What Are They Reading?

What Are They Reading?

“People try to be so fussy and particular when they look at politics,” observes Zillah, a character in Tony Kushner’s 1987 play, A Bright Room Called Day, “but what I think an understandin


By Tony Kushner.
Theatre Communications Group. 183 pp. Paper $10.95.

“People try to be so fussy and particular when they look at politics,” observes Zillah, a character in Tony Kushner’s 1987 play, A Bright Room Called Day, “but what I think an understanding of the second half of the twentieth century calls for is not caution and circumspection but moral exuberance.”

Zillah is a Jewish thirtysomething living in New York during the mid-1980s, frustrated with the left’s inability to halt the rise of Reaganism. For Zillah, moral exuberance means, in part, a willingness to ask difficult questions. For example: “It’s 1942; the Goerings are having an intimate soirée; if he got an invitation, would Pat Buchanan feel out of place?”

Historical parallels are a central subject of Kushner’s play. Most of the action takes place in Germany in the early 1930s, and other than Zillah–a contemporary character–Bright Room‘s other protagonists bear witness to the rise of the Third Reich.

Historical equivalencies are tricky. Most of the particulars of Hitler’s ascent to power didn’t correspond at all with the rise of Reagan. Or of George W. Yet, since reading Bright Room for the first time some years ago, I have sought it out a few times since Bush Jr. took office. Something about the plight of Kushner’s German characters hits painfully close to home.

“I concentrated on…the last phase of the collapse of the Weimar Republic, rather than on the crimes of the Third Reich,” Kushner explains in the play’s afterword, “intending to rescue the play from hopelessness by showing a period of choices, when things might have turned out differently if only…”

What choices could have been made differently in Berlin before the burning of the Reichstag? And how might things turn out differently now, in the era of the Patriot Act and Bush’s pre-emptive doctrine? Kushner warns that “those who govern us…have as their objective, if we can judge by their actions, to bring time to an end.” Why, now as in the 1930s, is the left unable to combat this apparent drive toward apocalypse?

“Pick any era in history,” Gotchling, one of Kushner’s German characters, urges Agnes. “What is really beautiful about that era? The way the rich lived? No. The way the poor lived? No. The dreams of the left are always beautiful. The imagining of a better world…”

Perhaps then, the apparent paralysis of the opposition to the advancing right-wing agenda is actually a paralysis of the imagination, an inability to formulate a clear vision of a better world. Kushner’s play serves as a call to action and reminds us that in difficult times, what animates social movements is such a vision, and that without this vision and the moral certitude it provides, the cause of social justice will likely falter.

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