The subjectivity of good: Ayad Ahktar’s The Invisible Hand
Playwrights Kevin Armento and Jerry Lieblich recently saw Disgraced on Broadway together and totally disagreed about it. So last weekend they went out for a second helping of Pulitzer Prize-winner Ayad Ahktar, seeing his new play The Invisible Hand at New York Theatre Workshop and then talking about it at a coffee shop.
Here’s some plot info on the show, but basically it’s about an American investor named Nick (Justin Kirk) who’s held for ransom in Pakistan by Islamic extremists, led by Bashir (Usman Ally). Nick has to earn his own ransom by teaching Bashir the basics of capitalist trading, and it goes from there.
This is an edited and pretty majorly cut-down transcript of their conversation.
Kevin: Did you feel like the moments of really heady conversation — did that take you out of it at all? Or did it kind of drift in and out enough…?
Jerry: I had a weird experience. I kind of expected it to, I went in being like, I’m going to hear a lot of stuff about economics and I’m going to think it’s stupid.
K: Adam Smith, and —
J: Yeah. And actually, those were my favorite moments of the play. Cause I was like, oh you’ve really done your homework. And there’s something really exciting about getting to hear that stuff.
K: Yeah. The scenes with Nick and Bashir in the first half – I had this weird experience of like, am I watching The Social Network or Moneyball right now? It had a very clear, conceptual drive that felt like a movie. But then it would break off into these long, I agree, very engaging sections about theory — I was surprised as well.
J: Yeah, and there’s stakes there. Here’s what I’m trying to figure out: you have the narrative stakes, which are so high, and the conceptual stakes, which are so high, but I’m trying to figure out how they actually talked to each other. Like this idea of the American being captive in Pakistan, like captive to this terrorist organization…
K: Yeah they did a couple things that kind of went against the grain on that that I enjoyed. Some of it was the writing, and some of it was Justin Kirk. There was that moment where Bashir is playing him video of his wife, and they avoided all the things I’ve always seen in a version of that scene. Which is, the prisoner having some kind of freak-out, or pleading, or weeping, or lying desperately, but he sat there and they were like very casually talking about his wife. And I was really surprised by a couple moments like that, that felt truer to what must be monotonous and mundane components of a prisoner being held captive like that.
J: I guess I’m trying to see the synthesis between like, the narrative situation, which is “I have to win my ransom money,” and what it’s talking about, about like global markets. And it seems like the really unsympathetic way to talk about that is like, the play has put us in a prison where we can’t do anything but think about the effects of the global market. And I feel like there must be something else there that we can find. But I’m not sure what it is.
K: I think the economics of terrorism is something I never hear talked about. I know very little about it, so I don’t have much to say about it – but we know it factors into things like the Arab Spring, things like the cyclical nature of the War on Terror that we’ve seen for over a decade. And it was interesting and pleasurable for me to hear those specific two characters talking about economic theory, because it felt put through a prism of, why are we fighting each other for over a decade, and blowing each other up?
J: And I guess that’s why I loved that first scene in act two so much, is it felt like that was when we really got to the juice of it. And that was the kind of purest dialectic of the play, where Justin Kirk was saying the Bretton Woods thing, of like America anchoring the dollar as the global currency essentially, was kind of — somebody had to do it, and power’s got to be somewhere.
K: Why do you think they talked about that so much, and World War Two so much?
J: I think they wanted to trace the history, or like how did we get to this point where the dollar is king. And I thought what he said was really interesting. There was that line, something like, power’s gotta be concentrated somewhere, so you just have to hope it’s in the hands of somebody who uses it well. Which I guess, now that I’m saying that, is what happens in the play. Bashir ends up with all the money at the end, and says we’re going to do something good with this.
K: That was a great moment.
K: That was maybe my favorite moment. There were laughs at that moment.
J: (laughter) But like of course, who says we’re going to do so much evil with all this money we just got?
K: Well but it’s the subjectivity of good, right? I mean that’s a very broad thing to say, but this notion that we’re sitting in a lower Manhattan theatre hearing an essentially terrorist character, an American just made him a shit ton of money, and he says we’re going to do a lot of good with this.
J: So I wonder if this is the connection, then, to draw with that. That thing about, you hope the power ends up in good hands, the play is basically saying power equals money, so you hope the money ends up in good hands. And so then Bashir ends up in that position of America after World War Two basically, of like, I’m kind of the only guy standing, the earlier guy was a piece of shit. I got rid of him, I have all the money now. I’m going to do the right thing with it, and like immediately, the right thing is the guy comes in covered in bullets, and like we hear gunfire everywhere.
K: Yeah, and that’s what it felt to me like it was nodding to. It’s hard to extrapolate that to any kind of political meaning. I’m not sure that we’re meant to. It feels so much more thematic — I guess what I’m saying is it feels so outside any specifics of the current War on Terror, or whatever you want to call it.
J: Sure. I think that doesn’t speak so much to the War on Terror as it does like, American hegemony. And it’s almost, maybe this is a weird reading of the play, but the whole thing could be looked at as an explanation and almost apology for American hegemony. And like basically probelmatizing it, and saying like, there kind of was no other way, it’s going to end up somewhere, and if America ended up with all the money and the power, like you’re fucked if you’re in that situation. You can’t do it right. So we kind of get to see that happen on a smaller scale.
K: It’s funny that we’re talking so much about that when the American character is sort of on paper the protagonist, but not at all the protagonist. Bashir’s the protagonist, Bashir goes through by far —
J: He’s the only one who does stuff.
K: And that was interesting to me because – I mean he’s passive because he’s a prisoner – but the most passive character in a way is this American guy whose eyes we’re seeing the show through, and he kind of just does his work. And I was kind of surprised he never defected. There was that kind of – I think weak – moment of him running away but not really running away, cause two seconds into act two it’s cleared up.
J: He’s still there!
K: Ok, that big dramatic action meant nothing.
J: Remember when you caught me three weeks ago?
K: Yeah. It made a really cool end of act one, but then it’s like two minutes into act two it’s all over. But besides that, he doesn’t defect at all. It’s not about the American like, outsmarting the terrorist and getting out of there —
J: He’s not John Wayne.
K: Yeah. It’s about the terrorist rising up and becoming a terrorist.
J: And really becoming American. Saying like, I’m going to win by —
K: Cherry-picking American values…
K: …and infusing it with his ideology.
J: For sure. Which I guess is like a really — I don’t know, it seems like then what it’s saying is so grim, about power. It seems like what it’s saying is like terrorists who are so distinctly anti-American are doomed to fall into the exact same traps that they hate about America. Bashir says interest is evil, but then builds this empire on shorting the Rupee. Which I guess is to say that an anti-American sentiment is really an anti-power sentiment. You have the power and I don’t. Which I guess a really unsympathetic way of reading that is that it’s an extremely conservative pro-American-hegemony play.
K: (laughter) That might be a good time to segue into thematic exploration. We saw Disgraced together. We’ve now seen this together. One of my favorite sections in Disgraced is a line that invokes and involves 9/11, and one of my favorite lines in this play was a section that invoked 9/11, where the Imam sort of explodes on the American character and says, you guys lost three thousand people in one day and you’ve had to kill hundreds of thousands in the following ten years. And sort of says, you couldn’t just get over it.
J: Right. I think what was exciting about it – and I think this is what you were saying was exciting about Disgraced – was it’s phrased as, somebody kills three thousand of your people and you can kill thousands of our people. And that it’s in that voice. That the Pakistani is the first person there, there’s something so exciting about that perspective.
K: Agreed, agreed.
J: Which I think is what’s exciting about Ayad Akhtar.
K: I think one of the things that’s exciting to me – I’ll just say thematically for this play – is I feel like since 9/11, collectively we’ve learned so little about why people want to kill us. And I feel like individually we probably care, but collectively we haven’t spent nearly as much time investigating why this specific region of the world so badly wants us to fail, and has spent much more time just trying to stop them from doing it.
K: And that’s always kind of bewildered me a little bit.
J: I wonder how much of that — You know, all of the ideology after 9/11 was Bush’s, like…they’re evil.
K: They hate our freedom.
K: I guess that’s why I say I’m so excited to see economics be talked about. Things that are highly intellectual, and political, and go back centuries, and I think we have a tendency because they wear the clothes they do, and live in the places they live, that they are unsophisticated. They being members of al Qaeda, members of ISIL.
J: Somehow backwards, they hate our culture.
J: Which I mean like, our culture’s pretty abhorrent…to me.
K: Right. But as though they haven’t studied Adam Smith, or Keynes, or aren’t aspiring to political ideals that are sophisticated, that are interesting. We do ourselves a strategic disservice by belittling them, I think.
J: So after we saw Disgraced, one thing I was thinking about a lot is this concept of the play of ideas. And Sarah Ruhl, again she shows up tonight, one of her essays is about plays of ideas. And she argues in like two pages, beautifully, that we confuse that term, that we say the play of ideas is a play where people are saying a lot of ideas, a play where people give long speeches about economics. Whereas she says a play of ideas is one in which the form makes you think about something.
I’m inclined to agree with her, but, given what The Invisible Hand was, and what Disgraced was, I was trying to think – what is that form?
And, he says pretentiously, that made me think a lot about Plato, and the Socratic dialogues as this dialectic form where you literally make different people speak different sides of an issue. And there’s something really exciting about that.
And I guess the theater that I write is so different than that, so I’m always going to be biased against it. But I’m interested in it’s function and it’s value. Because it is so nice to get to hear hear smart people talk about smart stuff. It’s really great.
K: Doesn’t it seem like what makes idea plays being good such a rarity that seems to me like that it’s so difficult to maintain intellectual honesty on multiple sides of an idea or of an issue?
J: Uh huh.
K: And I feel like the idea plays that drive me nuts are probably like 90% of them, like I’m sure for you, but I feel like most of the time that’s because I don’t feel like an idea is being explored so much as an idea is being explained.
J: Yeah. And it’s like the writer gives the dialectic but one side is clearly the straw man, it’s like you know what they think but they try to make it seem like they’ve problematized it.
K: Yeah. That kind of reminds me of that play Tea Party [a pretty remarkable, very political play by Gordon Dalquist], that opening monologue that sort of breaks down that whole idea. If I remember right that was specifically about liberal theater trying to talk about politics.
J: Right and the whole thing is like – making it about the people in it is fucked up, because that subsumes the politics into individual psychology, which is lame. I’m thinking a lot about this reading of Alex Borinsky’s that I saw today [Brief Chronicle Books 6-9, which was freaking amazing.], which was so good, you guys!
J: Where at some point two thirds through the play they say something along the lines of “don’t let the increased complexity of what’s going on here make us narrow our scope. Make it broaden our scope.” And instead, this play which been getting really juicy about character’s relationships to each other, for a while talks about sea turtles. And basically it reminds you that there are other living things in this earth that we’re fucking up by being here, and your compassion needs to extend to those too, and it needs to extend to the world at large.
The idea play that’s only about these individual people ends up being just about those people, and the worst version of that is you end up leaving the theater thinking “wow, I saw a really smart play, because the people were smart.” But really I wasn’t thinking about those things, I was thinking about, like “oh he cheated on her!”
K: Tell me if you disagree, but I almost feel like we’re talking about these two main characters, Nick and Bashir, as if they are stand-ins for their respective countries, especially in those moments of discourse. And to me that’s a kind of nice thing to think about, especially because I right now I’m thinking about what a complacent hostage Nick is. He almost sort of shrugs and says “take my money.” And if I think of him as America as a country it’s a sort of passing off of the power almost.
J: Right he’s sort of morally cynical from the start.
K: Yes. Yes.
J: Or at least, he’s not immoral, he’s amoral. He’s like “I don’t care. You have me. I need to be saved. Of course I’ll help you.”
K: “I will do what it takes. Take all the money.”
And I don’t know what Ayad Akhtar was thinking about when he was writing the play, but we are doing nothing but bleeding billions of dollars into supplying arms into Syria, supplying arms into – pick your place.
J: Right, and there’s that moment in the play where he talks about the Taliban coming to Ronald Reagan.
K: That’s exactly right. For thirty years we’ve been doing it and continue to do it. And it sort of feels about right, that this isn’t a hostage who’s desperately fighting to win this thing.
J: Which is the image we want to have of ourselves.
K: Exactly. And always do have of ourselves.
Did you ever see or read the Caryl Churchill play Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?
K: She literally – it’s a two hander and it’s literally a play where one character is named Sam like Uncle Sam and the other one is Jack like Union Jack. And she’s just like the most doesn’t give a fuck, because they’re literally representative of a country and culture or whatever, just talking through ideas. And The Invisible Hand felt not nearly as explicit as that, but it certainly didn’t feel like a specific hostage with a specific personal motivation and specific wife and family. It felt much more a stand-in to talk about these ideas.
J: It felt actually like a nice middle ground. There’s narrative pull keeping me interested, but also it’s not like I knew that much about these people. We didn’t end up doing that thing about only caring about who’s sleeping with who instead of the politics.
K: Right. We learn just about nothing about the characters as the play goes on, except very little bits of backstory.
J: But also it’s not like they feel totally empty, because I cared about what was happening.
J: Because the narrative thrust was so strong.
That seems like a very hard tight-rope act. I think it’s really easy to dismiss a play that looks like The Invisible Hand, but I imagine it’s incredibly difficult to write.
K: I think especially if you’re, frankly, a writer named Ayad Akhtar writing about these subjects, I bet it’s especially hard.
J: I don’t know about you, but I was disappointed that we had a white guy as our protagonist.
K: I was too.
J: I was like, why do I need this white American guy here to be my in on this world?
K: Mmhmm. To me it was a play about a Pakistani ideologue rising up to an extremist, but through the eyes of a passive American hostage.
J: And at the end Bashir [the Pakistani] says [to Nick] “The blood is not on your hands.” But the blood is totally on his hands by his lack of moral center that – well maybe we couldn’t expect anybody to have.
K: Well that’s a great question, isn’t it.
J: Is that even possible?
J: But I mean it’s like, he’s sort of indicting American’s complicity in the rise of these kinds of terrorist organizations while also saying like “well what the fuck else would you do?”
[The two writers take a long, thoughtful pause. “Shake It Off’ plays loudly, perhaps auspiciously in the background.]
K: Why do you think Ayad Akhtar is sort of the playwright du jour right now?
J: I think we really want a Muslim-American voice. Is he Muslim? I don’t actually know.
K: He’s of Pakistani descent. I think he was raised Muslim, I don’t actually know if he is practicing.
J: Well I think we’re really hungry, and I say “we” as especially the sliver of creative class who lives in New York who have generally left-leaning political views, to really hear from the people who are so often villainized in our world right now. And to hear from that really complicated position he’s in of being of Pakistani descent but living in America. That seems like a really necessary voice. And it’s exciting, and it makes me feel good that that voice is being recognized. I mean, that’s really cool.
K: It is.
J: In a beautiful world there’d be a lot of those voices.
J: And hopefully there are. I don’t know, why do you think?
K: I think that’s probably right. I think this is a minor point, but I think he has a really smart sense of how much humor to put in his plays – not in a way that seems like anticipating his audience, but in a way that suggest he’s probably had to live his whole life having an acute sense of how much humor to inject around white people or white audiences. There’s a sort of ice-breaking thing that it feels like to me, that allows him to go into such depths. I think audiences are willing to go there, but I think there’s a certain charm that happens, for New Yorker audiences in two different shows that I’ve seen in New York, to hear pretty fire-throwing lines about 9/11 and to not hear hisses. I feel like any other time I hear 9/11 mentioned on stage I hear hisses. In any context. In any show.
K: And in a way that doesn’t compromise any of the shit that he’s writing. I think this is why I admire him so much. It’s not like he’s playing charming to the New York theater crowd to win them over. It seems more like he is smartly seducing an audience that doesn’t usually deal with these topics, and then getting them to stare right into the face of these topics in their darkest colors and loudest voices. And then it becomes shocking to hear it and to see it, but you don’t feel like you’ve been slapped in the face with it.
J: Right. Which I think also in this play, like, take away all of the ideas of it, and it’s still a really tense thriller!
J: He has chops. Chops coming out of his – everything.
K: Totally. Totally. And the reason I say humor specifically is that I remember not that long ago when, again, Caryl Churchill wrote that play…
J: Seven Jewish Children
K: About then the most recent war in Gaza. And again – huge controversy, major problems, shut it down, didn’t even play. And that was coming off the heels of My Name is Rachel Corrie which wasn’t allowed to have a performance here. And neither of those were from an Arab writer, or a Muslim.
J: I think people are a little bit more like – “I trust your opinion about this!”
J: Whether that’s fair or not.
K: Yes. I mean, how weird did it feel to see them on stage talking about how that noise outside is drones. I’ve never heard or seen a setting where that can even possibly be happening.
J: Yes. And that feels very vital.
K: Yes. That that is just a part of daily life to hear drones behind you.
There’s a really cute dog behind you right now.
[Pause for cute dog petting.]
J: I guess this makes me wonder about – something I’ve been wondering a lot about myself – is the responsibility of being a political voice. And I say that partly because I know that’s something I really fail at in my writing, in that I don’t engage with it. And partly that’s because it seems so terrifying to me, and I feel like there must be people better equipped to talk about these things than me.
So there’s a part of me that feels bad for Ayad Akhtar, in that there’s so much weight if you’re the guy who is that guy, you have to be writing plays like this. There’s such a responsibility there.
K: There’s such a difference in British theater, where, to me there’s sort of an expectation for your writing to have some political or socially conscious component.
J: Right. Which I’m not sure that’s always the function of art.
K: Of course not.
J: But, and maybe this is just me pointing to something of my own white privilege, of having the luxury to choose what I write about, in a way.
K: I would love to see more American political theater, specifically ultra-current, sparkling political drama. Since we’re in this niche art form, we should use the things that make it unique, and to me one of those things is immediacy, that we can write and put up a play so quickly to engage a topic or idea or person that’s divisive or interesting or controversial. And I think that’s something Ayad Akhtar does that I’d like to see more of, playing on that immediacy of theater and using it as it can be used.
J: One thing that prevents me from writing political stuff is that, like I said, I don’t feel equipped to do it. And there’s a part of me that’s often like “Playwrights, let’s leave talking about politics to political scientists and historians and stuff, because they do this.”
K: I think that’s totally valid.
J: Absolutely. But then you look at something like Serial, which I think part of it’s success is that Sarah Koenig is totally not a detective. So it’s like she kind of gives us this everyman’s view of the justice system – “I will work really hard to understand this.”
K: There’s something so accessible about that.
J: Absolutely. And also, to pull this back to something you were saying earlier about the really bad political plays where it feels like they’re telling us something rather than exploring something, I wish – and this is a call maybe to myself or maybe to all writers – to be ok with not understanding something.
K: Or using it as an aspect.
J: Absolutely. And now I’m quoting Alex Borinsky and his beautiful play once again, this is something he said after the reading, that he tries to find something that confuses him and confuses his characters and lets it be confusing to both of them. It’s not like he tries to say “here’s the confusing thing, let me figure it out and write about it.” It’s more like “let me confuse myself even more and just articulate that confusion.” Which seems very doable in a political context – that’s very human.
K: When I was 18 I saw I Am My Own Wife. And I had just wanted to write theater, and the play just bowled me over – I had never seen anything like that. And I got in touch with Doug Wright, I wrote him an e-mail, and just asked something like “do you have any advice for a young playwright” or whatever. And one of the things he said was “whatever you do, don’t write what you know. Write what terrifies you, what vexes you, what perplexes you. That’ll get you to places you never thought you’d be able to get to.”
And I actually totally agree with what you were saying before – art does not have to be political. Some of the very best work I’ve seen is someone tapping into something that is very familiar to them and trying to articulate the truth of it. But I do think there is tremendous value in trying to dig into areas that we are terrified of or totally angry or confused about, or like you were saying you feel like you are not the person who should write it – does that not make it more interesting or more accessible for you to be the one who digs into it and writes it? And is the recognition of that what makes it so good?
J: I guess we need to write really political plays now, don’t we.
K: Alright. Let’s go do it.
Jerry Lieblich is a Brooklyn-based playwright. He is an alum of the Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab and Smith + Tinker (HERE Arts Center), is an Edward F. Albee Foundation Fellow, and is the writerly half of the devising team Tiny Little Band. His plays include D Deb Debbie Deborah (Playwrights Horizons / Clubbed Thumb Superlab, Soho Rep W/D Lab),Ghost Stories (PRELUDE 2014), Untitled Tech Startup CEO Piece (THROW at The Chocolate Factory), Nostalgia is a Mild Form of Grief (|the claque| Reads, Pipeline Theater Company), Eudaemonia (not just 3 New Plays), and 1927 (Ars Nova ANT Fest). He is also a published scientist, and used to work at a zoo. www.tinylittleband.com
Kevin Armento is a Brooklyn-based writer originally from San Diego. His plays include Companion Piece (Pleasance Theatre, London), killers (Tom Noonan’s Paradise Factory), a way to reach me, and Good Men Wanted, which premiered at Ars Nova’s ANT Fest in 2014 and was the fastest show to sell out in the festival’s history. His work has also been performed with Naked Angels, Seattle Repertory Theatre, the New Ohio, INTAR, Last Frontier Theatre Conference, Theatre503, Rogue Machine Theatre, Hollywood Fringe Festival, and the GYM at Judson. He was an inaugural member of Fresh Ground Pepper’s PlayGroup, a finalist for TerraNOVA’s Groundbreakers, is the recipient of a commission from the Abingdon Theatre, and is currently working on a commission from One Year Lease. His screenplays have received honors from Slamdance, Action on Film Festival, New York City Horror Film Festival, and Los Angeles International Film Festival, and his work has also been featured on Glamour, Yahoo, and The Huffington Post.