Strange Summer: ‘The Fantastics’

Published in: July-August 2020 issue.


THIS ISSUE’S THEME does not refer to the long-running Off-Broadway play The Fantasticks but instead to a collection of writers and artists who might better be described as “fantasists”: those who trade in fantasy. In any case, we could all use an escape in these viral times, and that’s exactly what these artists provide.

            We recently ran a few pieces on gothic artist Edward Gorey, and we learned he was gay in real life and fairly open about it in some early (and even later) works. But was anyone surprised? In a similar vein, this issue includes a piece on horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, who appears to have had a gay streak and smuggled homoerotic situations into his stories. Both writers were “queer” in the original sense of eccentric or odd, and in a way that seems to glide easily into the modern sense of the term. The same could even be said of J.R.R. Tolkien, who was happily married to Edith but created an epic fairy tale about a “fellowship” of male characters who may well have been modeled on a close-knit circle of school chums, one of whom, Geoffrey Smith, was undoubtedly in love with him.

            On the cover is Aubrey Beardsley, about whom two pieces appear that offer interesting bookends to a short life (he died at 25 in 1898). The first addresses Beardsley’s early life and career, starting with the lifelong tuberculosis that surely influenced his frenetic drive to push the cultural envelope. The second traces his association with Oscar Wilde, whose 1895 trials led to Beardsley’s downfall. The TB may have robbed him of a sex life, but the sexual subtexts—and explicitly homoerotic drawings—tell a different story.

            This association between gayness and the fanciful isn’t restricted to gay men; several women are spotlighted here. To start with a living legend, cartoonist and graphic novelist Alison Bechdel is in the business of creating worlds to the artist’s own specifications, as Dykes to Watch Out For surely did. Two women associated with the American frontier also show up. A recent book on Willa Cather stresses that her novels were drawn from real life on the prairie, though she’s usually seen as presenting a highly romanticized version of it. Calamity Jane was a showperson from the git-go who created a rootin’-tootin’ persona based on little verifiable experience—possibly the first celebrity to be famous for being famous.

            A leap backward in time takes us to the court of King Henri III of France, who reigned in the late 16th century. The queenly king and his “mignons” created a world of extremes that took the theatricality of the French court to new levels. But that was tame compared to the legends that arose after his death: of “hermaphrodites” and impossible sex acts—and the costumes! It was all part of an effort to discredit Henry III by his successors, based on the proven premise—still valid today—that the more outlandish the rumor, the more likely it is to be believed.