Apr 7, 2013

Fall 1980: Billy Budd: Gay Sailor Romance

In the fall of my junior year in college, just after I cruised the Miracle Mile and bought my first gay book, I took a class in "The American Renaissance," the burst of creative energy in the mid-1800s: Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville.

Our professor (not the one who taught the execrable class in Modern American Literature) admitted that Melville was "a little light in the loafers," but he tried to heterosexualize the texts as much as possible, so he merely claimed that Billy Budd (1888) was about a Christ figure destroyed by the world's evil.









The book cover tried to heterosexualize Billy Budd, too, conveniently placing a woman in the background.  But how could you miss the same-sex desire?  During the Napoleonic Wars, a young cabin boy, described over and over as stunningly handsome, draws the wordless longing of Captain Vere ("Truth") -- and the homophobic ire of Claggart, who falsely accuses him of conspiring to mutiny. While being interrogated, Billy accidentally strikes and kills Claggart, so under British naval law he must be hanged.

Billy forgives the Captain; his last words are "God bless Captain Vere."  But carrying out the sentence destroys Vere; his dying words are "Billy Budd."  I couldn't help but think of Aschenbach, destroyed by his obsession for the beautiful Tadzio in Death in Venice. 





TV adaptions of the novella have appeared twice, in 1955 (with William Shatner) and in 1959 (with Don Murray).


 There's also a 1962 feature film, with Billy played by Terence Stamp (later in Meetings with Remarkable Men and Priscilla Queen of the Desert). 










In 1951, gay composer Benjamin Britten produced an opera version, with libretto by gay novelist E.M. Forster.  It  has Vere survive to old age, when he reflects that once he knew what true beauty was.  It has been filmed in 1988 (with Thomas Allen) and 1998 (with Dwayne Croft), and remains a staple of the theater.  

Recent productions feature a shirtless, muscular Billy, such as those performed by Nathan Gunn (above) and Simon Keenlyside (left).

Also see his gay-subtext filled Benito Cereno.