Watching The Inheritance was an unforgettable experience. It is epic theatre — it runs in two parts from 1:15 to about 4.30 and then from 7:15 to 10.45 — but not in the Brechtian sense. There’s no distanciation here: The Inheritance is theatre as a form of social communion. The theatre seemed to hush at the right moment, without cues, as if guided purely by anticipation. It’s a state-of-the-queer-nation play which touches on the last thirty years of queer histories, the inheritance one generation bequeathed to those that followed, dramatised through a varied cast of characters. I was so moved by the whole experience that, for the first time ever, I actually bought the play at the intermission to re-read later, just in case I’d missed anything.
The mise-en-scène seems on the surface of the utmost simplicity. One empty platform with levers, beautifully designed by BobCrowley so it can be lifted and dropped, first used as a floor, then as a table on which all of the characters, who often step on the performance space through the audience, act out. But the entrances, exits, line readings, even arm movements — all of which earn some effect — belie that first impression of a ‘simple’ mise-en-scène. It’s minimalist in terms of look and what’s visible — though behind it is a hidden screen which sometimes parts to reveal houses and trees occasionally and to great effect; as symbols, cues and setting — but very complex and worked-on in terms of conceptualisation and direction (by Stephen Daldry).
E.M.Foster appears as a narrator who critiques, offers motivation and changes the action. In the writer’s note in the programme of the production, Michael Lopez writes, ‘Foster himself is in it, for the story of my life cannot be told without him’. The play uses the structure of Howards End. Lopez acknowledges how he first saw The Inheritance as a straightforward adaptation, ‘an almost tit-for-tat contemporary updating with gay men from different generations as its central characters. I knew my story needed to be in part about AIDS, for the story of gay men cannot be told without it. Yet almost as soon as I began to write it, I discovered that I was creating something new.’
‘If Howards End, for me, was a gay man in 1910 reaching a hand across time to a young gay boy in 1993 assuring him that he was seen and that he was not alone, The Inheritance is that young boy now grown up, reaching back and saying thank you. It is my act of gratitude to Foster for rescuing me when I was most in need of it.’ This inter-generational conversation about identity, love, desire, loss and death is what The Inheritance is about.
In The Inheritance, the opening line of Howards End, ‘we may as well begin with Helen’s letter to her sister’ becomes ‘we may as well begin with Toby’s voicemails’. Here the two Schlegel sisters are conceived of as a gay couple, Eric Glass (Kyle Soller) and Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap), together for seven years, and agreeing to marry shortly after the play begins. The unfolding of their relationship is the spine of both parts of the play. The character of Leonard Blast is split to encompass both a performer (Adam) and a hustler (Leo), both wanting to acquire culture, and both played by Samuel H. Levine: and there’s a moment where Levine moves in and out of each character within one moment that is a theatrical tour de force.
In fact there’s a lot of ‘doubling’ in the play. Paul Hilton who plays E.M Foster (Morgan), and who as Morgan is an active narrator who gets quite a lot of say in shaping the action, also plays Walter, the kind and gentle man who’s been with Henry Wilcox(John Benjamin Hickey) for 36 years and whose relationship with him is damaged over fundamental issues of ethics and morality when he takes in an old friend in the last stages of dying from AIDS: Henry not only disapproves but actively forbids. Walter befriends Eric, who will later also end up marrying Henry after Walter’s death, and who will also have fundamental differences of opinion when he too decides to open up their house, his house, to the ill and marginalised. Eric in some ways is a new generation’s Walter, acting ethically with the same kinds of compassion and in the face of very familiar forms of discrimination. So the doubling happens by actors playing more than one role, by characters exhibiting similar character traits but from different generations, and through thematic rhymes across both parts of the play.
For example, when we’re introduced to Toby Darling, we assume he’s a flighty, superficial middle-class mannered queen. But we then find out he’s a working class boy from the boondocks. The character he writes for a play, Elan, and which he passes off as autobiographical, is in fact who he wants to be: ‘Rich kid, seventeen, raised on the Upper West Side, sexy as fuck, sarcastic, rude, yet undeniably compelling. He’s basically me.’ is what Toby says. But in fact the person who is like that is Adam, who will get to play Elan. Toby inscribes his book to Adam as ‘To Adam, whom I hope to be when I grow up’. Yet Toby is more like the lost Leo, out of the house by 17, and exchanging the use of his body for substances and subsistence.
Toby will desire Adam and ruin Leo. The only reason Toby didn’t end up like Leo is because Eric saved him. Eric will also save Leo later, like Walter saved so many people earlier; and Eric and Walter will both love Henry, though the older one stayed with him in spite of his faults, and the younger one has different expectations and is able to make different choices. All this doubling takes place amidst a narration that starts off with anonymous people like ‘Young Men 8’ but then goes on to take concrete form, e.g. Young Man Number 8 becomes Toby Darling. The general, generational, social, illustrated by the concrete: individual characters and experiences. Structurally, it’s a marvel.
There’s a terrific theatrical moment, the very end of Act I, where Eric tells Walter, ‘I can’t imagine what those years were like. I don’t eve know how to…
I can understand what it was like. But I cannot possibly feel what it was’.
I’ve reproduced Walter’s response from the published play so you can imagine how powerfully it works on stage (see below)
When Vanessa Redgrave, the dreamy first Mrs. Wilcox of the Merchant-Ivory film, appears near the end of the play as Margaret Avery, the elderly caretaker of the house, here formerly a hospice for the terminally ill, and stabs her womb with her hand remembering how careless she’s been with the son who she didn’t know had so little time to live — well, you could *hear* the audience sniffling and sobbing.
Redgrave plays the house’s caretaker here with a dreadful southern accent. She seemed at times amateurish but then also simultaneously poetic and heartbreaking. Her rendering of the extraordinarily long soliloquy about her son; her love for him and guilt; and what led her to to help Walter turn his house into a hospice is beautiful, moving: quite something to see. And her presence, the aura of her history of politics and performances, adds something to this experience aside from her playing. A day of theatre where even the unsatisfactory bits seemed to add rather than subtract from the experience.
The first part curtain, with the dead from thirty years ago rising from their graves to talk to the new one, had me in tears. And at the end of the second part — when in a flashback Henry asks Walter for guidance: ‘What do I do now Walter? Tell Me what to do?; ‘You do what they could not’, says Walter, ‘you live’ — the audience did literally leap to its feet: cheers, whistles, tremendous outpouring of emotion. The play’s a bit didactic, with attempts to educate that seem clunky and inorganic. In fact there are many issues: it’s a bit preachy, and creaky, and repetitive. It could all be shorter. But I was fascinated by how to me at least it didn’t matter. Even what on the surface seems wrong with it worked for it, and certainly on the audience
Much of the plot of The Inheritance revolves around gifts those who are bequeathed them are thwarted from recognising or accepting. Walter leaves the house to Eric, but like in Howards End, Henry and his sons decide not to honour that pledge. In the end Henry says ‘no man should have to ask for what is rightfully his’ before turning the house over to him. And we can see this plot point as a metaphorical discourse on gay history in the culture at large. The film not only uses Forster as a starting point but references Edward Carpenter, Baldwin, Hollinghurst, even Call Me By Your Name. Though there comes a point half-way through the play when Morgan tells the current generation: ‘You are essential to the story I like to believe I was helpful to you as you started it. But I cannot help you finish it. It isn’t my right to. The past must be faced. It must be learned from. But it cannot be revised. I had my time. Now it’s yours’.
The history of the plague years, the place of so much death and dancing, the birthplace of all the gay activism that directly shaped all the recent gains, from film festivals to gay marriage to the existence of this play, is the rightful inheritance of a younger generation of gay men. But it too has been thwarted, partly through the death of so many men so many years ago now, partly through social exclusion, partly by the fact that so many who get to write history died before they could. The HIV virus itself is also a form of inheritance, in this case an unwanted one, but certainly one passed from generation to generation.This larger social argument is paralleled by individuals like Eric not recognising their own gifts; those which they’ve inherited but in turn also developed, and which need the support of others to come to the fore and be recognised even by the subjects themselves.
This play, and films like 120 Beats Per Minute, are one generation’s attempts to reclaim what is rightfully theirs: the legacy of a history. A ghost of one generation is disinterred to illuminate the gains and grievances, losses and achievements, the culture of another: so that a new generation could rightfully claim the inheritance that is theirs. It might have problems as a text. But it’s an extraordinary experience in the theatre. Kudos to writer, director, actors and all the others for making it so.