Matthew Lopez's 'The Inheritance' Fails Its Queer History

Matthew Lopez’s epic two-part tale of modern gay life received glowing reviews, and its recently announced transition to the West End in September brought further praise for what The Telegraph called “perhaps the most important American play of the century so far”. Despite its aspirations to be a radical piece of queer history on stage, the play stumbles in its adherence to liberal politics — often feeling much more dated than its predecessors. In a year where Tony Kushner’s seminal Angels In America has been revived and the musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s lesbian graphic novel Fun Home opens imminently, why does The Inheritance fall so short?

I spoke with Douglas Rintoul, a gay creative and Artistic Director of Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch, about staging queer identities in the modern British theatre scene. Rintoul has recently directed the regional premiere of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert to much critical and commercial success, but, having grown up in Colchester in the era of Section 28, admitted having anxieties about playing an explicitly queer play to an older, more conservative crowd than that of the Young Vic’s.  He noted that plays with narratives of otherness often become ghettoized as “issue plays” — that is to say, difficult and non-commercial. He used a “Trojan horse” approach, using the appeal of a disco-era musical, along with the piece’s party atmosphere, to promote a show about three queer individuals. It was a success, humanising fringe identities and bringing to the forefront issues that such an audience might never have otherwise encountered.

Rintoul and I have both seen The Inheritance, and we agree that the transgressive characters of Priscilla felt on reflection more diverse and more relevant than that of The Inheritance, despite the film dating back to 1994 and the musical version relying heavily on high camp aesthetics and tongue-in-cheek innuendo. Ostensibly a road trip movie, the three protagonists are united by their isolation in hetero-patriarchal society. Bernadette, a trans woman, is in mourning after the death of her much younger partner and begins a tender romance with the macho but sensitive Bob. Adam is young, dumb and self-destructive: ignorant of the real dangers of being openly gay away from his liberal milieu. Tick straddles the boundaries of straight and gay life — he is a drag queen with a wife and a son. It is immensely rare that canonically bisexual characters are represented, and seeing Tick deal with biphobia from both sides of the spectrum, I felt my own experiences reflected back at me. In Priscilla there is a radicalness, an anarchism, a celebration of otherness which is absent from The Inheritance

Lopez’s play, for all its discussion of the generational passing of the baton, overlooks the subversive agitators upon whom the modern gay and AIDS rights movements are founded. It is in this final point, the rupture of progressive ideology versus actual politics, where the play’s greatest failings lie. 

Where Kushner’s Angels In America felt like a stark rebuke of Reaganism, of the hypocrisy of closeted Republicans who legislated against gay rights but solicited male sex workers in secret, and of the wilful abandonment of an entire group of people by the State, Lopez’s criticism of Trump and the resurgence of the far-right seems milquetoast in comparison. 

The election night scene, in which the characters sport “I’m With Her” t-shirts and cry “YAAAAS KWEEN” at Clinton, is a bitter pill to swallow for those of us who remember a totally inept campaign for a decidedly mediocre candidate. Mentions of the Obama years portray an era of an uninterrupted progressive utopia, absent of any mention of drone strikes, NSA spying or Wall Street bailouts. Indeed, Henry Wilcox, a proud gay Republican, is right to point out the Democrats’ “minutes-old acceptance of gay rights”. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton only came out fully in support of gay marriage in 2012 and 2013 respectively. 

The protagonists mourn a country now in collapse and share fears about their future. What is easy to forget, however, is the real lack of peril these well-off, gorgeous, young white men actually face. Lopez’s characters exist in a bubble of privilege, an overwhelmingly masculine milieu where women do not exist, and it is perhaps telling that the only two women who feature are Hillary Clinton and Vanessa Redgrave’s totally superfluous cameo as the archetypal matriarch. Lopez’s lack of vision plagues his more marginalised characters. In Leo, he manages to cram in every tired cliché about sex work — Leo is a diseased, drug-addled prostitute driven to hustling from a background of sexual abuse who is desperately in need of saving and is only redeemed by getting a GED and going to college before joining civilised society and settling into monogamy with a long-term partner. Such is the ideal gay life for Lopez.

Lopez pays occasional lip service to the intersections of queer culture. There are vague allusions to the importance of trans rights and Tristan briefly pops up to malign his fate as a HIV positive gay black man in modern America, but quickly shuffles back to the sidelines to mince and tongue pop in support of the white, rich characters who are the play’s real focus.

This is not to say that The Inheritance is a play that is totally lacking. The piece is at its strongest when Lopez plays with metanarrative, having E.M. Forster appear as a “muse” to adjust scenarios to suit his sense of narrative, and having characters plead with the narrators over control of their fates. There are themes that Lopez nails down with real promise. The multiple meanings of the titular inheritance, from identity to capital to disease, intermingle in subtle variations throughout, and the cultural significance of storytelling is evoked with admirable urgency. 

It is right that Lopez should want to write a play of resistance and hope for a community scarred from the past and in fear of the future. It is also right that we should demand a piece that is more radical, more diverse and more transformative from writers who inhabit and exhibit our stories.