Martin Sherman is an American playwright living in London, has written a cornucopia of plays which vary vastly in style, setting, and subject matter.
The first play to truly establish Sherman as a playwright was the critically acclaimed Passing By, performed by the Gay Sweatshop theatre company in London in 1975 with Simon Callow. Since then the play has been performed in numerous countries and languages and is currently showing at the Tristan Bates Theatre.
To date, Sherman’s plays have been performed in over 55 countries. His well-known Holocaust drama Bent portrays the persecution of homosexuals in Hitler’s Germany and, like Passing By, was written for the Gay Sweatshop. It opened in the Royal Court Theatre in 1979 with Ian McKellen in the daring role of Max. Michael Billington of The Guardian was one of few critics to offer a positive review. In December of that year, it opened in New York with Richard Gere as Max and was lauded by American critics.
Martin Sharman is tall, wonderfully warm and charming and, although there was one topic he preferred not to discuss, he was open, thoughtful and a pleasure to talk to.
RJ: How was Passing By received in 1974?
MS: It was produced first at a tiny off-Broadway theatre. In those days there wasn’t the lively scene that there is now in New York off Broadway. It was produced by Playwright’s Horizons which is now a major theatre but was then just starting. It was a very bad production and there were no critics present. Then a gay theatre that had just started produced it and that production was much worse. Both productions were wonderfully well intentioned and the people involved were loving and terrific but they just couldn’t do the play properly because no one had an experience of doing a play like that. Then it was produced in 1975 by the Gay Sweatshop in London. It was a gorgeous production which just saved my faith in the play, in being a playwright, in the theatre. It rescued me!
RJ: Why was there this difference between the unsuccessful and successful productions? Does it relate to the actors or the directors? Do you think that a gay cast is a prerequisite for a successful staging of this play?
MS: It was everything. You couldn’t cast it properly because good actors had no criteria for playing an adjusted gay man. They could play a caricature or somebody who was effeminate or bitchy or deeply unhappy or suicidal but they just couldn’t play ‘normal guys who happened to be gay’. You just couldn’t get the cast you needed and even good actors were at sea. It made no difference whether the actors were gay; it just had to do with perception. It’s very difficult to explain how different the world was in 1974. Compared to now, it was like being in Mars, certainly in terms of anything gay in the theatre. The thing about the Gay Sweatshop was that they were a group of extremely talented professionals who wanted to create a theatre that did gay work but they were people who had serious careers in the theatre away from the Gay Sweatshop. It was just a question of having a completely professional approach to the work. One of the original actors was Simon Callow. It was shocking to him because he had never been asked to do anything like that.
RJ: What prompted you to write about gay love? Did it take guts to write it at the time?
MS: It was thirty-something years ago so I can’t honestly remember. I was totally unknown; I had no career, money or position. It didn’t take a lot of guts because I had nothing to lose. It takes guts when you have real things you’re going to forfeit or if you’re going to damage your blossoming career or eat into your finances. But there was nothing to eat into!
RJ: How did the audience in London receive the 1975 production?
MS: Only a few reviewers came but they were wonderful reviews. The audiences at the Sweatshop were almost exclusively gay men. They were overwhelmed seeing some part of their life on the stage that they had never seen before- in a very positive way.
RJ: How do you think women react to the play?
MS: Women are a great audience for gay subjects by gay writers because women and gay men have often had to go through the same thing; they’ve often had to face the same restrictions from society and the same prejudices. It’s not that gay men are feminine as such but that society has placed women and gay men in the same pockets and there’s this enormous mutual empathy. I remember I went to see a production of Bent in Tokyo years ago and they were doing a season of plays on gay subjects. The season was incredibly popular and the actors were lauded by the audience. The audience was exclusively female. There’s an interesting corollary there.
RJ: Having produced Passing By in 1975 and 2013, do you feel that there is a completely different approach in those two time periods? Do you feel that it’s almost a different play?
MS: The world has changed totally. When Andrew Keates first wanted to do it last year at the Finborough I was a little wary because I thought maybe it’s a prurient piece [period piece] and it’s lost the power it had when it was first written. I was delighted to discover that it has a totally different feel about it which is very relatable to today. It’s as valid today as it was then but in a totally different way.
RJ: At the end of the play the lovers separate and each goes his own way. The ending of Bentis desperately painful and there is no happy ending. Relationship comes to an abrupt end –
MS: I don’t think the ending is unhappy; I think it’s life. The two of them have had a brief relationship that’s given both of them strength. They have their own lives that they want to follow. That doesn’t just happen in gay relationships. If the relationship had left them with negative things it would be an unhappy play. It’s a little sad but sad doesn’t mean unhappy; quite the contrary. Overt happiness is not a feature of most pieces of theatre.
RJ: In regard to Bent, what prompted you to write a play about such a harrowing topic?
MS: It was a story that had to be told and hadn’t been. When I wrote the play there was nothing about gay people in Nazi Germany. There were no plays, novels, books, histories. There was nothing. You could research it in footnotes in various studies- a line or two here or there. It was a totally unknown topic and I suppose that one of the things I’m proudest about in my life is that it became known and then books were published and research was printed. It’s now an accepted established fact.
RJ: Do you regard any other of your plays as landmarks?
MS: I wouldn’t say ‘landmarks’. Bent happened to be because of circumstances. I like all of my plays; they’re like my children.
RJ: Your plays have been performed in many different countries. Do you think that the plays were received similarly across these different countries?
MS: Bent is one of my most produced plays and so is Rose. Rose is a one-woman play about an eighty year-old women sitting shivah and telling the story of her life which is really the story of Judaism in the 20th Century. That was done at the National with Olympia Dukakis and then on Broadway in 1999 and has been performed all over the world. Rosehas been performed twice at the Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv, once in 2001 and last year Olympia Dukakis performed it there in English. Roseis quite political about Israe. When She Dancedabout Isadora Duncan has also been frequently performed there. They do wonderful new Israeli plays, very brave plays politically.
RJ: I read somewhere that most of your plays start in a small space. Is that intentional and do you think that the small space embraces the audience?
MS: Some of them and some of them haven’t. Passing By has to be performed in a small space but others aren’t meant for small spaces particularly. It’s simply a pragmatic part of the way theatre is done now. You rarely do a new play in a big way and I don’t always think that’s the best thing for a new play. A lot of plays aren’t written for small spaces; they are written to breathe in a larger theatre but it’s not economically feasible any more to open plays in that way.
RJ: What is the next play that you have in mind?
MS: I have a new play called Gently down the Stream which I hope will be done next season but I have no idea where or how. The character are gay men and it’s about generations.
RJ: What inspired you to write plays? When did you think or feel you wanted to write plays?
MS: When I was about 10 or 11.
RJ: Can you tell me something about your background and your family?
MS: My father was born in the Ukraine in a small shtetland my mother was just born in America. My father’s parents were very religious but for his siblings and him, religion seeped away as they got older in America.
RJ: How did your family view your profession as a playwright?
MS: My father was very encouraging but other members of the family thought he and I were mad.
RJ: How do you find the British audience versus the audience in the United States, the country where you were born and brought up?
MS: They’re both wonderful audiences but they are different. American audiences are more vocal in their reaction and are intrigued by narrative; they follow the plot. British audiences listen and absorb like no other audiences in the world and are not as linear as American audiences. I love both audiences maybe because of their differences.
RJ: Which groups of audiences are more tolerant? Do you find the audience here more open to gay relationships?
MS: The audiences in cities like New York are extremely open to gay relationships; they have an enormous amount of plays with gay characters. I wrote a musical, The Boy from Oz, which had a gay relationship smack at the centre of it. It had an overwhelming audience reaction in New York. Peter Allen wrote the music and it was his life story. It was on Broadway ten years ago with Hugh Jackman.
RJ: Did you find any countries were less tolerant of your plays than you would like them to be, in terms of what the critics have said?
MS: I don’t necessarily know. There are countries where my plays haven’t been produced. The first play, written by me, to be produced in an Islamic country was last year, in Turkey. I’ve never been produced in Russia. Bent has been seen in Russia; an Israeli company took in on tour in Hebrew. Now it certainly wouldn’t be done. Eastern European countries in general produce a lot of my plays, particularly When She Danced, Rose andBent.
RJ: Can you tell me something about your play Messiah?
MS: It had an interesting history in Israel. It was my first play after Bent and it was about a young girl who becomes a follower of the prophet Shabbetai Tzvi and in fact when the producers of Haifa took the rights to Bent and Messiah, they were more worried about Bent because they thought it might cause controversy. I told them that Messiah was the one they had to worry about. They didn’t believe me!
There is a scene at the end of Messiahwhen Shabbetai has converted to Islam and has been revealed as a fraud. Rachel, the central character, who has a continual dialogue with God throughout the play, curses God in this scene. Unbeknownst to me, a year before the play opened in Haifa, there was an article by Gershon Shalom comparing the followers of Shabbetai Tzvi to the settlers in the West Bank.
So when Messiah opened it caused this enormous stir and the only way they could find to attack it properly was to attack the fact that Rachel curses God. They said it was blasphemous and the right wing caused havoc. It was condemned continually day in and day out in the Kenneset (Israel’s parliament). It was on the front page of all the newspapers and was on all the television shows. The Chief Rabbi of Israel said that everyone who had seen the offending scene had to observe 24 hours of mourning. Everyone had seen it because it had been broadcast on television on the news. There were riots; there were bombs left in the theatre.
This was 1982 or 1983- very early. Its significance is startling because a lot of people on the left realised for the first time how powerful the religious parties were. When we were rehearsing it, we took the cast (we had an American director) who were a number of very famous Israeli actors to Mea Shearim [=Hundred Gates. This is an ultra-orthodox quarter in Jerusalem]. They had never been there and they were shocked. In those days the left just made fun of orthodox Jews and they didn’t take them seriously. There was tremendous prejudice on both sides. So the scandal with Messiah really opened people’s eyes. Someone on one of the rival parties sat on the municipal council of Haifa and they were about to remove its funding for a month- including for garbage facilities.
Then, there was that year, 1983, after Peace Now march in which someone [Emil Grunzweig] was killed by an extreme right-winger [Yona Avrushmi]. Everyone was shocked because what they feared in Israel more than anything else in those days was a civil war. They absolutely couldn’t bear the idea of Jew killing Jew. The President of Israel called Noam Semel and Omri Nitzan, the Artistic Director at the Cameri theatre, worried that more people would be killed in a march happening on the anniversary of the Peace Now march. He said that the right would ensure that nobody would be killed if the offensive lines were removed from Messiah. Noam and Omri phoned me and asked me what to do and I said there was no play in the world that would be worth the death of somebody so the lines had to be removed. It has only been staged once since in Beer Sheva, two years ago. Because it also had a very strange critical reaction. The right wing of course hated it but the left wing was very upset with it too because it acknowledged God.