Review 5.

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The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures (or iHo for short) at the Hampstead Theatre

Written by Tony Kushner

Directed by Michael Boyd

Cast: David Calder, Gus; Richard Clothier, Pill (Pierluigi, P.L.); Tamsin Grieg, Empty (Maria Teresa, M.T.); Lex Shrapnel, Vito (Vinnie, Vino, Vin, V); Sara Kestelman, Clio; Luke Newberry, Eli; Sirine Saba, Maeve; Rhashan Stone, Paul; Katie Leung, Sooze; Daniel Flynn, Adam.

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So I Saw… iHo

From his Academy Award nominated screenplay for the Hollywood film Lincoln, to his Pulitzer Prize for Drama winning play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Kushner is renowned for his politically attuned work. In fact, in the past he has said that he believes ‘all theatre is political’[1], and although iHo is a self-confessed attempt at ‘a distinctively American strand of Aristotelian family drama set around a kitchen table’[2], politics underpins this. But the opening scene is not ‘set around a kitchen table’. Instead we see two men standing on either side of a half-constructed looking, concrete tower-block, out of which the iron bars of the building’s skeleton protrude. They talk to each other through mobile phones. Their relationship, as their conversation spasmodically reveals, is one of deceit: Eli, the younger of the two, is Pill’s rent-boy – and Pill has a husband. Pill, leads their disjointed conversation,

‘Pill: … a family talk

Eli: Uh-huh..

Pill: [sharply and suddenly] Major Barbara!

Eli: Who?

Pill: You asked me about good plays – good plays in Minneapolis…’

fillwyi3ntailci1mdaixq-reviews7Pill’s reference to Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbera is no coincidence. iHo’s title is actually a reference to Shaw’s 1928 work The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (a ‘blend’[3] of Marxism’s ‘soaring idealism and no-nonsense realism’[4], expressing ‘belief in the parliamentary route to socialism, [with] no illusions about the unsatisfactory deficits in democracy’[5]) and in this vein Major Barbara’s subtitle could easily describe Kushner’s play: ‘A Discussion, in Three Acts’. For iHo examines the alienation of our progressively technologically mediated lives in a market-orientated neoliberal society; where the social fabric is being gradually unravelled to reveal a generation of individuals drifting in a globalising world. In iHo, Kushner brings the ideas of Marx to bear on our experience of this: suggesting that ‘in some way Marx saw this coming [… consider the] principle of the increasing abstraction of value equalling the the increasing abstraction of human life – well, the digital age is the most shocking realisation of that’[6].

Pill continues:

Pill: …some asshole’s cellphone went off in the middle of Undershaft’s big speech in the last act, and the actor, the actor winced […] At least I’m not an actor! […] But if I was, I would hurl myself off the stage in whatever direction the ringing was coming from, find the guy and stuff the god damn thing – ringing! – right down his throat!’

Although Kushner claims this play to be ‘Aristotelian’ (denoting a focus on the emotional identification of the audience with the characters on stage) this use of meta-theatre (‘at least I’m not an actor’ – the audience knows he is an actor, and is thus reminded they are watching a bit of constructed make-believe taking place in a very real world) seems to be a nod to Brecht; whose theory of drama (which he termed ‘non-Aristotelian’[7]) encourages audiences to not identify with the characters on stage, so that they may be aware of themselves as critical beings capable of assessing, and making change in, their real socio-political context. As Pill finishes the line ‘… right down his throat!’, the lights cut and we are immediately transported to the Marcantonio’s home, where the whole family is ‘set around the kitchen table’; but this first scene primes us to consider the goings on of the ‘family drama’ we are to witness in alongside our own broader understanding of the world beyond the confines of the play. 111996001_the_intellegent_homosexual2-xlarge_transv7lf6vpttymqtntakjxvkbionlss20mrfiiqki3u9mc

We meet the Marcantonios in a gale of their own voices. Each is pursuing an independent, emotionally charged conversation – making their individual voices as hard to follow as those of a swirling twitter-storm. They are arguing because Gus, (the Italian-American patriarch of the family) has attempted suicide – and is asking that his family support him in a second (implicitly final) attempt. Gus’ rationale for this is complex, but primarily he is experiencing a crisis of belief as he struggles to adjust his ideological outlook (he is an idealistic and uncompromising Marxist – progress, in his eyes, ‘can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions’[8]) to the world of 2007 neoliberal America. His other motivations similarly concern ideals. He was once a member of the Communist Party of America, and campaigned fiercely, as a member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) to secure their collective goal of the Guaranteed Annual Income (GAI). Unionism is another of his ideals (a bust of Garibaldi is perched on the shelf behind the kitchen table) – and another that political realities led him to compromise (or so we discover later); because he only secured GAI for senior members of the Union – such as himself. To support his argument for his suicide, he constantly claims that he has Alzheimers – despite the fact that he is in the middle of translating Horace. In reality his Alzheimers is metaphorical: the only intellectual deterioration Gus is experiencing pertains to the purity of his ideals.

It’s not just Gus who is having to cope with the shifting sands of modern American life: his children live it. Even their names have a symbolic resonance with neoliberalism’s ‘increasing abstraction of human life’. Each of them has several nicknames – often fragmentations or abbreviations of their full names, that are entwined with their cultural heritage; resonating with the idea of neoliberalism’s dissolving of the social and cultural fabric of the previous epoch. Gus’ oldest son’s full name is Pierluigi, yet he is most often called Pill, and also goes by P.L.; Pill’s younger sister goes by M.T., which is an abbreviation of Maria Teresa – but she is also affectionately called Empty; and the youngest of Gus’ children, Vito is named after Gus’ cousin, Vito Marcantonio – whose picture hangs on the wall behind the kitchen table, and was a famous radical American Labour Party member who refused to vote for America’s entry into the Korean War – but 4860he is also called Vin, Vic, Vinnie and – most often – V. They also live lives of insecurity, disloyalty and deceit. Vito probably has the most stable life; but that’s not saying much.

He is married to Sooze, a no-nonsense (presumably) Korean woman who tells Gus that she respects his idealistic perspective and that she (and her parents)

‘don’t blame you for Kim Jung Un’

but that she wishes he could be understanding of Vito’s anguish about his suicide (it was Vito who found Gus during his previous, failed attempt). Yet she laughs when she discovers that instead of artificially inseminating Empty’s wife, Maeve, Vito had full intercourse with her – for the sake of ease. We can tell that Vito did this reluctantly (at no point does it seem that he is in any way attracted to Maeve) even he seems shocked and destabilised by Sooze’s flippant reaction. Maeve and Empty’s relationship is even more unstable. Empty regularly complains about Maeve, and openly declares that she doesn’t want a baby:

no one could want a baby less than I’.tamsin-greig-empty-the-intelligent-homosexuals-guide-to-capitalism-and-socialism-with-a-key-to-the-scriptures-at-hampstead-theatre-photo-by-manuel-harlan

She also cheats on Maeve – again, fairly openly – with her ex-husband, Adam, who is both the foolish boozer and the insidious buyer; as he ruins
Gus’ aim to

‘liquidate and vacate’

his family apartment, sharing the money between his children. Empty is also sexually confused – she claims (repetitively) that she

‘loves tits’,

and,

‘loves pussy’,

but she seems to be more attracted to heterosexual sex – as she constantly goes back to Adam (who boasts that it’s only he who can really give her what she wants) and bemoans the fact that they

‘don’t make maternity strap-ons’

presumably for Maeve to use. Of course she could just be bisexual, but things seems a little too confused to sit comfortably with this. Empty is just that – she is empty: she finds it hard to define herself.

This is also key to her relationship with her father. She is the one who claims to understand him the best, whose profession is most like Gus’ activism (she’s a Labour tamsin-greig-empty-and-david-calder-gus-the-intelligent-homosexuals-guide-to-capitalism-and-socialism-with-a-key-to-the-scriptures-at-hampstead-theatre-photo-by-manuel-hLawyer and aided Gus on campaigns when she was little) and, to a certain extent, is accepting of Gus’ attempts at suicide – sitting with him and the widow of a fellow ILWU member, as the latter explains how she aided her husband in his suicide, listening for instruction on how to help her father do the same. She does this because she sees Gus as heroic –

‘you’ve always been heroic to me’ 

she tells him, in the penultimate scene, talking of his campaigning days in the ILWU. She idealises him and constantly defers to this heroic image of him at the expense of her own sense of self. But it’s only when she realises that her father is more committed to his purist, political outlook than to his emotional connection to his children (he sees them as cogs in his effort to achieve ideological absolution in his suicide) that she can finally assert herself fully – leaving him at the close of the same scene where she called him ‘heroic’ with

‘you are a coward’.

This scene is beautifully and sensitively performed by Tamsin Greig, as she delivers Empty’s anguished realisation of who her father really is – a man possessed by his ideology – and the progress of her emotion from one of entrapment to self-assertion. She is shouted at as she sits, hunched over and rocking, on a chair facing away from the audience – so Gus’ fury hits us too with similar force – eventually breaking, running and pressing her body against the wall, agonisedly twisting her arms, weeping, all lit by an increasingly focussed light. Then the tables turn. She shouts at Gus as he sits in the chair – calling him a ‘coward’ for failing to step up to his emotional responsibilities in choosing suicide over compromising his political beliefs for the sake of his children.

This is also indicative of the fact that whilst all of the children clearly display the alienating and destabilising effects of modern American life, they are also deeply influenced by Gus’ political ideology. Pill is, perhaps, most literally effected; for he eroticises Marx’s theory of alienation. This theory (as Pill – strikingly portrayed by Richard Richard-Clothier-Pill-and-Luke-Newberry-Eli-The-Intelligent-Homosexuals-Guide-to-Capitalism-and-Socialism-with-a-Key-to-the-Scriptures-at-Hampstead-Theatre.-Photo-by-Manu.jpgClothier – explains in great detail to Eli, as he straddles him on his bed) posits that work, when we are in control of both the means and the ends of production, is what makes us human: it is our ‘species-being’. In Marx’s conception this is why Revolution is needed: to restore the means and ends of production to the workers (who have had these taken from them by the capitalist) and in so doing, restore to them their ‘species-being’ – their fullness of life. But in Pill’s mind, this idea becomes sensual – as he sees what he does with Eli as expressive of ‘species-being’ in a sexual sense; for Eli controls and receives both the means and the ends of what he is producing (the sex act). Yet Eli has a more capitalistic conception of what he is doing – eroticising the notion of his being a commodity; something that someone desires so much that they are willing to pay for him.

Hence, although Kushner is highlighting the relevancy of Marx to the problems of modern neoliberalism it would be very wrong to see iHo as, in any sense, The Communist Manifesto Part II: the complex relationships of the children are a ‘discussion’ of 5837-1477995520-shot9predominating political theories of the past, in light of the present. In fact, in their relationships, many of the arguments against Marx can be read. In Pill and Eli’s case, as well as Empty’s, this is seen in the interrelationship between the theoretical and the emotional: as Eli says


‘money isn’t the only currency’.

 

Whilst this is resonates as dramatic irony (it is 2007, in 2008 the markets will crash because bankers made exactly that error: ‘what the economists got wrong in all their models and forecasts was their reliance on the odd notion that people are entirely driven by money’[9]), and thus a criticism of neoliberal capitalism – which Eli in many ways represents, with his eroticising selling himself and mannerisms that revolve around updating his profile on his rent-boy app and the word ‘like’ – this also checks Marx’s view of people’s behaviour as predictable according to their socio-economic position. This reduction of individuals to economic groups perhaps intensifies the capacity of leaders (such as Lenin and Stalin) to allow (or actively go about) the mass extermination of their people when attempting to initiate communism in their country; but equally this might underscore the capacity of the capitalist to exploit workers.

In the same vein Vito’s relationship with Gus must be considered: he might almost be read as paradigmatic of the working class – a class as the individual. When trying to persuade Gus to not kill himself he tells him to go and ‘get a real working class job’, implying a physical one like his own (he is a construction worker and intermittently attempts to fix the hole in the wall he creates – we’ll 111996009_the_intellegent_homosexual1-large_transefoz1-0wvaqpfvo8s0m8pvfknxbjqdbishywtovo6cocome back to this later), and even exasperatedly claims himself as a

‘real bonafide member of the working class’

whom Gus, the one whose political principles claim to be for the working class, eschews the advice of; claiming that V is deluded – blinded by the firmly capitalist ideology of 2007 America:

‘you just don’t understand’.

This echoes Isiah Berlin’s famous criticism of dialectical views of history – like Marx’s – that assume that ‘the ordinary run of men are blind in varying degrees to that which truly shapes their lives’[10], and cuts to the core of V and Gus’ relationship; because V has a very different understanding of his father than his siblings, who were taught Marxist theory by Gus from an early age (Pill says he read Das Kapital at summer camp). Instead V was made to feel like his father’s world of theory was

‘some place I just can’t go’.

Hence perhaps the pent-up emotion that leads him to smash the bust of Garibaldi (a symbol of unity?) through the wall. Yet this act, as well as V’s name – Vito – may also be read in as symbolic of Gus’ politically charged views of historical inevitability being thwarted: the working classes didn’t behave as Marx predicted – they vetoed the Revolution.

This is all very complicated. In this play there is a lot that cannot be understood immediately – or even at all. I’m still wondering if I get it. Kushner has a high opinion of his audiences’ intellect (‘that animal out there in the dark is extremely smart, and it’s very impatient, and you can’t bore it. If you are talking down to it, you’re telling it things that you already know’[11]). Maeve and Pill’s husband, Paul, argue over the minutia of translations of theological texts (both are academics – specialising in Christian theology) and words like ‘dialectic’ jostle against the colloquial. But I would argue that we aren’t meant to know what it all means; in a play containing a scene where all of the 5140.jpgmain characters are on stage each talking over one another, spread out and many in motion, a lack of understanding on the part of the audience seems intentional. We live in an increasingly complex world where the internet has made multiple forms of information and perspectives readily accessible – so much so, that, in the wake of Brexit and the rise of Trump, many (such as Katherine Viner) are now arguing that that the status of the idea of plain fact or truth is ‘diminishing’[12]. Like Gus we are in the midst of a crisis of belief – where our faith in old conceptions of ‘how the world works’ are being challenged by new and weird concepts, like the notion of our living in a ‘post-truth’ (the OED’s 2016 International Word of the Year, ‘an adjective relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals’[13]) age, particularly in terms of politics[14]. To me this play, and all its sprawling complexity, asks us to address this.

This is why I found the final scene so profound. Gus has been left by Empty. Eli (Luke Newberry’s performance is excellent, particularly here) is with him – looking for Pill, and looking like he has taken rather too many pills as he shivers and jitters. We worry for him, because, like Gus he has threatened suicide – after Pill chose to end it with Eli for Paul. Gus has two bags in front of him: a white one containing the equipment required for his suffocation; and his grandfather’s suitcase that he carried to America as the first member of the Marcantonio family to emigrate. Eli asks him which bag he’ll choose (death or moving on?), and Gus responds with

‘I’m still thinking’,

and the play ends. Like Clio, Gus’ sister (who has tried an enormous number of different belief systems ranging from the violent Communist group, Shining Dawn, to becoming a Catholic nun), but has now chosen as her book of study Science and Health with a Key to the Scriptures by Eddy Mary Baker; a book (referenced in iHo’s title) of Christian Science given to her by a neighbour, and whose chief message, she explains, is belief in thinking (‘1. God is All-in-all. 2. God is good. Good is Mind.’[15]). In light of this we might read Gus’ closing line as a potential resolution to his crisis of belief, and in some sense our own.

Gus has pushed himself into this life or death situation through the disappointment of his restrictive worldview and might be saved if he learned to think flexibly – to believe in various thoughts, taking on their wisdom whilst acknowledging their flaws (as his sister Clio has). He needs to be able to believe in the act of thinking – to be open-minded, whilst understanding that this might throw up complexities unforeseeable, or even fully understandable. I can’t help thinking that in our world of ‘post-truth’, we might learn  something from this; we cannot abandon the notion of ‘truth’ just because we see that it’s complicated, or convoluted. Kushner has said that he thinks ‘it’s enormously important to [him] as a writer never to think of [himself] as delivering a message’[16], but that he feels his plays ‘can actually wind up explaining a lot to an audience’[17]. I’d agree with him – although I’m still thinking. But maybe that’s the point.

___

More information about the production can be found at: https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/2016/iho/ 

___

by Emily Swettenham

10th November 2016.

___

References:

[1] Kushner, T. 2016. The Will Mortimer Interview. Interviewed by Mortimer, W. The Hampstead Theatre.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Toynbee, P. 2012. ‘Bernard Shaw’s guide to a post-crash world’. The Guardian. [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/oct/12/bernard-shaws-guide-post-crash-world [Accessed: 10th November 2016].

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Kushner, T. 2016. The Will Mortimer Interview. Interviewed by Mortimer, W. The Hampstead Theatre.

[7] White, J. J. 2004. Bertold Brecht’s Dramatic Theory. Camden House: Woodbridge. p.g.207.

[8] Engels, F. and Marx, K. 1848. The Communist Manifesto. Oxford World Classics. Oxford University Press: Oxford. p.g.39.

[9] Toynbee, P. 2012. ‘Bernard Shaw’s guide to a post-crash world’. The Guardian. [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/oct/12/bernard-shaws-guide-post-crash-world [Accessed: 10th November 2016].

[10] Berlin, I. 1953. Historical Inevitability. August Comte Memorial Trust Lecture, No.1. Oxford University Press: Oxford. p.g.2.

[11] Kushner, T. 2004. A TPQ Interview: Tony Kushner on Theatre, Politics, and Culture. Interviewed by Taft-Kaufman, J. Text and performance Quarterly, Vol. 24. No. 1. January, 2004. [online]. Available at: http://www.csun.edu/~vcspc00g/301/iv-tonykushner-tpq.pdf [Accessed: 10th November 2016].

[12] Viner, K. 2016. ‘How technology disrupted the truth’. The Guardian. [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/jul/12/how-technology-disrupted-the-truth [Accessed: 10th November 2016].

[13] BBC News. 2016. ‘Post-truth’ declared word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries’. [online]. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-37995600 [Accessed: 16th November 2016].

[14] Davies, W. 2016. ‘The Age of Post-Truth Politics’. The New York Times. [online]. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/24/opinion/campaign-stops/the-age-of-post-truth-politics.html?_r=0 [Accessed: 10th November 2016].

[15] Baker, E. M. 1875. Science and Health with a Key to the Scriptures. [online]. Available at: http://www.christianscience.com/the-christian-science-pastor/science-and-health/chapter-vi-science-theology-medicine?citation=SH%20113:19-113:21 [Accessed: 10th November 2016].

[16] Kushner, T. 2016. The Will Mortimer Interview. Interviewed by Mortimer, W. The Hampstead Theatre.

[17] Ibid.

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