Last year Tony Kushner’s Angels in America enjoyed a rapturous reception when it returned to Broadway after 25 years. This season brings an Off Broadway revival of his first play, 1985’s A Bright Room Called Day. The play is set in 1932 and 1933 in the Berlin apartment of a character actress eking out a living in the German film industry. Her artsy friends assemble there as the months roll forward and they try to come to terms with what they should do as they see Hitler rising to power. A series of projected slides introduces each scene, chronicling political events (and offering an incisive pocket history of the Reich’s rapid ascent). Zillah, an American character in the 1980s, periodically interrupts the action and comments on her own situation, suggesting that the Reagan counterrevolution could pave the way for something like fascism.
Like much of Kushner’s work, the play shows us characters struggling to rise to the demands of history. He has rewritten it substantially, revising Zillah and adding another interrupting character, who lives in the crisis of the present day. The primary action still unfolds in that Weimar Berlin apartment, where progressive friends arrive at different choices about how to resist—or just survive. Soon after Steven Spielberg finished filming a new adaptation of West Side Story, for which Kushner wrote the screenplay, and as Bright Room entered its second week of rehearsals, I sat down with Kushner (full disclosure: a longtime friend and an occasional collaborator) to talk about this early and uncannily timely play. It begins performances at the Public Theater on October 29. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Alisa Solomon: The new production is the play’s first major one in New York since 1991. What precipitated it?
Tony Kushner: After Donald Trump began to win primaries, a number of people called from the serious New York theater world and said, “What about A Bright Room Called Day? Is it time to think about doing that?”
AS: When it had that first major production at the Public Theater, it wasn’t universally embraced. Having loved the play, I hadn’t remembered that the original reviews were so negative. The New York Times review called it “fatuous” and “infuriating.” Even The Nation belittled it.
TK: Right. I stopped reading reviews officially after the Bright Room production in London, midway through a review. I thought, “If I read one more sentence of this guy’s hatred for what I did, I will never write again,” which is probably melodramatic. I remember [then New York magazine critic] John Simon saying something like I had some talent and deserve to be encouraged.
AS: Most of the complaint was moralistic, not so much taking issue with the writing but scolding you—“How dare you compare Reagan to Hitler!” Or in the London version, Thatcher to Hitler. Which isn’t actually what the play does.
TK: It made people nuts. Here and in London. But I didn’t feel then—and I certainly don’t feel now—that I was entirely off. I have spent my entire life, like most of us, looking at the beginning, middle, and continuation of a horrendous misdirection in the political fortunes of our democracy. And it has led directly to where we are right now. The Reagan counterrevolution’s mantra was that government is the problem. And hatred of government leads to hatred of democracy, and if it goes on long enough and isn’t checked by people who believe in democracy and believe in government, it’s going to lead to an attempt to replace it with something else—whether you can call it fascism in the mid-20th-century sense or some other antidemocratic, oligarchic kleptocracy.
AS: I think critics assumed that if a progressive like you was talking about Nazis and Reaganism in one breath, it couldn’t be serious or precise, it was just infantile.
TK: Well, I didn’t help that by making Zillah into such a peculiar figure.
AS: But in the play, Zillah explicitly rejects the idea that there’s a one-to-one correspondence between Reagan and Hitler.
TK: She says, if you have a standard of evil like the Holocaust or the Third Reich and you make the decision that it is absolutely forbidden to compare anything to the standard, then everything else is on another spectrum somehow, and the standard is alone, this peak of isolated awfulness, then you’re essentially turning what should be the standard for political evil into—as one of the new interruptions in the script says—into reassurance. Nothing looks like that. So it’s not that bad. That [misreading] was infuriating to me.
Still, I felt that what I was trying to do with Zillah wasn’t working. It was frustrating to me. I could blame critics for misunderstanding. But I also felt a kind of secret knowledge that she wasn’t doing what I needed her to do effectively. And I had absolutely no idea why and absolutely no idea how to fix it.
AS: But now you have rewritten her. What’s different about her?
TK: She’s engaging now in a different way, and she’s after something. I don’t want to say what it is. In the 34 years that she has spent trapped in this play, Zillah has begun unpacking many of her contradictions and has an opinion about what the play needs. Some of the central dialectics spinning around the heart of the play in terms of action versus despair are the things that she’s trying to tackle now.
AS: Is Zillah still from the 1980s? Is she still talking about Reagan?
TK: She is very much a person of the mid-1980s.
AS: And you have added a second interrupting character?
TK: When I started hearing from people, one of them was David Warshofsky, a great actor who had played the Devil in the original production of Bright Room and runs the graduate acting program at USC. He said, “I have one extra guy that I need to have a part for.” And he remembered in the very first production that we did [in 1985] at Theater 22 [a no longer extant Off Off Broadway theater], Zillah had a brother. I had cut him out, but I started trying to figure out whether there was some way to include this actor that David wanted to include. Now there are two interrupting characters. One is Zillah with a Z. The other is Xillah with an X.
AS: I heard that this Xillah with an X is basically you.
TK: In some ways, yes.
AS:That surprises me.
TK: It’s complicated. I’ve always felt that with writing, the whole point of putting something down on paper is that you write it and then you read what you’ve written and start to pick up little breadcrumb traces in what you’re actually after. You start to build on those, and then you begin to realize what it is you were doing in the first place. Sometimes you have this idea of what you’re going after, but the most interesting ideas, the ones that really take you by surprise, are the ones being cooked up below the immediate level of consciousness. The stuff that I’m not consciously aware of is much more interesting and has various gambits that it employs to get my attention. And one of them is to create really difficult problems that have to be solved. I don’t think there’s a single instance where this isn’t true. Every one of those problems, whether I solve them or not, has proved to be the wellspring of the most interesting possibilities for whatever it is that I’m writing.
And there’s no question. I did a reading of Bright Room for the Roundabout Theatre years ago with a great cast, without Zillah to see if the play worked without her. And it does. It’s fine. It’s just smaller, and it’s not the play. I was left with this thing that both didn’t work with her and didn’t work without her.
When I began to think about rewriting Bright Room, it became clear that with Trump, we were experiencing a phenomenon that was new. I didn’t want to pretend that I had some sort of encompassing interpretive understanding of this creature and what was going on.
I knew one thing for sure: It’s a mug’s game to start making fun of Donald Trump. He is such a self-parody that it’s very difficult. What’s bad and grotesque and loathsome about him is so immense and rancid and terrifying that everything that’s said about him feels on some level inadequate. Alex Ross wrote a piece in The New Yorker about recent Hitler literature and very quietly, without drawing strong lines, pointed out so many parallels.
AS: Michiko Kakutani’s review of Volker Ullrich’s Hitler biography did the same thing.
TK: Yes. And reading those pieces makes you want to crawl under the bed. It’s so terrifying. And that is also what the play is struggling with—a question of our relationship to history, the very fine line between being galvanized into action by history and being overwhelmed. That history can both goad us into action and produce a paralyzing despair.
AS: So is Xillah with an X the despairing voice of the playwright?
TK: Well, not entirely. He is the author of the play, and it is his first play, and he has a vexed relationship with it, and he has sort of returned to see if he can figure it out. And he’s zeroed in on the thing that he thinks is the problem. Which is Zillah. He comes from 2019, this particular moment, which has in many ways compelled him to this return.
AS:Why did you put Zillah into the play in the first place?
TK: I had always had, from Day One, certain doubts about playwriting and theater. Does a really seriously committed political person have a right to write make-believe stuff? I always had a suspicion of the form—in Plato’s sense, the anti-theatrical prejudice—just feeling not so sure about this enterprise. Zillah is clearly a manifestation of that. I felt—as we all did in the ’80s, partly because of the [AIDS] epidemic and also because of Reaganism—that what Reagan had done but Nixon hadn’t done was to capture the energy of revolution at a point when the counterculture had basically lost it. The energy of “Fuck it. Who says we can’t do this? Let’s just do it and see what happens.” It somehow reappeared on the right. The Reagan counterrevolution kept going and kept going and kept going, and nothing seemed to be able to drive a stake into its heart.
The thing that I had freaked out about in the mid-’80s, that a play wasn’t the right response, manifested itself as Zillah, and I needed to follow that impulse: mistrust of the form itself.
AS: And you sort of latched onto Bertolt Brecht. You have said that Bright Room was inspired by one of his Lehrstücke, or learning plays, Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, (Furcht und Elend des Dritten Reiches).
TK: Brecht is one of my lodestars. I’ve always been fascinated by the Lehrstücke that he was working on with working-class people in Berlin before he was driven into exile. While there were street battles between the Nazis and the KPD [Communist Party of Germany], he developed this incredibly radical dramaturgy.
AS: What was specifically useful to you from Fear and Misery?
TK: All of Brecht’s attempts to understand something in the white-hot heat of a moment—all the various ways in which Brecht attempted to understand through theater what was going on in the world around him, when everything was falling apart—are very moving to me.
Furcht und Elend has some beautiful writing in it and some chilling scenes. You see it as a kind of a pastiche of various attempts to figure things out, both in terms of analysis and in terms of form and trying to make a virtue of a form that’s dictated by the kind of exigency that refugees are faced with. This is a voice speaking from the heart of the horror. I think that that was it. And it gave me permission to do the short, choppy scenes. And to a certain extent, montage.
AS: The scenes set in Berlin mostly proceed as narrative realism, though absolutely not, as you caution in the preface of the published edition, as “mumbly domestic drama.” But apart from Zillah’s and now Xillah’s interruptions, there’s a ghost in the mix. And the Devil himself makes an appearance, too.
TK: I thought I put the Devil in Bright Room because it was a German text and in German texts the Devil always puts in an appearance, but one of the epigraphs for the play has always been Goethe’s “Prologue in the Theater” from Faust, one of the great texts of all time. And I got really interested in the question of theater and deviltry. Also, I wrote Bright Room in the ’80s, but I had come to New York in 1974 and had been seeing the work of [experimental theater groups and artists] Mabou Mines, the Wooster Group, Richard Foreman, Robert Wilson. Bread and Puppet had an enormous impact on me, and the radical San Francisco Mime Troupe. I was reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Augusto Boal. I felt like I was trying to combine different ideas: the well-made play and agitprop.
AS: I’m surprised to hear you call an aspect of the play agitprop. Zillah rants. But she’s not calling on anyone to actually do anything specific, and she herself isn’t doing anything. How active is she, really?
TK: She’s asking questions. I don’t want to give anything away, but what you just pointed out are now questions that she has.
AS: The filming of West Side Story finished just as you went into rehearsals for Bright Room. How does it feel to shift genres?
TK: I love working on film, but the theater is where I feel like I belong. With film, I feel like a frog that’s been put in whitewater rapids and it basically manages to survive and feel good, and then some kind person picks the frog up periodically and returns it to a nice pond to do what it was really meant to do. The play is being directed by my best friend [Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater], and it’s the first time we’ve worked together in a very long time as playwright and director. And that’s a blast.
AS: Bright Room is the origin of your relationship.
TK: Yes. The second night of its performance at Theater 22, in the middle of the show, when some of the characters sing “The Internationale,” somebody in the audience started singing along with them. I heard this light, pleasant tenor. It was Oskar. We did a production [in 1987] at the Eureka [a San Francisco theater that Eustis ran at the time]. After it closed, Oskar said he wanted to commission my next play, which was going to be a two-hour play with songs. [It turned out to be the seven-hour, two-part Angels in America.]
AS: Are we at a place now where there’s more acceptance of or even hunger for serious political art? When Bright Room premiered, we still suffered from a McCarthy hangover that fearfully insisted on keeping realms of art and politics separated.
TK: That separation still exists. There are still people who will always bring up Proust, which I always think is ironic because about 80 percent of Remembrance of Things Past is taken up with the Dreyfus case and World War I. It’s completely political from start to finish. But he also mounts the ugliest, most overwhelmingly convincing attacks saying that art must have nothing to do with politics. But that’s a contradiction. This is one case in which one really does need to be dialectical.
I wrote Bright Room in part because of Primo Levi’s point that the moral drama about choices that can affect an outcome are not appropriate for the concentration camp. Once you’re there, the fundamental horror is that you have lost agency. You’re caught up in a machine, the purpose of which is to murder you and everybody like you, and that’s what’s going to happen. And so the drama of the moment when choices can be made, is before the camps open for business, before the railroad tracks are laid and the gates are put up and the boxcars start to roll. That’s why I set this play in 1932 and 1933, because that’s the moment when it could have gone—and it was starting to go—in another direction. By July of ’32, the KPD [Communist Party of Germany] was gaining.
AS: But those on the German left were eating one another. Which you’re clear about in the play.
TK: That’s part of the horror of it. What’s that Heiner Müller play? Germania 3, where the head of the KPD and the head of the SPD [Social Democratic Party] are ghosts walking around on the ramparts of Dachau and they’re still arguing with each other about the United Front.
One of the things that I am most moved by is the opening of [Anna] Akhmatova’s “Requiem.” She’s standing in line at the Leningrad prison and waiting months in the cold after her son was arrested. And this woman comes up to her and says, “I hear you’re a poet.” And she says, “Yes.” And the woman says, “Can you describe this?” And she says, “Yes.”
And that’s where the poem comes from. That’s her mission. That’s her job. In a certain sense, I feel like I’ve gotten some of that with West Side Story, which was always in part about xenophobia and racism. And I feel like I’m doing some of that with Bright Room.