Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "Talking Sex" (on Martin Sherman's play Bent)


talking sex
by Douglas Messerli

Martin Sherman Bent / Los Angeles, Mark Taper Forum / the performance I saw with Howard Fox was the August 23, 2015 matinee
 

Martin Sherman’s 1979 play, Bent, revived recently by Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum begins almost as any gay work of the late 1960s and 1970s, particularly Mort Crowley’s The Boys in the Band (1968), but also like Doric Wilson’s A Perfect Relationship (1978) and Robert Patrick’s T-Shirts (1979, works described aptly by Eric Marcus in his Out in All Directions as being about issues concerning “the loneliness that caused older men to turn to hustlers, the debauchery of innocents by urban gay life, the insularity of the gay ghetto, and the neurotic entanglements and complicated sexual victimizations that occurred among friends, partners, and frustrated would-be lovers.”

      A slightly “monogamish” couple, Max (Patrick Heusinger) and Rudy (Will Taylor in the production I saw) awaken past noon after a long wild night, Rudy somewhat peeved by his partner’s behavior of the night before while pretending nonchalance. Max can remember nothing, until a well-endowed, naked male (Tom Berklund) appears from a back bedroom (how Max has missed his obvious bedmate is unexplained), as Rudy gradually explains how Max, completely drunk, first invited all the waiters of the gay club run by the drag-queen, Greta to come home with him, before falling to the floor upon a black leathered young man, Wolf, whom we soon discover is one of Ernst Rohm’s Sturmabeilung troop members. But it is only gradually that we discover this fact, and, at first, we might well as be in a Manhattan apartment, with the two occupants arguing about their messy lives. If Max is a wild drunken cocaine uses, Rudy is a naïve dancer at the local cabaret, no more responsible, and even less able to find money to pay the rent, than his would-be lover. 
      Wolf, for his part, is eager to join the two young men at the home in the country which the drunken and drugged Max (describing himself as the Baron) has promised him a drive in his shiny new car. Max, in shot, is clever con-man, capable, as he admits, of convincing people of things that lie outside reality.
      In short, the whole first scene plays like a light-hearted, slightly camp presentation of just what Marcus describes, and Sherman’s drama, accordingly, reads as a light-hearted comedy. And surely, when the play first premiered, when few (according to the program notes of this play*) seemed to know about the Nazi incarceration of homosexuals, the play must have read even more normative. 
     Today, at least, when most of know more about that era—the moment we recognize that this scene is played out in Berlin in 1934—we perceive that the play is soon to shift in a very different direction—although the folks sitting behind Howard and I seemed to have no idea as they guffawed straight through the next few moments, when Nazi soldiers break down the door and slit the throat of Wolf in continuation of the Night of the Long Knives (which I describe in the essay above), part of Hitler’s purge of Rohm and his Brownshirts, a political act which his government obscured as a crackdown of gay perversion. In terror Max (dressed only in his bathrobe) and Rudy skitter off to the club.

      Suddenly the play shifts again, presenting us with a scene that might have been in the musical Cabaret, John Kander and Fred Ebb’s successful musical of 1966; indeed the song the club’s performers, led by Greta (Jake Shears), sing, “Goodbye to Berlin,” is also the title of one of Christopher Isherwood’s Weimar-based novels, upon which Cabaret was based. All right, we get it, this is the razzle-dazzle sex-crazed Berlin. Although Sherman’s cabaret number is not nearly so tawdry and convincing as the songs sung originally by Joel Gray. 
      As if realizing the play has again come again to a standstill, Sherman offers up his clueless heroes who have gone into hiding as they attempt to find shelter from the mean-spirited Greta, who has actually sent the Nazi’s searching out Wolf to their apartment. Although he (as Greta makes clear, he is safe, since offstage he is a married man) gives them a bit a cash, he is not convinced that they will be able to escape the new Nazi purge.
     Finally, Sherman’s play begins to settle into its real subject matter; but it’s already a bit too late. Although the couple have forced into the forest, camped out in tents, they continue their gay-life patter, arguing over their limited choices of food, the condition of living quarters, and complaining about their inability to even touch one another—appearing as if somehow they still have not completely assimilated the complete horror of their situation. Rudy is particularly dense, it appears to me, although I couldn’t be sure that his absurd innocence was due, in part, to with understudy Taylor’s almost amateurish performance (playing Rudy as a kind Midwestern American) or whether Sherman simply couldn’t quite create figures that were convincingly of European birth.
      Max, apparently, is the son of a wealthy Amsterdam button manufacturing family, who is upbraided by his gay uncle for embarrassing his family by his extravagant behavior. And Max, skewered throughout most of the play as a spoiled, selfish being, is even willing to marry the window of another button manufacturer if Uncle Freddie (Ray Baker) will only get him two sets and new papers and tickets to Amsterdam instead of the one he offers. Yet it is hard to believe that Max in either of Dutch birth or might possibly be so unselfish as to put himself in such endangerment for Rudy’s sake. If he is willing to “ditch” Rudy once they reach Amsterdam, why, we have to ask, is he so protective of him now?

        
     This soon becomes an even more profound question which the author is never able to answer, as both Max and Rudy are captured, and, in transport to Dachau, Rudy is tortured before the Nazi commando demands that Max, to prove he is not Rudy’s friend, beat him. In order to save his life, Max not only complies but almost seems to get a strange sadistic pleasure in the act; and, soon after, when asked to prove that he is not gay (worthy only of the lowest of the emblems sown upon the prisoners’ uniforms, the pink triangle) demands he have sexual intercourse with a 13-year old girl, recently murdered, as the other Nazi’s voyeuristically stand in watch. In reward of his sexual virility, Max is awarded, ironically, the Jewish yellow star, which, oddly enough puts him at the top of the Dachau totem post, garnering him a better chance of surviving the ordeal.
     In other words, Sherman has chosen a nearly impossible monster as his hero, whose redemption—in this case by a scrawny pink-triangulated Horst (Charlie Hofheimer), whose major sin is that he signed a petition in support of the sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld—appears nearly impossible for the play’s start. 
     Mysteriously—and this is a continual problem with Sherman’s seemingly naturalistic tropes—Max gets Horst transferred to from the brutal tasks of breaking down rocks with a pick-axe, to the nearly existential task of moving a pile of stones from one place to another before returning them back to the other, again and again, ad infinitum—a job which, Max.suggests, is intended to make him mad. Although, I would like to know whether or not Sherman had any evidence that such a task was really given to prisoners at Dachau, it seems a kind of perfect metaphor for the madness of the camps themselves. 
     Yet Sherman is not a writer of someone like Beckett’s stature, and in the first of what are far too many scenes in which the actors are forced to heft stones back and forth across the stage, returns us to the kind of catty gay couple arguments of the “comedy” that Bent begin as. And later, as his character’s conversations increasingly become infused with talk of sex, the author does not share Beckett’s abilities to transform the inane into a poetically rich language. 
     There is something almost thrilling, particularly the first time through, when this odd couple attempts to make love while standing next to but apart from one another through the art of speech. It reminded me, a little, of those early network chatrooms wherein participants talk about sex in order to actually experience it. But in front of a primarily heterosexual audience, which I assure you the elderly Taper patrons mostly consist of, the scene seemed at once more prurient and tamed-down than any actual sexual act performed on stage might have been perceived. Later, when the freezing and sickly Horst lamely refuses to go through the same verbally sexual encounter, Sherman reaches to the bottom of his often jokey quips—“I have a headache”—in response, turning what might have been a someone creative dramatic trope—particularly for a basically voyeuristic audience—into a sit-com situation. 
     Again, some of the audience members, chirruping at this and other cheap quips, laughed half-way into the final scene where the Nazi guard commanded Horst (whose cough proves that the medicine Max had obtained from him through the present of a blow-job to the Nazi guard was actually intended for his co-worker) to throw his hat at the nearby high-voltage electric fence. We have already been told that such a command doomed whomever it was directed, for if the individual chose not to retrieve the hat, which would surely cause his death by electrocution, he would be shot. So we are not surprised when the events are inevitably played out.
      What we are surprised about is that Max—whom we have finally come believe has truly begun to understand love as something different from mere sex—once more stands by without being compelled to aid his friend. That he is forced to bury him and, at the very moment of the pieta like enactment wherein he begins to carry his dead lover to his grave, he is forced to stand still while looking forward (a ritual described as “rest time” dictated by the timed screeches of a whistle) while holding Horst’s body before him, gives evidence to the fact that this is the first time in this play (except perhaps for the cabaret dance—but even if you look at the photo above, it does appear the directly Moisés Kaufman forced his figures keep to keep their hands off one another) where anyone has actually touched anyone else. When the whistle signals a resumption of action, he seemingly puts Horst into the ditch with the voiceless howl of Brecht’s Mother Courage. Just as with Rudy, Max has in large part, once again, in this man’s death.
      We must conjecture that he will no longer to be able to live with himself, so that, accordingly when after moving a few rocks, he returns to the ditch to remove Horst’s shirt with the pink triangle, and, removing his own yellow starred garment, puts it on—although it is a truly moving moment, an acceptance not only of his sexuality but of his recognition of love—there is something empty in the act. A small group of the audience members could not resist this symbolic transformation of character and applauded the event.
      But for the others of us in the audience, I believe, that symbolic expression comes simply too late. No matter how Max has been transformed, his recognition—in part because of the author’s literary devices—has simply come too late. And even his rush into the wall of electrified death at play’s end, seems to be a melodramatic aftermath. Perhaps if he had really dared death earlier on, had actually reached out to touch the other instead of simply imagining him, we might have truly been able to celebrate what Sherman’s play certainly intended to convey: W. H. Auden’s contention that “We must love one another or die.”

*Although I may be mistaken, I am almost certain that I had long before 1979 known that homosexuals were imprisoned and killed in the Nazi camps. Surely, I and others, might have known the details, but I can’t believe that Sherman’s play was the first to actually brooch this subject. Perhaps in the popular theater, yes, but not if one read one’s history.

Los Angeles, August 25, 2015