Notes on The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures

Notes on The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures

by a moderately stupid bisexual

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I have a lot of disjointed thoughts about this play, which I think itself presents several disjointed thoughts and in some senses refuses an arc: it keeps circling a central question, will a patriarch commit suicide? This question is itself ultimately left unresolved.

Essentially, the plot of this play is its cast. A multi-generational communist family’s head (a former union organizer), his sister (a former nun and a former militant member of the violent Maoist sect Shining Path), his three children (a contractor, a high school teacher and a labor lawyer) and their lovers struggle with work, sex, ideology and familial obligations.

  • This is this play’s LONDON PREMIER, though it came out in 2009 and is by Tony ‘kind of a big deal’ Kushner. For some reason London doesn’t get Kushner? I almost never see him staged here. Is he too American for them? (I don’t think it’s a Gay Themes thing, although I also never see any bloody Lorca.) The delay is awkward given that this play, written about 2007, is such an attempt to capture a moment—in part, it’s an effort to convey the slough of the Bush years and the ambivalent hope of Obama’s coming term.
  • This staging is given both humor and a desperate intensity by the apocalyptic results of the American election last week. People cackled at now-darkly-funny lines.
  • FINALLY some bi women/lesbians up in a play I’m seeing. At fucking last! Gay men, I have seen aplenty. Women-desiring-women: almost none.
  • The high-school teacher son Pilll’s husband (Rhashan Stone—compelling in the role) speaks in a distinctly poetic, non-naturalistic register, more so than the rest of the cast.
  • A lot of the dialogue is difficult to make out: there are cacophonous scenes of overlapping family arguments. I really wanted a script, or to have pre-read the libretto. I don’t think ‘getting everything’ is the point of this theatrical experience (in fact, it might run counter to it), but I still wanted to, because I’m that type of person. Even now I feel anxious because I’m not sure I’ve completed the play experience (and yet I’m speaking on it, blah blah). I think I’d appreciate this play more as a script.
  • The title is so perfect I think it’s what a friend mockingly called the play and it stuck. (Quoth wiki, “[t]he title was inspired by George Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism and Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.[1]” Mine was better.)
  • This might well be a hard play to follow unless you’re pretty up on America, history, political theory, classics and theology. I don’t know how you interact with it with varying levels of knowledge of these (I’m only ‘fair’ on most myself): the play emphatically does not come with the usual set of explicatory narrative training wheels. Every character is an expert in their subject areas, including family histories and emotional realities we cannot know. Mostly I feel this is an acceptable state of affairs, but the key plot point (a certain labor dispute) relies on a fundamental pre-existing understanding of the Marxist contention that wealth produced via a worker’s efforts belongs essentially to the worker, not to the company employing them: the people who work the land own the land. This is not obviously explained in this text, and for thinkers forged by late capitalism it’s a difficult proposition to grasp. How many people come in knowing that one? Who is this play for?
  • Speaking of unknowable family histories and emotional realities, I do not know how MT and her partner got in this fucking position with the baby. I can see pieces, but how the situation reached this crisis point eludes me.
  • How MT’s partner and Pill’s husband are treated bugs me: I want them airlifted to a less hostile environment.
  • I like everyone in this family, but they’re also all a bit terrible. Some especially so. I have the least patience for Pill.
  • Tony Kushner has a Chris Boucher problem in that he cannot write a dim or boring person. Here, that’s fine. Largely Kushner writes his way around this issue because it’s not interesting to him.
  • Kushner extends such an intellectual and emotional sympathy to different forms of conservatism in Angels. I wonder if, at this point in his life and in world politics, he’s still capable of or interested in that. (‘This point’ could be the moment of the play’s composition or today.)
  • Relatedly, it’ll be interesting to see what Kushner makes of 2016, if we’re still alive in 15 years or so. (Is this Kushner’s only contemporary full play? Angels, Bright Room Called Day, Dybbuk, Caroline or Change…)
  • The three-act structure is unusual, and from my current position I couldn’t tell you quite what it does here.
  • This theatre is an excellent three-pokestop hub with some great Sightings. Word to the wise.
  • The play wanted, I think, to be about anger or purity, but at least in this staging (and I suspect in the script itself?) that impulse doesn’t cohere. The children’s anger or destructiveness is (I think) supposed to be derived from their father (their aunt and their family generally also have a long involvement with violence, we discover). We’re told that the father Gus’s activism is stringently not socialist but communist, not ameliorating but revolutionary, and asked to consider whether these antisocial impulses (principles running counter to his collectivist, union impulses) are the result of his beliefs per se, or whether he just has a destructive character. We’re sort of asked to ponder the costs of his ideological purity. But I never appreciate Gus’s activism as actually ‘burn the world’ angry. He’s too wedded to the union. He’s too concerned about the people he’ll leave behind. Maybe Kusher can’t envision or write that form of searing, principled belief? His belief is always giving, ambivalent, flexible, always-already betrayed. I think he’s the rabbi in Dybbuk, still in love with religion but suffering from the knowledge that the compact is broken. Ironically, though, Kushner’s vision of faith remains what I would consider fundamentally Jewish in its very analytic hesitance.
  • Kusher is always interested in belief, and in religiosity specifically, but in this play the religious focii never comes to much. It’s hard for them to, when religious faith is chiefly the concern of two sidelined partner characters who don’t quite connect with the central family as a whole, whose relationships even with their own partners are troubled, possibly transitory. If the point is just that religious and political faith and doctrinal conflicts and schisms are similar, that’s a bit too Basic. We’re sort of half-inveigled with theological questions I think most people don’t have the background to understand and given few stakes there, few hints as to why these matter. This thread almost crystallizes with the former nun’s discussion of scientology and of escape—in the moment I felt I could sort of see it? But retrospectively that slipped away, and if I ever understood where we were there, I let it get away from me.
  • The former nun/sister/aunt is a really interesting figure, but again, I’m not sure she landed for me.
  • This is both a King Lear retelling and a modern Chekhov play. It’s seriously interested in classic Chekhov themes, characterizations/ensemble casts, political discussions and possibly even staging, in a sense—I’m thinking about the amount of action that happens in the house. We also have a Cherry Orchard plot with the ex-husband. I applaud these efforts, because I like Chekhov and could go in for Modern Chekhov.
  • Relatedly, Kusher is interested in the social situations of families and their political contexts, the family saga, and different forms of families. Look at the range of social-familial environments he explores in his ouvre.
  • I don’t think it’s accidental that we see no children: Kushner doesn’t have much time for them, in a way, Caroline notwithstanding. Something here about queer futurities, about the kinds of familial relationship which interest him.
  • Now, for me, this could have been more realistically set designed? I think budget more than anything constrained the production here, but this house has a lot of history and it’s important that’s rendered palpable so we feel the whole idea of its possible loss. This minimalist set was fine, but didn’t do the production many favors.
  • Again, a la Chekhov, a big cast of very distinct and very good characters, easily drawn. Both the characters and actors for MT (Tamsin Greig) and (her father, the family patriarch) Gus are particularly compelling. It’s hard to quite get a handle on female protagonist, but I’m not sure there’s a problem with that.
  • Someone next to me (English) bitched about the characters’ region, class and age-specific American accents, but I thought these were fine to be honest. I think English people don’t actually know shit about the variability of ‘the’ American accent, and so freak out when it’s not modern ‘broadcast’ quality.
  • Some of the people in this full house left after Act I. Judging by some of the audience chat (expressive of surprise and disquiet at gay male groping on stage), they hadn’t seemed to know what they were in for. The title apparently had not given it away, somehow. I think an American theatre public would have known from Kusher’s name? He has such a different profile here. It was also a very gay audience, though.
  • It was uniformly well acted, and for better or worse the person next to me was right to say that the production worked very hard.
  • Kushner is a lot like RTD in his treatment of love. The chase, lust, adultery. (Who has the fucking time? Seriously, the prevalence of this ‘everyone is cheating as a matter of course’ motif in relatively contemporary art is like, a mass hallucination in which ALL people spend vast quantities of sheer bloody time (in late capitalism?!) and emotional energy no one has on this process of fucking about for mediocre results or because they can’t help it, like we live in Les Liaisons dangereuse? I think everyone read a blousy Guardian article about the French and got over-excited en masse.) I don’t want to say these are topics favored by gay men of a certain age but it’s difficult not to arrive there, in a way? He rarely shows settled romantic relationships in a good place (part, I think, of why the mother is banished from this narrative by the Victorian device of childbed death). He does the rush of physical infatuation, relationships falling apart and spurned habitual love rather than the ecstasies of the fall or the complacencies and delights of substantive affection. The hustler in this or the fairy-tale couple in Dybbukmight give the lie to this, but generally I think I’m right (as per usual, right). There’s much to be said on Davies as an uncommitted writer of romantic love (with the exception of some parts of Bob&Rose), but that’s another essay—one to piss off any Ten/Rose fans around these parts, I guess.
  • Via Pill, Gus says some very unfair things about Fabian socialism and Shaw (so it’s a joke about the play’s title too, in a way). But I see why he would.
  • A core question of the second to last scene, which in may ways feels like the play’s ending, is ‘whither now communism?’ Passionate and intelligent lifelong adherent Gus cannot see a way forward for the struggle given the current position of class politics in the world, and thus cannot see any release or true betterment for mankind. This is something I’ve thought about, along with many, many other people I’m certain, so it’s good to see it addressed in fiction rather than in yet another fucking thinkpiece (I read too many—though I’m not certain, actually, that I’ve seen this topic brought up in these terms).
  • This is a play with a lot of stuff and no answers. Maybe Kusher is abdicating that responsibility or refusing to be perfect, to answer, as a point. This is a less polished work than Angels, but then Angels probably seemed more definitively ‘answering’ and like a unified theory of everything when I read it as a freshman. From the wiki, it seems like this might be a play Kushner himself isn’t final-form happy with: his Platanov/Wild Honey/Untitled, but done in his mid-late career rather than at the very start. I don’t know if I liked this play exactly, but I’ve thought so much about how it works, and I do think that’s valuable. The one disappointing thing is, I don’t know how much I’ve responded to it by thinking about the questions it raised and its responses to them.
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One thought on “Notes on The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures

  1. A thinkpiece will oblige itself to present the narrative of struggle, onward struggle, because to overtly admit that one cannot see the solution is to let the side down – sort of a socialist equivalent of betraying the sisterhood. I don’t think you’re going to see the required level of intellectual honesty from a Left which is on the back foot everywhere. “We must organise – we must resolve – we must survive.” Troubled concepts and confessions of lostness are a luxury that’s not available to the kind of mind that writes thinkpieces, not right now – only in fiction, where there’s a safe deferral, an author to die for our sins, can we show an old leftie giving up. “That’s fine. That’s a character saying that. That’s not what we really think.”

    It’s a theory, anyway.

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