Louis and Me…

I’ve spent a long time writing the blog posts about Andrew Garfield and James McArdle’s portrayal of Prior and Louis. They’ve taken an age because they’re long and there’s a lot to say. But I really struggled with Louis. I struggled because I realised James McArdle’s performance had really tapped into some personal things around Louis for me. It’s a really difficult thing to articulate when an actor gets so deeply to the heart of a character you feel both an affinity for and a great love for. And even now there is something deeply visceral about what his version of the character did to me and for me that I can’t quite articulate. But in trying to work that out I thought it was time to talk honestly about what Louis means to me, and why he’s so important to me in the play.
I am Louis, and Louis has always been where my heart lays in this play. It’s more complex than this perhaps, but while Prior is at the heart of the play no doubt, it’s Louis for me that’s always driven it. And on a basic level of analysing the play McArdle’s interpretation makes me simply want to shout ‘THAT, THAT IS WHAT I’VE BEEN TALKING ABOUT.’ He builds Louis again from the ground up and comes at him with the attitude of an actor who is making no judgment about the character- which is really the only way to play him, and understand him. His Louis is softer, and as many have said more understandable. But I think that’s because McArdle understands him too. For an actor approaching the role it’s too easy to look at what Louis does, combine that with the political rantings, and come out with a cold, uncaring version of the character. McArdle gives us the opposite- a Louis who cares so much he falls apart.
But still Louis is a character who causes a lot of division. There’s a bit of a sense of ‘Team Louis’ and ‘Team Prior’ perhaps, and a sense that you can’t ever see both sides, you fall with one or the other. Perhaps Kushner has given us two sides of a coin to argue for infinity. I will always fall on Louis’ side, although I feel desperately for Prior. Because I simply feel a part of Louis.
Why Louis then? People ask ‘Why this play?’ ask me ‘why spend so much of your life on it?’ or ‘what is it about it?’ often.  The answer now is ‘many things’ and ‘too many to mention’ I’ve fallen in love with the play (and out of love) so many times I can’t remember anymore, or pull out one thing. But actually the thing that drew me in initially was Louis, an at the time inexplicable pull towards him.  
I tell the story of finding Angels often. I lived in Canada, we had no TV but we’d rent DVDs from the Dollar movie store around the corner. The part I don’t tell often (and this goes for my discovery of Rent around that time) is that at that point my Father was either dying or had just died. I’m a little fuzzy on the exact timelines but finding this play (and Rent) fell around then. The part I leave out, but is at least implicit, was I’d run away too.
It’s fitting that I’m getting to writing this today, which is Canadian Thanksgiving. My memories of the period are so fuzzy in fact, and I am such a terrible Louis-like person that I don’t know the exact date he died. I do know it was Canadian Thanksgiving that weekend. So that’s the marker in my brain. (This was 2004 for anyone interested in chronology). I’d lived there for three months and done a pretty effective Louis-ing of hiding away and being slightly oblivious to the reality I’d left behind. It wasn’t entirely as deliberate or conscious as Louis. I was there to study, and with my parent’s blessing. But I’d still run, I was still (like Prior) ‘Dancing as fast as I can’. My ‘Louis’ part of this is that I both wanted to go, and wasn’t coping particularly well. In my defence I was 20 years old, and coping with a life in a foreign country, and the death of a parent. But let’s just say I didn’t handle it well.
So that, like Louis is my dirty little secret about it. I rarely say it because people find it difficult to understand but I understand because in my own way I did it. I was young, unable to cope with the reality of someone I was close to dying. And so I ran.
When people call Louis cold, or a terrible person it really does cut to the core of me. Because he’s not. It doesn’t mean what he did was right, but humans don’t act in the right way all the time, a lot of the time. Not all of us hold up well under pressure. Not all of us are emotionally equipped to deal with everything life throws at us.
Later, in relationships, I admit I didn’t deal well with illness again. When I partner was suffering with mental health issues, I wasn’t good, I didn’t cope well and in part it drove us apart. And I was again ready to run. I was younger, I was more ignorant of these issues. And frankly I was (and am) dealing with my own mental health issues. These aren’t excuses, like Louis I’m not excusable in my inability to cope. But they are reasons. And they are things I understand about him. We aren’t all built that way, we aren’t all wired that way.  And what of sexuality in Louis? It’s not something we talk about as we do with Joe. But I believe Louis struggled with his sexuality more than the self- assured ‘Queens’ Prior and Belize.  His quips about his parents being disappointed, his previous ‘sleeping around’ his self-destructive relationship with Joe. We don’t talk about the potential for internalised homophobia but we should. Louis is at times uncomfortable in his own skin. And I admit I’ve felt the same about my own sexuality. I feel his awkwardness in me too.
And yes, I see a lot of myself in Louis. Not just ‘the boy who ran away’ but the boy who is confused, a bit lost. The boy who gives a 20-minute political monologue rather than address his true feelings. The boy who is just so angry at everything in the world because he can’t address the real issues within himself. Some of us are Prior, some of us fight in the face of the worst possible adversary. Some of us are Belize, cool and calm and oh so together in life. Some of us are Harper, managing to rebuild ourselves out of dust and ashes. And some of us are Louis-we fall apart and it takes us a long while to put ourselves back together again. 
But Louis isn’t without redeeming qualities. He loves, and acts fiercely and with conviction. And I’m proud to see that trait in myself too. I feel everything at extremes (yes, I too cry way too easily). I throw myself at the things I believe in with passion and an almost blind conviction (as well, this blog might well indicate). I’m knowledgeable to the extreme on the things I love and will share that information (others might not see that as the greatest trait thinking about it…). And I also love with loyalty and dedication. In all that he does Louis loves Prior completely, and I share that ‘all in’ attitude as well.
Seeing the play this time was surprisingly emotional on realising that I’m now the same age as Louis. More so than I’d anticipated. Perhaps because I still find myself very much in Louis’ position – the office temp, a bit directionless, a bit friendless at times, a disaster when it comes to relationships. Basically, just being a person who hasn’t quite got their shit together yet. In some respects, the Louis of the Epilogue, in this version of it, gives me hope for 37, because that Louis did seem like a man who finally did have his shit together. So, we live in hope. So maybe come back to me in five years and see?
I get fiercely defensive of ‘my’ Louis, as a character and now of McArdle’s interpretation of him. For the character I ask honestly of anyone who loathes him, or accuses him of being a terrible person (there’s a difference in doing terrible things to being terrible) I ask, have you been there? Do you know how you’d cope? And can you not understand that not everyone does, or can handle things in the same or ‘correct’ way. And maybe this blog and admitting these things will make people dislike me as passionately as they do Louis. But maybe it’ll also help them understand. 
The reason I found it difficult to articulate my feelings on McArdle’s performance is that he gave me everything I’ve had in my head about this character for 10 years or more. All the things I thought only I was seeing about him, he brought out. And it’s wonderful, but also heart-searingly painful to watch, and live through again and again. He gave me things about Louis I didn’t know existed, and things that I was forced to reflect on myself again. He gave me a love for the character and an increasingly complicated ‘I feel like this character but I’m also in love with this character’ type feeling.  Louis has been a part of my heart for as long as I’ve loved this play. And quite simply James McArdle gave me a version of him that I’d been waiting for, he made real everything I almost thought I’d imagined about the character. Like having a part of you ripped out but also put back together at the same time. I’d kind of like to thank him for that.

Published by Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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