The Great Within reader Holly asks, “To what degree do you think Brief Encounter reflects Noel Coward's own romantic experiences as a closeted gay man?"
Holly poses an intriguing question which had not occurred to me even though I have seen Brief Encounter several times. While I was aware of Coward’s homosexuality, I, as a gay/queer/vext viewer, of the new millennium did not connect his sexuality with the film’s narrative. The question then becomes could Brief Encounter have resonated with a homosexual viewer at the time of the film’s production and release?
On one level, Brief Encounter portrays a frustrated and forbidden desire between the two main characters, Laura and Alec. One could argue that this element of the story parallels the lives of homosexual men in postwar Britain whose desire was not only forbidden, but also, more importantly, illegal. Such a situation of criminality prevented (some or most) homosexual men from forming and maintaining close, intimate romantic relationships. Like Laura and Alec, love between 2 men was thwarted by society and its law. A homosexual viewer in 1945 might have felt this special connection between the film and his own circumstance.
Also, it is important to understand if Coward’s own sexual orientation was common (if not publicized) knowledge at the time of the film. If his sexuality was generally known, it could have further underlined the resonance a homosexual spectator felt upon seeing Brief Encounter, allowing this viewer to see beyond the text’s denotation to a level of homosexual connotation.
Finally, what does it mean to rely in part on the biographical information of the author (Coward) to understand Brief Encounter as having an allusion to homosexuality when that is not the very subject of the text itself? In an article about homosexuality and authorship entitled “Believing in Fairies: The Author and The Homosexual,” the film historian Richard Dyer attempts to answer such a question. He navigates successfully between the extremes of the Barthesian notion of the death of the author, which excludes a consideration of the author in the analysis of the text, and the political imperative of affirming the presence and voice of gay authors as well as the importance of such an identity in the production of a particular text. Dyer states:
What is significant is the author’s material social position in relation to discourse, the access to discourse they have on account of who they are…because they were lesbian and gay (and for this reason) they could produce lesbian and gay representations that could themselves be considered lesbian and gay, not because all lesbian and gay men, inevitably express themselves on film in a certain way, but because they had an access to, and an inwardness, with lesbian and gay sign systems that would have been like foreign languages to straight filmmakers. (Richard Dyer, “Believing in Fairies: The Author and The Homosexual” in Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories Gay Theories, p. 188.)
Therefore, to induce Brief Encounter to speak as a homosexual text one must not only rely on Coward’s own subject position as a homosexual man, his biography, but more importantly the meaning of that position at the particular historical moment of postwar Great Britain. How was homosexuality defined in the discourses of popular culture, the law and medicine in 1945? What about that particular historical moment allowed the narrative of Brief Encounter to speak to a homosexual spectator enabling him to make that text his own? And what was the outcome of this connection? Did it become in Foucault’s sense a “reverse discourse” or did film merely become a testament to the plight of the 1945 homosexual viewer? Further research is needed.
Thank you Holly for a great question.