‘Life changes life more than theatre does, i’m afraid’, says Martin Sherman when I ask if he considers his work, including the play Passing By – which is currently revived by Andrew Keates at the Tristan Bates Theatre – to have helped shape attitudes to homosexuality over the last few decades. ‘I don’t think the perception of gay life has changed because of theatre,’ he insists, ‘I’d love to say that it has, but it’s changed because of history and things that have happened in society in the last twenty or thirty years.’
Sherman, arguably still best known for the holocaust play Bent which shed light on the Nazi persecution of homosexuals, has certainly seen many cultural shifts and landmark liberties won in his lifetime – not least the UK’s same-sex marriage legislation this year. ‘It’s absolutely tremendous that the government’s done this’, he enthuses, ‘it’s on the back of the Labour government’s civil partnerships, but it’s such an incredible step forward when you look at the history of this country, because it does change the way people think’.
In 1974 though, Passing By was revolutionary. While it might detail the minutiae of a New York romance rather than the horrors of Dachau, its honest depiction of a same-sex relationship was ‘startling’ to a theatre-going public who were yet to hear the clamour of gay voices – Kushner and co – that rose later in response to the AIDs epidemic. As many have pointed out, Passing By seems to anticipate the AIDs crisis with its depiction of a new couple struck with hepatitis; it’s a poignant story of ‘two men whose hearts pull them together as their lives pull them apart’. Andrew Keates directs this revival having previously taken on Bent, and the acclaimed production transfers from the Finborough Theatre where it ran with a different cast last year.
Billed today as a ‘charming romantic comedy,’ Passing By was written as a conscious disruption of the queer cultural narrative. ‘I wanted to write something that felt intensely human,’ Sherman says, ‘and not the way a gay relationship was presented at that time. The writing of gay relationships in the seventies and before that was almost non-existent. If it did exist, it contained deeply unhappy people – miserably, suicidally unhappy, even sometimes in plays that were well written and perceptive – even when written with love, they were downbeat accounts.’
But Sherman is quick to point out that the play was was never pure polemic; it was first taken to Britain by Gay Sweatshop, a radical London-based theatre company whose aim ‘was to create a climate in which gay playwrights could write openly as gay playwrights about anything they wanted to, in exactly the same way as straight playwrights do. It didn’t have to be political, you didn’t have to be manning the barricades, but just writing on every conceivable subject in exactly the same way as a heterosexual playwright.’
In fact, while he’s sure ‘there’s an enormous amount to write in terms of gay life today,’ Sherman’s reluctant to be drawn into discussion about ‘gay theatre’ as a tradition or movement, and its current direction – after a couple of non-starters, I give up the questions when he points out, somewhat exasperated, that ‘you don’t think of Betrayal as a straight play.’ Fair enough. ‘There’s never been a lack of things to write about,’ he says, ‘what’s been won is the freedom to write it from the roots of who you are, openly and honestly.’
Writing is something that Sherman’s ‘just always done, since I was about twelve’. As a young adult, he trained at New York’s Actors’ Studio under the influential director Harold Clurman, and while he’s determined to downplay his performing talents, he’ll readily admit the experience has informed his playwriting. ‘Because you’re writing for actors, you’re not writing to be read. So many of the greatest playwrights have been good actors – Harold Pinter was a very good actor for instance, as were Noel Coward and Moliere – but I was a bad actor. I can’t consider myself an actor, I just studied it, but that helped.’
Sherman’s career has since spanned both theatre and film, from the darkness of Bent to the feel-good comedy Mrs Henderson Presents starring Judi Dench and Will Young. Of writing for stage and screen, he’s ‘very thankful that I’ve been able to do both, because one refreshes the other’. With a string of plays in recent years including a biopic of the shipping magnate Aristo Onassis, Sherman’s not putting the pen down any time soon; when I speak to him over the phone from his London home, he has two new films and a play, Gently Down the Stream, on the go (‘I don’t know how to describe it’).
Given his significant back-catalogue, Sherman’s early works inevitably pop up again and again, though Keates’ production of Passing By is the first UK staging of the play since its 1975 debut – which featured a young Simon Callow. Writing on gay theatre in the Guardian last month, Thomas Hescott said of Keates’ production, ‘we’ve started to contextualise and record our own history… looking back to explain the present.’ Does Sherman make time to go and see revivals? ‘Yeah, if i’m in town’. Seeing Passing By at the Finborough last year was, he says, ‘sort of a revelation. When a play is old you tend to think “Oh, that’s my youth, it’s over and not worth much anymore.” But it takes on new colours and new aspects; seeing it in front of a modern audience and realising that it does hold up and have meaning now is a beautiful, beautiful thing.’
Passing By is at the Tristan Bates Theatre from 5th – 30th November 2013