“Après moi, la revolution . . .”
After the Revolution
A play by Amy Herzog
Aurora Theatre Company
Extended through October 6
A review by Christopher Bernard
One of the lessons of the 20th century was the delusory successes, and persistent failures, of our major political systems, including liberalism and capitalism, and the absolute horrors wrought by what seemed to be the only alternatives, the class collectivism of the left and the racial collectivism of the right.
Now we stand in the early 21st century, the best of us confused, others stymied, the worst fanatical. We all seem to have been wrong, though some have the learned the “collectivist” lesson too well – “overlearned” it such that we have driven ourselves to a bloody-minded individualism with most of the blood on foreign shores, and, at home, ignorant brains and addicted bodies, bloated self-images, a raging sense of entitlement, a culture of self-deception, and spirits cynical and half-criminal; a spirit of “sinister giddiness” dancing drunkenly across the land.
We have forgotten the moral idealism, some of it deeply inspiring, even when based on shaky premises, of some of those movements we have turned against, in particular, the socialists and communists. It is still difficult for us Americans to speak sanely and rationally – well, about anything, really, but especially about communism, equating it, as we now usually do, with the worst depredations of Lenin, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and their ilk. And we are not entirely wrong to do so – except that we forget that the communists in this country, were among those who fought most strongly for the rights of the working man, and, ultimately, the middle class, during the Great Depression, and saw most clearly the dangers of fascism in Europe and at home.
Without the communists, the socialists, the trade unionists, and other members of the radical left of the ’30s and ’40s, we almost certainly would not have the New Deal safety net that the middle class takes for granted today – nor in all likelihood would we have a middle class, despite the neoconservatives’ attempt to destroy it over the last thirty years.
But now we have an opportunity to revisit those issues, and remind ourselves of what we have almost lost, thanks to this enlightening, honest, morally engaging, politically dynamic, intelligent and humane, and very satisfying, play by Amy Herzog, a playwright who is in serious danger of giving the battered and often disdained values of intelligence, good sense, humanism, and moral probity back their good names.
“After the Revolution” – a revolution that, pointedly, never happened – examines three generations of the sort of American family that is rarely shown in popular culture, vociferously political, outraged at the world’s evils and refusing the temptations of moral disengagement, steeped in Marxism and the traditions of the radical left. Emma (played admirably, and endearingly, by Jessica Bates), of the youngest generation, has created a fund, named after her admired dead grandfather, for left-wing causes. The grandfather, who has given his family a memory and legacy of moral integrity and political heroism, was an active communist in the ’30s and ’40s, and a martyr to the McCarthy hearings in the decade following. A series of revelations then ensue, that force the smart, idealistic, forthright and thoroughly likeable Emma to explore, excruciatingly, her family’s past, and the complex of truths, half-truths, and lies, on which she has based, not only her understanding of herself and her world, but of her past and her future.
This play does what the modern play, at its best, can do so well: confront the audience immediately, under a probing, sometimes stark, but never gratuitously harsh, lamp, with the moral, social, and political dilemmas of being a human being at our time, and in our place. The problem play invented by Ibsen lives on and shines.
The relationships in the play are developed with a fine acuity – in particular, between the grandmother (superbly performed by Ellen Ratner), who, like many of the Old Left, remains, at heart, something of a Stalinist, in denial of the revelations of what “Uncle Joe” did throughout his time in power. And the relationship between Emma and her sister, Jess, a drug addict constantly in and out of rehab, provides the play’s most endearingly bizarre laughs. (The druggy, uncensored sister is caught very well, with only a few over-the-top moments, by Sarah Mitchell.)
But the central relationship is between Emma and her father (performed by Rolf Saxon with just the right amount of flaming indignation and helpless bafflement at the moral bind he is caught in), and on this the drama mainly turns, like a door on a hinge. And this relationship – and it is refreshing to see a modern relationship between father and daughter depicted as based on genuine respect and love – shows how even the deepest love between people can trick us into the kindest, and yet most dangerous, temptation of all. Nothing threatens honesty, integrity, truth, so much as love – because love can seem at times, not only to condone, but to require, lying. And this is not only true in family politics, of course, but in politics at large. Because the lies of love of the left have remained with us so foul that, for some, they have fouled that love – a genuine love of humanity and pity for its sufferings – itself.
Someone else who must be mentioned is Peter Kybart, who plays one of the donors to Emma’s fund, a fellow-traveler from decades back, who does not quite understand the depth of Emma’s dilemma, and brushes it off with a breeziness that displays not so much cynicism, as a lack of understanding of the real issues involved (this is one of the play’s weaker moments, as Emma seems too easily persuaded). A further weakness is Emma’s romantic relationship, which unravels with implausible speed as Emma sinks deeper into despair, because of the moral dilemma she finds herself in. The somewhat thankless role of Emma’s lover is ably done by Adrian Anchondo. Emma’s apolitical uncle, a necessary counterweight to the sometimes hopelessly unrealistic political flights of the rest of the family, is played with staunch (but, unfortunately, unexplored in the play) good sense by Victor Talmadge. The fine direction is by Joy Carlin, and the clever, imaginative set by J. B. Wilson.
This play really should be seen by anyone involved in left-wing politics now, or in the last century. And indeed, by anyone who cares about the political prospects of compassion in the cold, bloody early decades of this one.
Christopher Bernard is a poet and novelist living in San Francisco. He is author of the novel A Spy in the Ruins and a book of poems and photographs, The Rose Shipwreck. He is also co-editor of the webzine Caveat Lector.