“A Bright Room Called Day” – Tony Kushner, 1985-1990
As part of Tony Kushner “time” in Minneapolis, the University of Minnesota theatre department staged “A Bright Room Called Day,”a play Kushner wrote in 1985. This play was his first. Kushner went on to become famous as the author of the 7 hour “Angels in America”, which won the ’93 Pulitzer for ‘best drama’ about the 80s AIDS crisis and ... Roy Cohn.
Kushner visited the student actors at the U last week, and described himself to them as a gay Marxist agnostic. He is definitely a progressive, and is influenced by Bertold Brecht, as most progressive playwrights are. 'Bright Room' was inspired by Brecht’s “Private Lives of the Master Race.”
“A Bright Room Called Day” is set in Weimar Germany and also in 1990 Berlin. It is a carefully researched historical play about events that led to the triumph of fascism in Germany, combined with a look back at this period by an outraged lesbian activist fresh from Reaganite America, Zillah. Zillah is a reader and history buff, and has decided to move to Berlin where things are more 'real' than Long Island. She occupies the same apartment in which all the events almost 50 years earlier take place. In that far, long ago time, a quite ordinary and sometimes leftish actress, Agnes Eggling, shared this apartment with a group of friends - Husz, her Trotskyist Hungarian film-maker boyfriend; Gotchling, a Communist Party activist and artist; Baz, a mascara-wearing homosexual Reichian; and Paulinka, an actress interested in fame and opium, in that order.
Politically, the play agrees with Trotsky’s analysis of the failures of the German Communist Party (KPD) to unite in a military and electoral united front with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) to smash Hitler. This was due to the KPD's ultra-left position that social democracy was ‘social fascism.’ (Readers might also note that Stalin alleged Trotsky was a fascist as well.) At the same time, the SPD spent time trying to vainly unite with rightist elements like the Catholic Party to oppose Hitler. The KPD argument is best represented by the presence of two KPD officials, who argue about taking orders from Moscow, versus acting to block the Nazis using their own knowledge of what was really necessary to win.
The key person in the play here is Agnes, an ‘everywoman.’ She is a middle-aged, somewhat frumpy and emotional person who flirts with joining the KPD, produces a puppet show at a workers meeting for them, then ostensibly drifts from politics. As fascism triumphs, she refuses to leave Germany, as every single one of her friends are doing. She wants them, actually, to stay and … fight. She helps one of the comrades escape, but refuses to leave, and later, we are told, ‘dies of a broken heart.’ The subtext of the play, quite clearly, is the inability of most to act in the face of ‘evil.’
As evidence, the KPD organization folds up shop after their disastrous politics. The homosexual has a chance to kill Hitler, but fears for his own life, and doesn’t aim his gun in a darkened theatre. The Trotskyist filmaker flees to Chicago, with his remaining one good eye, after a brawl involving he, Paulinka and some brownshirts. Paulinka has no intention of getting involved in politics, and settles for dope. She is refused entry to the US because she was at one time a KPD member, joinging for a few weeks 'because they make the best films,” and instead departs to the USSR by train. Gotchling, however, returns to Germany underground, continuing the fight, and asks Agnes to help a comrade escape to Czechoslovakia. Gotchling is the one comrade that seems the most dangerous to Hitler, and in spite of the mistakes of the KPD leadership, represents the working class people who continued to play a heroic and underground role in Germany itself during that period. She is clearly contrasted with Agnes, who is middle class, and while sincere, is unable to act.
The figure of Zillah is ostensibly the most ‘controversial’ because of her modern anger at the Great Communicator, the senile actor Ronald Reagan. Kushner allows her stright-out diatribles - not usually allowed in American theatre. While some think the play and Zillah compare Hitler and Reagan, it does no such thing. She makes the philosophical point that the yardstick for ‘evil’ is now Hitler, and if, in that context you only kill hundreds of thousands (the handling of AIDS, contras in Nicaragua, government death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala were some of Reagan's crimes) history somehow determines that you are not 'evil' enough, and you don't even get an dishonorable mention. I.E., now the ‘smoking gun’ has to kill millions ... or it doesn’t smoke.
Like other Kushner plays, there is a ghost that haunts Agnes’ apartment, Die Alte, just as Agnes herself becomes a ghost that haunts Zillah’s apartment. I thought that Die Alte represented a woman who lived in the apartment during World War I, and was consumed by famine. However, she insists she was taken to the camps, and shown the dead, and ate all the way through it… which would post date WW I. The figure of the Devil appears as Herr Swetts, a charismatic and powerful man who has taken up residence in Germany for the duration. Paulinka is quite taken with him. She would sell her soul for a good part, and actually introduces Satan to the play through a role she had in Faust. Common to Brecht, dark humor is laced throughout, with Paulinka, Baz and Zillah providing the most jokes, at the expense, respectively, of self-centeredness, gay orgasms and doddering reactionaries like Reagan.
The high point of the play for me is an ecstatic scene after the Communist Party made temporary gains in the Reichstag in 1933, while the Nazis lost seats. To celebrate, Husz pours vodka and pretends to film Gotchling, as Trotsky, and Agnes, as Dziga Vertov, a Soviet filmmaker, shaking hands. They all sing the International, with the modest Hungarian Husz standing at the side, singing too. The merger of art and politics, he says. I sang along, but was one of the few that knew the words …
And I saw it at the U of M, Rarig Theatre.
April 26, 2009