Chart of concentration camp ID badges.
- Play title: Bent
- Author: Martin Sherman
- Published: 1978
- Page count: 98
Martin Sherman’s play Bent is set in 1930’s Germany. The protagonist is a gay man named Maximilian Berber whose story begins in a bacchanalian Berlin and ends in the concentration camp of Dachau. Even though the play is fictional, it references true historical events. The two main historical events that underpin the play are, firstly, the murder of Ernst Roehm who was chief of the SA but also openly homosexual, and secondly, the Nazi party’s subsequent extension of paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code (anti-homosexual law). These events transformed a largely uncensored gay scene in Berlin into a decidedly cold climate for gay men. Sherman dramatizes the Nazi persecution of homosexual men within the timeframe of the play which is 1934 to ’36. We follow Maximilian’s (Max’s) relationships with two men, Rudy and then Horst. One controversial aspect of Sherman’s work is the implication that gay men suffered more than Jews in Dachau. Sherman’s play was one of the first to focus on the Nazi Party’s or more specifically Heinrich Himmler’s preoccupation with ridding Germany of its gay male population.
Ways to access the text: reading/watching.
An online copy of Sherman’s play, Bent, is available via the Open Library. Also, if you are already a member of Scribd then you will be able to access the text.
I do not normally reference the film adaptations of plays but Sherman did write the screenplay for the film Bent which was released in 1997 and it is a good substitute if you do not wish to read the text.
Why read Bent?
Sherman’s play provides a history lesson embedded within a dramatic work. The Nazi persecution of minority groups did not receive much attention after WWII, but this was especially so for gay men. One important reason for the lack of attention was that homosexual acts remained a crime in both East and West Germany until the late 1960’s. Therefore, gay camp detainees, those who survived, were still regarded as criminals even after liberation. Heinz Heger was one of the first gay men to write an autobiographical account of surviving the concentration camps. His book, The Men with the Pink Triangle, was released in 1972 and is said to have been a key inspiration for Sherman’s play. In 1986, Richard Plant released The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals. Regarding these two books, Heger provides an invaluable first-hand account while Plant provides academic research into the history of gay men’s plight in Nazi Germany. Sherman combines an albeit fictional first-hand account with historically accurate details to create a play that is provocative and clearly political but also rich in pathos. In this way, Sherman provides readers with an emotionally charged history lesson.
Identity and survival.
Bent focuses on the themes of identity and a man’s means of survival under extreme persecution. These two themes are shown to be in constant conflict in the play. Max, the play’s protagonist wears a yellow star ostensibly signifying that he is imprisoned due to his Jewish identity/faith. Horst wears a pink triangle because as he explains, he “signed a petition … for Magnus Hirschfield” the man who wanted to “make queers legal.” Both men’s prison identities rely on what can be proven by the Nazis, for example, by membership of a community, church, political movement etc. Sherman looks at how a specific identity becomes a burden when it leads directly to persecution or indeed a greater level of persecution. When Horst initially explains the colour coding of prisoners’ badges to Max, he warns that, “pink’s the lowest.” This aspect of the play is controversial yet it is important to understand Sherman’s core argument that pride in one’s identity should ideally transcend other concerns. The setting of a concentration camp serves to pit each man’s identity against his best chances of survival. Sherman’s play was first performed in 1978 when gay liberation was still relatively new. Homosexual acts had only been decriminalized in 1967 in England and were decriminalized in the United States on a state by state process between 1962 and 2003. The playwright’s depiction of gay men in Nazi Germany must be understood within the political context of an evolving gay liberation movement in the 1970’s.
An absurd situation.
Bent was first performed in 1978 in an era when gay pride was being embraced as a remedy for centuries of repression and shame. The story that Sherman presents is fundamentally one where a gay man needs to survive, somehow, in an absurd situation. One may call it absurd for several reasons but the primary one is that the Nazis were persecuting men, mostly German nationals, solely because of their sexuality. In this essay, I will focus on Sherman’s play as a tale of survival. In doing so, it will be necessary to delve into the key issues discussed in the play such as the perceived hierarchy of suffering in the concentration camps, the links between gay identity and pride, and most importantly, the concept of the absurd. It will ultimately be shown that Horst, not Max, is the hero of the play. This reading appears to diverge from Sherman’s authorial intent and therefore requires a solid explanation.
It is best to begin by tackling the most controversial aspect of the play, namely that homosexuals were treated more brutally than Jews in Dachau. This topic serves to open up the play to a fruitful analysis. When Sherman did an interview with The Advocate in 1980 and was asked about this issue of a hierarchy of maltreatment, he replied that “some people are reluctant to share the suffering, particularly with a group that they have problems with, that they think denigrates the experience.” The playwright himself is both Jewish and gay and thus has an insight into both communities. Even though Sherman’s statement is quite provocative and political, it also has serious merit. It is significant that Sherman used the phrase “share the suffering” which indicates that gay men’s suffering was indeed ignored, and the second important point it that this was a post-war discussion. For context, one may refer to Dr. Klaus Muller who wrote the introduction for Heinz Heger’s 1972 book, The Men with the Pink Triangle. Muller wrote the following about gay men’s lives in the years after the war:
“We know of several cases where, after the war, concentration camp survivors were charged for violations of Paragraph 175 and committed suicide either before the trial or afterwards in prison. Still more escaped into marriage or into complete isolation. While other Holocaust survivors were recognized as survivors by the outside world, the men who wore the pink triangle never received that recognition. They were ignored in the memorials and in the museums. Still seen as criminals and perverts, they never had an opportunity to regain their dignity in post-war society. They survived but they were denied their place in the community of survivors” (Heger 13-14).
Sherman’s play was released more than thirty years after WWII ended and therefore, like Muller, he had a clear perspective of how gay men’s lives remained in many cases almost unliveable, hidden, and ostracized. Sherman’s provocative point about camp maltreatment seems logical because if the gay population were still not considered Nazi victims in the post-war years but instead as criminals then how can one imagine that they held anything other than the lowest rank in the concentration camps? Though I will discuss the hierarchy of abuse in more detail in this essay, Sherman is clearly using a provocative point to draw attention to a minority group that had been deliberately ignored. It is with this in mind that one may begin to look at the theme of survival as explored by Sherman. We may view the plight of the gay men in the camps but with the added advantage of a modern reader’s broader historical view.
In Bent, it is shown how prisoners endure concentration camp life, mainly through mental strength but also through strategic actions. Even after cruel treatment including poor food rations, verbal abuse, and backbreaking labour, Horst is shown to be unbroken and rebellious when faced with death. He is murdered by the Nazis. Max, on the other hand, finally commits suicide which from a traditional viewpoint is the sign of ultimate defeat. However, this is complicated by Max’s heroic proclamation of personal identity by wearing the pink triangle. The play may be looked at solely from the angles of sexuality or historical fact as many academics have done, but these topics may also form part of a larger discussion of man’s endurance and survival. It is with the themes of endurance and survival in mind that one may refer to Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus and other Essays. This text offers many important insight into the significant differences between someone like Horst versus someone like Max. As Camus writes, “it is legitimate and necessary to wonder whether life has a meaning; therefore, it is legitimate to meet the problem of suicide face to face” (1). Suicide is about giving up; therefore, one may interrogate Sherman’s core message in a play where his protagonist destroys himself at the conclusion.
In The Myth of Sisyphus and other Essays, Camus looks at the relationship between suicide and the absurd. The justification for choosing Camus’ text is that our understanding of Max’s suicide is central to understanding the play. It is somewhat too easy to affirm that Max proudly embraces his identity as a gay man and, in a final act of defiance, disempowers the Nazis by taking his own life. What Max does is indeed heroic and the final scene is one of the most affecting in the play. Yet, Sherman’s play relies on the existence of gay survivor testimonies, on men who endured and survived. It was men like Heinz Heger that made narratives such as Sherman’s possible in the first place. One may legitimately ask why one camp prisoner decides that suicide is his only option while another man, treated much worse and over a longer imprisonment, may actually endure the situation undefeated. This question indeed presumes that there is more to Sherman’s narrative, and the more is ultimately explained under the heading of the absurd.
In chronological order, one may first look at the upheaval that occurred in German gay men’s lives due to the Nazi accession to power. Max and Rudy’s story begins in an accommodating world where Wolf can say, “you people are strange, keeping places like this in town. I don’t meet people like you too much. But you interest me, your kind.” Then quite suddenly the world of the gay couple and all their kind in Germany is turned upside down and swiftly obliterated. The abruptness of the change can be seen in several ways, for example, the gay nightclub closes, Max’s one night stand is murdered before his eyes, and not only must the couple flee Berlin but as Greta advises Rudy, “you can’t go anyplace.” The words of Greta’s nightclub song suddenly become quite pertinent, “streets of Berlin / will you cry out / if I vanish / into thin air” because that transformation into thin air is a chilling reminder of the crematoria of the concentration camps. The play depicts a total divorce between two worlds, liberality versus oppression, divided by a single day. It is the lightning fast transformation of the world from one thing to another that prompts one to describe it as absurd. Camus sums up this feeling of one’s environment becoming unfamiliar in an instant:
“In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and this life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity” (6).
However, this feeling of the absurd is not seen by Camus as leading inevitably to suicide. Camus’ philosophical stance is that “even if one does not believe in God, suicide is not legitimate” (1). This is not meant from the perspective of sin but simply that God and religion offer hope that otherwise would not be present. Thus, even from the perspective of hopelessness, suicide is still not the answer. Camus writes about how, “killing yourself amounts to confessing. It is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it” (5). As such, he begins an argument on how man may indeed live with the absurdities of life. This is the precise distinction that one needs to make between men like Horst and Max, men who can or cannot confront the absurdity of a situation. While Camus would argue that life itself is absurd from the viewpoint of existential philosophy, not everyone will becomes conscious of this stark viewpoint and therefore the extreme conditions of the concentration camp act as a catalyst – forcing men into a consciousness of the absurd. Sherman indeed lays emphasis on how each man confronts his new life in the concentration camp and therefore there is an appreciation of the quite subjective responses of individuals to the factual realities of their environment. An explanation for this is, as Camus states, “there can be no absurd outside the human mind” (22). For instance, Horst explains the term “moslem” to Max as “a dead person who walks” and these are the men who stop eating, stop talking, and wait for death in total apathy. As this describes one of the unfortunates in Horst’s separate barracks of pink triangle prisoners, the example serves as a foil for Horst’s own exceptional endurance. It is exactly in this light that one may reassess Horst’s statement that pink triangle prisoners were treated the worst of all. This is Horst’s subjective experience of Dachau and even though controversial and historically unproven, it is nonetheless a true account in its own right. Horst faces the ugliness of the situation and endures it which is a critical point when looking at the overall camp situation and the men’s individual stories.
Sherman pays particular attention to the onerous tasks of concentration camp detainees. It is crucially through prisoners’ reactions to their predicament, including the exhausting labour, that we judge their potential survival. In The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, Camus summarizes that, “the gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor” (75). This ancient myth is central to Camus’ contemplation of the absurd and suicide. One may begin to compare Max and Horst with Sisyphus because they indeed share the laborious task of moving rocks. More importantly, Camus’ contemplation of the task leads one to the psychology of endurance. In Bent, when Horst has just begun moving rocks, Max counsels him, “it’s supposed to drive us crazy” because “it makes no sense. It serves no purpose.” Unlike Sisyphus, Max has the opportunity of gaining a helper for the arduous task. In Max’s view, companionship is the antidote to the otherwise unhinging situation. As Max says, “this is the best work in the camp, if you keep your head, if you have someone to talk to.” These two ‘ifs’ are significant qualifiers to the statement indicating that Max essentially lives on hope.
Camus writes that, “the feeling of absurdity does not spring from the mere scrutiny of a fact or an impression, but that it bursts from the comparison between a bare fact and a certain reality” (21). In somewhat more accessible terms, he writes, “the absurd is essentially a divorce. It lies in neither of the elements compared; it is born of their confrontation” (21). The prisoners’ tasks, so central to Sherman’s narrative, are a good example of the absurd with which to begin. Pointless tasks were not uncommon in concentration camps and Heinz Heger recounts performing such work. He writes that, “in the morning we had to cart the snow outside our block from the left side of the road to the right side. In the afternoon we had to cart the same snow back from the right side to the left” (35). Heger notes the irony of the Nazi slogan written over the camp gate, “Freedom through work” (36). The slogan was originally understood to mean prisoner re-education i.e., rehabilitation but as Heger correctly understands, the work is just psychological torture which exaggerates the feeling of imprisonment, negating any sense of hope. Horst likewise makes an intuitive observation of his task on his first day, saying, “we move the rocks from there to there, and then back from there to there.” He does not use the phrase ‘here to there,’ but uses a word that communicates the constant gap between where something now rests but needs to be – there. It suggests the endless physical movement required to close a gap that cannot be closed. Additionally, the gap in the logic of the situation, the ludicrous nature of the tasks sets the human mind to whirling. As Camus writes, there is a ‘confrontation,’ and in this case it is between exhausting labour and no eventual outcome, or product, or result. Richard Plant offers significant insights into the pointless tasks assigned to prisoners by SS officers and how such tasks fundamentally contrasted with essential work.
“However wearying these tasks [essential work] proved to be, they were resented less than those designed primarily to punish the detainees—senseless exertions, such as building a wall in the morning and tearing it down in the afternoon. These cruel practices not only gave pleasure to the overseers—it gave them an opportunity to mock their charges—but they emphasized the limitless power held by the SS” (185).
Plant focuses on the exercise of power by the SS guards to cruelly mock their charges. Interestingly, Max does not focus on the guards but simply understands that his task is devoid of meaning except to mentally crush the one who is assigned the task. He understands it as a mind game but one he holds to key to, one that he can neutralize by having a companion. Max believes he has beaten the system yet his grasp of the truth is only partial because he does not appreciate the bigger picture.
The absurdity of the individual’s rock moving task is encased within even greater absurdities. Beside the explanation of Nazi cruelty, there was also a surprisingly practical explanation for pointless work tasks. Richard Plant explains that the Nazi official, Theodor Eicke, created an operational manual for concentration camps. Plant writes that, “Eicke legalized various procedures through which the inmates were humiliated and broken, a process vitally necessary if a small – albeit well-armed – group of SS troopers was to reign over much larger numbers of prisoners” (169). Once again, in Camus’ terms, we have a confrontation of two elements that lead to the absurd, namely thousands of prisoners compared with a quite limited number of SS guards. A prison population of that size could probably, if correctly mobilized, defeat the guards. Max understands his task is meant to drive him mad but in fact, it is to break his spirit as per Eicke’s overall strategy. Each time one scrutinizes the tasks then something new and more mind boggling arises. For example, the broader picture of prisoner tasks includes the irony that prisoner labour was of huge importance. Plant explains as follows:
“Only slave labor in the Nazi camps kept the German economy afloat. But this expanding labor force exacerbated the never-ending tug-of-war between what one might call the “pragmatists” and the “fundamentalists.” One group, made up of planners and industrialists such as Albert Speer, needed captive workers to produce planes, tanks, guns, chemicals, and so forth, and tried to prevent the other group, the fundamentalists, from exterminating these workers” (173).
The SS’s desire to exterminate prisoners whose work was crucial to the success of the Nazi war machine is certainly baffling. Plant explains that, “to the public, Himmler touted the camps as ‘beneficial reeducation centers’ but by 1942 nobody believed this any longer” (173). Himmler was clearly one of the “fundamentalists” and the camps were clearly just a means of exterminating those considered enemies of the state. Max performs his own little individual task but in an illogical environment. Sherman depicts a true maze of contradictions and one which put huge mental strain on those trapped within it, even if they only grasped the first layer of absurdity, namely their own individual tasks.
The absurd does not end with the pointless tasks but instead imbues almost every aspect of prisoners’ lives. Regarding sexuality, Bent crucially exposes the contradictions, indeed absurdities, between the perceptions of gay men and the realities. Heinrich Himmler, commander of the SS, considered homosexuals to be sexual degenerates who had an adverse effect on the German birth rate. It was based on such a characterization of homosexuals that he constantly urged the imprisonment, persecution, and extermination of gay men. Furthermore, Himmler characterized gay men as being cowardly and effeminate. However, as Plant points out, “that [Ernst] Roehm had been a first-rate soldier and an efficient military organizer should have puzzled Himmler; it contradicted his thesis of gays as sissies” (109). The main characters in Sherman’s play also contradict stereotypical expectations of homosexuals. For instance, Sherman depicts Rudy as resisting the train guards, noting that he “fights them,” and Horst when faced with certain death, valiantly attacks the Nazi officer and “screams in fury.” These are not the actions of cowardly men. Sherman is not afraid to tackle the thornier issue of homosexual Nazis thereby exposing an uneasy symbiosis between oppressor and oppressed. For example, Max meets Wolf at a club in Berlin and the following morning Rudy reminds Max that “you called him your own little stormtrooper.” Richard Plant addresses the issue of gay SS officers at the concentration camps, writing that, “there were additional factors complicating the lives of gay prisoners. First, a few SS guards were homosexual. Although they risked everything, they made some younger inmates, usually Poles or Russians, their ‘dolly boys’ (Pielpel)”(177). It must be remembered that Himmler scoured the SS for homosexuals and wanted from 1941 the death penalty for any offenders. Sherman dramatizes a compromising situation where Max must perform fellatio on the SS captain in order to secure medicine for Horst. It is an unsettling thought for any gay prisoner that his SS oppressor may be just the same as him, but Horst grudgingly admits that “there are queer Nazis. But what the hell. And queer saints. And queer mediocrities. Just people.” In this way, Sherman confronts the apparent contradiction that oppressor and victim alike may be homosexual even though the very crime being punished is homosexual identity denoted by the pink triangle. In such a context, the Nazi ideal of cleansing German society of gay men is truly risible.
The stigmatization of gay identity is a core issue in Bent. Based on Horst’s advice, Max wishes for a yellow star used to identity Jewish prisoners in an effort to avoid the worst punishments of the concentration camp. Once captured by the Nazis, Max is arguably in an impossible situation but it is worth studying the plot line. One key point is the reason for his and Rudy’s initial arrest and this is presumably on charges of offences covered by paragraph 175 i.e., homosexual acts. As a German man, not involved in politics or general criminality and not religious, there were few other possible reasons for the arrest. Camus writes that the statement, “‘It’s absurd’ means ‘It’s impossible’ but also ‘It’s contradictory’” (21) and this certainly applies to Max’s predicament. The incomprehensibility of the situation begins on the train when Max must deny his ‘friendship’ with Rudy because as Horst advises, “if you try to help him, they will kill you.” Max is even forced to participate in Rudy’s beating which leads to his death. However, the Nazi officer remains unsatisfied, presumably believing that the two men were indeed a couple, and he devises a new test for Max to prove that he is not homosexual. Max is then forced to perform necrophilia in order to prove that he is not “queer.” The absurd situation becomes apparent once Max has proven to the officer’s satisfaction that he is not homosexual because Max then immediately requests his yellow star. The Nazis laughingly reply, “sure make him a Jew. He’s not bent.” As the only probable reason for Max’s initial arrest was his suspected homosexuality, any proof that dispelled that idea should have meant his freedom. Sherman uses this incident to show how a gay man, who believes that his own true identity is stigmatized and toxic, will foolishly accept to be labelled with a false identity. This is also a clear indication of Max’s shame over his own sexual orientation. Accepting the yellow star is, of course, a guarantee of a death sentence. Therefore, the situation becomes utterly absurd. In the eyes of the SS officers, homosexual or Jewish identity were on an equally disdained level, neither offering any advantage over the other in real terms.
Camus writes that, “a man who has become conscious of the absurd is forever bound to it. A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future” (22). In contrast, Max never fully confronts the illogical nature of his situation, never faces the absurdity of his reality. This may be emphatically stated because Sherman depicts a protagonist who utilizes several coping mechanisms to shield himself from various challenging situations. In this manner, Max differs from both Rudy and Horst. It is not that Max never becomes fleetingly conscious of the absurd, but that he just as quickly tries to escape confronting such a bleak reality. One recurring example is his tactic of counting to ten in moments of extreme anxiety. We notice this first when Max is simply hungover in his Berlin apartment and cannot remember either making a deal about a shipment of cocaine, or the identity of the naked stranger. Counting is shown to be Max’s rescue tactic, a means of separating himself from an awful reality, for instance, after Rudy’s murder, then after recounting the ‘test’ on the train, and finally after Horst’s murder. One may briefly contrast this with Horst’s demeanour on the train when Rudy is dragged away by the guards and Max says, “this isn’t happening,” but Horst calmly responds, “it’s happening.” Men like Rudy and Horst are shown to engage fully with their predicaments, for example, Horst is actually being returned to Dachau, but he does not mentally disengage, still shows humanity, still fights at the end.
Max lives on an eternal dream of doing deals that will fix everything, he loses himself in a mirage of the future. The deals start with selling cocaine but later include the deal with Freddie to comply with the family’s expectations in exchange for two tickets to Amsterdam. Once imprisoned, Max makes multiple ‘deals’ with the Nazi officers in exchange for his prison identity, a work partner, and medicine. Interestingly, all the deals whose results should bear fruit in the future are the ones that invariably fail. Only gaining Horst as a work partner and then spending time with him each day is beneficial to Max. In the philosophical view of the absurd, there is no future, but instead as Camus writes, “the present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man” (42). This is how Rudy lived, working as a dancer in a crummy club, endlessly tidying up a pitiful apartment, digging ditches to buy food when they were on the run. In contrast, Max constantly projects himself into a better future, including the illusion that his arrest is just “protective custody,” that the Nazis may release the camp prisoners for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and finally, the plan that he and Horst will return to Berlin together once released from the camp. Max cannot face his present existence. He lives on hope as already exemplified by the rock moving tasks where a succession of ‘ifs’ secure his future. This eventually proves deadly when he can no longer employ an effective evasive technique, like counting to ten, and must confront his fate.
Max is a somewhat strange character to be the hero of the play. Sherman does however show a noticeable evolution from selfish, party-animal to the vulnerable yet proud man at the end. Indeed, Max is full of contradictions because even though his uncle Freddie accuses him of “throwing it in everyone’s face” meaning his openly gay life, Max denies being in love with Rudy, referring instead to his partner as just his responsibility. It is also noticeable that Max never responds to Rudy’s declarations of love. Against this background, it is evident that Max’s fear of being labelled as gay goes beyond the fact that Horst said gay men suffer more in the camp. Max’s life is contradictory because he lives with a man, engages in an active sex life with other men too, but cannot express love nor fully embrace his identity. Sherman depicts a man who represses his feelings because he has been emotionally wounded. When Horst admits his love for Max then the reply he gets is that “queers aren’t meant to love.” In explanation, Max refers to the gay man at his father’s factory who was paid to go away, leaving Max, denoting the shallowness of gay love. Max feels that his own capacity for love has died, noting that, “I can’t love anybody back” as well as his self-hatred expressed in the idea that he’s a “rotten person.”
Sherman uses Max as a testament to the suffering of gay men in society. The pink triangle reflects not only Max’s internalized self-hatred but also Horst’s warning that pink is the lowest “but only because the other prisoners hate us so much.” In this environment, Max is shown to defend his yellow star to Horst, saying “it’s a smart lie” and “my yellow star got your medicine.” When Max finally embraces his identity as a gay man and wears Horst’s coat, it is because he must face the absurdity of the situation. Unfortunately, the contradiction is too great, between the sacrifices needed to attain the yellow star in the first place, and the final but too late admission of his own gay identity. As Camus states, it is the contradiction that leads to a realization of the absurd. It is only now that Max can accept/admit that he truly loved the man from his father’s factory, and Rudy, and Horst. Sherman creates a cautionary tale because all the effort Max has put into surviving, especially the awful incidents on the train, are all undone by the eventual and overwhelming consciousness that it was all meaningless. The stupendous effort to be something else has eventually failed. Camus writes that, “war cannot be negated. One must live it or die of it. So it is with the absurd” (60) and Max is crushed by the total lack of meaning and purpose in his predicament. He counts to ten just after Horst is shot in an attempt to shield himself from the nausea that comes of the realization, but it fails. As an audience, we are supposed to interpret Max’s suicide as heroic because of Horst’s prior story about the man in his barracks who killed himself. Horst described the suicide as follows, “it’s a kind of defiance, isn’t it? They [Nazis] hate that – it’s an act of free will.” However, as previously quoted from Camus, “killing yourself amounts to confessing. It is confessing that life is too much” (5). Max is only a hero if we don’t consider him a victim of the total hopelessness and absurdity of the situation which he cannot overcome, and only if we see his suicide as a revolt. Yet, in a concentration camp environment with a pit of dead bodies behind him, Max’s death is arguably denied any true nobility. A critical reader would declare that the sacrifice asked of Max in order to proudly declare his sexuality i.e., his suicide, is evidence that Sherman forces the narrative to meet the needs of the 1970’s politics of sexual revolution. Sherman depicts Max as ‘coming out’ but at the maximum cost to the character. With Camus’ aid, one may read Max in a totally different light. So, who is the hero of the tale and why?
It is Horst who most closely resembles Camus’ interpretation of Sisyphus. Horst does not speak of an all-powerful God, he does not make any predictions for his future, he seems to live in each moment as it comes. It is difficult to discuss a man’s relationship with the absurd without some easy foothold on such an abstract topic. Edward Albee provides such a foothold with his wry definition of the absurd as, “man’s attempts to make sense for himself out of his senseless position in a world which makes no sense” (Killinger, 2–3). To this, one may add Camus’ thoughts on how consciousness of the absurd impacts on a man’s daily life, “it was previously a question of finding out whether or not life had to have a meaning to be lived. It now becomes clear, on the contrary, that it will be lived all the better if it has no meaning. Living an experience, a particular fate, is accepting it fully” (36). Is this how Horst lives? Camus proposes that hope or suicide are man’s two key escape routes from the absurd. Horst certainly does not appear to embrace either one of these solutions. In explanation, one may say that he has surely lost all reasonable hope of survival having been taken from Dachau once, only to be returned. Additionally, as proven by his final act of revolt, he does not submit to thoughts of resignation or suicide.
Yet, one may reasonably ask for further proof of Horst’s consciousness of the absurd and simultaneous total acceptance. Camus writes that, “I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness, I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death—and I refuse suicide” (42). As Horst’s final revolt is not in question, one may cite examples of his freedom and passion. Horst displays his freedom even within the concentration camp in two distinct ways, namely humour and sexuality. Only a resilient man could make such a wonderful quip about the SS guard’s tedious instructions on rock moving – “we had a kid like that in school. Used to lead us in Simon Says.” Later, when Horst and Max reminisce about Berlin, Horst jokes that he indeed once saw Max by the river, “and I said someday, I’ll be in Dachau with that man moving rocks.” The other major example of freedom is when Horst initiates sex with Max, albeit verbal stimulation, which is an important scene in the play. When Horst says, “they’re not going to kill us. We made love,” then it may be understood less as hope for the future, and more as a celebration of the moment, of being triumphant in the moment. Horst’s passion may be viewed in two of his actions, his love of Max and his political zeal apparent in his jibes at Max about not accepting his own gay identity. It is love that is Horst’s daily motivation, he says, “it’s a reason to live.” It is important to note that Max never reciprocates the declaration of love and therefore Horst’s love is unrequited and in a pessimistic view, hopeless. Regarding political zeal, Horst was imprisoned due to his signature on a petition supporting the work of Magnus Hirschfield. As such, he is an open advocate of gay rights. The most pointed jibe by Horst at Max is when the former recounts the kindness of a Rabbi in his barracks of pink triangles and says to Max, “maybe if you knew him you could be proud of your star. You should be proud of something.” As readers, we witness that Horst receives worse treatment than Max but he continues to show freedom of action and thought while imprisoned. Horst is scornful of Max’s lie about his identity which is the clearest indication in the text that Horst’s path, though much tougher, is the correct one.
When Camus writes about Sisyphus, it is of someone who has an endless, tortuous fate. Camus goes on to say, “if this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him?” (76). Max is never a tragic figure until the final moments when his hopes are extinguished and he solves the problem of the absurd through the only alternative option from hope – suicide. However, Horst is indeed like Sisyphus in his endurance and he plays just such a role in Bent. Horst is the one who faces the awful absurdity of his situation but by active revolt and the exercise of passion and freedom, and all without any true hope of a future, he stands out as the hero. It is Horst who unashamedly wears his pink triangle and knows the cost of wearing it too. He is the prisoner who struggles from day to day, relying on love to sustain him when his hands are frostbitten and his body is weak. It is men like Horst, who battled against the absurdity of paragraph 175 and imprisonment in concentration camps. Sherman depicts a heroic person who does indeed reflect Camus’ idea of Sisyphus:
“Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn” (77).
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Translated by Justin O’Brien, Vintage International, 1991.
Heger, Heinz. The Men with the Pink Triangle. Translated by David Fernbach, Alyson Publications, 1995.
Plant, Richard. The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals. Holt Paperbacks, 1988.
Sherman, Martin. Bent. Avon Books, 1980.