Tony Kushner: a political playwright?

Prospect Magazine

Tony Kushner: a political playwright?

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The Pulitzer-winning playwright’s work—now showing at London’s Tricycle Theatre—has always been politically controversial. But on stage, as in life, politics is only part of the story

Kate Eifrig and Valeri Mudek in Terminating or Sonnet LXXV or ‘Lass Meine Schmerzen Nicht Verloren Sein’ or Ambivalence. Photo: Michal Daniel

Tonight, critics arrive at North London’s Tricycle Theatre to view—for the first time in Britain—five one-act plays by the American dramatist Tony Kushner, collectively called Tiny Kushner. One of the playlets in the group, Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy, made the author paranoid to the point of a “kind of panic.” The group the play was about, he says, are “very vindictive people.”

He is talking about Republicans—or some of them. They were in power in 2003 when he wrote the piece in question, which features George W Bush’s wife Laura and three dead Iraqi children. In the play, Laura reads a passage from The Brothers Karamazov to the children, killed as a result of American bombing. It is not light on symbolism. But it is intended to implicate all of us, not just the Bush family.

“[The Nation newspaper] put it on the cover,” says Kushner, “with a title they made up—Laura Bush and Evil—which I was very upset about. I thought it would skew the reading of it. I did have this moment of panic—of ‘what if they read this and decided to go after me?’” This was paranoia, he conceded. “But you get scared. I remember I took my laptop somewhere, and I took all my journals to my house in the country. I sort of moved things around thinking ‘they could steal stuff’.”

It should be said that Kushner doesn’t scare easily. When Stephen Spielberg commissioned him to write the screenplay for the movie Munich (2005), about Israel’s retaliation for the massacre of its Olympic athletes, Kushner warned Spielberg that it might cause trouble. It did: right-wing Jews said he was morally equating the retaliation with the massacre that prompted it. Kushner, who is Jewish himself, and gay (he is married to the journalist Mark Harris), has been an intimidatingly articulate critic of Israel’s policy towards Palestinians and formerly Bush’s policy towards Israel. Unsurprisingly, the American right hates him, and he hates them.

Yet he is also a hugely talented, internationally acclaimed writer, perhaps best known for Angels in America, the seven-hour epic that won him a Pulitzer and two best play Tonys (one for each part), plus an Emmy for the HBO version staring Al Pacino. A rambling, dazzling trawl through Reagan’s Aids-ravaged America, it elevated Kushner to the top tier of 20th century dramatists and resulted in comparisons with Tennessee Williams.

He tells me an anecdote about his grandparents’ record collection, that included some “leftie” Spanish civil war folk songs, given to them as a gift by a GI they took in after the second world war. The anti-communist paranoia during the McCarthy era in the 1950s made his grandmother so nervous about the records that she smashed them and buried the pieces in the garden at night.

“This was in Lake Charles in Louisiana—a nice Jewish household that had absolutely no reason to imagine that anyone would know what was in their record collection,” Kushner adds, half-laughing at the story. But as he says, people get scared. Perhaps, I suggest, this is what can be expected when playwriting becomes a tool for politics. But he rejects this. “I don’t even know if I’m a genuine political playwright. I sometimes wonder if Bertolt Brecht is, although he’d kill me for saying that. Staged events have impact, but not a very direct one. When they are made into propaganda I don’t think they achieve their potential.”

You can see why he would make the distinction. Propaganda rarely has heart: Kushner’s plays might mirror politics, but the politics never obscure the humanity. “The really exciting thing to me about theatre is the way it replicates a certain doubleness of human consciousness, which is enormously important to understand the world politically. It expands our capacity for tolerating contradiction, conflict, ambiguity and ambivalence.”

Ambivalence is one of the titles of one of his one-act plays. (Kushner is big on titles—this one has four.) It features a psychiatrist and her patient, and could be interpreted as a defence of ambivalence, a condition often seen as a weakness.

“I think that’s a nice way to put it,” says Kushner. “I’ve always thought of it as a struggle between two characters for developing an internal tolerance of ambivalence. People who don’t have it, like George W Bush, are very dangerous people. I just spent six years working on a screenplay about Abraham Lincoln [for Stephen Spielberg, due out next year]. The correctness of almost everything Lincoln did seems to come from the fact that he was attuned to his uncertainties and doubts, and was willing to talk about them publicly. What was so miraculous about him as a leader was his stunning ability to work his way through questions that are not resolvable. Nevertheless, he achieved a resolution that feels like wisdom, as opposed to something like ‘Oh fuck it, I better do something.’”

Directed by longtime collaborator Tony Taccone, the plays at the Tricycle are surreal, confrontational and funny. Some of them eavesdrop on the dead in the afterlife, such as Nixon’s analyst in Dr. Arnold A. Hutschnecker in Paradise. Perhaps the strangest is Flip Flop Fly!, in which American entertainer Lucia Pamela encounters the deposed Queen Geraldine of Albania (they died within a few months of each other in 2002) on the moon.

Kushner next theatrical work is what he once described to me as his “next big gay play.” But despite the title—The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide To Capitalism and Socialism With A Key To The Scriptures—the work has a significance for Kushner far beyond the issue of sexuality.

The play is deliberately connected to a writer whose liberal conscience matched his own: Arthur Miller. Miller is one of three towering figures against which every American playwright has to measure his or herself, says Kushner. The others are Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams. Or put another way, there are Salesman, Long Day’s Journey Into Night and A Streetcar Named Desire.

“They remain, frustratingly for those of us who have come along since, sort of unmatchable. Nothing has achieved the cultural impact of those three plays. There have been plays that have had a definite impact—I do think Angels did; Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a spectacular and immensely important play; August Wilson’s plays are too. But you always come back to the big three… Every time I watch one of those three plays I think how on earth are they doing this? What is it in that first scene in Death of a Salesman that makes you think there is a dagger stuck in your heart? It stays there for the entire play.”

I suggest to Kushner that he, in his own way, has been as groundbreaking as his illustrious forebears. No playwright, for instance, has been as consistently prophetic. His Afghanistan play, Homebody Kabul, which contains the line “the Taliban are coming to New York,” was written before 9/11 and opened soon after; Caroline or Change has the lyric “Nothin’ ever happens in Louisiana, there is only underwater,” written before Hurricane Katrina hit the state. Much of Angels is about environmental catastrophe and even Kushner’s first play A Bright Room Called Day (1984) made a comparison between Reagan and Hitler (he once told me he was being deliberately irresponsible)—and then what happens? The morning after the play opened, the papers carried pictures of Reagan in Germany placing a wreath at the graves of SS soldiers.

But Kushner dismisses talk of prescience. He just reads a lot. “I’m not the only person who notices these issues. I may be one of the few playwrights who made them explicit.” For Kushner the politics of his activism exists in parallel to the playwriting. “I think it exists in parallel for everybody. It seems to me that if you are a citizen of a secular, pluralist democracy you have an obligation to participate with the political life of your country.”

Then he offers: “The one thing that I do think was kind of new, at least in American playwriting when I wrote Angels, was that I made the decision that these characters were going to see the world through a political lens.”

Perhaps that is what a political playwright would say.

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John Nathan

John Nathan
John Nathan is a journalist and theatre critic 

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