Wide Angle

Many Ghosts, No Soul

In The Inheritance, Matthew Lopez grapples with generations of gay trauma across many hours and more words. So why does the result feel so empty?

The Inheritance marquee on Broadway.
Bryan Lowder/Slate

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

Warning: This piece contains spoilers.

If all had gone according to plan, The Inheritance would have been the theatrical event of the season. Running seven hours across two parts, Matthew Lopez’s play claims a kind of epic, high-literary gravitas, transposing the class-spanning families of E.M. Forster’s Howards End into a multigenerational group of gay men living in 2016 New York. And the production—an import from London—had everything going for it: one of the most respected directors alive in Stephen Daldry; anointment as the best play of the year by the Olivier and Evening Standard Awards; and critically acclaimed, box office smash runs at the Young Vic and on the West End. In anticipation of the trans-Atlantic move, Lopez, heretofore a writer of respected but not particularly well-known works like The Whipping Man and Reverberation, became the subject of profiles in the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, and more.

Yet what seemed like a sure thing has proven divisive with critics and audiences alike. The New York Times, New York Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post all filed mixed to negative reviews, and the box office is hovering at around or below half its potential gross.

Usually when a piece from the U.K. fails to resonate in the U.S. (or vice versa), we can chalk it up to intangible cultural differences between our two countries and their famous separation by a common language. But this was an American play, with a mostly American cast, about New York City, the AIDS crisis, gay history, and what members of a community owe to each other. Why has it ended up struggling so much over here? The answer is partly political, although any play with this level of cultural saturation will (and should!) invite vigorous debate. More deadly, I think, are basic problems of playwriting craft: If The Inheritance is failing to connect, it is because its structure as a work of drama is unsound.

The Inheritance tells the story of Eric Glass, a middle-class New York Jewish intellectual in his early 30s. He lives with his partner, Toby, who has fled a traumatic past by tacking on a veneer of cultured urbanity. They are friends with a wealthy older gay couple, Henry Wilcox and Walter Poole, and they befriend a young gay actor named Adam. This pleasant configuration is eventually rocked by Eric finding out he will be evicted from his beautiful, rent-controlled apartment, Toby finding unexpected success as a playwright, and Walter’s sudden death from a hidden cancer. If you know Howards End, Eric is Margaret, Toby is Helen, Walter is Ruth Wilcox, Henry is Henry Wilcox, and Adam splits being Leonard Bast with another character, a sex worker and poet who looks exactly like him, named Leo. The class divides of the novel become generational divides in the play, as three generations of gay men try to navigate the world and each other.

Many millennial gay New Yorkers—the very people the play purports to speak both for and to—have been quite vocal in their political opposition to what the play is doing. I am neither young nor a gay man, but I am a man of the theater, and what I was most surprised by in seeing The Inheritance was how little actual drama there was to be found in its seven-hour traffic on the stage.

The fundamental issue with the play is conceptual. Howards End is hardly an epic novel, either in length or scope. Its power lies in the control of its prose, the detail of its characters, and the way all of its sublimated desires and conflicts burst forth in one climactic act of violence. Key to all of this is Forster’s third-person narration, which at times feels like a ballet dancer executing a perfect plié between gorgeous flights of lyricism and revealing, at times gently mocking, observation of its characters.

In the two cinematic adaptations of Howards End, the camera does the work of Forster’s prose, highlighting key details, cutting to close-up, lingering on an image to bring subtext to the fore. Theater, particularly narrative drama at the scale of Broadway, cannot do any of this, nor does theater create meaning through narration and careful observation. Instead, drama works through, as Aristotle put it, “imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude … in the form of action, not of narrative.”

While dramatic action turns out to be a tricky thing to pin down—Aristotle never defined it, and critics and scholars have been debating what it means ever since—there’s a very simple way to look at one kind of dramatic action that nearly every American acting student learns at some point. Take every single thing your character does (including every line they say), figure out what they are trying to do in each of these moments, and phrase that action as an infinitive verb. For example, when Hamlet, having staged a play that accuses his stepfather Claudius of murder, visits his mother Gertrude in her bedroom, she begins the scene by saying, “Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.” We can imagine there that she is trying to remind him of his duty to Claudius, her new husband, who is now the king. When he responds, “Mother, you have my father much offended,” he is trying to put her in her place as a woman whose husband, Hamlet’s biological father, has recently died. Their actions are mutually exclusive—they cannot both succeed—and thus we get the conflict that fuels the beginning of the scene. Continue working through a scene like this, tracking action beat by beat, and its overall shape, what the scene itself is doing, begins to emerge.

Instead of trying to theatricalize its story through finding playable action, The Inheritance tries to solve the problem of adapting a literary work through emphasizing its literariness. Its conceptual gambit is that the play we are seeing is actually an autobiographical novel written by one of the play’s characters many years in the future, being composed in real time in front of us. The events, characters, psychology, and world of the play are frequently related to the audience through third-person asides performed by the cast—if it’s anything, this play is the revenge of “telling” over “showing.”

Third-person narration onstage isn’t a new device—I seem to recall it having a little moment about a decade ago among MFA graduates from Yale and Brown—but it almost never works. Most of the time it instead robs the dramatic scenes themselves of the need to provide the action. Without action, there’s little tension, and the dialogue slackens and loses its internal stakes. The Inheritance exacerbates these problems because even during its ostensibly “normal,” dialogue-driven scenes, the primary action of the characters is frequently to narrate. Particularly during The Inheritance’s first half, characters spend a great deal of time narrating their opinions, or their histories, or their politics. But to narrate is hardly an action that is “serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude,” in the way that, say, to scold or to tempt would be. Indeed, most of the time, narrating has little to no dramatic stakes at all.

So at the end of the play’s first act, when Walter tells Eric of his time living through the height of the AIDS crisis, of how he took a beautiful house upstate and turned it into a place where his friends could die with dignity under his care, the monologue that results serves no dramatic function. It comes in the midst of a scene in which there is no conflict between Walter and Eric, and one in which neither of them really wants anything beyond getting to know each other better. Walter’s story is instead over 1,500 words of exposition. It’s beautifully phrased—Lopez knows his way around a graceful sentence—but it is pure exposition nonetheless.

This is followed up by an exchange where Eric says, “I can’t imagine what those years were like. I don’t even know how to … I can understand what it was. But I cannot possibly feel what it was,” and Walter asks Eric to list his friends, and then tells him that almost all of them would be dead. But given that Eric is a middle-class gay New Yorker who was born in 1982 and works in social justice, it strains credulity that he cannot imagine emotionally what the AIDS crisis was like, or that Walter’s replying with some variation of “dead” after the name of each of Eric’s friends would bridge a gap the play treats as so unfathomable. Like the monologue that precedes it, this exchange feels like it is not for Eric’s benefit, but for ours.

I think it is this feeling, that very little said within the play has dramatic integrity within its own world, that lies behind the grumbling I’ve heard from some corners that The Inheritance is written for straight people. I’m not sure I’d go that far—after all, I’m a straight person, and I certainly didn’t feel it was written for me—but its point of view on its own story and characters is anthropological. Because the play’s framing device turns it into a novel written in the future about our present, it approaches our world as a foreign country needing to be explained. This may be why the play was so popular in London, where we actually are a foreign country (and one that, particularly over the past few years, could use some explaining). In the context of New York, however, watching the play sometimes feels like reading a Lonely Planet guide’s chapter on your own neighborhood.

Lurking in Eric’s statement to Walter about the AIDS crisis is the play’s true agenda: to make us “feel what it was” to be a young gay man, both during the height of the plague years and in 2016, when much of an entire generation of your elders has been wiped out by the horrible combination of fatal illness and sociopolitical hostility, and the survivors suffer from a kind of distancing PTSD. On this front, the play is clearly successful. To see The Inheritance is to be surrounded by weeping audience members, deeply moved at the play’s huge (if increasingly melodramatic) emotional gambits. Even if you dislike The Inheritance as much as I did, you’ll probably join them at least once.

Due to its subject matter and length, the play is often compared to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (it also has its own version of Belize’s “I hate America” scene in its second part), but its thematic concerns are actually quite different. The Inheritance is about history, its traumas and triumphs, and about the challenge of forging links to gay history in the aftermath of the AIDS crisis. This is less Kushner’s thematic territory than that of August Wilson, whose Pittsburgh Cycle dramatized the Great Migration and its effects on his childhood neighborhood of Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Wilson was also prone to letting his characters narrate themselves. But for Wilson’s characters, narration was an attempt to create the self through performance. His characters want to reconcile all the impossibilities of their identity and their history, a process that does not always leave them materially better off, but at least rewards them with self-knowledge. Particularly in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and The Piano Lesson, his characters wrestle throughout with how to relate to history; in many ways, that wrestling is their plays’ action.

Although disagreements on everything from Trump’s election to the BAM Next Wave Festival are aired in The Inheritance, the play isn’t really wrestling with much. Eric’s point of view on gay history—that it must be preserved and its elders honored—is clearly correct, and, after announcing this point of view in the second act of the first part, he never wavers. This may be because, for a protagonist, he lacks dramatic problems that require him to change or figure much of anything out. Instead, his challenges are external and material: He doesn’t make enough money; he’s losing his magical apartment; Toby leaves him. The play tries to give him a real dramatic problem, but the best it can come up with is that he does not know that he is “special,” “remarkable,” and “vivid.” Or, as the ghost of E.M. Forster informs us at the beginning of the play, Eric is “not only … the bravest person he knew, he also possessed the ability to change the world to an extent far greater than he could possibly imagine.”

This foreshadowing establishes a kind of contract with the audience. Yes, it says, this is a long play, and we’re going to digress all over the place, but the story you are watching is of this young man coming into his own, and when he does, incredible things will happen. We do get to see Eric figure out his worth, but it’s hard to see the epochal shifts this self-knowledge was supposed to bring.  Instead, he’s given a house by his rich ex-husband, he becomes the executor of the literary estate of his dead ex-fiancé, and he nurses one friend back to health. He then gets married, has kids, and dies at peace at the age of 97. We’re told—but never shown—that along the way he becomes “a mentor and eventually a wise old man to so many who encountered him.” This is hardly world-changing stuff. It is, instead, the middle-class dream of comfort, security, and property ownership. It’s a dream in which the broken world requires very little of us. Like the characters in the play, we don’t really need to do anything, so long as we can talk and feel.