We have much to discuss! And with Tony Kushner our subject this week, are you surprised?
Let me firstly confirm the magnificent achievement of Homebody/Kabul in Mr. Kushner’s revised version, directed by Frank Galati and currently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. When this fantastic play whose broken heart is set among the ruins of Afghanistan premiered three years ago, I couldn’t think of a more important drama in the last decade-since, in fact, the same awesomely articulate dramatist gave us Angels in America . A few people-the usual suspects-harrumphed disapprovingly, believing Mullah Kushner, the mad warlord of Off Broadway, had overreached himself.
If so, name me a better play of our time- for our time. Name me one that takes on the whole, wide, wonderful, fucked-up world.
Much has been made of Mr. Kushner tinkering obsessively with Homebody/Kabul (which went through 17 drafts). It’s normal. If I can go through two or three drafts of a mere theater review, what price an epic play? Mr. Kushner’s dramas are never perfect, never even quite finished, and for my taste I prefer the muddy tumult of creative struggle to a polished outcome. In that feverish sense, he’s always writing the same play.
But any artist worthy of the name fails. He has no choice! The only test is how close the committed artist, driven to distraction contemplating the thing he contemplates, can get to the summit of his imagination. Failure-the perverse reward of imagination’s wreckage-is the name of the dramatist’s hard game. Or as Samuel Beckett put it with typical cheerfulness in Worstward Ho : “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Mr. Kushner raises the bar high (the highest), but I believe he’s come as close as he can to a fully realized Homebody/Kabul , unless he wants to drive himself mad. (In other Beckettian words, he’s failing better and better!) I have a small caveat, though. He should rewrite in private. Uniquely in American life, he lives a public life as an artist. But audiences can know too much about a play in advance. Before you know it, they’re discussing the rewrites he’s made rather than the play itself.
For instance, it so happens that in revising Homebody/Kabul , he’s cut my favorite scene. (Not the best, my favorite.) It’s the scene when Priscilla, the bratty daughter of the London misfit and wordsmith known as the Homebody, meets a wise hermit or marabout. By inclination, I enjoy marabouts.
I see that I wrote in my original review, “All such quests must have a wise man.” The Homebody has disappeared into Kabul on what seems to be a romantic, mad whim. She’s either living in Afghanistan as a Muslim convert now voluntarily deprived of words-books!-her very life-blood and songs of praise. Or she’s been hacked to pieces in the crossfire of history on the site her daughter now visits in a dream. She meets the hermit on the mythical site of Cain’s grave, which is now turned into a minefield. But in the new version, the hermit has been cut along with the dream.
“The dream confused audiences,” Mr. Kushner explained with wonderfully tactless candor in a recent Times interview. “The play is long and complicated enough.” But for me, the dream wasn’t confusing unless we find all plays confusing. Plays are dreams made concrete. Where else but in plays and dreams do we meet the dead, or historic kings and contemporary politicians, wise men and homebodies?
But that isn’t quite it. I missed two lines that disturbed me a lot the first time around. “Please,” the marabout asks Priscilla as she ventures onto holy ground, “are you clean?”
“I don’t know,” she replies.
The notion of Western “cleanliness” or purity-and a bewildered distrust of foreignness -go to the conflicted core of the play. But so does the scene Mr. Kushner substituted, only differently. The role of Priscilla has been developed in the new version, and though the British accent and rhythm of Maggie Gyllenhaal, in her welcome New York theater debut, aren’t as yet truly located, she conveys an unusual poetic innocence that’s compelling.
“Look up there!” Priscilla cries on the site of Cain’s grave in the cursed, wasted city. “Look at the sky! Black! Black! Crikey. We could be on the moon! Oh, sweet Christ, it’s … unearthly!” She could be Miranda awestruck at the wonder of the world in The Tempest .
Nothing is predictable and safe about Homebody/Kabul . Linda Emond’s opening monologue and tour de force as the eccentric Homebody is now renowned, but The Times somehow misunderstands everything when it describes her admiringly as offering “warming comfort in a world that had taken on a newly aggressive chill.” For all of Homebody’s fluttery wit and dottiness, she’s a desperate woman in mourning for a world that has lost its mind.
It’s why she flees it, fleeing wan, suburban London for the fabulist unknown of ravished Afghanistan, Mr. Kushner’s metaphor for global breakdown. The playwright of ideas compels us to look afresh at tinderbox issues in a feverish search for understanding the near unsavable world of Homebody/Kabul . It’s about desolation and love in land-mined places, private agony and public squalor, fathers and daughters, the Babel of language and lost civilizations, disintegrating, rotting cultures, sordid Western values and furious opposites, murderers and fanatics, opium highs and tranquilized lives lived out in disgust and self-obliteration.
It’s about travel in the generous, best sense of the word-travel of the exploding, despairing mind and soul. To where? A place where warring people might one day meet, where steps can be relearned and the meaning of words reborn.
“A door marked nevermore that was not there before,” as the suffering Afghan fan of Sinatra’s golden hits puts it both comically and tragically in the play. “It is hard you will find to be narrow of mind.”
In a scene that made me turn away, that same pathetic, young Afghan man whom fate has robbed of life collapses weeping in his simple need for some relief, some normalcy , in a world in chaos where “anything-everything-can be lost.” It is where a ranting woman is a librarian driven mad in a land without libraries. It is where no one literally can make themselves understood except in halting, watery translation, where corrupted language has lost its meaning, cleansed of all truth, like ethnic cleansing or a President’s easy pious lies.
Odd though it may seem, Mr. Kushner can be a very funny playwright. He’s witty here, but this is the darkest of his plays so far. All plays change with the times in which we see them, and we ourselves change with the times. Homebody/Kabul would have been different whether Mr. Kushner had revised it or not.
Its premiere three years ago came soon after 9/11, though it was written before. Set in Afghanistan in 1998-2000, how could we not be horrified by the terrible clairvoyancy of the line that’s delivered by the furious librarian during the era of American support for the Taliban: “You love the Taliban so much, bring them to New York!”
The audience still gasps. “Well, don’t worry. They’re coming to New York! Americans!” And yet the war in Afghanistan has receded in memory as if it were a mere sideshow and the world continues to go to hell. It’s why Homebody/Kabul left me more troubled and upset this time around. In the dark essentials, it’s a play about an absence of soul.
Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is a tragedy of America that held out some hope, some understanding for us, within its mortal wounds. But pretty poems will not do it, and poetry is long gone from the unearthly beauty of mythic Kabul. The voice of yearning within Homebody/Kabul has now become more urgent, as if time were running out in sickness of heart and soul.