The Playwright’s Politics
by Ted Merwin & David Zax
The man behind Angels in America and Munich sets the record straight on his feelings about Israel, America and being Jewish and gay.
Tony Kushner has curly black hair, a high-pitched voice and an endearing gap between his teeth. He has barely begun to talk, but he already has a serious, intense look in his eyes, framed by large, round glasses.
His Manhattan office is not much larger than a walk-in closet, but the location, just off Union Square, seems appropriate. The playwright looks at home here, in a part of the city where rallies and political demonstrations have taken place since the middle of the nineteenth century and where radicals of every description have shouted themselves hoarse.
Kushner, 51, is a political playwright. Though he often writes about families (his 2004 musical Caroline, or Change, takes place largely in a Louisiana Jewish household), he is not predominantly an observer of familial relations. Though he sometimes writes about the supernatural (angels and spirits appear in his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Angels in America), he will not be remembered as a teller of ghost stories. And though his recent foray into screenwriting involved several heart-pounding sequences with bombs and guns (he co-wrote the screenplay for last year’s Munich, about the Israeli revenge mission against the terrorists of the 1972 Munich Olympics), he is not principally a writer of suspense.
Rather, Kushner’s writing concerns the downtrodden and oppressed. Themes recurring in his work are the struggles of gays, of Jews, of blacks-—of gay Jews and gay blacks, sometimes-—and other minorities for the justice he believes they are so often denied.
The young playwright was already making a name for himself as a writer and director in regional theater when he assailed the overweening optimism of the Reaganite 1980s with the sprawling, two-part Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. “An epic for our epoch,” according to the Boston Globe, Angels had its Broadway debut in 1993 when he was just 37. Kushner set it at a time when HIV/AIDS was spreading rapidly, yet few government officials were willing to acknowledge the disease existed. Interweaving stories of gay men sick with the disease, supernatural creatures and public figures like Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg, the play asked searching questions about whether a new day had actually dawned in America, as the Reagan Administration claimed. The play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1993, became an anthem for gay liberation. In 1995, Kushner told Mother Jones that he “would hate to write anything that wasn’t” part of a political movement. “I would like my plays to be of use to progressive people. I think preaching to the converted is exactly what art ought to do.”
Kushner’s contribution to political discourse is not limited to his plays; he is a regular at rallies and demonstrations and gives politically themed speeches at regional theaters, college graduations, and even his father’s 80th birthday party. “Any culture is engaged in an incredibly complicated series of conversations at any moment,” says Kushner, who has embraced the role of a public intellectual. Public intellectuals, he says, are “people who are willing to make their own personal journeys through those conversations available on a public level and to participate directly in these conversations.” Kushner has been more than willing to do both.
Politically involved playwrights often meet skepticism. “I’m a dilettante, so, in a certain sense, why should anyone listen to me?” Kushner admits. But, of course, he has an answer ready. “Very recently, in the war in Iraq, we’ve been led straight into hell by a lot of experts who were very generous with their contempt for anyone who wasn’t a policy expert…. And there were a lot of non-experts who were saying exactly what was going to happen if we did this incredibly stupid and terrible thing.”
Kushner doesn’t want people to listen to him or admire his plays simply because of who he is or the prizes he’s won. He considers this a Jewish characteristic, in a sense. In the rabbinic tradition, “you don’t get attention just because somebody’s elected you cardinal and you put on a big hat.” Rather, for rabbinic Judaism, “knowledge is the seedbed and the foundation of power. If one isn’t able to ask provocative, mind-expanding questions, then one has no business asking for anyone’s attention.”
Kushner has a demonstrated record of asking questions that might be worth our time. Some years ago he grew concerned with a certain central Asian country few Americans paid attention to. Reading newspaper accounts of an oppressive fundamentalist regime ruling that country, he thought to himself that any place in such dire circumstances was primed to explode. He set his next play, Homebody/Kabul, in that country, Afghanistan. It made mention of Osama bin Laden, and one character even spoke about the Taliban’s coming to New York. Homebody/Kabul was about to enter rehearsals when the Twin Towers were hit in 2001.
Not long ago Kushner was rummaging through an old box when he came across a pink triangle badge, which reminded him of an argument with his father many years before.
When Kushner was growing up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, his family belonged to a Reform temple (so Reform, Kushner likes to quip, that it was virtually “reformed out of existence”). Anti-Semitism simmered just beneath the surface of the polite Southern society that surrounded them; when his father was appointed conductor of the local symphony, he had to overcome opposition from conservative Christians. Teachers at Tony’s Episcopal school would drop the occasional anti-Semitic remark.
Kushner’s personal trial, however, wasn’t his Jewishness but his sexuality. The gangly boy with large glasses and an enormous Jewfro had found boys cuter than girls since the age of six. As many closeted gays do, he hid his feelings and even had a girlfriend. His freshman year at Columbia, in 1974, Kushner showed up at the university health center, hoping a therapist could help make him straight. It took three years for Kushner to come out of the closet, and he waited until he was 25 to tell his parents. His mother “cried for six months,” he has said, and his father took it even harder.
By the mid-’80s, Kushner’s father had at last begun to come around, if grudgingly, to accepting his son’s homosexuality. But when he came to New York to visit and Tony insisted on wearing the pink triangle out to dinner to show his support for gay rights, his father protested. It’s fine if you want to have sex with men, Kushner remembers his father saying, but why do you have to parade it in public?
Without knowing it, Kushner’s father had actually been preparing his son for an argument like this for a long time. “Being Jewish was invaluable preparation for being gay,” Kushner has said. When he decided to come out, “a little light bulb went off. I realized that I already knew how to do this; I’d been doing this all my life.” His parents had taught their children that “you didn’t have to take shit from people,” as he once put it, and that they ought to insist on their dignity as Jews. His childhood as a member of one minority had prepared him for adulthood in another minority, to the point where he says, “I even knew how to argue with my parents about it.”
That faded pink triangle—an emblem first used by the Nazis to label homosexuals in their concentration camps—reminds Kushner of the close connection between Jews’ and gays’ struggle for civil rights. “It was right there,” he says, the unity of those struggles embodied in that badge. So once he came out, Kushner knew he could never again keep his sexuality a secret, and ironically, he has his father to thank for that belief. “I told him, you die if you stay in the closet. You die if you deny who you are. He had taught me that.”
While being Jewish may have been good preparation for being gay, Kushner has found that being gay has at times made it hard to be Jewish. “When you’re addressing yourself to Jewish religious tradition or any religious tradition, you address yourself to a tremendous amount of prejudice,” he says. Judaism’s sexual ethics, Kushner says, are “completely heterosexual and, in fact, homophobic in its oldest form.” As a result, he and other gays are forced to reject certain elements of Judaism.
But where does that stop? “Can you really have a religion if it’s simply a matter of writing your own law?” he asks. “Where is the law? And what does the law mean, and what do you agree to, what do you agree to give up? What do you feel it might be salutary to your soul to give up?”
At times, Kushner is unable to see any kind of resolution except to reject the parts of Judaism that seem like “repression cloaked in a religious disguise” and to embrace those that appeal to him. Still, he has found a Manhattan shul that is open and welcoming, and when he married editor Mark Harris in 2003, their wedding was decidedly Jewish. “I wanted a rabbi,” he explains, “partly for sentimental reasons. I wanted to be married under a chuppah, I wanted to say the blessings, I wanted there to be Hebrew.” The Kushner-Harris union was the first gay wedding to be featured in the “Vows” column of the New York Times; the accompanying photo shows the couple at Gabriel’s, a Columbus Circle restaurant where they go for Italian food. “I wanted to have as Jewish a wedding as two men can have in an Italian restaurant.”
Kushner is far from universally loved. Conservative gay writer Andrew Sullivan, who also married recently, says that he “felt Kushner’s AIDS plays tried to coerce human suffering into a cartoonish ideological rubric.” Feminist critic Camille Paglia has called him a writer of “self-canonizing propaganda.”
Certainly, Kushner made few Jewish friends last year with his work on the Steven Spielberg film Munich. In a 2006 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Kushner reported that a cousin, upon reading reviews of the film, asked him why he harbored “a secret plan to destroy Israel.”
Munich questions the Mossad’s extra-legal tactics in hunting down and killing Arabs thought to be linked to the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic’s literary editor, called it “soaked in the sweat of its own even-handedness” and “desperate in not wanting to be charged with a point of view.” Columnist Charles Krauthammer came down much harder: “Munich, the massacre, had only modest success in launching the Palestinian cause with the blood of 11 Jews. Munich, the movie, has now made that success complete 33 years later.”
Such criticism is nothing new to Kushner. Ever since 2002, when he wrote in the liner notes to a Klezmatics album, Possessed, that “the founding of the State of Israel was for the Jewish people a historical, moral, political calamity,” Kushner has been assailed for purported pro-Palestinian sympathies. When Brandeis University offered him an honorary degree in 2006, Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America tried to block the award, claiming that Justice Louis Brandeis would be “turning over in his grave” if he knew that a “hater” of Israel were being granted an honorary doctorate. Alvin H. Rosenfeld’s recent, much-discussed essay for the American Jewish Committee, “‘Progressive’ Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism,” targets Kushner as one of a new breed of anti-Zionist Jewish intellectuals who are, in the words of British lawyer Anthony Julius, “proud to be ashamed to be Jews.”
When he is asked about being called anti-Israel, Kushner’s face is pained. “These groups work very hard, by taking things out of context, to make you sound nuts,” he says. He insists he is not anti-Israel: “Every time I’ve been to Jerusalem, I’ve been so excited that I can’t breathe.”
Kushner says he absolutely believes in Israel’s right to exist, but he is wary of uncritical support and believes the involvement of American Jews in Israeli politics has been “mostly catastrophic.” He thinks his role ought to be “to try to change the conversation here and make it possible for the U.S. government to adopt a sane policy that guarantees Israel’s security but puts the Israelis and Palestinians on the road to creating a two-state solution and peaceful coexistence.” He also doubts that Palestinian terrorism is caused by sheer evil, and hoped to illustrate this with Munich. The film, he says, “suggests, in a very Jewish way, that you can deplore someone’s behavior without denying that the person is human and is motivated by recognizable and possibly even empathizable motives.”
Kushner also believes—indeed knows—that anti-Semitism is real: “Anti-Semitism exists everywhere in the world—it has this weird endurance, and we have to be smart about it.” But he doesn’t feel that the state of Israel is the solution to ensuring the protection of the world’s Jewry. “The solution to the problems of minorities in the world is not nationalism but equal protection under the law—which is not as comfortable-feeling as saying, ‘We’ve got our own country now.’ But, of course, we’re learning over and over again that having your own country isn’t necessarily so comfortable, either. Jews have done better in the diaspora than even in Israel, because pluralist democracy works.”
The Jerusalem on the map (which Kushner thinks ought to be “a U.N. protectorate shared by the 957 religions that claim their origin within the city limits”) is not where his heart turns for comfort. “My Jerusalem is the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment,” he says.
The past several years have kept Kushner very busy. His recent work includes a new translation of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children; Wrestling With Zion, an anthology of progressive Jewish writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that he co-edited; and an adaptation of Brundibar (with Maurice Sendak), a children’s opera written by a Czech Jew that was first performed in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
Today, Kushner is at work on another project for Steven Spielberg—a screenplay about Abraham Lincoln—and he nearly has a first draft finished. “I just shoved everything else out of the way, because Lincoln is a very difficult subject to tackle…. It’s a gigantic subject, kind of an overwhelming subject,” he says. In a way, though, it’s a natural subject for Kushner, who considers the 16th president “the greatest democratic leader in the history of the world,” a man with a deep “connection to tragedy,” and “one of the greatest writers this country has ever produced.”
He especially admires Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, which suggests that God may will the Civil War to continue—despite its horrors—“until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”
“To say that to this country that had suffered so much, at the moment of your greatest political triumph, is astounding,” says Kushner, his voice rising with admiration, reminding a listener that Lincoln himself also was said to have had a high-pitched but penetrating voice. “You can’t imagine any modern political leader being that honest,” Kushner concludes. There is no current politician he admires so much as Lincoln, he says; nonetheless he’ll “dance in the streets” if any of the Democratic candidates is elected.
Kushner has enjoyed his recent foray into Hollywood; in addition to working with Spielberg, he collaborated with Mike Nichols on a TV mini-series version of Angels, which won a record 11 Emmys in 2003. But he insists that once he is finished with the screenplays he’s at work on now, he wants to return to the theater. Screenwriting, he has said, is more of a narrative art, whereas playwriting (the form with which he is most comfortable) trades in dialogue and dialectic, and is more Talmudic in its focus on inquiry and argument. He also finds film audiences dizzyingly huge (more people saw Angels in one night on HBO than in its entire Broadway run). “The nice thing about theater is that you can really, with a fair degree of accuracy, tell yourself that the people you’re writing for are familiar, and sort of haimish. That you’re writing for the mishpocha,” he says.
In 1992, critic Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times: “Some visionary playwrights want to change the world. Some want to revolutionize the theater. Tony Kushner, the remarkably gifted 36-year-old author of Angels in America, is that rarity of rarities: a writer who has the promise to do both.”
Kushner’s good friend, the director Oskar Eustis, often likes to discuss the intimate relationship between theater and politics. In the 2006 documentary on Kushner, Wrestling With Angels, Eustis points out that democracy and drama arose almost simultaneously in ancient Greece, since “the same emotion that is required for theater to work is the emotion that is required for democracy to work: the idea we need to care about each other’s experience.” Kushner has a remarkable ability “to care about and understand people who are dramatically different from himself,” says Eustis, an ability which gives him “a size of vision” unmatched in other living playwrights.
Since Kushner is so good at getting in the minds of others, it seems worth tossing him an old interview standby: If he could be anyone at any moment in history, who would he be?
He takes the question far more seriously than one might have imagined. Perhaps he would have been George W. Bush on the eve of invading Baghdad, and stopped the war from happening. Perhaps he would have been the assassin who nearly blew up Hitler, but hadn’t placed the bomb near enough.
Or perhaps, to share in the thrill of it, he would have been at the 1963 March on Washington. But then he abruptly reconsiders, deciding he has “never wanted to be at any other time than the time I’m in, as terrible as this time is.” He quotes Bertolt Brecht: “Don’t start from the good old things, but the bad new ones.” Turning the clock back, Kushner adds, “is the essence of reactionary politics—it always produces horror.”
But his mind makes a final characteristic leap from politics to art: “I would love to be Shakespeare writing Hamlet. It would be nice to know what that felt like. That would be cool.”