Socialism's Failure Haunts `SLAVS!' Tony Kushner's New Play Asks the Question, `If the Experiment Did Not Work, What Next?'

By Ann Scott Tyson, Writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 15, 1994 | Go to article overview

Socialism's Failure Haunts `SLAVS!' Tony Kushner's New Play Asks the Question, `If the Experiment Did Not Work, What Next?'


Ann Scott Tyson, Writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


SLAVS! Play by Tony Kushner. At the Steppenwolf Theatre Company through July 31.

IN the first act of Tony Kushner's new play, "SLAVS!," set in Moscow in 1985, a blind, doddering elder of the Soviet Politburo gives a passionate speech that anticipates the drama's central theme: Where is socialism headed?

Dwarfed by a gigantic red flag, Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov challenges Russia's younger reformers to come up with an alternative to the "cold, brilliant light" of Marxist theory.

"What beautiful system of thought have they to present to the world, to the befuddling, contrary tumult of life, to this mad swirling planetary disorganization...?" he asks. "Market incentives? Watered-down Bukharinite stopgap makeshift capitalism?"

Change? Yes, we must change," he concedes from behind dark glasses. "Only show me the theory.... Show me the words that will reorder the world, or else keep silent."

"SLAVS!" is a fantastical, humorous, and yet ultimately serious political commentary on how the perversion of socialism (by dictators like Joseph Stalin) and its dilution (by Russia's architects of perestroika) have plunged the country into chaos and ruin. Evils of Stalinism

The play probes the evils of Stalinism and the political, economic, and environmental wreckage in Russia today, ending with a question dear to the playwright's heart: How can the socialist ideal of economic justice be rescued from the debris and realized today?

"So much has been written in the last few years {stating} that because of the failure of Stalinism ... socialism as an alternative to capitalism is also gone," says Kushner, who recently discussed "SLAVS!" by telephone from his Manhattan home.

"I don't think that's true. I think there is a great deal of legitimacy in the critique socialism made of capitalism as an economic order," he says.

The play's broader message is that a "grand theory," presumably based on democratic socialism, is needed to forestall the "ravages" of capitalism in Russia and around the world.

"We are crying now for the lack of one," Kushner says.

While all of Kushner's plays are political, "SLAVS!" is the first in which he addresses so pointedly his concern over the fate of socialism, a concern sparked in the mid-1970s when he was an undergraduate at Columbia University in New York. It is also the first play steeped in the Slavic culture that has fascinated him for years.

Both Kushner's political ideals and attraction to things Slavic have roots in his own Eastern European heritage. (See interview, right.)

Kushner wrote "SLAVS!" in just a few months at the beginning of this year, using as a starting point four scenes that were originally part of his Pulitzer Prize-winning work, "Angels in America." Steppenwolf connection

Shortly after the play premiered in March at the Humana Festival of New Plays in Louisville, Ky., Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre snapped up "SLAVS!" Steppenwolf staged the play beginning last month in a highly successful production.

"It was unusual because the play hasn't shown yet in New York," says director Eric Simonson, a member of Steppenwolf's acclaimed acting ensemble.

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Socialism's Failure Haunts `SLAVS!' Tony Kushner's New Play Asks the Question, `If the Experiment Did Not Work, What Next?'
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