Ian McKellen Writings

4 January 1990 | "Out with your lies"

First published in The Evening Standard

"Silence at Court - McKellen warns of a new sensation". That was the Evening Standard's headline when Michael Owen interviewed me 11 years ago, as Bent was about to have its world premiere at the Royal Court Theatre. 

It had been a tricky interview. I was obeying orders from the press office not to reveal anything about the play's story. Owen, of course, was sleuthing after the truth. But I kept mum. The first-night audience remained innocent. I can still hear their gasps of surprise. 

Eleven years on, as Bent is revived at the National Theatre, audiences know what they are in for. In 35 countries theatre-goers have learned the truth about "the pink triangles" - those gay men who suffered under Nazism alongside the yellow-starred Jews and other minorities. 

Bent is much more than a sensational documentary. Martin Sherman's fictional characters embody the variety of problems gays universally have to deal with. In pre-war Berlin they were outlawed by a uniquely oppressive tyrant. Yet we can still recognise them as our contemporaries. 

Take Max (my part), for instance. His father is a rich industrialist who is so appalled by his son's sexuality that he disinherits him. Yet the same man turns a blind eye to Max's uncle whose homosexuality is practised secretively. 

Such hypocrisy is current today in the argument that gays and lesbians should be seen and heard only when they pretend to be straight. Homosexuals are thus encouraged to disguise their true feelings. Is that why so many become professional actors? 

Max blunders through life. He drinks too much. He can't pay the rent. There is always cocaine. He is unfaithful to his lover who earns a pittance dancing in the drag-club run by a man called Greta. Max may not be the sort you care for. 

Why is the Royal National Theatre now giving him stage-room? He's certainly not the first misfit I've played there. Bosola, Coriolanus and Platonov all leave Max standing. And after Max, I'm doing Richard III! 

His most reprehensible fault is one I have shared. When it suits him, Max denies he is gay. I shan't spoil the plot by telling you the extreme form of his deviousness. But my sympathy with the character explains why I am so eager to play him again, 11 years on.

In 1979 I was "out", as they say, only to my friends and to my colleagues at work. While other actors merrily announced their marriages, publicised their children and chatted on television about their sexual prowess. I kept quiet. 

Not that there was much for me to confide, apart from a stable relationship at home. But like every gay or lesbian who ever stayed in the closet I feared for my career. Would audiences take me seriously as Romeo, for instance, if they knew that in life I fancied Mercutio rather than Juliet? 

So it was a thrill, in Bent to act out on stage the secret which I refused to share publicly. I greatly regret that I didn't, first time round, accept the challenge of the part and of the play as a whole.

Bent ought to have led me out of my closeted life, out of my musty cupboard, with nothing more stimulating than a skeleton for company. I waited there, right through the Eighties. 

Why did it take so long? 

Well, there were not many good examples to follow - at least not in my line of business. Even in the USA, where there are lesbian and gay organisations in every other profession, not a single famous actor is "out" in Hollywood or on Broadway. 

It took Aids to tell us about Rock Hudson. The late Liberace still thinks we don't know. Sex is never easy to talk about easily, particularly for the British. Simon Callow could never persuade the Press to report that he was gay. The posh papers find it all a bit embarrassing. No wonder the dirty ones are so snide and smutty. 

In our country a man old enough to die for his country, old enough to marry and vote is not legally old enough to make love to another man of his own age. He must wait until he is 21. Even then, if he kisses a male friend in public he can be charged with inciting a breach of the peace. Legalised queer-bashing. 

In its notorious Section 28 (1988), the Government has allied itself with those who are mindless of how such inequalities can breed disharmony in our society. 

No wonder lesbians and gays feel unwanted. Frightened as well. Too many kill themselves in their teens. Most survive, like Max, by living a lie. A few come out with it and risk rejection by uncomprehending parents and risk the sack from suspicious employers. 

Before chastising such bold men and women as "immoral", consider whether their honesty doesn't make them, perhaps, some of the most moral and brave members of society. 

I don't claim this for myself. After all, it took me 50 years to pluck up the final bit of courage. I need not have worried. My family, friends and strangers have been totally supportive. I'm still employable too. Since coming out two years back, I've played a varied bunch, sexually speaking. John Profumo in Scandal was resoundingly hetero; likewise Ayckboum's hero in Henceforward... Ronald Harwood's Hitler seemed asexual. As for Iago, a dirty-minded celibate probably. Now I'm back with Max. 

I return with the most valuable asset an actor can have - self-confidence. Uniquely I am working in the company of an author, a director, Sean Mathias, and a fellow actor, Michael Cashman, who are also out to the world. Bent is our first job in the Gay Nineties.

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