‘Radically embracing queerness in every possible sense – social, philosophical and sexual- Penny Arcade is tirelessly producing a crucial body of work for our times’.
Is the 21st Century terminally corrupt? Daily, demented greed, morally bankrupt wars and savage racism rip the world apart. It’s a cluster-f*ck axis of evil that Aleister Crowley- the once globally-infamous, Great Satanist – would have adored. “Nothing is true,” he crowed, “Everything is permitted”.
It’s undeniable. We’re locked – perhaps irredeemably – into a screaming, existential hell of brutal, mass-media spin and amoral, state-sanctioned atrocities. Is there any hope, beyond the hollow refuge of wishful, magical thinking so briefly espoused, then spectacularly deflated, by author Joan Didion?
Oh yes. Say hello to passion. Say hello to clarity. Say hello – quite unforgettably – to Miss Penny Arcade, the fantastically fearless, performance-art paragon and prophet of palliative rage.
Petrol-bombed in the holy, unquenchable fire of hugely moral indignation, she’s an ultra-modern Joan of Arc, savagely castrating the gross, Grand Zero blasphemy of gentrification.
Unsurprisingly, she’s hugely daunting to interview. Even physically, even simply seated, Penny’s an electrifying, provocative presence. Textbook notions of mainstream reportage –let alone passive interviewing techniques – don’t begin to do her activist brilliance justice.
If journalism’s an ethical record of subjective judgement, scrupulous honesty demands stating I’m overwhelmed by Penny’s fire-cracker avalanche of insight and analysis. Initially, I’m thrown, but Penny’s patient, and better yet, kind. And her blistering espousal of sheer humanity – a cri de coeur of compassion, integrity and utter authenticity – is a superb narrative through-line. Miraculously, we’re good to go. How did Longing Lasts Longer –her newest, often hilarious, but devastating critique of our cultural malaise – develop?
“Longing Last Longer started as a piece about the end of my marriage, and opened up a part of me where I really started to examine my life-long need for approval”, she begins. “As the poet Adrian Rich says, ‘I was ‘shoved out on this bleak edge/ before naming/before caring’, and I felt stripped to the bone. But it did usher in this period of self-enquiry, questioning why I didn’t want to be in a traditional relationship, realising most of my desire to be in a relationship was to recreate a family life I never had as a child”.
But don’t dare dismiss Penny as a pining, nostalgia junkie – Longing Lasts Longer furiously spits on fetishizing the past. “I get so sick of hearing about nostalgia. I certainly don’t want to be who I was before, I’m an incredibly contemporary person. So in Longing Lasts Longer, there’s a difference between nostalgia and longing. Nostalgia is a sentimental yearning; not only for the past, but the person you were in that past. By contrast, longing is a persistent sense of loss that attaches to ourselves and our unrealised desires. We long into the future, as I say in the show”.
Already in her 60s, but with a solo legacy beating dozens less productive, she’s keenly aware of each brutally brief second. “I realise how short life actually is, and you can’t really achieve everything you might’ve wanted to, but my life has always been directed by a need for beauty, art, and poetry that I’ve mediated my entire life through music. Often, today, you’re not allowed to speak except in a very conscripted way, but when I think back to the self-defined trannies who were so important in my life – my tribe has always been the two-spirited people questioning gender – Jayne County used the great rallying cry I will repeat as often as possible: ‘Don’t use your liberation to stifle my liberation!’”.
Exactly. Transgender myself, I’m hotly opposed to binary stereotypes and, even more, reductive identity politics, and Penny’s words strike an immediate chord with me. Linguistically, socially and theatrically, she’s validating a crucial ambiguity, a plurality of gender expression for those otherwise excluded. It’s what gay author Truman Capote’s debut novel eponymously defined as ‘Other Voices, Other Rooms’.
“I’m speaking from the position of a louche outsider, with a philosophy I have developed my entire life”, she continues. “A philosophy of pleasure, and my whole life has been about doing what I want to do, which is why I also characterise myself as an anarchist. But at the same time, I know I need to take responsibility for myself and my actions and not harm other people”.
“And there are only two groups that value ecstatic experiences above security and planning for the future”, Penny further clarifies.
“Bohemians and the ultra-poor. The writer Bruce Benderson’s Towards A New Degeneracy talks about pleasure as a radical value, and Steve Zehentner, my artistic collaborator, has always used pleasure as an investigative tool, of getting into other states of mind. Joy, authenticity and individuality are our only weapons in the face of death and annihilation”.
It’s an admirable self-awareness wholly missing from the vicious, exploitation ethics threatening every deviant art heritage. Are you sick of monoculture mediocrity, the bland homogenisation of every street, city and mind-space, on and offline? Blame Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, name-checked by Penny as a major architect of modern banality.
Weaponising mass, crowd psychology as a shock-wave for ruthless marketing, Bernays’ theories rammed commodity culture – the need for pointless need –into innocent minds worldwide. No wonder Penny’s once boundless optimism is now more carefully qualified.
“We’re rolling into totalitarianism, and I see no help for that,” she sighs, “because we’re living in an era where people’s individuality has become more and more and endangered trait. So, right now, we’re living in a period of complete consensus, where anybody who stands out in any way – except by having money – is attacked. It’s just the opposite of anything that ever interested me.”
And the only way forward? For Penny, it’s a rigorous, non-stop enquiry into her own self, authenticity and hidden motives. “I was with Quentin Crisp one time, and I was quite young, 38, and he said, ‘You must go within, you must resolve the glorious opinion you have of yourself with what others call the trouble with you. This journey is not an altogether pleasant experience’”.
Perhaps not, but Penny’s severe self-analysis has facilitated disturbingly clear insight. And it’s an insight that despises vapid online addiction – the 24-7 Facebook syndrome- and blindly youth-focused media and social planning.
“A huge part of modern culture is invested in convincing people the first forty years of their lives are superior to the last forty years, that you might just as well hang it up at 40 or 50. That’s unacceptable. Is your orientation that you’re just here to accumulate wealth, spouses and property? Or do you have a concept about yourself as something to be more greatly developed?”
For Penny, it’s emphatically the latter, and, if we have any humanity whatsoever, our steadily deepening empathy inevitably links us to life’s richer complexities.
“I believe as you get older, your life gets more synchronistic, and if it doesn’t, there’s something wrong”. She means sensing the intensely meaningful, but oddly random patterns of personal coincidences first conceptualised by Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychiatrist. As experienced by Penny, synchronicity is a profound, often inexplicable connection with the world.
It’s not surprising. Utterly focused on living supremely attuned to subtle nuance both on and off-stage, Penny even embraces the seemingly paranormal. One recent, memorable event occurred during a creative residency in the US at the hugely prestigious, deeply rural McDowell retreat in New Hampshire.
“I thought the trees were talking to me”, Penny reflects, “then I realised it was the artists who had died there trying to communicate with me. And one person emerged, and she was an American poet named Elinor Wylie who lived a super-scandalous life and died at the turn of the century in exile in London 1898. In Berners Street, in fact. And that’s right where I’m living while doing this show. Textbook synchronicity”.
“You see, synchronicity is us being forged into our own lives; you’re tuning into simultaneous realities. But if you don’t have an inner life, it has to be something outside you, tarted up with bells and whistles. Otherwise, you feel a gaping emptiness, but I feel fabulously rich inside”.
So she should. But to sceptics and critics, of course – especially of a right-wing, semi-fascist persuasion – Penny’s rarefied thinking fatally compromises her otherwise rigorous analysis. Ah, but she’s hardly that naive, and often, crushes critics of any persuasion between ironically opposed flaws in their own logic.
It’s called the Socratic method, a fierce inquiry between orator and audience to stimulate critical thinking, and boasts impeccable queer credentials. “Do I contradict myself?” the great, gay American poet Walt Whitman mused in his magisterial poem Leaves Of Grass. ‘Very well then/I contradict myself/I am large/I contain multitudes’.
Indeed. Just like Penny herself, a teeming, unstoppable tsunami of dissident voices. Working light-years beyond Oscar Wilde’s embittered, post-trial, conceptual impotence, she’s refined his taut, inverted attacks on mass injustice into shockingly precise, social critique. It’s language stunningly deployed as a weapon of mass reconstruction, a screaming wake-up call on the crumbling edge of our global, amoral abyss. Will you listen? Or better yet, act and resist? The truth – like Penny Arcade – is out there.
PENNY ARCADE’S NEWEST SHOW – LONGING LASTS LONGER IS AT SOHO THEATRE UNTIL NOVEMBER 21st. 020 7478 0100
by Sasha de Suinn | @MsSashaDarling