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The Witness Generation

Excerpt from an Interview with Playwright Matthew López on The Fabulous Invalid Podcast


Rob Russo and Jamie DuMont, hosts of The Fabulous Invalid Podcast, sat down with playwright Matthew López in March of 2020, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Broadway production of The Inheritance to close. The episode was released on May 6, 2020.

This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.


Rob Russo: We were both struck by the way that the play dramatizes intergenerational relationships among gay men, which is something that we don’t really see a lot in media. What inspired you to craft a story that touches on this dynamic of gay men from different generations?

Matthew López: It started with the novel, Howards End. I was so in love with that book and the film as a teenager, and it has stayed with me all my life. I was in Central Park one afternoon in 2008, rereading it for the hundredth time. And it was just this bolt of inspiration. I knew in that instant that I could take these families from the novel from three social classes and retell it using gay men from three different generations.

As a gay man who was born in 1977—alive during the epidemic, but not old enough to be directly imperiled by it—I’ve always thought of my generation as a witness generation. We witnessed the events in the ‘80s and the early ‘90s, but we were not directly impacted by them. And then we became adults, and our lives became settled as adults. And now there’s a new world that I’m watching this next generation of the queer community run with: this explosion of openness, of redefining who we are and who we are in the world.

Rob Russo: I have to imagine that someone who’s just now turning 18 or 20 would see this play in an entirely different way than I do, as someone in his 30s, or as you do, as someone in his 40s. It’s amazing how that small difference in time can mean so much for the progress of gay men, but also the timeline of this epidemic.

Matthew López: A lot can happen in a small period of time, and the world can change overnight. Anybody who has even a cursory understanding of history knows that’s true. I think that there’s a general human tendency towards amnesia. Every generation believes they invented sex. Every generation believes they invented rebellion. The idea of revolution seems to have been invented by whatever generation has come up with the latest one.

[But] there’s nothing that we haven’t seen before. Everything can be understood within the continuum of history. I’ve taken great solace in learning about my history as a gay man, my history as a member of the LGBTQ community, my history as an American, my history as a Puerto Rican American. I mean, it’s trite, but those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. And as I was writing the play, I saw the election of Donald Trump. I saw a lot of things that began to feel analogous to the epidemic years, to a lot of calamities in world history.

It is very difficult for me to imagine what the world looks like to an 18-year-old right now. And people have asked me, why are there only two characters from the younger generation in the play?

And there are several answers to that. One is it’s a question of adaptation, which is that the Schlegel sisters became Toby and Eric, and they’re the central characters in the novel; therefore those became the central characters in my play. They are the age that I roughly was when I started working on the play. I can write about my generation. I have copious amounts of research and books and films and plays to help understand the generation that came before me. But the generation that is coming after me, their story is only starting to be written, and they’re the ones who are going to write it, not me. I realized quickly that any attempt on my part to do with their generation what I allowed myself to do with my own would be dishonest. It’s not my story to tell. It’s not my place to speak for them.

Jamie DuMont: I came out of the closet in the mid-’80s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. And the thing I remember about that time is how it felt very special to be a part of the gay community. I feel that a lot of that is in this play, and it resonates quite clearly. It’s important to look back, as you said, and I think it informs our future.

Matthew López: One of my favorite historians, Shelby Foote, always contended that American history really began with the Civil War: everything that happened before the Civil War led up to the Civil War, and everything that happened after the Civil War was a result of the Civil War. And I think an argument could be made that the gay community was forged really in those [epidemic] years.

I look at those years as a student of history and as someone who knows people who were alive then and who have told me their stories. And of course the question that I always ask myself is, what would you have done? What would your reaction have been? Would you have hid? I hope not, I like to think not. Would I have been on the front lines, would I have been storming the FDA? Would I have died? There are so many “what ifs” that no one can answer. But it is the act of investigation into that question that leads to understanding and compassion. For history to be any use to us, it cannot just be facts and figures and numbers. It can’t be cold. It has to be hot. And the way to make it hot is to make it personal and applicable to our lives today.

The act of compassion is not the act of understanding someone’s feelings so much as it is the attempt to imagine yourself in their experience. And that is what I forced myself to do with this play. It’s the spirit in which I wrote the play and it’s what I hope people take away from the play.

I think if there’s any lesson that could be applicable to this play outside of the gay community, it is that no one is immune from history, and we own our own history, whether we like it or not. We own each other’s history, because in a country as diverse and as disparate as ours, if we don’t own each other’s history, we can’t build a future together.


Listen to the full episode of The Fabulous Invalid Episode 76: “Matthew López: Theatre Is About Limitations” at www.thefabulousinvalid.com.

The Inheritance Part 1 & Part 2

SEP 13 – NOV 27, 2022
Written by Matthew López
Inspired by the Novel Howards End by E. M. Forster
Directed by Mike Donahue
Featuring Nic Ashe, Bill Brochtrup, Tantoo Cardinal, Juan Castano, Jay Donnell, Eric Flores, Israel Erron Ford, August Gray Gall, Adam Kantor, Eddie Lopez, Kasey Mahaffy, Miguel Pinzon, Avi Roque & Tuc Watkins

In contemporary Manhattan, Eric and Toby are 30-somethings who seem to be very much in love and thriving. But on the cusp of their engagement, they meet an older man haunted by the past, and a younger man hungry for a future. Chance meetings lead to surprising choices as the lives of three generations interlink and collide—with explosive results.

The Inheritance reunites Geffen Playhouse alums Matthew López & Mike Donahue (The Legend of Georgia McBride, 2017) for an extended run of the celebrated Stephen Daldry production after its Olivier Award–sweeping London and Tony Award–winning Broadway runs.

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