A short while ago, I had the good fortune to catch Ed Dixon in his show Georgie: My Adventures with George Rose, a warts-and-all portrait of Dixon’s relationship with a multiple-Tony-award-“distinguished” English character actor who knew everyone in the “Th’-ate-tah” since Maude Adams, Broadway’s original Peter Pan.
Rose was an exquisite character himself, as well as being a consummate actor and showman: he knew almost instinctually what held an audience, what an actor needed to do to keep working, and also how to keep his stage presence working. It’s an instinct, but it required real on-the-job training, back in the day when actors did not go to acting conservatories, but got jobs as kids holding spears and bringing in tea, whether on stage or off, absorbing everything around them like sponges.
You had to be “born in a trunk/ in the Princess Theatre/ in Pocatella, Idaho,” as Judy Garland sang in “A Star Is Born. “ And Ed Dixon makes it plain that George Rose was such an actor in the great play of his own existence and he knew everyone in the English theatre of his youth and middle age. Dixon, through Rose’s eyes and mannerisms, brings them all back to life—from Edith Evans and Gertrude Lawrence to Noel Coward and Richard Burton, to Rex Harrison, to . . . well you name ‘em—and Dixon does it masterfully. He’s a tremendous impersonator and mimic.
He’s also brilliant at telling a personal story in a Christopher Isherwood kind of way, so that the particularities of the tale become everybody’s story: what it’s like to be a green-horn kid actor—Ed Dixon—who comes under the thrall of a master veteran (Mr. Rose) whom he idolizes but also doesn’t quite fully trust until he does, which will lead either to triumph, or heartbreak.
Rose was an old-fashioned English queen, or as the old-fashioned English queens used to spell it, “quean.” He belonged to that vanished world of “camp.” Camp is still, ages after Susan Sontag, a difficult word to define, but its ingredients are simple: one part sarcasm, one part defensiveness, just enough exaggeration—then finally, stick it all in a chrome cocktail shaker, shake it up, and with an almost painful attention to detail, dispense.
Yes, God is in the details. So is the Devil, and so are old-fashioned English queans. In the old days of English queandom, camps understood that the world was likewise divided into two mutually exclusive as well as dependent parts: outrageously queenly (OK, queanly) gentlemen (and the women who tolerated and loved them), and “non-camps.” These were the real men. The blokes, bricks, bobbies, and rubes—guys with big mustaches, sporty bodies, and extremely flat affects. They could fix a flat tire, but don’t ask for a whole lot more.
The deep secret of the old-fashioned queans was that inside every one of them was an amount of backbone that could crush a real man in a wink if necessary. George Rose demonstrated this often enough. He was basically afraid of nothing. He kept mountain lions and ocelots as pets. He drove a Winnebago around the U.S. so that he could keep his pets nearby and also “entertain,” and it is here that the Rose story gets a little less rosy.
I’m not going to spoil the shock of whom Rose chose to give his deepest affections to, and how it did him in in the end, but I will say that his whole life was an act with a strange, compelling authenticity at the center of it, where that stainless steel backbone lay, and that is what makes Ed Dixon’s homage to George Rose so compelling. If at times even slightly nausea provoking.
But with that steely backbone that shot right up through his head and directly to the audience, Rose could grab a seemingly secondary part like Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s dustman father in My Fair Lady, and turn it into a leading role. He could have the audience riveted to him in a way that only a superb leading stage actor today like Mark Rylance can do, and Ed Dixon too is superb at conveying this—he keeps this one-man show completely audience grabbing for the whole 90 minutes of it. There is not one second when you are not with him.
Really. I mean that. Still, this show shot me back to another time in my life.
When I first came to New York, for a short spell, I became the “object of attention” of veritably such a quean as Rose. He was older than I—say by about by forty-five years!—and his name was John Bernard. He was an “elegant fairy,” as they were called, who lived in splendor off Fifth Avenue on 64th Street, as well as in South Hampton. He introduced me to a closed world that he fitted into perfectly: high society wives and their tight-assed husbands—and their money—and their boys like me. I had just come to New York and, being gay, I decided it was simply part of the show here. If you were going to be young and queer, you just had to know wealthy people. After all, who else would really appreciate you?
I discovered an old scrapbook of John’s, and he opened it. It was full of theatrical pictures. He’d also been actor in his youth. There he was, in Shakespearean drag, hose and doublets, make up and wigs, in London in the 1920s when it was Noel Coward and Gertie Lawrence territory, and of course George Rose’s world, too.
John’s father had been a Jermyn Street tailor who doted on society; John became an A-list hairdresser. He drove a huge old Bentley, and told me that he had been taught to drive “by the Aga Khan’s chauffer. He was a great driver, y’ know.”
He gave me one bit of advice that all great English queans understood. Life was hard; you had to be careful in it. But, “if you take care of your trade, your trade will take care of you.”
George Rose, I believe, understood those words in every nuance and shade of them.
Georgie: My Adventures With George Rose, a play written by and starring Ed Dixon, directed by Eric Schaeffer, is at the Loft at the Davenport Theatre, 354 West 45th Street, between 8th & 9th Avenues, for a limited engagement, until Sunday, March 26, 2017. After this, Ed Dixon will be on a 2-year national tour with it that may end up, appropriately, in London. For more information: www.georgietheplay.com.
Award-winning writer and gender-rights pioneer, Perry Brass has published 19 books, including poetry, novels, short fiction, science fiction, and bestselling advice books (How to Survive Your Own Gay Life, The Manly Art of Seduction, The Manly Pursuit of Desire and Love). A member of New York’s radical Gay Liberation Front, in 1972, with two friends, he co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Project Clinic, the first clinic specifically for gay men on the East Coast, still operating as the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center. His work deals with issues of sexual freedom, personal authenticity, lgbt health, and a visionary attitude toward all human sexuality coming from a core involvement with human values and equality. For more information about his work: www.perrybrass.com.