Walter Kerr

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513

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...

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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 before—belief, disbelief, shock and half-understanding all mixed together….

[The play's] second half however, undergoes a marked change of styling…. [Visually] and then dramatically, we seem to have entered a different universe, a different kind of play.

The remainder of Mr. Sherman's provocative work confines prisoners [Max and a new companion, Horst,] to a Dachau courtyard….

But the substitution of one companion for another has already seemed to halve the play…. We've moved from a first act almost overcrowded with vigorous events to a second shrouded in the stillness, the senseless repetition, even the fragmented rhythms of a Samuel Beckett. As we watch what is very nearly the same scene played again and again [the inmates moving the rocks within Dachau], we grow nearly as restive as the two victims, coughing into the dust raised by their sorry rockpiles.

There is a character problem, too. We have first met [Max] as openly, candidly, even ostentatiously "queer." Somewhere during the nightmare he has dropped the identification; he will not acknowledge it. Though we can puzzle out answers to the riddle for ourselves, we're still not quite certain when and why the change took place. Once again, we're coping with a second act that doesn't seem a direct descendant of the first, and our interest waivers somewhat. The difficulties are real.

Grant them. I should think that any serious theatergoer, on the lookout for energy and originality in writing … would find it necessary to see "Bent." (p. 74)

Walter Kerr, "'Bent,' Starring Richard Gere," in The New York Times (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 3, 1979 (and reprinted in NY Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXXX, No. 22, December 17, 1979, pp. 73-4).

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