How Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day Can Help Us Understand Our Political MomentCulture Watch
tags: politics, plays, Trump, theatre
Frank Palmeri is a professor of English at the University of Miami. He is the author of Satire in Narrative: Petronius, Swift, Gibbon, Melville, Pynchon (1990), Satire, History, Novel: Narrative Forms, 1665-1815 (2003), State of Nature, Stages of Society: Enlightenment Conjectural History and Modern Social Discourse (2016), and the editor of Humans and Other Animals in Eighteenth-Century British Culture: Representation, Hybridity, Ethics (2006).
Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day, which opened at the Public Theater in New York on October 29 is a rare bird—a revival (with a substantial re-write) that proves to be more timely and incisive than the original was. In my opinion, the play does not work terribly well theatrically—I was not moved by any of the characters—but it is a good play to think about.
The main question that the play poses isone askedby the nineteenth-century Russian thinker Nikolai Chernyshevsky and later Lenin: “What Is to be Done?” More specifically, in this case, “How should we respond to kleptocratic authoritarianism?”
The success of the play as a thought experiment depends on one’s willingness to conceive of the parallels between historical periods. In its first avatar, performed in 1985, the play focuses on a group of friends in Berlin in 1932-33, and draws parallels between that time and the early years of Reagan’s second term, in order to register what it regarded as the incipient fascism of mid-1980s US. Breaking the realistic framework, a woman from Reagan’s time unaccountably appears, urging the young Berliners to flee, or at least to do something. The play was panned by critics like Frank Rich who, writing in the New York Times in 1991, found it “fatuous” and “infuriating.” He felt that Kushner had gone too far in making a simplistic and reductive comparison of Reagan’s America to Hitler’s Germany.
In 2019, however, after a revision in which what is new makes up about 40% of the play, the comparison of the thirties with the later period appears more firmly based and even prescient. In the revised and expanded version, Kushner includes a second character from the future of the Berlin characters—the author, who speaks in our present with the emissary from the eighties. Uncertain about the value of what he is doing and has done—writing plays—the author asks, “Can theater make any [political] difference?” His willingness to examine his own choices and to ask meta-theatrical questions in the theater makes him an appealing figure.
In defense of the parallels he draws between the 30s, the 80s, and the late 2010s, he argues that if one set of events (such as the Holocaust or Shoah) is established as the standard against which all others are to be judged, and yet no others are allowed to be comparable to it, then it is not useful as a point of reference. One cannot, he maintains, exempt one period from the realm of historical comparisons, although, I would add, one must be careful and responsible when drawing them.
If one allows this argument, then Kushner’s central political insight in the play is strong: Trumpism was not a sudden anomaly; rather, decades under recent Republican presidents prepared the way for the current embrace of unconstitutional reactionary authoritarianism by eight or nine of every ten Republicans. Having been proudly anti-intellectual, Presidents Reagan and G. W. Bush denied, as Trump denies, that reason should play a role in the conduct of the country’s affairs. This elevation of irrationality, of going with the gut, is linked with a dangerous animus against the federal government that threatens the Enlightenment basis of the American republic, as John Meacham has recently argued.
Reagan and Trump made blatant appeals to the racial resentments of whites, the first by inveighing against “welfare queens and cheats” and by declaring for “states’ rights” in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three young civil rights workers were murdered two decades earlier. Trump similarly found “very fine people” both among neo-Nazis and anti-fascist demonstrators. Presidents Reagan and G. W. Bush, like Trump, routinely made statements contrary to the truth. Reagan told so many falsehoods, mistaking what happened in movies with what happened outside of films, that the press and media stopped reporting them. George W. Bush deceived the country about warrantless, illegal surveillance of millions of Americans, about the grounds for an unjustified war of aggression against Iraq, and about his authorization of the use of torture by the US. Both helped prepare a major party to accept the barrage of falsehoods that Donald Trump launches every day.
To return to the central question Kushner’s play raises—how we can respond to kleptocratic authoritarianism—it is worth remembering the maxim that the first casualty in war is truth, and, as Thucydides observes, this is especially in the case of civil war. As Masha Gessen writes, language means something until it doesn’t. Take the use under G.W. Bush of “regime change” instead of “invasion,” or the replacement of “torture” with “enhanced interrogation techniques”—as though prohibiting the word makes the thing go away.
One of the prime examples of the deformation of language in the current moment comes from the language used to describe the fractious state of the polity itself—the language of “polarization,” and the supposed diagnosis that we are being “tribal” when we occupy one side or the other of an issue. In fact, however, the allowed spectrum of opinions—the Overton window—has moved far to the right in the last forty years. Ethnic nationalism can now be overtly advocated by a nominee for one of the second-highest courts in the land, while Democrats have been moving toward more centrist, not more extreme positions during the same decades.
I do not know how to move the public discourse back toward the old center in, say, the late 70s, but writers can raise the question of what should be done, as Tony Kushner does in A Bright Room Called Day, and they can point out and bear witness to the corruption of language in their own time, as George Orwell did in his 1947 essay “Politics and the English Language.”
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