Forster Calls on the Post-HIV Generation

Published in: March-April 2020 issue.


The Inheritance
A play by Matthew Lopez
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Ethel Barrymore Theatre, NYC



E. M. FORSTER might seem an odd muse for a young gay New York City playwright. Like most gay men of his generation, the renowned English novelist kept his homosexuality well out of public view. He refrained from publishing his only novel to deal openly with love between men, Maurice, until after his death at age 91, fifty years ago, in 1970.

            And yet, for Matthew Lopez, who’s now 43, reading Forster’s novel Howards End felt like reading a family history. Lopez is the author of a two-part play The Inheritance that has been showing at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York, after taking London by storm in 2018. He was captivated by Forster’s theme of finding one’s place in the world and the connections between and among people across time.

            The show opened in November after winning four of the eight Olivier Awards for which it was nominated in the UK, including best new play, best director (Stephen Daldry of Billy Elliott fame), best actor (Kyle Soller, who played the central character, Eric Glass, one of the few straight men in the cast), and lighting design. London’s Daily Telegraph called it “perhaps the most important play of the century so far.”

            Playing in two parts that run to nearly seven hours, and the fact that it explores the impact of AIDS on the lives of gay men in America, The Inheritance inevitably invites comparison with Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. While the latter captured life in the early 1990s, HIV itself gets a timely update in The Inheritance in the form of the current American president, who’s described as “a cunning, pernicious retrovirus that has attached himself to the very core of American democracy and is now destroying the American Immune System: journalism, activism, politics, and even voting.”

Samuel H. Levine, Kyle Soller, and Andrew Burnap in The Inheritance. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

            The play’s story and themes echo those in Forster’s Howards End, transferring his commentary on English society circa 1910 to Manhattan in 2015, substituting gay men of different generations for Forster’s mix of English social classes. However, The Inheritance focuses more on generational than on class differences—which is not to say that the latter are missing from this group of urban gay men, who range from destitute hustler Leo to Trump-supporting Republican billionaire real estate developer Henry Wilcox, who embodies the gross materialism of his namesake in Forster’s novel.

            Lopez cleverly brings E. M. Forster himself into the story as a sort of gay guardian angel. Morgan—which was Forster’s middle name and a familiar name among friends—opens the show as a proper Edwardian don, guiding the young gay men who are hanging on his every word in the art of storytelling, urging them to look into their hearts in telling their own story. “Only connect,” he says, referencing Forster’s often quoted line from Howards End.

     Like Forster, Lopez is interested in the debt that current generations owe to those that came before. He invites viewers to connect with what I call gay men’s “heroic legacy,” the accumulated history, lore, and resilience of men forced to be subversive merely to survive, who stood up and said they would no longer accept shame and silence as their lot. These men redefined the word “hero” through their courage and generosity during the devastating AIDS epidemic.

     In a lengthy New Yorker profile, Lopez describes his and so many younger gay men’s struggle to claim this legacy, not having experienced firsthand the full darkness and terror of AIDS. “For my generation,” he said, “it is as if a sibling had died before we were born—you are never quite sure why Mom and Dad are so sad. That person isn’t real to you—they are only real as a figment and a specter. You only know the negative space. You don’t know what once filled it.”

            The day-after-Christmas audience with which I saw The Inheritance included many gay men, like me, “of a certain age.” The sniffles, sobs, and wiped eyes as the lights came up at the shattering close of Part One made it clear that the trauma we experienced individually and as a community still keeps many of us from being able to connect. I hope The Inheritance will help move us a little closer to doing just that.


John-Manuel Andriote is the author of Stonewall Strong: Gay Men’s Heroic Fight for Resilience, Good Health, and a Strong Community.


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