- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 26, 2002

I have a confession to make. When I went along to the production of Tony Kushner's play "Homebody/Kabul," which opened at the Young Vic this week, I harbored the secret hope that I would hate everything about it. You see, a genuine, 24-carat fiasco would have made such a straightforward subject. I could easily have have spent the whole of this column gleefully shredding Mr. Kushner's status as the Arthur Miller of our times.
But if truth be told and I know some conservatives will be unhappy to hear this "Homebody/Kabul" is a superior piece of theater, even if it falls short of the New York Observer's claim that it is the best American play of the last 10 years. Yes, it is far too long, running to nearly four hours, with a final act that wanders in all directions. (I also came dangerously close to falling asleep during the Homebody monologue which forms a curious, dream-like first act). Yes, it is marred by some jarring shifts in mood, swinging from high-minded debate to the crudest sexual farce. And yes, Mr. Kushner does sometimes tend to use his characters as walking semaphore signals.
But then, Leo Tolstoy was not averse to turning himself into a one-man Western Union either. Nobody could accuse Mr. Kushner of running away from the greatest issue of our time. Even now, almost a year after September 11, there is no mistaking the frisson of horror that runs through the audience when one of the play's characters, an educated Afghan woman clinging to the last shreds of her sanity, explodes into an attack on what she sees as American complicity in the rise of Mullah Omar's regime: "You love the Taliban so much, bring them to New York! Well don't worry, they're coming to New York!"
Is the play anti-American, as some of its detractors have suggested? I can't speak for the Broadway production, but one of the most striking aspects of the Young Vic's staging directed by former enfant terrible Declan Donnelan is that the U.S.A. barely registers as more than a peripheral presence. Mr. Kushner's script is tinged with an aura of old-fashioned Masterpiece Theatre Britishness epitomized by the ineffectual diplomat-cum-junkie Quango Twistleton. What Mr.Kushner is depicting, it seems to me is the power of fantasy an Englishwoman's fantasy about the East, and the zealot's totalitarian fantasy of an uncorrupted Islamist paradise where music is banned, men are obedient and women are rendered invisible.
All the excitement stirred up by the play has prompted speculation here that we are about to witness a new wave of political theater. With "Cats" finally closing its doors, is the real world about to make a comeback in the West End? Many people in the arts establishment practitioners and pundits alike, all driven to distraction by the combined forces of Tony Blair and George W. Bush clearly hope so.
To them, of course, political theater essentially means left-wing theatre. Is there any other kind? As a frankly nostalgic article in the London Observer pointed out recently, postwar British theater produced an abundance of socially committed writers, from Edward Bond to Howard Brenton. Is this the moment when their spiritual successors will mount the barricades, reigniting the class war with a flourish of incendiary manuscripts?
Perhaps. But there are one or two awkward problems. The most obvious, first of all, is the absence of a unifying ideology. The writers who came of age in the Sixties and Seventies could still draw on the utopian tradition of revolutionary socialism. The brotherhood of man may have been dead and buried in the Soviet Union but idealists still thought it was alive and well in Havana and elsewhere. Today, that illusion is harder to sustain. The world may be buying records by the Buena Vista Social Club, but Fidel's battle fatigues have definitely lost their allure.
The anti-globalization movement has filled the void to some extent, but it is too amorphous a concept to fuel more than a few stormy anti-McDonalds protests usually manned, of course, by demonstrators in Gap khakis and Nike trainers. Anti-Americanism is stronger than ever one of the most publicized books of recent months has been Will Hutton's polemic "The World We're In," a passionate critique of the American way which argues in favor of the European model of economic management. Sadly for Mr. Hutton, the EU at least in its current ossified, anti-democratic form inspires little affection outside the magic circle of Brussels technocrats and their media admirers.
So the old causes are found wanting. Worst of all, the cultural Left doesn't show much sign of yet wanting to start thinking seriously. The faithful really are much happier kicking sand around in the kindergarten.
Last autumn, before the first bombs started landing on the Taliban forces, they were confident that the Bush administration was facing a terminal crisis. In the months since then they have had to confront the realities of a world with one superpower. The Gulf War was bad enough, as far as they were concerned; this is much, much worse.
No wonder so many people on the Left have taken refuge in a shrill rhetoric that is only a step away from hysteria. That, I believe, goes a long way to explaining the absurdly one-sided European media coverage of Israel in recent months. Anti-Semitism is not necessarily the root cause, even if as I wrote last month anti-Jewish sentiment is on the rise among Muslims in France. What provokes even greater rage is the perception that, in the last resort, Israel and the United States share the same core values.
And who is one of the worst offenders in all this? Step forward, Tony Kushner, who chose to share his profound thoughts with British newspapers readers in the runup to the opening of "Homebody/Kabul." Not content with implying that the Bush Doctrine is based on lust for oil rather than principle, Mr. Kushner fretted about a Washington-Jerusalem axis: "I feel the fact of Israel being run by Ariel Sharon and George Bush being in charge of the United States is a catastrophic combination."
Mr. Kushner at least came up with a reasonably fresh insult for the president "a feckless blood-spattered plutocrat" and in case anyone thought he was about to join in the general admiration for New York's former mayor, he summoned up another choice observation. The events of September 11 were, he observed, "a shot in the arm for some of the worst people on earth, including Rudolph Giuliani …"
Mr. Kushner makes his living from words, so I assume he weighed that sentence carefully before sending it out into the world. Perhaps he really did mean that Rudolph Giuliani deserves to be talked about in the same terms as mass murderers, torturers or the ruling committee of the Chinese Communist Party. Or perhaps he wasn't really thinking. Whatever the truth, he should try pondering the advice he offered in one of his interviews. He intended these words for those poor, benighted souls in Middle America who salute the flag, but I think they apply just as much to playwrights who are hot properties in New York and London: "It seems to me that one of the hardest challenges we face is to keep thinking critically, analytically, compassionately, deeply, even while angry, mourning, terrified."

Clive Davis writes for the Times and the Sunday Times of London.




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