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Sherman, Martin

SHERMAN, Martin

Nationality: American. Born: Philadelphia, 22 December 1938. Education: Boston University, 1956-60, B.F.A. 1960. Career: Playwright-in-residence, Mills College, Oakland, California, early 1960s, and Playwrights Horizons, New York, 1976-77; founder, Act Up. Moved to London, 1980. Awards: Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico grant, 1973; Dramatists Guild Hull-Warriner award, 1980, for Bent; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1980; Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, 1985. Agents: Johnnie Planko, William Morris Agency, 1350 Avenue of the Americas, New York, New York 10019, U.S.A.; Margaret Ramsay Ltd., 14A Goodwins Court, London C.W.2, England.

Publication

Plays

A Solitary Thing, music by Stanley Silverman (produced Oakland, California, 1963).

Fat Tuesday (produced New York, 1966).

Next Year in Jerusalem (produced New York, 1967).

Change (opera libretto), music by Drey Shepperd (produced New York, 1969). The Night before Paris (produced New York, 1969).

Things Went Badly in Westphalia (produced Storrs, Connecticut 1971). In The Best Short Plays 1970, edited by Stanley Richards, 1970.

Passing By (produced New York, 1974; London, 1975). In Gay Plays, edited by Michael Wilcox, 1984.

Soaps (produced New York, 1975).

Cracks (produced Waterford, Connecticut, 1975). In Gay Plays, Volume II, edited by Michael Wilcox, 1985.

Rio Grande (produced New York, 1976).

Blackout (produced New York, 1978).

Bent (produced Waterford, Connecticut, 1978; London and New York, 1979). 1979.

Messiah (produced London, 1982). 1982.

When She Danced (produced Guildford, Surrey, 1985; London, 1988; New York, 1990). 1988.

A Madhouse in Goa (produced London, 1989). 1989.

Some Sunny Day (produced London, 1996). 1996.

Rose (produced London, 1999; New York, 2000). 1999.

Screenplays:

Alive and Kicking/Indian Summer, 1996; Bent, 1997; See Under: Love, adaptation of the novel by David Grossman, 1997; The Dybbuk, 1997; Callas Forever, with Franco Zeffirelli, anticipated 2002.

Television Play:

The Summer House, adaptation of The Clothes in the Wardrobe, by Alice Thomas Ellis, 1992.

*

Film Adaptations:

The Summer House, 1993; Alive and Kicking/Indian Summer, 1996; Bent, 1997.

Critical Studies:

"Images of the Gay Male in Contemporary Drama" by James W. Carlsen, in Gayspeak: Gay Male and Lesbian Communication, edited by James W. Chesebro, 1981; Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama by John M. Clum, 1992; "Martin Sherman" by Matthew S. Wolf, in New York, 30, 17 November 1997, p. 60-61; "Inventing History: Toward a Gay Holocaust Literature" by Kai Hammermeister, in German Quarterly, 70(1), Winter 1997, pp. 18-26; "Opening the Forbidden Closet" by Edward R. Isser, in his Stages of Annihilation, 1997; "Martin Sherman" by Sander Hicks, in BOMB, 62, Winter 1998, pp. 74-80.

Theatrical Activities: Actor: Films—

Radio Days, 1987; Alive and Kicking/Indian Summer, 1996.

* * *

Few plays about the Holocaust have appeared on Broadway. Of the handful produced there, Martin Sherman has written two, plus two film scripts and other Holocaust plays.

Although known as a gay playwright, Sherman says his Judaism imbues his work more than does his sexual orientation. His heritage figures in his early plays, especially Next Year in Jerusalem (1967), his more recent Rose (1999), and most of those in between. This son of immigrants from the Polish-Ukrainian border shtetl of Yultishka writes about the "other"—that is, those not able-bodied, straight, white, Christian men. Repeatedly he chooses Jewish characters, and three times these characters originate in Yultishka. The seventeenth-century Rachel, a female Job, lives there long before the Holocaust, but the twentieth-century Chonnon and Rose have survived that horror. Over and over Sherman intertwines his twin themes: outsider status and survival. They coexist in his Holocaust scripts, even in one that takes as its central character the ultimate alien, a creature from outer space.

The playful yet chilling Some Sunny Day (1996) takes place in Cairo during July 1942 as five foreigners—Sherman outsiders—prepare for the city's expected fall to Rommel. A British propagandist and his wife, a British soldier and his lover—an impostor posing as a Maori journalist but really far more alien—and a disguised Jewish refugee trying to flee Egypt all react to their fears by exhibiting narcissism or altruism. Sherman plants suspicions about Nazi spies among them as he examines not just their identities but the nature of being, that is, ontology. Deceit permeates the play, as the alien proves selfless by blackmailing the diplomat for a pass so the Jew can escape to Palestine.

In 1997 Sherman wrote three screenplays. See Under: Love, which he based on David Grossman 's magic-realist novel of the same name, dramatizes a child's experiences in postwar Israel trying to learn about the Holocaust. Sherman juxtaposes these to flashbacks to the boy's great-uncle—a writer imprisoned by the Nazis—and scenes of heroic children, which the same writer created in the 1920s. Dramatizing the power of literature to transform hearts and alter destinies, this film revisits the Holocaust, which Sherman had treated years earlier in his most famous play, Bent (1979).

In Bent the dramatist characterizes his protagonist Max as a casual anti-Semite, then provides this gay man with a different perspective when he claims he's Jewish and encounters his once ridiculed landlord at Dachau. During Max's evolution toward humanity, compassion, and courage, he comes to accept himself, assert his true identity, defy the Nazis, love another, and die heroically.

See Under: Love 's plot arcs differently. Sherman has changed the order of events in Grossman's tale, highlighted images of the SS officer as a child, and eliminated contemporary segments set after the Israeli boy has grown up, thereby throwing concentration camp scenes into greater prominence. In these scenes the prisoner, a Jewish Scheherazade, by means of his artistry both survives and transforms the camp's commandant.

The third 1997 screenplay, The Dybbuk, Sherman set only a few years after the Holocaust, in 1953 Atlantic City, where Chonnon, who has just arrived from Poland, begins working as a busboy at the Majestic Hotel. There he falls in love with his boss's daughter, uses cabala to win her, and dies after she plans to wed another. To prevent this, his spirit merges with hers. Possessed by his dybbuk, the young woman shares his memories, most compellingly those of how the Nazis came to Yultishka, herded everyone but him into the schoolhouse, locked the doors, and burned it. Chonnon escaped by crawling through his chimney to the roof, where he watched the fire, heard the screams. Sherman based this chilling account on historical fact. While attempts occur to exorcise the dybbuk, we learn the possessed woman's father also came from Yultishka but left before the Nazis slaughtered his friends and relatives. Sherman dramatizes the importance of knowing what happened and remembering the Holocaust—an important theme in all these works.

When plans to film this screenplay evaporated, Sherman took some of its details and created his millennium piece, Rose. Both in London in 1999 and on Broadway in 2000, Olympia Dukakis memorably played this role of a Holocaust survivor who also knows she must remember, even as she tries to forget. Sitting shiva, the 80-year-old recalls her childhood in Yultishka, her marriage in Warsaw and suffering in its ghetto (where her child dies), her survival in the sewers, her internment as a displaced person, her journey on the exodus to Palestine and back, her years in Atlantic City, her retirement in Miami. Now she laments extremists in Israel behaving, she believes, no better than Nazis when one massacres Arabs in the Hebron mosque and another, her grandson, kills the Palestinian child for whom she sits shiva. Rose says Kaddish for the Yiddish language and culture, killed by the Nazis and by subsequent responses to hatred with hatred.

—Tish Dace

See the essay on Bent.

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