Queering the past: Bolton, LGBT history and Walt Whitman. Playwright Stephen M Hornby talks to Northern Soul
A number of places are synonymous with the history of gay culture: San Francisco, New York, Paris, Bolton. That last one is not a typo. In the 1880s, Bolton was the location for one of the early gatherings of gay men brought together by a mutual love of the works of the celebrated American poet, Walt Whitman.
February is LGBT History Month, and one of the most eagerly anticipated productions is Stephen M Hornby’s play The Adhesion of Love. The show tells the story of The Eagle Street College, an informal group established in 1885 at the home of James William Wallace on Bolton’s Eagle Street, where they read and discussed Whitman’s poetry.
For Hornby, it’s important to ‘queer the past’ to enable the LGBT community to reclaim its history, strengthen its present and inform its future. “American playwright and activist Larry Kramer once said ‘Who are you without your history? You aren’t a people. You’re nothing.’ One of the first things people do in order to take away another’s sense of empowerment and identity is to destroy their culture and erase them from the stories of their past.
“LGBT History Month is about realising that so much lineage has been denied to us. Many stories have been erased, obliterated or misread – wilfully or otherwise – and there’s this vast collection of lost stories that we’re only now finding ways of recovering. Our non-conforming gender expression has been there through every culture and history and the more we affirm that past, the stronger our sense of belonging in the present is.”
Researching and piecing together the story of the group comes with certain responsibilities, not least staying true to real events while applying artistic licence. Luckily for Hornby, scrupulous archival documentation was available.
“The group ran until the 1950s and the two people left at the end took one set of papers each. One set is held at The John Rylands Library and the other at Bolton Museum, so the activity of the group is well recorded, and I’ve had the opportunity to get to know the collection and understand what’s codified within it.”
In terms of meeting like-minded individuals, could this Whitman fan club be the first ‘Icebreakers’ group?
“That’s a good way to describe it,” Hornby laughs. “It seemed clear that these men were not interested in ladies but certainly emotionally interested in other men. No one used the word ‘homosexual’ at that time but Whitman, bravely publishing poems celebrating male to male love, did use the term ‘adhesive love’. Once I started reading these loving and affectionate letters that the men were writing to him, I realised it was unlike anything I’d ever seen.”
The play is written from Wallace’s perspective and the Monday meetings in his living room. In 1887, two years after the group began, they begin corresponding with Whitman. The play also covers Wallace’s 1901 visit to the poet. For Hornby, the documentation available on the trip was invaluable. “I was a bit terrified of writing dialogue for Walt Whitman, but Wallace kept a very detailed diary of his visit, writing down pretty much everything Whitman said. This has been a gift for getting the rhythm of the language and how Whitman spoke.
“My reading of the diary is that it was a journey of spiritual, social and sexual discovery for Wallace. From what I can reasonably imply, I’ve created what I think that sexual journey was, a sense of why he couldn’t do that in Bolton and where it left him on his return. How did he fit back into Bolton? Was he able to make this new way of looking at the world work? That’s the final question in the play.”
Another theme is ‘what happens when a fan meets their idol?’. They say never meet your heroes and I know I would explode if I met Kate Bush, but I’d also forever kick myself if I passed up the opportunity. Either way, you’re potentially setting yourself up for disappointment. Whatever was going through Wallace’s mind at the time, it was a bold move.
“It definitely was,” agrees Hornby. “It might still be overwhelming nowadays but at least we have access to all the media. Back in Wallace’s day, there was just a couple of pictures. He’d never have heard Whitman’s voice or seen a moving image. On top of that he also had to cross an ocean for ten days in order to get to the man himself. When Wallace meets him for the first time, Whitman, who knows he’s a diminished force by then, says with a twinkle in his eye, ‘so you’ve come to be disillusioned have you?’ I think that is a brilliant insight into the empathy he has for the fan boy meeting their hero. He knows he can never deliver. Part of the appeal is not knowing stuff about your idol. As soon as you do know things, they become a much more mundane figure.”
Hornby believes that it’s important to recognise the pockets of past LGBT activity in small towns. “From the beginning of working with LGBT History Month we’ve had a mantra – no Oscar Wilde plays.Wilde was persecuted, suffered awful homophobia and had a terrible end but for most of his life he was in a privileged elite swanning around London. There’s a great story there but it’s been told from every possible angle. How many films and plays can you have about this man? We purposely wanted to unearth things with a non-London focus that were working class to show how ordinary people made sense of their sexuality and gender identity within the laws and social norms of the time.”
Despite his legacy of work, Whitman is not particularly well known in the UK for his influence on queer culture. However, in the States he is held in the highest esteem, regarded by many as the one of the most important poets in the American canon. Given the queer content of some of Whitman’s work, does Hornby think it a little surprising that, even in the current climate, America still considers him such a major figure?
“I do and there are respectable but flawed historians who still question Whitman’s sexuality in terms of denying that he was queer, even though we have clear evidence of it with the diaries. We’re not just speculating on a metaphor in a poem. It’s clear that he had loving relationships with men throughout his life. He’s also got the gift of writing complex things using simple language. He was one of the first to break away from the classical traditions of writing poetry and when you read his stuff now, they still sound incredibly modern and could have been written today.”
Art has long been a means of expression and an outlet for feelings in LGBT culture. But is there anything left to reveal? If LGBT History Month helps to reclaim the past, Hornby believes it also puts down markers for the future. “In the present we are always in the process of renegotiating our position in society and towards each other. How we internalise identities, act them out and where they come from is always changing. The more we understand how it was in the past, the more we understand how to reinvent ourselves in the present.
“These things aren’t fixed in time and reinventing our culture and relations with each other every so often, knowing it’s always been in flux, is liberating and helps us be clearer about how we negotiate the future.”
All images by Lee Baxter Photography
For more information about The Adhesion of Love, follow this link: www.outingthepast.org.uk
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