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Sherman, Martin (b. 1938)  
 
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Activist and fellow playwright Larry Kramer paid tribute to Martin Sherman by noting that he "has consistently written about his sexuality and has managed to make a living out of it." This is no small feat for an artist whose peers have more often than not created their art from inside the closet. Best known for his groundbreaking play Bent (1978), this iconoclastic playwright and screenwriter has created an impressive body of work.

The only child of Russian-Jewish parents, Sherman was born in Philadelphia on December 22, 1938, but grew up in Camden, New Jersey. His father was an attorney. Yiddish was spoken at home; and as his grandparents were observant, they kept a Kosher home.

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Frequent theater trips to Philadelphia and New York City helped Sherman get through adolescence.

Sherman was educated at Boston University, where he received a B.A. and an M.F.A. in theater. Although trained as an actor, he was early drawn to writing plays. He describes his early efforts as "terrible," though some were given Off-Off-Broadway productions by the Herbert Berghof Playwrights Foundation, including the one-act play Next Year in Jerusalem (1968).

In Sherman's own account, a 1975 production of his play Passing By by London's Gay Sweatshop "was the first good production I'd ever had of anything." The story of the relationship between two men--a painter and a diver--in New York, whose bond is tested by illness and by their focus on career goals, Passing By and another early gay-themed play, Cracks (1975), set in the Los Angeles home of a recently murdered rock star, anticipate his breakthrough achievement in Bent but fail to rise to the latter's moral seriousness.

Sherman wrote Bent for Gay Sweatshop, a company devoted to using theater to raise consciousness, but the theater's artistic director--recognizing the work's wider significance and potential--encouraged him to "give this play to the world." It opened at London's Royal Court Theatre to popular and critical acclaim and established Sherman as a playwright to be taken seriously.

The play can be seen as a product of the intellectual foment spawned by the gay liberation movement. Sherman was living in New York City during and after the Stonewall riots of 1969. He criticized the New York gay scene as too commercial and too fashion conscious. He especially objected to gay men walking around Greenwich Village in Nazi uniforms, which were deemed to be "sexually titillating" and avant garde.

Sherman's repulsion at this phenomenon was influenced by his identification as both a gay man and a Jew. He knew that he had to address the lack of historical perspective that allowed gay men to identify, if even only on the superficial level of fashion, with Nazism.

The first play to depict the brutal treatment of gay men by the Nazi regime and their incarceration in concentration camps, Bent concerns the fates of three men caught up in the rising oppression of the era.

Although historian Nicholas de Jongh calls Bent "one of the most significant plays produced in the post-Second World War theatre" and the Royal National Theatre included Bent in its list of the 100 most significant plays of the twentieth century, Sherman had a great deal of difficulty finding backers for the work.

The initial London reviews were mixed, but audiences from the very beginning embraced Sherman's very human story of a hedonist finally finding the moral backbone to fall in love and embrace his gay identity--literally donning a pink triangle--even at the cost of his life. Bolstered by star casting--Ian McKellen in London and Richard Gere in New York--Bent enjoyed a successful commercial run in both cities. It has subsequently been translated into thirty languages and has served as a vehicle for a number of prominent actors.

Interestingly, however, despite the advances of the modern gay rights movement and the increased awareness of Holocaust studies, including wider acknowledgment of the suffering of homosexuals under the Nazis, Sherman's play did not reach the silver screen until 1997 (directed by Sean Matthias), and then with an NC-17 rating because of its "strong sense of graphic sexuality."

Even some recent stage productions, such as the one by the Hot House Theater in St. Louis in 2000, have met with reactionary responses. The St. Louis theater lost its state arts council funding as a result of its production. Clearly, the play and its subject matter still have the power to make mainstream audiences uncomfortable in the extreme.

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