Commentary Magazine

A Chekhov in Training

Playwriting in America has tended to be a man’s game. Many American women have written individual hit plays, but only three—Lillian Hellman, Wendy Wasserstein, and the long-forgotten Rachel Crothers—scored multiple successes on Broadway in the 20th century, and their track records there have yet to be rivaled. Only eight plays by women (not counting adaptations) have won the Pulitzer Prize since World War II, and of them only three—Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart (1980), Marsha Norman’s ’Night, Mother (1983), and Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles (1988)—enjoyed extended Broadway runs. And while women playwrights are now ubiquitous, none is widely known by name to the public at large.

Not surprisingly, explanations for this persistent lack of popular success vary widely. Feminists commonly attribute it to discrimination, though a 2009 study showed that female artistic directors and literary managers are actually less likely to produce plays by women than are their male counterparts. Other observers have suggested that ordinary playgoers who favor middlebrow shows with solid, self-evident commercial appeal find the explicitly political content of such Pulitzer-winning plays as Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive (1997) and Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog (2001) to be off-putting.

Whatever the reason, Lillian Hellman is the only American woman playwright to have achieved anything like cultural réclame. Yet women continue to ignore the odds and write plays—and one of them, Amy Herzog, is now being covered by the media with an enthusiasm that recalls Wendy Wasserstein’s short-lived heyday. Herzog, who is 33, has written four plays that have been produced off-Broadway since 2010. All were reviewed favorably in the New York press and have since been taken up by regional companies. One of them, 4000 Miles, was given a high-profile production by Lincoln Center Theater.

Herzog writes small-scale naturalistic dramas that favor character over plot, the kind that have long been favored by such off-Broadway companies as Playwrights Horizons (which brought her After the Revolution and The Great God Pan to New York) but are rarely seen on Broadway. Indeed, her straightforward style might well seem old-fashioned were it not for the fact that her plays are primarily peopled by well-educated men and women in their 20s and 30s who speak in the elliptical argot of the “millennial” generation, for which she has perfect pitch.

What is it about these plays that has seized the attention of critics and audiences? Is Herzog, like Wasserstein before her, a zeitgeist-conscious liberal feminist who succeeds by telling middle-class urbanites only what they want to hear? Or is she something more than a brightly polished theatrical mirror of her times?

Something more. Much more.

The best way to grasp what sets Herzog apart from her contemporaries is to take a close look at After the Revolution (2010), her “breakout” play, whose subject is life in a red-diaper family.

Emma Joseph, the central character, is a young political activist who runs a legal defense fund named after Joe Joseph, her now-dead grandfather, an avowed Communist who lost his job because of his beliefs. Emma is shocked to learn that Joe actually was a Soviet spy during World War II—and that the rest of her family knew of his activities and lied to her about them. Despite her own radical views, Emma is deeply disturbed by Joe’s treasonous conduct, in part because the Joe Joseph Foundation is backing the fashionable cause of the convicted murderer Mumia Abu-Jamal, whom she has come to suspect may be guilty as charged.

In real life, Herzog is herself a second-generation red-diaper baby whose father’s stepfather, Julius Joseph, was revealed in 2000 to have spied for the Russians.1 She has turned this experience into an incisively honest play in which she manages with near-miraculous skill to embed personal drama in a political framework, adding sparkle to the action with deft touches of satire.

Unlike Tony Kushner, who made fictional use in Angels in America of the broadly similar subject of the Rosenberg case, Herzog acknowledges the dark implications of the Stalinism with which her fictional family is blighted. As Emma explains to them:

You told me—you’ve always told me—that Grandpa Joe was blacklisted because he was an ideological communist. That’s what I’ve been standing at podiums and repeating for the last four years….No, he shouldn’t have been blacklisted. He should have been tried for espionage.

Yet the wit with which Herzog describes the obsessive political sectarianism of the Josephs makes her indictment of their moral complacency (“You can’t fight for change and be a nice guy,” one of them comfortably declares) all the more persuasive.

Part of what is so striking about After the Revolution is that it is at bottom an apolitical play about an intensely political subject. Though Herzog is careful to assure interviewers that she subscribes to the “progressive” political views (her word) taken for granted in the monoculture that is American theater, she also admits to being “a dreamy, introspective person, not out on the front lines at all.” What interests her most about the Josephs is not that they are committed Marxists (a commitment she never defends, not even implicitly) but that they are hypocrites who lack the courage of their political convictions. Hence the cool detachment with which she skewers them. No one gets off lightly in After the Revolution—not even Emma, whose starchy self-righteousness is as unattractive in its own way as the complacency of her relatives.

Herzog returned to the Joseph family a second time in 4000 Miles (2011), in which she portrays the awkward but loving relationship between Vera, Joe’s nonagenarian widow, and Leo, her grandson, a 21-year-old quasi-hippie who thinks that “Marx is cool.”

Part of the excellence of 4000 Miles arises from the seemingly paradoxical fact that Herzog once again has had the good sense not to make the play a political drama. It is instead a finely wrought, closely observed character study à la Chekhov, funny and serious in just the right proportions. Everyone in the play is believable, and what they say to one another sounds as real as an overheard conversation. At the same time, though, Herzog takes great care not to give a free pass to Vera, an unrepentant Stalinist who is, like the playwright’s own grandmother, willfully oblivious of the monstrous evils wrought by the now-dead regime that she supported.

“The way people cling to belief systems is of enduring interest to me,” Herzog has said. In the case of the Josephs, that belief system is not the Judaism that is their ethnic heritage but the hard-left politics that is, in her phrase, “the religion of my family.” Though her characters are for the most part unmistakably Jewish, they hardly ever talk about their Jewishness. They are totally secularized, and their lack of religious belief has left them floating in a spiritual vacuum, one that Leo’s homemade pantheism is no more able to fill than Vera’s knee-jerk radicalism.

This sense of emptiness in the midst of worldly plenty is no less central to Herzog’s other plays. Belleville (2011), for instance, appears at first glance to be a thriller, a Gaslight-type play about a twentysomething doctor who seems to be keeping secrets from his increasingly anxious wife. But here as elsewhere, Herzog uses her well-tuned ear for dialogue to reveal the personalities of her characters. It soon becomes clear that the point of Belleville is that despite their glib self-assurance, Abby and Zack, both of whom were born into well-off new-class families, are in fact immature and pitifully unequal to the harsh challenges of adulthood.

Herzog’s latest play, The Great God Pan (2012), makes a similarly deceptive first impression. Though it masquerades as an issue-driven play, it is “about” recovered memory in the same way that After the Revolution and 4000 Miles are “about” Communism: The nominal subject is a pretext for the exploration of the personalities of its characters. Jamie, the protagonist, is an emotionally inhibited journalist whose glassy surface is shattered when he learns more or less simultaneously that he may have been molested as a child and that his longtime girlfriend is pregnant. These discoveries disrupt his well-ordered existence, forcing him to flounder toward a deeper engagement with the adult life he has not yet learned how to lead.

To call Amy Herzog a “Chekhovian” playwright is to shed light on both her strengths and her limitations. Like the Russian master, Herzog’s plays are set in a period of historical transition, the moment when the baby-boom generation started to cede cultural primacy to the millennials. Her concern, however, is not with the boomers but their children, who were born to entitlement but had it snatched away by the financial crisis and the prolonged recession that has followed in its wake. Deprived of economic certitude, they have rejected the idealism of their parents and chosen instead to embrace an anti-idealistic worldview. Distrustful in like measure of religion and ideology, they are devoid of self-confidence and unsure of the future, hiding their fears behind a mask of ironic flippancy.

All of Herzog’s principal characters—even Emma Joseph, who once embraced her parents’ radicalism but now doubts it—share this deep-seated uncertainty. It is, like the melancholy ineffectuality of Chekhov’s characters, an understandable response to the times in which they live, and Herzog portrays it with uncommon vividness.

What she lacks, at least as of yet, is a command of the poetic language that animates Chekhov’s near-plotless plays. Her dialogue, by contrast, is stenographically naturalistic. Rarely do her characters say anything memorable, much less quotable. This would be less of a problem if her plays were more reliant on plot and incident, but because they are instead fundamentally atmospheric, some viewers find them to be slowly paced and insufficiently eventful (in the same way that similarly inclined viewers find Chekhov’s plays and stories dull).

That, however, is a matter of taste, and my own taste runs very strongly in Herzog’s direction. Indeed, I consider her to be America’s most significant young playwright, an artist with compelling things to say about postmodern American life, especially in After the Revolution and 4000 Miles. What is most noteworthy about these latter plays is that they are informed by ideology without being driven by it. Both are studies of people in whom the personal has collided with the political to devastating effect, and their subject matter is as dark as their tone is light. A year ago I would have called their author “promising,” but after Belleville and The Great God Pan, that word no longer applies to Amy Herzog. She is a mature artist who may well have great things ahead of her.


1 Joseph’s name appears in the Venona Project transcripts of decoded KGB cable traffic. It was the publication of Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, the 1999 book by Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes in which his spying was first disclosed, that inspired Herzog to write After the Revolution.

About the Author

Terry Teachout, Commentary’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, is the author of the forthcoming Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (Gotham Books). Satchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, was produced last year in Lenox, Massachusetts, New Haven, and Philadelphia. 

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