The Inheritance – A Play for 2020

One may as well begin with an admission: I am neither gay nor a man.  Nor have I read Howard’s End.  And yet, in spite of all this, I found myself entranced by The Inheritance, Matthew Lopez’s two-part, six-hour play about a group of gay men in their 30s, inspired by E.M. Forster’s novel, Howard’s End.  I had dragged my heels in going to see it, not looking forward to the prospect of sitting through what I had thought would be six hours of gay men talking gravely about the AIDS epidemic, a subject that even my gay friends were tired of seeing on stage.  But where The Inheritance differs is that while it does discuss the epidemic at length, rather than trying to show how important this time period was in history, it brings the audience into its fold to demonstrate why this time period should be remembered now, and why a new generation of people should care about it, gay or not.

As a straight cis woman, there’s no way I can fully understand how horrifying the AIDS epidemic must have been to live through, but similarly, neither can many of my gay male friends, who were, for the most part, born in the tail end of the 90s and grew up in middle-class families living in liberal neighborhoods.  For us, the AIDS crisis seems almost like a distant past, a period of history that should be acknowledged but not lingered on, and until I saw The Inheritance, it was difficult for me to truly understand how harrowing living through it must have been.  Because what the play does is speak directly to my generation of millennials, showing us a mirror of our own lives and then gently painting a picture of what life was like 40 or so years ago.

In the play, the kinds of friends that Eric Glass invites over to his apartment for dinner parties are the kinds of friends I can imagine having, and the topics they discuss at these parties are many of the same topics that I’ve discussed with my friends as well.  The effect of this is that the play seems to invite me in, showing me that these characters are not aloof literary characters from a time long gone, but instead full-bodied characters that I could easily bump into on the streets of New York today.  And when the older character of Walter describes to Eric what it was like living through the epidemic, he’s also describing the experience to me and others like me.  Listening to Paul Hinton deliver Walter’s monologue, I felt that it was the first time I was truly able to understand even a small extent of the tragedy that people his age had gone through, and how that continues to shape them now.  

Part of the friendship between Eric and Walter lies in Eric’s search and longing for a sense of community, something that he finds fading away in the nation overall in the aftermath of the 2016 election and also among gay men, where certain rituals and secretive communication signals fade away as homosexuality becomes more widely accepted.  While there’s mention of family members, they’re very rarely present in the story, and Eric starts becoming even more unmoored as he learns that he must move out of his rent-controlled apartment that his grandmother had owned, wondering if he’s really doing everything he can to help others.  It’s a feeling that’s not uncommon, especially among many of my friends who have recently graduated from college and are moving away from home for the first time.  In this way, the play pulls double duty, both educating a younger generation on the AIDS crisis while asking everyone what community means to them.

Perhaps the smartest part of Matthew Lopez’s script is that he never provides an answer to the questions that Eric and other characters ask, only suggestions, and even then, some of them contradictory.  A political debate springs up between Jasper, Eric’s boss and a liberal activist, and Henry, Walter’s partner and a conservative billionaire, and while the debate has no clear winner, it highlights salient points from both ends–points that seem to resonate more down the line as Eric contemplates his relationship with Henry and his own purpose in his community.  While the play ultimately seems to lean towards one side, it never strongly disparages the other (perhaps to the disappointment of some audience members), which to me seemed a more authentic depiction of the shades of gray prevalent in society today.  Eric’s choices are his own and not necessarily the same choices that another person would have made in his place, but that doesn’t necessarily make a different choice wrong.

What I see as the biggest success of The Inheritance is this sense of community it’s able to foster.  People drift in and out of Eric’s life, and he grapples with many decisions that are universal to us all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender or race.  And in doing so, The Inheritance invites people from all walks of life to join in its story.  While almost all of the characters are gay New Yorkers living in the mid-2010s, the play doesn’t exclude other types of people.  I remember watching the latest revival of The Boys in the Band and feeling a bit detached (and even slightly confused) afterward, concluding that it was a play that just wasn’t meant for people like me to be able to understand or empathize with completely.  There was none of that sensation here, and while I’m sure that different people would take away different meanings from this play, I think that’s what makes it as beautiful as it is.  

Will this play be as lasting as other works like Howard’s End, The Boys in the Band, or even Angels in America?  There’s no sure way to tell, but as we move further from the AIDS epidemic and into a more polarized world, I think The Inheritance will have a place in describing what the generations before us have given us and what we can give to the generations that will come after us.

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