One of my favourite classical/chanson singers was a Frenchman called Hugues Cuénod. Cuénod was every inch a queen, and happily welcomed in his native Switzerland as such. Switzerland introduced civil partnerships for same-sex couples in January 2007, and Cuénod seized on this to ‘marry’ his life partner, Alfred Augustin. He was 105 at the time, Augustin in his 60s. Augustin said, "Most people were happy for us," he continued. "Though a few promised us 15,000 years in hell."
So, the scenario here, of the civil partnership of a centenarian and the man he has been with for eighty years, is not entirely implausible, though admittedly unlikely. Civil partnerships were legislated for in the UK in 2004 and came into force a year later. However, Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London had introduced an experimental Civil Partnerships Register in 2001.
The idea was to test the water, to see how much demand there was from lesbian and gay couples for formal recognition. Almost immediately there was a six-month waiting list for the service; despite leaping in almost immediately, I had to wait until late 2002 to get spliced.
The couple in this play, whose lives span almost the entire century and this opera cycle, have similar first names - Gary and Barry - and have combined their surnames. Barry Foster and Gary Darling have become Gary and Barry Foster-Darling, but out of expediency, not principle.
They are modelled on the Danes Axel Lundahl-Madsen and Eigil Eskildsen, who founded the first Danish gay rights organisation, F-48, inspired by the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights [itself drafted by a committee chaired by a lesbian, Eleanor Roosevelt]. Axel and Eigil were the first gay people in the world to have a civil partnership when Denmark introduced them in 1989.
They’d been together over forty years. To proclaim their commitment to each other, they adopted a new, combined surname, Axgil. Axel and Eigil Axgil - a fine recipe for confusion!
It is of the essence of this piece that Gary and Barry are ‘political’ in a sense, but never think of themselves as political, save when goaded to it by Section 28 and the insult, enshrined in law, of saying that their 70-year relationship is ‘pretended’. Otherwise they are mainly concerned with getting on with their lives and staying out of trouble.
But, as the climax of the piece says, they are two out of the anonymous thousands who by their example have created that ‘Amazon of effort’ which achieved liberation, more or less, over the span of a hundred years. Other, more famous, people have contributed episodes to this cycle1 , across a range of themes and musical styles, but it is the ‘foot soldiers’ who have done the real hard work2, often simply by being themselves.
Their story is the story of The Gay Century.
All work is copyright of Peter Scott-Presland and Robert Ely.
Anyone interested in performing all or part of it should email email@example.com