonny to deal with because of his strict evangelical upbringing. The play tracks the twists and turns of the evolution and eventual survival of a childhood attachment into adulthood — a closely-run thing. Entertainment is provided by Charlotte’s parents, whose marriage breaks up long before the old friends find their new selves. Lucinda meets the discovery of her daughter’s lesbian life with a cheery but false acceptance, qualifying it as an “experiment.” That’s what college is for, she tells Charlotte. That’s all she did in college — experiment. Howard was her “Jewish experiment,” she concludes ruefully, undoing everything that she has just said. Howard and Lucinda do a lot of growing up, too. With a little bit of cutting, The Mysteries of Love and Sex would make a heartwarming television production. I’m speaking about the script. As brought to life by the strong cast at the Mitzi Newhouse, it was a stirring evening of theatre.

It emerges that both are gay. Charlotte and Jonny were much on my mind as I read John Pearson’s book about the Sitwells, in which some things never quite emerged at all. I envy the people of the future for whom such emergences will be too natural to merit comment. Children will always be unspeakably cruel about personal differences, but there will, I hope, come a day when a kid will be no more or less likely to be beaten up for sexual preference than for religious profession — and certainly no more likely to keep either a secret. There are many good reasons for not liking other people, but sexual identity will never be one of them.


A few final words about Pearson’s book. I left out a sentence in yesterday’s entry: my law school UCC professor would have taken ten points off just for failing to state the obvious. (Sometimes, it is very useful to state the obvious, at least if you go in for complex sentence structures.) I thought about editing the piece, but I’ll save that for later. For now, I’ll just say that the missing sentence, wherever it appeared, would have observed that the outing of Osbert Sitwell as a homosexual writer implied the outing of his “friendships” as romances. What would have been discreet otherwise became evasive.

Good reason for that, though, might have been the fact (if it was a fact, as I surmise it was) that David Horner was alive at the time of writing. The fact that Sacheverell Sitwell was also still alive would explain why the “family” biography scants him extensively, along with his wife and his sons. Pearson would have done much better to subtitle his book, “A Family’s Fracture.”

Indirect proof of evasion is given at two points. In the first, Pearson speculates that, in her sad old age, when she was all too willing to tell anyone that her life had been an unhappy one, Edith Sitwell might well have bitterly regretted never having known the consummation of physical passion. Such hypothetical regrets are quite conspicuously never vouched for Osbert. Second, we are told that Lady Aberconway, who was instrumental in dissolving the Sitwell-Horner menage with a minimum of fuss, had never been deceived for a moment (or words to that effect) by the nature of the men’s “friendship.”

The Sitwells: A Family’s Biography might have ended in a mellow tone, with Osbert sinking, sane but accepting, into the infirmities of Parkinson’s, enjoying his Tuscan castello and the compansionship of a manservant-turned-friend (whether friend or “friend” no longer matters), but instead, the final note is extremely sour: Osbert couldn’t resist writing a will that would force his heirs into mutual discomfort. His father couldn’t have done it “better.”

Let me not bid adieu to John Pearson’s book on a sour note of my own: for all the limitations that I have carried on about, it’s highly informative and extremely readable. I carried it about everywhere, even though it was a big old thing.