"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Entertainment News
The first act of Tony Kushner’s new play, “Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy,” has been performed around the country since it was published last year (to read it, click here). It was seen most recently at the American Airlines Theater in New York’s Times Square on Monday night at a riveting benefit for MoveOn.org, with Kristen Johnston narrating, Patricia Clarkson playing an angel, and John Cameron Mitchell portraying Laura Bush. In honor of the event, Kushner penned a new scene, allowing the first lady to respond to the performance. It was performed Monday night with Clarkson playing Laura Bush, Mitchell playing the role of Tony Kushner, and Johnston playing herself.
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Hi. My name is Tony Kushner, I’m a playwright, and I wrote the scene you just listened to. I wrote it one night over a year ago during the buildup to the second Iraq war. I couldn’t sleep, I was so angry, so I wrote this scene, which left me feeling sad by the time I’d finished it. Since then I’ve been thinking of writing a full-length play about Laura Bush and the Bush administration — Condoleezza Rice is also a big Dostoevsky fan — but I haven’t done that yet. I keep stalling. I guess I’m hoping that in four months the play’s subject matter will have exceeded its expiration date and be on its way home to Crawford.
The Nation published the scene before the war started, and so did the Guardian in London. Some people got angry about it, including Page Six of the New York Post, a columnist in Boston and, to my surprise, a number of readers of the Nation. Others took me up on the offer I made in the Nation and they did the play at antiwar rallies around the country. Marcia Gay Harden has played Laura Bush on several occasions; the last time, she was eight and a half months pregnant — with twins! Just like Laura! No one is more thorough than Marcia Gay when it comes to preparing for a part. In London, Vanessa Redgrave played Laura Bush. One trade union group did the scene in Seattle and invited Laura Bush herself to take part in the reading, playing herself. Her office didn’t respond to the invitation.
But I have connections, and so when John Cameron Mitchell asked for permission to do the play tonight, for a benefit for MoveOn, I said yes and I immediately called my very good friend, Antonin Scalia, with whom I have on several occasions gone duck-hunting in my home state of Louisiana. Two guys can really bond, even across a rather formidable ideological divide, when they’re squatting together in chilly yet fetid swamp water, semiautomatic weapons at the ready for the first sign of dawn and a flying duck. Antonin Scalia’s son Rusty worked for the Bush campaign in 2000, back when his father overturned the Florida Supreme Court’s decision to let the vote count proceed, thus handing the election to Mrs. Bush’s husband, so everyone knows everyone, it’s a small world, so I asked Antonin and he asked his son Rusty who asked Mrs. Bush and, though she declined our invitation to play herself, she said she’d love to talk about the play and so here she is, the first lady of the United States, if you believe her husband actually is the legally elected president of the United States, and he isn’t — but anyway, what’s a stolen state or a corrupt Supreme Court decision between friends? — Ladies and Gentlemen and Supporters of MoveOn: the first lady of the United States, Laura Welch Bush.
[Laura Bush enters.]
TK: Thank you for coming here tonight.
LAURA BUSH: My pleasure, I guess. I didn’t like your skit very much.
TK: No, I didn’t think you would.
LB: It was sort of insulting, and at times I felt the writing was really muddleheaded, and of course I’m nothing like that.
TK: No, well, it’s a work of fiction.
LB: Uh-huh. But you know, I think if a portrait painter said that about somebody’s portrait, by way of explaining why it looks nothing whatsoever like the person it was intended to represent, then I think we would say the painter had, well, failed.
TK: Maybe, but I…
LB: And now you’re gonna say you didn’t intend an accurate portrait. You had some other purpose in mind and…
TK: Yes, well, actually that’s…
LB: Uh-huh, and what would you say that is? That purpose?
TK: I think I…
LB: Because it wasn’t at all clear to me. Only thing that came through, so far as I could tell, was intense hatred, um, irrational antipathy toward me and my husband, who just drives people like you straight round the bend. Doesn’t he?
TK: I’m not sure it’s an irrational antipathy toward him, and I don’t really feel antipathy for…
LB: And of course it was rather crude, and unflattering, and well, then you got a drag queen to play me, just in case…
LB: Just in case anyone missed the point, which is…
TK: Actually, John Cameron Mitchell is an established and highly respected New York stage actor and a prize-winning film director…
LB: Well I never heard of him.
TK: He’s done drag, yes, rather famously in his film “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” but he isn’t a drag queen, per se, he’s…
LB: I never heard of you either, for that matter. I have heard of Patricia Clarkson, I thought she was very, very moving and good in that movie “Pieces of April.” I identified with that woman she played, I thought it was good and she was really good, and I have to say I’m surprised at her, taking part in something like this. And that other woman, the tall blonde, she was in “Third Rock From the Sun,” wasn’t she? My husband loved that show. I didn’t care for it, I’m not a big one for television, but she’s a funny and talented actress, and I understand she’s doing Shakespeare right now, one of my favorite plays, “Much Ado About Nothing.” So again, I’m surprised. That she would sink so far.
TK: I’ve read you like Shakespeare.
LB: “He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man: and he that is more than a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man, I am not for him: therefore, I will even take sixpence in earnest of the bear-ward, and lead his apes into hell.”
TK: “Well, then, go you into hell?”
[Kristen Johnston enters.]
KRISTEN JOHNSTON: “No, but to the gate; and there will the devil meet me, like an old cuckold, with horns on his head, and say, ‘Get you to heaven, Beatrice, get you to heaven; here’s no place for you maids’: so deliver I up my apes, and away to Saint Peter for the heavens; he shows me where the bachelors sit, and there live we as merry as the day is long.”
[She exits. Laura Bush applauds.]
LB: There, wasn’t that lovely? Why couldn’t you have done a fundraiser with scenes from Shakespeare? Class up your act?
TK: I read that you and Dana Gioia, the chairman of the NEA, are working on a plan to send Shakespeare troupes…
LB: To schools and communities all across America. That’s right.
TK: Assuming you have the money to pay for it. What about NEA grants for American artists?
LB: There will be some, though I think we’re going to focus on encouraging traditional crafts. Do you quilt?
TK: No. Nothing for playwrights?
LB: What, so you can write more stuff like this? We’re still waiting for you to tell what your point was.
TK: Well, I guess… The play’s not finished.
LB: It’s not?? Well my goodness! You must finish it, sugar, hang on a second and we’ll fix you right up with a big NEA grant!
TK: You don’t have to be so hostile.
LB: Oh right. You make rude remarks about my private intimate life with my husband and…
TK: He makes rude remarks about your…
LB: And I’m not even an elected official. You want to pick on someone, go after him.
TK: My point was sort of that…
LB: He does not make rude…
TK: He did! A bunch of reporters asked him what he’d given you for your anniversary and he winked at them!
LB: Oh, that’s just his way!
TK: And you made up a poem you said he’d written about you in which he calls you “lump-in-the-bed” … you made a point of telling people that even though you had lied about who had written the poem:
[Kristen Johnston enters again.]
“Roses are red
Violets are blue
how I miss you.”
LB: I think that’s sort of…
TK: You made a point of saying that he actually does call you “lump-in-the-bed,” which is, well, I mean maybe more than we want to know about…
LB: See now, there’s nothing sexual about that — it’s absolutely not a sexual…
TK: So I guess my point is…
LB: You’re sort of a weird combination of filthy-minded and Victorian, aren’t you, not to mention…
TK: So I guess my point is…
TK: That we’re all like you. That we’re all being fucked by your husband.
LB: I’m leaving.
TK: No, no please, I…
LB: No, I am leaving, Whoopi Goldberg, and you can eat my dust!
But before I go I have something I want to say to you. First off, art has nothing to do with politics and if you had any real understanding, or, or anything to offer other than shallowness and silliness and bathroom humor, you would set your sights on plumbing the mysteries of, of human nature and the human condition, like Dostoevsky did or Chekov or…
TK: I love Dostoevsky! You and I have that in common, we both love…
LB: Yeah, all you liberals love to read Dostoevsky cause it turns you on ’cause you just can’t believe how much fun it is to read someone who’s that mean and that smart! It’s such a gol-durned relief not to have to be so smilin’ and happy and nice nice nice about people all the time. You just can’t believe it! Whew! Someone who tells it like it is! People can be HORRIBLE! You liberals all love you some Dostoevsky! Oh and by the way, I am not in the least confused by his point, by Dostoevsky’s point — he isn’t confusing. You make it sound like he is and like I am, but he knows what he’s doing. He’s sharp as it gets and not in the least confusing and muddleheaded, unlike some I could mention.
TK: I just don’t think you can say he isn’t political.
LB: Oh you’d definitely say Dostoevsky’s political, though I think you wouldn’t even want to know who he’d vote for! If he’d vote at all, because his vision and his art transcend politics, he attains spiritual realms undreamt of by you political squabbly type guys, and, and it’s, I mean what would Chekov think? Using the stage, the theater, ART! for, for tawdry propagandizing? You oughta be ashamed of yourself.
TK: I always am.
LB: And that explains your political affiliations! You guys are just a bunch of mopes, y’all are all just sorrowful types who haven’t figured out which sock drawer you oughta shove all your personal misery and disappointment and, and guilt in. It’s like a mental condition is what it is.
TK: Don’t you sort of think all politics is connected to psychological, um, baggage, um, stuff? See, that’s why I think your art-isn’t-political line is sort of, well, a meaningless distinction.
LB: [Overlapping on "um, stuff?"] I mean it’s not like there’s anyone who isn’t sorrowful or guilty, it’s just some people don’t fall back on that as the basis of a whole droopy dreary you know, Weltanshauung, pardon my French — and I know, skipper, you don’t think people from East Texas know big German words like Weltanshauung, but we do. You’re a snob, is another thing. And by the way Scalia’s son isn’t named Rusty — where on earth did you get that? don’t you check any facts? — his name’s Eugene.
TK: Maybe all liberalism and progressivism and left-leaning politics are pathological, but I would argue less maladaptive and delusional than, say, well, your politics, or rather your husband’s — since no one knows what yours really are, which is why I find you so fascinating, it’s…
LB: Oh, you know what mine are, don’t be so friggin’ fascinated, you snoop. Mine are just a whole lot like his are, maybe not so, not so, well that’s none of your business.
TK: But like I think all conservative thought is sort of a product of thought disorder, like a mild thought disorder, an inability to follow an idea or an action through to its actual consequences, or, or it’s a morbid obsessional terror and the sourness and viciousness that accompanies such…
LB: What I think is you people are afraid of my husband, is what I think…
TK: Oh, no argument about that, I mean…
LB: [Overlapping, continuous from above.] You’re afraid of George because, because well, first off you hate him because he does things. I mean actually likely to act, to act on his convictions. It’s not his convictions — it’s that he does stuff about it.
TK: Well, no, it’s that he does stuff about it and also his convictions really suck, his ideological…
LB: You all can’t stand his, well, let’s call it vividness. “Ideological.” Balls! Oh, sure, he’s not a reader, I mean tell me about it! Sure, he can’t get through the ingredients on the side panel of the cereal box in the morning without moving his lips, and sure, for people who read, for some people who read, this is like, well, the mark of the devil because such people as yourself are snobs and you wear your reading like an expensive suit and you don’t want to talk to people who just could give a flyin’ flip about such things and who think “You wear your suit, and I wear my suit which I bought at Wal-Mart and so what, so what?”
TK: But you people are like beyond rich. You don’t shop at Wal-Mart, you may eat pork rinds but you own the ranch!! You own the whole – And you’re hardly uninterested in what other people are wearing, I mean you snoop and you pry and you try to get librarians to sign loyalty oaths and this whole laissez-faire —
LB: [Overlapping on "you snoop, etc."] But for people like you it’s a precious badge of distinction notifying all other suit wearers, “Look at me, I have read enough to be muddleheaded enough not to do a frigging thing!” I mean, look at that gloomy old banana face you just nominated, and sorry to be name-calling but really, take a good look! Does anyone think he’s likely to do anything other than marvel at the complexity of everything and hire people who are similarly awestruck and flabbergasted at the, at the whole magical mystery tour incomprehensibility of it all, and so you’ll, you’ll all get together in Washington like last time and you’ll, you’ll what, you’ll ban snowmobiles in Yellowstone Park and then everyone in the Sierra Club’ll take everyone in PETA out for a Sunday night pizza!
TK: Banning snowmobiles is better than drilling for oil in the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge — and you have to be honest and admit that Clinton faced a Republican Congress for most of his administration that was astonishingly hostile and…
LB: [Overlapping on "Congress."] Whee-hoo, action! Snowmobiles! Head Start! Don’t-ask-don’t-tell and, and lookie here, three whole forklifts full of wasted paper and — and you want to talk about hostile?
TK: [Overlapping on "paper and..."] Negotiations for peace in Ireland, in the Mideast and…
LB: [Overlapping, continuous from above.] Just wait till you see Tom DeLay if Kerry beats George! Hostile? Listen! Hark! That’s the sound of Richard Mellon Scaife a-sharpening his — And oh yeah negotiations, like that amounted to spit!
TK: And, and at least we didn’t attack another country, at least with a Democrat in the White House there’s less chance of…
LB: [Overlapping, continuous from above.] You go on and on about Halliburton and the Carlyle Group, Halliburton and the Carlyle Group — and no you didn’t attack another country, not like you meant it, you all just fire a missile here and a missile there and look like you are thinking real hard about the meaning of missiles and, and when Iraq is free is ten years even at great cost, if it works out and it’s free you’ll still be hoping for it all to go badly…
TK: That’s not fair, I mean I know we fucked up because, because for years we’ve left the business of governing to people whose, to centrists and quislings and reactionaries, and we have a lot of organizing, a lot of catching up to do, getting back into electoral politics and the turnaround will be slow and uncertain but…
LB: [Overlapping with "a lot of catching up to do."] Halliburton and the Carlyle Group, you really think you people will do diddly squat about dismantling Halliburton and the Carlyle Group? Here’s the second reason you hate George so much! Here’s the reason you’re so angry! You’re powerless! You anticipate a future of powerlessness! That’s why you’re all choking in rage and writing nasty little plays, you’re…
TK: You’re not angry? You people have all the power in the world and you’re the angriest people ever in the history of — you’re inexhaustibly splenetic! That’s how history will remember you, spluttering on camera at everything that moves! Kvetch kvetch kvetch!
[Kristen Johnston enters.]
KJ: Um, I’m sorry, you guys, but we have to stop and do the Q&A.
LB: OK. Can I just say one more thing? And I know I said in that interview with that woman journalist from the New York Times that there was nothing political about American literature. But I’m not stupid. I know that there is. I know that like 90 percent of our writers are liberal or worse. 99 percent. Doesn’t matter a lick. The liberals may have nearly all the poets and painters and everybody else but WE have Dostoevsky and he obliterates the whole kitandkaboodle, we have Dostoevsky and so we win.
KJ: OK, thank you, Mrs. Bush.
I’d like to end by telling you a dream I had.
Is that OK?
TK: Um, sure.
LB: Is it funny?
KJ: Sort of. It has a happy ending.
It was the night after your husband spoke at the U.N., after the war had started.
I watched his speech and then I dreamed about it. Your husband is speaking at the U.N., addressing the General Assembly. He wants the other countries of the world to help him out of the awful mess he has made and is making in Iraq. His handlers have been telling him that it turns out he needs help from “old” Europe after all. It turns out that the liberation of Iraq is not going to be easy, and enormously expensive, and it’s not going to resemble in the least the African-American civil rights movement, which Condoleezza Rice had been telling him it would. His party did its best to destroy the African-American civil rights movement and to this day works assiduously to dismantle some of the movement’s most important achievements — increased voter registration, redistricting for purposes of diversifying representation, affirmative action and the war on poverty — but nowadays every Republican other than Trent Lott talks about Dr. King as if he’d been their best friend and Condoleezza Rice has likened those who opposed the war to those who opposed civil rights for African-Americans even though the war was largely a Republican pet project and the civil rights movement was opposed by Republicans, and it’s all gotten very confusing and mostly your husband doesn’t like to be confused, he likes things simple, and so he just shuts it all out when it gets confusing and does what the people he trusts tell him, the people who like him and who do his homework for him, like Rice and Rove and Cheney; and they told him this would be a cakewalk, and it isn’t turning out to be, it’s turning out to be a mess, and now here he is standing up before these folks at the U.N. and telling them why they have to help him rebuild Iraq even though they didn’t want him to go in there in the first place.
He is talking, beneficiary of his Texas drawl which, with its gentle, assured rhythms, substitutes for ideas and passions and intelligence in giving Bush’s voice a modulated and nuanced and lively sound. He tells the world assembly that things are going well in Iraq after his over-hasty and illegal attack; he repeats his now-proven-false but always-patently-absurd assertions about weapons of mass destruction, his insinuations about the role Iraq played in recent terrorist attacks; he tells the representatives of desperately poor countries full of people starving to death or dying of diseases, the cures for which are unavailable because unaffordable, because the countries are saddled with debt no one wants to forgive and are still reeling from the legacies of colonialism and the pillaging of modern-day imperialists and corporate bandits and exploiters, he tells the representatives of these billions of poor people that terrorism is their biggest concern and the world should help us because making us safe from terrorism, which means a U.S. occupation of Iraq supported by U.N. troops and paid for by member nations, this will make the world a better place. He talks about how well things are going in Afghanistan, which not only the U.S. but the entire planet has once again betrayed, doing nothing necessary to rebuild the country; and he introduces Karzai, who he says “represents a free people who are building a decent and just society … building a nation fully joined in the war against terrorism.” And the news cameras swing over to Karzai, who looks 10 trillion years older than he did two years ago and who forgets to smile on cue.
Bush talks a lot about the international traffic in young girls, about the sexual slave trade, and this gives him an opportunity to gravel up his voice and tuck his trademark smirk in his breast pocket and show the world assembly some of his trademark compassionate conservatism as he imaginatively enters the minds of teenager prostitutes living in “lonely fear,” who “see little of life before they see the worst of life,” he devotes more time to talking about the sex trade than he does to talking about the conflict in the Mideast, and the utter failure of his peace initiative, and the way his administration has abandoned any attempt to make peace in the Mideast and so set the stage for today’s carnage — about these things he says nothing. But he is still talking about the sex trade, he likes talking about this because stopping the trafficking in women and girls means for George W. Bush passing stricter laws against offenders, it means telling other countries to pass stricter laws, and passing laws, he has learned, is cheap, as is imposing sanctions on poor countries who “allow” rich Westerners to buy and fuck their children. For George W. Bush, stopping the trafficking in women and girls does not mean spending money to end the fearsome poverty around the planet, which is of course the source of the sexual trade, and of terrorism too — but ending poverty means spending money, and he can’t, he’s tapped out, he’ll need $200 billion this year alone to pay for the maintenance of our new colony, Iraq, and he’s gutted the tax base in the U.S. and he has no money to spend, and so he will pass stricter laws and impoverish poor countries with further sanctioning (unless of course they happen to provide the US with something it wants in which case they will be allowed to continue to “allow” sex trafficking) and he won’t have to tax the undertaxed American rich; it’s just like his educational reforms domestically, which are predicated on the understanding that testing testing testing is a lot cheaper than schoolbooks or teachers’ salaries or new schools.
George W. Bush is winding down to his conclusion, when all of a sudden something stirs through the General Assembly like a stiff March wind through tall winter grasses, some breath of life from the beleaguered common source of life, some exhalation from the lungs of the earth itself, or some stirring of the air produced by a shudder, a convulsion from deep within the earth’s soul, the very common core of humanity, something that is carnal and animal and erotic and vital, something that is the very exuberant animate antithesis of this antidemocratic plutocrat, this wet-behind-the-ears schoolyard bully, this debauched lump of ensorcelled clay always entropically winding down toward inanimation. Something blows through and grabs hold of the members of the General Assembly of the United Nations who have been listening to George W. Bush and his heartless mindless gabble, listening with exhaustion, boredom, embarrassment and disgust, something courses through them and fills them and shakes them and lifts them to their feet, the whole chamber is rising to its feet, and like blindingly incandescent bacchantes drunk on fermented honey, the members begin to shriek EVOHE and to move as one toward the podium, ablaze with Life’s revulsion at Death and at Death’s astounded, clueless little minion: and then they seize him and hold him aloft for an instant to the eye of offended heaven and then…
And then I woke up.
And then I went online to MoveOn.org and johnkerry.com and democrats.org and I signed up for poll watching and leafletting and I donated to the Kerry campaign and the DNC the hundreds of thousands of dollars I am making doing Shakespeare in the Park, or at least as much as is my legal limit.
(Long, long pause)
LB: Well. That was very interesting. I certainly wish you all the best. And as I depart, trying to raise the tone of the evening, I offer this, which you Miss Johnston, will recognize:
“Foul words is but foul wind, and foul wind is but foul breath, and foul breath is noisome; therefore I will depart unkissed.”
See you in November!
Tony Kushner is a playwright whose works include "Angels in America," and most recently, "Caroline or Change."More Tony Kushner.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)