April 1, 2020

‘Bent’ but not broken

After Martin Sherman granted The New York Times an interview about his 1979 play, “Bent,” a groundbreaking drama that for the first time spotlighted the Nazi persecution of gays onstage, the Times reporter phoned Sherman three separate times to confirm whether the author truly wanted to admit, in print, that he was gay.

“Nobody was ‘out’ in those days,” the soft-spoken Sherman, 76, said in a telephone interview from his London home. “But I told the journalist I couldn’t have written this play and then have him write about my [straight] bachelor digs. That level of hypocrisy would’ve been against everything that the play is about, and everything that I was about.  There was no way I could not talk about being gay.”

“Bent” went on to be nominated for a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize, and helped to make a star of Richard Gere on Broadway. It has been staged in dozens of productions throughout the world and was adapted into a 1997 film starring Mick Jagger, as well as a ballet in Brazil. Along the way, it not only raised awareness of the Nazis’ gay purge but also paved the way for subsequent gay-themed plays, such as “La Cage aux Folles,” “The Normal Heart” and Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.” Now, “Bent” will open in its first production at the Mark Taper Forum on July 26 (previews begin July 15), directed by Moises Kaufman (“The Laramie Project”), in what is also the drama’s first prominent staging in Los Angeles in more than a quarter-century.  

“It is a great play, and I have not seen or heard of a major production in recent years,” Michael Ritchie, artistic director of the Center Theatre Group, said of why he strove to bring “Bent” to the Taper.

Playwright Martin Sherman

The play tells the story of Max, a hedonistic young gay man who, along with his lover, Rudy, must flee their German apartment after the Nazis come calling in 1934. Eventually, the couple is arrested and sent to Dachau, where detention camp guards force Max to beat Rudy to death and then to have sex with a newly dead 13-year-old girl to prove that he is straight. Max complies because he has heard that gays receive the worst treatment in the camp, and he believes he has a better chance of surviving if he is incarcerated as a heterosexual Jew.  And so, instead of the pink triangle delegated to gay inmates, he is allowed to wear the yellow Jewish star.

But, while moving rocks from one side of a yard to the other all day long — a task meant to drive prisoners mad — Max falls in love with a gay inmate, Horst, and their burgeoning relationship not only leads Max to eventually embrace his sexual identity, but also helps both men to survive, for a time, amid the horrific conditions at Dachau.

Sherman (“Mrs. Henderson Presents,” “Messiah”) grew up in Camden, N.J., in a kosher home two doors down from his Yiddish-speaking Russian immigrant grandparents. He knew that they had survived pogroms in their native Ukrainian shtetl, but it was only as an adult that Sherman learned the fate of his extended family during the Holocaust. One memorable night decades ago, the playwright chanced to meet an elderly actor from the Moscow Jewish Theatre who coincidentally hailed from the same shtetl as Sherman’s father. The octogenarian described how the Nazis had forced the town’s Jews into a building and then burned them alive before razing the village. That revelation, along with Sherman’s memories of his grandparents, spurred him to write his 1999 one-woman show, “Rose,” which in its Broadway incarnation starred Olympia Dukakis as an octogenarian who recounts surviving Ukrainian pogroms and the Holocaust, as well as her subsequent life in the United States.

Sherman’s gay and Jewish identities often have prompted him to write about outsiders, or characters who are marginalized by society; while the Judaism in his childhood was “ever present,” he said, he knew and kept secret his sexuality during his childhood. It’s not that his Jewish community was homophobic per se: “The attitude was that gays and lesbians didn’t exist,” he explained.  “It was an invisible topic.”

And yet his coming-out experience with his parents, in the mid-1970s, wasn’t particularly fraught: Sherman simply showed them a glowing article about “Bent” in the London Times that also described him as gay. Sherman’s father proudly showed off a Xerox of the clipping to friends, even though he had cut out the section of the story that mentioned his son’s sexuality. “It was obviously still problematic for him, which makes it all the finer that he dealt with me in a generous way,” the playwright said.

It was also in the mid-1970s that Sherman found a professional home at the groundbreaking Gay Sweatshop in London. “The company was a group of talented young actors and directors who felt that the images of gays and lesbians in the theater at the time were destructive and negative — either screaming queens or people who were miserable and suicidal about their sexuality,” he said. “They formed the Sweatshop in order to change that. Which didn’t mean the work had to necessarily present only positive images, but to encourage gay writers to tell the truth as they saw it.”

In 1975, Gay Sweatshop staged Sherman’s play “Passing By,” about a couple dealing with hepatitis; a year later, Sherman got his inspiration for “Bent” while attending a Sweatshop performance of the play “As Time Goes By.” In one segment, the production “had just a line or two about the pink triangle and the Nazi persecution of gays. I hadn’t previously known about that,” he said.  “And it was like one of those awful cartoons when a light bulb goes [on] over your head. I knew instantly that this was something I needed to write about, because it crystallized a lot of things I had been thinking about in the previous few years.”

Sherman had been appalled, for example, at seeing “a group of guys walking around one summer night in the village, probably on their way to a party, wearing Nazi storm-trooper gear. And I thought, ‘Oh, God, don’t they have any idea of what this means? Don’t they know their history?’

“I also had been aware, particularly in New York in the 1970s, of an illusion of freedom. Those were the days in which there was great sexual freedom, but in reality, the laws didn’t permit homosexuality,” he said.  “And every year, the City Council struck down a law that would have given some kind of parity to gays and lesbians.  Yet people were behaving in the Village as though they were free.”

Sherman saw parallels in this sexually free but apolitical behavior to that of gay men in the Weimar Republic, who remained oblivious to a dormant law on the books outlawing homosexuality until the Nazis reactivated it upon coming into power. When Dachau opened in 1933, gay men were among its first prisoners, Sherman said.

But as he set out to write his new play, obstacles abounded. “Research proved to be very difficult, because almost nothing had been written about the subject,” he said. Sherman discovered one lone article on gays and the Nazis in a gay magazine, then traveled to a library devoted to Nazi history in Vienna, where a librarian brought him books in which he could read just a paragraph here or there on the topic.

But as Sherman began writing his play, he found that the work of Jewish psychologist and Dachau survivor Bruno Bettelheim proved most helpful in understanding the behavior of camp inmates and their guards. 

“The Nazis understood so much about the human psyche and how to break it,” Sherman said. “Because there were relatively few guards at Dachau, for instance, they knew that they could maintain order, partly, if they could break the prisoners on the train while traveling to the camp, which became a crucial part of my play.

“And Bettelheim also talked about how the camp tended to strip inmates of any sense of sexuality, and, as such, people lost their personalities. But if any degree of sexuality was awakened, you had a chance to survive as a person.”

Thus the fictional Max and Horst defy the odds when they fall in love at Dachau, and they commit the ultimate act of defiance when, in one explicit scene, they verbally arouse one another to orgasm. Although some reviewers have denounced the sequence as pornographic, Sherman insists, “Since these two characters who are falling in love obviously can’t have sex together in the camp, it seemed like a perfectly natural way for them to express their feelings.”

Sherman has also taken issue with the assertion by some critics that “Bent” suggests gays received more severe treatment than Jews during the Holocaust. “The play never, ever says that the Nazis treated gay men worse than anybody else,” he insisted. Rather, this is Max’s perception and why the character seeks to hide his sexuality by insisting he is straight and Jewish.

Sherman’s newest play, “Gently Down the Stream,” in part deals with how matters have improved for gays and lesbians — or not — since “Bent” premiered in 1979. “So many things have changed for the positive, but clearly there are still fights to be had,” he said. “One good thing is that the Gay Sweatshop no longer exists, because there’s no more need for it. And, of course, gay marriage and the generally easy acceptance of homosexuality by young people is a huge event. But I’m very aware that most of these advances are due more than anything to the devastation of AIDS, because that forced families all over the world to acknowledge and realize that they might have a son or a brother or a father or a nephew who is gay.

“AIDS made gay people angry — angry enough to fight, and so these advances are built on the death of a generation. And that, for me, is very bittersweet.”

“Bent” will run from July 26 through Aug. 23 at the Taper. For tickets and more information, visit centertheatregroup.org.