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Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a musical written by John Cameron Mitchell around the turn of the millennium, and the script was assigned in my contemporary literature class this week. In the early stages of its development, the play attracted a very large and specific type of crowd, among whom were Lady Gaga and Madonna. On April 22 this year, HedwigΒ premieres once again on Broadway, starring Neil Patrick Harris.Β This is not a text I would’ve cared to read or look into on my own, but one of the best parts of university is getting the chance to discover these gems.

This is a story of a gay boy named Hansel, born in East Berlin in 1961, who falls in love with an American GI, Luther, and undergoes a sex change operation to follow him to the States, and to liberation. The operation is botched and Hansel, now renamed Hedwig (which incidentally means “refuge from war”), is left with a one inch mound of flesh. Luther abandons Hedwig shortly after arriving in the USA and she struggles to pursue a music career in a new world, unsure of her sexuality and identity. After a love affair with a young boy, Tommy Gnosis, who leaves her and becomes famous off her songs, Hedwig starts a band called The Angry Inch and tours America telling her story, in search of her missing half.

I was not looking forward to reading this play in this class. I couldn’t imagine myself liking it, since transsexualism was not a very close topic to me personally, and none of the characters seemed relatable, nor even likeable. However, despite that, this was definitely among my favourite texts, and a truly enchanting and wonderful surprise.

The reason that this story works so well is because of its sincerity in addressing the nature of the human condition. All throughout the film, Hedwig is uncertain of the identity forced upon her, and is disappointed over and over by the people she loves, who end up destroying her instead of completing her. This is something we can all relate to.

The foundation of Hedwig’s belief in love is taken from a beautiful speech spoken by Aristophanes in Plato’s symposium, and summarized in the music video below.

By the end of Hedwig’s story, she finds her other half not by the union with another person, but in accepting herself/himself. It’s something that we have all struggled to find, struggled to understand. Often, there comes a point when we have to accept that the answers aren’t out there after all: “You think that luck has left you there, but maybe there’s nothing up in the sky but air. And there’s no mystical design, no cosmic lover pre-assigned.”

This text speaks to so many themes of pure humanity, leaving transsexualism as a mere backdrop or metaphor. Foregrounded is pain, love, the loss of home, and identity, and coming to terms with the balance between destiny and choice. Using remarkably clever connections — such as the Berlin wall as a divide between communism and freedom and Hedwig as the wall (or bridge) between two sexes — this is a genuinely empathetic story. As my professor put it, the featured lyric from the other big musical of modern times featuring transsexualism is “I’m just a sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania,” which is wrought with irony. The featured lyric of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is “when you’ve got no other choice, you know you can follow my voice,” and there is nothing ironic about that.

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