On Monday, American performer Penny Arcade starts a 20-night run at London’s Soho Theatre of her Edinburgh Fringe show Longing Lasts Longer.
Her mother was abusive and her father was mentally ill. Aged 13, she ran away from home and spent a summer homeless. She was sent to a reform school. They released her when she was 16. She left for New York City, with money stolen from a sandwich shop where she worked. In New York, she changed her name to Penny Arcade after an LSD trip.
When I met her yesterday, the first thing I said was: “I read somewhere that, when people first meet you, they always ask how old you are.”
“No, they don’t ask me,” she said. “I force it on them.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because,” she explained, “while my age doesn’t define me, it certainly in some ways explains me, because of what I lived through. I have been on my own, forming my own analysis, for 50 years.”
“I also read,” I said, “that the phrase ‘performance art’ was invented to describe you.”
“No,” Penny told me. “I am one of the people who invented what has become known as solo performance art, text-based performance art.”
“As opposed to improvisation?” I asked.
“No. I’m a great improviser. It’s one of my most salient attributes. Most people are not improvisers. Text-based performance art as opposed to visual work, where somebody walks around with a bucket on their head for an hour. Text-based performance art is high content. It’s about real stuff. I don’t make work for the same 300 art school cripples that go to everything. I make work about things that affect me that I know affect other people.
“I am different from other people. I’ve had a different life from most people. I have been an outsider and rejected by my family and society with a velocity of impact so profound that it was not until I was in my fifties that I could really get my head above it. I’ve had a very very long time of understanding or trying to understand what it means to be an outsider, what it means to be rejected by society.
“When you have this kind of profound and painful reality, it makes you very sensitive to other people. I think pathos is a cornerstone in my work and my work engenders empathy. That’s the goal of my work. To make people feel what I feel or feel what other people feel – by being very very honest and very very very revealing.
“That said, Longing Lasts Longer is a bit of a different kind of show. The point of Longing Lasts Longer is basically to present a kind of manifesto of how I think we got to where we are right now, how it’s affecting the younger people. It’s a warning to younger people. People have said the show is critical of younger people but I’ve said: No, it’s critical of what’s being done to younger people. The biggest trouble in the world, of course, is the fact the world is filled with stupid people.
“Thinking is difficult. That’s why very few people do it. In order to think, you have to create a new groove in your brain that is deeper than you knew before, which is why most people don’t think. It’s hard work to think. It’s a very exciting show. There are over 100 sound cues in the 60-minute show. It’s very hard-hitting, unrelenting and it’s very funny. And it’s really about the human condition.”
“You’ve just come back from Poland,” I said. “Did you perform Longing Lasts Longer there?”
“No. I did Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! which is my sex and censorship show. It was very well received there and it’s 20 years old. We did 48 performances of it in London three years ago and the London Times called it “the smartest, most quotable party in town”. So I’m an aphorist, like my old friend Quentin Crisp.”
“When did you meet him?” I asked.
“I met him when he was about 77. He died in 1999, shortly before his 91st birthday. I had wanted him to live to be 100, which made him quite angry with me.
“He called me in 1996 and asked me: Miss Arcade, I know that I’ve always promised you to live to be 100 years old, but I was wondering if I could get a dispensation from you and only live to be 90. “I said: What are we going to do if you die? What am I going to do? He said: I’m going. You’re staying. I feel sorry for you.
“And he was quite right. Although I don’t think anything would have prepared him for what has happened since 1999 in the world. The level that we’ve gone overboard into since 2001. The terrorism, the corporate and political disregard for the truth and integrity. Quentin liked evil to be cosy, like in an Agatha Christie book. Not the levels that we’re dealing with now.”
“Has it really changed that much?” I asked.
“Well, the world’s a horrible place filled with horrible people. That hasn’t changed. I’ve watched squatters who were supposed anarchists and, as soon as they got their floor in a building, there wasn’t room for anybody else. I mean, it’s human nature. It’s something I struggle with: my own human nature, my own greed, envy, self-absorption. But I notice these things. A lot of people don’t notice them in themselves.
“I was very close to Quentin in the ten years before he died. He was a phenomenal study in ageing and I learned a lot about ageing from him.”
“What did you learn?” I asked.
“Society tells you that the last 40 years of your life are inferior to the first 40 years of your life. But that is not true. The last 40 years of your life is how you complete your character. And you have to complete your character in order to be a complete person.
“I learned what real individuality means. I learned what real integrity is. I learned how our values are not something that we purchase or download, but something that we pay for over time on the instalment plan. I learned the benefit of being curious.”
“Had you not learned that earlier?” I asked.
“When I really started spending a lot of time with Quentin, I was 40. I was still in the throes of a lot of post-traumatic stress from my childhood and my early life. First a lot of bad things were done to me and then I did a lot of bad things to myself and it took me a long time to climb out of that. I met Quentin when I was still quite un-formed. I was really in a process of becoming and that made me very similar to him I think. I think he recognised that quality in me – that I was someone who was committed to becoming, not to pretending and being something I wasn’t.
“Watching him and being with him and his ruthless honesty – with himself as well as with everybody else – I also saw his foibles and his conceits and his vanities. Which all human beings have.”
“What were his foibles?” I asked.
“Well, he never really stopped being the middle class person that he was born. The middle class couldn’t contain him, but he couldn’t uproot it out of himself either. He never really forgave the brutality of his younger life, even though he seemed as if he did. But he had very little pity for anyone. He had very little empathy. He used to say to me: People have no rights, Miss Arcade. If we all got what we deserved, we would starve to death.”
“What’s next for you?” I asked.
“I’m going to be in Australia with Longing Lasts Longer from February 1st till May. Then I want to go back to the Edinburgh Fringe in August, because I love to be in Scotland and I would love to bring another show there. Then I’m going to be doing a larger version of Longing Lasts Longer in New York in November 2016.”
“With even more music cues?” I asked.
“Yes. And a lot of video. And I’m also going to be writing a script about Quentin Crisp.”
“A stage script?”
“You could play Quentin,” I suggested.
“I could. And I told him that I would. But I don’t know if I’m quite ready. It might be…”
“It might be too emotionally raw for you?” I asked.
“I don’t know…I can channel him, that’s for sure.”
“You have to write the play,” I said. “And you should play him yourself.”
“It’s an interesting idea. Penny Arcade is Quentin Crisp. He and I always said that I would eventually play him, because he saw me play people that he knew. I used to be known in the 1980s for character work, before I stumbled down this cultural criticism. I used to do the cultural critique through characters and then I got rid of the characters.
“If I played Quentin Crisp myself, the first place I would do it is at the King’s Head Theatre, because that’s where Quentin Crisp first performed.”
There is a promo for Longing Lasts Longer on YouTube.