“Theater Is Not for Fags,” the sign reads. It was brandished, among other such boards, in a rather unconvincing crowd scene in “The Other Vibrator,” the possibly well-intentioned but insipid eleventh episode of Grace and Frankie’s third season, with which I eventually caught up only a few days ago. The morning after, I finished reading Ngaio Marsh’s Killer Dolphin (1966). And the way that my wayward mind works, I put it down with that slogan in mind.
Retitled Death at the Dolphin, Marsh’s mystery novel was published in Britain in 1967, half a century before the Grace and Frankie episode first aired. That means it came before the public just as the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalized consensual – and private – homosexual acts among adult males in England and Wales. This being Gay Pride month, I am perhaps especially alert to anxieties surrounding gender and queer identity. At any rate, I detected an unease – or a playful response to public misgivings, actual or perceived –about homosexuality in Marsh’s narrative, which features a single gay character, and a minor one at that, while most of the other players – actors and creatives all – are carefully coupled in more or less, and mostly less, cosy heterosexual bonds.
Could it be, I wondered, that Marsh, herself a theater director, was sharing the sentiment that public playhouses – in swinging London, to boot – are not a platform for gay men?
While the signposting is rather more subtle than a slogan on a poster, with few overt references to homosexuality – all of them expunged from the otherwise faithful 1971 radio adaptation – what is central to the plot of Killer Dolphin – to use the cleverer of the novel’s two titles – is the relationship between multimillionaire Vassily Conducis, the mysterious, very private angel of the Dolphin project and its passionate mastermind, a young playwright-producer called Peregrine Jay – the name being a nod perhaps to Peregrine Pickle by Tobias Smollett, an author whose 1748 novel Roderick Random features a memorable queer character “notorious for a passion for his own sex.” Well, Roderick is also the first name of Marsh’s detective, Superintendent Alleyn, who began solving her fictional crimes in 1934; so I am mindful not to read too much into clues that may well be the red herrings of my fishy reasoning.
Marsh’s novel – which, as both its titles hint at, is not, strictly speaking, a “murder” mystery – ushers us into the world of the theater through the front door of the dilapidated Dolphin playhouse. On a cold and wet winter’s day, young Peregrine decides to inspect the building he dreams of restoring to the splendor of its early Victorian period, when an impresario “gloriously tarted it up.”
Once inside, Peregrine promptly falls into a deep hole filled with putrid water and very nearly drowns. Suddenly, a hand is extended to him, and he is pulled into safety. The hand is that of Vassily Conducis, the owner of the building, who happens to be on the premises at the same time in view of pulling the property down.
Described as an “impeccably dressed” middle-aged man of uncertain national origins, Conducis urges the young man to strip naked and then covers him with a rug and a Mackintosh. Although Peregrine would much rather be taken straight to his own flat – which he shares with Jeremy, a set designer – his rescuer directs his unflappable chauffeur to drive them straight to his posh London residence. There, Peregrine is greeted by an equally unflappable valet – “Perhaps I may take your rug and coat” – given a bubble bath, a hot toddy and a new outfit of designer clothes.
Even before stepping into the car, Peregrine wonders “if perhaps the all too obvious explanation was the wrong one and if his rescuer was a slightly demented gentleman and the chauffeur his keeper.” The “all too obvious explanation,” of course, is that “ghastly old Croesus” is a sugar daddy who is after his youthful – and soon to be fragrant and intoxicated – body.
When Peregrine learns that Conducis is willing to restore the Dolphin and put Peregrine in charge of the project, the “all to obvious explanation” resurfaces. Why is he doing all this? Why is he playing fairy godmother? In spite of the secrecy of his client, Conducis’s solicitor, Greenslade, aims to put Peregrines’ mind at ease:
“I am at a loss to know why Mr. Conducis is taking this action. If, however, I have interpreted your misgivings correctly I can assure you they are misplaced.” Suddenly, almost dramatically, Mr. Greenslade became human, good-tempered and coarse. “He’s not that way inclined,” he said and laid down his spectacles.
“I’m extremely glad to hear it,” Peregrine replies.
The theater is restored, and Peregine’s own play – inspired by a brittle and water-stained glove owned by Conducis and purportedly made by none other than Shakespeare’s father for Shakespeare’s son Hamnet —is produced there about fifteen months after Peregrine’s none too propitious introduction to the Dolphin.
Throughout the story, Marsh continues to draw attention to the dubiety of Conducis and his motivation. “You were half-drowned, half-drunk, dressed up in a millionaire’s clobber and not knowing whether the owner was making a queer pass at you or not,” Peregrine is reminded by his flatmate. “Bloody strange but not, I have decided, queer,” Peregine replies, to which Jeremy responds: “Well, if he’s not an old queer and you say you don’t believe he is, what the hell?”
Ultimately, Conducis’s reasons for assisting Peregine are disclosed – and that is the final disclosure in the novel, made after the mystery involving the theft of the glove is solved. Described at some point by Inspector Alleyn as a “cold fish and yet a far from insensitive fish,” Conducis, as it turns out, has a female lover – one of the cast members. He is, by such conventional if far from infallible markers, certifiably straight.
“Conducis is not a queer in my opinion,” Peregrine declares elsewhere’ “he’s a bloody nuisance in a company. Like a wasp. But I don’t believe he’s a bad lot. Not really.” Nor is the actual queer member of the company “a bad lot.” His name is Charles Random – could the references to Smollett’s Roderick random truly be coincidental? – and he is described as having an ‘impatient, rather injured manner which it would have been going too far to call feminine.’ A lover of antiques, “he’s one of those characters who possess an infallible nose for a rare item” and drives an “old souped-up Morris sports,” “[p]ainted scarlet.” Any more clues?
When Alleyn conducts his investigations following the death of a night watchman and the theft of the priceless gloves, which were exhibited in the foyer – he classifies the quiet and detached Random as other than male: “I’d like the women and Random to take themselves off,” Alleyn instructs his officers, “and the rest of the men to wait outside on the landing.”
Charles Random shares his dressing room with Trevor Vere, the precocious – make that obnoxious – child actor of the company. “Charlie? No trouble to anyone,” Peregrine assures the inspector. “Not, as you may have discerned, a hundred per cent he-man, but what of that? He doesn’t bring it into the theatre. It was quite all right to let him dress with the boy, for instance.”
There you go, he “doesn’t bring it into the theatre.” Random is a eunuch, basically, who can do no harm to the child. One the one hand, Marsh’s novel defuses anxieties about homosexuality as predatory; on the other hand, it leaves such stereotypes unchallenged, suggesting that harmless queers are asexual and therefore no threat to the theater and, by extension, the culture it serves.
According to the inexorable logic of the detective novel, even the support from a financial backer must be demonstrated conclusively to be motivated by something other than queer longing. No pink pounds were exchanged in the endeavor. Conducis, it is disclosed in the novel’s final pages – in a chapter titled “The Show Will Go On” – has been hoping to make amends for having let a man drown by refusing his hand in rescue rather than marriage.
“Theater Is Not for Fags” is a preposterous declaration, to be sure; but rather than dismissing or making light of it, we need to remind ourselves of the many ways in which prejudices are articulated and discrimination is perpetuated.