It all began when 15-year-old Matthew Lopez’s mother took him to see the Merchant Ivory movie adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Howards End. “With that one day at the movies, it seems pretty amazing to me how stark the difference was between the before and after in my life,” reflects the playwright. “What was so unexpected was that I was this Puerto Rican teenager living in the Florida Panhandle. I would not be included in the prime demographic for a story set in Edwardian England,” he adds with a laugh. “And yet, I latched on to it and I got it.”
Lopez’s two-part play, The Inheritance, which arrives at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre on September 27, springs from that teenage life-changing movie experience. The epic six-hour-plus drama is an ambitious re-envisioning of Forster’s 1910 novel and follows the loves and friendships of a group of gay men in 21st century New York City, their interlinked stories set against a backdrop of community history that goes back half a century. A winner of multiple best play awards in London, where it premiered last year, the acclaimed work is directed by two-time Tony Award winner Stephen Daldry (best known for Billy Elliot and Netflix’s The Crown).
Of course, the play didn’t happen right away. Enraptured by the movie, Lopez next turned to the novel on which it was based, which he then read avidly several times over. But it was only as a gay man in his late twenties living in New York City that he fully understood why the story resonated so strongly with him. When rereading the novel yet again, he discovered, in the biographical note on the author, that Forster was gay — although closeted his whole life and out only to his very close intimates. “That was the moment when I realized what my bond with Forster was,” Lopez explains. “For whatever reason, I was picking up the vibe; in Howards End, Forster was telling a queer story using straight characters.”
“The more I delved, I realized that Forster couldn’t have written any of his stories without being a gay man, closeted or otherwise,” Lopez continues. “His gayness was the lifeblood of his writing. It informed everything — how he viewed relationships between people, how he viewed his own society.” Lopez echoes similar observations made by Forster’s friend Christopher Isherwood and recent Forster biographers and literary critics: “He was almost undercover, the inherent outsider able to blend as well as one possibly could into polite heterosexual society at the time.”
That eureka moment, Lopez says, led to a “strong desire to reclaim Forster’s homosexuality.” Although he wasn’t sure what he was going to write or how at that time, “it started with a very simple assignment for myself: to take Howards End and retell it in a contemporary setting using gay male characters in place of the heterosexual characters in the book.” In the interim, Lopez honed his skills as a playwright; several of his plays were well received in theatres across the country, including The Whipping Man at the Manhattan Theatre Club and The Legend of Georgia McBride, an Off-Broadway success that is currently being adapted into a movie. Eventually, his current opus was ready to take shape.
Lopez deftly transposed characters, plot elements, and themes from the source novel to create his play, but he asserts that The Inheritance stands independent of Howards End. “We’ve been very careful not to make it feel that you need to have read the book or have seen the movie in order to appreciate the play — but knowing the book is an added bonus,” he says. Where Forster used three families to represent three social classes of his era, Lopez introduces three generations of gay men: a couple in their mid- to late fifties, billionaire Henry Wilcox (a character name retained from the original) and his longtime partner, Walter; and Eric and Toby, a couple in their mid-thirties whose lives intersect in momentous ways with Adam and Leo, two younger men in their twenties. With the character of Eric, Lopez took on what he describes as “the inordinately challenging task of rewriting one of the greatest literary characters of all time,” Forster’s protagonist, Margaret Schlegel (the role for which Emma Thompson won an Oscar). “It was the hardest role to write, creating a new human being, using her as a guidepost,” Lopez reports.
“Once I knew what this thing could be, it was really important to me to explore what I have always felt for many decades: an attenuated inheritance along generational lines between queer people of all kinds,” Lopez says. “I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, and I didn’t have a strong sense of feeling part of a continuum — that’s a word we use in the play. I think that’s something that is starting to reveal itself only now for me, in my early forties. The only inheritance I did have is one I would not particularly have wanted — coming of age in the shadow of AIDS.”
In his play, Lopez physically evokes Forster through a character he calls Morgan, the name by which the novelist’s friends knew him. “It’s a little brazen of me, but I decided that since Forster can no longer speak for himself, I will speak for him in love and gratitude,” the playwright explains. “He is the Forster of my imagination — the Forster I needed him to be, for me.”
Looking forward to his upcoming Broadway debut, Lopez says, “I can’t wait to show a New York audience what we made especially for them, to see the play in front of a home crowd. And,” he adds with a laugh, “I don’t have to explain New York City geography in the program or have to tell people what BAM or the Strand bookstore is!”
But most of all, The Inheritance is the culmination of something deeply personal for the playwright. “I have this same chemical reaction between Forster’s words and my brain as it was between my husband and myself on our first date,” he says. “I think people are destined to fall in love, and it doesn’t matter that one of the two may have died before the other was born. I know how this sounds, but feel like I was destined to have my fate entwined with E.M. Forster. I think it’s one of the great love affairs of my life.”
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