Friday, December 12, 2003

Kushner's Caroline, or Change

When a friend told me Tony Kushner was writing a musical, I couldn't contain myself. "Just what would that be like?" I asked. "A bunch of people with AIDS standing around for three and a half hours shouting 'The Internationale'?"

Now you can find out, gentle reader. Kushner's Caroline, or Change has opened at New York's own Public Theater. (Caroline in the city? Well, if you insist ....)

I'll probably never get to see this show, and that's fine by me. Red-diaper leftists sometimes do well with straight plays, but they have a lousy track record in musicals. With so many dramatic elements at work -- music, lyrics, speech, sets, performers, audiences who want to be entertained -- the balance is just too delicate for out-and-out propaganda.

That's not to say a few haven't tried their hand at it and succeeded. I'm probably one of the few die-hards who enjoy and appreciate Marc Blitzstein's music for The Cradle Will Rock. But no one -- and I mean no one -- likes the show itself. The condescending racial politics of Finian's Rainbow are as embarassing as the cornpone socialism, but the show has some nice "Yip" Harburg lyrics that hold up well. Cradle and Finian are the only left-wing shows I know that managed to attain a respectable Broadway run, and both are over half a century old.

The ideological content of other musicals seems more myth than fact. Bertolt Brecht's contributions to Threepenny Opera occurred well before his "epic theater" period, and they are far less extensive than most people realize. (Elisabeth Hauptmann received primary credit for the book, while Brecht handled lyrics.) And although the 1960s musical Hair was originally written as a hippie manifesto, today it's staged against the grain, as a conservative critique of youth culture.

So what can we say about Kushner's Caroline? Its highlights, I'm told, include a singing washer and dryer -- presumably the only inanimate objects not represented in the supporting cast of Disney's Beauty and the Beast. I've often heard that there aren't enough good roles in the theater for standard household appliances, and who am I to disagree? Still, as cool as washing machines are (at least when set on the proper cycle), I don't envy the actor who has to play that dryer. Not one bit.

The story is set during the mid-1960s, and involves a dysfunctional Southern Jewish family. Within this household, Caroline, an African-American maid, teaches Important Life Lessons (tm) to an eight-year-old White boy. If this sounds familiar, it should. We're looking at a Whoopi Goldberg movie as scripted by Alfred Uhry: Corrina Corrina meets Driving Miss Daisy.

I can almost hear Buck Henry delivering the pitch: "It'll be funny?" "Yeah. It'll be funny." Oh, and there's a singing washer and dryer -- did I mention that?

Someone must have done something right, though, because Caroline is coming to Broadway this February. HBO may even turn it into a low-rated cable movie, just like Angels in America. Meanwhile, the superlative new Sondheim musical Bounce closed after a brief run at Washington's Kennedy Center.

Truly the theater is dead.

Update: According to, Kushner has two new plays in the works. In the first, an anti-Bush screed entitled Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy, a character suggestively named "Laura Bush" reads The Brothers Karamazov to dead Iraqi children, perhaps as an ironic counterpoint to the First Lady's pro-literacy efforts here in the States. Doesn't it sound like a charming evening out? Of course, reading must be morally wrong if nasty Republicans like it. (By the way, Kushner doesn't mention that glorious Uncle Saddam killed tens of thousands of children during his maniacal dictatorship. But he doesn't have to, because US troops have found their graves.)

The second one, due in early 2005, is tentatively called The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures. That should tell you everything you need to know. But never mind those keys to Scripture: This intelligent homosexual can tell you the difference between socialism and capitalism in two sentences, thus saving you three-plus hours of excruciating agitprop. (No need to thank me, gentle reader.) Under socialism, we Gays are usually led to a field and shot dead. Under capitalism, we design clothes and decorate houses. Which would you choose?

Same-Sex Marriage: Mail Call

A loyal reader weighs in:

I just read your Oct. 18 blog on same sex marriage. You made a number of reasonable arguments. However, your statement that two individuals who own property pay higher taxes than a married couple is incorrect. Property is assessed by the local jurisdiction and taxes are the same no matter how many people own it.

Tim's response: This particular tidbit came from a February 2000 interview in The Advocate with then-couple Melissa Etheridge and Julie Cypher. The couple discussed paying property taxes twice over on the same property, a house outside of Aspen, CO.

Still, since I can't find this article, I'll have to concede your point. (My old stack of Advocates fell prey to a manic bout of housecleaning some months ago.) Yet same-sex couples are disproportionately taxed in other ways. Consider the infamous "transfer tax." According to the Human Rights Campaign, "when a member of a same-sex couple puts his or her partner on the deed [to property], it results in the transfer of 50 percent of the interest in the property to that partner and requires payment of a transfer tax." Legally married couples don't pay transfer taxes; same-sex couples do.

The estate tax has also been a crippling burden on same-sex couples. In most states, a partner in a same-sex union is legally unmarried, and all of his/her property is subject to an estate tax. A legally married spouse, on the other hand, is taxed on only half of his or her property. Thus, compared to heterosexual married couples, same-sex couples pay double (or more) in estate and transfer taxes, and receive no legal rights or recognition in return.

Where's a box of tea when you need one?

The reader continues: Also you did not deal with the serious issue of rearing children in a homosexual marriage. ... You argue that same sex marriage harms no one; can you make a similar argument about rearing children?

Tim's response: Yes. When I say that same-sex marriage harms no one, I mean exactly that. All available research indicates that children who grow up with two parents of the same sex are neither better nor worse off than children who are raised by two parents of different sexes.

These findings match my admittedly limited knowledge of the subject. You see, I know several same-sex couples who are raising kids. Whether these children are biological or adopted, they've all turned out perfectly normal as far as I can see. I've noticed only three problems with same-sex parenting, none of which have anything to do with the parents or caregivers per se.

1. Same-sex couples are widely considered "anti-family." As a result, the children of these couples don't always have as many opportunities to socialize with other kids as one might prefer. However, many same-sex couples compensate, working closely with each other so that their kids have plenty of chances to play. (By the way, the offspring of interracial marriages frequently have similar troubles with other minority children.)

2. Same-sex parents and their children are sometimes coerced into keeping their family life a secret. School authorities are far and away the worst offenders. For example, last week in Louisiana a second-grader with Lesbian parents was forced to attend an early-morning "behavior clinic" for saying that his mother was Gay. This explains why, rather than have their children face harassment in government-run public schools, many same-sex households opt for private schools.

3. The children of same-sex couples could find themselves legally orphaned if their biological parent dies. Unlike heterosexually married couples, the surviving partner in a same-sex couple is not allowed to take care of his/her partner's biological child.

These problems are all important, but legal recognition of same-sex marriage would solve most of them instantly. It would protect the children of Gay partners from arbitrary court action on the one hand, and authoritarian oppression on the other. Of course, the social ostracism is founded in custom rather than law, and would take longer to undo.

A final note: Even though same-sex couples currently don't have the 1300-plus rights and protections of civil marriage, they're still better for kids -- and much more stable -- than single-parent homes or foster care. Thus, same-sex marriage is at worst neutral, and at best very good for children ... just as a married, heterosexual two-parent household would be.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

The joys of a free market: or, Tim gets a new DVD

I don't mean to gloat, gentle reader, but today I can't stop myself.

A few months ago, Michael Blowhard of bought a home theater system for his apartment. Or rather, he bought several components, which he tried to combine into a working home theater system. The result cost him over two grand, and he had to bring in a black-market electrician just to plug the thing up. (Michael lives in New York City, where Soviet-style regulation ensures that unlicensed, black-market electricians are all that mere mortals can afford ... or, for that matter, obtain.)

But don't take my word. See Michael's wacky setup for yourself.

Now my old "home entertainment" system never had much to recommend it, but at least it was comparatively simple. It was only a DVD player, a VCR, and a 19-inch television, all plugged into each other. But the DVD player required a forty-dollar Radio Frequency Modulator, which got hot and made ominous buzzing noises. Naturally, the modulator required extra connectors, and the video output required more cords. The whole thing got to be quite a mess. Worse, I learned recently that for some unfathomable reason, the DVD player refused to play several of my DVDs. It was time for a change.

I bought a new DVD/VCR unit on the day after Thanksgiving, otherwise known as "Black Friday." (The name "Black Friday" isn't meant to be ominous; in fact, for businessmen it's quite the reverse. Most of the year, retailers operate "in the red," but once Day-after-Thanksgiving sales are factored in, they find themselves "in the black" for the year. Christmas commercialism can be a good thing.) After some shopping around, I went to a tiny, small-town Sears and snagged a combination unit for only ninety bucks. These guys were well off the beaten track, but they were doing land-office business that day.

You've probably guessed that the unit I bought was made in China -- after all, where else would a ninety-dollar DVD/VCR come from? Even the cardboard box it came in had a "Made in China" stamp; it's from a company called Wah Sang Paper Products. Never mind all this talk of "trade deficits" and such: I wanted the thing and I had the money, so I bought it. Meanwhile, Sears made a healthy profit, and its workers got paid that month; plus, some corporation made a profit, and a bunch of Chinese workers kept their jobs. I can't help feeling I done a good thing.

It gets even better, though. Once I got home and hooked this gizmo up to the TV, it instantly replaced my VCR, DVD player and -- mirabile dictu! -- the scary old frequency modulator I figured would overheat and explode someday. Now, instead of a morass of cords, connectors, and thingamajiggers running in and out of my system like Grand Central Station at noon, I have one slender cord coming in and one slender cord going out. Instead of three power cords clogging the wall outlets, I'm down to just one plug. Sound and picture are clearer, and if I decide to hook up additional speakers or a new television in the future, I know precisely where all the wires will go. Best of all, this setup was only ninety dollars -- less than half of what it would have cost only a year ago.

Smaller, cheaper, simpler, faster, better: Five out of five ain't bad, folks. The only downside is that my living room is full of obsolete electronics that I don't know what to do with.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. That invisible hand rocks.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

What Iraqis really think about American "oppressors"

Before you do anything else today, read this post from "Healing Iraq." It covers what may well be the largest mass demonstration in Iraq since Hussein's regime ended. And what are these people demonstrating against? Why, the left-wing, pro-Saddam media, of course!

All thanks, honor and praise go to for finding this major story. Maybe if we blog-readers apply some pressure, our mainstream American newspapers will even deign to report it.

But while you're waiting, give Andrew some money. He's worth it.

Overrated Americans: The Wright Brothers

On December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright made four powered flights, none of them longer than a minute, and none of them farther than 900 feet. It was the first time human beings had flown under mechanical power.

Next week, we will mark the one hundredth anniversary of the Wright brothers' famous flight. What made these simple bicycle repairmen from Dayton, Ohio, take to the air? More important, as the New York Times asks today, how could a couple of homegrown rubes have beaten a government-funded team of America's greatest experts to the punch?

The answer to that second question is pretty easy when you think about it. The Wright Brothers were working largely on their own, without any corporate or government bureaucracies to interfere. They weren't geniuses, but they had a solid working knowledge of basic mechanics. They could assemble gears, chains, strings, cloth and sticks to make a functional machine. And they didn't think much about how their invention could be used commercially: They wanted controlled, powered flight, and that was all. From Archimedes' levers to Sir Alexander Fleming's penicillin, most technological advances have occurred under similar circumstances.

The Wrights managed a few important breakthroughs in aviation research. In 1901 they constructed a small wind tunnel -- the first we know of -- and tested minature versions of their wing designs. They experimented with kites and hang gliders, sailing off the many sand dunes along North Carolina's Outer Banks. In 1902, they finally found a way to steer a glider without risking their necks. Wing-warping used cloth and a flexible wooden frame to transform the entire shape of a glider's wings, enabling a person to turn left or right. The system made the first flight possible. But it also posed a major technological barrier, one the Wrights could never surmount.

Once the brothers had perfected wing-warping on their glider, they started on powered flight. Disappointed with the massive weight of cast-iron engines, they enlisted a Kitty Hawk mechanic to build one of aluminum. The mechanic complied, even though he knew his engine could run for only a few minutes before it exploded. After several false starts (including one which shattered the aircraft frame, requiring major repairs), the Wrights took four quick flights between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. on December 17, 1903. When the plane crashed and the frame snapped, the experiments came to an abrupt end. Still, it was enough. One assistant, who had never operated a camera before, snapped the now-legendary picture of Orville running alongside Wilbur's first twelve-second flight.

The Wrights had proven they could fly -- a little. But their powered glider was strictly a one-shot deal. They couldn't make it big enough to carry freight, they could never make it fly for more than a few minutes (or more than a few feet from the ground), and they never landed their plane without crashing it. The age of aviation had not begun. Not yet.

True airplanes would not arrive until years after the Wrights' glider, and they would owe very little to the Wrights' design. They would use flaps to steer, not wing-warping, which means they could fly more than a few hundred feet without breaking apart and killing the pilot. The planes would have rudders in the rear, not the front, and they would have wheels beneath them to soften landings. Plus, these planes would be large and reliable enough to fly for an hour or two, with a passenger or a little freight.

Alas, the Wright brothers didn't play a part in these developments. At the time, their flight was seen as an irreproducible fluke, and their impractical designs had no real influence on aircraft to come. Yet because the Wrights held a patent on mechanical flight, airplane manufacturers were compelled to pay them royalties for decades. The wind tunnel became an important tool for future designers, but the Wrights' powered glider was a technological dead end.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

On Tony Kushner

I don't have HBO, so it'll be several days before I see Mike Nichols's telefilm of Angels in America. But first, I should tell you my impressions of the playwright.

Despite his lamentable red-diaper tendencies and inevitable proselytizing, Tony Kushner has written some notable speeches and scenes, and they always draw an audience. Given the state of contemporary theater, that's no mean feat. But I'm not sure the man has written any good plays as such. What's more, I'm not even sure that Angels rates among his best work.

Granted, I haven't seen most of Kushner's plays on stage. I've only read them, and reading drama off the printed page is like staring at sheet music: So much depends on conditions of performance that you can't draw any solid conclusions. Of the works I've read, Hydrotaphia feels most promising, but even there I get the sense that something is very wrong, that this play won't stage half as well as it reads.

The only Kushner play I've had the chance to see firsthand is A Bright Room Called Day, his first major work. It features a group of liberal German intellectuals who natter away in their fashionable apartments while Hitler slowly takes over. Kushner means to draw a parallel with liberals of the Upper West Side who have passively permitted Reagan Republicanism to sweep America. Naturally, the play assumes that Reagan equals Hitler, Republicans are Nazis, and America under Reagan is comparable to the Third Reich. Your tolerance for this play will depend on the extent to which you share these assumptions.

However, if you're willing to take Kushner at his word, Bright Room becomes a plea for principled leftists to take politics in their own hands and assassinate the evil Reagan. In one pivotal scene, a homosexual German man bemoans his failure to kill Hitler in a movie theater. He has doomed his country through inaction, and he knows it; what happens to Germany is now his own fault. The subtextual message is unmistakable: It's a pity that principled leftists don't have the guts to take the President out. This is meant as a critique of leftism -- and what a miserable critique it is.

In case a few rubes still don't get it, Kushner has written several interludes with a young American woman named Zillah, who tells us -- at considerable length -- that we are watching a commentary on present-day politics. The action you see may be set in the past, but it is not history. They are you, gentle playgoers, and you are them. (Contemporary productions often omit Zillah's scenes, which I think is a mistake. Without Zillah, the play loses an important structural element, along with most of its political agenda.)

Kushner usually structures his plays around religion and ritual, both of which translate well to the stage. For example, in the final scene of Bright Room, Zillah joins all the historical characters in a candle-lighting ritual. Together the cast blow out their candles and whisper, "Welcome to Germany." The scene plays pretty well, but the message doesn't: Even by Kushner's standards, this is shrill stuff.

Presumably Bright Room could see a revival among the new "Bush-is-Hitler" crowd, who could play up the assassination angle. Eminem could even provide background music. But the play itself has major problems: It's too long by half, and deadly dull. When I saw it, I was in my left-wing activist phase, and I suspect that Bright Room may have nudged me ever so gently toward conservatism. If this is true, I owe Kushner a great debt -- as is true for so many leftists I've encountered.

All of Kushner's plays, Bright Room included, have terrific scenes, with characters an actor can really sink his/her teeth into. Angels in America takes this tendency to extremes: Every speech sounds like an audition piece waiting to happen. Indeed, Kushner's extravagant language and carefully modulated histrionics suggest not the muted tones of contemporary drama, but the heightened emotions of grand opera. Actors love the chance to cut loose with this material, and sometimes audiences even enjoy watching them.

But the scenes and speeches in Angels never add up, perhaps because Kushner's characters don't change or progress much over time. Roy Cohn, the one major character who never fails to impress audiences (and who gives actors a chance to tear off whole chunks of scenery with their teeth), starts the play as an amoral son-of-a-bitch, and ends the play as an amoral son-of-a-bitch. Prior Walter, the protagonist, begins the play as a sweet, introspective left-winger with a trust fund, and ends as a sweet, introspective left-winger with a trust fund. You'd think that angels and AIDS would have had more of an impact on these guys, but no.

Some minor changes do occur. Prior's boyfriend Louis leaves our dying prophet because he is guilt-ridden and callous; he comes back because he's guilt-ridden about being callous. Harper Pitt, Kushner's poor little Mormon wife (Kushner seems to regard Mormons as fascinating primitives), begins and ends as a hopeless neurotic -- though by the end she seems to have laid off the Valium a bit. Mormon mother Hannah Pitt drags her suitcase all over New York, to what end one never knows. All begin as bogus conservatives, and end as nascent liberals if not full-blown leftists. In Kushner's cosmos this would be considered enlightenment. But again, Kushner seems too interested in dividing the world into Good (Left, Communist, Democrat) and Evil (Right, Fascist, Republican) to allow a genuine, humane understanding of these characters -- and more importantly, to allow these characters to blur easy distinctions and cross his too-rigid moral lines.

Most theater critics -- myself included -- tend to think like armchair directors. When we take in a play, it's usually from a fragmentary point of view, looking at this or that piece of stage business while ignoring the overall experience. Kushner's plays reinforce an amateur critic's worst tendencies. If you take them piecemeal, they're quite enthralling, with a speech here, a scene there, a performance that grabs you by the throat, a weird stage effect you didn't see coming. It's almost as if Kushner's plays are designed to manipulate critics, feeding us honey-tongued tidbits so we won't notice the ugly agitprop sneaking by.

Eventually a responsible critic must focus on the holistic level, and that's precisely where Kushner's plays fall flat. A play is, if not always a story, then at least an event. It has a beginning, middle and end, and the people we see onstage must change during that process. Characters affect events, and are affected in turn; they possess what we lit-crit types would call "agency."

If this sounds like basic humanism to you, that's no coincidence: Drama, especially as codified (and secularized) by Aristotle, is where Western humanism comes from. Alas, I don't see much humanism in Kushner, or in Angels. This absence doesn't make his moments of brilliance any less brilliant, but it does explain why his plays are so much less than the sum of their parts. Kushner subjects his audiences to an endless series of monologues and special effects, none of which really go anywhere or lead to anything. It's kind of a shame.

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