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What I Wanted to Say in ‘The Inheritance.’ And What I Didn’t.


Theatergoers of different generations have had passionate responses to “The Inheritance,” Matthew Lopez’s two-part play about gay culture and the legacy of AIDS. The show was celebrated in its original runs in London, but the reception has been more divided on Broadway, both among professional critics and regular attendees. While many have found the show inordinately moving, others have criticized a lack of diversity in the central cast and narrow representation of contemporary gay life. We asked Lopez to write about what inspired the play and to reflect on why some audience members don’t like what they see.

In March 2018, my play “The Inheritance” began performances in London. Until its first preview, it was anyone’s guess how it would be received. A reimagining of E.M. Forster’s “Howards End” — using three generations of gay New Yorkers to explore class, community and the legacy of H.I.V. — hardly bears the makings of an obvious hit. And yet audiences, then critics, embraced the play.

Since then, over 200,000 ticket-buyers have seen the play in its three productions, two in London and now on Broadway. Almost every one of those people, whether belonging to or allied with the L.G.B.T.Q. community, has a story to share relating to its themes. I have heard from many of them — people who, after seeing the play, have healed broken relationships with their queer children, have decided to save their lives by seeking help for addiction, have finally put away their grief over those they lost during the epidemic.

My journey to writing it began when I was 15 years old, watching the Merchant Ivory film adaptation of “Howards End.” Somehow a gay Puerto Rican kid from the Florida panhandle was able to see some part of his experience reflected back in the story of the Schlegel sisters. He could identify with scenes of Londoners making sense of life at the turn of the last century, and even find a version of his abuela in the character of Ruth Wilcox.

I fell madly in love with Forster that day. We are an unlikely couple. But, besides my marriage, it has been the happiest union of my life. At least Forster doesn’t make me go buy eggs at 7 in the morning.

In writing “The Inheritance,” I wanted to take my favorite novel and retell it in a way that its closeted author never felt free to do in his lifetime. I wanted to write a play that was true to my experience, my philosophy, my heart as a gay man who has enjoyed opportunities that were denied Forster. It was my attempt to explain myself to the world as a gay man of my particular generation.

I wasn’t attempting to create a generationally defining work of theater that spoke for the entire queer experience. I think that if I had started with that intention, I never would have finished. There are some who feel the play should have done just that, and who fault me for not painting on a broader canvas.

Those responses led me to wonder: What do we expect from art, particularly when it is made by members of our own community? And, conversely, what are the responsibilities of artists to the communities to which they belong?

Art can be expected to hold a mirror up to society, but it cannot be expected to hold a mirror up to every individual who is engaging with it. Even with its long running time, there is a lot “The Inheritance” does not and cannot cover.

No one piece of writing about our complex, sprawling community will ever tell the entire story, and I believe that is a good thing: It creates an unquenchable thirst for more and more narratives — a thirst that has been evident in audiences for “The Inheritance” and a thirst that the theater, television and film industries have been too slow to satisfy.

“The Inheritance” was not my attempt at a grand summation of the past quarter century of queer history. What I was attempting was an examination of class, economic inequality, and poverty within the gay community — issues I have rarely seen depicted in theater. I have painted on a broad canvas. It is simply not the canvas others might have chosen.

I wanted to write about addiction and alcoholism — a disease I have struggled with, and an epidemic that plagues our community just as perniciously as H.I.V./AIDS did 30 years ago. I also wanted to write about sex: how it can be used as a vehicle for pleasure and intimacy, but how it is also used as a tool to cauterize pain.

Such examinations run counter to our current desire for affirmative representation. But avoidance of uncomfortable truths is not the role of the artist. Healing is impossible if you don’t understand the cause of the injury.

And while I examine race in “The Inheritance,” it is not one of its central themes. This is a decision for which I have been criticized, but it is a decision that I made consciously as a person of color. It is a consideration that is not asked of white writers, but it is one that writers of color must face with every project we begin.

Responsibility to community is the first question we must answer for ourselves. I believe that in writing honestly about my experience as a gay man, I have also contributed one more example of what it means to be a Puerto Rican man.

I have been asked by some why I didn’t write “The Inheritance” from a Latinx perspective. It is a question that reveals to me just how far we have to go in understanding the true nature of diversity of expression. I answer: Can you not see how, by virtue of the fact that I have written it, “The Inheritance” is a reflection of a Latinx perspective?

It reminds me of Sonia Sotomayor’s formulation that “a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would, more often than not, reach a better conclusion” than her white colleagues. Justice Sotomayor is not given only the Puerto Rican cases to decide; she helps decide all the cases. And her decisions are based just as much on her knowledge of the law as it is by her experiences as a Puerto Rican woman.

The same is true for “The Inheritance” and me. It is because I am Puerto Rican that “The Inheritance” is the play it is, not in spite of it. Eric Glass, my central character, may be a white man, but he is a white man who was created by a Puerto Rican one. That has fundamentally informed his journey through the play.

Others have questioned why there isn’t more representation of the younger generation in the play. It is true that most of the characters are near or close to my age. That is partly due to the function of adaptation — the Schlegel sisters (who became the mid-30s boyfriends Eric Glass and Toby Darling) are, after all, the central characters in “Howards End.” It is also a function of my own perspective. I wrote mostly about people in their 30s because that’s the experience I was living as I wrote the play.

There is a reason, however, that I chose to end the play in the future, focusing on the creative output of the youngest and most marginalized character in the play. I end “The Inheritance” with the acknowledgment that the future has yet to be written — and when it is, it will be written by the youngest among us.

My hope is that, while not presuming to speak for the younger generation, I have spoken to it, and that its members might come to the play in an attempt to understand the life of someone who came before them, and who, for better or worse, through his words and actions helped shape the world that they will inherit.

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