Two weeks ago, I saw a production of Tony Kushner’s early play, A Bright Room Called Day, in New York at the Public Theater. It’s not a great play–really, it’s juvenalia–but I have been thinking about it since, nonetheless.
The play takes place in Germany during the months in which Hitler gains power and the Third Reich is hardened. Kushner wrote the play in the mid-80s, with Reagan on his mind, and has re-written it now, current circumstances bringing it also to mind. I do think he was right that Reagan was the vanguard of what we see now coming to fruition, a powerfully conservative Republican party. The development of their movement, and it is a movement, has just taken a little longer than Kushner thought it would.
The play reminded me of the long poem, Autumn Journal, by the Northern Irish poet Lous MacNiece. He wrote the poem in the fall of 1938, while living in a London which was preparing itself to enter the war. When I first read it, as a young poet in Belfast, I was struck first how it seemed to be the missing link between Leaves of Grass and Howl, and by its prescient insouciance. MacNiece knows darker times are coming and yet, he allows himself to enjoy the moment and process the past. Perhaps it is not yet, but because.
I have been hesitant to become hysterical about America in the era of Trump, as we do have a remarkably strong constitution which has weathered catastrophe before. (Now that’s a well-thought-out and well-written document, indeed.) I have preferred to think this is a stress test which the country will pass.
But I have wavered. Now, I feel as if we are on a precipice ourselves. Trump has committed impeachable offenses. All rational minds agree. But. If the Republicans do not remove him from office (and they will not, I believe, because they love power more than honor and the gold ring of power, for which they have striven since the 80s and before, is just within grasp)–if they do not remove him from office, we move from a state of a few incompetent criminals in power to a fully corrupt class of citizens who have overturned the constitution and are ruling by force.
That is when I get nervous. I am not scared of clowns, but I am scared of sour and small-minded bureaucrats.
I see dark times ahead, and yet, and because, I must allow myself to enjoy the moment and to process the past.
In his afterword to A Bright Room Called Day, Kushner quotes the philosopher Marcuse in the 1972 book Counterrevolution and Revolt:
“History does not repeat itself exactly, and a higher stage of capitalist development in the United States would call for a higher stage of fascism. This country possesses economic and technical resources for a totalitarian organization immeasurably greater than Hitler Germany ever had.”
Kushner continues, “Postmodern, cybernetic, microwave, microchip fascism may not look anything like its modernist forebear.” Yes and no. We recognize it for what it is, but those factors, especially the microchip, have certainly intensified the state’s power even more.
Another poem also keeps coming to mind, one that you certainly know. “Things fall apart; the centre can not hold…”
It is my own particular way to understand the world around me through the poems I have known as intimately as my own bones. The echo chamber of poets, speaking to one another through time and place, will tell us that this moment in time is nothing new, and it is endurable, and we can survive and even make art within it. And yet, it is new, for us, and especially, for our children.
Kushner mentions Brecht’s “long anger” as informing him, and yes, we may need a long, a very long anger to move through what is coming. The part I most enjoyed about his rewritten play is when the playwright character reveals the genesis of the play’s title–Kushner was at an art show of works of Cecile and Agnes DeMille and misheard the choreographer on videotape saying a title of her new work, A Bridegroom Called Death. I was delighted! How marvelous! We must, we must, we must continue to turn death into day, if we are to endure.