Jul 13, 2015

How Bent Made Gay History

Tom Bell and Ian McKellen in the London premiere of Bent, 1979.
A major revival of Martin Sherman's play Bent begins performances on July 15 at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, directed by Moises Kaufman. I contributed this piece to the show's program, learned a lot in writing it, and thought it was worth sharing with a wider audience.

It was a passing reference to “pink triangles” in As Time Goes By, a 1976 play about a century of gay life, that caught Martin Sherman’s attention. As he put it recently, “It was one of those awful cliches--you could see the light bulb going off over my head.” That eureka moment led to Bent, Sherman’s path-breaking 1979 drama about the Third Reich’s persecution of homosexuals, and that in turn led to the widespread adoption of the pink triangle--a sewn-on badge of shame for gay men in the Nazi concentration camps--as a gay rights logo during the AIDS-ravaged 1980s and beyond.

The reclamation of that hated symbol as a token of pride is just one of the legacies of Sherman’s play, which premiered on London’s West End in a production starring Ian McKellen and on Broadway in late 1979, with Richard Gere in the lead. Life has changed rapidly and radically for gay people in the West since then, as much or more than it had changed between World War II and the dawn of AIDS. What’s easy to forget amid the inexorable march of history is not only how far forward gay liberation has moved but also how little was popularly known in the mid-’70s about gay life under the Nazis. Indeed, even the mere fact that they were among the minority groups rounded up and sent to Nazi detention and death camps--alongside Jews, gypsies, and communists--was not then widely known.

It certainly wasn’t known to Sherman, a Jewish American who lost family members in the Holocaust. He was in London in the mid-’70s working with a small company called the Gay Sweatshop, whose production of his play Passing By had “renewed my determination to continue writing for the theater,” when he sat in on a rehearsal of Noel Greig and Drew Griffiths’s As Time Goes By.

“It was in three parts, showing gay life in three historical eras: one was in Victorian England, the second was in Germany before the war, and the third was at the time of Stonewall,” Sherman recounted in a phone call from a writing workshop he was leading in Austria (“Hugely ironic,” he noted). The mention of “pink triangles” was, in his recollection, no more than “one sentence” in the play. He asked Griffiths and Greig about it; they said they’d done some research on the subject. Sherman later caught an article in Christopher Street, a gay magazine in New York City, titled “The Men With the Pink Triangles,” that would further inform the writing of Bent (the article’s author, Richard Plant, had written a book on the subject, The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals, but couldn’t find a publisher until after Sherman’s play premiered). In the absence of a detailed English-language history on the subject, then, Sherman found himself doing research at London’s Wiener Library, a comprehensive collection of literature about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.

“I spoke to an old librarian there and asked her, ‘Are there books that talk about homosexuals in Nazi Germany?’ She was very homophobic; she asked me, ‘Do you mean the Nazis as homosexuals?’ I said, ‘No, I mean the Nazi treatment of homosexuals.’

Whatever her attitudes on the subject, Sherman recalled, “She was an excellent librarian--she remembered everything. She would show me one paragraph in one book here, a sentence in another there, and so I was able to piece together a mosaic of certain facts.”

Sherman said he also found Bruno Bettelheim’s 1960 memoir of his time at Dachau, The Informed Heart, “hugely influential in my writing,” particularly about “the psychology of being in the camps.”

Sherman’s play follows Max, a gay man in Berlin rounded up with his lover, a dancer named Rudy, after the infamous Night of the Long Knives in 1934. This purge, one of many turning points in Hitler’s consolidation of power, targeted one of his allies and potential rivals, Ernst Rohm, the openly gay leader of the Nazis’ paramilitary wing, the brownshirts. Political differences, not Rohm’s sexuality, were the real reason he was killed and the brownshirts decimated, but homosexual “decadence” became one of many convenient Nazi scapegoats.

Bent dramatizes not only the way gay men got caught in this crossfire but, in the compromised character of Max, the terrible means by which some fought to survive. Only in the play’s second act, set at Dachau, does Max--who forms an intimate friendship with another man, Horst--grasp the futility of mere survival, sans dignity and love.

Sherman said he’d initially intended Bent for the Sweatshop, “which meant that I thought it was going to be performed in a small little fringe theater somewhere.” That may account for the play’s sexual frankness and formal ambition, not to mention its unflinching depiction of Nazi sadism. But Griffiths immediately recognized its larger potential and told Sherman, “‘We can’t do this. You have to send this out into the world.’"

"It was an act of enormous generosity,” Sherman recalled. And prescience, it turns out: “I wrote it for a small theater, about a subject that hadn’t been talked about. I never in a million years dreamed that it would be in a position to make that known throughout the world.”

But while Bent is clearly a play about a particular moment in history, it is also a play inspired by gay life in the late 1970s.

“In some ways, you could argue that gay life was peaking, in terms of what it became in the ’70s, and was going to stop being once the specter of AIDS arrived,” recalled David Marshall Grant, who appeared in the play’s first reading at the O’Neill Playwrights Center in 1978, and later in its Broadway premiere. The play’s first scene--in which Max and Rudy wake up together in an apartment, and Max can’t recall how he spent the previous wild night--was for its time a disarmingly casual portrait of what we might today call a “monogamish” gay relationship. As Grant recalled, “You might have thought you were in Greenwich Village in the ’70s--that’s how it played when it was first read. Until the Nazis came in.”

Sherman agreed: As any good playwright does, he wrote the play for his time as much as for the ages.

“The gay world then was somewhat brutalized--it was enormously sexualized,” Sherman recalled. “New York was absolutely wild. People were just [having sex] all over the place, literally. But nobody was actually free; it was all an illusion. The laws were terrible. I did not see a society that was progressing. It was extremely commercial; people were making a lot of money out of it. It was in its way not dissimilar, I thought, to what Germany was like in the Weimar era.”

If Bent was groundbreaking for its delineation of a little-known historical period, and for its blunt depiction of same-sex sexuality--in its most famous scene, Max and Horst make love without touching, or even moving very much--it was prescient in another way which may explain its wide appeal and longevity.

“It was ahead of its time in that it showed that the prize wasn’t sexual liberation--ultimately the prize was love,” said Grant, who noted that this theme would later resonate through Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart, in which he also starred. “Sexual liberation was an absolutely necessary step toward understanding; you can’t love until you understand your sexuality. But Martin was already beyond that. The play is very clearly about somebody who learns how to love, and I don’t think love was in any way a priority for gay life in the ’70s.”

Sherman agreed: “Love didn’t seem to enter the picture on a visible level then. Of course it existed. But the play is as much about internal repression as external.”

Moises Kaufman, who is directing the revival at the Taper, called Bent “a much richer, deeper, more complicated play than just a play about gays in the Holocaust,” though he admitted that its function as an historical marker is still urgently necessary. “When I tell young gay men and lesbians that I’m doing the play, they are shocked to learn that gays were persecuted in the Holocaust.”

For Kaufman, who grew up in Jewish and gay in Venezuela, the demimonde of Weimar Berlin represents an important pivot for gay identity. “There were 100 gay bars in Berlin in the 1930s, and 40 gay publications,” Kaufman said, pointing also to Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Studies and his activism on behalf of legalizing gay relationships. He cited the thesis of Robert Beachy’s 2014 book Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity. 

“In Victorian times, male-male relationships were only about sex,” said Kaufman, whose breakthrough work was 1997’s Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. “Only in the 20th century did the notion of love between men emerge, and Beachy’s book shows that Berlin in the ’30s is where that conversation began to occur.”

That conversation was cut short, obviously, and has since often been interrupted, if never entirely silenced. As Sherman was quick to point out, “The Nazis aren’t coming for us, but this is going on in a lot of cultures--in Russia, for instance.”

For Kaufman, Bent is not just a postcard from a more repressive era; it’s also a crucial alternative history.

“Gay relationships have, for better or worse, entered the mainstream,” said Kaufman, who’s been with his husband for 26 years. “Gay people today are going to grow up with marriage as an option, but there were no norms, no models at the time for Max. So this play becomes even more relevant: The people in the play are showing a relationship that is very intimate but doesn’t follow the morality that is in vogue.”

If Greig and Griffiths were to add a chapter to As Time Goes By, they might include one in which gays have claimed their rightful place in two conservative institutions--marriage and the military--and still wonder what’s missing. Bent reminds us that what we can still miss now, as then, is the only thing that will save us. As W.H. Auden put it, “We must love one another or die.”

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