I was thinking about G. K. Chesterton while sitting in the Public Theater in New York the other day, watching Tony Kushner’s new three-and-a-half hour play.
The play’s title, unthinkable in Chesterton’s day, is “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.” That last part—a brief homage to Mary Baker Eddy—sounds clever, but has little to do with the play itself. There is only secular religion, here, and yet religion it is. Meanwhile, the first part of the title comes from an earlier great playwright, George Bernard Shaw, and his 1928 book, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism.
The crux of the action, such as there is in a Tony Kushner play (“It’s all talking!” my 18-year old daughter remarked during the first of two intermissions), centers around issues of perennial interest to the human condition: a man’s work, how he is compensated and what gives life meaning. Quickly, the plot is this: Two generations of an Italian-American family meet to discuss the yearning of its patriarch to kill himself in their Brooklyn brownstone. His three children—a high school teacher, lawyer and owner of a construction business—all try to talk the old man out of it. Over the course of things, each character’s own multitudinous sins, addictions and fears are played out. It becomes clear that the suicidal father, Gus Marcantonio (played by Michael Cristofer), is more disenchanted with life than truly suicidal, which is the argument his children make in the opening scene: Why would you kill yourself if you are healthy and all is reasonably well? Are you simply bored? He is. Gus is a former labor leader, longshoreman and Communist party member. Now comfortably retired (too comfortably, according to the youngest son, the construction worker), he has little left to motivate him.
I was thinking about Chesterton at the theater because I remembered his immortal debates, in print and in person, with Shaw. They were two of the keenest intellects of their generation and relished each other’s company and challenge. Ian Ker’s masterful, soon-to-be-released G. K. Chesterton: A Biography offers many glimpses of these exchanges, including this private letter from Shaw to Chesterton during the First World War: “It is perfectly useless for you to try and differ with me about the war. Nobody can differ with me about the war; you might as well differ from the Almighty about the orbit of the sun.” Meanwhile, Chesterton’s first biographer, Maisie Ward, describes one of their public debates most vividly:
Shaw would not accept the old Scriptural orthodoxy; G.K. refused to accept the new Agnostic orthodoxy; neither man would accept the orthodoxy of the scientists…. Where Shaw said: “Abolish private property which has produced this ghastly poverty,” Chesterton said: “Abolish ghastly poverty by restoring property.” And the audience said: “These two men in strange paradoxes seem to us to be saying the same thing, if indeed they are saying anything at all.” Shaw and Chesterton were themselves deeply concerned about the answers. Both sincere, both dealing with realities, they were prepared to accept each other’s sincerity and to fight the matter out, if need were, endlessly.
One gets the same feeling during “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide”—Kushner’s characters also have a taste for fighting issues out endlessly. The play includes a lot of shouting. Of course, these issues are a matter of life and death, as they were during the longshoreman’s strikes and struggles of the 1960s and early 1970s, tales well-told by Kushner from scene to scene. Gus’s life shined most brightly in those events of his past, and he made his own small fortune as a result of the power of the union. Those were heady post-McCarthyite days when the values of Communism looked to a lot of the faithful, Communist and Catholic both, as consistent with the Gospel.
Decades earlier, Chesterton read Marx, too, and agreed that people tended to seek or make religion wherever they could in life. He wrote with his usual passionate flair that Catholic spiritual practices were “copied…often caricatured” in the movements of the twentieth century. He had in mind psychoanalysis, of course, but also the idea that “Communism is the Franciscan movement without the moderating balance of the Church.” Nevertheless, capitalism always worried him more than Communism.
Each system has its faults. As Pope Benedict XVI has recently pointed out, the sins of capitalism are too easily ignored in the West. St. Ignatius of Loyola said, “Love is an exchange of gifts”—a value easily lost in the midst of unbridled capitalist enterprise. For Chesterton (and Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker) the answer was “distributism,” the owning of private property by all people, not only the few. In What’s Wrong with the World, Chesterton wrote: “Every man should have something that he can shape in his own image, as he is shaped in the image of heaven.” Tony Kushner’s Gus Marcantonio would wholeheartedly agree, but without the heaven bit. What were Gospel values to Chesterton have become secular virtues in Kushner’s play. Long ago, Gus tells us, he fell out with the church. He gave up on it as an institution that cares too much about banking for heaven and too little about fixing earth.
Class struggle will never go away. Jesus said as much. And great playwrights have often turned to the fights between rich and poor and the desire of all to be a little bit richer for subject material. For example, more familiar to most of us than any play by Tony Kushner is Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” first produced in 1912, and greatly admired by Chesterton. Shaw’s sharp wit and criticism of the British class system was later somewhat bludgeoned by the Broadway musical numbers that turned it into “My Fair Lady.”
It would be easy to feel that the subject of “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide,” with the Socialist and Communist movements all but dead, are so twentieth century. Movements come and go, but the troubles are forever with us. We’ve seen in the new millennium how greed and monopoly are alive as ever. We can only imagine what Chesterton would have to say about today’s popular television formulas, such as the ensemble comedy that centers around men who are glorified for slacking off work (see “Cheers,” “Seinfeld” and whatever Charlie Sheen appears in); or the sentimentalizing of capitalism and greed in “Mad Men.”
Decades ago Chesterton responded to critics of distributism saying, “They say it is Utopian; and they are right. They say it is idealistic; and they are right.” So is the work of the church, which is not to say that the work is not real, and not difficult. If it seems that a discussion of capitalism vs. communism feels outdated, perhaps that’s our fault.
Photo above by Joan Marcus, copyright 2011.