What do you do with a family heirloom such as Marxism? It’s not the kind you can sit on a mantelpiece or hang in a wardrobe. But it is the kind you can write a play about, which is what New York dramatist Amy Herzog has done — twice.
The first, After the Revolution, hinged on the readjustment that Herzog’s family had to make when it was revealed that her late grandfather Joe, a communist from the Jewish, paternal side of Herzog’s family, was not quite the star of socialism that many had thought — indeed not to anyone but the most committed of communists.
“In 1999, my family learned that my grandfather Joe Joseph had passed secrets to the Soviet Union during World War II,” Herzog explains. “This was a big blow to my family because he had been a hero.”
Herzog ruffled a few familial feathers by turning the family drama into a stage play. But perhaps most sanguine of all about production was Joe’s wife Leepee, who not only inspired the character of Vera in After the Revolution but turns up again as a frail but formidable Jewish communist grandmother in 4,000 Miles, which makes its UK debut next week at The Print Room in west London, having won a prestigious off-Broadway Obie award when it was first staged in 2010. The New York Times hailed it as “altogether wonderful”.
The play centres on the relationship between Vera and her neo-hippy grandson Leo who visits his nonagenarian grandmother after an epic cycle ride across the US.
It’s as much a play about drawing connections between generations as it is about the passing on of political idealism.
Although Leepee died in April, it is likely that she and her political beliefs will live on — at least in her granddaughter’s plays.
“I think there will be one more play about the Josephs,” says Herzog, whose latest work, Belleville, is described as a thriller and has just opened to critical acclaim at the New York Theatre Workshop.
The next play with Vera (who will be portrayed by Sara Kestelman at The Print Room) will no doubt also draw on Herzog’s family politics.
“I grew up much more conscious of a political legacy than a religious one,” adds the writer, who is married to director Sam Gold, who made his Broadway debut with the comedy, Seminar, which most recently starred Jeff Goldblum.
She recalls from her childhood that “most of the dinner-table conversations were political. There was some pressure on the grandkids to be politically aware — to study Marxism and carry that torch.
“My grandmother took a lot of pride in being Jewish in a cultural way. But — like most Marxists, I would say — she was disdainful of organised religion.
“She had real faith in Jewish genes though. I guess she was concerned that when my father married a gentile that it would mean her grandchildren wouldn’t be very intelligent. But she had no interest in the Jewish god.”