Whether or not author Martin Sherman can carry us all the way to the blistering climax of "Bent," he's got a powerful sense of theater going for two-thirds of his bizarre, bloody journey. Along the way he may be willing to use the tricky surprises of suspense melodrama to make sure we're startled to attention, but he never uses them cheaply.
In a homosexual pad—the language and atmosphere seem entirely contemporary—two friends and lovers are recovering from a night's bout with liquor, cocaine and sado-masochistic sex. (pp. 73-4)
[But suddenly we're caught up in the] bloodbath that overtook German homosexuals…. From now on being homosexual would be held one degree lower than being Jewish….
[The two lovers escape but are eventually] caught and clapped into a filthy boxcar … headed for Dachau….
[Max is] forced into a brilliantly realized bout of violence that is original, complex, sickening, and utterly plausible all at once…. [He] is so overcome by shame and self-hatred, by disgust at what he is doing to preserve himself, that he slips over into uncontrollable rage: rage that he can only take out on the friend he is helping to kill….
I'm not going to describe an equally disturbing event that follows [the death of his friend]; the open sound of dismay that washed across the auditorium on the night I saw "Bent" was one I have never quite heard...
(The entire section is 513 words.)
There are two main troubles with Bent: It is melodrama—bad enough—worsening into mushiness in Act II, and it is all utterly ahistorical and preposterous, a kind of combination homosexual wet dream and Steigian dream of glory. In the first, or melodramatic, act, there is still some competence; at least Sherman knows how to keep the story moving along, how to cut his scenes short to achieve a nervous hurtling forward, and how to sprinkle the proceedings with the pepper of violence and the salt of tearfulness. But credibility goes out through the fourth wall from the outset….
I am perfectly willing to believe in diabolic Nazis and homosexuals only a little lower than the angels, but a play made up of only these forfeits all claims to serious art and aspires at best to slick commercialism.
Bent, however, fails even in those terms. In Act II, Max and Horst, his new love, are in Dachau, obliged to pile up rocks on the left, then lug and heap them up on the right—back and forth, ad infinitum, ostensibly to drive them crazy. (p. 110)
On this rocky road to romance, Horst converts Max back to humanity and true love…. [However,] (in Dachau, you worried about survival, not sex), this is also distasteful. Not because it is homosexual, but because this kind of brute sex talk eludes the powers of even the greatest writers (from whom Sherman is several light-years away) to make it compelling…. However, even this is not the chief fiasco of Bent; that is attained in Max's narrative of how he proved his heterosexuality to the Nazis (which I'll spare you) and in the final scenes of sentimental heroics worthy of Hollywood at its worst. (pp. 110-11)
John Simon, "Campy Dachau, Plywood Mahogany," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1979, by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 12, No. 49, December 17, 1979, pp. 110-11.
To be overly ambitious is a good failing in a young and gifted playwright, and I am quick to forgive Martin Sherman for most of the flaws in "Bent" …, a play that is well worth our serious attention. Mr. Sherman has tried to tell two or three stories at once, and sometimes the working out of their plots leads not to enlightenment but to collision, and yet what passionate, blood-drenched theatre he offers us along the way!… "Bent"'s curtain rises on a flaw: in what comes close to being a mere prank, the playwright seeks to conceal from us that the opening scene—a homosexual household on the morning after a night of drunken partygoing—though it appears at first to be laid in the present,… is in fact laid in Berlin in the early nineteen-thirties…. No doubt Sherman hoped that this introductory juggling with place and time would serve to indicate the universality and duration of the homosexual "problem," but it gets the play off to a false start….
"Bent" has two main themes: homosexual love and the nature of survival. Max is an incessant flirt, who finds himself incapable of love and who affects to believe that love is beyond all homosexuals; he fails, in the celebrated phrase of E. M. Forster, to connect…. To his horror, Max finds himself being made to act as the not altogether unwilling instrument of Rudy's death…. In the grim isolation of Dachau, he chooses a new lover, Horst, whose amorous advances he then for a while rejects. Both men suffer horrifying fates as the play ends, but the message of the play isn't a despairing one: Max finally elects not to survive, because he perceives that he has become capable of love. His death is a form of connection.
After the bustling, highly colored melodrama of the first act of "Bent," we are confronted in the second act with a gray aridity of word and gesture that puts us in mind of Beckett. (p. 100)
Brendan Gill, "Surviving," in The New Yorker (© 1979 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LV, No. 44, December 17, 1979, pp. 100-02.∗
The little-publicized plight of homosexuals under the Third Reich is the avowed concern of "Bent."…
Whatever his intention, Mr. Sherman has trivialized his subject. Nazism's gross inhumanities were criminal acts, no matter who their victims might be. Rather than relating the sufferings of his characters to the larger agony of the Holocaust, however, Mr. Sherman has composed a luridly sensational piece of special pleading. "Bent" includes scenes of sordidness, decadence, and offensive sexual explicitness. That the cynical Max ultimately demonstrates by self-sacrifice an asserted capacity to love in no way relieves the play's prevailing tone….
"Bent" reduces the Holocaust to sensationally twisted melodrama.
John Beaufort, "Bent," in The Christian Science Monitor (© 1979 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), December 21, 1979 (and reprinted in NY Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXXX, No. 22, December 17, 1979, p. 78).
[Bent] doesn't suffer from a lack of seriousness; its missing element is depth. Martin Sherman's play about the treatment of homosexuals in German prison camps has been carefully researched and modestly written. It just hasn't been sufficiently imagined. In the hands of a better dramatist, it might have been a major play; here, at best, it is merely an interesting one. I was reminded of Rolf Hochhuth's The Deputy, another work that failed an original idea because the playwright was not enough of an artist to realize the implications of his subject.
It is the imagination of King Lear's author that is needed for a subject of this kind; most of us simply do not have the resources to fictionalize such unbearable facts. This may be why Sherman—having conceived the situation—goes on to ruin it in the second act by turning his play into a love story with a melodramatic conclusion….
[The heroic conclusion betrays] the real nature of the camps, where inmates were robbed of the capacity to fall in love, or have orgasms, or even to commit suicide…. It was in their capacity to reduce human beings to ciphers that the Nazis were the most precise and methodical—a diabolical distinction recorded with more accuracy in the works of Bruno Bettelheim and Hannah Arendt than in the tendentious artifices of a New York playwright….
Still, the subject is a potentially interesting one, and it has not been wholly trivialized. The failure, at least, is not of nerve or daring, which alone makes the play an oddity in a theater for clever journalists. (p. 24)
Robert Brustein, "A Theatre for Clever Journalists," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 182, Nos. 1 & 2, January 5 & 12, 1980, pp. 23-4.