Q&A: Playwright Amy Herzog on Family History, Political Activism, and the Culture of Capitalism

 Q&A: Playwright Amy Herzog on Family History, Political Activism, and the Culture of Capitalism
Amy Herzog
(Courtesy Lincoln Center Theater)

Amy Herzog, a promising young American playwright, is pregnant and due to give birth to a daughter on May 1 of this year. The date has more than a little significance, given that it is a high holiday among a vanishing political breed: communists. Though the 33-year-old writer doesn’t share the ideology, it is a deep vein coursing through her family and one that she has tapped in her work. 

In “After the Revolution,” the 2010 play that first brought her acclaim, she tackled the rifts which developed in her family when, in 1999, it was revealed that Joe Joseph, her paternal step-grandfather, had shared government secrets with the Soviets during World War II. In her latest play, “4000 Miles,” currently at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, the lead character is 91-year-old Vera Joseph (Mary Louise Wilson), who proudly carries the Socialist torch of her late husband. If it appears to be a lost cause, she is unaware of it. Her querulousness is reserved for her irritating neighbors in her Greenwich Village apartment building and, occasionally, for her guilt-stricken grandson (Gabriel Ebert), who has suddenly descended upon her after biking across country.

 

“Plays as truthful and touching and fine as ‘4,000 Miles’ come along once or maybe twice a season,” wrote Charles Isherwood in the New York Times of Herzog’s semi-autobiographical work. “This is the rare theatrical production that achieves perfection on its own terms.”

Vera, in fact, is based on Leepee Joseph, the playwright’s 95-year-old grandmother who, like her doppelganger, lives in the Village (a character based on Leepee also made a brief appearance in “After the Revolution”).  

While the Josephs are a source of fascination to the Yale-educated playwright, her biological paternal grandfather is no slouch either. He is Arthur Herzog, a writer and lyricist best known as having co-authored, with Billie Holiday, “God Bless the Child.” “He was a philanderer who went on to marry three more times after he divorced my grandmother,” says Herzog, who lives in Brooklyn with her husband, director Sam Gold (“Seminar,” “Look Back in Anger”). Though the playwright laughingly referred to having “pregnancy brain,” she recently spoke with ARTINFO eloquently – and astringently – of her family’s firebrand socialist legacy and how it has influenced her own world view. 

You mentioned that after seeing “After the Revolution,” Leepee said, “Well, Amy is very creative but ultimately she’s a conservative.” How true is that? 

Well, it’s certainly not true by any normal standards. In my family, “liberal” is kind of a dirty word. It suggests that you’re pretty far right of everyone else. So when she says conservative, she’s using that in relative way. But I think that when she saw the play, she disagreed fundamentally with me questioning whether my grandfather had done the right thing. She would have preferred a play that would have been a wholehearted agitprop defense. I certainly don’t think I condemned his actions. But I represented a number of different points of view.

Dinner table conversations must’ve been stimulating. What do you remember of them, especially as you grew up as the ossified gerontocracy of the Soviet Union yielded to Mikhail Gorbachev and Perestroika?

What I mostly remember is a great deal of defensiveness about it. Especially if you brought up Stalin [and the Purges] to my grandfather. The joke in my family is that he would always say, “There were problems.” I was young, so I wish I could have these conversations with him now. I’m sure they were incredibly, incredibly distraught about what was going on in Soviet Russia up to the dissolution. But I think they felt their role regarding any state which was making a true Communist effort was to be supportive and to point out what was good because they thought that the rest of the world was doing the other thing. I was very young but I wasn’t aware of any reflective or nuanced positions.

What form did their political activism take in this country?

They were huge supporters of the Civil Rights movements and it was a huge source of pride that my father and uncles were involved in registering voters. But as much as they were avid supporters, there was this overarching ideology that class struggle was the first and most important struggle and everything else came under the rubric of a bourgeois cause. They would often boast of how much more racial equality there was in the Soviet Union than in the United States, probably a claim that is not so easy to support now.

Was Castro’s Cuba a heroic cause?

Yeah. Huge. They visited Cuba many times. My grandmother, as recently as five or ten years ago and well into her ’80s, went to Cuba on volunteer missions bringing medical supplies and stuff. They held up Cuba as a model.

How did you personally come to terms with their condemnation of bourgeois values? Did you feel guilty?

Interesting. First of all, my immediate family was much less radical so the influence was at a little bit of a remove. I was really proud of having this strain in my family, but I don’t think that I felt guilty. I think that descended on me later in my 20s when I started wondering why I was not picking up this mantle and why my generation in general seemed so much less interested in fighting for social change than my grandparents and aunts and uncles. I also ran into funny contradictions even in the older generations. Though my grandparents were committed Communists, my grandfather, after he was blacklisted, was not able to work in government again and ended up getting a high-level job at a pharmaceutical company, earning quite a bit of money and getting to travel the world. And my grandmother loved travelling with him and staying at four-star hotels. So I saw enough contradictions in those generations that I felt less guilty about having them in my own life.

Do you envy that passion and total commitment expressed in that generation?

I did and I do feel envy. And more than envy, I feel really puzzled. I don’t understand why I’m not more driven to be fighting for social change and I probably need to take more personal responsibility about it. I always put it in terms of my generation. But really, I could do something. What’s puzzling to me, my grandmother and I are so close, that if we’d met at the same age, if I’d been around then, I imagine that I would have been swept up by the same things that she was swept up by.

Does Leepee’s faith in Communism remain undiminished?

“Undiminished.” What an interesting word to think of in terms of her life right now when I know that, at 95, she feels like she’s losing things constantly. Yes. I would say it’s undiminished except that she isn’t able at this point to have the kind of active engagement with it that would reinforce it. I believe that she holds all of the same views that she held 20 or 70 years ago. The one thing she’s changed her mind about is that she used to believe that homosexuality was a mental illness,  and she has come around to completely accepting it as a normal part of the course of human events.

You mean, the Communist libel that homosexuality was a symptom of capitalist decadence?

[Laughs] Yes. As a result, my dad and aunts and uncles really took up the mantle of gay rights. They took up their parents’ politics but were able to react against this part of it.

How do you feel looking back at what now seems a vanished world?

Profoundly mixed. I feel a real sense of loss around the idealism – the time and heart that they put into that fight and what was so beautiful about that fight. But the more I learned about the Soviet Union, the more I felt disquieted about what they chose to be willfully blind to. I don’t believe that the ends justify the means, but I feel some uncertainty whether they were maybe right to be so dogmatic and forceful, if that was the most productive way to go about it or if something was really lost with that kind of approach. Maybe they’d have made more headway if there’d been a little more reflection and self-knowledge and criticisms about what was going on in the movement.

Are you attracted as a dramatist to the cost of it, in both personal and familial terms?

I was already extremely interested in that angle of the story long before I learned about my grandfather’s activities in the ’40s. My family always had a sense of pride of what my grandfather and grandmother have endured and what they were willing to lose. And I have worried, actually, that by writing a play like “After the Revolution” and emphasizing his small point of culpability that to certain people it proves, or detracts from, the truth of what happened, which is that these people were unjustly persecuted and they were fighting for good.

Do you suppose that is why Leepee would want you to write agitprop? The argument that you have to be radical to move the needle and can’t let anything compromise that radicalism?

Yeah. I was open to that argument at one point. But it’s hard to hold that position and be a writer because what I do in my job is really at odds with that kind of partisanship. I spend a lot of time trying to see all sides of any issue. I’m not that much of a student of history to know whether it’s true, but I do know that it’s not the way that I’ve grown into my approach to the world.

How do you feel about these issues now that capitalism appears to be established as our state religion?

Mostly with dismay I guess. At capitalism in general. I don’t know how to answer that question. I feel fairly alienated from mass culture.  I’ve chosen to make a life in the theater, which is a sort of an antiquated arena and not a particularly capitalist one. Again, why am I not doing anything? I’m certainly dismayed by what I see but I don’t think that much about the alternatives. My grandparents saw capitalism as something that could be defeated and I’m not sure that I do. It seems here to stay.

I believe you mentioned that you have one more play in you about your family. What dictates your ethical approach to what you will and will not divulge about them?

It entails a lot of communication so they know what’s going on. My grandfather’s name was already in print but I did have some real anxiety about naming his name in writing the play about him. In terms of the living members, I am inspired by what I’ve witnessed, but what I write ultimately ends being a work of fiction. And I try to not to talk about what’s true and what’s not in order to protect their privacy. So far it’s worked. Nobody’s disowned me.

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