Absorbing rather than simply studying

Martin Milton watches a play from Matthew Lopez, The Inheritance.

The Inheritance is the West End Theatre hit of the season – some say the decade, or even a generation. It had its first run at the Young Vic between 2 March and 19 May this year and transfered to the West End in September for just 15 weeks. A beautiful, if emotionally stormy experience, the play tackles questions of history, responsibility and storytelling, the place – or the need – for these in our individual and community lives.

The Inheritance is described as a production that ‘questions how much we owe to those who lived and loved before us. A generation after the peak of the AIDS crisis, what is it like to be a young gay man in New York? How many words are there now for pain and for love? Stephen Daldry’s [ … ] production explores profound themes through the turbulent and often hilarious experiences of a group of young, ambitious New Yorkers. What is the legacy left to them by previous generations? What do they owe the future and each other?'

First things first – as a play this is a stunning production. It thoroughly deserves the plaudits being thrown at it. Personally, I found nothing to fault – Mathew Lopez’s script is riveting, the acting sublime and the set stark and a perfect foil for the telling of a complex story that weaves contemporary and historical ideas. While the entire cast is wonderful, for me Kyle Stoller as Eric and Andy Burnap as Toby were outstanding.

The play engages with profound themes in a masterful way, these are rich and pertinent to many of our lives – whether personal or professional. Central to the production is the question that Eric ponders: What was the responsibility between gay men from one generation to another? (Lopez, 2018, p.266). It's a question of care, of education and of the development of the self. It is a question that many discriminated communities have to engage with – as do we psychologists, who should be the allies of these groups. The play is adamant, there are good reasons to take our responsibilities seriously. Without a concerted effort the past is forgotten, ignored, resisted and shoved aside, as are vuilnerable groups of people. And this happens quickly.

In the play the absence is powerfully illuminated, in an exchange between Margaret, a woman in her elder years and Leo, a gay man in his 20s (p.277 in the script).

Margaret: Years ago – before you were born – there was a plague. Do you know about it?

Leo: Only a little.

Margaret: And what little do you know about it?

Leo: Many men died.

Margaret: That could be said of any plague. What marked this as different?

Leo: Many gay men died.

That many gay men died to AIDS (and some continue to), that we lost a generation, that the pain was absorbed by those that survived, must all have an effect on us, individually and socially. As therapists we know to be cautious about a client’s protestations that historical difficult experiences mean nothing now that time has passed. We know that loss, pain and trauma leave a legacy (see Cooper and Adams, 2005; Dyregrov, 2000; Freud, 1917; Madison, 2005). Without awareness and the availability of the stories of those who have preceeded us, our suffering, both physical and social, may simply be ignored.

The other issue is that our stories may be the way we realise what we have been deprived of. This is another point made (p.147). ‘Eric wondered what his life would be like if he had not been robbed of a generation of mentors, of poets, of friends and, perhaps even lovers’.

Visibility and representation – something our schools, public broadcasting services and piublic policy often overlook (or deny?) – becomes a major question here.

The Inheritance would not be as complete if it focused only on the history of the pandemic. Lopez, Daldry and the company of actors also facilitate an indepth encounter with homophobia and the impact it has on so many lives, most poignantly those of children (p.249). 

‘Ostracized for his sensitivity, for his scandalous interest in learning. No one knew what to do with this sensitive, effeminate, sing-songy, twinkle-toed, wide-eyed, broken-hearted child. It wasn’t long before Toby’s new schoolmates smelled the blood in the water. He was eight when he was first called a faggot. He could tell by the way it was flung off the snarling lips of the boy who first uttered it. The hatred in his eyes directed solely at Toby, the only one of his kind at school. The only faggot’.

Homophobic abuse is powerful because it is not singular, one off moments, but characteristic of the world out there, it may not affect the body like HIV/AIDS does, but it is a potent infection. I wrote about this a few years ago in my review of Moffie (Milton, 2014), so it is at least that long since I have seen such a compelling portrayal of the experience. Sure, some psychologists are familiar with these stories – either through their own life experience, through engagement with their courageous clients, or through the work of artists, playwrights and novelists. However, many are not, and The Inheritance is a chance to absorb rather than simply study these experiences. And this is something that Lopez, Daldry and the actors should be proud of – at no time is this a lecture. It is a profound magical, disturbing, funny and glorious experience.

Morgan speaks from a hundred years ago, and explains why stories and visibilty matter. He says: So many of us were never given a healthy example of what it means to be homosexual. Which means, of course, no one ever taught us how to be ourselves, how to love, how to accept love. We couldn’t find it in our cultures and so we had to find it in each other. Clandestinely, fearfully. And sometimes joyfully. Our educations occurred in parks, in public bathrooms, on these very dunes of Fire Island. Or Hampstead Heath, busier than Oxford Street on some summer nights. It was all dangerous and forbidden and furtive and wonderful. And along the way we hurt each other. Sometimes we caused each other great pain.

And we all know that there are many more stories to tell. Not just updates, but ones that have been silenced and invisibilised over time. We need these too and in psychology we are maybe just at the beginning of exploring these.

Jasper: Now let’s talk about trans rights. Let’s talk about bullying in schools.

Tristan: Let’s talk about addiction, about the resurgence of HIV among gay men of color.

Jason 1: Let’s talk about suicide, violence, homelessness.

Lopez, 2018, p.85.

So it could be argued that, where it is safe to do so, LGBT people have a responsibility to make our stories public, as without this, what are available are just the tired old tales of woe. These are important but they are by far not an accurate portrayal of the lives of the community. Our allies – individuals and the psychological professions – have a responsibility to seek a wider array of stories, find a way into understanding the rich panoply of experience there is to learn from.

Eric: We need our community, we need our history. How else can we teach the next generation who they are and how they got here? Human culture from time immemorial has been transmitted through stories, right? Think about the ancient epics: the Odyssey, the Mahabharata, oral histories that allowed cultures to understand themselves.

The play reminds us of the need to think about illuminating the many and varied rich and positive stories too. They exist; we need a library of rich realistic stories that addresses our highs as well as our lows, our thriving as well as our struggles. Eric notes (p.86):

And we in our own culture feel the stirring of pride when we reflect on the meaning of Stonewall, Edie Windsor, Bayard Rustin, Harvey Milk and the bravery of the men and women on the front lines of the epidemic. And to let that go means we’ve relinquished a part of ourselves. If we can’t have a conversation with our past, then what will be our future? Who are we? And more importantly: who will we become?

And although they are not often foregrounded, many positive stories have been written, and they are invaluable. But The Inheritance notes that it is also important to find our own stories. Morgan, a fictionalised E.M. Forster, notes (p.140): ‘You are essential to your story. I like to believe I was helpful to you as you started it. But I cannot help you finish it. It isn’t my right to. The past must be faced. It must be learned from. But it cannot be revised. I had my time. Now it is yours’.

In the play Morgan offers guidance to Leo (p.229-230). ‘You have shown me that my book was then, as you are now, a link in this chain of gay men teaching one another, loving one another, hurting one another, understanding one another. This inheritance of history, of community, and of self. And from where you sit on this beach today, you have no idea whose lives you will touch, and which ones you will save’.

I am so thankful for this play, for this chance to revisit the question of what responsibility we have. It seems to me that as a profession who works with the vulnerable and the silenced, and works to assist communities in their efforts to thrive and to contribute to the wider good, psychologists’ responsibility is great, and should be embraced. We have an important role to play in the writing, the tellling and the sharing of these stories. We may not make the impact that a play of the quality of The Inheritance can, but we make an impact nontheless – and we should ensure it is a good one.

- The Inheritance is on at the Noel Coward Theatre until 19 January. 
Image: Marc Brenner

- Martin Milton is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Counselling Psychology at Regents School of Psychotherapy and Psychology, and Regents University London. 


Cooper, M. And Adams, M. (2005). Death. In E. Van Deurzen and C. Arnold-Baker (Eds). Existential perspectives on human issues: A handbook for therapeutic practice, Palgrave: Basingstoke.

Dyregrov, A., Gupta, L., Gjestad, R. & Mukanoheli, E. (2000). Trauma exposure and psychological reactions to genocide among Rwandan children, Journal of Traumatic Stress, Vol. 13, No. 1,

Freud, S. (1917). Mourning and Melancholia. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV (1914-1916): On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works, 237-258

Lopez, M. (2018). The inheritance, Faber and Faber: London.

Madison, G. (2005). Bereavement and loss, in E. Van Deurzen and C. Arnold-Baker (Eds). Existential perspectives on human issues: A handbook for therapeutic practice, Palgrave: Basingstoke.

Milton, M. (2014) Moffie, The Psychologist, 27(1): 28-29.

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