It took him a decade to research and write, but Australian journalist and writer Michael Burge was not about to let his transgender Shakespearean tale languish in the desk drawer. He talks to LGBTicons about his latest book Merely Players: Acting Like Shakespeare Really Matters, searching for queer stage icons, failing gloriously and why Germaine Greer is a hypocrite.
LGBTicons: There’s always been a hint of queer about Shakespeare, is that was inspired your new book?
MB: I think his sonnets have often led to the suggestion Shakespeare was not straight, since many of them seem to be directed at a young man. We’ll never know for sure, of course, but what interests me far more than his sexuality was Shakespeare’s use of homoerotic comedy in so many of his plays.
LGBTicons: Which ones?
MB: Well in a whole series of comedies, such as Twelfth Night and As You Like It, Shakespeare wrote heroines who cross-dress as young men and find themselves in plenty of sticky situations where a young hero falls for this ‘boy’ yet cannot admit it to anyone. Regardless of his own sexuality, in these works Shakespeare was certainly admitting that same-sex attracted people existed, and his comic use of LGBTI does not come across as bigoted in any way. That tells me that he knew same-sex attracted people and that he understood and accepted our basic humanity.
LGBTicons: Merely Players has a transgender heroine you based on a real-life actor. What motivated this and is it based in truth?
MB: In Shakespeare’s time it wasn’t illegal for women to perform on the public stage, but it was considered akin to prostitution, so for the entire time Shakespeare was writing his plays, men and boys were creating his great female roles. There has been minimal research on who may have cross-dressed, and there is very little evidence, but I looked deeper into the records and used my gut feeling to explore who these players might have been. One of the options was a player called Nicholas Tooley.
LGBTicons: So you have speculated about these cross-dressers?
MB: There is no option but to speculate. For over four hundred years the Buggery Act of 1533, brought into law during the reign of Henry VIII, made it incredibly dangerous for same sex-attracted and transgender players to be visible as such anywhere off the stage. The impact of these strict laws lasted until well after the Oscar Wilde trials and they kept much of the LGBTI history in the performing community off the record.
LGBTicons: So what did you discover about Nicholas Tooley?
MB: His will is a key document in understanding him, I believe, since it shows he had strong relationships with women – familial, not sexual. In it, he also revealed his use of an alias, which has never been thoroughly examined. He died an unmarried man, there is only one record of him playing a male role, late in his life, and he left explicit instructions about an array of women and how they were to inherit his estate.
LGBTicons: Are there other records to back up your theories?
MB: Very few, but there must have been highly-skilled actors who cross-dressed as women, because they performed Shakespeare’s heroines so convincingly that one early critic had his disbelief suspended. For mature, dramatic roles such as Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth and Desdemona, the illusion of a woman must have been complete, because there is no comic effect required. I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine there was at least one transgender woman among Shakespeare’s company of actors, and the progression of his writing suggests he tailored the age and demeanour of his great female leads as this transgender lead actress matured. Nicholas Tooley could have played Juliet at the age of 14, and he could have played Cleopatra when he was around 30.
LGBTicons: I believe there have been some shockwaves about your assertions.
MB: Yes, I’ve upset a few people, but really, I think it’s high time the possibility was considered. For too long, the men who played Shakespeare’s women have been explained away as ‘good sticks’ who ‘took to the skirts because someone had to’, whereas the plays themselves – the strongest evidence of what was required to stage them – show that unquestioned feminine power and lust was portrayed on the stage by men.
LGBTicons: Recently, you accused Germaine Greer of hypocrisy, what was that all about?
MB: On a recent episode of Australia’s ABC panel show QandA, Dr Greer defended her 2015 transphobic comments before being asked about Shakespeare. Her demeanour about trans issues was prickly and showed someone searching for facts and references; whereas her reactions about Shakespeare were inspiring, cutting-edge and exploratory. You can see this particularly in Greer’s brilliant biography of Ann Hathaway -Shakespeare’s Wife – in which she takes the scantest primary evidence and adds it to her own historical analysis, some of the best research I believe there has ever been on ‘The Bard’. It was incredibly inspiring when I was fleshing out the possibilities of a transgender player in the company that created Shakespeare’s plays.
LGBTicons: So why do you believe Greer was hypocritical?
MB: Well, when one-fifth of Shakespeare’s plays experiment with cross-dressing, I don’t think it’s possible to stop at binary gender interpretations of the plays. Transgender performers left as little, or possibly less primary evidence as Ann Hathaway, so Greer could start looking at show-business and performers now to analyse where postmodern Western theatre began four centuries ago. Some of what she seems to need in order to understand trans issues can be found in that tradition. Homosexuality, bisexuality, gender dysphoria, stage names, and cross-dressing have been around since the dawn of show-business. It’s not an academic field, it’s a living heritage, whether you’re studying Shakespeare or simply enjoying an episode of Neighbours.
LGBTicons: It’s been six months since we spoke to you last, when you published your first two books. How has the journey been?
MB: One of the most challenging and exciting times of my life, the culmination of years of work, requiring every shred of skill I picked up along the way. It feels great to finally have Merely Players out there.
LGBTicons: Why did it take so long to write?
MB: The story started its life as a full-length play, which I have tried for years to have produced. A few years ago I decided that I’d adapt the story from a script into a readable form in order to allow a wider audience in, which became the first part of the book – Acting Like Shakespeare Really Matters. The two-act play has been published in the same book.
LGBTicons: I read that you felt you’d broken the rules by putting yourself into the story. Why was that?
MB: In journalism, you’re taught to remain neutral and report on facts, keeping your feelings and opinions out of the story, but I felt there was plenty to say by writing about how Merely Players came into being, and why. Adding my journey as an actor and writer to that of Shakespeare and his fellow players has assisted the telling of the story, and I hope it sheds light on the lives of actors and writers everywhere.
LGBTicons: In Merely Players you wrote about what it’s like at drama school – Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA). Were you there with anyone famous?
MB: I was, with someone who is now incredibly successful in their career, and as famous as it’s possible to be. That’s one of the challenges of acknowledging you’ve been to a drama school – your ‘I’m-not-yet-famous’ shame – because many believe getting into drama school is a major achievement and tend to think that a career in the performing arts is going to be a natural extension of that. The truth is very, very different, and many people give up along the way because it’s very hard to sustain the confidence required to keep a career going. Opportunities can be very thin on the ground. I also went to a drama school in the United Kingdom. I call them ‘dream factories’ but they produce plenty of failure.
LGBTicons: Failure is a strong word.
MB: It is very strong, but I’m happy to admit I write a lot about failure. You don’t read too many tales about not getting somewhere, and we’re attuned to focus on success, but in the corporate world you find people analysing failure as much as success. Very often in show-business you come across the saying: ‘If you’re going to fail, fail gloriously’. I like that, because it speaks of taking great creative risks, and I think it’s what my new book is all about.
Michael Burge’s books are available in paperback and eBook on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. They’re also available as iBooks on iTunes. To read extracts of Michael’s work and watch book trailers check out Michael’s online bookshop.