“Being Served”: Mr. Humphries, Mr. Dickens, and Me

Well, we’re “free”—all of us. John Inman, the outrageously queer men’s wear salesclerk Wilberforce Clayborne Humphries of Britcom fame, is free of all bodily cares after taking the inside leg of the grim reaper today at age 71. Mr. Dickens, whose words have long been spread somewhat too freely in the public domain, is currently being made free with in a new stage adaptation of Great Expectations, the world premiere of which I attended last night. And I? After having been Internet-free for yet another ten days (four weeks and counting so far this year), I am at liberty at last to go on about Mr. Humphries, Mr. Dickens, and myself . . . sharing the miseries of not Being Served well.

“I’m free!” That, of course was Mr. Humphries’s catchphrase, a phrase to catch his drift with. And while he wasn’t, really trapped as he found himself in that ultra-conservative world of the Grace Brothers emporium—oh, brother, the disgrace of Empire!—watching him sure felt liberating to those who shared his lot. Particular, prickly, and peculiar, Mr. Humphries came across as a none-too-distant cousin of Franklin Pangborn, the Queen of Paramount. You know, the kind of character you are free to laugh at, if only to remain in the chokehold of the stereotypes that brought him into being.

For anyone who, like me, grew up with an anxiety of being deemed abnormal, an anxiety that, to be endured, was best (that is, most safely) wrapped in the cloak of flamboyancy, Mr. Humphries was at once a model and a monster—a grotesque mask you felt inclined to pick up mainly because you lacked the fiber and fortitude to tear down the structure responsible for its manufacture and marketing. No, the likes of Mr. Humphries are never free. Mr. Inman, at least, got to celebrate his coming out, however late in life, by publicizing his “gay wedding,” thereby to dismantle what is the most insidious of all secrets . . . the open one.

Mr. Humphries is a thoroughly Dickensian character: a mores-reflecting surface that is buffed up to speak and account for the unspeakable and unaccountable: a caricature that sanitizes as it unsexes. In the Dickensian universe—which is no larger than a Victorian middle-class closet, a repository of so many readily retrievable garments—it is the figure of Pip that best demonstrates the pitfalls of trading one’s identity for a dangled, ready-made mask—a substitution of which its creator had made a trade. Pip is as much a mask of melodrama as it is an unmasking of its workings and limitations.

Pip’s struggle and ultimate inability of coming into his own become apparent in Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of Dickens’s story, in which the episodes of Pip’s life are staged with a minimalism that divests the melodrama of its thrills and offers nothing in their stead, a creative “zilch” for which “existential void” is a mere euphemism. A set of loudspeakers is filling in as a Greek chorus, robbing Pip of the only authority he enjoyed—the privilege to relate the tale in which he found yet failed to find himself.

The silhouettes of characters traversing the stage in front of a white screen suggest what is clear from the start of this production: that none of the figures in the play are treated as living individuals, an impression enhanced by the doublings of most of the eight cast members. The avoidance of overt reflexive gestures—a director in search of his characters, perhaps—render altogether lifeless what might have generated some energy as a Brechtian comment on the world Dickens inhabited and peopled, a world whose masks and conventions we have not quite managed to drop, as much as we delight in making a spectacle of it.

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