How to Write a 'Radical' Play About Mao, Modern Politics, and the Chinese Revolution
We Spoke to Anders Lustgarten about his epic new play 'The Sugar Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie.'
Mao Zedong has become a symbol of revolutionary culture, but his legacy is tainted by the deaths of tens of millions of people that occurred during his 27-year leadership. He's been described as both the "Founding Father of modern China" and "one of the greatest tyrants of the 20th century." It's a big topic for a historian—let alone a playwright.
But if anyone can bring the Chinese Revolution to life it's Anders Lustgarten, an activist playwright with a background in Chinese politics, recently hailed by the Guardian as Britain's "most internationally minded dramatist." His epic new play, 'The Sugar Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie', spans more than half a century and sets out to ask what will happen when the hope for capitalism dies the way it did for Maoism.
I caught up with Anders to find out why he thinks it's important to put the story of modern China on a British stage.
VICE: Why did you decide to write a play about the Chinese Revolution?
Anders Lustgarten: Basically, I'd always planned to write this play but I didn't know how to write plays until about six or seven years ago. My PhD was on the Chinese transition from communism to capitalism. So if I'd finished the PhD—which I sort of didn't—then this play would be my PhD in dramatic form. When I started writing it, China was seen as this unstoppable conquering force and now we see it experiencing a significant economic slowdown. The effect that's having is that there's a huge political crackdown.
The play is fundamentally about the nature of revolution and the nature of social change. The Maoist revolution is interesting because it was—unlike, say, the Russian Revolution—an entirely grassroots-up mass movement. It's something that the people very much did themselves. And what makes it very powerful, and therefore quite tragic when it goes wrong, is that people really believed in it.
There have been several plays about China produced in the last few years. What sets yours apart?
I think this is probably the first play about China that's written with such an understanding of China. There have been a series of, in my opinion, quasi-racist plays about China, which have basically used the country as a backdrop for white people's self-discovery. I don't blame the writers for that—I think it's a reflection of the position which China occupies in our culture and understanding of the world.
And then you have plays about China that have an overwhelmingly white cast, where predominantly the main stories that are being told are about white people. That's exploitation. If you want to tell a story about China then you should make damn sure you know about the subject. Still, it's telling that the kinds of plays that have been successful about China are fundamentally not about China.
How do you make sure British audiences can still relate?
China is interesting because it bears so many parallels to the UK. That sort of transition into an extreme communist Maoist society—and a society unlike a lot of communist societies where the people really believe it and it came up from the grassroots—into a society in which people are highly consumerist and capitalist. The closest parallel to that in the west is certainly Britain. If you look at us in the 1970s, we were essentially a state socialist society. And now the country is run by a tiny elite of parasitic thieves who steal our money and hide it in Panama.
So is the play also trying to hold up mirror up to British society?
Absolutely. I think you always end up referring back to yourself, just in a sense of your common frames of reference.
The reason I think this is quite a radical play is that there are all these pieces of propaganda about how Mao was a murderer, and that put Mao in the same category as Stalin and people like that. Now, I'm not here to redeem the reputation of Mao, but I do care about large numbers of people having agency and being respected. And the reason I think this propaganda is pumped out is because elites around the world are terrified of the prospect of grassroots action. They're terrified of it in China, and they're terrified of it here. They want to believe that any grassroots bottom-up mass movement has to end in violence and that the guy in charge—and it's always a guy in charge—is a sociopath. And that is just fundamentally incorrect.
What's deficient in modern politics is the ability to tell a good story about who we are and who we can be that isn't fundamentally passive, depressing, and worthless.
You're an activist as well as a playwright. What do you think theater can do that activism can't?
It's storytelling, isn't it. If you look at what's deficient in modern politics—although Corbyn is bringing it back in—it's the ability to tell a good story about who we are and who we can be that isn't fundamentally passive, depressing, and worthless. The basic story of neoliberalism is, "You are scum, you are worthless, you will take the crumbs from our table and you will beg for them, and there's nothing else you can do." That's the basic story of what every cunt who's been in power since 1979 has tried to ram down our throats. And every one of those cunts is getting their comeuppance now. And that is the story we have to fight back from.
There are very few stories about what we can do for ourselves. But if you go into a theater, there's a strange microcosm of a good society in there. Everybody participates at some level or other; everybody engages; you are part of it. So there's something in the immediacy of theater and in the natural empathy with living human beings in front of you onstage that I think is really important. And the skill is in telling a story that doesn't just become Maoist propaganda or whatever.
When you write, do you always have a political agenda you want to push?
I try not to do that. Basically, as a playwright, I'm a headhunter. What I do is find something that needs to be said and I just fucking go at it. There are ways and means of doing that, but the skill and technique is how you go at it without allowing the audience to defend themselves. And people tend to have a much more effective array of defenses intellectually than they do emotionally.
I think, if you're doing political plays, you need to have something in the play that interrogates or blocks your own political view. The characters in my plays often find themselves revolving around intermediaries—they're not necessarily the people who are completely fucked over, and not the people doing the fucking, but they're kind of the people who clear up the shit of the rich. I think it's quite fruitful to get a lens into the world you want to depict through the natural antagonism between that person and the story you're telling.
You've spent a lot of time in China. Did any of the people you meet inspire some of the stories in the play?
Yes, the play is close to home because I know the place. I've spent a lot of time around these people. There's predominantly female characters in the play. People have this nauseating belief that Chinese women are just sort of quiet and shy and all that fucking nonsense. Chinese women are feisty, man. And Chinese peasants—they don't take any shit at all. So it's quite a feminist play.
Why should we come and see The Sugar Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie?
Because it's not like anything else out there. It's a proper story about a proper country you probably don't know a whole lot about. And it's hilarious. It's got fake Maos in it. Who doesn't want to see a Mao impersonator competition?
'The Sugar Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie' runs at the Arcola Theatre until April 30 and transfers to the High Tide Festival in September.
Anders Lustgarten will appear in a post-show Q&A with Ha-Joon Chang, author of 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism on the April 19.
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