(Alexandra Schwartz’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 9/14. Photograph by Cole Barash for The New Yorker.)
Ayad Akhtar’s autofictional novel cunningly entwines outrage and ambivalence.
The playwright and novelist Ayad Akhtar has never been afraid of provoking audiences. His latest work explores the origins of Trump’s toxicity, the tensions of Muslim identity, and the splintering of a family and a country.
Ayear after Donald Trump assumed office, Ayad Akhtar was at the American Academy in Rome, contemplating populism, the degradation of democracy, and ruinous civil strife. He had been mulling over the idea of a play about the brothers Gracchus, plebeian politicians in the century before Caesar whose defiance of the senatorial élite and championship of the poor led to an unhappy end. Akhtar wasn’t alone in consulting Roman history to gain perspective on the present. From his window, he could look out at the residence of the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, Callista Gingrich, whose husband, Newt, was studying Augustus, rumor had it, for pointers on how to counsel a President who fancied himself an emperor.
Akhtar, who is forty-nine, is an obsessive autodidact, with a mind like a grappling hook for any subject that attracts his interest. There are many. As a kid growing up in the Milwaukee suburbs, he studied the Quran with a rigor that flummoxed his secular Pakistani parents. As a theatre major at Brown, he taught himself French, attaining enough fluency in a year to direct his own translations of Genet and Bernard-Marie Koltès. When he was in his twenties, working in New York as an assistant to the director Andre Gregory, he spent his free time analyzing the prosody of Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene” and poring over Freud, which led to a years-long study of Jung, then Lacan, then Winnicott. Although he lost his faith in his teens, religion of all kinds continues to fascinate him. “He’s the only American I know who has read Meister Eckhart,” the German writer Daniel Kehlmann, a good friend of Akhtar’s, told me, referring to the medieval Christian theologian and mystic.
Success arrived late, but Akhtar has made up for lost time. His first novel, “American Dervish,” about the coming of age of an innocent Pakistani-American boy, was published in January, 2012, when he was forty-one, the same month that his first play, “Disgraced,” about the unravelling of a jaded Pakistani-American lawyer, premièred, in Chicago. After a buzzy run at Lincoln Center, where tickets were scalped for fifteen hundred dollars apiece, “Disgraced” won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, then moved to a sold-out run in London, and to the Lyceum Theatre, on Broadway.
In short order, Akhtar had three more plays première, including “The Invisible Hand,” a thriller about an American hostage in Pakistan who, to pay his ransom, teaches his fundamentalist captors how to manipulate financial markets, and “Junk,” another Broadway hit, which transformed the dry subject of high-yield bonds in the nineteen-eighties into unexpectedly riveting drama. “Ayad’s particular brilliance is that he makes systems kinetic,” Josh Stern, a producer who is working with Akhtar to develop a television show, told me. “He’s able to take this huge, complicated infrastructure and distill it down to visceral character drama in a way that is unique.” As arcane as his intellectual tastes can be, Akhtar is determined to appeal to a broad public. “Proust meets Jerry Springer” is how he described his work to me when I met him, earlier this summer.