A Bright Room Called Day

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Play by Tony Kushner, 1991

Written and first produced Off-Off-Broadway in 1985, A Bright Room Called Day was Tony Kushner's New York debut. In 1991 it received a major production in New York City at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre, where it was critically lambasted. Though the critics more favorably received other productions in San Francisco and Chicago, the play has been frequently dismissed because of an Adolf Hitler-Ronald Reagan equation that has continued to discomfort many critics.

The play, in two parts, focuses on a group of friends in Berlin from 1 January 1932 to 12 November 1933, during which the Nazi Party secured its power in Germany. The friends, made up of leftists, artists, and refugees, congregate in Agnes's apartment, seeking safety and security. Agnes, Paulinka, and Husz all work in the film industry while Annabella makes her living as a graphic designer and Baz, openly homosexual, works at the Berlin Institute for Human Sexuality. Over the course of the play, they see their hopes for a socialist Germany collapse and their friendships tattered by their fears and denials over what is happening in their country. By the end of the play, Agnes, alone among her friends, refuses to flee the country, preferring to remain ensconced in her room, afraid of what is taking place in the outside world.

Throughout the play there are eight "Interruptions," so called because the play's chronological narrative is broken into by Zillah, a contemporary Jewish American woman. Her interruptions attempt to draw the focus on this group of powerless individuals in 1930s Germany into a parallel with the play's current audience. In the mid-1980s to early 1990s, Kushner angrily perceived the moral abandonment and surrender by the American leftist intelligentsia to the rightward lurch of American politics in the Ronald Reagan/George Bush years. Writing the play, Kushner watched as the American Left and the media withdrew from protesting as the Reagan/Bush administrations oversaw an illegal war against a popularly elected government in Nicaragua, attempted to dismantle many governmental social services that assist the poor and the disenfranchised, traded arms for hostages with America's enemies, ignored the growing epidemic of AIDS, and fractured the country's economy with irresponsible tax cuts and overspending on the military. This moral abandonment Kushner has likened to the failure of the German Left to rise up against the Nazis, even as he took pains within the text as well as in his published afterword to acknowledge that it was not an exact parallel. In Zillah he has created a dramatic Jeremiah for the times, accosting each audience and demanding that they see themselves mirrored in what Kushner described as the ineffectual decency of Agnes and her friends.

Kushner's postmodern dramaturgy utilized an array of styles, most notably realism and a form of expressionism mixed with a medieval morality argument. This latter style occurred with the uses of two other characters in the play. The first character is Die Alte, an elderly woman of indeterminate age who appears suddenly in Agnes's apartment at odd and alarming moments, claiming that she once lived there, but who appears to be currently homeless. Each time she appears through the window, indicating that she lives on the fire escape, and each time she demands rolls to eat.

The second character, seen once only in the final scene of Part One, is Satan, introduced as Herr Swetts, an exporter from Hamburg. Husz, a Hungarian cinematographer who has lost an eye during the communist revolt in 1919, suddenly admits to his friends that he can conjure the Devil and does. Herr Swetts appears sickly, almost asthmatic, until he delivers an extraordinarily powerful monologue cataloging his years in the European wilderness, culminating in a resurgence of strength and confidence as his position is restored in the world. As he exits, Agnes, who has been unable to utter a word during this display, finally finds her voice, but all she can utter is a polite and friendly welcome to Germany.

Rather than confront the Holocaust in the more familiar terms of earlier writers, Kushner focused his study on the fears, the excuses, the petty tyrannies and jealousies, and the denials that the German Left offered as its excuse for inaction and political fragmentation. Kushner was less concerned with remembering the events as history and more committed to a historical narrative that would connect to a contemporary American audience and force them to examine their own complicity in the general and wholesale overturning of the American progressive social agenda in place since the Depression. Some critics have faulted Kushner for manipulating the facts and the emotions of the Holocaust to express his outrage over the U.S. government's handling of the AIDS epidemic. But Kushner's spirited defense of his using the Holocaust as the established parameter of evil in categorizing society's current ills can be persuasive, and his questions regarding the German Left are both legitimate and insightful.

—Steven Dedalus Burch

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A Bright Room Called Day

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