What Do We Mean To Each Other?
Some Thoughts on The Inheritance and the Eclipsing of Long-term Survivors
by Bruce Ward
For the past two weeks, I have been trying to process the recent news of a friend’s accidental drug overdose. The initial shock of the news quickly turned Into an outburst of emotion, then to deep sadness, and then, later, to numbness. Until the cycle began again, in different configurations.
The night before hearing about my friend’s death, I saw Part Two of Matthew Lopez’ epic Broadway play, The Inheritance, after having seen Part One in previews, four months earlier.
But what does this six and a half hour, two-part Broadway play, have to do with a friend’s overdose?
I’ll try and connect the dots in a moment. But first…
For those unfamiliar: The Inheritance is a play by Matthew Lopez. Winning an Olivier “Best Play” Award when it was first produced in London in 2018, the two-part play was presented as two separate performances. Audience members could see the parts on two separate days, or as a matinee and evening performance on the same day.
The play opened on Broadway, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, with previews beginning in September, 2019, and officially opened in November, 2019. Its short run ends on March 15, 2020.
In a nutshell (or whatever passes for a nutshell, for a nearly seven-hour, two-part epic drama), The Inheritance draws its plot loosely from E.M. Forster’s classic novel, Howard’s End. One of the main characters in Part One, and its main narrator, is, in fact, Forster, himself.
By examining the lives of three sets of modern-day gay men (in their twenties, thirties, and sixties), and their friends, The Inheritance takes a sweeping look at class, race, generations, politics, power, relationships, and sex, in the gay men’s world of Trump’s America.
And, like a modern-day Hamilton, the play asks, “Why do you need to tell your story? Who we are? How we got here? And what do we mean to each other?”
The Inheritance, in turns wildly funny, titillatingly sexy, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally devastating, is also, to me, frustrating and, ultimately, disappointing. Since this is not a review of the play, simply “some thoughts,” I will admit that my few issues with the play are far outweighed by those who have been emotionally devastated by the play’s power.
The play is told through the lens of several narrators, including a modern “Greek Chorus,” consisting of every gay male stereotype (Sassy Kween; Nerdy Intellect with Adonis gym body; sexy, teenage hustler; beautiful, yet alcoholic and psychically tortured young writer, etc.), each or them upwardly mobile, financially successful, career-driven, (mostly) white and youthful, beautiful, overly educated and articulate, and all with perfect, gym-toned bodies, of which the audience is privy to lots of simulated acts of gymnastic sex.
Which brings me, finally and windingly, to my friend.
The Inheritance does deal peripherally with addiction – the alcoholism of the superstar writer, and the drug addiction of the sole lower-class character, a teenage hustler.
But—lo and behold—no addiction issues with the longterm survivors (both the person with AIDS and his HIV-negative partner of many years.) Which is just a bit incredulous.
My friend (I’ll call him Carlos) was a fifty-five year old gay man, who had been living with HIV since the mid-1980s. We were like two ships finding each other in the dark sea of night. We silently understood things about each other that only other longterm survivors would understand.
There’s no other way to say it: Carlos was hot. Latin, muscular, with a casual air of masculinity about him that was never forced or put on. He was also a hopeless romantic, which was a good part of his downfall. As is often the case, in addition to his addiction to heroin, crystal meth, and GHB, he was also addicted to another person. The combination of his own inclination towards drug use, coupled with his equally inclined party buddy, was, as it could have been predicted, and turned out to be, a recipe for disaster.
But life as a long-term survivor is no picnic. And we often find ways, both healthy and not, to cope with the grief, the shame, the survivor guilt, and the immense loss.
Carlos’ isolation and infirmaries and anger and sadness and loss of career, of finances, and loss of himself, led him down a road of drug use that is not uncommon among many (most?) long-term survivors, at least at some point in our lives. His use become an addiction so powerful that he finally succumbed to it. But not after a multitude of attempts to overcome its strength—through 12 step recovery and harm reduction to rehab.
In the end, his body broke down, and his struggle—his very real struggle—ended.
I am angry. Not angry at him. But angry at the disease, and the incredible power it has over some of the most blessed, vulnerable, and pure-hearted people on this earth. And I’m angry at a judgmental society that does not treat drug addiction more seriously, and that treats it more as a defect than as an illness.
I, of course, do not blame The Inheritance for excluding the very real issues of longterm survivors and addiction, even in an almost seven-hour piece that includes everything but the gay kitchen sink. This is not that play; others can write that play.
As I have stated, I greatly admire the craft and the audacious scope of the two-part epic. But I left that theater feeling sad that longterm survivors were not given their due. The dead receive their due, as they always do, and always must. But so must the survivors. We are the ones that—somehow, miraculously—hung on, and not without consequences, as my dear friend, Carlos, proved so tragically in his death.
And there were other issues that brought me out of the moment, during the play.
I understand that the playwright is using the upper classes of Forster’s Howard’s End as its model. But it just seems disingenuous to portray this clique of highly-educated, highly career-motivated, almost exclusively white men in their twenties and thirties, as representing the majority of gay men, even just in New York City.
With such a sprawling epic of the history of gay men in this country, you might think there would be a character that every gay man could hang his hat on. But I don’t see myself represented up there. And, in fact, I kind of resent it, despite its sincere efforts in schooling the millennials on what we went through during the AIDS epidemic, which is honorable on the part of the playwright.
While the AIDS epidemic certainly plays a major role, especially in Part One, in very effectively wringing huge, heaving sobs from many in the audience, I found it to be a bit ingratiating and (without giving spoilers), more than a bit reminiscent of a much older, ground-breaking film about the epidemic.
Why are the three generations of men in their twenties, thirties, and two men in their sixties? Why isn’t the “middle” couple in their forties?
How am I, a sixty-two-year old, thirty-six-year HIV long-term survivor, supposed to identify with thirty-something characters who describe their lives as “struggles,” when one inherits his parents’ rent-subsidized Upper West side three-bedroom apartment, and another writes a book in his twenties, which then, within a year (!), becomes a hit Broadway production, propelling both the playwright and lead actor to Hollywood.
These are struggles? The ease at which we are supposed to believe these things happen stretches the credulity of even an old-fashioned musical, let alone a serious drama.
I so much appreciate the scope and breadth and ambition of the play. And I wish every gay male millennial and Gen X & Y’er could see it. But, somehow, I feel left out.
In the end, as the playwright peers into the futures of the characters, everyone ends up happily-ever-after coupled. Except, of course, for the long-term survivor. Because he, of course, is old and has survived the unthinkable, and is basically unlovable.
Though the epidemic is a major theme, and the older couple grapples with the consequences of the virus, the only dialogue that struck me as real and honest, concerning the longterm survivor was at the end of the six and a half hours, when he exclaims, “There are no men my age!” That, I suppose, is a revelation to most in the audience: that this extremely attractive, rich, and successful man in his early sixties would have a rough time of finding companionship with someone his own age, because there are so few of them. Of course, to those of us long-term survivors, it is a fact we have lived with for a very long time.
The fact that this character is also a Trump-loving millionaire Republican doesn’t help his chances, either. And that also makes it difficult to sympathize with his lonely plight, and really just adds fuel to the fire. Why couldn’t the lone survivor be a more sympathetic character? Did he really have to be a Trumpian?
While I admired the talent in front of me on stage, and I certainly shed a few tears, I left the theater feeling somewhat disillusioned and disheartened that many of our younger gay men are not interested in the stories of long-term survivors——do not respect us, do not understand our place in history.
The Inheritance attempts to trace the history of modern gay men, from E.M. Forster’s inability to be his true self, to the gay men of Stonewall, AIDS, marriage equality, and now, Trump.
I suppose all a play can do is start the conversation. And, that, The Inheritance does so, in spades.
A play is all well and good on stage, if it does indeed spark future conversation and action. But will it? Are long-term survivors to be mere blips of history, remnants of a society, both gay and straight, that would just as soon let us disappear into the trash heap of history ?
Would Carlos be alive today if gay men truly took care of each other, and recognized the true inheritance passed down from generation to generation? Would he be alive if long-term survivors were honored, instead of discarded?
How are gay men of different generations linked? What do we mean to each other? And who will listen to our stories?
Bruce Ward has been writing about the AIDS epidemic since its inception, and his recently completed memoir chronicles the early years. His play, Lazarus Syndrome, and solo play, Decade: Life in the ’80s, have been produced throughout the U.S. Bruce was the first Director of the CDC National AIDS Hotline from 1986–1988. He was honored by POZ magazine as one of 2015’s POZ 100.
Photos by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade