Wide Angle

Tony Kushner Versus the Apocalypse

How the playwright rewrote his first play—and added a whole new character—to grapple with the most difficult question of our time.

Crystal Lucas-Perry and Jonathan Hadary in A Bright Room Called Day.
Zillah (Crystal Lucas-Perry) and Xillah (Jonathan Hadary) in A Bright Room Called Day.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus/the Public.

Apologies in advance for beginning on a downer note but, seriously, why do we even bother? Why do we make art and engage with art? Since the 2016 election, that’s the question to which I—like many of my fellow artists and critics—cannot help but inexorably return. Rarely do I utter this question out loud, and even more rarely in print. But it’s always on my mind. Does it matter? What’s the point?

I have, despite this, spent much of the past few years bothering, and being bothered. I directed a one-man show about the rise of Donald Trump and the failures of contemporary liberalism that closed the week before Trump’s election. I created a podcast (for this very website!) that used the political problems of Shakespeare’s day to examine the crisis of our own. And I co-wrote (with the editor of this very piece!) a book about Angels in America, using Tony Kushner’s play and its creation to speak to the terrifying rise of Donald Trump. But as we lock children up in cages and the twinned avalanches of climate change and democratic erosion only pick up speed, I find myself wondering if I am a fool for having hoped, in even some small part of my heart, that my work would affect anything.

Now it turns out that Tony Kushner himself, a man whose work has absolutely mattered, has been asking himself the same questions. For the revival of his first professionally produced play, A Bright Room Called Day, open now at New York’s Public Theater, Kushner has in classic Kushnerian style wildly rewritten the script to address them. In so doing, he’s created an impossible play that circles two impossible problems—how the left could have responded to the rise of Hitler, and how art can respond to our present moment—and offers no easy solutions.

Yet clear solutions may be what some people seek from politically minded art. In a pan of the show, the New York Times’ Ben Brantley argues that Bright Room fails because it lacks “a fresh urgency that will rouse like-minded audiences to world-changing thoughts and deeds” and features too many unresolved—perhaps unresolvable—arguments, leading to a “flamboyant paralysis.” Brantley is correct that, despite the play’s final exhortation to the audience to act, the play refuses to tell us how. But I think Brantley’s wrong about the impact this play can have on an audience. Bright Room is a play for our time precisely because it refuses the easy answers of agitprop—and because a bold new addition to the show, a whole new character who’s never appeared in Bright Room before, dramatizes the knotty questions of our current era.

A Bright Room Called Day tells the story of five leftist friends navigating the rise of Hitler in Weimar Germany. But that story is also interrupted throughout by a woman named Zillah, intruding on the action of the play to link it to our present crisis. In 1985, when Kushner himself directed the first workshop of the play, that crisis was the rise of Reagan. “We’re so allergic to politics in the theater,” Kushner said in a 1991 interview. “I wondered … what if, in the middle of this well-made, little four-wall drama someone stood up and said, well, what’s the most obnoxious thing anyone could say in 1985? ‘You’ve just reelected Adolf Hitler.’ ”

But as history marched on, the specific crisis Zillah was meant to address kept changing, even as the underlying problems remained the same, so Kushner kept rewriting. When Bright Room was mounted in London, Zillah spoke to the evils of Thatcher. In 1991, when the play officially premiered at the Public Theater, Zillah addressed the end of the Cold War, the traumas of the Reagan-Bush years, the feeling that we were forgetting history. Zillah became dedicated to reminding us of what we had lived through, what we were currently living through, and what, prophetically, we would come to live through again. She told us that Pat Buchanan would likely accept an invite to the Goerings’ for dinner; she asked, “Is a 25 percent Nazi a Nazi or not?”; she maintained that “none of these bastards look like Hitler, they never will, not exactly, but I say as long as they look like they’re playing in Mr. Hitler’s Neighborhood we got no reason to relax.”

The reviews that greeted that 1991 production of Bright Room so excoriated the play and its writer that they’ve attained a kind of mythic status among followers of Kushner’s career. “An early front-runner for the most irritating play of 1991,” Frank Rich called it in the Times. At the heart of many critics’ dismissal was a political argument. Bright Room premiered just as Operation Desert Shield was about to become Operation Desert Storm, and there was little appreciation for a play that pointedly asked us to remember the evils of the administration about to take us to war. Writing in Backstage, Roy Sanders announced that “by making most of the protagonists communists, Kushner commits the theatrically fatal error of not providing characters whose plight can enlist our sympathies”—because communism was as bad as Nazism. Writing in the Nation, Thomas M. Disch dismissed Bright Room as part of the Public Theater’s “misbegotten aesthetic agenda” of promoting “avant-garde con artists and politically correct bores” and protested that Zillah, rather than being a dramatic character, is “a congeries of received left/activist opinions.”

Hampered by those reviews and overshadowed by the Broadway triumph of Angels just two years later, Bright Room has had only a handful of professional productions in the United States since, but it’s regularly produced and taught at colleges. That’s where I first encountered it, in 1997. My own feelings about the play at the time tracked with those of most other people I knew. There was an interesting (if too long) play about Weimar Germany in there, but oy vey, that Zillah stuff was so on the nose.

But there’s a reason why Bright Room’s 1987 production at the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco was its most successful, striking a chord with enthusiastic audiences. When we are in social and institutional crisis, the question of whether art is too politically on the nose, too overt in its agitation, no longer matters. Indeed, we crave such art, particularly when its themes intersect exactly with the crisis we are experiencing. Gay America and the far left understood that we were in a crisis in 1987, again in 1991, again in 1997, and much of the rest of America, including me, didn’t want to hear it. Now, the crisis is undeniable to all.

It turns out, after all, that Zillah was right. As Oskar Eustis—the director of that Eureka Theatre production, and the director of the current one—told me, “Here, on a 34-year trajectory, we had the electoral proof that the fears embodied in Bright Room were never hysterical, never over the top, never exaggerated.” Reagan may not have been Hitler, but he helped set in motion forces that have fundamentally destabilized our social order and led directly to the rise of Donald Trump, who is, let’s be honest, probably a bit more than 25 percent a Nazi.

Zillah might be right, but what do you do with her? Not only is the character stuck in 1991, but critics weren’t exactly wrong when they called her irritating and anti-dramatic. How do you straighten out what Eustis called “a broken-backed monster” of a play, a realistic depiction of 1930s Berlin frequently interrupted by Zillah haranguing the audience? The obvious solution is to cut her from the show once and for all. But Zillah isn’t a mistake or an accident; Bright Room is a play about, among other things, not trusting the dramatic form. “I tried to do both a well-made play and something that would perpetually knock the well-made play off its axis, that would destabilize it from within,” Kushner told me. And so instead of cutting Zillah, Kushner did something far wilder: He inserted a second interrupter, called Xillah, who is overtly a stand-in for himself.

“It was probably an accident, as many things are,” Kushner said when I asked him where Xillah came from. At first he tried updating Zillah’s interruptions to make them about Donald Trump: “But it was clear to me that any jokes that I made about Trump would be out of date five minutes later.” So instead he decided to investigate where she really came from. He had often been accused of using her as a mouthpiece for his point of view, a charge he had vociferously denied for decades. So what if he did get a chance to voice his point of view? Creating Xillah would allow him to create a relationship between his fictional character and himself, a conflict in which they debate the possibility of drama and, really, art to respond to the world.

“It was a transformative event,” Eustis said of the new character. “It turned both Zillahs into dramatic characters.” By placing Zillah (Crystal Lucas-Perry) and Xillah (Jonathan Hadary) into dialogue with one another, their plot now had conflict, stakes, an arc, all the things we expect from a play. Gone are the lengthy performance events about the American right, replaced by a soul-searching attempt to answer questions about the purpose and value of art that we’ve been asking since the beginning of Western civilization.

This debate in turn reflects and refracts the question at the heart of Bright Room. When the worst is happening, when society is falling apart and the avalanche of history is coming down upon you, how do you act? Only one of Bright Room’s coterie of lefty intellectuals is capable of concrete action. Many of the friends decide to flee the country. One of them flirts with collaboration with the machinery of evil. Agnes (Nikki M. James), the play’s protagonist, lacking ideology, and lacking hope, slips into stasis. By the end of the play, trapped in a beautiful apartment, abandoned by everyone she loves, she can’t even seem to muster the life force to stand up. Zillah and Xillah, meanwhile, fight over how to fix the play. Zillah begs Xillah to rewrite it, letting her enter it from her perch in the 1980s and save Agnes. In this second plot the paralysis being fought against is Kushner’s own, with Zillah pushing Xillah to move past his certainty that “you cannot speak to the dead! They cannot speak to us!”—to move past his distrust of the very form he works within.

Although this second conflict has fixed the anti-dramatic problem at the heart of the play, Kushner has also, in an odd way, doubled down on Zillah’s destabilization of it. As Eustis put it: “The plane of battle, if you will, is the performance of the play. There’s no objective reality around them … it’s very, very abstracted compared to the very concrete story of the ’30s in Berlin.” Eustis then chuckled, and asked: “Will the audience tend to be generous about that and excited about the intellectual, political, emotional depth that it uncovers? Or will they say, you know: ‘On the one hand we have the rise of the Third Reich. On the other hand the stakes are: the rewrite of a play.’ ”

Max Woertendyke and Nadine Malouf in the play A Bright Room Called Day.
Max Woertendyke and Nadine Malouf in A Bright Room Called Day.
Joan Marcus/the Public

Given his dismissal of the play as “overwrought juvenilia from a brilliant dramatist,” it’s hard to see much generosity in Brantley’s review even if his annoyance at the way the play grinds Agnes down is understandable. Since the play’s premiere, its author has become the foremost public intellectual of the American theatre, a writer known for his searing moral clarity and political vision. Surely he should be able to tell us what to do here at the very moment when it feels like everything is falling apart. There’s a reason why theater people have been talking about doing Bright Room since Trump cinched the Republican nomination. But this is an argument that Kushner himself has been throwing cold water on throughout his career. In 1994, for example, Kushner said of Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, which roused its audience to vocally shout their approval for striking taxi drivers, “It didn’t make people strike, strike, strike; it just made them leave the theater yelling ‘Strike, Strike, Strike.’ ” Or, as Xillah tells the audience: “Look, just to tamp down any unrealistic expectations: It’s 2019. Donald J. Trump is president of the United States. … He was president when you bought your tickets for tonight’s show. … Most likely when you leave the theater in a reasonably little while, he will still be president and you will go to bed unhappy.”

Bright Room does not conclude, as Angels does, with a blessing of more life, or an announcement that our own great work is beginning. No one tells us that we are fabulous creatures, each and every one. Instead, we are told that “this is a room in hell and you need to leave.” Xillah rewrites the play, but unlike in Hamilton or The Inheritance, there is nothing straightforwardly redemptive about this particular act of writing. Agnes is dead, and cannot be saved, except that memory can be saved, history can be saved, we can save each other from the erasure that is one of authoritarianism’s most insidious crimes. The play tells us that we have to act, but we have spent three hours watching people trying and failing to figure out how to do so.

Normally when we say a work of art is the work of art we need in this moment, we mean that it inspired or healed us. Bright Room did not do that, but a month after seeing it, I’m still shaken by it. This play has bothered me, brilliantly so. It articulated for me the very problems I feel afflicted by, the ones I try to ignore to get through the day.

It’s true that, as Brantley puts it, being confronted with those problems won’t make anyone “feel like leaping up and starting a revolution.” Xillah’s promise of our bedtime unhappiness is fulfilled. But the depth and complexity (and humor) with which Bright Room illuminates our present moment makes it one of the most relevant and necessary plays of the Trump years. A Bright Room Called Day does not work like other plays work. It does not progress, it rumbles forth; it does not resolve, it reaches out, furiously, toward us. It left me feeling wrung out, but it hardly left me with the “inevitable numbness” Brantley describes. Instead, it left me aware, on a deep level, of my own contradictions. It rattled my sureties until they broke and left me to sort out the pieces. I imagine I’ll be sorting them out for some time to come.