The Inheritance, by Matthew Lopez, has just been named winner of the ‘Best Play’ category at the Critics’ Circle Awards 2019, also claiming Best Director and Best Actor. The play first ran at the Young Vic in March 2018 and has just finished an extended run at the Noël Coward Theatre to wide critical acclaim.
The play is a dramatic reimagining of E.M. Forster’s celebrated 1910 novel, Howards End, transformed into over seven hours of theatre, split across two parts. The play follows a group of gay New Yorkers engaged in an intergenerational conversation, confronting hard-hitting themes, notably AIDS and homelessness. Lopez is constantly re-examining the collective history of the gay community, but his work also looks forward, to an imagined future of tolerance and optimism.
The format of the script is fluid. Set up initially like a writer’s group, or acting class, the twelve men at the heart of the story shift continually between roles: narrator, commentator and often passive onlooker. This makes for much of the humour of the play, like a theatrical Gogglebox, or a Greek chorus; the characters continually discuss, debate and complain about the action taking place centre-stage.
This focus on storytelling, and sharing of experiences between generations of gay men, is at the heart of the tale. E. M. Forster (1879-1970) was homosexual at a time when the penalty was a life sentence in prison. The play imagines how Forster might have written Howard’s End, had he been able to, dealing rather with homosexual love and loss. Elements of the original novel are excerpted, reconfigured and transformed into a work that oscillates between fiction, autobiography and a work of history. Key elements of the plot are retained: two couples from different generations, become entwined in complex circumstances and with unexpected results. In The Inheritance mid-30s protagonist Eric Glass, going out with Toby Darling, befriends Walter, an older, wealthier man married to Henry Wilcox. An intergenerational discourse ensues in which Walter recounts the memories he has of the AIDS epidemic tearing through gay communities throughout the 80s and 90s. Living in the city at the time, Walter offered these men protection from the hostility of New York, taking them to a large country house, Howard’s End, located three hours upstate.
By the time Part Two begins, Walter has passed away. Eric insists on returning to Howard’s End, enchanted and haunted by its history. With the help of Margaret (Vanessa Redgrave), the only female character in the play, Eric returns the house to its former glory, a place of remembrance, and continually a place of respite for gay men in difficult circumstances.
The ending is hopeful but reflective, placing past and present directly alongside for examination, and comparison. E.M. Forster describes a life of frustration and unhappiness, having to hide his sexuality. He tells Leo, a homosexual nineteen years old who is homeless:
“You do what they could not. You live.”
A central motif of the play is a cherry tree, that stand out-front at Howard’s End. It comes to represent both past suffering and a hopeful future of acceptance. At the play’s close the men who remain sit facing it, dark silhouettes against a burning orange backdrop.
One of the amazing effects of a play lasting over 6 hours, is the sense of community it creates in the audience. The play invites this through its structure – divided into two performances, with intervals but ‘pauses’ where the audience remains seated. The play itself certainly provokes conversation, at once a celebration of gay identity and a memorial of suffering.
As the cast lined up on closing night, Matthew Lopez alongside Vanessa Redgrave, the intensity of emotion on stage and amongst the audience was palpable; everybody on their feet and to rapturous applause. Undoubtedly an important work that opens up an important social and cultural conversation, the play takes issue with past rhetoric, explores issues of identity, and advocates for a future of tolerance and humanity.