The Red Play is an ahistorical play. We meet the Thomas family and learn their most intimate secrets: how they think, how they feel, how they use their bodies for pleasure and to hurt one another. The things we don’t learn about them include where they live, when they live, or what the world beyond their small street looks like. It might look like ours, or like something we’ve read about in a history book, or seen in a museum. Trying to work out a context, though, is futile, for we’re thrust into the gory center of the show with nothing to grab onto, and it’s this that forces us to engage with The Red Play’s central ideas whether we understand them or not.
Much of the recent discourse about the state of the nation (nay, the state of the world) attempts to engage with history in a decidedly childlike fashion. What if things were different, we wonder. What if the candidates were different, or the news coverage were different, if the resistance were different. This is nothing more than wishful thinking, and yet we apply it in equal measure to our art: the point of a show like Hamilton isn’t to celebrate the past, it is to rewrite it with modern vocabulary and hope against all hopes that we might reach a different conclusion—that in making Alexander Hamilton a principled man of color, and making his sister-in-law Angelica a strong, intellectual Black woman, we might somehow leave the theatre and find ourselves in a world where principled men of color and intellectual Black women don’t have to fight white supremacy for their voices, their ideas, their lives.
To historicize something like The Red Play, then, would be cheating. If, at the end of the show, one of the characters groaned about life in the 1840s, or the 1950s, or even the 1980s, we’d be able to distance ourselves from its misogyny, its violence, the urgency with which it arouses and disgusts us. Instead, we’re able to immerse ourselves fully in what Freud called the uncanny: we know nothing about the Thomas family other than what they show us on stage, but we’re simultaneously attracted and repulsed by them in a way that belies true intimacy between audience and art. To be violated by furniture recalls the horror of 19th century domestic thrillers—in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, an unnamed woman is slowly driven mad by the wall hangings of the room her husband keeps her—literally and metaphorically—locked in; in Red, the trappings of domesticity are manifested in furniture that comes to life and sexually assaults a young woman: what is the difference? In The Red Play, every character practices worship of the phallus to some degree; on Twitter right now we’re forced to do the same, wondering if, in a true climax of the abject, male organs will become so engorged with power they go against their nature and consume us all.
The Red Play is a play about what is happening right now; it is a play about what has happened before; it is a play about what will happen tomorrow. Is it one of these things more than any other? The only relevant question seems to be: does it matter?