In 1981 the play ‘Bent’ by Martin Sherman went on it’s UK tour and I was fortunate enough to see it in Nottingham.
Inspired by ‘The Men with the Pink Triangles’ – the biography of gay Holocaust survivor Heinz Heger – it is an extraordinarily powerful portrayal of Nazi brutality and the lengths people will go to in order to survive.
Prior to the publication of Heger’s book in the early 70’s, little had been known about Nazi persecution of gay men. This was due largely to the fact that homosexuality remained a crime in most countries after the war. In consequence, those few gay men who had survived the death camps were – understandably – unwilling to draw the attention of the authorities to themselves again.
‘The Men with the Pink Triangles’ and, subsequently, ‘Bent’ finally brought about a recognition and sustained interest in the issue. The fact that Ian McKellen and Richard Gere starred in the London and Broadway premieres respectively, would also have helped enormously.
As I have already said, it is an immensely powerful work. There were two particularly memorable scenes for me. The first was when the central character Max beat his lover to death in front of the Gestapo to ‘prove’ he wasn’t gay. The second was when he and another internee ‘make love’ in the middle of a work camp without even looking at or touching each other. I’ve included a clip from the later, movie version to illustrate just how extraordinary this is.
Even though these events took place nearly 70 years ago, it still raises uncomfortable questions for me. We can all look back in disapproval from the relative safety of the 21st century but I think we still need to ask ourselves what we would do if we were in that position.
Things change rapidly, and we only need look at what’s currently going on in places like Russia and Iran to see just how many people still think that our extermination is legitimate and justifiable.
We should still be mindful of what ‘Bent’ tells us about human nature – not least it’s capacity for brutality beyond imagination. And we should also remember that it took more than 30 years for this persecution of gay men to come to light.