Thursday 8 November 2012

Bent, As Times Goes By

This time last month a local theatre put on a short run of the play “Bent” by Martin Sherman (with two local gay amateur actors in the leading roles). On the day after the run finished I did a guided tour for Nottingham University’s lgbt students group. Some of them had been to see the play, and were on my new tour put together specially for them (they’ve been on all the others). It just so happened that the tour went into the origins of “Bent”, so the timing could not have been better.

Part of “Bent”s origins begins in 1977 when the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) was looking for somewhere to hold its annual conference. The Vice President of the CHE was a journalist living in Nottingham called Ray Gosling. There were several other members of the CHE who had links with Nottingham as well, so they chose it as the host city for their conference.

Over the August Bank Holiday weekend in 1977 a handful of venues around Nottingham hosted meetings, workshops, guests speakers, lunches and social get-togethers. One of the host hotels was the venue for the opening night event (after registration of delegates). I can see that hotel from my window – I live in a block of flats next to it. It’s now called the Hilton Nottingham, but back in 1977 it was the Victoria Hotel (one of the remaining structures from the old Victoria Station on which the block of flats was built).

At 7.30 pm on Friday 26th August 1977 the Gay Sweatshop premiered the play “As Time Goes By” at the Victoria Hotel to start the CHE conference. The Gay Sweatshop was a street theatre group formed in 1975 (one of its founders, Roger Baker, was also from Nottinghamshire) with the aim of bringing a more realistic portrayal of homosexuality to theatre. As we shall see, is did just that with “As Time Goes By”.

The play was divided into 3 sections, each dealing with key moments in lgbt history. The first part centred around the aftermath of the Oscar Wilde trials. The third part centred around a gay bar in New York in 1969. But what was new for theatre was the theme of the 2nd section.

Part 2 was set in 1930s Berlin. When the gay Nazi officer Ernst Rohm is murdered on Hitler’s orders a group of gay men realise that Nazi persecution has put all gay men in a dangerous position. This was the first time that this aspect of the Holocaust was treated in detail on stage. Very little was known about gay victims in the Holocaust, and what happened after the CHE conference premiere was to be most significant.

“As Time Goes By” was a critical success. A national tour had been planned and in the following week Gay Sweatshop took the play to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Joining the Sweatshop was the American playwright Martin Sherman. As he would later write, “I travelled with the Sweatshop to Edinburgh for the run of ‘As Time Goes By’ and that play pumped adrenalin into my eager veins”. Sherman was inspired by the possibility of expanding an overlooked and misunderstood period in gay history, and his play “Bent” was the result. In acknowledgement he dedicated the first published version of the play in 1979 to a leading member of the production team of Gay Sweatshop’s “As Time Goes By”. Sherman later admitted that he wrote “Bent” for the Sweatshop.

I could go into more Nottingham connections to “Bent”, such as the film version starring a gay actor who was first talent-spotted at Nottingham Playhouse, or that the only national memorial to the Holocaust in the UK is in a village several miles away from the city. But I’ll leave both of those for other times.

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