“The Sins of the Cities of the Plain,” an evocative and ground-breaking opera, draws inspiration from the pioneering book of the same title, first published in London in 1881 by William Lazenby and reissued in 1902 by Leonard Smithers. The book, a seminal work in the annals of homosexual literature, stands as one of the earliest English-language publications of explicitly homosexual content. It’s a vivid reflection of the socio-economic and cultural undercurrents of the Victorian era, seen through the eyes of the underground world.
This literary gem is believed to be the memoirs of Jack Saul, an infamous Irish male prostitute, known colloquially as ‘Dublin Jack.’ Saul’s life was mired in controversy, including involvement in the homosexual scandal at Dublin Castle in 1884, and later, the Cleveland Street scandal. The book’s authorship remains shrouded in mystery, with multiple potential contributors. While there are striking similarities to the real-life Saul, there are also notable discrepancies. For example, the book’s Mr. Saul is English, whereas the actual Jack was born into poverty in Dublin in 1857 and only relocated to London in 1879. The enigma deepens considering the book’s publication in 1881, a mere two years after Saul’s arrival in London. Nonetheless, it is evident that the author(s) possessed intimate knowledge of both Jack Saul’s life and the clandestine, often forbidden, world of Victorian London’s homosexual community, particularly among the upper-middle classes.
Over time, various figures have been postulated as the work’s authors, ranging from pornographer James Campbell Reddie to artist Simeon Solomon. However, as Glenn Chandler suggests in his book “The Sins of Jack Saul,” a more plausible theory is that Jack Saul himself co-authored the book with William Lazenby, blending biography with fiction and a factual narrative of England’s underground world.
What makes this libretto uniquely captivating is its language: it is written entirely in Polari, a crypto-language developed by the homosexual community in late 19th-century Britain. Polari, derived from the Italian word “parlare,” meaning “to talk,” is a linguistic tapestry woven from various slangs associated with marginalized and itinerant groups. Its roots can be traced back to the Thieves Cant of Elizabethan England, with subsequent contributions from molly house culture, Parlyaree, Cockney rhyming slang, back-slang, and other expressions from Romance languages.
Polari gained widespread popularity in the 1960s, particularly through the BBC radio program “Round the Horn,” featuring comedians Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams. However, following the decriminalization of the Buggery Act in 1967 and the advent of gay liberation, the need for this secretive language diminished, leading to its gradual decline. Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in Polari, thanks to scholars like Paul Baker and its embrace in academic and artistic circles.
In crafting this libretto, I delved into a rich array of cultural, artistic, and academic resources, including “The Polari Bible,” Paul Baker’s “Fantabulosa: A Polari Dictionary,” and the work of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, among others. I explored the language’s potential by expanding and innovating its vocabulary, playing with semantics, morphology, and phonetics to create new lexemes.