New York, N.Y.–“No one wanted you dead! Oh God no, I mean God no, what sort of animal would want that? No, it’s a terrible sin and I’m sure we’ll all have to pay for it, me and Bushie and–I call him Bushie, my husband.”
#ad# The actress Holly Hunter, wearing jeans, an anti-Bush t-shirt, and speaking with a broad southern accent, was playing First Lady Laura Bush in “Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy,” a “work in progress” by the playwright Tony Kushner. The reading of the unfinished play, at the New York Theatre Workshop, a 250-seat room in the East Village, was billed as part of the creative community’s response to the Republican National Convention. So on Wednesday night, as Vice President Dick Cheney was preparing to address the convention, the theater was packed–organizers had to turn people away–as Hunter, playing Mrs. Bush, addressed a group of Iraqi children.
At the beginning of the play, as she is preparing to read to the children, Mrs. Bush notices they are all wearing pajamas. Why is that?, she wants to know.
“I was about to explain,” says an angel, played by the Sex in the City actress Cynthia Nixon. “In Paradise, all dead children wear pajamas.”
It turns out the First Lady is in fact speaking to the ghosts of Iraqi children killed by American bombs and missiles. “You are the first Iraqi children I’ve met and you look real sweet in your PJs,” she says. “And I’m sorry you’re dead, but all children love books…How did you die, darling?”
In 1999, the angel explains, an American bomb hit a power station that supplied electricity for a village water-purification system. With no clean water, the child contracted a vicious intestinal parasite. “He died of dehydration, s***ting water, then blood, then water again, so much!” the angel says.
“That’s really awful,” says Mrs. Bush.
“Yes,” says the angel.
“Saddam Hussein is a terrible man.”
At that point, the East Village audience laughed at Mrs. Bush’s southern-accented wrong-headedness. And then the First Lady explains to the children why they had to die.
“What can I say to you?” she says. “Oh how can I say this? It isn’t right that you should have had to die because your country is run by an evil man who is accumulating weapons of mass destruction. But he is, you see, he really is, everyone knows this and he will kill many, many other children all over the world if he isn’t stopped. So, so it was um, necessary for you to die, sweetie, oh how awful to say that, but it was, precious.”
As the play goes on, however, Mrs. Bush becomes increasingly distressed by the children’s deaths–and the brutality of her husband’s acts, both in Texas and the White House. She tells the children about her favorite author, Dostoyevsky, and how he narrowly escaped execution. “If my husband had been in charge back then, Dostoyevsky would’ve been dead for sure,” she says. “My husband, he executed everyone they told him to, everyone they let him, I should say, my God, a hundred-and-something people and he never even missed his early, early bedtime, nor for that matter, from what I could see as I sat up reading and rereading Dostoyevsky, ever even stirred in his sleep!”
Finally, she concedes: “I think there is guilt when a child dies, even if the death was in a just cause, and one person’s guilt is for everyone,” she says. “We suffer that guilt, me and Bushie and Poppy and Bar and the U.N. Security Council.” (At another point, she refers to “Bushie, or as I sometimes call him, the Chimp. You know, those ears.” The crowd loved it.)
Kushner wrote the scene during the run-up to the war in 2003; it was published in The Nation in March of that year. Since then, it has been staged at a number of anti-Bush events, most recently a few weeks ago in New York as part of a fundraiser for the anti-Bush group MoveOn.org. On Wednesday, Hunter and Nixon read a second scene as well, written recently by Kushner.
In that scene, Hunter played Kushner himself, while Nixon played Mrs. Bush. As it begins, the First Lady critiques the first act, saying, “I didn’t like your skit very much.”
Kushner had mentioned the time the president once joked that his wife was “the lump in the bed next to me” when he arrived at home very late at night. “You make rude remarks about my private intimate life with my husband,” Mrs. Bush told Kushner. “You’re sort of a weird combination of filthy-minded and Victorian, not to mention–”
“So I guess my point is–” Kushner interrupts.
“Yes?” Bush says.
“That we’re all like you. That we’re all being f***ed by your husband.”
In notes accompanying the performance, James Nicola, the artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop, decried what he called the “sometimes overheated rhetoric” that is being heard during “this impassioned political season, and most particularly as the Republicans gather in our city.” Nicola wrote that the production of “Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy” was “our own small attempt to restore a considered thoughtfulness to the public discourse.”
Kushner’s play was the first act of the night’s bill. The second was anti-Bush author Mark Crispin Miller’s two-man play Patriot Act: A Public Meditation, in which Miller warned the crowd that the Bush administration is simply a front for “a movement that is dedicated to the transformation of the United States into a theocracy.” If the Bush movement succeeds, Miller said, the U.S. will see the “replacement of the Constitution by the first five books of the Old Testament,” under which citizens will face the death penalty for adultery, homosexuality, and premarital sex.
After the performance, organizers handed out a list of websites, including democrats.com, democraticunderground.com, and moveon.org, for audience members who wanted to learn more about the issues involved. The production was part of a larger project called the Imagine Festival, a loosely organized series of hundreds of events across the city that organizers say is designed to “use art, not politics or protest, to confront the critical issues facing the nation” during the Republican National Convention.