After the Revolution

A rallying cry at various rallies is often, “What are we fighting for,” (also the name of a Live song…). But what happens when you know what you’re fighting for and the fight ends? Where does the passion go? After going round and round, trading jabs and taking stabs, do you have it in you to fight some more for something else?

That’s partially what After the Revolution, the new play currently running at off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons, is about. Revolution centers on Emma and her leftist, Marxist family; her paternal grandfather ran in to trouble with a certain senator from Wisconsin in the 50s and Emma has appropriated his name for her foundation, The Joe Joseph Fund, which she is using to solicit and provide monetary and legal support for a former Black Panther member who has been branded a cop killer, though Emma and co. believe he has been jailed without having received a fair trial, all because of his political beliefs. When Emma finds out Grandpa Joe wasn’t everything she thought he was, she begins to question her belief system and what she’s fighting for.

All the while, Emma (Katharine Powell) is egged on by her father, Ben, an affecting and intense Peter Friedman (who was strong and quiet last year in Circle Mirror Transformation). Ben is a teacher and self-proclaimed Marxist who has encouraged Emma’s political behavior. His brother, Leo (Mark Blum), was also political in his day, though all three of his children have turned out to be jocks. When Leo and Ben discuss how Leo’s children handled the news of Grandpa Joe possibly leading a less than exemplary political life, Leo is fully disheartened that his greatest fear is realized: His children have no reaction.

This all left me thinking about politics (obviously), though in a couple variations: Governmental politics and social revolutions; and familial politics and nature vs nurture.

I have a very strong memory of my first political experience. (Well, I guess it’s really just the first I remember. It was November 1988 and I was heading into the gymnasium of PS 174 in Queens, accompanying my mom as she cast her vote in the presidential election. I, being all of five, said to her, “Mom, I think George Bush is going to win.” She looked at me and said, “Ugh, I hope not!” Mom and I still talk about politics and are still largely aligned politically. But my Democrat mother thought she’d raised Alex P. Keaton when my brother once announced (in recent, adult-years, not as a precocious kid) that he would vote for a Republican. She thought she failed him. I was reminded of this while watching After the Revolution.

Arguably, she didn’t fail him. He has political beliefs, unlike Leo’s children; they just aren’t my mom’s political beliefs. Mom believes in one revolution. Bro believes in another. Who is anyone to say who’s right or wrong? (Certainly I like to claim to know who’s right and wrong, but that judgment is entirely subjective.)

Setting aside specific political persuasions, After the Revolution echoed the sentiment of The Hurt Locker a bit. I thought of this at intermission when I reflected on the play’s themes: You fight and you fight and you fight and then the fight ends. Maybe the revolution comes, maybe it doesn’t. (What does the revolution look like, anyway?) After the revolution, you return to your home and try to adjust. But just like in The Hurt Locker, we see in After the Revolution that you can never go home again. It is incredibly difficult for Ben – a radical – for example, to adjust to normal life. He rants in school assemblies, much to the chagrin of his supervisors, and neglects one of his daughters (Jess, played by a spunky Meredith Holzman) because personal suffering has no place in Marxist philosophy. (We learn this in a chilling moment of confrontation between Emma and Ben.)

That’s Ben’s crisis. Emma’s crisis is dealing with the revelation about her grandfather’s revolution, which may not be so revolutionary after all. It seems Grandpa Joe may not have been the political martyr Emma thought but rather a liar – someone who perjured himself before Congress. What Emma has to deal with, and what we all probably have dealt or will have to deal with at some point is this: Is lying okay, dare I say commendable, if it is done for noble reasons?

Ultimately, the conclusion we come ‘round to after the Revolution still leaves us questioning: As human beings, sentient beings endowed with free will – the ability to make choices – we can only make the best decisions based upon the information we have at the time. Therefore, can we be held accountable for what we didn’t know? (Lawyers call this the veil of ignorance and try (sometimes valiantly, sometimes scrupulously) to pierce the veil and collect ridiculous amounts of punitive damages.)

Given all the questions brought to light in After the Revolution and all the answers it tries (with varying amounts of success, though the cast tries their best) to give, at the end, Emma’s step-grandmother, Joe’s wife, Vera, is left saying – after the revolution – “Not much progress. Not much progress.”

While we’re talking politics and theatre, allow me to bring to your attention the cold open from Saturday’s SNL. In it, Rachel Maddow (Abbey Elliott) is questioning soon to be House Majority Leader John Boehner (Bill Hader) about his governing strategy. Their exchange (watch the video below) is exactly what the whip-smart, hilarious and simultaneously reflective and prescient Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is about, particularly in its second half. Way to, SNL. Maybe next time you can invite President Sexy Pants to make the point for you!?!