Tony Kushner, who embraces such epithets as “Jewish writer” and “gay writer,” is a maverick, a bold, fearless, overtly political playwright and social activist who has revolutionized the form and content of modern theater. He sees deep into the human heart and soul and touches all humankind. He is a writer of comedy in the classical sense since many of his characters overcome horrendous obstacles to achieve survival and renewal. With literary influences as disparate as Brecht and Tennessee Williams and use of contrasting characters to show how different people can learn from one another, Kushner’s plays also radiate passionate drama, surrealism, and unabashed theatricality.
Kushner is particularly attracted to transitional points in history such as the rise of Nazi Germany (A Bright Room Called Day), the heightening of capitalism (Hydriotaphia), the approach of the new millennium (Angels in America), Western involvement in the Middle East (Homebody/Kabul), and the fight for human equality (Caroline, or Change). Into dark times, Kushner shines a warm, bright, and guardedly hopeful literary beacon because he believes that the human race, individuals and groups, can slowly and painfully change.
Fascinated by human “journeys” of change, Kushner enlivens this motif as a broader struggle from the past, through the present, to the future. Angels in America, for example, begins with the death of a Jewish grandmother who symbolizes the courage, challenges, and values of the past, while Louis, Prior, and the others live in a present society in which Kushner sees ostentatious greed, heartlessness, and narrow-mindedness personified by Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush. The female angel that wrestles with Prior is an emissary from an apocalyptic future; when she exhorts humans to stop progressing, Prior, despite life’s heartbreak, loss, anguish, and disease, chooses more life, more future, a longer “journey.”
Kushner also sees the metaphoric, psychic “journey” as inherent in the literal, physical trip. In Angels in America, Sarah Ironson physically traveled from Europe to the United States, but her “journey” included enduring anti-Semitism and adjusting to very different mores. Mormons Joe, Harper, and Hannah Pitt physically traveled from Utah to New York; Joe’s inner “journey” is to transcend his Mormon upbringing and accept his sexual orientation, while Hannah “journeys” within from a dogmatic, inflexible morality to an enlightened, loving understanding of others. Harper fulfills her “journey” by realizing that she deserves to be loved and is transformed into a voice for peace and healing.
Kushner is a humanistic playwright. He paints no stereotypical, inarticulate, or one-dimensional characters, for even the mendacious Roy Cohn in Angels in America has moments when the audience spies the hurt and pain beneath the rage and denial. Homosexual, heterosexual, liberal, conservative, Muslim, Mormon, Protestant, Jew, black, white—each of these seeming opposites can and must learn from the other, Kushner feels, if civilization is to survive.
In her 1940 novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers describes a perception of life as “suspended between radiance and darkness. Between bitter irony and faith.” So feels Kushner about life and the world, but like a great composer of contrapuntal music, he plays one of these seemingly opposite emotions, then the other, until his fugue, his melodies of opposites, bridges together, intersects, merges, and becomes one, just like the human race.
With fiery passion and compassion, Kushner exhorts his audience to recognize and learn from its common humanity, the interconnectedness and interdependence of all people. He is determined that despite the countless discouragements of the modern age, people may choose to live beyond hope. In his powerful work, Kushner brings people to, and gives them, themselves.
Angels in America
First produced: 1991 (first published, 1992)
Type of work: Play
Angels in America takes place in 1980’s New York City and involves the interconnectedness of diverse relationships, characters, and political, spiritual, social, and human themes.
Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes consists of two plays: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. Millennium Approaches opens with a funeral service for Louis Ironson’s grandmother, who represents all of the horrendous experiences and hard-won values of immigrants to the United States.
Kushner elucidates two contrasting relationships that are at turning points: Mormons Joe and Harper Pitt (a married couple) and Louis Ironson and Prior Walter (a gay couple). The Pitts, who have moved from Utah to New York so that Joe could work as a law clerk, are barely communicating, each fighting inner demons: Joe’s inner battle is repressed homosexuality, and Harper’s is deep depression about her empty life and marriage. Prior confesses to Louis that he is HIV-positive and is frightened that Louis will leave him. The major theme of loss and abandonment is introduced.
Joe’s life is the first to intersect with Roy Cohn, the only character based on a historical figure. Cohn (a closeted homosexual who spoke out against homosexuality and died of AIDS in 1986) became famous when he obtained the death penalty for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on flimsy spy charges. Then Cohn assisted Senator Joseph McCarthy’s purge of alleged communists in the early 1950’s, ruining many innocent lives and careers.
With the cool, amoral calculation of an animalistic predator, Cohn, in order to protect himself from government intervention, tries to illegally manipulate Joe into working for him in the Reagan administration. Meanwhile, Harper, in a Valium-induced hallucination, encounters Prior, and these seeming opposites understand each other’s feelings of loss, sadness, and loneliness.
The theme of physical and emotional abandonment...
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