Title: Another Country
Author: Julian Mitchell
Genre: Historical Play
Warnings: Suicide, Abuse
I’ve often gone on record saying that too many pieces of queer literature have too much sadness in them and unfortunately, this is not one of the much-loved exceptions. But I guess there’s only so much you can do when it’s based off of a true story and historically, society has been terrible. It’s one of those pieces that remind us of our history.
Guy Burgess was an intelligence officer and British spy during the Cold War. This play centers around his life and specifically his public boarding school education in the 1930s. In the play, he’s renamed to Guy Bennett, though the other characters have the same names as their historical counterparts.
Bennett is, to put it lightly, a known flirt. To put it not so lightly, he’s the epitome of “too gay to function,” making suggestive and snarky comments at every opportunity. Even his friends who are also attracted to men often express their exasperation with him and tell him to tone it down because he’s embarrassing. The first few pages of Bennett’s dialogue is him mooning over another young man named James Harcourt on whom he has developed an intense crush, watching a certain building through a pair of binoculars and waiting for Harcourt to come out so he can talk about how lovely he is. Seeing as the play is set in the 1930s, I was surprised by how frank most of the discussion about homosexuality was; I expected it to be very hush-hush, but that isn’t the case.
The plot really takes off when a young man commits suicide in the chapel by hanging himself from a bell rope. He does this because he was caught having sex with another man by one of their teachers, and was going to get in terrible trouble. The prefects, who are supposed to be the leaders of their respective group of students, have a meeting about it and discuss what’s to be done. I expected them to place shame on the boys for what they were doing, but they’re more distraught that they were caught. The boys place more blame on the teachers than the students, which was definitely not what I expected.
Regardless of who they think is at fault for it all, the school cracks down on all sorts of “immorality”. While some prefects just want their younger students to be safe and not get in trouble, one named Fowler seems to openly find joy in getting others in trouble. And, despite the obvious dangers, Bennett continues to go after Harcourt because his feelings for him are that strong.
I won’t say much more because I think the story is much better understood when experienced. If I could see the play performed I think I would give it a higher rating, but it’s still an enjoyable read as it is. The movie based off of it is quite good, as well, and very true to the original text. I will say that everything can be hard to follow if you don’t understand how British public schools have worked historically. There are a lot of terms you won’t understand if you read the play without background knowledge
All in all, the story isn’t the happiest, but it’s also not soul-crushingly depressing. It’s very real, which makes sense with the genre, and it discusses a lot of important points and gives a lot of important messages. My favorite is something Judd says to a younger student when he begins to cry after being teased by some older boys, “What you have to do […] is to say to yourself – they’ve no right, no right at all [to make me feel like something I’m not]. I’m me. I won’t be what they want me to be. And keep on saying it till you’re really angry.”
A big theme of the work is “you’re going to have to fight for what you deserve,” which I know is still a fact for a lot of people. I like that passage because sometimes, when we’re tired of fighting but still have so far left to go, I think we need a little reminder on how to be angry.