Placeholder Picture

1928 : Sauce for the Gander

Librettist’s Introduction

I have always had a soft spot for Compton Mackenzie’s novel, Extraordinary Women. It drew on his experience of living in Capri before 1914, where his wife had an affair with a lesbian Italian pianist, Renata Borgatti, and with an Italian boy twenty years her junior.

Compton Mackenzie 1924

Nini got her pregnant, which necessitated a miscarriage deliberately brought on by violent exercise. When his family forbade him to see her, he lingered out in the street to catch sight of her, caught pneumonia and died.

Mackenzie himself became friends on Capri with the old bugger Somerset Maugham, and Norman Douglas, in whose defence Faith spoke when he was tried for picking up boys in the British Museum. As an extremely precocious fifteen‐year‐old he was introduced to Lord Alfred Douglas, two years before Wilde’s death; Douglas gave him a copy of his poems.

Robbie Ross and Reggie Turner

He also became friends with Robert Ross and Reggie Turner, the other friend of Wilde present at his death. Under their influence he read ‘decadent’ literature and started parading in purple bow ties and a high double‐breasted waistcoat, for which he was expelled from St Paul’s.

Once Wilde was found guilty, ‘Bad behaviour became a magnificent fashion; indulgence in it became a mark of intellectual pre‐eminence.’ However, he remained sexually indifferent. Late in life he expressed his thanks. “I am grateful to the opportunity I was given to observe homosexuality with a detached curiosity when I was sixteen, because now at eighty I recognise that it is quite possible to play with fire and yet avoid getting burnt.”

Capri Travel Poster

Extraordinary Women is the work of that amused, semi‐detached observer. It is a ‘roman a clef’, with many friends, eccentrics and lovers from pre-war Capri barely disguised as characters on the island of Sirene.

Romaine Brooks

Romaine Brooks, Ethel Smyth and Radclyffe Hall are all there, but the lightly satiric comic touch veiled the frankness (for the time) of the narrative. It is not a satire on lesbians, however, but on an enclosed hot‐house society with all its petty spites, intrigues and jealousies. Life is a parade, a harlequinade.

The Well of Loneliness by contrast is no holiday, shot through with Radclyffe Hall’s own masochistic craving for martyrdom. Of course, no movement can choose its martyrs, but Hall, at least in Diana Souhami’s biography, comes across as extraordinarily unpleasant. Possessed of a vast fortune at an early age, voraciously seductive yet insistent on fidelity, capricious, egomaniacal, barely literate ‐ dyslexic? ‐ yet convinced she was delivered of a literary masterpiece. She sacked servants at will, had pets put down if they displeased her, yet paraded her humanitarianism.

Una Trowbridge and Radclyffe Hall

Her autocratic control freakery was perfectly expressed in her dog‐breeding (dachshunds and gryphons) and it suits our operatic purpose perfectly that for many years she had a dachshund called Wotan, who makes an appearance in the piece. As for her martyrdom, nobody is truly martyred when cushioned by an income of £40,000 a year.

Her heroine Stephen Gordon ‐ or maybe hero, since there are many signs in the novel of gender dysphoria ‐ is a thinly disguised self‐portrait, not least in her appalling relationship with her mother. Hall’s mother had tried to abort her, and the situation went downhill from there. When The Well of Loneliness appeared, it was universally acknowledged to be a brave and sincere attempt at a ‘difficult’ subject, though equally everyone thought it would benefit if Hall lightened up a bit, and opinion on its literary merit was divided.

James Douglas

It took the Sunday Express to provide the kind of publicity money couldn’t buy, when the editor, James Douglas (no relation to Lord A), in an opinion piece opined that “I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel.” He called on the Home Secretary to ban it, since “Literature has not yet recovered from the harm done to it by the Oscar Wilde scandal.”

Sir William Joynson-Hicks

The Home Secretary was Sir William Joynson‐Hicks, a puritan figure of fun to the post‐war generation and to most MPs, but a corrupt and authoritarian figure who brought the office into disrepute by systematically engineering false arrests.

This resulted in the compliant Metropolitan Police being sued for compensation and paying out thousands of pounds.Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Maecenas et metus.

He came down hard on night clubs ‐ "Any lover of the beautiful will die rather than be associated with the Charleston. It is neurotic! It is rotten! It stinks! Phew, open the window!" ‐ and his bête noir was a Mrs Meyrick, who was arrested five times for running clubs (the Cecil, the 43) and each time she came out of prison she merely opened a new one elsewhere under another name.

As the popular revue song put it:

Come all you birds and sing a roundelay
Now Mrs Meyrick’s out of Holloway

For Jix, as he was known, drinking out of hours was a sin second only to pederasty. His campaign though, with its hints at nameless orgies, only made the drinking holes more popular. Mrs Meyrick made enough money to send her son and daughter to Harrow and Roedean respectively.

Boccaccio Story by DH Lawrence

In addition to labelling innocent strollers as prostitutes and soliciting homosexuals, he came down on all the arts at the merest whiff of obscenity.

Contadini by DH Lawrence

DH Lawrence had thirteen pictures seized from the Warren Gallery in Mayfair, and only got them back on condition he never exhibited them in England. He also seized some of William Blake’s.

If it wasn’t for his prudery, he would bear a startling resemblance to Donald Trump:

“I am not interested in establishing facts by figures. I have been told that Portsmouth is not a sober town, and that is that."

He saw a Civil War in Ireland as a ‘Good Thing’, harassed the UK’s 272,000 registered aliens; not for nothing was he known as ‘Mini‐Mussolini’.

The encounter in this opera is entirely imaginary but is based in germ on two established facts:

(a) That when The Well of Loneliness was prosecuted, Radclyffe Hall wasn’t, and she was refused permission to testify by the Chief Magistrate trying the book for obscenity, despite all her pleas.

(b) Compton Mackenzie was very unhappy that Extraordinary Women wasn’t prosecuted at the same time. He told the Attorney General, “You robbed the public of many good laughs. I should have enjoyed cross‐examining you.”

Put those two in a room with Joynson‐Hicks in a competitive bid for prosecution, add in Wotan the dachshund [dogs are a recurring theme in the cycle] and James Douglas as Jix’s own little yappy West Highland Terrier, and you have a novel of high comedy with three absurdly self‐dramatising characters drawn up against each other in high Verdian drama.

Underneath all that, there is a serious question about who the true subversive is ‐ the contrarian who insists that her sexuality must always be oppositional, or the satirist who insists that the ‘pervert’ is exactly the same as everyone else, save in the object of her affections.

Composer’s Introduction

The libretto and music is currently awaiting Robert’s magic touch to bring it to life, so his introduction will follow in due course.

Sources:

Read the Script

All work is copyright of Peter Scott‐Presland and Robert Ely. Anyone interested in performing all or part of it should email info@homopromos.org

Back to Top