Only Connect; or The Gay Hauntings
By Josh Feye
One may as well begin with E.M. Forster and his 1910 novel Howards End. Forster believed in the human spirit and examines the search for human connection in his novels. Howards End tells the story of the Schlegel sisters and their quest to understand what role they are to play in an ever-changing society. The novel asks the question: what responsibility do the upper classes have to the working class? In Howards End, Forster tells us to “only connect.” The Schlegels connect themselves to the working class character Leonard Bast. Mr. Wilcox, who is Margaret Schlegel’s husband and a staunch businessman, refuses to connect himself with the working class, or the past. Without connection, we fail to understand ourselves and the whole story. An often forgotten piece of Forster’s story is his closeted homosexuality which he channeled into his artistic works. His posthumous novel Maurice (1971) shows gay relationships in the early 20th century. The manuscript was kept hidden due to gross indecency laws that prohibited homosexuality, though Forster was pressured by his close literary friends to publish the novel throughout his life. He also cited his fear of humiliating his mother, with whom he had a very close relationship, as one of the major reasons the novel never saw the light of day.
Forster died the year following the Stonewall uprising. Stonewall was a major turning point in gay culture that thrust gays into the national political consciousness. Gay men seized the energies of the sexual revolution and the civil rights movement to create a decadent culture for themselves. The gay culture of the 1970s is where the great sex parties of Fire Island and discotheques take place which we see depicted in Larry Kramer’s gay satire Faggots 1978). It was a grand party that all came crashing down in 1981 with AIDS. Gay men faced a cruel new reality with a vicious virus that attacks the body’s ability to fight off infection. Fear and grief quickly took over gay life as young gay men were dying at alarming rates. However, gay men know how to take tragedy and turn it into art. As Is (1985), The Normal Heart (1985), Angels in America (1991), and Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994) all belong to a great artistic lineage within the American theatre that honors gay men and their sufferings from this horrific disease. As Is was produced at Unicorn Theatre in 1987, making it the first play dealing with the AIDS crisis produced in Kansas City. Unicorn Theatre also went on to produce Angels in America and Love! Valour! Compassion! in the 1990s. This theatrical lineage brings us all the way to Matthew López’s 2018 play The Inheritance.
Matthew López first saw the Merchant Ivory film adaptation of Howards End (1992) when he was a teenager and was instantly captivated by the story of the Schlegel sisters. He “fell madly in love with Forster” the day he saw the film, and López even says, “I was picking up on what I call the ‘vibrations’ and the vibrations were a closeted gay man in the early 20th century, at the time, speaking to a closeted gay boy at the end of the 20th century.” The men of The Inheritance turn to the novel Howards End to help them explore their lives as gay men in the early 21st century. The different generations of gay men come together to ask the question: what responsibility do they owe to each other? Mentors play an important role in gay culture, and older gay men will often take younger gay men under their wings to show them the art of being gay. Forster acts as a kind of gay and artistic mentor to López through his novel. Through The Inheritance, E.M. Forster and Matthew López fuse together to contemplate the triumphs and tragedies of gay life.
In the era of PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) and other advanced medical treatments, gay men are haunted by the AIDS crisis. AIDS robbed us of a generation of critical voices and gay culture has still not fully recovered from it. Many gay men are left wondering how different life would be had a generation of men not lost their lives to this plague, and until these hauntings are reckoned with our present will continually be visited by the ghosts of our past. The question at the heart of The Inheritance is how do we begin to deal with these hauntings? Eric Glass says in Part One: “We need our community, we need our history. How else can we teach the next generation who they are and how they got here? Human culture from time immemorial has been transmitted through stories.” The Inheritance asks us to reflect on art, storytelling, community, and history as a means of connecting ourselves with the past to heal our present and forge a vital future.