A seven-hour gay adaptation of the novel Howards End? London loved it. Broadway snubbed it. And now it’s gone. A section of the gay press sneered that the play was for uptight cis white gays who liked Pete Buttigieg. I fit that demographic and enjoyed the play very much. The Geffen Playhouse will produce it in 2021 but the running time and niche subject matter may prevent additional productions. I’d hate to think of it vanishing so I’m going to share some memories from a Broadway preview in Fall of 2019.
You can purchase the published script and you can read my snarky spoiler filled recap.
Trigger warning: The play contains incidents of sexual assault and self-harm.
ERIC (bland): I love you Toby. Let’s get married!
TOBY (messy): I love me too. And my play’s going to Broadway!
RICH TWINK: You wrote a play? That’s hot. You should cast me.
E.M. FORSTER and the MALE CHORUS: We pause the story at various points to debate gay history, politics and pop culture. Tonight we inspire Eric to ask his wise neighbor…
ERIC: What was the AIDS epidemic like?
WISE NEIGHBOR: Apocalyptic. I nursed 200 dying friends in my country house. My husband, Henry, never forgave me.
TOBY: Eric, I’m leaving you for Rich Twink.
RICH TWINK: Nope. Now that I’m a star I don’t need you.
LEO: I’m a homeless rent boy who looks like Rich Twink.
TOBY: Hey there.
WISE NEIGHBOR: When I die, I want my country house to go to Eric. His INHERITANCE. (Dies.)
HENRY WILCOX (Wise Neighbor’s Republican husband): No. (Burns the will.)
ERIC: Can I at least see the house?
HENRY: Sure. ‘Cuz you’re a good person.
(A ghost walks on stage. Then another. Then more. Till the stage is filled.)
GHOSTS: Thank you for visiting us Eric. We’re so glad to meet you.
ERIC: I want to preserve your memories. Your INHERITANCE!
END OF PART ONE
There are three stories here. Eric Glass is in a passive retelling of E.M. Forster’s novel; Howards End. Toby Darling is in a dynamic tale inspired by playwright Matthew Lopez’s youth. At the end of part one I was left wondering if Eric would grow a spine or Toby would grow a heart. I was invested in the fate of the country house and the ghosts. I was not invested in the romances. Eric and Toby were bad for each other. The Rich Twink is a vessel for Toby’s fantasies. Henry Wilcox and Leo don’t have enough stage time to make an impression.
The third story-line addresses the impact of the AIDS epidemic on subsequent generations. One actor plays E.M. Forster and the Wise Neighbor, inspired by Howards End’s Ruth Wilcox. He leads the chorus in discussions of the empty space in gay men’s hearts that a community of mentors could have filled. The scene where the ghosts introduce themselves is uncomfortably long. It loops from tragic to comic to tragic again. This is a litmus test for the audience. Half the crowd falls apart. Others dismiss it as “manipulative.” I was hooked. Would these three threads intertwine in part two?
(The male chorus dances in speedos.)
LEO: Thanks for taking me off the streets.
TOBY: Sure. Let’s go to drug fueled dance orgies!
LEO: This is triggering! Help!
TOBY: Bored now. Bye. (Toby abandons Leo.)
HENRY: You’re a good person.
ERIC: Am I? I’m dating a Republican.
HENRY: I prefer Libertarian Capitalist. Marry me.
ERIC: Well you’re celibate and cruel, but you’re also rich… so sure.
TOBY: DON’T DO IT! I STILL LOVE YOU!
ERIC: GO AWAY TOBY! OR I’LL TELL EVERYONE YOUR TRAGIC BACKSTORY!
LEO: I’m homeless again and have HIV from the dance orgies. My orgy INHERITANCE.
ERIC: I’ll save you to assuage my liberal guilt. Come live in my husband’s country house.
HENRY: Ex-husband. I’m tired of your goodness.
LEO: So, I survive? My book counterpart dies.
TOBY: I’ll die instead. I’ve finally realized how toxic I am. (Commits suicide.)
ERIC: Henry left me the house. I nursed Leo to health and put him through school. I guess I was a good person after all.
GHOSTS: Did you preserve our memories? Our INHER…
LEO: No but I did! By writing this play. God bless us, every one!
THE (Howards) END
The Future Meets the Past
“If Toby is who I was, then Eric Glass is who I am working to become.” ~ Playwright Matthew Lopez
I’ve summed up the plot but the plot isn’t the focus. It’s a frame for the larger discussions of gay history and generational conflict. That’s the beating heart of The Inheritance and the aspect I was most drawn to. What I found myself debating is whether the use of Howards End helped or hindered these themes.
Why does Eric marry Henry Wilcox? His counterpart in Howards End was a woman of limited means. She had far less options in 1910 than Eric had in 2018. The courtship is rushed and the actors lacked chemistry at the preview. Their divorce seemed a forgone conclusion. I’d like to see a production where it doesn’t.
Why does Toby kill himself? LGBT folks are still at great risk of depression but Toby feels like a throwback to the suicidal homosexuals of 1919’s Different from the Others or 1934’s The Children’s Hour. It made more sense after reading some interviews with the playwright about the self-destructive spiral he pulled himself out of.
Is Eric a good person? Is he an interesting one? Margaret lacked the influence to save Leonard in the novel. Her empathy was not enough. Eric’s empathy couldn’t stem Toby’s self loathing. But he has the funds to save Leo, a homeless teenager he barely knows. He chooses to use his immense privilege for good. By the end I liked Eric, though not as much as the author did.
This sounds like I didn’t enjoy the play. I enjoyed it very much. Under the soap opera dramatics there’s a sincere desire to offer a message of love and support to a new generation of LGBT folk. Andrew Burnap’s Toby Darling and Paul Hilton’s Walter Wilcox (the wise neighbor) were spellbinding. Director Stephen Daldry and his team build gorgeous images with a minimalistic production design. The 7-hour run time was unnecessary but made the play feel like an event. One that I was grateful to have witnessed.
Reviews of the London and Broadway productions.
Photos of the London and Broadway productions.
A behind the scenes photo shoot for Broadway.com.
An interview with Playwright Matthew Lopez in the New Yorker.
Laurence Luckinbill’s tribute to Mart Crowley, author of The Boys in the Band.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
The Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386
Did you see The Inheritance? Have you read or seen Howards End? Are there other classics you’d like to see re-imagined from an LGBT perspective? You can read more reviews of LGBT media here.