Toast of the London Stage: Play With Laura Bush Reading to Dead Iraqi Children

September 11th, 2010 7:33 AM

George W. Bush may be almost two years removed from his White House tenure, but the haters are still at work.

Gay Marxist playwright Tony Kushner is the toast of London theatre right now for his series of five small plays called "Tiny Kushner." Included in the set is a reprise of his piece titled "Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy," featuring Laura Bush reading Dostoyevsky to the ghosts of dead Iraqi children. (Byron York offered enough of a summary here.) In an interview with the leftist U.K. Guardian newspaper, Kushner demonstrated his hatred is undiminished:

"I wrote it after I was arrested at the big anti-invasion rally outside the United Nations in 2003," he says. "I left feeling immensely depressed because I knew we had left it too late to make a difference. And then a couple of days later, Bush said that he was grateful to us, because we had offered him a 'focus group'. I hate that motherf---er, but for once the man incapable of using the English language had hit on something apt: that's what the progressive left in America was reduced to, a focus group."

By contrast, Kushner expressed patience with Barack Obama, even as he proclaimed that the insights of Karl Marx are proven in America daily:

"Marxism is alive," he says. "What happened under Stalin was horrendous, but in point of fact, Marx never really worked out a solution, it was not his doing. But he was an absolutely astonishing reader of history, and of class. His analysis of capitalism is being proved in America every day."

It takes a confident man to say such a thing in public in America, even today. And Kushner has become confident enough to blow his own horn. His latest stand is a refusal to go along with the disillusionment in Barack Obama; instead, he accuses his Democrat detractors of political narcissism. It is a bit surprising to hear Kushner declare himself "very happy" with Obama's efforts. "The left is shooting itself in the foot," he argues. "I don't want to sound contemptuous, but there is a tendency to see politics as an expression of your own personal purity, a character test. It's not. It's about learning to advance a progressive agenda by under-standing the working of a democracy."

That pragmatic understanding is, after all, what got Obama elected. The thought that makes Kushner angry – and makes him talk even faster, more urgently – is of his "community" damaging the Democrats' chances of fending off a rightwing resurrection in the form of Sarah Palin, or worse. That might send gay rights, his core issue, back to the Reagan era.

Ambivalence isn't really in Kushner's toolbox when it comes to conservative leaders. Kushner told another interviewer (for the U.K. Prospect magazine) about the Laura Bush piece: "I’ve always thought of it as a struggle between two characters for developing an internal tolerance of ambivalence. People who don’t have it, like George W. Bush, are very dangerous people."

That interviewer, John Nathan, praised him as a prophet, including how "Kushner’s first play A Bright Room Called Day (1984) made a comparison between Reagan and Hitler (he once told me he was being deliberately irresponsible)—and then what happens? The morning after the play opened, the papers carried pictures of Reagan in Germany placing a wreath at the graves of SS soldiers."

Nathan added that Kushner's next project "is what he once described to me as his 'next big gay play,'" titled The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide To Capitalism and Socialism With A Key To The Scriptures.

The Guardian's review delighted in the Laura Bush play as the best part of "Tiny Kushner," which "reveals his gift for blending the hallucinatory and the political...even here Kushner's polemical fury at the Iraq invasion is qualified by his residual sympathy for Mrs Bush. Having mouthed the conventional platitudes in defence of the war, she is shocked into a guilty awareness, telling the imagined children 'we will pay for your deaths one way or another'."

Ian Shuttleworth in the Financial Times raved: "The strongest piece of all is Only We Who Guard The Mystery Shall Be Unhappy, in which First Lady Laura Bush in her literacy-campaigner guise prepares to read Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor episode to the ghosts of dead Iraqi children. As is typical of Kushner at his best, the piece’s attitudes may be obvious but their expression is richly complex and insightful."

Brent Bozell had a different take on Kushner's work Angels in America: "the theatrical version of one of those crazy letters to the editor that never end and have too many capital letters."