The common criticism that American playwrights tend to write about the personal, and not the political, is currently being strongly refuted by two pointedly topical plays running at the Public Theater, Lisa Kron's In the Wake and Richard Nelson's That Hopey Changey Thing. Both works also upend another piece of received wisdom, that most dramatists are blindly allegiant liberals. True, the characters in each drama are all Democrats, or at least Independents. But they're not feeling too good about it, or their political party. They attack and question their own rank and file as much as they do the GOP.
"When I was a kid," said Kron, speaking about what drew her to write In the Wake, which takes place during the first five years of the Bush administration, primarily in New York City, "I grew up in a family of Democrats who were politically active on a local level, as I wrote about in Well. I remember having a feeling of 'Wow, we feel such assurance that what we feel is correct.' But the people on the other side must feel that as well."
That sort of self-questioning and political uncertainty besets most of the characters in In the Wake, save the central figure of Ellen, a hyper-energized chatterbox who is rarely less-than-engaged with her life and the reigning political climate. She doesn't edit her thoughts on the big issues of the day, and woe betide anyone who doesn't necessarily want to hear her stance on current events — or happens to diverge slightly from any of Ellen's opinions. When her friend suggests she might actually want to give up her career as a struggling writer to be an office manager, Ellen gives her the name of another publisher. When her friend's girlfriend says her politics shifted at 9/11, Ellen subtly derides her reaction as "regular fear."
|photo by Joan Marcus|
Kron says the play is about "that basic question of where our beliefs come from and the scaffolding around them, and what we're consciously questioning, and what we're not questioning at all. Those things are interesting to me. Those questions were clear in the Bush years. And yet, I was asking those questions in a deeper way. I think of In the Wake as not being about those years, but using those years as a prism to look at deeper assumptions in the American character — particularly the American liberal." Among the assumptions made by Ellen, who attends and participates in high-brow conferences and seminars across the country, is that what she is doing is important, creative and existentially committed — and that her friends and family will see the virtue of her choices and support her whole-heartedly, even if her self-involved selflessness has an adverse personal impact on them. This is dramatically illustrated when Ellen engages in a long affair with a woman, with the full knowledge and nominal support of her patient, longtime boyfriend. That such a journey of self-exploration will be perceived as callous narcissism, and eventually blow up in her face, does not fully occur to the free-thinking Ellen.
"Ellen has the notion of expansiveness," said Kron. "That character is not particularly interested in an easy life. She's a character who is willing to pay the price for self-invention. She's commenting on the country and the political events of those years and she's also meant to be an allegory for the country. There are things she thinks about herself that are true. I think she is interested in deepening her experience, and she does take responsibility for what she does, and she does have this desire for this kind of expansive experience of her life. But what she cannot imagine is loss. What she doesn't understand is the kind of deepening she is interested in also involves loss and sacrifice and that is visited upon her in the end."
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
A theatregoer who takes in the Kron and Nelson plays back to back will notice certain similarities. Both center on family (moreso in Nelson's play), where the family members' assumptions that they all essentially agree on politics are undermined. Both contain moments where the revelation that one character may be moving to the right is greeted with shock and dumfounded dismay. There's a thick stripe of general despair about the country's electoral process, and the future of reasoned debate. And both paint a fairly unattractive picture of East Coast liberals as self-righteous, willfully deluded, condescending and possessing a blinkered stubbornness similar to that which they often accuse the opposition.
Interestingly, Kron said one line she removed from the play had Ellen say to the audience, "When people say they want change, what they mean is 'I want you to change.'"
"I'm not interested in saying the United States is corrupt and therefore should go down," said Kron. "There is a worthy and huge and ambitious and expansive idea at the center of this country. But, I think in all my plays, I'm interested in the idea that everything contains its opposite. The country is that, but it's also the opposite. Certainly right now, the painful paralysis and contraction, all the things that are happening that are so scary, have to do with the absolute inability to comprehend that there must be sacrifices across the board and there will be loss."
Such a notion, Kron said, is not part of the American persona, either conservative or liberal. Near the end of the play, a suffering Ellen asks her friend Judy — an older and more cynical woman who participates in relief and aid programs across the world, and who has no faith whatsoever in the justice of the American system — how much further she has to fall before she hits bottom. The unsympathetic Judy replies, "I'm sorry, but that's an American question."
|photo by Joan Marcus|
The members of the Left in the play are so self-lacerating, that one is prompted to ask Kron if her own Democratic values have shifted since the disputed 2000 Presidential election, the backdrop of the play's first scene. "No," she replies. "I'm interested in figuring out why the Left is so crippled, and what's happening. There's something wrong with the set-up, and part of that is the eternal truth that people hang on to what they have. Something that I read several months ago was...the idea that a broad Middle Class was essential to sustaining Democracy. But the fact is, once people have their house and their yard, they're not interested in sustaining Democracy. They're interested in keeping their house and their yard." She continued, "From my point of view, these decisions [made by politicians] don't make any sense. What is it that I can't see? When people say, 'Obama is making such stupid decisions about X, Y and Z,' I think 'All right. Yes, I agree. But we know for a fact that that is not a stupid man. So, what are the factors going into his decisions? What does it look like from his perspective? What is he seeing that I can't see? What are the pressures coming to bear on him that I can't even imagine?'"
The play is the first of Kron's not to feature herself, playing herself. This has made the production a different experience for the writer. "The show doesn't travel through my body the way it used to." It's also her longest play, running more than two-and-a-half hours. But Kron doesn't consider it overly lengthy. "I figure with Gatz playing over on the other side of the theatre, it's like, 'Hey, come over here and see the short play!'"