‘The Inheritance,’ Inspired by E.M. Forester’s ‘Howard’s End’ a Chronicle of Gay Life, Poignant, Humorously Ironic, Triumphant
How does one tell one’s story digging out the mired treasure amidst the refuse of time, personalities, relationships squandered, brilliant aphorisms and droplets of wisdom tossed away unheeded? Indeed! As most people end up doing, you don’t tell it; you live it and consign it to memory fragments which may become obliterated by dementia or Alzheimer’s. Or you move it into imagination realized, accessing a work of fiction as your inspiration and using a parallel plot platform to guide you.
Additionally, if you elicit the help of the spiritual consciousness of E. M. Forester as your literary muse employing Howard’s End as the fulcrum of evolving social mores in turn-of-the-century England (to mimic late 20th-century America) you will do as the ingenious Matthew Lopez (The Whipping Man, The Legend of Georgia McBride) did. You will write a masterwork. For Lopez is it The Inheritance. And if you are fortunate to premiere your play at London’s Young Vic with an exciting, prodigiously talented cast, it just may transfer successfully to Broadway a year later because of its sterling, award-winning particularity and emotional poignancy; this despite a few expositional plot convolutions and character snags.
The intriguing convention of materializing E.M. Forester as a professor who surfs the crest of wisdom’s waves into the shoreline consciousness of a cadre of gay writers (clever opening scene) is one of the high-points of Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance, proudly unleashing its almost seven hours, four acts and large cast at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
In Lopez’s work Forester, is known by his middle name Morgan. Brilliantly portrayed by Paul Hilton, as the sensitive, focused and refined gentleman gay writer who hung in the shadows of respectability and didn’t “indulge” ’til his thirties, Hilton balances just enough loving instruction in shepherding the writers, and specifically Leo (Samuel L. Levine) in how to write their stories with sage advice exemplified in his novel. As he steers them in dramatic directions, they configure plot elements and “act” the characters in Leo’s story. Additionally, Hilton’s performance of Forester doubling as Henry Wilcox’ thirty-five year love interest Walter Poole is, bar none, glorious. John Benjamin Hickey as Wilcox is his fine counterpart.
Actually, the role of Forester could have been extended. Some of the business representing the cadre’s snide, material, mimed psycho-sexual behaviors and gay bitchiness in their choral presentments could have been shaved to fine points of crystal clarity without losing context or meaning. These changes may have enhanced thematic textures. Left as is, the cadre’s force is diluted and the staged movements of mimed sex which might have been acutely rendered as a dance are merely a humorous contrast to the deeper relationships in the play as well as a privileged indulgence since sexual hedonism isn’t a problem in 2018 with drugs like Truvada, PrEP and DESCOVY®. However, this superficializes the characters who are unnecessarily demeaned in what appears to be their gratuitous behavior, when they are far better than narcissistic overlords of themselves and each other.
As Forester guides his charges into how to extract the seminal moments of the story of their lives, we meet the key players who portray the protagonists and antagonists. Ironically, with authorial deification these players also get to comment on their character’s choices and the direction of their lives. Thus, in a wonderful twist, Lopez has the characters live and have their being while choosing their actions as they help Leo realize the most dramatic elements of the story.
The most humorous and finely realized manifestation of this occurs with the character of Toby Darling (the gobsmacking Andrew Burnap) whose seven year relationship with Eric crashes and burns mostly because he undoes it with careless abandon. Burnap adroitly, prodigiously walks the Toby tightrope. Representatively, Burnap’s supercharged Toby is the gay everyman of the previous generation before the AIDS epidemic: a cavalier, “full-of-himself,” gorgeous, sizzling, sexual powder-keg who masks the bleeding, soul raw, emotional victim of his own despairing gayness that writhes within.
Also, Lopez’s characterization of Toby as the successful novelist-cum Broadway playwright whose work will be made into a film, shines in a quaint “theater of the absurd” trope. Toby is the epitome of the actor searching for a character, massaging and sometimes insistently demanding the writing cadre, Forester and lead author-Leo do what he wishes. The outraged humor Burnap engenders as he attempts to write himself into a finer presentation and less painful destiny is wonderful. That he fails to influence Leo and the others to give him what he wants by the conclusion of the production is poignant, stark and even more wonderful.
His is an end which has no spiritual return because he optimizes his final choice and upends our expectations that he will die of AIDS. Lopez’s irony of and about Toby Darling is acute. As he declines, Leo ascends to a greater success, topping Toby’s spurious, specious novel (which Toby accuses himself of writing) with a powerful, truthful authenticity.
This is one of the many twists upon twists that Lopez effects that eventually is swallowed up by the themes and curiosity of paralleling Howard’s End and revealing how the cadre helps Leo tell the story of his complicated and amazing Horatio Alger-like rise. It is an evolution whose possibilities Leo inherited from the sacrifice of others who had gone before him in a long succession of gays shamed and ostracized. Lopez has his writers discuss Forester’s internalization of shame as they allude to gays of previous generations, who like Forester, had to hide in the shadows of oppression because of the social opprobrium and stench of perversion that branded gay men with the red letter F for faggot, a word that is still used to bludgeon gays today in various areas of our nation.
Homosexuality was an anathema that spawned abuse, brutalization and murder until it was answered for all time by the 1969 riots at Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. Forester who never “came out” publicly to stand for the cause as he could have, died a year after Stonewall. He never submitted his one novel about same-sex love for publication because such love was verboten. Forester deemed Maurice not “worth” publishing for the hell it would bring him, though clearly, it would have helped thousands come to grip with their own traumatized feelings.
Interestingly, as the writer cadre discusses this, they accuse Forester of cowardice. He avers, but he, too, is a part of the inheritance that burgeons today. The Stonewallers who fomented that iconic, historic event symbolically stood for gays globally; all benefited as the gay rights movement began its march into the future light of social acceptance. And Forester’s Maurice was published in 1971, within a mere year and one-half after Stonewall.
Gradually, Lopez’s characters unravel their storied relationships and relate how the previous generation’s sacrifice paved the way for their current oblivion enjoying their Lotus-Land sense of privilege and freedom from the ponderous, fearful irrevocable death-filled virus which Lopez’s characters quaintly refer to in the past tense as “the plague” and the “war.” Their nonchalant twitting jokes and discussion about “Camp” rise to high-turned humor. Is that all there is to discuss?
With gay marriage made legal, there are very few hurdles that remain left for the gay community who are free, in most cities globally, to be whom they please. The problem is, they must reconcile themselves with the past which always looms its insanity into the present. Toby is a prime example of how, regardless of the external strides the culture makes, freedom also originates from within; we must conquer ourselves conjointly as we battle the prejudices, discrimination and hatred of individuals we may meet in society.
In keeping with this truism/theme of the play, we note Toby’s mismatched relationship with Eric Glass (Kyle Soller) a social activist who understands the full doom of Trump’s win and how it will impact every current policy from health care to the Paris Climate Accord to gay rights. While Toby basks in the fame of his novel’s success then prepares for the opening of his play on Broadway, he slowly disintegrates eaten inside out from trying to keep his lies suppressed. Meanwhile, Eric Glass befriends upstairs neighbor, frail Walter Poole, whose partner the robust titan of industry, Henry Wilcox has little time for.
From this foursome Lopez strikes loose parallels with Howard’s End: the Schleigel sisters (Eric and Toby) and Mr. and Mrs. Wilcox (Walter Poole and Henry Wilcox). Lopez furthers the complications with these relationships to eventually cue in Leo’s metamorphosis and Toby’s disintegration.
Henry was married with two sons; when his wife died he became enamored with Walter. They coupled and Walter lovingly raised the boys, maintaining the family dynamic while Henry often was away on business. Toby grows apart from Eric as he bathes in his success and becomes attracted to actor Adam (Samuel H. Levine) the wealthy counterpart of the homeless, uneducated, look alike hustler Leo who eventually writes the story of their lives. Toby and Eric split and Eric is devastated. Walter dies; Henry is devastated. Walter leaves a house upstate to Eric. Walter intuits that Eric spiritually can be the caretaker of the house because of his generous, charitable nature. However, Walter’s death bed wishes are not honored when Henry, motivated by his grasping sons, denies Walter’s request and burns the paper on which he wrote his “last will and testament.”
From then and there the conflict augments and we become intrigued as to how the upstate house will eventually land in Eric’s lap, for surely he is more deserving than Henry’s crass sons.
The mystery why Walter bequeaths the house to Eric (it is staged as a miniature replica colonial, back lit, opening up to reveal rooms and furniture in an adroit, beautiful, sleight-of-hand design by Bob Crowley) becomes revealed by the end of Part I. It is a stunning revelation tied in to the inheritance the previous gay generation left our writer cadre of the present. That generation was a community of which Walter was one of the last to die.
This greatest generation of the “war” from the last two decades of the 20th century experienced the scourge and crucible of fatal autoimmune deficiencies. These were the lost generation. They never came out from under the torments and tribulations of the AIDS epidemic that struck thousands of the most gifted and talented in the artistic world who often died alone, unloved, invisible, without hope, the spurned contagious lepers of their time, their blood toxic to the touch. It was only until after the gay community, celebrities, politicians and other notables joined together to pressure scientific researchers to conquer the disease with the right cocktail of medications that the AIDS war ended. Theirs was an amazing endeavor that took twenty years. But for this war generation who died, one after the other expending their blood, sweat and tears, the current writers would not be able to luxuriate in indulgent sex without concerns about contracting dreaded kaposi’s sarcoma.
Walter’s loving nature inspired him to take in many of the AIDS generation who were dying. He took care of them in the upstate house, much to Henry’s great chagrin. But the moral imperative was great and he nursed the dying victims of “the war” at this serene refuge assisted by Margaret (the wonderful Lois Smith who shows up in Part II) who also lost a son to “the plague.” Thus, the dying don’t have to face the fear and darkness alone, but endure it knowing they are loved. As Eric is told the story others appear to verify the beauty and sacrifice of this war generation so that current members of the gay community might live in a greater peace, free from the noxious, soul-draining, heartbreaking physical wasting of AIDS.
As the end of Part I spools into eternity, we recognize that this is not only a play about the gay community (the tableau of them sitting around Bob Crowley’s white platform leaning on each other is fabulously akin to a famous Renaissance painting). Others were impacted by “the plague.” And they are no less important; the disease didn’t discriminate; toxic blood contamination was passed to others, male, female, straight, gay, transgender, children, elders, those of every ethnic culture. The difference is the cruel ostracism of being gay was further heightened by having AIDS. Stonewall could not answer a scourge, only medical science can, racing against death. And it did!
Finally, as Part I concludes, Lopez reminds us that while we live, we prepare a place for the next generation through our struggles, our trials and our difficulties. And it is this journey that must be told, even shouted from the rooftops to the younger generation who are our inheritors.
If Part II is not as haunting and dense, it is dramatic with incredible monologues of truth delivered. Among others, Lois Smith’s Margaret shares her story and Toby revels his past as an entrance to what he will choose for his future. Both are amazing.
The cadre of friends matures, but into the scene Leo emerges picking up where wealthy Adam (Samuel L Levine) left off in Part I. In Part I before the stunning end, Lopez sets us up, as Adam and Toby confront each other, competitive wills. Adam as the star of Toby’s play is getting more acclaim than playwright Toby. Toby accuses Adam of having an easy life absent fear. In an exceptional monologue (end of Act I, Part I) Levine’s Adam describes an incident in a bath house in Europe whose impact is at first heady and divine in its allurement. But when it is over Adam’s realization converts the event to what it is, frightening and sinister in its sadomasochism and shocking realism. The sex was unprotected and there is blood, much blood. But because Adam confides in his parents, they act quickly to get the right medications. For the second time since Adam was adopted into wealth, Adam gratefully acknowledges his parents saved his life, this time from “the plague.”
Lopez provides an striking contrast in characterization between Adam and his doppleganger Leo (also portrayed by Samuel L. Levine). Levine’s portrayal of both is superbly vital. It suggests the differences between their class, education, personality, perceptions. He plays each acutely with superlative specificity. Manifested is the vast demographic of gays and their experiences. They are not always wealthy and/or educated or elite stereotypes. Indeed, sex is a tool and hustlers who may have been bisexual were caught up in the war in the last century. However, in 2018 the drugs are a salvation and the hope for changing one’s circumstances is ever-present.
As a homeless man, Leo has left a dire situation and his means of support is hustling. Of course he flirts with danger and the threat of disease hangs over him with every trick. That Toby uses Leo as a trick, then boyfriend to satisfy his lust for Adam because Leo looks exactly like Adam, becomes one of the linchpins of Part II. There is even a duplication of the scene Adam described to Toby in Part I, cruelly revived because Leo does not choose this for himself, Toby chooses it for him. In other words, Toby would have sadomasochism forced on Leo in a cruel remembrance of what Adam told him. Toby’s descent is made clear in this scene. And soon he will have no where to go but the abyss of darkness reflected in his soul.
A second linchpin is Eric’s and Henry’s relationship. Despite all of Eric’s friends’ counsel after Henry discusses why he is a Republican and supports Trump, Eric decides he will accept Henry’s proposal, though their ethics, morals and emotional impulses are antithetical. Ironically, we note that Eric is blinded by Henry’s wealth and charm and intuit Eric is headed for another disastrous relationship.
How Lopez resolves these problems using parallel elements from Howard’s End is intricate but inevitably logical. He fleshes out the characters of Toby, Eric, Henry and Leo with lustrous precision bringing each to their own resolution toward redemption, damnation or apotheosis as in the case of Leo. In Part II, Lopez emphasizes the aspect of joining past and present to build on the inheritance of what others have forged out from their earthly trials. Ultimately, because the protagonists (Eric, Margaret, Leo, Henry) have reconciled and recognized the contributions, love and sacrifice of those who have gone before them, they are able to create renewal and rejuvenation in their own lives and the lives of others. Leo’s recovery in Eric’s house (which Henry finally gives Eric) allows Leo to receive the eventual grace, education, scholarship that Henry Wilcox initiates in remembrance of his love for Walter. And thus, finally, Leo is able to tell this story of all of them of what they inherited-the love, the sacrifice so that they can bridge the present to inspire and bring hope to future generations.
Yes, the plot of The Inheritance is labyrinthine, some parts bloated. But the adroit shepherding of performances and staging by director Stephen Daldry help to tease out the actors’ performances so that overall the effort is spectacular.
This is a phenomenal work. It especially resonates in our current climate which looks to be a vast leap backward, but which in another realm of consciousness may bring out the best in those of us who prize love above hate, unity above division, truth above falsehood, a nurturing spirit above cold-heartedness. All of these contrasts Lopez’s work clarifies with a bit of redemption and remorse sprinkled along the way. Powerful, prescient, preeminent!
A special mention goes to the creative team who magnificently with minimalism and seamless charm brought Daldry’s vision into being. These include Jon Clark (lighting design) Paul Arditti & Christopher Reid, Paul Englishby (original music) Bob Crowley (design).
This is going to be an award winner as it was in the U.K. See it to be uplifted and moved. You won’t regret it. The Inheritance is currently at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre (243 West 47th Street). For tickets and times CLICK HERE.