Fearful, joyful sex
The playwright behind The Inheritance talks EM Forster, the AIDS crisis and the eternal joy of sex.
‘Life is essentially an optimistic endeavour.’ So says Matthew Lopez, writer of the new hit play, The Inheritance. Yet, as optimistic as Lopez is, he is not blind to the darker sides to life, or the more worrying aspects of today’s political climate. So while The Inheritance, a two-part, close-to seven-hours-long transposition of EM Forster’s Howards End into gay Manhattan, laughs at some of the more melodramatic, woe-is-liberalism reactions to Trump’s election, and revels in the joy of gay sex, it also expresses serious concerns about the state of gay rights in contemporary America, and asks the audience to remember the horrors of the AIDS crisis.
As well it might. The Inheritance is epic in scope, spanning generations, taking in the existential concerns of an older cohort of gay men, with AIDS to the fore, as well as the hopes and fears of young men growing up gay today. It makes for an impressive, frequently moving experience.
So, how far have gay men come in the fight for rights and freedom? And does the younger generation need to learn from the battles of the past? The spiked review spoke to Lopez to find out…
spiked review: Why did you write The Inheritance?
Matthew Lopez: It started with Howards End. I saw the film as a teenager, and it was an unexpectedly impactful experience for me. There was something about the film itself, how it was made and the brilliant acting in it. But it was the story of Howards End that resonated with me. My mother, who is a schoolteacher, bought me the novel, and I read it and fell in love with Forster’s writing. I couldn’t at the time have told you what specifically it was – I had a lot of general ideas as to why I loved the story. I was probably 15 at the time, and not yet fully aware of the fact that I was gay. And I certainly didn’t know that Forster was gay. But I loved the story, its humanity, its investigation into relationships across the class divide. Of course, in some ways, in 1910, Forster was investigating intersectionality in his own Edwardian way.
Then, in my twenties, I was living in New York and I picked up another copy (I’d lost my original one) of Howards End. In the back, it had a biographical sketch of Forster. That was how I discovered that he was gay. In an instant I realised that the thing that really connected me to Forster, beyond the humanism of his work, beyond just the delightfulness of his language, was the bond between a gay man writing in 1910 and a young gay man in the panhandle of Florida in 1994. It was a direct line, from one gay man to another. It was a communication.
I must have been about 28 at the time, and it was really in that moment that I thought to myself, I wonder if I could retell the story of Howards End in a way that Forster never could in his lifetime. I wanted to do what Forster couldn’t, which was tell a Forsterian tale using gay characters. That was the genesis of it and then, in my mid- to late-thirties, I finally felt that I was ready to do it. That very simple goal of retelling Forster allowed me to work out what it meant to me to be a gay man in the early 21st century. And that’s why the play became two parts and seven hours – I found that I had quite a bit on my mind.
review: There is so much going on in the play, but one of the most striking ideas in it is the demand that the generations reassess their relationship with one another. Did you think that was a conversation that needed to happen for gay men?
Lopez: Yes, it did. I knew, as a member of my generation, that I felt a disconnect from the generation that came before me, and the generation that was starting to come up after me. It didn’t exist in my life – and I wanted to create that conversation in the play.
I actually convened an informal panel with the help of a theatre company. We got a group of gay men together of different generations to discuss that very idea. It is not a universally held experience, but enough desired to forge connections between generations, and understand one another. In other cultures and minority communities, there are bonds which keep stories alive. In the play, in Part 1, Act 2, Eric talks about the fact that it is through the conveyance of stories that culture survives. I felt a lack of that in my life as a gay man. And I wanted to foster a forum to begin to allow its exploration. That was one of the goals of writing the play.
review: Why did that disconnect happen? Apart from the physical loss of the AIDS crisis?
Lopez: I think it is because of the closet. Unlike other communities, we’ve had to hide who we are for so long. So I think the closet is the thing that kept that line of intergenerational contact largely attenuated. It has changed and it is changing, but for me, and I can only speak for myself, I didn’t have any role models growing up because I was afraid to tell people that I was gay. I’m 41, I grew up in the 1990s, I remember the epidemic very well as a child, watching it unfold on the nightly news. And the lesson I learnt growing up in a very conservative part of America was that gay men die. Period. Gay men die of AIDS, and to be a gay man was a death sentence. So you can imagine how depressing it was to discover that. ‘Ah, shit, I’m one too? Fuck.’
At the time, when I really started to reckon with (and for the large part, deny) that I was a gay man, I didn’t have a lot of positive images of myself in the media. I had Forster’s Maurice to read, but it is ironic that in the 1990s I turned to a novel which was written in 1913. If it was in the movies, it was someone dying of AIDS! Tom Hanks! Oh my god, that was traumatic for me. Of all people, Tom Hanks dying of AIDS? Well, Jesus, if it happens to Tom Hanks then I’m screwed! I can look back at Philadelphia now and see what an important movie it was at the time that it was released. But for this teenager who was hiding in the closet, that movie traumatised me.
I have since developed relationships as I’ve gotten older and grown more comfortable with my sexuality and identity – when it ceased to feel transgressive to walk in the world as identifiably gay, and simply walk in the world as myself. But I had to cobble it together for myself. If I didn’t have the desire to seek it out I don’t know if it would have found me.
review: What is the significance of the AIDS crisis for men of a younger generation today? The scene in the bathhouse explores this in the play, where a young character, Adam, has his first sexual experience involving multiple men.
Lopez: In my experience, I suspect that we were fearful. I don’t remember a time in my earlier life when I didn’t associate sex with death.
There were two parts to it – the first was the taboo. One of the reasons that so many gay men were allowed to die in the 1980s was simply because straight people didn’t want to think about the means by which people were contracting AIDS. It forced straight people to think about gay sex and they didn’t want to do that so they looked away. They allowed these men to die horrible, excruciating, undignified deaths. It was because of repulsion and revulsion. The first part of it growing up was still that social taboo – ‘this is wrong, dirty, this simply should not be happening’. It happened nonetheless, and quite often, but always accompanied by that feeling of a taboo.
The second half of the fear about sex was the consequences. And, of course, vast swathes of the straight community in my country linked AIDS with the consequence of breaking that taboo. It isn’t enough that we break the taboo by having sex with each other, we were going to then get this disease. Sure, sex in my youth was exciting and hot and fun. There’s something very compelling about sex that, despite all the potential consequences for anyone, we still keep having. But it was always then followed by panic, and, for me, it was always followed by remorse. For the longest time in my youth I knew that the other shoe would drop, I knew that there would be a price to be paid.
What I wanted to do in the play with Adam’s bathhouse story was to dramatise the complete cycle of that. It starts with the desire for connection. He goes to Prague, he’s feeling sad and lonely. And he has a very transcendent, if perhaps slightly embellished, experience. He is transported by sex, he experiences, without drugs, ecstasy. That is the law of sex and the joy of sex. And one of the great joys of gay sex is that, because it has been a taboo for so long, for many gay men anything goes, baby. And Adam, in his limited experience, gets a taste of that. And then, of course, the other shoe drops for Adam – with the ecstasy then comes the agony. He goes through the crisis, too. What I wanted to do was use that story to demonstrate and dramatise the full arc of what it was sometimes like for me and my generation to experience sex.
In the intergenerational forum that I conducted many years ago, there were younger gay men there. One of them said: ‘In my experience, I have never encountered a group of gay men more frightened of sex than your generation, Matthew – the generation that came after the epidemic.’ Gay men who survived the epidemic did have at least the years between Stonewall and the beginning of the epidemic. Those were years of relative freedom. And gay men of a younger generation do grow up today in a society in which they can see themselves depicted in all mediums. They have a lot more institutionalised knowledge about protection, and they also have medicine that we didn’t have. I don’t moan about it, but I do feel that my generation was a transitional generation.
review: There’s a scene in the play where the younger men are reacting to election results. It is never mentioned but it is quite clear that it is Donald Trump’s victory. And they’re so over the top that you’re invited to laugh at them. But later on in the play, the older character, Walter, tells the story of the AIDS epidemic and almost asks the younger men to realise the difference between what he went though, and what they imagine they’re going through with the election of Trump. Was that something you wanted to highlight – the difference of experience between the generations? Is there a lesson to be learned there?
Lopez: Yes and no. It is not helpful to compare and contrast trauma as if they were playing cards. It is not a game of Old Maid. But what it is is that idea that you just mentioned – learning from experiences. In my experience as an American, nothing – and I mean nothing – has been more traumatic or existentially terrifying than the election of Donald Trump. I wasn’t a grown man during the AIDS crisis – if I had been I might say that the election of Trump was the second most terrifying moment of my life. But there is nothing in my experience that is more traumatic and terrifying than what is happening in my country right now.
However, I think everyone in America would do well to bone up on their research and their reading as to how the gay community responded to the epidemic. Because I think that, in a different way, America is in the same boat. And the lesson that the gay community and its allies learnt was that because of institutional failure, we cannot rely on people in power to save us. We must save ourselves. And we did. So what I think is instructive is the response and the bravery of those men and women who literally fought for their lives. This is exactly what is going to save us from what is happening within the country right now.
review: The network that you’re talking about, which worked to save gay Americans during the AIDS crisis, had a real sense of community even though it was a secret one. Do you think that’s been lost? Is there a nostalgia for a sense of community?
Lopez: I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s in Florida, in certain pockets of Tampa, which isn’t a very progressive place. And I remember being in college in the mid 1990s, and wearing Pride paraphernalia on my college campus. Maybe it was a t-shirt or something like that. This was 1997, and I remember feeling quite bold for doing that. I remember feeling like it was an act of transgression of some kind. Now, of course, you cannot go down any block in New York City without seeing a Pride flag (especially this week which is Pride week in New York). In fact, just yesterday I was invited to a Pride celebration at 10 Downing Street. In 1997, walking across campus, feeling so bold, I would never have imagined that if I ever were to be invited to a reception at 10 Downing Street, that would be the reason.
It is undeniable that progress has happened and that visibility has happened, in so many ways – legally and culturally. But we should not confuse the base camp that we’ve arrived at for the summit. I don’t have to express myself like I did when I was 20, it is not transgressive. But I’m a 41-year-old gay man living in New York City, working in the film and theatre industry and making a comfortable living, right? It is easy for me to be gay now. It is safe for me to be openly gay now. I don’t even have to use that phrase anymore. I can just be Matthew. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t whole swathes of America, England, the world, in which the LGBTQ community continues to live in the closet and under the threat of death. So many people in our community today have it even worse off than a gay man living in 1997.
So we should really enjoy the progress that we have made. We should luxuriate in it to a degree, and be proud of ourselves. But we should not confuse progress for the destination. And I think that might be where our sense of community might be starting to break down. This is why the play, like the novel that inspired it, is about class. Because I feel that that is where that breakdown starts to happen – when people start to feel as though they have arrived at the summit and start to forget about people who are still on the journey. Upper-middle class gay men now have everything they need. It is their responsibility to turn around and fight for the trans community, for the visibility of the lesbian community, for all the letters in our alphabet. That’s where the community still needs to be strong and supportive.
review: Some argue that where the gay rights movement in the late 20th century was about sexual freedom and winning the right to exist, today it is about being seen, it is about identity, and less about material demands for freedom. Do you think there’s anything in that?
Lopez: I think that every movement has to operate within the political and emotional language of the generation that’s driving it. And right now, the generation that is really starting to drive this conversation is a younger one. This is just how they communicate. It is really hard to criticise a younger generation of activists when they’re out on the streets doing it themselves. It is their world that they will inherit – and so they have to shape it. So I would never criticise them.
You have to remember that the fight for marriage equality was labelled the most bourgeois revolution every concocted. But this was after we had to fight for our fucking lives – then it became a fight for visibility, which is just another way of talking about identity politics. If I had heard the phrase identity politics in my early twenties I might have latched on to it. It is just another way of getting our story told. You can’t ask for rights if the world doesn’t know you exist. You must first make yourself known, you must first make a racket. And in doing so, you get people’s attention. I think identity politics is a means to an end and it is no different to what was happening in the 1990s.
Once the epidemic subsided, once people began to live with HIV rather than die from it, the next focus was on changing how the world saw us as a community. There’s something very wonderfully bourgeois about a TV show like Will and Grace. The narrative about gay men before that was that they all had AIDS and they were all dying from it. And then Will and Grace came along and allowed America to see gay men in a different way. In its own way, it was revolutionary. And what was that other than identity politics in some way?
review: What about the co-opting of gay culture? You’ve been talking about visibility, and in The Inheritance Tristan laughs about the fact that his niece uses phrases and parts of gay culture with her friends. Has it been subsumed by popular culture? Stolen? Is that a problem, or a good thing?
Lopez: I agree with what Eric says in reply to Tristan – there’s nothing wrong with it. It is part of the whole purpose of what visibility was about. That is progress. But it is only okay if it comes with the kind of societal participation that really matters. We may have marriage equality in America now, but it doesn’t mean that LGBTQ history is taught in schools (unless you go to a fancy, private, liberal-arts college). Our history is still not taught as American history. Fine, take our phrases, but know where those phrases come from and know what they mean and don’t rob them of their history and power. It is bald appropriation if you just take a part of a culture and you do not understand where it comes from and what it means.
It is a joke among my friends that if you go to any gay bar, it’ll be full of straight girls on a hen party. And they’re all wearing tiaras and they’re all having fun in a gay bar. But I’d be curious to see if those women vote for candidates that are supportive of LGBTQ rights. I’d be curious to see if those women give money to organisations that support our community. What do those young women, who enjoy visiting our culture for the night, do after that?
review: For a play so shadowed by death and coloured by terror, The Inheritance is incredibly optimistic and beautiful. Do you feel optimistic as a gay man that progress has been made? Do you feel good about the future for sex and sexuality within the gay community?
Lopez: If I wasn’t optimistic I wouldn’t get anything done. Political activism is by definition optimistic. You also have to be an idealist – because it is only by envisioning the ideal world that you want to live in that you can start to make it. Dr King was a realist, but he was an optimist and an idealist. You can’t not be in order to change the world.
Things are pretty fucking awful in my country right now. It is as bad as it has ever been. My country is in the toilet. But, you know, this weekend was Pride weekend and I attended the wedding of two dear friends of mine. One had an Australian family who were Jewish, and one had an Ohio family who were very Ohio. To watch them come together and celebrate the love between those two people, it is hard not to be optimistic after that. I know that the play takes us to places which are painful, it doesn’t shy away from the pain of living on the margins, of being a second-class or even a third-class citizen. But life is essentially an optimistic endeavour.
Matthew Lopez is a playwright. His works include The Whipping Man, The Legend of Georgia McBride and, most recently, The Inheritance.
He was speaking to Ella Whelan.