This week sees the UK debut of Gently Down The Stream, a new play by legendary playwright Martin Sherman – the man who wrote Bent – at the Park Theatre. Dave Cross spoke to Martin, who is celebrating his 80th birthday, about this new play, Bent and why it’s important that the younger generation remember their LGBT+ history.
Hi Martin, it’s great to talk to you, what’s the basic story and set up of Gently Down the Stream?
Ahh, now that’s such a simple question, but I’ve always been very bad when it comes to telling the story of my plays. All I can say is that it’s about an older generation of gay men who have been informed by life that they are not allowed to love, dealing with a younger generation who believe they have every right to love.
And this is shown through the relationship between Beau and Rufus?
Yes, within that relationship we have many glimpses into the entire last 100 years of gay rights. The play takes place over a period of 14 years and at the beginning one is 62 and the other 28, plus there is also another younger character who comes in later, when the others are older.
When you were writing the play, did you start off by wanting to tell the big story of the history of gay rights?
You’re absolutely right, I started by wanting to write the big story. I’ve wanted to write something like this for years; to write something about the changes for gay people during my lifetime. For a long time I didn’t know how to do it. I tried a lot of big obvious ways and it just wasn’t working. Then after many years I realised that I could write about it in a generational way, with a relationship between people of different ages and within that I could have the play I had wanted from the start and talk about that history.
We have a lot more freedoms now, but other things have changed too, is it all good, or is it more superficial now?
Well, not everything is good obviously, but my god it’s so much better than it was. There are of course superficial elements, but there always were and in same ways maybe even more years ago. For a lot of us it is much better now, the changes that have occurred in my lifetime have been so profound, so important and so moving. I am of course talking about life for us here in the West, because these changes have not happened in many places in the world.
Do you think young LGBT people are aware of their own history today?
No I don’t and that was one of the reasons I wanted to write the play. I don’t think they are aware of their history and of what it cost to get the freedoms we have today. But, I also think that when you are young you aren’t as aware of the past. I was a child in America in the 1940s and I had no idea about World War One for instance, or the Great Depression, I knew they had happened, but I didn’t know any details. I wasn’t interested. So I think it’s natural for people not to know, but it’s incredibly important for us as the gay community to teach younger people about what happened, if only so they are aware it could happen again.
We do seem to be in a world where progress is slowing down or even moving backwards, such as in America, trans people not being allowed to serve in the military…
Yes absolutely and that is a huge and important fight that must be fought… although I would point out that 20 years ago that fight didn’t even exist, so the very fact that it is now a viable cause is important.
For a lot of LGBT people and especially gay men, your play Bent and the subsequent film version really spoke to them in a way that often only popular culture can…
Yes totally, popular culture is essential for helping with social change, because that is how we get messages across. It is much more effective than essays or speeches.
What do you think it is about Bent which has made it so successful?
I think because it’s about a piece of history that people didn’t really know about. It’s about being true to yourself which I think is an important and universal message; it’s about love and also because it’s about men and their inability to express themselves and be honest about their emotions, so I think all of that resonated with people.
It was of course made into a film, directed by Sean Mathais, who is directing Gently Down the Stream at the Park Theatre, you obviously have a good working relationship with him?
Yes, we do, I’ve worked with him on a number of projects and it’s always been a joy. We’ve become very good friends, which doesn’t always happen with working relationships.
This production marks your 80th birthday, most people have retired by this point, what are your plans?
I don’t think that I really understand the need to retire. I mean, yes of course if you’re in a job you don’t enjoy, then I get that, but I’m incredibly lucky. To stop writing would be to stop being who I am.
So we can expect a few more plays to come?
Oh I definitely hope so.