MiniReview: "Bent" by Martin Sherman

One of the darkest episodes in LGBT history: queer men at a German concentration camp, 1938.

So what have we got this time, John?

It’s a play, written by Martin Sherman, first presented in 1979. Interesting little side note: the original New York production starred Richard Gere just before he became a big movie star; Gere also played a gay character (a choreographer dying of AIDS) in And the Band Played On.


What role did Gere play in Bent?

A homosexual man named Max, living in Nazi Germany in 1934. (The London production had Ian McKellen in that role.)


A tough time and place to be gay …

You can say that again. I think it’s fair to say that Bent is an exposé, in theatrical form, of what happened to queer men under the Nazis. This is a story that tends to be eclipsed by all the other horrors of that regime. This play reveals how much queer folk were hunted down and persecuted. In fact, one of the play's characters tells us, they were considered the lowest of all the inhabitants of the concentration camps, beneath Jews, criminals and political prisoners.


This is interesting stuff, but it all sounds maybe a bit dry and academic.

It isn’t. Sherman focuses his story of gay persecution on one man, Max, who seems blissfully unaware of what is happening in his city (Berlin) and country until a couple of soldiers break into his apartment and kill a known gay man. At this point, Max and his lover, Rudy, decide to flee. But Max ends up in a concentration camp, and the latter scenes of the play are mostly exchanges between him and another gay prisoner who have been tasked with moving rocks from one place to another.


Powerful stuff.

Definitely. I found the play interesting to read, but it really just whetted my appetite to read a non-fiction account of queer persecution by the Nazis.  


You weren’t totally satisfied with this play, then?

As I say, it’s a fascinating and little-discussed piece of history. But the play isn’t great reading. The long scenes between Max and Horst, as they move stones, really need to be seen onstage, I think. And there’s something unsatisfying about the structure of the play, which begins as a very conventional piece of fourth-wall theatre but becomes somewhat surreal in the second act. I also would have liked more info on the philosophy behind the persecution of queer people. I think Martin Sherman had a great idea for a subject for a play, but the execution of it isn’t entirely convincing.


No stars then (using the Michelin-guide 3-star system)?

No. It’s an “important” play in the history of gay theatre, but I don’t think it’s a great script by any means. 

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