Soon, but not too soon, every Broadway audience for the musical Fun Home, playing at Circle in the Square, learns that Alison Bechdel and her siblings secretly referred to their father's funeral home as the fun home. The musical's insistence on putting the fun back in funeral rests on an available bit of word play -- between fun home and funhouse -- which is backed up in this production by a set of entertaining sight gags. Caskets serve as roller coaster carriages. Liberally sprayed Pledge© transforms tables and chairs into a house of mirrors. Mangled bodies reappear as whole. But the entrails of the guy on the table in the far back room aren't made out of Franco-American U-Oh SpagettiOs.
Of course most if not all of the audience already knew this, having read the graphic novel or reviews of the Broadway show. And it is equally safe to assume that most if not all of the audience have given themselves over to the stupid pleasures of the funhouse or haunted house at least once in their lives, not bothering to think how it placed them in the broad but specifically American heritage of the amusement park. Who cares if the world's first funhouse was opened at Coney Island in the 1900s or how it is related to Barnum's freak shows, the traveling haunted house or those deliciously demented Hell Houses and Halloween movies? The point is: We know what we are about to see before we see it. Secure in this shared knowledge, we revel in being connoisseurs of the innovative twist in the same old plotline. And that's what's fun about the funhouse -- and why most are not disturbing, unsettling. I think many people would be quite enraged were they to enter a funhouse and find themselves in a place without fixed compass a few minutes after emerging -- the fun house is not meant to lodge a permanent nausea into the loadstone of one's identity. That would not be fun.
And so the least interesting thing about Fun Home at the Circle in the Square Theatre is what so many reviews seem to sigh over -- the psychological house of mirrors at the center of the play. Alison Bechdel's dad, Bruce Bechdel, is not what he seems. And though his chameleon nature leads him to inflict deep psychological harm on those around him (perhaps most importantly his wife) or to remain, for the most part, briskly absent, he is no Freddy Krueger. We're not in that movie. No, we're squarely in another American fun house, or rather a period when the most interesting fun houses weren't to be found in the traveling fair but on the docks and in the bathhouses of New York City and San Francisco and in the cars idling along the back roads of every American town -- in that part of the park in every American city. Bruce Bechdel jumps on these other amusement park rides at a very specific moment and place -- post-Stonewall New York. Edmund White notes:
Now there were back rooms too, which there had never been before. There were the piers, these abandoned docks that stuck out into the Hudson, where people would go and have sex in these big huge abandoned buildings. People would also get up inside the parked trucks under the West Side Highway and have sex.
Not to worry if you have kids as acres of tact and pathos prevail as Bruce walk off stage into the night, but not before being stopped by his daughter who inquires as to where he's going. "To get the paper," he says, abandoning Alison and her siblings in an apartment in what we take to be a fairly rough part of the West Village in late seventies. And, although nothing in graphic novel or the Broadway musical even hint at this -- the timing of Bruce's depression/psychosis and the appearance of HIV/AIDS leaves for some audience members lingering questions. Similarly, only some members of the audience -- definitely not all, maybe very few at this point -- have any personal experience of the funhouses Bruce Bechdel entered and exited. "I've read about them" is the best, perhaps, many of us can do. But even this reaction, wistful and envious in its emphasis, marks a departure from the common mood. For most of the Fun Home audience, I'd imagine, the most available sentiment pulsing around Bruce is one of tragic sympathy. Oh if only he'd been allowed to be who he was. Look at us now. No need for all that pain and suffering and the way such pain spills over and affects an entire familial ecosystem. We made the right choice to let people be who they really are. Psychological health and happiness come from the liberation of our true selves. And psychological health and happiness, as we all know, banishes trauma. If Bruce had been able to be out and love the way he wanted to love then none of this would have existed.
But whatever common sentiment is shared as audiences spill from the Circle in the Square -- this judgment, this feeling, is not what is most interesting about Fun Home. Something more important, unresolvable, disturbing and irreparable pulses under the mainly bright show tunes. And this disturbance is not particular; it is not a disturbance that results from an unnecessary trauma -- the completely avoidable trauma that Bruce's inability to admit to what he was inflicted on his butch daughter, who will have to live with it for the rest of her life. One can hear thousand and thousands of children saying the same thing: "Why did you have to leave me with this unresolvable question? Why couldn't you just have changed, just have chosen the healthy option, been honest with yourself?" And one can also hear the fantasy wish behind these questions: "If you had made the right choices, then I would never had to feel this disturbance at the center of my soul." Fun Home is, at its most powerful, a staging of a counterargument to this fantasy, this wish to do away with the conditions that impose a gap in our sense of self. Forget it. You're not closing it. You can't. Frame the picture any way you like, reconstruct the settings as exactly as possible, split yourself into as many ages and versions as you can and all you are doing is creating more gaps, more opening, less wholeness. The compass spins faster.
Maybe this gap is a structural effect of becoming a subject, assuming an identity, any identity: straight, gay, black, white, from the global north or south. Certainly the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan thought so. Or maybe it's because we are always living at odds with one another, each occupying a divergent set of places and times, no matter how close our bodies happen to be at the moment. This terrifyingly splitting and binding fact was inescapable in my family. Standing in a suburban home in Shreveport, Louisiana, my twice-exiled, twice-removed paternal grandparents would ferociously insist that we never, ever, forget that we were from Karezol. "Where is that?," asked the American-born grand kids. And there it would start: the fights, what I might now call post-traumatic stress, the melancholic fits. Should we say Karezol or Carisolo? Was it in Italy or the Austrian-Hungarian Empire? The Austrian-Hungarian Empire of the Trentino-Alto Adige? Where is that? And then on and on, with less and less sense: The trench warfare we kids would have to be strong enough to survive, the latrines and bayonets, the Alpines reaches and the languages we would need to master: Ladin, Mòcheno and Cimbrian.
I loved these grandparents. I wanted to be them, to crawl into their skins, to experience the massive world they fought over with such passion and intensity. But, no matter what I subsequently learned about what any of this meant, the family legacy I inherited was not a story waiting to be made whole but the very gap between the geographical opacity of their raging passions and my own.
In Fun Home, what opened so perilously between my grandparents and me opens again between those standing across the same mortuary table or pressing their bodies against each other in the same narrow dorm bed. Even twins stand side-by-side and not in the same place. Bruce Bechdel was not living in the same time or in the same place as Alison Bechdel and a similar word "gay" cannot bridge this difference. Nor would we want it to. Nor would we want it never to have happened. After all Alison Bechdel would not have existed if it hadn't.
Or that's what I've decided, because I am glad that Bechdel exits. The question that occurs to many of us is whether we would ever wish what happened to us on anyone else. For some, the answer will always be a resounding no. But for all of us, when faced with the knowledge that we have no being separate from this history, would we wish it never happened to us?
Welcome to FUN HOME, the groundbreaking new musical now on Broadway after a sold-out, critically acclaimed run at the Public Theater. Based on Alison Bechdel's best-selling graphic memoir, FUN HOME features music by 4-time Tony Award® nominee Jeanine Tesori (Violet; Caroline, or Change), book and lyrics by Tony Award nominee Lisa Kron (Well) and direction by Sam Gold (Seminar) and stars Tony winner Michael Cerveris (Sweeney Todd) and three-time Tony nominee Judy Kuhn (Les Misérables).
FUN HOME introduces us to Alison at three different ages, revealing memories of her uniquely dysfunctional family -- her mother, brothers and volatile, brilliant, enigmatic father -- that connect with her in surprising new ways. This intimate and emotional theatrical experience is performed entirely in the round, bringing audiences closer to Alison's story than ever before.
A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and already the winner of five awards for Best Musical, FUN HOME is a refreshingly honest, wholly original musical about seeing your parents through grown-up eyes.