11th September 2021 by Paul Taylor

The theatre critic of the Independent here reflects on the twenty years since the events of 9/11.

“It was 20 years ago today/Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play” sang the Beatles.  It was 20 years ago today that the two hijacked planes flew into the Twin Towers in Lower Manhattan with the result that – after all the throat-clogging chaos of fire, filth and desperate bodies hurling themselves from office skyscrapers – New York’s skyline eventually looked as though it had had its front teeth punched out.

I was in a good position to be struck by this perception and to register how borderline-disrespectful it felt to be having it. In November of 2001, I happened to be staying in Brooklyn Heights, a leafy borough of sedate brownstones that gazes out across the East River to what looked like a razzle-dazzling light-flecked mirage of Babylon.  Curiously weightless and immaterial.

This is a piece about what happened to art as a result of the terrible events of September 11th 2001. The 20th anniversary will naturally give rise to  a lot of features about this phenomenon and these are likely to ask worthwhile fundamental questions.  How did the nature of storytelling change across the arts?  

I tend to find myself most in sympathy with a pull-out quote found in one of the features that have already appeared. “The 20th anniversary assumes things began that day. It’s this ahistorical approach that resulted in what we are seeing in Kabul now”. This wisdom is from the American cartoonist, Art Spiegelman. In the Shadow No Towers, his graphic response to the PTSD he suffered as consequence of September 11, has all the humour and humanity one had come to expect from the artist who had turned his experiences as a survivor of the Holocaust into the strip cartoon MAUS, which reads like a grimly witty abbreviation of “Mauschwitz”.

My own twist to the 20th anniversary commemoration is to suggest the post-9/11 art was already afoot and that the culture beforehand was flecked with works which, with the benefit of hindsight, one can discern to be post 9/11 art avant la lettre.

I owe this perception to the luck of having been sent out by The Independent to New York in November 2001. My brief was to watch and to report on a late preview of Homebody/Kabul, Tony Kushner’s long-awaited follow-up the much-fêted Angels in America.  The piece was published in mid-December under the headline “Afghanistan mon amour”, a bitterly witty reference to Hiroshima, Mon Amour, the 1959 New Wave film with a screenplay by Marguerite Duras.

Here are the opening paragraphs:

“How’s this for spooky prescience?  Opening next week in New York, Tony Kushner’s long-awaited new play Homebody/Kabul includes a scene in which a distraught, highly-educated Afghan women, she is a librarian, whose life has been made a misery by the Taliban.  She rails against the role the US played in creating that regime.  

The US’s covert funding of the Afghan Mujahideen against the occupying Soviets, helped to give rise to the Taliban, who later seized power from the warring factions of the Mujahideen.  “You love the Taliban so much, bring them to New York”, she jeers, and adds  “Well, don’t worry, they are  coming to New York”.

“Since 11 September, many writers and producers have, with varying degrees of brazen opportunism, been at pains to assure us that the pieces they are currently peddling have taken on “a whole new resonance in the light of the attacks and the West’s military response”.  By a freakish and quite unsolicited irony. Kushner and the creative team at the New York Theatre Workshop are faced with the opposite problem.

Kushner saw me and gave me three-and-half hours his time.  This says less about my charms as a journalist than it does about the generosity of Kushner – a logorrheic genius who delights in discourse and who could talk all four legs off the proverbial donkey.

My point is this. For reasons I will try to explain, Homebody/Kabul remains for me the supreme work of art about how Afghanistan has figured and resurfaced in the Western imagination. Because it jumped the gun, so to speak, and foresaw the future, it runs the risk of not achieving the prominence it deserves in the annals of art that bears the scars of the atrocious events of that day.

Kushner revealed to me that one of his influences was Missing  (1982), the Costa-Gavras film movie which is set in Chile in the aftermath of the 1973 coup that overthrew the Marxist President, Salvador Allende. Costa-Gavras’s movie follows an almost traditional route.  A conservative American and his wife (played by Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek) go out to Chile and he is radicalized as he investigates the disappearance of his son and comes to realise that the US is not above putting its business interests over human rights of the individual.

Homebody/Kabul takes this template and delights in twisting it into new mythic shapes.  The first act is a long, and breathtakingly long, an arcane monologue by a quaint woman who sounds as if she has swallowed the dictionary.  The impression that she lives mostly in her mind is reinforced by the fact that she treats the audience to a long passage from an out-of-date 1965 guide book to Kabul.

The reality that she seems to be keeping at bay thrusts itself on her notice when she goes out to buy party hats from an Afghan shop in London and notices that the man selling them has had his hand severed.

From the location of this woman’s emotional truancy, Kabul becomes a literal bolt-hole when she does a bunk there. This woman is unhappily married to a computer boffin.  Like the Jack Lemmon character in Missing, he goes to Afghanistan with their daughter. There the comparison ends.  His wife may have suffered a gruesomely described fate at the hands of the Taliban extremists for not covering up sufficiently, still less donning a burqa.  Or perhaps she has absconded from an unsatisfactory life in the West by faking her own suicide.

My trip to New York in November 2001 was a chapter of accidents – some lucky, some tragi-farcical. My plane was held on the runway for three hours.  I had not time to check into my hotel before going to sit through a four-and-a half hour play.  Jet-lagged, making copious notes through nerves, I managed to hold out until the penultimate scene when I briefly dozed off, hoping to God that nothing pivotal had happened.       

On the plus side, there was my being, physically, in New York.  The streets near the  Public Theater still smelt of burning; the riverside walk in Brooklyn was lined with the smudgy waxen stumps of votary candles and with the cards and their often heartbreaking messages to loved one.

All of this played to my preferences of temperament. I have always felt a sense of vertigo when listening to broad pontifications along the lines of “whither this…whither that?”  I realise that I am coming round via a different route to a position similar to that of Art Spiegelman.

They say that temporal distance “lends enchantment to the view’”.  It also perhaps lends a kind of ennoblement.  It is right and proper to remember the splendid work that Nicholas Kent and Richard Norton-Taylor did at the Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre with their season of Afghanistan plays and their verbatim dramas?  Kent is an under-sung hero where tribunal theatre is concerned.

But let’s not forget plays such as The Mercy Seat (2002), the quick-off-the-mark, characteristically challenging and a bit off-colour play by the American dramatist, Neil LaBute.  A married man finds himself in the flat of his lover when the twin towers fall and wonders if he can exploit the situation.  Perhaps he can abscond from his unsatisfactory life by allowing his family to think that he perished in the attack and that his corpse has not yet been found.  This piece had its British premiere at the Almeida where it was directed by Michael Attenborough.

It’s worth stressing that an interconnectedness of movies and drama seems to go with this territory.  One of the best movies about Afghanistan is Charlie Wilson’s War  (2007),  The director Mike Nichols is celebrated for directing The Graduate and the film adaptations of Patrick Marber’s play Closer and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

He was also at the helm, bringing Angels in America to brilliant life on the small screen in a series starring Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson.  It is perhaps no accident that, ideologically, Charlie’s War seems to have been influenced by Homebody/Kabul, the Tony Kushner play that has yet to be made into a movie.

Will it ever be? 

Homebody/Kabul perhaps illustrates the difference between theatreness and theatricality. Theatricality transfers easily to the screen. In saying this, I do not mean to imply that theatreness is, by contrast, confined in any way to a building.  I am in no doubt that Homebody/Kabul is a masterpiece which deserves to be given a prominent position in any survey of post 9/11 art. But it is liberated by its peculiar constraints, primarily linguistic.  It explodes in a carnival of splurging verbal excess in languages that range from Pashtun to Esperanto (there is one man who is very smitten by Esperanto because, being an artificial language, it comes free from any history of ideological balance).

Kushner has written screenplays for Steven Spielberg, notably Lincoln (about the deliberations in smoke-filmed rooms through which a Republican President got Congress to pass legislation that ended slavery) and Munich (2005) about the wrathful Israeli retaliation to the PLO-fomented massacre at the Olympic Games in 2000. Both movies are of a manifestly Left Wing persuasion.

And now here, today we have Joe Biden, a Democrat President who was meant to be the antidote to all things Trump.  But he was looking a lot like a re-run of George W Bush in 2001 when he bared his teeth in a White House press conference earlier this month and swore vengeance on ISIS/ISIL for the suicide bombing that led to 90 Afghani deaths at Kabul airport.

At the start of Trump’s incumbency in the White House, Tony Kushner announced that he was at work on a theatrical magnum opus  about this era.

This piece ends with a nod to David Lan, who was the inspired director of the Young Vic in England during the time that Homebody/Kabul was being developed.  Lan helped to nurture Kushner’s play and provided a home for its British premiere.  So it may be no accident that when he relinquished his role at the helm of the Young Vic, he found himself in serious discussions about going on to become the founding artistic director of Ground Zero, the theatre that has sprung up – in a spirit of doughty retaliation – in the epicentre of the nullifying horror.

Ground Zero is a spot that seems to be an emanation from the mind of Samuel Beckett, a writer who, true to abstemious form, entitled one of his later, short pieces Imagination Dead Imagine.  That title gives you Ground Zero for you, in super-concentrated essence.

It is equally perhaps no accident that David Lan who with Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Crown) as his creative partner, now emerges as the producer of The Walk show that takes a puppet of a little girl, from the Turkey-Syria border, to battle her way back across Europe as a refugee to her home in England.

The onset of the pandemic put paid to the projected publicity tour for As if by Chance: Journeys, Theatres, Lives, David Lan’s wonderfully readable, shrewd and revealing memoir published by Faber. I hear that a second volume, working title “The Shiny Man: Adventures in Theatre and Resistance” is in the pipeline.

It looks set to be a very buzzy talking point next season when the anniversary of September 11th 2001 will recur under the rubric  that “ it was 21 years ago today”.