A new interview with gay Jewish playwright Martin Sherman, whose latest work, “Gently Down the Stream,” is currently in previews at the Public Theater in Downtown Manhattan. It’s about the “unspoken” gay heritage.
It’s hard to pin Martin Sherman down. His work as a playwright ranges across a wide variety of styles and subject matter, and getting him to talk about this work isn’t exactly easy. As I learned from several conversations with him over the past two decades, Sherman can be friendly without being revealing. Now a sprightly septuagenarian, he hasn’t exactly changed his tune.
Sherman’s best-known work, of course, is Bent, arguably one of the most influential gay-themed plays in theatrical history. That 1979 triumph is in large part responsible for raising awareness of the persecution of gay men in Nazi-occupied Germany, and the adoption of the pink triangle as a symbol of gay activism may be traced to Bent’s cultural impact. The American-born writer made London his home nearly four decades ago, shortly after the 1980 Broadway debut of Bent. Today, as Sherman himself ruefully acknowledges, his subsequent plays are better known in London than in New York.
Among those plays that still managed to cross the pond and find success in America: When She Danced, a comedy about Isadora Duncan; A Madhouse in Goa, an apocalyptic satire about art and commerce; and Rose, a one-woman show (starring Olympia Dukakis) that chronicles the life of a European Jewish émigré. In addition, Sherman also wrote the book for the Broadway version of The Boy from Oz, the musical which starred Hugh Jackman as the Australian composer and entertainer Peter Allen.
Sherman was recently back in the United States for the world premiere of his latest work, Gently Down the Stream, which is currently in previews at the Public Theater in Downtown Manhattan. When we sat down to chat, I set out to draw him out enough to learn something about the current play, which is publicized as a funny and moving love story about Beau (played by Harvey Fierstein), an expat pianist living in London who meets an eccentric young lawyer, Rufus (Gabriel Ebert), at the dawn of the Internet dating revolution.
“I wanted to look at gay life over the last hundred years. It’s something that I’ve been trying to write for decades and I just didn’t know how. Finally, one day, the way to do it popped into my head,” Sherman says.
So it’s an exploration of gay history?
Our history is rarely talked about. It’s an unspoken heritage. I think it’s terribly important that you know where you come from, and what’s preceded where you are now. I wanted to do what I was doing with Rose, which is looking at the last hundred years of the life of a people. With Rose it was Judaism, with this play it’s gay life, but as with Rose, I don’t think that the events were unknown or that surprising. But I don’t think I was aware when I was writing it that a lot of what I was writing about was so unknown to so many people, to a younger generation. With Bent, I was very aware that [the subject] was unknown. Nobody ever talked or wrote about it, and that’s not true in this case. Everything that I talk about in this play has been written about, and written very well. I only discovered subsequently that younger generations are hugely unaware of much of what the play discusses. I’ve had so many younger people who’ve been to readings, or been in the readings, who’ve come up to me and said they never knew any of this. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me. Why would they?