Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 924
Written three years before the historic events of September 11, 2001, Homebody/Kabul has been called prophetic. Tony Kushner’s play examines the history and politics of contemporary Afghanistan, a country whose complex history includes multiple conquests and wars—political and religious—and that resembles a postmodern Babel, where ethnicities, religions, and languages all mix in a sort of exhausted disarray. When Frank Sinatra’s voice is heard singing, it represents the Western romanticism of tourism, a luxury whose participants—in their objectification of the exotic Other—are often ignorant about the hardships of the world, as Homebody self-deprecatingly accuses herself to be.
Homebody/Kabul explores the history of violence in Afghanistan. Through the slightly delusional romanticism of Homebody and her readings from An Historical Guide to Kabul, the country and its people have a chance to appear beautiful, albeit ravaged. They seem worthy of Homebody’s love, and she, as one who still loves the world purely and idealistically, inspires empathy toward Afghanistan. When the first production of Homebody/Kabul opened at the end of 2001, most American audiences were looking for answers, causes, or connections to their national tragedy. However, the play is not about causes. It is about the immense suffering and chaos of the postcolonial and postimperialist world, regardless of one’s citizenship.
The plot follows the journey of the Ceilings, a dysfunctional family. They are the narrative vehicle driving the audience’s journeys from the West to the East and back. The theme of family is thus explored through its relationship to, and transformations within, the postcolonial and postmodern world. Before each of them journeys to Afghanistan, the Ceilings live in a home already ridden with multiple symptoms of postmodern existence, including depression, suicide, prescription drugs, and a lack of communication and affection. Priscilla dislikes if not despises her mother for her eccentric ways. Homebody is obsessed with language. Her sentences are long and filled with complicated words. For a woman of so many words, however, she fails to communicate with her own daughter.
Through their epic journey to Afghanistan, the Ceilings learn more of one another than they have known in their more peaceful days. Milton learns of Priscilla’s pregnancy cut short by her attempted suicide at the age of eighteen. He discovers that she, too, possesses her mother’s talent for language. As Priscilla gathers the facts about her mother, she confronts Milton’s passive, dispassionate ways of living, for which he was criticized by Homebody in her opening monologue. In the end, while coping with her grief, Priscilla manifests her mother’s compassion in her own actions when she protects Mahala from execution by the Taliban minister. Mahala’s immigration, assisted by the Ceilings, not only provides her with a better life but also most likely saves her life.
Language becomes a major theme of this play written by a playwright with an immense talent for words. The main character of Homebody possesses so much passion for learning that her curiosity is contagious and her language is inspiring. In a multiethnic and multilingual Afghanistan, human understanding seems impossible, and under the tyranny of Taliban many questions remain avoided, unanswered, or misunderstood. According to critic Robert Brustein, the characters in Kabul often break out into antirealist monologues in the tradition of German playwright Bertolt Brecht, making the play sound like a “schizophrenic entity” and rendering the need for a universal language obvious. Kwaja’s poems introduce the universal language Esperanto, named after a Polish philologist and meaning “the one who hopes.” Milton and Mahala find a common language in the Dewey decimal system, which is based on the same numerical principles as the computer science of Milton’s occupation. For Homebody, however, the common language is love. It is the empathetic power of love that allows an audience to suspend its disbelief and makes Homebody’s every fantastical journey compelling. That same power makes her an unlikely tourist of Kabul, a city long forsaken by the rest of the world.
As functions of language, myth and mystery become driving devices of the plot. The biblical myth of Cain, whose grave is speculated to be located in Kabul, compels Homebody to undertake her journey. The plot completes a circle near its end when Homebody’s daughter, who now follows the mystery of her mother’s corpse, finds herself at Cain’s gravesite. It is her final stop on the land of Kabul and the speculated last stop of her mother as well. However, even at this location, the mystery is never solved. Discouraged by mystery, Priscilla decides to stop her search. The presumed grave of Cain becomes the metaphorical grave of Homebody.
Several reviews have criticized Homebody/Kabul for its lack of structure and purpose. Like Priscilla, who is tormented by grief and confusion, the plot appears to wander about. However, just as one’s stages of coping are hard to predict, so the suffering city of Kabul must find its course. As in Kushner’s award-winning and celebrated play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (pr. 1991-1992, pb. 1992-1993), Homebody/Kabul studies the history of humanity and the effect of politics on its existence. Elements of Brecht’s epic theatre are present in the play, including its nonlavish sets, minimal props, and Homebody’s monologue to the audience. However, where Brecht believed in alienating audiences emotionally, Kushner produces characters who move, evoke, and summon empathy. According to Framji Minwalla, Homebody/Kabul “tell[s] these discrete stories without erasing the suffocating cruelties of imperial, colonial, neocolonial domination.”