Harvey Fierstein starring a Martin Sherman play? The historic pairing of the authors of Torch Song Trilogy and Bent in Sherman’s new play Gently Down the Stream (at New York’s Public Theater though May 14) would seem to sit somewhere between unlikely bedfellows and match made in gay heaven, between “wha?” and “of course!”
That’s just in theory, of course. In practice, holding centerstage for nearly the entirety of Sherman’s intergenerational gay romance/cultural history, Fierstein—opposite the versatile and soulful Gabriel Ebert—brings his unique brand of raspy, rumpled gravitas to a role that might have been tailored not only to his talents but to his history as a gay icon.
Indeed, whether it was in fact made to order is the first question I asked when I met recently with Sherman, an American playwright who’s been based in London for most of his career, and British director Sean Mathias, the English director who memorably helmed a 1990 revival of Bent and its 1997 film version.
It’s a lovely play—bittersweet, I’d call it. My big question is, was it conceived with Harvey in mind? Because it seems to me that it’s in dialogue with his work and his life, and other figures his character cites: Larry Kramer, Judy Peabody, and so on.
Martin Sherman: No, absolutely not. I don’t do that. I don’t write with actors in mind. It was Sean’s idea—the irony being that Harvey and I have known each other for decades, and Sean met Harvey but didn’t really know him. But it was totally Sean’s idea.
So tell me about that, Sean.
Sean Mathias: It was just an idea, and Harvey loved the play and said yes. I guess for all the reasons you say that make it seem obvious after the event—I guess that’s why I thought of him. Writing a play about such a political and spiritual gay landscape, and having a figure who’s lived in a particularly gay landscape and written about it himself, it seemed to me it made sense. It fit.
Let me step back a second. Is Harvey’s character, Beau, an American cocktail pianist living in London, based on anyone in particular? I ask because there are so many historical figures cited.
Sherman: Yeah, there are a lot of real characters mentioned, but the fictional characters are fictional. Any character you write is usually based on bits and pieces of people you know. But he’s not based on anyone.
It’s funny, my predecessor at American Theatre, Jim O’Quinn—I don’t know if you ever met him—is, like Beau, a gay man from New Orleans who is a pianist, and roughly of the same generation. But he never played for Mabel Mercer.
Sherman: He should come and see this!
Mathias: There’s another factor. When they asked me to direct it, I said I really wanted to start it in New York, and I was much more keen to do it with an American actor creating Beau, because I felt like British actors, as wonderful as they would be in this, it would be in some sense an impersonation. I wanted that language that Martin has written, those cadences and rhythms, which are so delicious and specific—I just thought it would be great for an American to do this. So that was behind it.
Sherman: And the moment Sean said “Harvey,” it just clicked. It just made complete sense.
Another great fit for Harvey is that the play alternates between scenes and monologues, in which Beau ties his personal romantic biography to the arc of gay history. Can you tell me about your decision to have him just sit and talk?
Sherman: Well, those are never decisions. There’s the logic of the play, and you follow that. You’re inspired, actually—and what’s called inspiration is a combination of some strange sort of creative juice and practicality. The play has its own requirements. If you’re ready to write the play—and very often you’re not, and then you’re gonna write junk—but if you’re ready to write the play, it kind of tells you where it wants to go and how it has to be. And so suddenly you realize it’s monologue. In that sense it’s organic.
The play has a lot to say about what’s gained and what’s been lost with the advance of gay rights. Do you feel this push-pull—that a certain kind of gay culture is in endangered, even as there’s a blossoming of open gay flourishing that you may not have dared to imagine when you were younger?
Sherman: Well, that’s very complicated. First of all, the important thing is that things are so much better than they were. That’s the overriding consideration.
Mathias: We’re legal. If we’ve lost some things culturally, we’ve gained the law on our side. To be equal is extraordinary.
Sherman: And I’m not sure that much has been lost culturally. People might not be cruising down on the docks, but they’re cruising the Internet. So you just substitute the word “surfing” for “cruising.” And there still are within gay life elements of an outlaw culture that is not a positive thing, like massive drug use.
Crystal meth, right.
Sherman: So it’s complicated. But I think the overall thing is that I don’t think that any oppressed minority has ever had such a huge sea change in such a short time—in the West. That last bit always has to be underlined, because there are large parts of the world where being gay makes your life a total and complete nightmare, if you have a life. It’s criminal. You can be killed for it. So one always has to emphasize that one is talking about a narrow portion of the world, and this play is about a narrow portion of the world. But it’s the portion that I know and have grown up in.
“We will be citizens,” as Angels in America puts it. That’s something you can claim now that you couldn’t quite before. That makes a difference.
Sherman: Yeah. And I hear parents talking about their children, how their kids are just totally accepting of the existence of gays in culture and gay marriage.
Mathias: In the more liberal parts of our countries. But there is still a lot of homophobia in our countries. While there’s been a shift, not enough has changed.
Sherman: Yes, there’s still homophobia, but I think some of this open attitude has seeped down even to areas of the country that are not blatantly liberal.
One thing I’ve heard some people talk about is the fear that what’s endangered, with the mainstreaming of gay culture, is a certain gay sensibility. Not to be too essentialist about it, but is there a gay sensibility—a way of looking at the world—that is radically changing, or being left behind?
Mathias: I wish I knew what a gay sensibility is, if I could even represent it.
Sherman: I think years ago a gay sensibility was predicated on being an outsider. I don’t know how much that’s changed, or will change.
As with any culture that’s formed in response to oppression, liberation doesn’t necessarily erase it. Like Mabel Mercer—what she meant to a certain generation of gay men may not be the same, but that takes nothing away from her greatness.
Sherman: Absolutely. And the one character, Rufus, the younger man, is obsessed with that.
Going back to Harvey: Once you had him on board, did you change anything with him in mind? He surely knows firsthand many of touchstones you have him talking about. Did he have lots of thoughts about it?
Sherman: Well, of course he had lots of thoughts about it.
Mathias: Are you insane?
Sherman: But he had, you know, an actor’s thoughts.
Mathias: Martin made changes, but it’s a new play.
Sherman: They were the kind of changes you make with any play.
I always wonder—like, when I see Joe Mantello in a production by Sam Gold, I wonder, Is he secretly directing? But Harvey’s not secretly writing?
Well, it’s a tribute to both of you that if feels like it was written for him.
Sherman: You must realize, though it’s great that you say that, he’s never played a role like this. The man is a Southern gentleman. It’s new territory in many ways for Harvey.
Mathias: The character goes to Paris, he lives in London. Harvey doesn’t leave New York.
The bit where you describe the New Orleans accent as being a bit Southern with a trace of Brooklyn—I’ve never noticed that, do you think it’s true?
Sherman: It’s true! The first time I was ever in New Orleans, I couldn’t believe the way people were talking. It was so weird. It has a strange New York accent to it. Where does that come from? I did some research and I still don’t know the genesis of it, but it is a Southern accent that has what sounds like a little Brooklyn in it. It’s not like any other accent in the South.
Martin, I remember you telling me that As Time Goes By was the play that inspired Bent with a mention of pink triangles, and that it depicted different ages in gay history, including the Holocaust and Stonewall. I wrote in a piece about Bent that if they were going to add a chapter to that play now, it would be about how we’ve achieved marriage equality, but there’s still more ground to cover. Basically you’ve written that play.
Sherman: As Time Goes By was written with Gay Sweatshop, which was founded because they wanted to address an imbalance at the time, which was that whenever there were gay characters in plays, in England, but here too—there rarely were gay characters, but if there were, they were unpleasant; they were suicidal. Gay Sweatshop wanted to change that, and they wanted to get it to a point where gay writers could write totally out of their own sensibility—it didn’t even have to be about gay characters—the way straight writers could do. Gay Sweatshop dissolved because their aims were achieved. Now gay writing is just a part of theatre.
Right, they were a victim of their own success. This is a question about culturally specific theatres in the U.S. too. There’s an argument that yes, we still do need to nurture new writers of a certain sensibility and not lose track of that mission—whether or not it’s to redress a massive imbalance anymore. This is a question the Celebration Theatre in Los Angeles, which is one I know pretty well, has wrestled with.
Sherman: Did they just do The Boy from Oz?
I think so.
Mathias: They owe you money?
Sherman: No, I got it.
The question is, as gay stories have become mainstreamed, do you need your own theatre to develop them?
Mathias: Well, this is a gay play, isn’t it? I’m directing my first gay play in years; I don’t know if I’ve directed a gay play since Bent. There were some gay characters along the way.
Sherman: You directed Cocteau [Les parents terribles].
Mathias: Well, Cocteau was gay, but none of the characters were. Rachel Weisz always used to quote me, that when I first started having success I used to say, “I don’t want to hang in a gay art gallery. My work is my work.” As a young man I would say that. I just remembered it now. Now I wouldn’t mind hanging in any gallery, I guess.