Swans Commentary » swans.com January 17, 2011  



R U Rah-Rah?


by Cliff Conner


Theatre Review



After The Revolution, a play by Amy Herzog (Hanover, NH: Smith and Kraus, 2010). Premier production: Playwrights Horizon, November-December 2010, Peter Jay Sharp Theater, New York; featuring Peter Friedman, Lois Smith, David Margulies, Mare Winningham and Katharine Powell.


(Swans - January 17, 2011)   Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party? Or a Trotskyist or Maoist group, or any cadre organization dedicated to radically challenging the political status quo in the United States? If so, there's a good chance that your life experience has prepared you to appreciate the conflict that drives the plot of After The Revolution. Otherwise, maybe not. How you understand any play depends greatly on who you are and what you've done in your life, but After The Revolution is more likely to be subjectively appreciated than most.

In addition to the characters on the stage, there are three ever-present ghosts hovering over this play, only one of which is fictional. That would be Joe Joseph, the deceased patriarch of a Brooklyn Jewish Communist Party family. The two nonfictional spirits might be thought of as the Ghost of Left-Wing Politics Past and the Ghost of Left-Wing Politics Present -- Julius Rosenberg and Mumia Abu-Jamal, respectively.

The central protagonists are Joe Joseph's son Ben (Get it? "Ben Joseph": "Son of Joe"?), and Ben's daughter, Emma. Ben is a fierce defender of his late father's flame, and Emma, at the start of the play, is her daddy's girl all the way. Grandpa Joe had been a prime target of the McCarthyite witch-hunt, but he had emphatically defied congressional attempts to brand him a Soviet spy and had denied the charge to the end of his days.

Ben is a schoolteacher whose proletarian militancy has earned him the respect of his fellow teachers and the presidency of the local teachers' union chapter. He exhibits a great deal of personal charm, but it is coupled with a rather inflexible sort of ideological pugnacity. Although the term "political correctness" is (as someone once said) most often simply a right-wing sneer at acts of decency, Ben is a caricature of political correctness. He delights in greeting Hispanics with the few words of Spanish he knows and he seems to harbor hopes that at least one of his children might turn out to be gay. Emma says he once refused to buy her a Walkman unless she would call it a "Walkperson."

Emma is a talented and highly motivated radical activist who has built and led an influential human rights organization that she named, in honor of the grandfather she reveres, the Joe Joseph Fund. The primary focus of the Joe Joseph Fund is the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. She works around the clock to raise funds for Mumia's legal defense and to publicize the injustice of his having been sentenced to death by a racially biased judge after an egregiously unfair trial.

Although Emma is a red-diaper baby who idolizes her dad, she is of a younger generation of political activists who have become sensitized to the often patronizing attitudes of white radicals toward people of color. When Ben fawns over Emma's Hispanic boyfriend, Miguel, she later privately apologizes to Miguel for what she calls "the insidious brand of leftist racism in my family." Miguel, however, responds, "If every time a white person was nice to me, I thought it was racism, I'd lead a pretty dark life, Emma."

A much more serious generational divide appears when a newly published book presents undeniable evidence that Joe Joseph really had secretly passed information to the Soviet Union and that his sworn denials to the congressional committee had been false. Emma is crushed: Grandpa Joe is not a heroic victim of political persecution but a nefarious spy, and a liar to boot? Her worldview has suddenly gone up in flames, but the older members of the family are far less affected, having not only assumed all along that Joe had been a spy, but finding that something to be quietly proud of.

Ben knew his daughter would be upset by the revelation, but he had hoped the shock would pass quickly and their lives would settle back into their previous routines. That was not to be. Emma is so distraught that she begins to question everything she had been doing in the name of her grandfather. If the sainted Joe Joseph had lied, and her father had hidden the truth from her all these years, how could she trust anyone any more? Maybe Mumia really shot that cop after all!

Emma's doubts paralyze her work on behalf of Mumia and embitter her relationship with her father and her grandmother Vera, Joe Joseph's widow. The elders try, to no avail, to explain the "context" of Grandpa Joe's actions -- and there is context aplenty -- but Emma is having none of it. Her grandpa spied and lied, and she finds that unforgivable. When told that Grandpa Joe's false testimony to Congress occurred just three weeks before the Rosenbergs' execution, Emma seems momentarily taken aback, but even that fails to dispel her sense of personal betrayal.

And thus the stage is set for the polarization of the audience's sympathies. Emma's moral absolutism will undoubtedly resonate with some, and others will find themselves more in tune with Ben and Vera's situational ethics. The beauty and subtlety of Amy Herzog's writing is that she doesn't give in to caricaturing either position.

Emma apparently feels that espionage is a moral evil per se, while Ben and Vera perceive it as a means to an end, with morality attaching to the end, not the means. If advancing the interests of the Soviet Union during World War II was a noble cause, then spying on its behalf could not be immoral. To Ben and Vera there can be no doubt that Joe Joseph, who would only tell them that he "did what he had to do," did the right thing.

When Emma confronts Vera and asks her opinion of the new revelations, Vera simply replies, "Well, I'm not a rah-rah American, so . . ."

"What does that mean?" Emma demands.

"Just that I'm not a rah-rah American. If I were a rah-rah American I would see it one way, but I'm not, so I don't."

But Emma prattles on about "the ethics of spying," prompting her grandmother, exasperated, to tell her: "Listen, Joe was a member of the Communist Party, you know that. Anybody with a beating heart and half a brain was back then." Emma's generation can't understand that, Vera says, because most young people nowadays are simply apathetic.

Furthermore, she continues, Joe Joseph's allegiance was not to the US government, nor should it have been. "The Russians were really the ones fighting the war, not us, and some people were very happy to sit back and let them die, even some people in the party, and some people like your grandfather were not. You're talking about ethics, well those were his ethics, not to turn his back on his comrades who were fighting fascism."

Emma tries to regain the moral high ground by enumerating Stalin's many crimes, but her grandmother cuts her off and ends the argument: "Well the question is which side are you on, that's the question."

In the end, Emma resigns as director of the Joe Joseph fund. Vera tells her that her action is the moral equivalent of what cowardly people did when called to testify before the McCarthyite committee: "Listen, what you've done here, my darling, is you've named your grandfather's name. That's what it amounts to." And although the playwright never explicitly reveals which side she herself is on, I -- not being a rah-rah American myself -- was pleased that she gave Vera the last word.


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About the Author

Cliff Conner is a historian on the faculty of the School of Professional Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of A People's History of Science. He has written three biographies of 18th-century revolutionaries, one French (Jean Paul Marat) and two Irish (Colonel Edward Marcus Despard and Arthur O'Connor), and is on the editorial board of The International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published January 17, 2011