Ghosts Haunt 'The Inheritance,' From E.M. Forster, To The Generation Lost To AIDS

Nov 17, 2019

One of the most anticipated Broadway plays of the season is a two-part, seven-hour epic, called The Inheritance, inspired by E.M. Forster's novel Howards End. The first sentence of E.M. Forster's novel is: "One may as well begin with Helen's letters to her sister."

And the story of The Inheritance may as well begin with playwright Matthew Lopez's introduction to Howards End — when his mother took him to see the 1992 film adaptation.

"I was this 16-year-old Puerto Rican kid in the panhandle of Florida," Lopez recalls. "And I'm watching this story about a group of Edwardian Brits haggling over real estate and inheritances. And there wasn't anything that really should have spoken to me about the film — and yet everything did."

Now, Lopez has turned that inspiration into a play that looks at different generations of gay men, and the legacy they pass on to one another. The legacy Forster passed on to Lopez was personal.

"The thing that drew me to Forster most specifically, I think, looking back on it, was I was picking up on what I would call 'the vibrations,' " says Lopez. "And 'the vibrations' were a closeted gay man in the early 20th century, at that time, speaking to a closeted gay boy at the end of the 20th century."

Lopez thought, why not use Howards End as a starting point for a play that looks at gay life in the early 21st century and have Forster's spirit help guide a group of young men to tell their own stories?

In the play, Forster's middle-class Schlegel sisters become boyfriends, the upper class Wilcoxes become a billionaire gay couple who survived the AIDS crisis, and the lower-class Leonard Bast is split into two characters – Adam, a young aspiring actor, and a street hustler named Leo.

Lopez says you can't adapt Howards End without writing about class. "Even when you take these characters — and change the milieu, and change the century they live in, and change who they fundamentally are — the structure of the novel demands that you deal with class," says Lopez. "And so I decided that that would also be one of the guiding influences in the play."

But it's not just class that drives The Inheritance – it's generational perspectives. Kyle Soller plays Eric, who inherits a rent-controlled apartment in New York City and eventually, a country house upstate. But Soller says "inheritance" means much more in this play.

"There is also the inheritance to younger gay men, of the generation that is coming up right now, of a responsibility and a debt to the generation that came before them," Soller explains. "The generation that fought tirelessly to be able to walk down the street and hold your partner's hand, to kiss your husband in public, to get married, to just truly be accepted for being who you are and loving who you love."

Kyle Soller, from left, Paul Hilton and John Benjamin Hickey in The Inheritance.
Matthew Murphy / Polk & Co.

For actor Samuel H. Levine, 24, who plays both Adam and Leo, learning about the AIDS crisis from the play and the older actors in it, has been eye-opening. "I had no idea about this massive loss of a whole generation of people ..." Levine says. "We're not taught about that in school. No one talks about that, really."

In one scene, one of the older characters spells it out.

WALTER: Tell me the name of one of your closest friends.
ERIC: Tristan
WALTER: Imagine that Tristan is dead. Name another.
ERIC: Jasper.
WALTER: Jasper is also dead.
ERIC: Jason.
WALTER: Jason has been at St. Vincent's for two weeks ...

I grew up as a young gay man feeling absolute alienation from the generation that came before me. And I think that part of the attempt of writing The Inheritance was a way of finding compassion for a generation of gay men that I didn't really understand. - Playwright Matthew Lopez

Actor Paul Hilton plays Walter. He says when he does this scene, he can hear people in the audience weeping. "There is an audible rumble," Hilton says. "It's a palpable feeling of grief that one feels in that section of the piece ... because we're dealing with so many ghosts and lost spirits."

Lopez invoked those ghosts out of his own sense of responsibility.

"I grew up as a young, gay man feeling absolute alienation from the generation that came before me," Lopez says. "And I think that part of the attempt of writing The Inheritance was a way of finding compassion for a generation of gay men that I didn't really understand."

Lopez says the generation before him endured the "great trauma" of living through the AIDS epidemic.

"When I came to New York in 2000, it had just happened to them," Lopez says. "And I needed to find compassion for what was experienced in those years. I needed to force myself to not just understand what that was, but to feel what that was."

As E.M. Forster famously wrote in Howard's End, only connect: "Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height."

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

One of the most anticipated Broadway plays of the season is a two-part, seven-hour epic inspired by E.M. Forster's novel "Howards End." The play is called "The Inheritance." And it opens tonight in New York. "The Inheritance" looks at different generations of gay men and the legacies they pass on. Jeff Lunden takes a look.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: E.M. Forster's novel starts with this sentence - (reading) one may as well begin with Helen's letters to her sister.

MATTHEW LOPEZ: One may as well begin with the day Matthew Lopez was taken by his mother to see the Merchant Ivory film.

LUNDEN: Playwright Matthew Lopez.

LOPEZ: I was this 16-year-old Puerto Rican kid in the panhandle of Florida. And I'm watching this story about a group of Edwardian Brits haggling over real estate and inheritances. And there wasn't anything that really should have spoken to me about the film. And yet everything did.

LOPEZ: So Lopez got the book and devoured it, along with other novels by the closeted author.

LOPEZ: The thing that drew me to Forster most specifically, I think, was I was picking up on what I would call the vibrations. And the vibrations were a closeted gay man in the early 20th century speaking to a closeted gay boy at the end of the 20th century.

LUNDEN: And Lopez thought, why not use "Howards End" as a starting point for a play that looks at gay life in the early 21st century and have E.M. Forster's spirit help guide a group of young men to tell their own stories?

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE INHERITANCE")

PAUL HILTON: (As Morgan) One may as well begin with Toby's what?

SAMUEL H LEVINE: (As Young Man 1) Voicemails.

HILTON: (As Morgan) One may as well begin with Toby's voicemails.

LEVINE: (As Young Man 1) To his boyfriend.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) (Unintelligible).

LEVINE: (As Young Man 1) Beep.

ANDREW BURNAP: (As Toby) You are going to die when I tell you what you're missing. Call me back.

LEVINE: (As Young Man 1) Toby's had a martini. Beep.

BURNAP: (As Toby) Where are you?

LUNDEN: In the play, Forster's middle-class Schlegel sisters become boyfriends. The upper-class Wilcoxes become a billionaire gay couple who survived the AIDS crisis. And the lower-class Leonard Bast is split into two characters - Adam, a young aspiring actor, and a street hustler named Leo.

LOPEZ: You cannot adapt "Howards End" and not write about class. Even when you take these characters and change the milieu and change the century they live in and change who they fundamentally are, the structure of the novel demands that you deal with class. And so I decided that that would also be one of the guiding influences in the play.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE INHERITANCE")

HILTON: (As Morgan) This story, so far, deals with the middle class - give or take - and even with those who feel obliged to pretend they are upper class. The boy Leo was neither. He was born, he was raised and he lived in poverty.

LUNDEN: It's not just class that drives the play. It's generational perspectives. Kyle Soller plays Eric, who inherits a rent-controlled apartment in New York City and eventually a country house upstate. But Soller says inheritance means much more in this play.

KYLE SOLLER: There is also the inheritance to younger gay men of the generation that is coming up right now of a responsibility and a debt to the generation that came before them, the generation that fought tirelessly to be able to walk down the street and hold your partner's hand, to kiss your husband in public, to get married, to just truly be accepted for being who you are and loving who you love.

LUNDEN: And for 24-year-old actor Samuel H. Levine, who plays both Adam and Leo, learning about the AIDS generation from the play and the older actors in it has been eye opening.

LEVINE: I had no idea about this massive loss of a whole generation of people that just fell off the face of the Earth. We're not taught about that in school. No one talks about that, really. So yeah, for me, it was just like, whoa.

LUNDEN: In the play, one of the older characters spells it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE INHERITANCE")

HILTON: (As Walter) Tell me the name of one of your closest friends.

SOLLER: (As Eric) Tristan.

HILTON: (As Walter) Imagine that Tristan is dead. Name another.

SOLLER: (As Eric) Jasper.

HILTON: (As Walter) Jasper is also dead.

SOLLER: (As Eric) Jason.

HILTON: (As Walter) Jason has been at St. Vincent's for two weeks.

LUNDEN: Actor Paul Hilton plays Walter, who describes what it was like to go through the AIDS epidemic. Hilton says when he does this scene, he can hear people in the audience weeping.

HILTON: There is an audible rumble. It's a palpable feeling of grief - inevitably - because we're dealing with so many ghosts and lost spirits.

LUNDEN: Playwright Matthew Lopez says he invoked those ghosts out of his own sense of responsibility.

LOPEZ: I grew up as a young gay man feeling absolute alienation from the generation that came before me. And I think that part of the attempt of writing "The Inheritance" was a way of finding compassion for a generation of gay men that I didn't really understand. And I realized that I didn't understand them because of the great trauma that they experienced, that they were simply incapable of being able to turn around and explain to my generation. And I needed to not just understand what that was but to feel what that was.

LUNDEN: As E.M. Forster famously wrote in "Howards End," only connect, only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICO MUHLY'S "OPENING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.