Consider the following play: First Lady Laura Bush reads the Grand Inquisitor scene of Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” to dead Iraqi children.
At first glance, the premise of Tony Kushner’s work-in-progess, “Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy,” seems to be insulting and politically self-indulgent. Perhaps Kushner, a playwright known for his ability to transform political reality into artistic creation, may have finally gone too far. Not surprisingly considering the current political climate, Kushner may be mistaking politics for art altogether.
Instead Kushner has created — or has begun to create — a truly complex play which surpasses a simple indictment of the Bush administration and presents an artful commentary on the breadth of all humanity’s responsibility.
Kushner originally published the play in “The Nation” in March 2003, and it has recently been staged in readings around the country. Peter Cook ’05 directed an excellent reading of it at Yale which included a tremendous performance from Jen Jamula ’05.
The Long Wharf Theater’s staged reading of the play this past Monday featured Susan Sarandon, Mary Beth Hurt and Claudia Shear. Though the performances were notable, this piece focuses on the play itself because it is still a work in progress. Despite the fact that Kushner has made the play public, it is by no means complete and should not be judged as a polished piece but rather as a collection of unfinished ideas.
“Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy” consists of two principal scenes: one in which Laura Bush confronts dead Iraqi children, and another in which an actor playing Tony Kushner discusses political artistic expression in a conversation with Laura Bush.
As the play begins, Laura Bush plans to read to the eager group of young children in pajamas. When Mrs. Bush remarks that she has never read to children in pajamas before, their guardian, described in the list of characters as “an Angel,” explains their appearance.
“Perhaps this is the first time you have read to dead children, Mrs. Bush?” she says.
Kushner begins the play with a series of rather cheap jokes like this one that make fun of the First Lady and the larger Bush administration. From the first minutes of the scene, it seems as though the audience can expect nothing particularly thought-provoking or challenging, simply a humorous evening devoted to comforting ridicule and finger-pointing that will resonate with the political frustrations of most of Kushner’s audience.
But as Laura Bush begins to discuss the Dostoyevsky selection she has chosen to read, she begins to lose herself in the contradictions and complexity of her own moral responsibility. Through a series of painful realizations, she works herself into a tizzy and finally screams in frustration.
“It’s too hard, the choice between good and evil, it’s too hard — only a really shitty, shitty person who isn’t a real person but only seems to be but is actually an animal forgives themselves for — the death of children. But for those of us who aren’t like that, we must be punished,” the First Lady says.
Faced with Laura Bush’s realizations, we too are forced to question our own beliefs and recognize our own complicity in the world’s problems.
In a matter of minutes, Kushner has drawn the entire audience into an unexpected state of sympathy for Laura Bush. The playwright has performed the seemingly impossible task of shaking the members of his audience off their own moral high ground into the shoes of a rattled First Lady, who seems at first to be simply the butt of the joke. For in the end, it is not simply George Bush’s fault or Laura Bush’s fault or Donald Rumsfeld’s fault.
By placing the audience in Laura Bush’s shoes, we realize that the true “sin” is the failure of humanity to recognize and adequately wrestle with the complexity of human morality on a global scale. The war in Iraq is not the only terrible mess existing in the world today, and problems will continue to arise. These questions are not black and white. They are monumentally grey.
Ultimately, it is the way in which Kushner implicates his audience that creates the play’s lasting mark. At the end of the scene, after wrestling with these questions, Laura Bush maintains that she “stands by her beliefs,” and thus her realizations remain tragic ones without a solution. The play is a warning to the audience that blame must not be diverted but carried by each of us. And as long as we continue to guard that mystery, we shall remain unhappily trapped in an unsafe world where children die and mothers, even First Ladies, weep.
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