Upon hearing I was seeing the new production of Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day, a friend asked if I thought the playwright would be in attendance. I pictured him back in the sound booth scribbling notes, some kind of light playing on those perfectly round glasses. I pictured him there, not basking—for Christ’s sake, he’s a writer—but questioning. Kushner, after all, is an indefatigable rewriter, and the temptation of tinkering with a major revival at the Public Theater could have proved impossible to resist. Kushner wasn’t in the wings that night, though. He did his rewrite from the stage.
In this divisive revision of his first play, Kushner has inserted a version of himself, played by the actor Jonathan Hadary. Written in 1985 when Kushner was twenty-six, A Bright Room Called Day is, according to the program materials, what first caught the eye of Kushner’s artistic director and longtime collaborator Oskar Eustis. It’s clear why: the play is near catastrophic in its precocity. But it is also a young man’s play. It is didactic and referential, polemical and pedantic; the reviews over the years have said as much.
A Bright Room Called Day presents a group of liberal, bohemian, and decidedly human friends in Berlin in 1932, just as the noose is beginning to tighten. They are Marxists and Trotskyites, some more than others. There is plenty of ideological ping-pong, which is great if you love Marxist ideology or ping-pong. But, as though it wasn’t Brechtian enough, the action is interrupted by a character named Zillah, who makes clear the connection between the Reagan era and the twilight years of the Weimar Republic: the heartbreaking swing of the working class from the Left to the Right. Zillah serves as a metafictional commentator who engages Kushner’s fascination with verfremdungseffekt, the Brechtian antitheater craft of undoing the “magic” of the stage.
It is patently obvious how the play could fall short of dramatic success, but I can’t testify to it personally—that initial version isn’t what I saw. Instead of Zillah disrupting the action occasionally during the two-hour-plus demonstration on the dangers of telling rather than showing, the “author” steps on stage and debates the value of the interruption with his interrupter. “There’s all of a sudden an interest in the play,” Kushner’s avatar says to Zillah. “I have offers! After years of college productions but no professional theater would touch the goddamned thing because, as you’ve already mentioned, it doesn’t … entirely work. Then BAM! After the election, things are so bad people want to do this play! Like, like [doing/fixing] the play is going to help.”
I remember the actor as saying “doing” in the play, but the script says “fixing.” Either line has its interest, and I wonder if the wording itself was fixed in a later stage. Kushner speaks to Shakespeare through the ages, responding to Hamlet’s “The play’s the thing” with a sharp “Is it?” Is it? How could adding another level of metafiction to a metafictional play possibly improve it? Plenty of critics and theatergoers have said that it doesn’t, and yet when the play ended, I stood. I couldn’t bring my hands together fast enough. I was crying. I was moved. I had met Tony Kushner, and I had seen him work.
Kushner’s rewrite brings the audience not just into the play but into the castling chaos of the creative mind. The “author,” in one of his appearances, shares that the play’s title is actually a mondegreen, a misheard song lyric or phrase. Struggling with the play, the real Kushner went to an exhibition about the de Mille sisters and in a stumble of optimism heard A Bridegroom Called Death, an Agnes de Mille ballet, as A Bright Room Called Day.
A wise and worldly woman complained to me once about the fund-raising apparatus of—for instance—the New York City Ballet. She was making a case against the goodie-bag hierarchy of donor tiers: “I don’t want to watch a rehearsal,” she said, with her richly matter-of-fact logic. “I donate so that they can put on, fabulously, the most magical performance, and I want to watch that.” This made good sense to me. But internally, I disagreed. I do want to watch the rehearsal. To see dancers in their warm-ups, moving with otherworldly beauty and then stopping to sip from something as pedestrian as a water bottle, is thrilling. To watch them do it almost right, again and again, till they do it perfectly is ecstasy (my apologies to Brecht). And it is the imperfection of Kushner’s revival, the lifting not of the fourth wall but of the rear curtain that hides the backstage, that makes me love it so.
“The essential thing in theater is what happens onstage very obviously both is and isn’t at the same time,” Kushner says in his Paris Review interview. “The play demands that the audience extend its empathic imagination.” There is no play of Kushner’s that doesn’t return to this difficulty again and again. But in recent years, Kushner has also written screenplays—two for Stephen Spielberg. The novelist and playwright Larry Kramer has complained that he wishes Kushner would cut this out: “I think Tony is better at writing plays than Spielberg is at making movies.” This critique seems to ring through Kushner’s rewrite.
Zillah draws a line from theater and acting to Reagan as “bad actor” in all senses and to Trump, who is also a bad actor. I’ve lost my taste for magic, the “author” complains. He feels culpable, that the magic has worked too completely. The delicate balance between the suspension of disbelief and the passionate commitment to belief have gotten tangled, Kushner seems to be saying. Look for the strings. Follow the money. In his interview, I have always loved his plea for the magic of the theater: “The theater requires an essential gullibility you can’t get through life without having.” But now, at the ragged end of 2019, Kushner is arguing with his earlier self. Maybe the gullibility is wrong. Maybe it brought us Pizzagate and hurricane arrows and the orange beast himself.
But the original play is also a struggle not to assign blame. Among the most shattering moments from the original script is a scene in which a gay man, newly persecuted for being part of a sexual studies institute, finds himself in a provincial theater with a gun in his pocket and Adolf Hitler a seat or two ahead of him. “I might have killed him, yes, but they would certainly have killed me. And I don’t want to die,” he says. Everyday cowardice, everyday self-preservation along with bigotry and passionate hatred made the Holocaust possible, is Kushner’s point—and it is a plea for compassion as much as a self-indictment of today’s American Left. “What weapons can we take up?” the author literally and figuratively asks the audience, having seen history and its failures, having seen art and its failures.
In the interest of the magic of the theater, I want to withhold Kushner’s answer. But the thesis is both obvious and profound. Kushner asks us to look at the danger of art and artifice in 2019 and to continue to have imagination. Old women climb on the stage without warning, the devil comes in a cloud of smoke and wears a Cartier Tank watch and a wedding band (a nice touch), and the dead can speak—if we’re still willing to listen. At the foot of a new decade, with impeachment hearings raging in the houses of government, skepticism is a tempting mantle. But there are wise men among us and—bless some parts of this decade—wise women and nonbinary folk as well. I’m here to argue that Tony Kushner is one of them. Some of his work is improvable, but his ideology still stands: “If all you can feel is skepticism—well, you meet people like this. Run away from them. They’re not good people.”
Julia Berick is a writer who lives in New York. She works at The Paris Review.