Martin Sherman by Sander Hicks

BOMB 62 Winter 1998
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Martin Sherman. Photo by Tom McKitterick. Courtesy of Tom McKitterick.

In 1980, as Reagan took power and rewound the national mood, American Martin Sherman moved permanently to London. Bent, his heart-wrenching story of queer love and queer persecution during the Third Reich, had run for nine months on Broadway. Since then he has written the plays MessiahWhen She Danced and A Madhouse in Goa, all performed in the West End, the last two starring Vanessa Redgrave. His original screenplay for Alive and Kicking (aka Indian Summer) helped win the film the Audience Award at the 1996 London Film Festival. And his BAFTA-nominated adaptation of Alice Thomas Ellis’ novel Clothes in the Wardrobe was released in the U.S. as The Summer House with Jeanne Moreau. He returns to the United States in this era of “don’t ask, don’t tell” log-rolling with the film version of Bentand the New York premiere of A Madhouse in Goa (at Second Stage).

A Madhouse in Goa stings with an expatriate’s prideful alienation. A tale of innocence and betrayal in the first act is later exposed as the work of a star writer, burnt-out and babbling in the second. Suffering from a stroke, his responses are alternatively ridiculous, inappropriate or profound. Heather, his best friend and executor, is caught in a maelstrom of anxiety about the environment; a Hollywood producer wants to turn the writer’s most famous novel into a musical, and Heather’s son lusts with a puppy’s innocence after a Greek beach bunny/double agent. What was wistful turns punitive and startling. The toxicity of modern life infects the aging, admirable characters and we stifle the impulse to block out their screams of anguish. This play’s no luxury cruise. From Goa, Martin Sherman smiles politely, without pity, without remorse. I caught a train uptown and talked with him for an hour.

Sander Hicks I saw A Madhouse in Goa two nights ago, and I have some questions about its creation. Were the two acts of the play created at different times?

Martin Sherman No, created at the same time, but I can’t remember how the two parts were conceived, just that they finally arrived joined. It was 11 years ago. The initial impulse came years before when I saw a documentary about Goa. Apparently, if you lost your passport there you were sent to the madhouse. They interviewed a woman through the gates of the madhouse, and she was talking to the interviewer in three languages. I thought, Oh, she speaks three languages, she’s not crazy. Which of course was very stupid of me, but I carried that image around with me for years.

SH Goa is known internationally as this bohemian heroin beach in India. That doesn’t play into A Madhouse in Goa’s mystique.

MS I know many people who have gone there for other reasons. It’s a very popular spot on the constant traveler’s itinerary.

SH Do you know a lot of constant travelers?

MS A few.

SH It seems everybody in the play is in transit, in some way or another.

MS Somebody said to me years ago that all of my plays are in some way about exile, if only emotional exile.

SH You yourself are an expatriate.

MS Yes. My father was born in Russia, and my mother was just born in America. I don’t really have roots any place.

SH But you love London.

MS I love London.

SH Why?

MS That’s hard to explain. My reason for moving there was instinctive, there was no huge intellectual reason. Within an hour of my first being there I knew I wanted to live in London for a lifetime. I cannot offer any sane explanation for London.

SH You grew up in the States?

MS I grew up in New Jersey. That’s reason enough to want to live in London, but you know, you’d be happy to live in Chicago if you grew up in New Jersey. In any case, I moved to London permanently in 1980.

SH Until then, you were living and having plays produced in New York?

MS Yes. I had been produced a little bit—very, very badly, culminating in a disastrous production of a play of mine called Cracks, Off-Broadway, which was the first really visible production I had in any kind of legitimate venue. It was a catastrophe. However, I had had a small production in London that was very good of a play of mine called Passing By. But I wasn’t going to move on a permanent basis to England until I had some success in America, so I would know that I wasn’t running away. I finally moved after Bent opened on Broadway.

SH How long did Bent run on Broadway?

MS Nine months.

SH Do you have a certain fondness for particular plays of yours? How do you feel about A Madhouse in Goa as compared to your other plays?

MS They’re like my children. I don’t prefer one over the other, they all have different qualities.

SH None of your children have ever disappointed you?

MS Some of the early kids have, yes. But the plays I’ve written, starting with Passing By in 1972, are all my children, I can’t separate them.

SH A Madhouse in Goa was a strange experience, I was quite taken in by the first act. There’s this charmed vulnerability, especially in the character played by Judith Ivey, Mrs. Honey. The reason I asked if any time had passed between the creation of the two acts in the play, was that so much time elapses in the space between the two acts…20 years.

MS Well, there was space in between the writing of the two acts, but not necessarily in the creation. I knew what the obvious connections were before I wrote Act One. And there are lots of subtle, little things that are completely subconscious.

SH It seems that from the outset you are honing in on historical differences between the ‘60s and the ’80s. And it’s a very jarring difference, to make this historical jump.

MS It wasn’t conscious, it just happened. I was very influenced by Lawrence Durrell, who I mention in the play. In London, when the play was produced, people brought up all these other writers, obviously Tennessee Williams, Terence Rattigan, and Gore Vidal. No one ever thought to mention Lawrence Durrell. But his imprint is there from the talk about Durrell in the first act, to the fact that the writer in the second act is named Daniel Hosani. Hosani is the last name of Justine in…

SH The Alexandria Quartet.

MS I loved [Durrell’s] The Alexandra Quartet. One of the things that affected me forever was getting to page 40 of Balthazar, the second book of the Quartet, and discovering that everything in the first book was untrue. That had a clear effect on my conception of this play, and it was something that I think hadn’t been done before in the theater.

SH Did you feel manipulated?

MS No. I felt shocked and upset. I didn’t feel manipulated, but it’s affected the way I’ve seen the truth ever since. It’s affected my vision of what is supposedly called truth, in that in any situation what I see is clearly not necessarily what I’m seeing. Or anything that I read is possibly not what I’m reading. Durrell brought this home for me.

SH It’s a principle of postmodernism, which is itself historically and culturally derived. What are the issues worth standing for, regardless of the fact that reality itself seems to be in flux? Because what I found most disturbing about the second act of Goa is that when the veil is torn off and all the vulnerability and the truth of the situation of the first act has been obliterated, just torn to shreds, at the end of the second act you kill everybody! I was sort of shell-shocked.

MS In terms of all those layers being stripped away, at the end of the play, when Heather says to the writer, Daniel, “Your lies are more like the truth than truth itself,” it’s to say that artistic lies can tell the truth, more maybe than the actual truth. This deconstruction of the first part of the play in its second act may not be as shocking as it seems. The first part may tell more truths than what actually happens.

SH Of course the second act is classic deconstruction.

MS I deconstruct in so many ways in this play. The film producer deconstructs the writer’s version; the false version of the truth he makes is even falser than it was in the writer’s book.

SH One of my questions was about belief…

MS That’s something I’m stuck with. You can’t change the time the play was written and you can’t change the emotional violence that surrounded the writing of the play. The play was written 11 years ago when people, on the surface, were much more negative about the world, there was a great deal of despair. People are now more positive. I think that it’s probably a false positive, because the problems are still there, they’ve just been glossed over in a way that they weren’t 11 years ago. But the play’s ending comes out of the time in which it was written. Probably if I were writing the play today it might end differently, but I can’t pretend it was written today, it was written then.

But I did change something. The second act took place one year in the future from the date of my writing it. Since writing it, our future has come and gone. For instance, the play originally didn’t say Chernobyl, it was an unnamed nuclear reactor, but I wrote the play in the year of Chernobyl. I was responding to the disaster, but I was imagining a year in the future when there were even more disasters like Chernobyl.

SH Speaking of environmental concerns, and the rebirth of serious environmental concerns in the ‘80s, at what level is the audience supposed to connect with your character Heather’s ideas? And at what level is the audience asked to empathize with the pure emotional content of her concern?

MS I don’t think about those things. I don’t deliberately say, I want the audience to empathize with the characters. What I was trying to do with Heather was to show how somebody becomes aware of so many problems that they can become quite unfocused. At that time, people didn’t know what to worry about first, they were overwhelmed. And Heather is extremely unfocused, which is a dangerous thing to have in a play, because once you have an unfocused character, suddenly the play itself can become unfocused.

SH Yes. In some ways Heather reminds me of the environmentally, chemically sensitive character in the Todd Haynes film Safe. How much are you concerned about the earth?

MS I have to be concerned, but I don’t think the concern drives me over the edge, the way it does with Heather. Like most people, I’ve learned to live with that concern, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing. It just seems too big to deal with in everyday life. There are aspects of the future that are very scary, as well as aspects that are extraordinarily exciting and promising.

SH What do you find exciting and promising?

MS Some of the things I find exciting and promising are also scary. They’re all tied in to one another, it depends on which way I’m feeling. Technology, for instance, who knows what that’s going to lead to? Technology might be able to attack some of our problems; or it might create more problems. Technology might lead to a much more beautiful world; or it might lead to an incredible fascistic takeover of the world. I’m giving two possibilities for everything, but the truth is that what usually happens is a third thing, the thing that we haven’t thought of yet.

SH Do you use e-mail?

MS Utterly incompetent. I write everything longhand. I’ve decided that I do at least have to learn how to use a computer. I’m very computer resistant, but I do like the idea of e-mail.

SH Karl Marx said that the class that has the daily social relations with new technologies is the class on the vanguard of knowing how those technologies will impact the general social relations of society. So when technologies come around, the people that experience them first are changed first.

MS Yes, but people who experience them first know the way life was before, so they have an entirely different sensibility than somebody who was born into the new technology. They don’t know anything else.

SH My point was that e-mail actually changes the way that you write and correspond. It takes everything up a notch in speed.

MS What frightens me about e-mail is that I know people who think that they have friends who they have met in different countries. And I wonder if someday e-mail will not replace actual friendship.

SH On the other hand, perhaps these people can someday travel to those places and meet somebody they would have never met before.

MS Yes, the possibilities don’t have any conceivable direction.

SH (pause) Who are some of your favorite playwrights?

MS I won’t tell you my favorite live playwrights—I like a lot of live playwrights incidentally, but I don’t like these kinds of lists. But my favorite dead playwrights are all the obvious contenders…Tennessee Williams, Chekhov, Shakespeare…the one unobvious contender is Eduardo de Filippo.

SH I don’t know his work.

MS An Italian Neapolitan writer who wrote many, many plays just bursting with life. There’s a production in New York up now called Filumena. It’s very funny and very sad, a wonderful play. He’s one of the great playwrights of his time.

SH Let’s talk more about the big picture, about politics and economics. You mentioned deconstruction, you’ve read Derrida and Foucault?

MS No, I don’t read that stuff. (laughter) The truth is that I really don’t know what postmodernism is, even though I hear it talked about constantly.

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Mick Jagger as Greta in the film adaptation of Martin Sherman’s play, Bent.

SH It’s funny, 99 percent of the time it’s mentioned with contempt.

MS But I think it’s good if artists don’t know what they are, and just do what they do. Other people can say: It fits into this category, or it’s part of this movement…

SH Yes, I’ve heard that before from writers: Don’t try to force it, don’t try to name it. Do you follow British politics at all?

MS Oh yes.

SH What’s up?

MS What’s happening right now is very exciting. The Labour victory is the best thing that’s happened to the country in many, many years. London has been filled with an incredible new vitality for the past two years, partly because on some suppressed level, everyone knew that there was going to be a new government, and so England was preparing itself. There’s a real sense of the future. Not in a fanatical way, in a practical way, so that it can really happen instead of being a pie in the sky program. Every day you open up the newspaper and there is an article announcing a few exciting new programs. There is also some bad stuff. I suspect that Labour’s disappointed some people in the arts, myself included.

SH It seems almost tied into a class struggle, which England always thinks it knows so much more about.

MS They are obsessed by class. That’s why it’s easy to live there if you are not English, because you yourself do not have to deal with any of that nonsense.

SH Why is England obsessed with class and why is America oblivious to it?

MS Well, I think America pretends to be oblivious to it. But why is England obsessed with it? I’m not a psychological historian, I can’t tell you what the obsession is about, but it’s deeply inbred. People are born with it, and it’s one of the things that I think the new government might change. The country is breaking down some of their need to categorize. Because the country has itself changed, class is beginning to diminish.

SH How so?

MS Despite the fact that there are a lot of problems—a lot of legal problems, a lot of prejudice, a lot of racism. The British tend to be openly racist, in a very benign, surface way. They make comments that are so politically incorrect you would never hear them in America. And yet, English life has been deeply affected by the new influx of other cultures, particularly the Asian and Caribbean cultures. I think the reaction to Diana’s death had a great deal to do with what the new England is, and how unrepresentative the royal family is to the new England, and how representative Diana was.

SH It’s funny, the act of creating the legend of Diana was mimicked in this country. She obviously has a large emotional resonance for the masses of society. Even on the Lower East Side in New York, graffiti artists painted murals in her honor. And yet, I read in a socialist newspaper that even though we think she was one of us, she wasn’t. Especially when her last meal in Paris cost more…

MS Yes, but you see that totally misunderstands what she represented. Yes, she was born into another class, and she behaved in many ways as you do in the class that you’re born into. The Spencers are one of the oldest real aristocratic families in Europe. She was a true aristocrat. She was rich, and she spent a lot of money. She had to be what she was. That doesn’t mean that she couldn’t relate to everybody on some level. If you’re saying, “Well, she wasn’t one of us,” that’s a dangerous catch phrase. Aristocrats could look at working class people and say, “Well, they’re not one of us,” and working class people could look at aristocrats and say the same thing. Life is impossible when you view it like that.

SH Well, the classic Left view of class is not, “It’s a pity there’s class conflict.” But rather, it’s a pity that the class conflict seems to be weighted in favor of the ruling class.

MS The Left view of class conflict is as entrenched as the Right, it’s just on the other side of the class divide.

SH It’s all a question of who has materially held the power, and…

MS That doesn’t have to do with class. A great deal of the power right now is held by people who would not be considered upper class, but ruling class, which is quite different. Power is held by money, and money doesn’t have very much to do with the old definition of the class system.

SH (pause) How long is the run for A Madhouse in Goa?

MS It’s a limited run.

SH At the preview my date commended you for writing a play in which there’s a gay character who isn’t dysfunctional and weepy, and I too admired this about the play. David’s character had an immediate vulnerability.

MS Well, gay writers should do what straight writers do, which is to write out of their own sexuality, but about other things. So one character is going to be vulnerable, and another won’t. Heterosexuals write about whatever they want to write about, but clearly their sexuality and sex affects them. Their characters are usually exclusively heterosexual; they’re nice, and they’re not nice; they’re cowardly and they’re heroic…They’re anything, and no one ever thinks about it.

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Lothaire Bluteau and Clive Owen in the film adaptation of Martin Sherman’s play, Bent.

SH And yet, when you think about your first act dramaturgically, the first poignant action is David stumbling into sex—he thinks that it’s one thing, and then it turns out to be a hustle. I connected immediately to David. But in the second act he’s a stroke victim, so he’s not all there. What was the logic behind going from a character who is nothing but potential—right out of college on his first European trip, stumbling into adventures, on the journey of his life…to the end, where his death is ever present?

MS The beginning of the play isn’t the way David really was, but what he wrote in his novel. In the second act we hear that he was actually with a woman, he was traveling and was rather more sophisticated than the boy in the novel. He is much more complicated than what is presented in the first act. But what is presented is a character who has a great deal of tenderness. That may be the truth of who he was but the difficulty in this play is that although the first act is presented as a play, it’s really what the character wrote about in retrospect—and as fiction. What happened on that trip is revealed in the second act. You have to believe that his novel, the fiction, was a good book. That was the hard part. The first act is much tidier, as most works of art are. The second act is, in a sense, all over the place. The first act is quite contained and focused. That’s the difference between art and life.

SH Yes, although there seemed to be an energy shift, a coda, in giving the last monologue to the caretaker, because the writer has had a stroke and can’t respond. His caretaker has to tell him the denouement. Was it intentional on your part to revert back in that scene to a kind of serenity?

MS I doubt it was intentional. After that scene you can’t be sure that the whole second act isn’t a novel as well. So maybe it’s not true either.

SH I remember how much I smiled throughout the first act. It’s so charming, it’s like traveling for the first time with that character. Meeting this talkative woman with this big Mississippi accent, a big anti-mother who says, “Loosen up, unbutton your shirt!” Everything seems so out of place, and yet so sunny. Was one of your first trips to Greece?

MS I go to Greece all the time. I passionately love Greece and my friends there. I do a lot of writing on the Greek Islands.

SH Are you a full time playwright?

MS As opposed to what?

SH As opposed to someone who also does other things…

MS Plays and films?

SH Have you worked for the BBC at all?

MS My first film was co-produced by the BBC. In America it’s called The Summer House, in England it was called The Clothes in the Wardrobe.

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Daniel Gerroll and Judith Ivey in a scene from the Second Stage Theatre production of Martin Sherman’s A Madhouse in Goa.

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Judith Ivy, Rick Stear, and Daniel Gerroll in a scene from the Second Stage Theatre production of Martin Sherman’s A Madhouse in Goa.

SH When did you know you were gay?

MS I suppose unconsciously I always knew, but when I was in college.

SH Which was?

MS Boston University. I graduated in… I dare not say the year on tape. (laughter)

SH Where were you in the late ’60s?

MS Why the late ’60s?

SH Politically—social upheavals, unrest, dissent, your relationship to all that.

MS I was hippie-ish.

SH What did the late ’60s mean to you?

MS I think they changed the life of the world in many ways. I loved all of it. I also recognized that it couldn’t go on, that it was in many ways an illusion. And in some ways it was real. It was thrilling to be a part of it.

SH Are you talking about the Dionysian spirit? Or are you talking about something else?

MS It was not as Dionysian as people think. It gave the illusion of being Dionysian. The sense that if you could look however you wanted to look and wear whatever you wanted to wear, you could do whatever you wanted as well. Now, everyone really looks the way they want to look, people by and large wear what they want to wear. The fact that you couldn’t do that once is hardly conceivable. Just in small ways like that, the ‘60s changed lives. I wrote a play about the ’60s. In fact, they did it for the first time in London about four or five years ago. And it was taken seriously, but it’s really a farce, I realized then how much I was making fun of the time. It was such a ridiculous period. But you get beyond all of that and there are so many things we take for granted now, that simply wouldn’t exist without the late ’60s. It was a very exciting time.

Conceived on a ship returning his parents to DC from a Ghana mission for the “State Department,” Sander Hicks received Anarchist Portraits from a CIA Statistician “Uncle” Lee as a graduation present in 1989. Today, he is a member, New Dramatists, editor, Soft Skull Press, playwright and lead singer, White Collar Crime.

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Originally published in

BOMB 62, Winter 1998

Featuring interviews with Elizabeth Murray, Kerry James Marshall, Anthony Hecht, Michael Winterbottom, Liza Bear, Wong Kar-Wai, Olu Dara, Martin Sherman, and Philip Kan Gotanda. 

Read the issue
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