Great Minds Think Alike

That E.M. Forster sure gets around. When I first heard of him, in college, he seemed a minor figure in the Bloomsbury set, a writer with only a peripheral attachment to the Modernist movement—hardly the innovator that his contemporaries Woolf and Joyce were.

But Forster’s sidekick status has changed profoundly. First there were all those Merchant/Ivory films to put him on the map of popular culture—A Room with a View, Maurice, Howards End. Merchant/Ivory offered a corrective to the first major film of a Forster novel, David Lean’s overblown adaptation of A Passage to India. Lean’s flair for the epic proved a disastrous choice for a story that, despite its exotic locale, remains as subtle and human as any of Forster’s other works.

From adaptation, Forster has moved into the next stage of literary evolution: the reimagining. Matthew Lopez’s seven-hour, two-part play The Inheritance, winner of the Olivier award and about to close its too-short Broadway run, grafts the plot of Howards End onto a story of contemporary gay men in New York, with Forster himself appearing as a muse for the main characters.

As I watched the play recently, I was riveted. It also felt very familiar. Not just because I know Howards End so well, but because I’d been there before—in Lopez’s shoes. In late 2017—before I’d even heard about The Inheritance—my novel Channeling Morgan was published, coincidentally a reimagining of another Forster novel, A Room with a View, through the story of contemporary gay men.

Zeitgeists are surprising things. On opposite sides of the country and unbeknownst to each other, Lopez and I were working simultaneously on pieces inspired by the same writer. It shouldn’t be too surprising. Forster’s work is infused with a humanity and level of psychological insight that pulls the characters out of their period settings and allows even the most modern reader to relate to them as people.

What I call the “reimagining” genre has been around for a long time. Just think of West Side Story’s take on Romeo and Juliet, or how Jane Smiley transformed King Lear into A Thousand Acres. On a less literary level, we have works like the films Clueless, which retells Austen’s Emma in high school; and Cruel Intentions, which does the same for Les Liaisons dangereuses.

The insertion of the original author as a character in the story puts a special spin on the genre. One of the most successful examples is Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, in which the story of Virginia Woolf writing Mrs. Dalloway is interwoven with the stories of a fictional character reading the book decades later while yet another fictional character decades after that lives through a day very similar to Clarissa’s.

The Inheritance centers on a group of young gay men in New York in the late 2010s as they navigate their way through romance, break-ups, and drug addiction, all while trying to find their place in the world. The majority of the characters came of age well after the worst of the AIDS pandemic and, while their world is much more accepting of homosexuality, they still struggle with demons internal and political.

Lopez has said that his inspiration for The Inheritance was thinking about how Howards End, arguably Forster’s greatest novel, would have turned out if he’d been free to write it as a gay story. My inspiration for Channeling Morgan was similar. As grateful as I am for Maurice, Forster’s one overtly gay novel (posthumously published, nearly 60 years after it was written), I was also struck by the homosexual undertones in his other books. Most of Forster’s novels center on a heroine—Lucy Honeychurch, Margaret Schlegel, Adela Quested—who is presented with far more empathy than any straight male novelist I’ve ever read has managed to conjure up for a female character.

It seemed clear to me that these women were all stand-ins for the author, so in my retelling of A Room with a View, I decided to turn the tables. The protagonist of Forster’s book, Lucy, has a brother named Freddy who doesn’t do much of anything but read books and swim in the woods. What if, I thought, Freddy got to take the lead in a new version of the story? What if he got to fall in love with the romantic hero instead? Thus, Channeling Morgan was born.

Morgan, of course, was Forster’s middle name—and the name by which he was known among friends. It’s the name Lopez assigns to the Forster character in his play. In my novel, Derick (short for Frederick) is a ghostwriter working on a memoir for a closeted actor named Clive Morgan. So at one level, Derick is channeling his own Morgan, while I, as the author, am channeling another.

Forster, appearing as a ghost to Derick, serves as his mentor–a role he also plays for the characters in The Inheritance, whose title resonates far beyond the bequeathed house at the center of the story (and of Howards End). The true legacy is history itself: every generation lays the groundwork for the next. In Lopez’s vision, that legacy manifests in storytelling (with Forster teaching the characters how to tell their own stories) and in the lives of the men who came before, largely the ones lost to AIDS. The spirit of that legacy lends itself to a riveting moment at the end of part 1, one of the most moving and brilliant set pieces I’ve ever witnessed on stage.

Lopez borrows his overall structure from Howards End, but the play also references, to a lesser degree, other works in the gay canon—Maurice, Angels in America, Longtime Companion, even a touch of The Boys in the Band. At a dramatic moment in part 2, a revelation about two of the characters is made and I heard an audible gasp in the audience. My first reaction was to shake my head: That was right out of Howards End. Haven’t you read the book? But in fact, those gasps were testament to how vivid Lopez’s story is and how universal is Forster’s.

Stories, whether fictional or experienced, inspire and influence the lives we lead. We are all the heirs to the generations that came before—their thoughts and feelings, their accomplishments and their suffering. That idea is perhaps especially true when it comes to gay culture. Few LGBT people are raised with an understanding of where we fit in the world. Our biological parents seldom have the information we need. We must find it in books and other cultural artifacts. We must find it in our literary forebears and the people we meet who have already trod in the world we are just entering. We need them to show us the way. And we need to be prepared to pay that knowledge forward.

 

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