Originally written January 15, 2009
The play, Bent, by Martin Sherman really took me by surprise. At the start of the first scene, I understood the setting as any apartment in any city. The fact that the play was in English, with a modern sensibility to the dialogue, led me to assume the action took place in New York. I had noticed that the play was copy-written in 1978, so I also presumed the play was set during the late 1970s. Therefore the entrance of the Gestapo officers was a complete surprise to me.
I found myself wondering whether the playwright intended for the opening scene to mislead his audiences as it did me. I suspect that even if audience members did not make the same assumptions I did, they would still be affected by the seeming mis-match between the opening and the action that followed. The dialogue and situation of the opening moments establish the “ordinary world”—in the vocabulary of the hero’s journey model—of Max and Rudy. These characters lead a life of performing and partying; drugs, booze, and boys. They seem to feel comfortable and safe being outwardly open about their homosexuality in their home city of Berlin. What this makes me think about is how quickly the culture can change. The oppression enforced by the hands of Hitler’s regime steadily increased and the German people must have felt their options rapidly shrinking. It was heartbreaking when Max and Rudy acknowledged that it was risky for them even glance at one another in an affectionate way.
I am reminded of the status of women in Iran before and after the cultural revolution. Books and articles I have read about Iran from the early 1970s describe the culture as extremely progressive. Women commonly attended universities seeking higher education, and overwhelmingly experienced a sense of liberation in how they expressed themselves through their appearance. After the revolution, the restrictions upon women’s everyday activities became severe.
By focusing on the persecution of homosexuality within the terror of the Third Reich, Sherman has suggested a comparison between this and the persecution of all “outliers”. Perhaps audience members who already feel sympathy for the Jewish sufferers will also find empathy in their hearts for the gay people who are persecuted and punished by the audience’s own culture.