Today I saw a matinee of Tony Kushner’s “An Intelligent Homosexuals’ Guide…” with a full house attending at the Berkeley Rep. The play first opened in Minneapolis in 2007, and then played briefly in NYC at the Public Theater but did not have its West Coast opening until now.
Most of the more than three hours of the play takes place in a marvelous two-layered set, showing the ground floor and upstairs bed room of the patriarch, seventy-two year old Lou Liberatore, a card carrying member of the Communist Party USA and retired union organizer once active in the Longshoreman’s Union. He has two sons and a daughter, (one son and the daughter are gay), who are presently spending time with him since he’s informed them that he plans to commit suicide soon and wants to settle accounts with them. A year prior, he had made an unsuccessful attempt by slitting his wrists in a bathtub (Roman style). This engendered much upset and anger among his children. The plot line that carries the play forward is whether or not he will follow through on his plan despite the anguished, fervent entreaties of his kids not do so.
That is the structure that Kushner erects, and we can focus on one side or the other in the suicide debate, but the play holds so much more. Kushner’s consciousness is vast, and he has us bouncing back and forth from the individual to the all-encompassing societal and historical forces present in early twenty-first century America.
The play is more than an intelligent homosexual’s guide to socialism and capitalism; it is a guide for intelligent straights to homosexual love relationships, and it also highlights the idealism that moved many intelligent straight and gay people to align with the Communist party in the U.S. during the thirties and forties, (and for some even longer).
But Kushner reveals a serpent in the garden, be it within the love relationships or the idealistic values. That serpent is the ever-present danger of betrayal. The play reminds us that you can give your heart to another person and they can betray you, and you can give your heart to a cause and it can do the same. Lou Liberatore gave his heart to the cause of the workers revolution, and is ready to kill himself in part since he believes he betrayed it. He would rather betray his children by killing himself, than admit that the cause has betrayed him. Betrayal is also the theme with Lou’s children: his homosexual son, who betrayed his husband and his lover, by wanting to have them both and refusing to choose one or the other. The daughter who betrayed her wife by having sex with her ex-husband and refuses to take part in the pre-natal care that her wife now requires. And so on, and so on.
Albert Camus, in his essay “An Absurd Reasoning” (a treatise on the pros and cons of suicide) wrote:
Tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show in which absurdity, hope, and death carry on their dialogue.
This thought provoking and emotionally moving play plunges us into the midst of this dialogue. Absurdity is rampant (there are many scenes where the characters simultaneously talk loudly and obviously no one is hearing anyone); hope in the form of idealism acts as a goad; and choosing the time, place, and means of death is an ongoing theme.
Kushner offers no easy answers or resolution, and the good guys have lots of faults. He does suggest that we not rush into sentimentality, or pre-digested ideology when facing existential issues. Tenacity and acumen are necessary as we continue to make our choices – and they are in the DNA of this play and its creator.
Kushner’s work forces us to face the serpent in the garden, that is – the presence of human evil and absurdity expressed in our age-old capacity to inflict pain on ourselves and each other. But being a man of the left and an intelligent intellectual, his revealing the humanistic disasters that have and can flow from idealistic, redemptive sources such as religion and Marxism, may dismay those who put their faith in one or both of the above.
However, showing us the serpent and the dangers inherent in its universal presence need not drive us into the arms of nihilism or despair. Kushner is warning us to watch our step and not let an optimistic faith blind us to our capacity to create harm while we believe we’re working towards the common good.
This warning comes from another kind of faith held by Kushner, myself, and many others – faith that the value that we place on human life and spirit, and the behavior we take on its behalf, is a good thing. Our faith doesn’t lie in a redemptive future outcome. No expecting of a Messiah or a particular section of the populace to bring us heaven-on-earth.
That faith supported Camus during the years of Nazi occupation when the prospect of an Allied victory seemed remote. During that time he risked his life by founding the Resistance paper Combat, while staying clear of the Stalinist French Communist Party.
The faith that supporting human life and spirit without the assurance of an optimistic outcome is a worthwhile endeavor, serves as the basis for a meaningful life for myself (and I imagine others), both in our community and throughout the world.
Frank Rubenfeld is a 77-year-old Berkeley psychologist who co-founded Psychotherapists for Social Responsibility and authored The Peace Manual: A Guide To Personal-Political Integration. He currently teaches Gestalt at the California Institute of Integral Studies and is an active member of the Bay Area Gestalt Institute.