Gay, Global, and Groundbreaking: Interview with Tony Kushner
The Guthrie Theater is gleaming even more splendidly than usual with an unprecedented celebration of the work of playwright Tony Kushner. He won both a Pulitzer and a Tony in 1993 for Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches, as well as a Tony in 1994 for Angels in America, Part II: Perestroika.
The event includes a new play the theater has commissioned, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism with a Key to the Scriptures, which promises to be a very American and 21st-Century view of family life. Kushner has been working on the script and the production in both Minneapolis and his native New York with a combination of Guthrie actors and some out-of-towners whose names have become synonymous with his iconic New York hits: Stephen Spinella, Kathleen Chalfant, and Linda Emond.
The Guthrie is presenting Kushner’s works on three stages. His Olivier-winning musical Caroline, or Change is now on the Wurtele Thrust Stage. The Intelligent Homosexualís Guide is having its world premiere on the McGuire Proscenium Stage. A sizzling grouping of some of Kushner’s short plays, dubbed Tiny Kushner, is playing in the Dowling Studio.
Kushner’s style is a beguiling combination of the epic and the intimate. He is unapologetically political—something rare in major American playwrights—yet never at the expense of developing richly textured characters. Change, hope, and human interconnection in the face of insurmountable social upheavals are an empowering hallmark of his work. He refuses to become cynical, believing in humanity passionately. He is the consummate playwright for finding resilience in a time of chaotic change. Even when he waxes fantastical, he’s never the least bit sentimental.
In person, Kushner is as intellectual and forthright as you might imagine, but at the same time, he emanates natural warmth, and—dare I say?—sweetness, reminiscent of the range one finds in his plays. I spoke with him at the Guthrie in between his busy rehearsal and interview schedule.
The lesbian characters which you write in Terminating—which is part of the Guthrie’s Tiny Kushner production—and in Slavs! are rich character studies. Both have lesbian couples who, despite some serious flaws, have deep loyalty toward each other. Many of your gay male characters and your straight female characters are now legendary, but your lesbian characters are also remarkable.
And there’s a troubled lesbian couple in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide, and there’s a trouble gay couple in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide.
I see a certain kind of admiration that you have toward your lesbian characters, though you don’t idealize them. But there’s something superb in their personalities.
Thank you. I like them. I like women a lot. I like writing women characters a lot. There’s a way in which it’s easier for me to write gay men. It’s so close to home. But part of the point of being a playwright is to not stay too close to home, and move out a little bit. These are complicated issues: the issue of men representing women on stage; male author representations of female characters and their problems. But again, I think that’s sort of the fun of it. I don’t think that anybody was killed by a misrepresentation determined by gender. Certainly, anybody who comes to see my work has probably figured out that I’m male.
There are no overtly lesbian characters in Angels. The first five scenes in Slavs! were written originally for the five acts of Perestroika [Angels in America, Part II]. One of them stayed in Perestroika: the big speech. But it was the next thing I wrote after Angels, and I put a dyke couple in there, because I thought maybe I should have. I don’t want to do like an old World War II foxhole movie, where everybody gets one representation. I didn’t want Angels to have to sort of responsibly check off a transgender person, a lesbian, a gay man. But I thought I needed to correct an omission, in a certain sense. And the women in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide are very central.
Tell me about The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide.
Well, the play is set in Brooklyn in 2007, and it involves a 75-year-old longshoreman and his three kids. Two of them are gay: the oldest son and the middle daughter. And he’s decided to commit suicide. And they come to see what’s going on.
I stayed away from writing an explicitly gay play after Angels, because I didn’t want to do the same thing over again. And I knew I would get back to it eventually—to writing about gay people. There have been obviously other gay characters in my work, but I didn’t want to address American lesbian and gay issues straight on after Angels.
And in a sense, this play was a decision—like, OK, it’s been a long time since Angels, and it’s sort of OK to go back to that. I don’t know until I finish writing it what it’s actually going to be. And I’m a little bit intrigued by the fact that it deals with gay issues, but in a very different way. Things are very different for our community now than they were when I wrote the plays in the mid-’80s and late-’80s. I think that it’s very different now, so it’s not surprising.
You once said something to the effect that being a socialist is actually more stigmatized in our society than being queer.
I’m not sure that’s true anymore. I used to say that, because in the 1990s, when people were sort of getting used to the idea of sort of prominent gay people, at that point, after all, it had been over 20 years since Stonewall. I think it was time.
But the idea that anybody would call themselves a socialist in the middle of Glasnost and Perestroika in the middle of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall—that anybody would still claim legitimacy for those ideas—I felt was sort of shocking to people. I always felt that I got a little bit more of a kind of jaw-dropping reaction when I said that I considered myself a socialist, by which I basically mean that I believe in a category of economic justice.
Social justice is important, but I don’t think that social justice or the achievement of justice in a purely social realm is possible without there also being a serious look at economic issues, at the level of the playing field from which most people start their lives, the degree to which economic facts militate against anyone having anything resembling a coherent or decent life.
And issues that are more part of the socialist tradition. That you work for a wage. What is it that they’re actually selling? What do they get back in return? What aren’t they getting back in return? Was Marx right? And that thing that they’re not getting back in return—is that what we call profit? Who gets that profit? Who benefits from it? Where has the wealth gone in the country? And so on. I think these are all important issues.
And I think the political right is furiously policing the margins of thought to make sure we don’t ask those questions about money. As I’ve been saying for a while now, the only question you’re allowed to ask is: How can I get as much money as possible, and how can I keep as much of it as possible from the hands of the government in the form of paying taxes or cutting taxes.
You carry a sort of terrible awareness about the wreckage and blowback of the Cold War. In Slavs! we see that the Soviet experience and the arms race made even more manic by Reagan’s nukes agenda has led to colossal ecological decimation and human mutations. Turns out the gospel of the so-called Free Market has not magically addressed these ills. It’s proved to be utterly incapable of that. Then there’s the executed Ethel Rosenberg whose spirit haunts Angels in America, the seminal American victim of the Cold War’s Industrial Military State machine (along with her husband Julius). So many people in power in the ’80s didn’t think about the ramifications of the Cold War. But you’ve looked at it long and hard and in the theater.
The Cold War sort of, in a sense, came to an end with this kind of very unanticipated collapse. The Reaganite people now claim that he was a crafty old guy and planned it all along, but of course that’s nonsense.
The CIA wasn’t even aware of it.
The CIA was completely unaware of it. Even the Hoover Institute and Stanford and all those right-wing Sovietologists. The only reason that Reagan caught on was that Margaret Thatcher finally screamed it at him. She said you’ve got to pay attention to this. Take it from us, this is not the usual thing. Then he went out and said hey, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall. The thing came to such a shockingly abrupt collapse that it became immediately almost vaporized as history. There’s an enormous amount (of negative ramifications from) the Cold War that we’re still grappling with now and I don’t think we’re really past that.
It’s an interesting period because it locked the world in a certain kind of sense, in a kind of a misery and a kind of very dangerous sort of standoff. But it was also a successful standoff. Certainly I think what happened in the Cold War is preferable to the alternative, which was that the United States and the Soviet Union would have nuclear war. It’s a fascinating period of history. The play (The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide) addresses that. To a certain extent, this old man (the play’s suicidal protagonist) is a member of the CPUSA (Communist Party of the USA).
In A Bright Room Called Day, I think the Hitler/Reagan contrast/comparison is much more nuanced than some appreciate. And I think it has resonance with the period we’re coming out of now. The sort of wrecking ball approach that Bush Two took to so-called Big Government gives that play even more resonance now. Bush Two is very much the exponent of Reagan. So many of the heavy hitters in the Iran-Contra scandal served in the Reagan and both Bush administrations. Shamelessly trafficking weapons to the Ayatollah Khomeini and trafficking drugs from Central America. That’s established historical fact now. Not to mention the Savings and Loan scandal of the Reagan/Bush era which also dogged John McCain in his Presidential run. However, when you start comparing the GOP with the Nazis, people get really hysterical. Yet one can’t get away from the fact that within A Bright Room Called Day (1984) you show us certain benchmarks that might be legitimately compared and contrasted. Hitler was ferociously antigay and Reagan sat back and failed to address the AIDS epidemic while thousands of gay and bisexual men died.
Putting people in concentration camps and gassing them and murdering them is worse than not mentioning AIDS. I don’t think there’s any point of comparison.
My basic point in A Bright Room Called Day, what makes critics crazy, is that in a sense Zilla (the play’s ’80s protagonist) is not comparing. There’s a much more widely spread fear in the aughts, the ’00s, that for the last eight years our government was actually pursuing this kind’ve hypertrophic chief executive who controls it all. What she’s saying is if you’re afraid of this and it makes you think of the Holocaust, listen to that. There’s the Third Reich.
Of course, the Holocaust is what became of a country and the world when a madman and a group of madmen are allowed to take over. What she’s saying is if you’re going to read history and you’re going to include the Third Reich in history and if you say that that’s sort of the benchmark of political evil, then what’s the good in doing that if you then say, well, there’s nothing that compares to it and it stands aside from everything else and there is no point of ever using it as a reference. I think one of the ideas in Bright Room and one that always seems to drive people crazy is not so much that Adolf Hitler and Ronald Reagan are the same person. You have to recognize Naziism not only as a project of the German Right, but a successful project of the German Right. That’s the difference between Stalinism and Fascism. Stalinism is absolutely an outgrowth of Communism, and outgrowth of Socialism. So anyone who feels any kind of connection to the socialist tradition has to recongize and take responsibility for, to a certain degree, the monstrous crimes of Stalinism. Exactly how did that happen? What went wrong? But I don’t think anyone can make the case that what happened under Stalin represents the apotheosis, the realization of the ideals of socialism. Obviously, it isn’t. Whereas the camps, the Holocaust, were in fact exactly what he said he was going to do. They were what the Right was talking about. And I think that German fascism (Naziism) needs to be seen as sort of the most extreme and worse consequence of German reaction. And therefore is on a continuum with reaction everywhere including in the United States; that there are points of comparison. There’s a shared xenophobia. There’s a shared abuse of power. A disrespect for due process. An abandoning of due process. An antoagonism toward the very idea of class struggele, of organized labor. There are certain facts of German fascism. And what you’re saying about gay people. As you were saying at the beginning of this: the demonizing of ‘the other’ and a scapegoating of ‘the other’. That’s absolutely a hallmark of Reaganism.
Reagan began a process of dismantling the unions and Hitler outlawed unions. Not the same thing but one could legitimately argue that the intent could be comparable.
Right. I’m a playwright and Zilla is not, god knows, presented as a clear-eyed, sober-sighted analyst. She’s panicky in front of the audience. So there’s a way in which what she’s presented is not intended to be taken entirely at face value. You’re hearing from the mouth of the character. There’s a sort of built-in disclaimer saying this is not entirely responsible, but maybe there’s something here and that’s sort of what she’s saying. And I think that it’s legitimate to say it. When A Bright Room Called Day opened in New York in 1984, the day it opened, the headlines of the New York Post were: Pres Takes Rap for Nazi Stand because Reagan, the day it opened, was standing in Bitburg Cemetery, laying a wreath on the graves of SS officers because Pat Buchanan told him it was time America acknowledge the heroism of the SS. So Reagan was standing there like the puppet that he always was putting a wreath on the graves! We used the Post headline in the play. Zilla opened the headline and showed it to the audience. There it was! I didn’t make that up. But interestingly, the time the first Bush came around, people were willing to use the ‘F’ word, so people were willling to say this is Fascism. When Bush (One) started using Ross v. Sullivan for gag orders, for abortion clinics, and for the NEA, trying to silence free speech in the arts and also in terms of like reproductive care, people started to say, ‘this is Fascism’. Respectable people started to say that. In that case it was a little bit early.
Paul Krugman, in the New York Times, the day after Obama took office, said let’s use the appropriate word to describe people like Dick Cheney. These people are monstrous. He said it in the New York Times. Things changed.
Now that we have a comparatively more progressive foreign policy with Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and Susan Rice as the UN Ambassador., shouldn’t we be using the United Nations and the State Department to address issues on a global scale about homophobia, misogyny, and child abuse?
Yes. I would like to believe that that will happen. I think it’s certainly easier for the United States to lead the way when the government of the United States is not sexist, homophobic, and has not abandoned its own children which I think the (Bush Two) administration did: No Child Left Behind. There was never any serious commitment made to protecting America’s kids and to make sure they were educated and well fed and housed and so on. I think that one would hope that America will again resume its advocacy of progressive issues around the world but I think it’s also the case that the world is also a very complicated place and I don’t know that its necessarily the case that these issues, as vital as they are, absolutely in every instance, always should be at the forefront of foreign policy. And it’s always disturbing when they’re not because we wish that they always were. But I figure there’s a degree to which one moves on these issues with a certain amount of circumspection.
For instance, when I was starting to work on Homebody/Kabul, one of the impulses that led me to want to write about Afghanistan is that I felt that there was a First World industrialized, First World developed, First World appropriate outrage at the treatment of women under the Taliban, which led to an American led attempt to boycott Afghanistan – not to give foreign aid to Afghanistan under the Taliban as a way of stopping the abuse and mistreatment of women. This seemed to me to be wildly misguided. Afghanistan at that point was the poorest country in the world. 27 million people live there including women and children who were in the most horrendous conditions of poverty and then to cut off foreign aid to this country at that point would be to guarantee mass debt and I couldn’t imagine that it was going to lead to liberalization. In fact, the Taliban were an insane theocracy that as far as anyone could tell were completely immune to such things. And I thought that it was a mistake. I think that there are other ways . I think that boycotting is a very powerful weapon, but a weapn that needs to be used (A) when you know it will be effective and (B) when you know that its effect is going to be something more than just vast human devastation. Gay people are very anxious about homophobia in the developing world, in Islamic societies, and by the way, not just Islamic societies. Alot of Christian societies in African countries that are primarily Christian are profoundly homophobic. There’s alot of problems in that area. There’s homophobia among the Orthodox Rabbinate. There’s homophobia everywhere. We really have to fight against it. We really have to agitate for the government to do what it can do. But when we finally begin negotiations for peace in the Middle East, the very first issues are not going to be treatment of gay people in occupied territories and in Gaza. Or necessarily the treatment of women in those places. I think the first issues are going to be about land. They’re going to be about the Wall. They’re going to be about the water because that’s the big issue. And there needs to be a vigilance about human rights issues but there’s also a pecking order for these things. And human rights issues don’t always lead the way. A secular pluralist constitutional democracy should be ready and is ready to deal first and foremost with issues of civil rights and human rights. So there should be gay marriage in the United States. But should there be gay marriage in Tehran? Absolutely! Is that the first and foremost concern of the world? No, it’s not. There are other issues that may have to be addressed first.
Can you tell me about Lincoln?
Well, we’re doing a reading of it next week in New York, the first reading. I’m hoping that we’re gonna start filming it sometime this winter and I’m very excited.
What are some of Abraham Lincoln’s great contributions and characteristics?
Oh my god. There’s so many. What’s astonishing is that this is somebody who used the instrument of our constitutional democracy to affect in the middle of the most difficult circumstances, not only a radical alteration of human society by the elimination of slavery, but also, I think, a profound alteration of human consciousness. I mean the beginning of a new understanding of the absolute connection between self government and equality and freedom; that you don’t have self government and freedom unless on some level you’re also committed to a society of laws in which a degree of equality is guaranteed to everyone. And I think that those were latent ideas in American democracy that under Lincoln’s great genius were kept at the forefront and in fact made to be the entire point of the Civil War. It was the end of human slavery as an institution on the planet which is really what happened when American slavery ended. Lincoln, of course, didn’t do that by himself but he was a great steward of that as the most significant outcome of the monstrously bloody Civil War. I’m in great awe of this man.
A characteristic of your work is that you take a complex view of characters in politically charged situations.You don’t demonize Mrs. Pitt, the homophobic Mormon mother in Angels in America.
Who turns out to be not particularly homophobic.
Nor do you demonize the Palestinians in Munich. Though both Mrs. Pitt and the Palestinians have destructive qualities (as do Munich’s Israelis). In ’06, when Munich was nominated for Best Picture of ’05 along with Crash and Brokeback Mountain that seemed to mark a shift in public collective consciousness.
It was a very interesting year. And Capote.
And Good Night, and Good Luck.
All very good interesting films. I was disappointed Brokeback didn’t win but I thought that Paul Haggis’s next film, In the Valley of Elah was actually a sort of masterpiece and nobody went to see it. Tommy Lee Jones gives one of the like great performances ever in that. Some people criticized Munich for that reason. But people aren’t demons. People are people. When they’re destructive evil people they’re destructive evil people. But to turn someone into a demon is a kind of intellectual cop out. That’s to say this person is not human, therefore doesn’t have to be understood. Especially in recents years, dealing with terrorism. Gay people have had to deal with it. Whoever is ‘other’. Whoever is not what one is accustomed to dealing with. Whatever culture is nonfamiliar and frightening. It’s very easy to say, well, these people are not actually people. They’re not us and therefore we don’t have to try to figure out what motivates them. And the most recent Bush era legacy that the attempt to understand is an expression of weakness, that if you understand, you must sympathize. And of course, there is a degree to which empathy is a necessary ingredient in understanding. But to empathize to the degree that it helps you to understand why someone does something monstrous is not saying you condone it, that you’re weak in the face of it. In fact, I would argue and what I’ve been arguing for a long time and when Steven Spielberg and I worked on Munich together, we both shared this as a fairly deep conviction: that you’re much weaker in not understanding. If you say, well, they did that thing because they’re bad, because they’re demons, because they’re evil, you may kid yourself that you understood them. You’ve certainly labeled them and the label may be accurate. They may be those things but those things are not in any way information of why they did what they did and therefore you’re denying yourself the possibility of information that might help you prevent them from doing it again. In Chechnya it’s unimaginable (catching himself) – it’s not unimaginable. That’s the trick. It’s very hard to understand why people would boobytrap the school the year before, working on the renovations. They hid all those guns in the walls so that a year later they could take over the school and take out the guns and murder those kids. You think these people are demons and monsters so those words make you feel better because they keep it far from you. But it doesn’t really keep it far from you. One does really need to try and understand what is it that makes a human being who normally would not do such a thing do something like that? Where does that kind of hatred, where does that kind of psychosis come from? I think there’s almost always a cause for these things. There are like serial killers and people whose motives are entirely inexplicable but that’s on a private pathological level. But when you’re dealing wtih big historical issues there is always a cause and I think if there is a cure, the cure lies in part in analyzing.
You’re a master of the fantastical in live theater. Caroline, or Change with it’s appliances coming to life. A Bright Room Called Day navigates two eras in a psychic way and at points, sublimely so. Slavs!’s final scene is splendidly, movingly fantastical. Angels in America is of course, a prime example of the fantastical and magical.
I think it’s entirely possible to watch Angels in America and read everything magical that’s happens in it as a figment of the imagination of a very sick and emotionally beleaguered person. Or you could decide that it is actually some kind of divine angelic interventions. It’s not important that everybody in one audience even, have the same experience. I think it’s entertainment value because of the illusionistic issues involving making theater and the difficulties of creating successful illusion on stage because it’s not film. You can’t do CGI (Computer Generated Imagery). At this point you can literally have anything happen in film and in fact anything happens in most Geico cmmercials. So we’re used to seeing miraculous things that seem completely real, happening in front of your eyes on television and film all the time. In theater, when something astonishing and magical happens, it’s effective because you are willing to let it be effective, but you’re always aware of the skill behind it and pretty much aware of how it was done. There are rare moments when you see something that you can’t figure out how it’s done that creates a whole other level of excitement and I like the way magic works on the stage.
Will your husband, Mark Harris, be coming to see The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide?
He’s recently written a significant book about watershed films of the 1960s. Pictures at a Revolution. 1967 specifically. That was a year when everything shifted.
That’s his thesis. It’s terrific. It’s great. It’s a fantastic book and I’m very proud of him.
Afterword from John Townsend:
On Kushner’s View of Reaganism and the Contemporary Right
Obviously, Tony Kushner’s political overview is extraordinary whether or not you agree with it. When I brought up to Mr. Kushner how prescient he was with writing plays that seemed to suddenly emerge uncannily from the most cutting edge global political events, he was quick to dismiss that, saying that all the information is out there lying around to be seen and examined. That said, you can’t overlook how Homebody/Kabul opened shortly before our disastrous war in Afghanistan or that East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis (part of the Guthrie’s Tiny Kushner offering) captures the ‘angry white male’ mentality that has impacted not only the militia movement, but the anti-tax movement whose fumes the Republican Party still gets mileage from. Something that has straitjacketed the Minnesota GOP post-Arne Carlson. (Pro-gay Carlson has been a harsh critic of the current Minnesota GOP mentality typified by Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann and Jason Lewis.).
Prescient Kushner even uses the term ‘Tea Parties’ in 1996’s East Coast Ode. Though the term has been in vogue with Right Wingers who just this year woke up and freaked out when they discovered we’ve been in economic free fall for years, Kushner noted in our conversation that Tea Parties are part of the nativist’s need to associate himself with iconic moments in the founding of our nation. He probes the psychology of white working class folks on the rampage against taxation, who ironically feel the brunt of neocon economic policies that are the actual culprits of their economic misery, but misguidedly ascribe the source of that misery to immigration (the ‘illegals’), queers, ‘Big Government’, the Book of Revelation, and/or secret societies, actual or alleged.
Kushner’s recall of Reagan at Bitburg also reminds us that at the time, that sad moment served him and his party politically by endearing him to the skinhead scene which has long funnelled ‘recruits’ to the militia movement and the antitax movement. It’s something you can feel in Kusher’s East Coast Ode. Along with media commentator Thom Hartmann and historian Kim Philips-Fein, Kushner is at the forefront of a new consciousness that demythologizes Ronald Reagan. To be fair, even a critical mass of Democrats have given into ‘the gipper’s’ canonization. Bill Clinton adapted much of Reagan’s fundamental economic philosophy and refused to investigate any of the misdeeds that we now know occurred in the ’80s. The Obama/Reid/Pelosi team have not rolled back the unitary executive excesses of Bush Two. Attorney General Eric Holder has yet to show spine in dismissing various Bush US Attorneys, even those who were clearly corrupt in Alabama regarding Governor Siegelman’s incarceration, a sorry tale worthy of Soviet Russia.
Food for thought on Reagan: It’s known that he suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease in his second term. And some who defend him say that the Bitburg debacle was attributable to that, though that was at the end of his first term.
Kushner Does Critique ‘The Left’ Aggressively At Times
For the record, two of Kushner’s greatest lines reflect the absolutism and wreckage of the catastrophic Soviet experiment. Both are spoken by Popolitipov in the under-appreciated dark vaudevillian gem of a comedy, Slavs!
Re. Absolutism (which is always perilous): “The Party adopted me. The Party was not Love, but Necessity; it rebuilt the ruined world. Through the Party I came to Love”.
Re. Wreckage six pages later: “We have not made kind people.We have not made a world that makes people kind.”
Incidentally, Slavs! is powerful when seen, as in director Suzy Messerole’s recent U of M staging, but it also reads briskly and well.
Kushner and History
It may be Kushner’s deep sense of history and histories that makes his prescient intuition so powerful. And how history shapes the present moment. His plays live and breathe whatever historical context they’re in whether it’s ’80s New York in the era of AIDS hysteria (Angels in America), in ’90s Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban (Homebody/Kabul), or in Louisiana during the Civil Rights Movement (Caroline, or Change). Few playwrights write so fully from so many different cultural identities. There are Mormons, Jews, Muslims, gays, the list goes on, all rendered as rich, three-dimensional characters. There’s also the way a contemporary period reaches back into a previous period, as if that past period were still pulling the strings on the present. Two examples: the conservatism of Nazi Germany refracted in the Reagan Era in A Bright Room Called Day and how the Longshoreman Strikes of 1934 and
1971 make themselves felt in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide.
Racial, global and religious diversity are the norm in Kushner. Labor v. Corporatism, queerness, straightness, and the great big complex world at large are all in interconnected play in Kushner’s theater.
Kushner Very Much at Odds with Nihilism
Though there’s lots of grim substance dealt with in Kushner, there’s always a sense of bright hope that isn’t merely rationalizing sentimetality. Angels in America and Hydriotaphia are intense examples of death and grisly physical deterioration at death’s door being looked squarely in the face. Yet we’re not left holding the bag of despair. Miraculously, throughout his work, he does not leave us stranded with the nihilism that was so much part of the makeup of two and a half generations of serious American playwrights before him. Change, hope, and interconnection in the face of unsurmountable social upheavals and personal breakdowns are empowering Kushner hallmarks. This isn’t the irreparably damaged world that defines the overview of older American dramatists like Sam Shepard, David Mamet, and Edward Albee. Or in other Left-championed playwrights like Brits, Caryl Churchill and Edward Bond. And certainly no other American playwright has addressed blowback in Western and Soviet military and domestic policy than Kushner.
Kushner refutes nihilism but without denying the gruesome and even apocalyptic barriers ordinary, often helpless folk, are meted out by life and the world, whether he’s writing about a lesbian relationship (Slavs!) sustained despite the cataclysmic collapse of the Soviet Union and the environment itself or humanizing both Palestinians and Israelis in the Steven Spielberg film, Munich for which he and co-screenwriter Eric Roth were Oscar-nominated.
Kushner’s Theatrical Style and Breadth
Kushner combines in-your-face epic theatricality reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht with a poetic intimate sensuality that you might compare to Tennessee Williams. Blend in the steely smarts of George Bernard Shaw while you’re at it. Whether it’s investigating how the Chicago School of Economics has influenced our current social contract or the destructive legacy of the Cold War and neoconservatism, both of which seem more academic or cerebral than what you’d want in a play, Kushner makes them live theatrically and viscerally in a way that enthralls all kinds of audiences. To achieve that he sometimes employs the fantastical, but without sentimentality and mawkishness.
All this said, Kushner doesn’t just know theater, nor is he by any stretch of the imagination, all about queerness, though he is certainly thunderously authoritative in both realms. (Angels in America and Termininating are among his great works with queer insight.) There’s a vast universal apprehension of life and the world that, dare I say it, is something like William Shakespeare. Or in the modern novel, with Doris Lessing. His insights about death and dying bring to mind such greats as Joan Didion, C.S. Lewis, and Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist, Michael Cristofer who synchronistically actually plays a major acting role in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide.
Kushner and GLBT History
Kushner draws richly and avidly from his own Jewish tradition as well as received and alternative views of American history. He is also urgently conscious that glbt history is something that’s not readily available to queer folks who need that history to understand themselves and their place in the world. U of M professor, Andrew Elfenbein, in one of the excellent Guthrie Kushner Saturday seminars, pointed out how Kushner seems to carry a burden of energetically getting glbt history out there because so many who might have been part of the energy of writing glbt history and creating a more pro-queer culture died of AIDS.
His global sense of so many issues is sometimes woven into his glbt awareness directly into and sometimes not. He reminds queers implicitly that we must not get fixated on just our own single issues. There is, after all, still a larger world out there. Kushner is ultimately for everyone as he can take a social, political, or economic issue that seems daunting and make it understandable. Even to those who think they lack the capacity to understand such ‘lofty’ or ‘intellectual’ things. That’s because Kushner is a playwright of the people and a inherently American playwright. His is a universal apprehension the likes of which one rarely sees.
The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures / Through June 28 / Global Voice Presentation: Tony Kushner in Conversation / June 8, 7:30 PM / Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Mpls. / (612) 377-2224 / www.CelebrateKushner.com