Peter Fechter, an 18-year-old who was shot dead while trying to escape over the Berlin Wall in 1962, is the subject of one of the plays in this volume.
What is it?
It’s a book by Jordan Tannahill, published in 2013 by Playwrights Canada Press. It contains three short plays, all of them monologues, together with an overall introduction and short intros to each play.
What are the plays about?
As Tannahill says in his intro, the plays are all “to some extent” queer. The first tells the story of a young lesbian who joins the US Army with her girlfriend and then escapes to Canada after she’s harassed for her sexuality. The second is about a high school student who explores his gender fluidity in YouTube videos (and indeed, the play was written to be performed as a live-streaming YouTube video). And the third is based on the true story of Peter Fechter, a young German who tried to escape across the Berlin Wall in 1962 and was left to bleed to death when he didn’t get over.
What’s queer about the last one?
That’s the one of the three that isn’t overtly queer. There is a possibility, never explicitly taken on, that the young man might be gay, and one can imagine homoerotic elements in his interactions with his friend Helmut, who tries to escape with him, but these elements are really (and wisely) left to the reader’s imagination. More generally, though, this third play, Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes, talks very movingly about the universal drive to love and be loved, a drive that is often frustrated for queer people. In that sense, there is a parallel between Fechter’s desperate bid for freedom and the efforts LGBTQ folk make to be free to express themselves.
Sounds like an interesting trio of plays.
It’s a nice volume. I enjoyed the intros as well, which offer little insights into the state of queerness in Canada in the 2010s. The playwright clearly has a “mission” to tell the stories of marginalized or silenced queer people, all of them having to deal with an uncomprehending or openly hostile wider society. And he accomplishes this with compassion, imagination and polish.
Am I sensing a “but”?
I’d say this collection inspired my respect and admiration more than my love and fervent enthusiasm. The first two plays are impressive in the way the playwright takes on these very different voices, but I didn’t really take anything away from these monologues. It’s clear these plays have a “purpose”; they were developed to provoke discussion among young people. To that extent, I am most definitely not the target audience, and these plays didn’t really tell me anything I don’t already know about queer lives.
The third play was the one I found far and away the most substantial. Given that my reviews are of books, plays and films that have a queer angle, though, I have to mention that this play (at least on the page) isn’t really queer.
Perhaps my nagging reservation about this collection as a whole is that the plays are all, to a greater or lesser extent, tied to the reality of specific stories, and I felt this acted as a bit of a weight preventing the plays blossoming into fully realized works of art, creations of the imagination. Tannahill says in his intro that he wants to give voices to “sublime outcasts” and he’s certainly done that. He’s presented queer lives, given them voice and presence, but at the end of it all, I’m not sure what Jordan Tannahill wants to say about queer lives, other than that they have a right to exist and flourish—which is, of course, a desperately important message to deliver to young people. But beyond the young (which includes me)?
I look forward to reading something more personal from this very talented writer.