Kushner, Kabul and Change

Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul has been through many changes since it first appeared at NYTW in December 2001. So has the political and cultural landscape. Writer, dramaturg and Culturebot contributor Aaron Leichter discusses the changes in the work and its implications in relation to the culture at large.

Tony Kushner should consider his greatness confirmed. The HBO adaptation of Angels in America brought his decade-old masterpiece into millions of living rooms around the world. His musical Caroline, or Change has sneaked race, class, and melancholy onto the normally-vacuous Broadway stage. And in May, his previous work, Homebody/Kabul, received its second New York “premiere” under Frank Galati’s direction at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

The new production, however, is as different from the previous incarnation at New York Theater Workshop, performed in December 2001, as two adaptations of the same myth: the events and characters remain fairly stable, but their meaning has been altered. Part of that difference can be attributed to the artistic visions of a new director and cast. In addition, Kushner has revised the play repeatedly, in an effort to clarify his artistic vision and shorten its four-hour length. But the shift in meaning is also a part of the change that almost three years of war have wrought on America and the world.

To those who saw the play in its original incarnation in the dark autumn of 2001, Homebody/Kabul was a numinous, prophetic work. Because of a combination of timing, subject matter, and insight, it directly addressed the terrorist attacks on Manhattan and Washington. It’s worth recounting how it did so, because the changes—in the play and in us—show how the world has changed since the autumn of 2001.

Many of us were mesmerized by Afghanistan that autumn: Where was it? Who were the Taliban? How were they different from other Muslims? What was their relationship to Osama bin Laden? How could he live in a cave yet be so deadly? And how was all this—the Taliban, the terrorists, Islam, 9/11—connected to the international development of a global village based on open borders, free information, and multicultural understanding? The White House gave only the vaguest answers to these questions, and the media rested content with generalities.

Kushner, on the other hand, faced the questions. He began with a colossal monologue delivered by a chatty British woman known as The Homebody. This supplied us with Afghanistan’s history of empires and exploitation: Alexander the Great, Tamburlaine, the Muslims, the Buddhists, the English, and the Soviets had all subjugated the country. For three millennia, Afghanistan had been at the bottom of the proverbial hill that shit flows down.

Metaphorically, Kushner explained the existence of the Taliban by placing the mythical Grave of Cain, the Bible’s first murderer, in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital. Like the unburied corpse in Antigone, Cain’s gravesite had polluted the country, making it sick and poor. With Afghanistan as the opposite of health and prosperity, then the calculus of capitalism meant that, at the end of the 20th century, Afghanistan was the opposite of America. But the calculus of art shows that opposites are also twins: Afghanistan was America’s doppelgänger.

The war-ravaged concrete walls of the play’s set were anonymous streetcorners in Kabul, but they were also one specific corner in downtown Manhattan. The attack on the World Trade Center had pulled us through a Lewis Carroll looking-glass into the nightmarish mirror-world of the Taliban. After 9/11, New Yorkers lived in Kabul. Kushner showed his audience, with precision and art, that these seemingly-opposite worlds were reflections of each other. He explained why New York City was suddenly part of the minefields of Afghanistan. Put simply, he provided a context.

Since that revelatory experience two and a half years ago, Kushner has revised Homebody/Kabul seventeen times. Rewriting on this scale is more common than most audiences realize, but we rarely get the opportunity to compare the drafts. Through delicate sculpting that has left the play’s main elements untouched, Kushner has subtly shifted and narrowed the play’s focus. The two drafts are as similar as snowflakes—basically identical but fundamentally unique.

Kushner has deepened our emotional connection to the Western characters. It’s become a play about people, not the place. Its plot resembles a Graham Greene novel of espionage and lost innocence. The Homebody’s daughter, Priscilla, has taken over as the protagonist. In her search for her mother, Priscilla locates the Grave of Cain, the spiritual center of Afghanistan. In the earlier production, she had purified the gravesite by performing a ritual for the dead. Guided by a mysterious hermit, or marabout, who tended the gravesite, Priscilla dispelled the curse and healed Kabul. Because Kabul and New York were linked, New York was healed as well. This was the play’s catharsis. This was how Kushner healed us after the terrorist attack.

According to an interview with Kushner however, this weird, sacred scene baffled some literal-minded audiences. (Adding to the scene’s power but also to some viewers’ confusion, Priscilla suggests that this scene might be a dream.) Rightly bowing to clarity, Kushner has removed the ceremony and the attendant marabout. But in a way, it’s staggering that he cut the marabout: imagine Angels in America without the Angel. By removing the holy man and the consecrated ground, Kushner has removed the possibility of transcendence.

Instead, in the final draft that was performed at BAM last month, the gravesite is not only or not necessarily the Grave of Cain. It is also where The Homebody may have been killed. It is the endpoint of Priscilla’s journey to Kabul. She accepts that her mother’s fate may never be known. She also grieves for her mother. Kushner’s revisions have drawn the focus of Homebody/Kabul inward.

They have also made it into his darkest play. Most importantly, they’ve made it his most realistic play: no angels or moons float above the humans. Now there’s no purification and no return from the mirror-world. Priscilla’s visit to Kabul cleanses only herself; Kabul is left behind to fester. This revision, of course, mirrors reality precisely. In the two and a half years since Homebody/Kabul’s premiere in New York, American soldiers marched through Kabul’s streets, leaving ruins behind them, just like empires have since biblical times. Nothing has changed in Kabul; perhaps nothing has changed in New York either. If so, we’re right to fear another attack. We can only hope that the marabout still sits by the Grave of Cain, waiting for someone to purify the land.


AARON LEICHTER is a freelance writer and dramaturg in New York City. He has worked with the Red Bull Theater and Manhattan Ensemble Theater, and written for NYTheatre.com.

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