The newest drama from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America) has a doozy of a title — The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. But the 2009 play, which officially opened Off Broadway last night at NYC’s Public Theater, has a simple premise: A father, frightened by old age and the possibility of Alzheimer’s disease, asks his grown children for permission to commit suicide.
In the excerpt below, Gus (Michael Cristofer), a former labor union organizer, attempts to explain his motives to his daughter, Empty (played by Linda Emond, and so called because of the initials of her given name, Maria Teresa), while his sister Clio (Brenda Wehle) and gay son Pill (Stephen Spinella) listen. “Gus has called his children together to talk about his desire to commit suicide, and he’s describing his world as a prison,” says Kushner (whose husband is EW columnist Mark Harris). “Who the jailer is, and who jails whom, becomes one of the things the play struggles with.”
Check out the full excerpt, then read on for Kushner’s analysis of the scene.
I’m pretty smart.
You are. But this… (A shrug.) Complicated, honey.
You remember, I think I told you this, the Daily News strike, I helped out, I was ILWU liaison with the teamsters, the paper and printing trades, when they went out against the Daily News? With the writers, the writers went out too, word and muscle, 1991? Same year the Committees of Correspondence broke from the party, same year I left, I left the party, later I rejoined but — 1991, the year pop died, and Gorbachev was, you know, that whole (gesture, something immense). The coup attempt in Moscow and Yeltsin and Gus Hall, that (another gesture, throwing away).
The first Iraq — all that crazy s— that year. Anyway. This old guy, this printer, who I met then on the pickets, we liked each other a lot, he was a smart man, he had a perspective, maybe not… (To Clio:) But a perspective.
So a year after all that, I got a call that this old printer, the guy’s been felled by a heart attack, wham, in a hospital. I went to see him, eyes screwed shut, with a stupid tube down his throat, tape around his mouth to, to hold it, and I saw, I sat for a while, and I noticed his hands was going
(He shows how the printer’s hands were going.)
Like, I thought, what is it, is he, is this, like, piano practicing.
(Again with the hands. The gestures aren’t much like piano playing: the fingers are rapidly moving unseen objects up, down, sideways.)
Then I thought, oh I get what — it made me cry, I cried. I thought, his hands want to pull out that tube, dumb Irish, probably he’d let some c—sucking Priest —
(A quick gesture to Pill, placating and acknowledging; Pill lets him off the hook.)
Some creep got to him, talked him out of a living will, so… And here he was, a prisoner, in that bed. So his hands were going —
(The printer’s hands again:)
His grandson offered me a Kleenex box, and I said, I said look at his hands, he… Maybe you think he wants to get at that tube, or, or the power cord to that goddamn pump? His grandson says, no, that’s just muscle memory. He’s a typesetter, a compositor. His hands are still working, see? He’s still setting stories and headlines in lead type.
That’s what it was, the kid was right. But so was I: His hands were working. Homo laborans. Homo faber. Man the maker. Man the worker. That’s what hands do.
(A look at his hands, then:)
My friend the printer. They left him alone that night, and somehow he managed to pull out the breathing tube. He asphyxiated.
The work of your hands makes the world.
And while you still have the use of them, they can unmake the goddam world, just as well.
That’s… not so complicated, dad.
(Gus looks at her, then at his hands, making the typesetting gesture again.)
“The play is very much about labor unions and the relationship of workers to the work they do and to their jobs,” explains Kushner, who says the work was partly inspired by two strikes that affected the showbiz community a few years ago. “When I was beginning to seriously get to work on the play, the Writer’s Guild had just gone on strike, so I had been on picket lines. And right around that time Local One, the stagehands’ union, went on strike. And that, I think, was the big determining factor for me.”
There were also more sentimental factors at work. “I’m 54 years old. My father is still alive, thank God, but he’s 87 years old, and I’ve seen a lot of people of that generation pass away,” says Kushner. “A lot of my plays have origins in the way that I’m unconsciously processing grief or loss.”
The image of the printer was partially inspired by Kushner’s research for an unrealized project: a movie about the Daily News strike of the early 1990s. Kushner was given a tour of the Daily News building, which still used old-fashioned printing presses and lead type at the time. “That was such a medieval thing to think that at the top of this magnificent skyscraper there are these vats of molten lead and these guys who would work in lead type, the compositors,” he recalls. “And I think that’s where this guy first appeared in my mind.”
According to Kushner, Gus chooses this particular image because he relates to the printer’s feelings of imprisonment and uselessness. “[The printer] can’t work. He can’t do anything now. He’s on a ventilator. He’s become quite literally imprisoned,” says Kushner. “The control of his life has been taken out of his hands, so he finds a way to take it back. It’s a refusal to be the prisoner of time, to be the subject of time.”