A Greek-Australian prisoner sings an epitaph of death and recounts in broken English the violence and homoeroticism in his jail.
An Italian mother is introduced on stage to Musetta’s Waltz from Puccini’s La Boheme only to discover that each man on this planet has a unique and identifiable penis. She then watches her dead son perform in same-sex pornography; not out of prurience, but out of grief.
Little Ones Theatre, a Melbourne-based queer collective, has adapted eight of the 15 short stories in Christos Tsiolkas’s 2014 collection Merciless Gods into a play that focuses on “how sexuality and ethnicity relate to each other in an electric and almost operatic way”, says director Stephen Nicolazzo.
After a lauded Melbourne premiere season, the production shifts to Griffin’s Stables theatre in Sydney.
Originally written over two decades, the eight vignettes of Merciless Gods will spark audience conversations about racism, faith, blasphemy, forgiveness, class and otherness. They also lead us to ponder the state of subversive artistic responses in a socially conservative era and to consider the continuities and changes in queer writing by second and third-generation migrants.
Playwright Dan Giovannoni’s script for Merciless Gods is a landmark, as the first stage adaptation of any of Tsiolkas’s books, following screen treatments of the novels Loaded (filmed as Head On), Dead Europe, The Slap and Barracuda. It arrives at a time, the creative team contends, when Australian stages are selling queer and migrant experiences short.
“It spoke to the things that were burning inside me at the time”
Melbourne-born Tsiolkas, 52, who is of Greek heritage, scorched the local literary scene in 1995 with his debut novel, Loaded, the story of a young man, Ari, and his battle with queerness, drugs and identity as the child of Greek migrants.
Nicolazzo says he and Giovannoni, both 31 and Melbourne-born, are “queer second generation Italian artists who have related to Christos’s stories from a young age”. Nicolazzo first read Loaded at age 15 and was “obsessed” with its 1998 feature film adaptation, Head On, starring Alex Dimitriades.
Attending an all-boys outer suburban Christian school, Nicolazzo found the book and film “so beautiful and so sexy and so dark … it spoke to the things that were burning inside of me at the time”.
Tsiolkas, during his own adolescence, shared Nicolazzo’s “pretentious little shit” admiration for J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Tsiolkas was also influenced by a Czech immigrant high school teacher who introduced him to European literature.
“For me as a young, queer guy, feeling that I couldn’t fit into the world I was living in, that introduction was immensely important for me,” says Tsiolkas. “The potential of literature and imagination kept me alive, I think, if that’s not too dramatic a way of putting it.”
Giovannoni came to Tsiolkas later than Nicolazzo. In 2006, aged 21, Giovannoni read Tsiolkas’s gothic horror novel Dead Europe. “I was struck by how, even though Christos is 20 years my senior, how much our experience felt the same,” says the playwright. “This disconnection from culture and trying to find culture. This sitting between two places … something to do a little bit with being outside society, you know?”
“If people aren’t seeing these stories on stage, what are we missing?”
In Tsiolkas’s 1996 story Saturn Return, the narrator proudly cries “Wogs rule!’ into his boyfriend’s video camera, and proclaims his same-sex attraction: “I fell in love with this man’s walk … and the soft melody of his baritone voice.” Two decades on, when same-sex marriage has become a cultural battleground and asylum seekers face indefinite offshore detention, queer writers born to migrants are still struggling to proclaim their own and their characters’ identities.
“When Merciless Gods was on in Melbourne, I was shocked when people came up to me afterward and said, ‘This is my story’, and ‘I haven’t seen this before’,” says Giovannoni. “If people aren’t seeing these stories on stage, what are we missing?”
Nicolazzo says it is still rare that people of migrant and queer experience get to tell their stories. The literary world – from Melina Marchetta’s 1992 novel Looking for Alibrandi to Peter Polites’s 2017 novel Down the Hume – remains better representative of European migrant children working in literary forms than the theatre, where such experiences are “not explored all that much at the moment”.
Tsiolkas says he “sometimes gets so frustrated at how white our stages remain. I get the same frustration often with films, as well, and television. That’s not only a question about race and ethnicity and nation for me, but it’s also a question about class. The post-Cold War consensus was that class was dead, and the last couple of years has shown it’s returned with an incredible and frightening force.
“This comes from me being in the theatre world and peripherally in the film world: it’s still a very much a bourgeois world, in which there are fewer experiences of other cultures. The people directing, these are people who have gone to elite schools and lived in very gentrified areas, whose experiences are of a very limited Australia.”
“You realise culture does shift faster than you do.”
The elevation of queer, migrant child artists such as Tsiolkas to critical and commercial success inevitably raises questions about class affiliations. Tsiolkas says the success of his 2008 novel The Slap and its Australian and US television adaptations gave him and his long-term partner, Wayne van der Stelt, financial security for the first time in their lives.
“I can’t in all conscience call myself working class, because I’m not,” Tsiolkas concedes. “I’m comfortably off. It’s a very long time since I remember what it was like to scrounge money to pay bills.”
Having reached middle age, Tsiolkas is also no longer as certain in his attitudes about the world as when he was a younger writer. “There is still an assertion needed against a dominant culture in Australia, and I think it still makes sense that young people need to pull out the equivalent of ‘Wogs rule!’ to the camera,” he says.
“But I wouldn’t necessarily say the experience of third-generation kids born in the late 80s and 90s is equivalent to mine. It’s very true there is a greater acceptance of the Greek culture I come from, at least in urban places, as very much a part of Australian identity. That doesn’t mean the dominant culture still isn’t very Anglo-centric. There are commonalities of the migrant experience I share with people from across the globe, against this turning back to a more parochial understanding of who we are [as Australians].
“Queer culture is very different to the culture we knew growing up, but I do think there is something in the expression of having to assert your queer sexuality that does form a link to a lot of young Muslim writers, for example, that I hear doing spoken word, or to a lot of Queer Asian writers, whose work I read. It’s still something we have in common.”
Writers such as Tsiolkas have helped to take the sting out of pejoratives over recent decades, says Nicolazzo. “People who don’t want to exist in a patriarchal structure are reclaiming these angry words. They can be destabilised.”
Unpacking the patriarchal power of language is something the narrator, Marianne, does in the Merciless Gods story Sticks, Stones, when she overhears her son call an intellectually disabled girl “a mong”: “The dirty word kept repeating itself in her head. Mong. Mong. Mong. Wog. … slut and fag and poofter and dyke.”
Yet personal experience colours how words are received. Tsiolkas acknowledges, for instance, that many older gay men are still offended by the word “queer”, which younger artists in particular, including Nicolazzo and Giovannoni, find liberating, because it is a broader rubric of sensibility and identity than – and not necessarily a synonym for – homosexual.
Perhaps the greatest shift in Tsiolkas’s own thinking since the 1990s has been his attitude to same-sex marriage, an issue which “completely blindsided” him – and locates hope, perhaps, in the current divisive situation Australia finds itself in.
“This is why I can never have the certainties I did as a younger man. I didn’t see it coming. I never thought of marriage as a political issue for homosexuals when I was younger. Do you know the American theorist Leo Bersani? At the height of the AIDS crisis, he wrote something like it would be death for queers if we accept marriage as an institution.
“I understood, because Bersani was coming from a feminist, radical queer politic. [But] as this has become a fundamental issue, I talk to the people in my life – my nieces, my nephews, my friend’s children – this is such an important, defining issue for them.
For me, there’s something humbling about that, because you realise culture does shift faster than you do.”