The vexing uses of the metaphorical Jew in Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance.

Alisa Solomon
March 3, 2020
the inheritance
Kyle Soller (center) plays Eric Glass in The Inheritance. Photo: Marc Brenner

MIDWAY THROUGH Part I of The Inheritance, the young gay men at the center of Matthew Lopez’s churning melodrama gather at a friend’s 34th birthday party. It is the eve of Donald Trump’s election, one of the many cataclysms that will afflict these characters over the course of their seven hours on stage (others include an eviction, a drug binge, a crashed wedding ceremony, sero-conversion, meth addiction, and a fatal car crash). On this occasion, as the group begins to imagine the “unthinkable” political event before them, it falls to buff but sensitive birthday boy Eric Glass to deliver a cajoling speech. “We need our community, we need our history,” Eric intones. “How else can we teach the next generation who they are and how they got here? Human culture from time immemorial has been transmitted through stories.” Eric reaches for an example near at hand as a model for the transmission of queer legacies: “My grandmother, from as early as I can remember, taught me about the Shoah and her experiences as a refugee. And perhaps as a result of these intergenerational conversations, passed along in some cases for millennia, history is conveyed and cultures survived.”

The Inheritance has been widely celebrated as the first major play to deal with the historical memory of AIDS as it has come down to the generation of gay men now in their thirties. Lopez develops this theme by drawing on E.M. Forster, who is the inspiration for, as well as a character in, his overstuffed saga. Here, the class-divided Edwardians of Howard’s End are transposed into the generationally segregated gay men of contemporary New York; the show addresses the relationship between the cohort of those who lived through the plague years and those for whom marriage, Grindr, and Truvada are as ordinary as brunch. In London, where The Inheritance premiered in 2018, it won four Olivier Awards (the British Tonys), including Best New Play. In New York, where it opened on Broadway in November, reviewers found faults, but still declared it a “masterpiece” (Variety) and a “blockbuster” (The New York Times), praising its zippy pacing, sexual frankness, witty dialogue, and epic themes; Lopez has been the subject of giddy features in The New Yorker and elsewhere. Expect a slew of Tony nominations for the show, which closes this month. 

Alongside these accolades, the play’s treatment of race has come in for some deserved denunciation. The five central characters in The Inheritance, including Eric, are white, while the cast’s men of color literally occupy its margins, serving as part of a chorus of Young Men who hover throughout the show on the perimeter of the raised playing space and occasionally climb up to join the action for crowd scenes. The play includes wan woke gestures that produce an image of multiculturalism—a line here about the murder of trans women of color, a complaint there about kids thinking that “yass kween!” originated with Broad City rather than with ball culture—but this declamatory box-checking is irrelevant to the show’s many plotlines. As the critic Jose Solís aptly tweeted, “The Inheritance is the Mayor Pete of Broadway.” This line of criticism seems to have so irked Lopez that—in a highly unusual opportunity accorded by the paper—he published a defense in the Times. Arguing that he never intended to write “a generationally defining work of theater that spoke for the entire queer experience,” Lopez missed the point. It’s not that he shouldn’t write about whomever he wants, but that he uncritically centered whiteness in The Inheritance while making sometimes stereotypical men of color mere devices—or worse, set decoration. 

We might do well to ask a related question: Why does Lopez make Eric Jewish? His choice to do so is underscored not only by the unremarked whiteness of the other central characters, but also by the recurring Jewish references in his own oeuvre. The 43-year-old American playwright was best known until now for Whipping Man, a labored drama that played Off-Broadway in 2011. Set in Richmond, Virginia at the end of the Civil War, and based in historical fact, it features a returning Confederate soldier and two newly freed slaves—all of them Jewish. Whipping Man’s central action involves the three men celebrating a Passover seder in which the story of the Exodus from Egypt is mapped onto the demise of American slavery. Why does Lopez, a self-described “foxhole Episcopalian” of Polish-Russian and Puerto Rican parentage, seem to love the metaphorical power of Jews?

SINCE THE SECOND WORLD WAR, Jewish characters in Western drama have flickered with figurative meaning. In 1949, the critic Leslie Fiedler predicted that the Jew may “come to seem the central symbol, the essential myth of the whole Western world.” As theater historian Ellen Schiff showed in her 1983 book From Stereotype to Metaphor: The Jew in Contemporary Drama, that forecast largely came true on the modern stage. Schiff traced an evolution from despised outsider—usurer, Christ-killer, belle Juive (a dangerously coquettish Jewess)—to “a dominant contemporary image of the Jew as stunned seeker in a world from which all the accustomed values have vanished.” Though many of the successful plays she cited from that era have been largely forgotten (works by the likes of Paddy Chayefsky, Bernard Kops, and Murray Schisgal—as well as the very much remembered Arthur Miller), she demonstrated how Jewish characters came to stand for a humanistic universal in a world shattered by the Holocaust. A symbol of the claim that the Other is really “like everybody else only more so,” he—such figures were always male in these plays—is ennobled by his suffering and resilience, and thereby comes to bear the play’s moral weight. He is, as Schiff puts it, the “hero as mensch.”

Nearly 40 years after Schiff detailed this liberal function of the Jewish protagonist in postwar narrative drama, Lopez has retrieved it through the character of Eric in The Inheritance. The play’s moral center, Eric—who is at one point described as a “social justice entrepreneur”—longs for a bygone sense of community, a link to the gay past broken by the AIDS epidemic, a sense of cultural patrimony that he and his peers might claim if they could only connect. Apart from its acknowledged debt to Forster, Lopez’s play also has an unrecognized yikhes, or lineage: it draws heavily on the gay white male dramatic canon of the late 20th century—which is also, to a large extent, a Jewish canon. Eric joins a long line of gay Jewish protagonists who have marched, minced, or meandered their way across mainstream stages for half a century. 

This archetypal figure made his first appearance in the 1968 hit play The Boys in the Band, in which gay men gather to celebrate the birthday of their friend—in this case, Howard, a protagonist who bitterly describes himself as a “Jew fairy.” Playwright Mart Crowley thereby introduced a trope that has retained considerable strength and flexibility in the American theater. In commercially successful gay plays that followed, the gay protagonist was often Jewish—a phenomenon that partly, no doubt, reflected many playwrights’ own backgrounds. In Harvey Fierstein’s semi-autobiographical Torch Song Trilogy, which opened on Broadway in 1982, a central agon involves Arnold’s wrenching fight with his homophobic mother over his insistence on saying kaddish for his dead partner. In one legendary scene, the protagonist, Arnold, picks someone up in a backroom bar and delivers a rambling monologue while the unseen man penetrates him from behind. As he rocks back and forth in the sex act, he looks like he might be shukheling—bobbing in prayer.

In profitable popular plays that addressed AIDS from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, a gay Jew at the center often accomplished a special purpose. William Hoffman’s As Is, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, and William Finn and James Lapine’s Falsettos—different as they are from each other—share a plot in which a healthy Jewish man takes care of his attractive, successful, ethnically unmarked lover, who has AIDS. The ministering boyfriend, by virtue of being Jewish, both highlights the primary gayness of the man who is sick and also serves as a vector of empathy for what was still a largely Jewish theater audience. Tony Kushner’s Angels in America complicated and critiqued this motif in several ways: by presenting a Jewish boyfriend, Louis, who runs away from his ailing partner; by inflecting the other characters with ethnic and religious heritages; and by including a range of Jewish characters (liberal Louis, reactionary Roy Cohn, radical Ethel Rosenberg).

Lopez draws on this legacy, but in a hollow way. Eric’s Jewishness is established through a couple of tired jokes: He delivers a wisecrack about the endlessness of his family’s seders; he preens in a gorgeous bespoke wedding outfit that he describes as being “a step up from my bar mitzvah suit.” His Jewishness exists only for the all-American, sentimentalizing purpose of drawing a “lesson” from the Holocaust—in this case, that “cultures survive,” as Eric insists, because their collective traumas are remembered. But how is Eric sustaining any aspect of Jewish customs, creativity, values, or civilization by having listened to his grandmother’s horror stories? Of course such histories matter, but they do not in themselves constitute cultural continuity and vitality. Built on a rickety foundation, Lopez’s analogy—that recalling the plague years keeps gay culture alive—collapses. The gay memory plot in The Inhertiance unrolls late in the play’s first half, when Eric’s older friend vividly recounts the unbearable toll the epidemic took and describes how he cared for dying men in his house upstate. In an emotional Part 1 curtain scene set at that house (which echoes the haunting close of the early AIDS film  Longtime Companion, penned by the playwright Craig Lucas), a parade of several dozen diverse, gorgeous young men cross the stage, introducing themselves to Eric: ghosts of his gay elders. 

But in Part 2, the memory theme is largely forgotten. Eric inherits the friend’s house and revives its purpose, aiding a current generation of men with addiction and HIV. Making this commitment, he sustains an ethics of care, but on a thoroughly individual, charitable basis, absent any nod to the collective organizing for tending to the sick and for demanding healthcare as a right that stand as a prodigious gay legacy. Amplifying the nagging larger question of how Eric’s inheritance might help gay culture survive, the play closes with chorus members telling us what will happen in the decades following its action. “Eric found his path in life by illuminating it for others,” one says. In what way was he a light unto the nations? We don’t find out. We learn, rather, that he remarried (“the man who would become the love of his life”), had three children, seven grandchildren and fourteen great-grandchildren who inherited his house when he died, peacefully, at age 97. Nice for him. He’s entitled to his choice—but it sounds more like assimilation than the sustenance and expansion of gay culture.

In the end, then, it seems that Eric is Jewish for two reasons that are troubling—one which is dramaturgically lazy, the other morally so. First, by drawing on a postwar dramatic trope, Lopez creates a comfy familiarity, a sense that we know this (thinly drawn) character by type: the hero as mensch. Second, his Jewishness is mobilized merely to explain his demand for queer cultural continuity and to lay a claim for the weight of intergenerational loss and trauma—points declaimed in the play, but never dramatized in its action. Rather than an identity with meaningful content, Eric’s Jewishness is instrumental to the cause of calling for gay collective memory. It’s a cause that should require no instrument. 

Alisa Solomon is the author of Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof, and of Re-Dressing the Canon: Essays on Theater and Gender and a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism.