This started out as a comment on a friend’s Facebook post about The Inheritance, the new 7-hour gay history play on Broadway that my husband and I saw this month (part one a couple weeks ago, and part two early this week). It is, we’re told though I haven’t read the novel, very loosely adapted from E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End. If you pay attention to theater news or gay news or both, you have probably heard about this play, or will soon. The Broadway production is still in previews but is opening soon.
You should see it, if theater or history or literature is your thing. It’s sprawling and fascinating. There’s a lot to chew on, and I know responses are and will be all over the place, but I will say this by way of recommendation: audience members all around us were sobbing through much of it and gave it a real standing ovation, like the old-fashioned kind that happens spontaneously instead of just “oh, all right I guess I’ll stand since I can’t see through the people in front of me.”
I'm not going to get into a big critique of the show. But gay “scholar me” got the better of “politic theater professional me,” and I will share one thought because it’s stuck in my craw:
There is a scene, a moment, late in the play — I don’t think this is a spoiler really, but if you plan to go, and you don’t want to know ANYTHING before you see it, this is your alert — which reenacts an anecdote Forster related in a letter, the text of which is in the graphic above. This scene, Forster’s telling of it, is practically scriptural. It’s like a station of the cross on the way to 20th century gay history, literature, culture. Without this moment, we would have nothing. If you care about these things, you know this story. I’m especially attuned to it right now because I use it in the new piece I’m working on. Here’s my draft text, from a line delivered by one of the characters in my show:
“The novelist E.M. Forster, in 1912, visited Edward Carpenter, the Victorian socialist, nudist, feminist, vegetarian, sandal-maker, and open homosexual and his working-class lover, George Merrill, at their cottage in rural Northern England, a pilgrimage that was made for decades by artists and radicals, writers and streams of curious young men. Forster wrote in a letter that, during a visit, ‘George Merrill — touched my backside — gently and just above the buttocks. I believe he touched most people’s. The sensation was unusual and I still remember it, as I remember the position of a long-vanished tooth. It was as much psychological as physical. It seemed to go straight through the small of my back into my ideas, without involving any thought.’ When Forster got home, he wrote the first gay novel, Maurice.”
But in The Inheritance, Merrill does not touch Forster gently on the small of his back, he grabs a handful of his ass and leers. A light touch on the small of the back is incredibly erotic but also tender. It is very different from a frank sexual come-on. The subtlety of the touch is what makes this seminal moment so powerful. If Merrill had just stuck his hand in Forster's crack, would Forster have suddenly and completely understood the connection between desire and love — would he have had the sudden insight that physical intimacy between men is not just illicit lust but something deep, essential, holy — that led him to write Maurice, a radically new kind of gay story that ends happily for the two lovers?
So okay, I will admit that, of course, one reason I’m so worked up about this is that another playwright beat me to my thing. But mostly I’m shocked that he got it so wrong, in a play that is explicitly ABOUT history and literature and the transmission of culture.