‘A Bright Room Called Day’ at The Public, Tony Kushner’s Haunting Spectres Thread Through Hitler’s Berlin, Reagan’s 1980s and Trumpism
Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day directed by Oskar Eustis, currently at The Public until 15 December (unless it receives another extension which it should) reflects upon humanity confronting evil that on a number of levels appears unstoppable and irrevocable. Throughout the main action and play within a play, Kushner makes clear that those who recognize evil’s force and preeminence, often are too afraid to lay down their lives to fight, though fighting is the action needed to stop wickedness in political, social and economic institutions not constrained by the rule of law.
The play uses at is jumping off point political and social issues undermining the Weimar Republic in Berlin. The setting encompasses events one year prior to the “Eve of Destruction,” when Hindenburg acceded to Hitler’s government take-over after which Hitler evicted parliamentary, constitutional democracy from the minds, hearts and souls of the German people. Kushner examines the parallels of that time with our culture during Reaganism and Trumpism.
The questions he raises are pointed. Some might argue that from the 1980s to now, the decline in our democratic processes and the public’s response appear similar to the public’s response to precursor events in Germany 1933. A Bright Room Called Day relates Berlin, Germany 1933 to 1985 Reaganism devolving to the time of Trump. These three settings represent a turning point when the crisis of the period might have shifted in another direction if good citizens acted differently, affirming the adage, “evil flourishes when good men and women do nothing.” In this play Kushner examines the “What if?” Couldn’t citizens have halted the terrifying dissolution of democracy? Couldn’t they have liquidated Hitler’s fascist dictatorship before he even attempted to manifest his warped vision of the Third Reich’s reign for 1000 years?
The community of individuals we meet at the outset of the play who pop in and out of Agnes Eggling’s (Nikki M. James) lovely apartment are members of the political, liberal left, a combination of artists and activists who are/were at one point communists, socialists, progressives and union activists, one of whom is a homosexual (played by the exquisite, always present Michael Urie). All of these will be consigned to Hitler’s enemies’ list if they remain in Berlin. If captured, they will be deported as state enemies and undesirables and murdered when Hitler constructs and augments his network of slave labor and extermination camps to implement his “Final Solution.”
Kushner’s work which was excoriated when it first premiered in the 1980s has been given an uplift with an additional character, and dialogue tweaking to reference the current siege of Trumpism on our democracy. Kushner posits that our times manifest “inklings” similar to those employed by fascists and Reagan’s corrupt conservatives who sent the nation on a downhill slide which Trump appears to be pitching over the edge into oblivion unless we do something. By drawing comparisons, we are forced to reflect upon the upheaval in our democratic institutions as the political, economic and social divisiveness spurred by Trumpism augments.
Kushner interjects his own commentary as a playwright and interrupts the action during which he actively engages his audience as a silent character whose consciousness he manipulates. Through identification with the people and events in Germany, we, like they, become like the frog that is placed in a pot of cold water. As the heat is turned up to the boiling point, if the frog is alert, he can escape before boiling to death. But he must realize immediately what is happening, so he will not be too lamed to escape. By degrees the audience realizes that they are in a crucible like Kushner’s characters under which a fiery truth blazes. To that truth Kushner posits one must recognize it, or its heat and pressure will pitch one into a death-state of paralysis like Agnes’.
The play’s new character is Xillah. Xillah represents Kushner’s perspectives as a citizen playwright who comments on his play and the policies of Reaganism and Trumpism. Playwright Xillah engages with Zillah his indefinable character whom he’s written into the 1980s. Zillah complains to Xillah about her function in the play. She importunes him for a viable role and purpose. She wishes to step beyond ranting about the emotional paralysis of character Agnes. Watching Agnes frustrates Zillah, for Agnes does little but quiver in fear at the ever-worsening events in Berlin. It is her fears which manifest nightmare presences (Die Älte-the Old One, in a wonderful portrayal by Estelle Parsons) who haunt her and drive her into soul paralysis which will lead to her death under Hitler’s regime.
Xillah, a character in the play framing the Berlin events is portrayed with humorous vitality by Jonathan Hadary. His character criticizes the activities by the cults of Reagan and Trump. He sardonically characterizes Reagan’s presidency and Trump’s “monolithic” personage with abandon in a stream of hysterical epithets that are right-on. Both Xillah and Zillah (Crystal Lucas-Perry is Hadary’s counterpart in a feeling portrayal) comment on the dynamic of the Berlin characters which Xillah (as Kushner) has created. They watch as Agnes, Paulinka (the superb Grace Gummer) Baz ( Michael Urie) Husz (Michael Esper) Gotchling (Linda Emond) and comrades Rosa Malek (Nadine Malouf) and Emil Traum (Max Woertendyke) grow morose and desperate, experiencing the dissolution of the German Republic into fascism. They palpably encounter the manifested evil of the time in the form of Gottfried Swetts (Mark Margolis humorously intrigues in his portrayal). He is the Devil, whose darkness overtakes Germany as Hitler ushers himself into the government and eradicates any goodness that went before.
Kushner’s characters argue about communism, socialism, democratic socialism and the state of affairs. Their discussions fuel their waning activism and encourage impassivity with a few exceptions, for example, Gotchling (Linda Emond) who is continually putting up posters which are torn down continually. We empathize with the Berliners as they react to the brutalities and street fighting, Hindenberg’s ending the government and the Reichstag fire which Hitler blamed on the communists to ban the party, arrest the leaders (his enemies) and consolidate his power base.
The characters react emotionally with disgust and outrage but their impulses to act are largely stymied by fear. They will not move beyond marches and protests that the Brown Shirts help to render bloody and ineffective. And when back room deals are made to put Hitler in power, they become powerless. Like many they appear to believe the propaganda rallies that show support for Hitler, though initially these are largely staged until the rallies gain in momentum and many join Hitler’s party.
The historical events are chronicled with vitality. The characters reveal poignant moments expressing the mood and tenor of the like-minded populace. Baz relates a story of a man’s suicide and his imagined wish to take one of the oranges, he, Baz, has purchased and give it to the dead man as a comfort. Of course, Baz never gives him the orange, but he imagines having done it, ironically comforting himself as the man is beyond being comforted. For Baz it is a horror seeing the dead man’s body pooling blood around it. Baz identifies the cause of the man’s suicide as the despair and immobility to stop the terrible events in Berlin. The suicide rocks Baz to the core. We align the man’s suicide with Baz’s suicide attempt which he stops himself from committing when instead, he has a sexual encounter. Baz’s choice is ironic and the impact of the suicide he witnessed in the streets is nullified by sexual distraction. As Baz, Urie delivers another incredible story later on which sets one reeling. Again, when Baz could take a stand, he chooses not to. Throughout, Urie’s performance is spot on amazing.
In the “intervening” frame play, Zillah attempts to persuade Xillah to write her with character powers that transcend time and space and go back to the past to warn Agnes of the danger of embracing fear and doing nothing. Zillah is upset that Agnes is so overcome, she is zombie-like. One of the humorous parallels is that Xillah, too, is at an impasse (like Agnes) only it is about the direction of this play and how to make it more vital so that it will have a resounding impact on the audience and get them to act. But he is filled with doubts about the function of plays. Also, he fears tampering with what he has already written. Indeed, he could make his play into a worse failure. His quandary is humorous.
Kushner, the frame (the present and 1980s) around which houses his Berlin character dynamic has Xillah remind Zillah of a number of important details, in addition to the chronological events of Hitler’s takeover. As Xillah parallels the then with the now, he affirms that friends living against the backdrop of Trumpism suggested he revisit The Bright Room Called Day because it is prescient and current. Xillah wrangles how best to show the similarities and complains that the characterization of Zillah doesn’t work. However, the character very much integrates the parallels. She criticizes inaction when a nation’s political/social structure disintegrates because the populace becomes overwhelmed and doesn’t act, becoming paralyzed as Agnes is paralyzed. The question remains: how does one move out of paralysis and take effective action which will change things for the better?
The threads of alignment that Kushner makes with Germany that mirror our present are thematically chilling. Xillah reminds Zillah that the Weimar Republic had a constitution like the U.S. but their constitution didn’t save them against Hitler who abolished it. With the constitution gone, Hitler and his underlings and judiciary created laws to further Hitler’s occult mythic vision (the Master Race). And with his own race laws, he legalized the genocide of millions. Of course, Kushner highlights the turning point when death and destruction could have been prevented during the events of 1932-33. But those who saw, like Agnes and her friends, chose to do nothing. Eventually, like the frog slow boiled in the pot, the only thing they can do is escape. If they, as Agnes did, stay, they will be killed or swallowed up like Paulinka to join Hitler’s Third Reich “support group” of murderous maniacal, psychotic, evil accomplices. A different type of death, certainly more horrific and self-recriminating.
Xillah muses about changing the play and warns Zillah that Agnes can’t hear her: she is dead as the past is dead. Zillah continues to beg Xillah. The dialogue that Kushner has written between them is humorous and reminiscent of the “Theater of the Absurd” genre and Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, where the playwrights tweak dramatic conventions. This is done to expand audience consciousness. Such creative license demands being available to “thinking outside of the box.” It also leads to the audience having to follow a play’s absurdities which can be as confounding as the illogical, dire thrusts of fascism, Reaganism, Trumpism.
The absurdist feeling becomes that one has been caught up watching oneself as a part of the larger picture which one deludes themselves into believing they can control. In fact the “author” of our lives is not one we’ve necessarily chosen or know. At least Zillah knows her progenitor and argues with him and finally convinces Xillah to lift space/time constraints so that Agnes hears and speaks to her.
This section gives rise to a number of themes in this work that is dense with brilliance. Before Zillah connects with Agnes, we note that Agnes’s spirit atrophies and dies because her fear incapacitates her. Even if Zillah could break through the time barrier and move from the 1980s to 1933, Agnes’s routine of embracing fear and inaction has warped and destroyed any life in her. Life is movement, action, vitality. Doing something, anything (even escaping) would be better than just withering away. The irony of the play is the melding of the frame play into the Berlin story by Kushner/Xillah. He finally allows Zillah to warn Agnes to leave because she is doomed. Though it is not mentioned, we understand that those who did leave Germany early on did manage to save themselves while millions were swept up in genocide and Hitler’s war machine.
Agnes’ reply to Zillah is not what we expect. It is mind-numbing, a warning to Zillah and us about our own time. It has the effect of a final incredible bomb blast that whimpers and fades. The full-on irony is as Agnes exhorts her/us, we hear, but it doesn’t register, it doesn’t matter. Thematically, Kushner suggests that we are plagued by the same inabilities, insufficiencies and cowardice that Husz ranted about in an earlier magnificent scene. Time inevitably doesn’t matter as we are like Agnes. Paralyzed, immobilized by discussion doing little to save ourselves. We must act! But how? To do what? And so it goes.
Kushner’s play should be revisted and it is a credit to The Public and Oskar Eustis for bringing it back in this unsettling, frustrating iteration. The parallels with each time period, whether we deign to acknowledge them or not, are striking. The threads which indict us about our alienation and powerlessness are spectres which should prick us to the marrow of our bones.
Indeed, in our time as we watch the separation of powers (executive, legislative, judiciary) illegally devoured by the Trumpist Party with the DOJ stomping down its own institution (i.e. the Inspector General’s Report exonerating FBI officials whom the WH has slandered and insulted) and mischaracterizing the Mueller Report, such “above the law conduct” to loyally support the WH is frightening and dangerous. Additionally, in our time, we note how the Trumpist Party encourages law breaking of fired officials (lawyers and others) to defy congressional subpoenas tantamount to obstruction of justice. And currently, high ranking members of the Trumpist Party in the House of Representatives refuse to listen to non partisan congressional testimony which implicates the White House in potential bribery of a foreign leader, withholding appropriate congressional military aid in exchange for a political smear of the White House’s opponent. In other words, they refuse to uphold their constitutional oath of office and do their job, instead uplifting the “dear” leader’s loyalty pledge to support him in his criminality.
These are high crimes and misdemeanors to add to a long list of acts which we need whistleblowers to come out and speak about: Trumpist bribery of foreign leaders, quid pro quos, his acting above the law, his incurring human rights violations, overthrowing military law, and Trump’s blatant importuning of foreign nations and adversaries to help him overthrow our election processes with smear campaigns against his opponents, the indefensible practice he used to win the 2016 election.
Such lawless behavior in an executive that easily vitiates the separation of powers, and bullies, insults and retaliates against anyone who would attempt to point out his law violations recalls behaviors of fledgling dictatorships. Such dictatorships grow. They make laws into what are solely “good” for the dictator/autocrat as they obviate what is good for the rest of the body politic. And if one counters with opposition? That autocrat will bully, intimidate, censure, retaliate and eventually when no one stops them, kill or destroy any opponents using what it can get away with, first character assassination, then jail, then well placed convenient suicides (check the google article about Deustche Bank’s suicides) then murder.
One may argue that Kushner’s alignment of the present U.S. “leadership” with Germany’s situation in 1932-33 is extreme and overblown. Really? And indeed, if the play “doesn’t work,” are the themes and presentments just too horrible to contemplate? Are we, like Agnes, too overcome, too PTSDed by the WH’s horrific acts to consider that we have already lost our constitution and democracy to an overweening, unlawful executive branch whose party refuses to adhere to constitutional checks and balances?
Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day raises so many parallels, similar threads and questions, that it should be seen. It should be seen not only for the superb performances, but for the humor, for the pith, the juicy pulp of the orange that is being offered as a comfort. And it should be seen as the bright bit of light in the sky before the darkness closes in and we can no longer see clearly fact from fiction. While there is that bit of light, we must discern conflicting alternative narratives from the propaganda that would occlude our minds, souls and hearts and propel us away from human decency and love for each other as citizens of a nation worthy of its ideals.
Kudos to David Rockwell (scenic design) Susan Hilferty and Sarita Fellows (co-costume design) John Torres (lighting design) BRay Poor (sound design) Lucy Mackinnon (projection design) Tom Watson (hair, wig, makeup design) Thomas Shall (fight director). A Bright Room Called Day runs with one intermission at The Public Theater until 15 of December. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.