One hundred years ago, Lytton Strachey told E.M. Forster that because he, Forster, was celibate, he didn’t know what he was talking about in Maurice, his novel of gay love triumphant. Strachey told him that the relationship he depicts between Maurice and Alec was unreal: That kind of love between men never lasted. But Strachey knew Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon, artists living together when Forster finished his novel in 1914, and the characters of Maurice and Alec were modeled on the poet Edward Carpenter and his working-class partner, George Merrill, who, like Ricketts and Shannon, would live together for decades, until death. Such devotion is rare enough.
In A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster, Wendy Moffat tells us that Forster disapproved of the flamboyant carnation style of Wilde and Strachey. He had two—nonwhite—great loves before the Jazz Age. In 1930, Forster found love again, with Bob Buckingham, a policeman, and it came at the cost of having to be a witness at Buckingham’s wedding. Forster lived out his triangle and remembered Buckingham’s grandchildren in his will. Christopher Isherwood declared himself ready to be Forster’s disciple when they met in 1932. Forster showed Isherwood the manuscript of Maurice, and Isherwood was embarrassed for him, for his Hellenic attitudes and fig leaf vocabulary. Forster died in 1970 at the age of 91, at the dawn of gay liberation. He had put away his one gay novel, among a lot of other unpublished work, but Maurice appeared in print almost as soon as he died, with revisions suggested by his friends down through the years.
Bloomsbury was the rage of English departments when I was an undergraduate in the early ’70s. It was British, gay, and upper class, everything a black American queer could want. I was reading Quentin Bell. The birds were speaking Greek. I worshipped Virginia Woolf, foolishly sent her into battle against James Joyce, failed to get Strachey’s humor, and didn’t understand J.M. Keynes, really, or G.E. Moore at all. I had a professor who talked about Bloomsbury and androgyny, and that professor lost me immediately. I liked my Bloomsbury butch-bewildered, with female sacrifices, like a senior seminar before Columbia went co-ed. I found symbols, myth, masculine-feminine conflict, and a theory of latent class war inside the pleasures of Howards End. I am touched to remember how much Forster loved The Waves. He and Woolf never seemed like contemporaries. Detecting in Forster’s handshake a shyness with smart women, Woolf ordered him to go read Defoe. Yet she found Forster the best of critics because he was willing to say the simple things clever people wouldn’t.
Maurice was a disappointment, like being told that Zola’s Restless House was a dirty novel. Maurice and Alec run away together at the end. That was unlike other gay novels I was reading at the time, which ended with the guillotine, murder around the campfire, lonely overdoses, exhausted departures, or the long farewell of looking back on lost love. Yet the happily ever after of Maurice and Alec was also renunciation. I knew from Colette that gay lovers could retire to a rural paradise. The drama was in falling in love, overcoming obstacles. Or not. P.N. Furbank notes in E.M. Forster: A Life that Forster could send the lovers off to an idyllic elsewhere—but not to a London flat. Sex between men was a crime in the UK until 1967.
Harriet Beecher Stowe had similar trouble imagining the social destiny of her light-skinned escaped slaves in Uncle Tom’s Cabin; rather than have George and Eliza move in next door, Stowe dispatches them to Africa as missionaries. The denouement of the freed is always a problem. Verlaine shot Rimbaud. Nijinsky fled Diaghilev and went mad.
Then, overnight, Bloomsbury was as antique to me as Wilde had been to Forster—and so was wanting Rupert Brooke to be one of us. In the late ’70s, everybody I thought cool was into Weimar culture. It was an intense antecedent for us in its anger and decadence. The modernist gay past was still present, living in Santa Monica or the Chelsea Hotel, and Auden would never die. It mattered that I was in New York. Gentlemen of a certain age initiated young men into the sly yet compensatory elitism of big city culture—the opera, the philharmonic, the theater, museums, art galleries, classic cinema, reading lists—and the later it got, boys would be boys, boys would be the offspring of the Beats, to a different kind of music, in a different kind of darkness, downtown, in the East Village, where much of the New Wave was gay and all of it high. I had a swell time while it lasted, Langston Hughes said of the Harlem Renaissance.
I frequented a bar called the bar on east third Street. Or was it East Fourth? It was small, funky, and jammed. The men’s room stalls hosted powder-snorting duos and sweat-kissing trios. Then, in the early ’80s, guys began to disappear, one by one, back to families that found reasons for sons not to take calls, back to rooms filthy in spite of friends coming by. Finally, my insurance got canceled, and my favorite bartender was gone. He’d been silent for months, but he remembered to smile. In 1985, a friend tried to take his boyfriend home to Sydney to die, but the airline escorted them off the plane in Los Angeles. Then my friend couldn’t get an airline to accept his boyfriend’s body bag. He died a few years later, never admitting to me what he had.
Susan Sontag used to get calls from stricken strangers who had found her number. I once waited for her while she spent a long time on the phone consoling a terrified soul. Illness as Metaphor was just about the only thing out there that told people anything about what it meant to be sick. Several memorials later, the film of Maurice was beautiful. Americans love English country houses, Edmund White said.
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die. Lord have mercy on us!
We want to say that the AIDS epidemic is historical, like World War I and burying the flower of a generation. HIV treatment and HIV prevention have advanced such that boys who weren’t born when the gay plague first hit do not live under threat. Infection rates have at times crept up again, because guys have run around as though HIV weren’t a big deal anymore. A black character in Matthew Lopez’s engaging drama The Inheritance asserts that class and race—the ability to pay for the drugs—have too much to do with who now gets infected. Set from 2015 to 2018, The Inheritance shows that white dudes can be just as much at risk if they were teenagers, unhoused, jobless, not in school, on drugs, and therefore sexual prey. In the play, AIDS is a story that makes all of Forster’s descendants survivors. AIDS may be another chapter of suffering in gay history, but Lopez means for his characters to take control of the story.
The Inheritance is a two-part adaptation of Forster’s Howards End, which was first published in 1910:
One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister.
It isn’t going to be what we expected.
Zadie Smith riffs on the opening of Howards End on the first page of On Beauty, and Lopez also starts at Forster’s beginning. Eleven beautifully barefoot young men (seven white, three black, one brown) arrive onstage and casually settle in with books. They are followed by a well-shod silver-haired gentleman in a gray three-piece suit. Could this be Forster, the presiding presence? A handsome guy appeals to him, wondering how to write their stories, how to begin. We don’t yet know that the young man is Leo, who will become a writer, or that the action of the play is Leo’s work of memory, captured in his first novel, The Inheritance, the manuscript of which he will give to a friend toward the end of the play, telling his friend that in his novel he calls him Henry Wilcox, the owner of Howards End in Forster’s novel. The Henry character will read: “We may as well begin with Toby’s voice mails to his boyfriend.”
In Part I of The Inheritance, the boys are squeezing themselves into one another, then squeezing the sperm of betrayal. “‘Only connect,’” Forster’s “most famous phrase,” Toby slurs. He reproaches Forster for not publishing his gay novel at a time when doing so could have changed lives. Forster counters that the past cannot be altered. Now they can tell the stories he couldn’t. They should tell their own stories. And so Toby and Eric are striving together in the rent-controlled apartment that has been occupied by members of Eric’s family for three generations. That explains why he shares an address with the very rich Henry and his partner of many years, Walter. But Eric faces eviction. His nine closest friends are a chorus arrayed around a movable platform, stepping on and off, alert and ready to blow up Eric’s parties. Toby’s ambitions for a Broadway hit are about to be realized, and he abandons Eric to his misfortunes, throwing away his proposal of marriage.
Eric revives, thanks to the friendship of Walter, who has also been abandoned, because it suits Henry to hide in the demands of his business life. Lopez’s play echoes some of Forster’s lines, revises scenes, and uses his plot devices: After Walter’s death, Henry and his two sons (from an early marriage to a woman) burn Walter’s last-minute instructions that his house, originally a gift from Henry, go to Eric. Whereas Forster’s Wilcox family struggles over Howards End, the haunted, nameless upstate New York house in Lopez’s play is of little interest to Henry’s sons. During the worst of the AIDS epidemic, Walter took strangers there to die in tranquility. Walter introduced Eric to his beloved house, a model upstage hung in a blue expanse. When Eric returns to the house, the ghosts of dead young men shake hands with him and give their names, one by one.
In Part II, the bill comes due, but it’s already been paid by the losers. As in the novel, a sexual secret gets exposed, at a wedding. Henry had been a customer of Leo, who used to work as a hustler. Eric marries Henry anyway. The wedding party is another episode in Toby’s spectacular, drunken, druggy unraveling toward an early death. A classmate of mine told me he took pleasure in figuring out equivalents between characters in Forster’s novel and Lopez’s play. For instance, is Toby the lower-class, culturally yearning Leonard Bast from the novel, or is that Leo? My classmate thinks Eric is the equivalent to the novel’s Margaret Schlegel, the healing force who saves Henry’s capitalist’s soul. Because of Eric, the play’s Henry—the real estate mogul and moral coward who runs away from the house, from Walter and the dying—has an epiphany about wasting love and therefore life, but too late.
Lopez’s drama is not afraid to be political, not when just to live one’s life openly can be a rebellious act still, depending on the context. One of Eric’s friends, a black physician, announces his decision to emigrate to Canada, in large part because of the white supremacist hatreds unleashed by Donald Trump’s election. Eric’s former boss, a software developer and the most promiscuous of his friends, has a violent argument with Henry over the crimes of wealth. He refuses to attend Eric’s wedding. A Latino friend’s intermittent, brief arias of swish can contain social criticism. Forster’s example has been telling them that they are their own models for the realized lives they seek as gay men.
Howards End and Maurice are works of affirmation. The Inheritance means to stand with them. Forster’s bequest to gay literature: the hopeful ending. AIDS wasn’t the tragic climax; it was the turning point. Gay history is the true inheritance. I confess I sat there old and thrilled as this handsome cast rode the wit of the dialogue and made the leaps of mood, helped mightily by the accomplished young actors’ often being in various states of undress. The theater rocked with laughter only to be on the verge of tears moments later.
Yet the social destiny of freedmen can still be a problem: Why does reward come across as wishful, as propaganda? The end of the play is almost ruined by the victory roll call of happily ever afters. The survivors in Eric’s circle all win. Leo will marry a nice guy and die at 67, older than he ever expected to get when Eric rescued him from the streets. Eric will divorce Henry, marry another man, and die at 97, surrounded by children and grandchildren who maintain the house.
The sanctity of marriage was still a churchy thing in the early 2000s when the wretched Tony Blair proposed a civil partnership law to Parliament that would have denied benefits to straight couples with children. The US Supreme Court upheld gay marriage in 2013, the celebrations providing cover for the court’s gutting of the historic Voting Rights Act the day before. The same court said nobody has to bake us wedding cakes. Nevertheless, the right to form a marital union with another man or woman is, for me, a profound change in gay and lesbian life, and never mind that saying “gay” these days is just about as out of it as the word “Negro.” It used to be that when sons told parents they were gay, most parents assumed that meant a furtive, incomplete life. Now they know that gay doesn’t mean their children won’t be fulfilled—at least not because of that. Those Obama-era equality rallies owe something to the Reagan- and Bush-era ACT UP sit-ins.
Some black people feel black cultural authenticity can be lost through integration or assimilation. Gay people aren’t worried about gay culture as they find increasing acceptance in the mainstream. When I was young, the women’s movement and gay liberation encouraged us to be proud that we were not headed toward marriage and the suburbs. We said straight society envied us; we said the point was to change society, not join up. We wanted to be different, maybe because we could never imagine the freedom to be like everyone else. The Inheritance is a surprise. I didn’t expect to leave the theater thinking about historical perspective, self-acceptance, the obsolescence of the closet—for the lucky—and the seafarers I knew who hadn’t had the time to learn how to greet with an equal eye, as Forster put it, the deep that they were entering and the shore they had to leave.