An appreciation of J. T. Rogers.
Jan 13, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 17 • By JONATHAN LEAF
On the morning of April 16, 2012, at the very minute that the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama was being announced, the playwright J. T. Rogers’s telephone rang. A 43-year-old married father struggling to pay his rent each month, he picked up the receiver with nervous anticipation. Caller ID showed it was an unfamiliar number. Was his life about to change? Were the years of worrying about money—during which he had worked at dozens of jobs, including stints driving a trolley car around Central Park, waiting tables, catering, and doing data entry—about to conclude? He picked up the receiver.
The call to his apartment in Brooklyn was a wrong number.
He was understandably frustrated and left to wonder why he had been passed over; for the Rogers play that had been nominated, Blood and Gifts, not only deals with many of the major issues of our time, but is one of the best American plays of the new century. It was greatly lauded at Lincoln Center and London’s National Theatre, and among its many triumphant notices was one from the New York Times calling it “superb.”
Nearly as dispiriting, however, was the news about the play that had received the Pulitzer, a mostly forgettable drama—about a veteran employed in a Philadelphia sandwich shop—that had been presented in one theater in Connecticut. Rogers’s humiliation was magnified by the discovery that his epic drama about the role of foreign powers in Afghanistan during the 1980s was not even given the consolation of being a finalist—no matter that it’s an entertaining, complex, intricately plotted, and ultimately affecting examination of the operations of the CIA during the Cold War, the failures of communism, and the nature of Islamism.
Where had J. T. Rogers erred? Determined to tell his story in a manner consistent with his research about American support for the mujahedeen during the Soviet occupation, Rogers had strayed too far from the fruited plains of accepted truth. The result was a tale in which the full brutality of the Russians is displayed and a CIA agent is our hero. Furthermore, in trying to get his Afghan allies weapons with which to shoot down Soviet planes, the agent is shown to be conscientious and self-sacrificing, while the “good” Muslims with whom he conspires prove to be perfidious and bloodthirsty.
A blend of Graham Greene and Khaled Hosseini, Blood and Gifts offers tart, clever dialogue and deftly etched portraits of plotters of various oaths and creeds. Here, for instance, is the response of the British espionage chief whose aid the agent seeks in order to arrange a meeting with a powerful rebel warlord:
The character being addressed, our hero Jim Warnock, has arrived at his latest posting after a tour in Iran at the time of the shah’s downfall. While there, he lost a onetime source who was “left behind.” Caught by Ayatollah Khomeini’s Revolutionary Guards, the man was held down and forced to “watch his daughter be raped. Over and over. And when he closed his eyelids, they burned them off with cigarettes.”
If Blood and Gifts is not an endorsement of interventionism, it is far from that exercise in moral relativism, or America-hatred, that wins a playwright glittering awards. That the prize committees found its critical take on Islamism unpalatable presents certain ironies: Rogers, a sometime acquaintance, is no conservative. The inspiration for his writing career was the experience of seeing a 1993 student production of “Perestroika,” the second half of Tony Kushner’s Marxist-agitprop AIDS drama Angels in America. While watching it, Rogers realized that theater could tackle the big subjects while focusing on articulate characters poised to debate (and battle over) the outcome of big events.
In this, he has proved a worthy pupil; indeed, I would suggest that he has surpassed his master, celebrity notwithstanding. For while the 56-year-old Kushner managed only in Lincoln to write a script that was not self-indulgent, didactic, or ramshackle, Blood and Gifts was not even Rogers’s first political tour de force. That was The Overwhelming, which premiered in London in 2006.
Why was Rogers’s earlier play denied the attention Kushner garnered for Angels in America? The difficulty lies not only in politics but in the economics of play production. While his breakthrough drama is a fascinating and highly suspenseful story about an American academic and his and his family’s search for a missing friend in the days and weeks leading up to the Rwandan genocide, it resembles Blood and Gifts in its depressing theme and prohibitively expensive production costs. And here, too, Rogers was not peddling a welcome theme. Like the younger David Mamet, he was writing plays with conservative ideas, no matter what his voter registration card suggested.
The son of a political scientist father and actress mother, both from Berkeley, Rogers concedes that he now understands the necessity of a solid middle class for political stability: The madness born of its absence is among The Overwhelming’s themes. Indeed, in both plays, his Americans are well-intentioned people who are naïve in their presumption that the world possesses a kind of plasticity that will mold itself to their touch. His plays are very much the antithesis of what’s coming out of MFA programs these days (i.e., small-scale stories with minimal plotting and suspense about carefully observed characters—say, a young man coming out of the closet or a troubled marriage between two sensitive intellectuals).
J. T. Rogers’s alternative approach is a function of his divergent path to playwriting. Like Mamet (and, for that matter, Shakespeare), he started out with the intention of being an actor, and then, like so many would-be performers, arrived in the big city, found himself involved in running a small theater, and took on the role of dramatist. This was a part, to his surprise, he much preferred—one for which he has considerable gifts and, more important, a wider ambition than most contemporary playwrights.
Jonathan Leaf is a playwright in New York.
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