Twilight Struggles, Then and Now: A Review of The Party Line

The scenes in which these people meet, size up, and confront one another, in various times and places, are often clipped and, at first, enigmatic.  In the beginning, indeed, the play feels almost like a four-dimensional mosaic – a series of snapshots whose relation to one another is not immediately apparent.  Gradually, however, the pieces start falling into place, and the connections begin to be perceptible, as if to say, yes, it can take time to grasp the truth.

The playwrights' point in linking Duranty and Fortuyn by means of so many different threads is clear.  Today's jihadist Islam, like Stalinism, is a form of totalitarianism.  Now, as then, many people in the West vigorously deny this and cling to the party line – the views that count as received opinions among the bien pensant.  Some do this because they're true believers; others because they're cynical careerists; still others because they're just plain cowards.  Then there are the few brave souls who, even though they know they're courting personal and professional disaster, speak the truth, selflessly, in the name of liberty.  Gareth Jones, who doesn't figure in the play's cast of characters but whose name figures prominently in the dialogue, was one such hero, reporting the truth about the Ukrainian famine while Duranty was lying about it.  Another such hero, of course, was Fortuyn.

Although The Party Line deals with ideas, it's not the kind of “drama of ideas” in which the characters are the authors' mouthpieces or nuance-free symbols of good or evil.  The men and women who populate this play are living, breathing individuals whose various reactions to totalitarian ideas are recognizable to anyone who has observed such things in real life.  Jihadist Islam may not be exactly the same thing as Soviet Communism, but it brings out the same range of responses in free people who are confronted with it.  Now, as then, there are media figures who are breathtakingly willing to hide the monstrous truth about despotism in order to keep the despot happy.  Now, as then, there are those who see the enemy plain, and are breathtakingly willing to put their lives on the line for liberty.

“Those who cannot remember the past,” Santayana famously observed, “are condemned to repeat it.”   Among the lessons of this remarkable play are that the threat of tyranny is eternal, that the ability to be taken in by forms of tyranny disguised as benign answers to all the world's problems is eternal, and that the challenge to stand up for freedom in the face of such insidious threats is also eternal.  Credulity, cowardice, courage – all recur from generation to generation.  There will always be people who cherish the freedom to lead their own lives as they wish; there will always be those who desperately crave an ideal order to which they can subordinate themselves.  Some treasure the truth, some can't face it, and some profit by being pathological liars.  The same drama repeats itself time and again, with the forces of darkness appearing in different forms and under different names, and the heroes and villains not always instantly recognizable.

No other dramatic work with which I am familiar, either on stage or on screen, has summed up the salient truths of our time as effectively as The Party Line does.  It is nothing less than a profound statement about the lessons of the last century – and about the failure of so many people to learn them.  Yet what makes it so powerful is that it does not come across as remotely preachy.  On the contrary, it is a deeply human story that – one hopes – will speak to a wide range of audiences, opening their eyes to realities that are right in front of their noses, but from which they have been trained to look away.

Read another review of The Party Line at City Journal by Stefan Kanfer.