Matthew Lopez still remembers it as “without question one of the most influential and impactful days of my life.” It was a Sunday afternoon in 1992, when Lopez, then 15, went with his mother after church to see the 1992 film adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End, set in turn-of-the-century Edwardian England, at the local cinema in Panama City, Fla.
“I was about as innocent and ignorant an audience member as you could be, and I just fell deeply into it,” recalls Lopez, author of the plays The Whipping Man, The Legend of Georgia McBride, Somewhere, and Reverberation. “I cared so much about the characters, and my imagination was really sparked by it. It is so specifically about the time and the place that it is written, but Forster has this tremendous ability to really dissect his society in a way that dissects humanity. I could feel its contemporariness, its immediacy, even at the remove of a hundred years in time.”
The film, as did Forster’s book, chronicles the stories of three early 20th-century families—the wealthy Wilcoxes, the bourgeois Schlegels, and lower-middle-class Leonard Bast and his wife—as they clash and connect with one another over several years, against the backdrop of England’s rigid class system. At the beating heart of the tale is Ruth Wilcox’s beloved, idyllic country home, Howards End, which represents sanctuary and a longing for a faded past.
Lopez’s mother subsequently bought him the novel, and it became a “cornerstone” work for him. In his late 20s, then living in New York City, Lopez wanted to reread it but found that his copy had gone missing. He went to the Strand to buy a new one, then stretched out on the grassy expanse of Sheep Meadow in Central Park. He happened to read the short biographical sketch of Forster at the back and discovered, to his surprise, that the author had been gay. Though he’d seen the movie adaptation of Forster’s posthumously published novel Maurice, a story of forbidden gay love in early 20th-century England, Lopez had never connected the dots about the author’s sexuality.
He suddenly realized that, as a 15-year-old, he must have been “picking up on the vibrations, somehow, of a gay man in 1910 sort of telling a story to a young gay boy in 1992. Forster at that time was not at all ready to acknowledge or even act on his homosexuality, and myself at age 15 was pretty much in the same place. So it helped me understand my kinship with Forster and my affinity for him in a way that I could explain to myself.”
Then a lightbulb flipped on. “I said to myself: Oh, you should take Howards End and retell it in a contemporary setting using gay characters from different generations rather than families from different social classes. This idea just popped into my head, the broadest contours of it fully formed.”
It took years to bake, but that nascent idea eventually grew into something more epic and sprawling than Lopez ever imagined. The resulting drama, The Inheritance, inspired by Forster’s Howards End, is a two-part, seven-hour magnum opus, directed by Stephen Daldry, that has come to Broadway with a head of steam after its acclaimed world premire last year at London’s Young Vic and West End transfer, for which it nabbed the 2019 Olivier Award for Best New Play.
The buzzy drama centers on an intergenerational group of gay men in contemporary New York City. The younger ones, in their 20s and early 30s, have grown up in a world of increasing acceptance and tolerance, in which they can live openly, get married, and parent children. But the ghosts of the AIDS crisis, the virulent homophobia of that and previous eras, and the toll these exacted on the earlier gay generations looms large. The play ruminates on themes of the individual versus community, the debt younger gay men owe to their predecessors, and the knowledge and insight the older generation must share with those that come after them. Forster himself, identified by his middle name, Morgan, appears in the play as a kind of ghostly guide and advice-giver to the young men, helping them tell their story.
“You have to know where you’ve come from to know where to go next,” says actor Andrew Burnap, who plays Toby, of the play’s central theme. “What do you owe those who fought to give you power? How do you continue the legacy of those who fought to get it for you? And now that you have it, what do you do with it? How do you honor those who fought the battle to give it to you?”
Growing up in the conservative backwaters of the Florida Panhandle was not always easy for Lopez, a closeted gay Puerto Rican kid who was bullied in school, as the shadow of AIDS hovered like a specter. At 42, Lopez is among a generation of gay men who were alive to witness the plague as children and teenagers, but did not lose a generation of peers, lovers, and friends to the disease, or have to care for the sick and dying and stand by them or face illness and death themselves. “Part of my attempt in writing this play is to understand what living through that must have been like for the generation before me,” Lopez says.
Not that it didn’t exact a toll on the young too. Watching the epidemic decimate the gay men who went before him meant that Lopez “couldn’t help but equate being gay with dying of AIDS, pure and simple. I think there was, for me, great trauma to understanding I was gay that was inexorably entwined with HIV and AIDS, and what I had witnessed as a child and fearing that was going to be my fate as well. It informed every sexual encounter I had at that time in my life. So it took a long time to undo that damage and that perception and unlearn that.”
Ever since he can remember, even before he started to realize he was gay, Lopez dreamt of being an actor. His paternal aunt, Priscilla Lopez, is a noted veteran actress who originated the role of Diana Morales in A Chorus Line and has appeared in Broadway productions of Company, Pippin, Anna in the Tropics, and In the Heights. When he was a kid, on a trip back to their native New York, his parents took him to see his first Broadway shows: Sandy Duncan in Peter Pan, and his Aunt Priscilla in her Tony-winning turn in the Tommy Tune-directed A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine. He idolized her, so “that was the one-two punch that I needed, and it really set the course of my life,” Lopez says.
He studied theatre performance at the University of South Florida, and soon after moved to New York. But he struggled to gain traction as an actor and became despondent. Meanwhile, writing had become a creative outlet starting in college.
“I really didn’t think about it as a career—until I realized the career I had chosen, acting, was not bringing me any fulfillment or satisfaction, was not making me happy, and was actually doing the opposite,” Lopez says. “And here was this other thing that I was doing in private, and it was bringing me fulfillment.”
On a whim, Lopez, then in his late 20s, sent out a letter to dozens of producers, directors, and others in the New York theatre industry, soliciting advice and guidance and asking if there were any non-acting jobs that might be available. He got one genuine reply—from legendary producer-director-writer Hal Prince—agreeing to meet with him. “I had no résumé to back myself up, other than just the chutzpah of writing Hal Prince a letter, but clearly Hal Prince was the type of person who responded to chutzpah.”
Lopez told Prince that he might want to be a writer but didn’t know how to start. Prince advised him to start by writing. When Lopez asked if he should apply for grad schools for playwriting, Prince suggested it was a waste of money and time. His advice? “Write bad things and make those bad things better, and make those better things good, and make those good things great,” Lopez recalls.
He also gave Lopez contact info for several noteworthy playwrights. One of them, Terrence McNally, agreed to read some of his work. Lopez gave him an early version of what eventually became The Whipping Man, and the elder playwright “left me a nearly five-minute-long voicemail one day, deconstructing, dissecting, criticizing, praising, questioning this play that he had read,” Lopez recalls. “At the end, he said, ‘If you’re wondering whether or not you’re a writer, I’ll tell you: You are a writer, and you need to keep writing.’ That was the encouragement I needed. I just needed someone I respected to see me and say, ‘Yes, keep going.’ And I did!
“It’s hard to say, but if Hal Prince hadn’t responded to my letter, if Terrence hadn’t been so encouraging, I might not have had the courage to continue, knowing who I was at that time, which was a very timid and fearful person.”
The characters Eric Glass and Toby Darling, the central couple in The Inheritance, both in their early 30s, live in Eric’s sprawling rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, with views of Central Park. Eric’s grandparents lived in the apartment for decades, but with his grandmother now deceased, the family may lose their cherished abode. Cracks in the foundation of Eric and Toby’s relationship also appear: Eric is a nurturer who works for a nonprofit but doesn’t think of himself as anything special, and Toby is a writer who’s adapting his autobiographical debut novel into a Broadway play, but is battling demons from his traumatic upbringing.
“I always say that with Toby and Eric, I’ve taken the two sides of myself and split them into two characters and let them do a battle royale with each other for seven hours,” Lopez says. “I sort of set them up as opposing poles and have tracked my progress from one to the other. Toby is who I used to be. Toby is very charming and gregarious and a lot of fun to be around. But Toby can be devastatingly self-destructive. Eric is the spiritual side of myself and more closely resembles the life I am moving towards as a human being, as a grown-up, as an artist.”
Other key characters in the play are inspired by those in Howards End, and there are echoes, allusions, and parallels to the novel. While Lopez says that writing The Inheritance was a form of adaptation, the play is very much its own thing. “Howards End becomes the jumping-off point for the play,” he says. “We never go away from the spirit of the novel, but the play has taken on a life of its own. In some ways the play is an answer to Howards End.”
Lopez was commissioned to write The Inheritance by former Hartford Stage Company artistic director Darko Tresnjak and his associate Elizabeth Williamson, who has served as the play’s dramaturg throughout its development and productions (though the show didn’t end up being produced in Hartford). After diving into writing, Lopez soon realized that the scope and breadth of the piece was bigger and more complex than he first anticipated. “All these walls started to fall and I could see much more expansively about it,” Lopez says, “and it immediately reoriented my thinking.”
Williamson, whose theatre mounted a private one-day forum in Hartford with gay men from different generations early in the play’s development, raves about Lopez’s chameleonic qualities as a writer, as well as his fearlessness. “I think we have a deep hunger and need for adventurous, ambitious, genre-challenging work like Matthew is doing right now,” she says. “In Part 2, he writes that Eric sat down and asked himself the big questions: ‘What am I here for? What am I doing in the world?’ And I think Matthew is always thinking about those kind of questions in his work.”
The Inheritance was complete by 2016. Then Donald Trump was elected. In the ensuing weeks, Lopez, with Daldry’s support, realized he’d need to go back and “re-engineer” the play to address the new reality. The characters had to live in the world the audience was living in. “It made a lot of things more urgent and dangerous for these characters,” says Lopez of the rewrite. “If so much of the play is about betrayal, if so much of the play is about the need for community, if so much of the play is about the battle between individualism and collective organizing, then the election of Trump really put a real life-or-death fire underneath those ideas. I think it just sharpened the play and made it better.”
The deeper Lopez has gone into The Inheritance, the closer he’s been drawn to Forster, who died in 1970 at the age of 91. Last spring, Lopez was given access to Forster’s original manuscript for Howards End and the author’s “locked diary” at the library at King’s College, Cambridge in England. “The century that divides his entries in 1919 and myself reading it in the library vanishes,” Lopez marvels. “It’s very alive and very contemporary. He is there in his writing so thoroughly. I think that who he is as a person does really reflect itself in his novels. And I feel real kinship with him. Having written this play and lived with Howards End more intimately than I ever imagined, I feel like I’ve become as close as one can to getting inside someone’s head and walking through the world as them.”
Christopher Wallenberg, arts and culture correspondent for The Boston Globe, has also contributed to The New York Times and The Hollywood Reporter, among other publications.
The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez was directed at the Young Vic and on the West End by Stephen Daldry, with design by Bob Crowley, light by Jon Clark, sound by Paul Arditti & Chris Reid, music by Paul Englishby, U.K. casting by Julia Horan CDG, U.S. casting by Jordan Thaler CSA & Heidi Griffiths CSA, associate direction by Justin Martin, dramaturgy by Elizabeth Williamson, dialect by William Conacher, fight by Terry King, and assistant direction by Sadie Spencer.