Tony Kushner Essay - Kushner, Tony (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kushner, Tony (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Introduction

Tony Kushner 1956-

American playwright.

The following entry presents an overview of Kushner's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 81.

Kushner established himself as an internationally celebrated playwright with the critical and popular success of his epic two-part Broadway production, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1991, 1992). Angels in America explores issues of gay identity in America, set within the cultural context of the AIDS epidemic, Reagan/Bush administration politics, and the ending of the Cold War. Kushner's interweaving of dramatic interpersonal relationships, harsh political realities, and fantastical flights of imagination won him widespread critical acclaim and many prestigious accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Antoinette Perry (“Tony”) Award for Best Play, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best New Play, all for Part One of Angels in America, subtitled Millennium Approaches, and the Antoinette Perry Award for Best Play for Part Two: Perestroika. Kushner earned the 2004 Emmy Award for best writer in a miniseries for the television adaptation of Angels in America. Kushner's play Homebody/Kabul (2001), set in Afghanistan, received an Obie Award in 2002.

Biographical Information

Of Jewish descent, Kushner was born July 16, 1956, in New York City, and grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Both of his parents were classical musicians. Kushner became aware of his homosexuality at an early age, but attempted to change his sexual preference during his college years with psychotherapy. Eventually, he came to accept his sexuality, which has become a central focus of his theatrical writings. Kushner graduated from Columbia University, earning a B.A. in medieval studies in 1978. While working as a switchboard operator at the United Nations Plaza Hotel, he enrolled in the graduate program in directing at New York University, completing his M.F.A. in 1984. Since 1985, Kushner has maintained a successful career in theater as a playwright, director, and educator. He has served as assistant director of the St. Louis Repertory Theatre from 1985 to 1986, artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop from 1987 to 1988, director of literary services for the Theatre Communication Group in New York from 1990 to 1991, playwright in residence at the Juilliard School of Drama from 1990 to 1992, and as a guest dramaturge in the theater programs of New York University, Yale University, and Princeton University.

Major Works

Angels in America includes over thirty characters and numerous interconnected subplots, totaling seven and a half hours of performance time. Millennium Approaches, Part One of Angels in America, introduces a smorgasbord of characters—fantastical, historical, and fictional—including an African-American drag queen, the oldest living Bolshevik, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, a rabbi played by a gentile actor, and an angel. The five central characters of Angels in America include Roy Cohn, a figure from the era of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who promulgated the “red scare” trials of the 1950s; Prior Walter, a young man with AIDS; Louis Ironson, a Jewish man who is Prior's lover; Joe Pitt, a bisexual Mormon; and Harper Pitt, Joe's wife. Millennium Approaches explores the impact of Prior's diagnosis of AIDS on the interrelationships among these characters. In one subplot, Cohn, a ruthlessly ambitious political player intent on gaining power within the ranks of the Reagan administration, defines homosexuality as a position of powerlessness; because he holds political power, Cohn argues, he himself is not a homosexual but is simply a heterosexual man who has sex with men. Further, although a doctor has just informed him that he is HIV-positive, Cohn argues that, since he is not a homosexual, it is not possible for him to have AIDS. Another set of subplots focuses on the loss experienced by Prior and Harper when each is deserted by his partner, while Louis and Joe develop a new relationship with each other. Kushner makes use of fantastic and hallucinatory elements in Millennium Approaches, such as Harper's fantasy that she is in Antarctica and a scene in which two characters meet and dance in each other's dreams. Millennium Approaches ends with a sense of apocalypse as an angel appears to Prior.

Part Two of Angels in America, titled Perestroika, follows the personal struggles of each of the central characters as they come to terms with the various changes and losses they experienced earlier. While many of the characters transform these crises into positive experiences, Cohn dies of AIDS, steeped in self-hatred, without truly learning anything from his experience. Cohn's ghost later appears as God's attorney. In the final scene of Perestroika, Prior addresses the audience directly with the personal gospel he has developed as a result of his experiences. Perestroika ends on a positive, hopeful note, emphasizing the power of the imagination to transform tragedy into beauty. A made-for-television film adaptation of Angels in America premiered as a miniseries on Home Box Office (HBO) in December 2003, earning Emmy Awards for Kushner, director Mike Nichols, stars Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Jeffrey Wright, and Mary-Louise Parker and an Emmy for Best Miniseries. Slavs! Thinking about the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness (1995), which Kushner considered his coda to Angels in America, is set amid the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. In Slavs! a character named Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, who originally appeared in Angels in America, raises questions about the relationship between individual action and the forces of history. In an epilogue to Slavs! the characters who have died find that even in Heaven there are no conclusive answers to the “longstanding problems of virtue and happiness.”

Kushner's exploration of the relationship between political circumstances and the personal lives of his characters frequently includes fantastical elements such as angels, devils, and other spirits. An early play, Hydriotaphia, or, The Death of Dr. Browne (1987), is an imaginary reconstruction of the last day in the life of the historic figure Sir Thomas Browne, a seventeenth-century scientist and writer. Described as an “epic farce,” Hydriotaphia—a word which means “urn-burial”—takes its title from an essay by Browne in which he concludes that God does not promise an afterlife to human beings. While lying in his deathbed, Dr. Browne is visited by characters such as his Soul, the Devil, a witch, and a grave-digger. In addition to treating gay themes, Kushner's works also address issues of Jewish culture, identity, and history. A Bright Room Called Day (1987) is set in Germany during the early years of Hitler's rise to power. In this play, a group of friends is dispersed under the pressures of the Nazi regime; some flee into exile, others retreat into hiding, and one woman is left alone, vulnerable to persecution. Zillah Katz, a young American woman living in contemporary times, is the narrator of the play. In commenting on the actions of the drama, Zillah draws parallels between the oppressive forces of the Nazi regime and current events. Kushner originally wrote Zillah's perspective with the provision that he would periodically update her commentary in keeping with the national context and current events of the play's production.

Kushner's other works continue to explore interpersonal dramas situated in a larger social, cultural, and political context of national and international events. Homebody/Kabul, written before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, on the United States, was first produced a few months after the attacks. Because the play is set partly in Afghanistan and raises issues of Western powers in relation to Afghan politics and history, Homebody/Kabul was considered to be a prescient work. Set in 1998, Act I of the play introduces the Homebody, an elderly English housewife who recites an hour-long monologue in which she reads from an outdated travel book on Afghanistan and fantasizes about going to Kabul, where she makes love to an Afghan man. Act II takes place in a hotel room in Kabul, after the Homebody has traveled to Afghanistan and possibly been beaten to death for failing to observe the strict cultural codes of the Taliban regime. Caroline, or Change (2003), a musical, is set in the South during the Civil Rights era of the early 1960s, and concerns the relationship between a Jewish family and their African American maid, Caroline. Recent changes within the family structure are examined in the context of changes brewing in the South as a result of the Civil Rights Movement.

Kushner has also written a number of adaptations of plays by other authors. Stella (1987) is an eponymous adaptation of a play by German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The Illusion (1988) is adapted from the work by French playwright Pierre Corneille. Widows (1991), co-written with Ariel Dorfman, is adapted from the novel by Dorfman. The Good Person of Szechuan (1997), adapted from a play by German playwright Bertolt Brecht, emphasizes the relevance of the original story to contemporary American society. Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds (1997), adapted from the Yiddish play by S. Ansky, addresses questions of the impact of history on the notion of individual choice. The story concerns Leah, the daughter of a wealthy man who wishes to marry her off in the most profitable match he can find. In the end, the Dybbuk, a spirit character from Jewish mythology, possesses Leah's body and confronts her father about his moral failings.

Critical Reception

The initial critical response to Angels in America was overwhelmingly positive. Reviewers were impressed with Kushner's ability to address serious, current social and political issues—particularly gay identity politics in the era of the AIDS epidemic—while providing entertaining, humorous material that is accessible to mainstream Broadway audiences. The initial wave of essays on Angels in America from academic critics was equally laudatory. These critics explored the complexities of Kushner's representation of gay identity in the broader context of American domestic and international politics. Kushner was applauded for his representation of the intersections of gay and Jewish identity, as well as his examination of the relationship between individual experience and the collective interests of the broader human community. Critics were also impressed with Kushner's examination of the historical past in relation to current political issues. More recent criticism of Angels in America from the academic sector, however, has pointed out contradictions in its ideological underpinnings. Some have censured what appears to be a subversive political message in Angels in America, asserting that the play ultimately expresses a complacent political attitude that is easy for popular audiences to accept without truly challenging their values. Some feminist critics have argued that Angels in America relegates women to marginal status as opposed to the privileging of gay male identity. Despite these criticisms, however, Kushner is widely recognized as one of the most important playwrights of his generation—an openly gay, Jewish, and political writer unafraid of addressing contentious social issues with ambitious productions that offer a sense of hope for the future of humanity.

Principal Works

Yes, Yes, No, No (play) 1985

A Bright Room Called Day (play) 1987

Hydriotaphia, or, The Death of Dr. Browne (play) 1987

Stella [adapted from the drama by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe] (play) 1987

The Illusion [adapted from the play L'illusion comique by Pierre Corneille] (play) 1988

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Part One: Millennium Approaches (play) 1991

Widows [co-adaptor with Ariel Dorfman from the book by Dorfman] (play) 1991

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Part Two: Perestroika (play)...

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Criticism

Edward Norden (essay date January 1995)

SOURCE: Norden, Edward. “From Schnitzler to Kushner.” Commentary 99, no. 1 (January 1995): 51-8.

[In the following essay, Norden discusses the ideological implications of Jewish gay identity in Angels in America.]

The good-looking young men cruising the aisles were putting on a show of their own. “Questionnaires!” they sang as they handed out pink forms to everybody. “Get your questionnaires!” The curtain of the Walter Kerr theater on Broadway would not be going up on this performance of Millennium Approaches, Part 1 of Angels in America, before everyone in the audience did his or her duty. If the Angels scripts, T-shirts, and baseball...

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David Savran (essay date May 1995)

SOURCE: Savran, David. “Ambivalence, Utopia, and a Queer Sort of Materialism: How Angels in America Reconstructs the Nation.” Theatre Journal 47, no. 2 (May 1995): 207-27.

[In the following essay, Savran examines the ideological underpinnings of Angels in America in terms of the cultural, historical, and political context in which it was produced.]

Critics, pundits, and producers have placed Tony Kushner's Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes in the unenviable position of having to rescue the American theatre. The latter, by all accounts, is in a sorry state. It has attempted to maintain its elite cultural status despite the...

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Jyl Lynn Felman (essay date May/June 1995)

SOURCE: Felman, Jyl Lynn. “Lost Jewish (Male) Souls: A Midrash on Angels in America.Tikkun 10, no. 3 (May/June 1995): 27-30.

[In the following essay, Felman examines the parallels between Jewish and gay identity as presented in Angels in America. Felman asserts that Kushner's play is ultimately about “Jewish male self-loathing in the twentieth century.”]

Tony Kushner's 1993 Pulitzer-Prize-winning play, Angels in America, is very gay. And Jewish. It's about assimilation, self-loathing, and men with lost souls; the betrayal of the faith and the abandonment of a moral vision. Depending on who the viewer is, there are two versions of the...

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James Fisher (essay date winter 1995-96)

SOURCE: Fisher, James. “‘The Angels of Fructification’: Tennessee Williams, Tony Kushner, and Images of Homosexuality on the American Stage.” Mississippi Quarterly 49, no. 1 (winter 1995-96): 12-32.

[In the following essay, Fisher compares the representations of homosexuality in Kushner's Angels in America and the plays of Tennessee Williams.]

Who, if I were to cry out, would hear me among the angelic orders?1

—Rainer Maria Rilke

Still obscured by glistening exhaltations, the angels of fructification had now begun to meet the tumescent phallus of the sun....

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John R. Quinn (essay date March 1996)

SOURCE: Quinn, John R. “Corpus Juris Tertium: Redemptive Jurisprudence in Angels in America.Theatre Journal 48, no. 1 (March 1996): 79-90.

[In the following essay, Quinn argues that the concept of law is central to both the national and spiritual themes running through Angels in America. Quinn asserts that, in Kushner's play, the law emerges as a kind of secular religion.]

“In the beginning was the Word; … [then] The Word became flesh.”

—John 1:1,14

Law, at least the contemporary American concept of it, is a nerve running through nearly every organ and extremity of the...

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Charles McNulty (essay date spring 1996)

SOURCE: McNulty, Charles. “Angels in America: Tony Kushner's Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Modern Drama 39, no. 1 (spring 1996): 84-96.

[In the following essay, McNulty examines Kushner's representation of the AIDS epidemic in Angels in America in the context of American politics and history. McNulty asserts that while Millennium Approaches offers fresh insight into the workings of history, Perestroika retreats from this radical historical revisioning through the fantastical element of the angel descending from heaven.]

AIDS plays have come to be thought of as a phenomenon of the 1980s, as Happenings were of the 1960s. Though the...

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Steven F. Kruger (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Kruger, Steven F. “Identity and Conversion in Angels in America.” In Approaching the Millennium: Essays on “Angels in America,” edited by Deborah R. Geis and Steven F. Kruger, pp. 151-69. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Kruger examines the intersection of individual identity and collective history in Angels in America.]

The titles and subtitles of Tony Kushner's Angels in America emphasize its status as political drama, announcing its exploration of “national themes” at a particular moment in global and cosmic history—the moment of “perestroika” as “millennium approaches.” At the same...

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Benilde Montgomery (essay date winter 1998)

SOURCE: Montgomery, Benilde. “Angels in America as Medieval Mystery.” Modern Drama 41, no. 4 (winter 1998): 596-606.

[In the following essay, Montgomery examines the similarities between Kushner's Angels in America and the tradition of medieval religious mystery plays.]

Although highly praised in the popular press when it first appeared and officially canonized soon thereafter by Harold Bloom,1 Tony Kushner's Angels in America has now come under the scrutiny of critics of a more suspicious gaze. Among these less than enthusiastic critics are the notorious Arlene Croce, who, if only indirectly, includes Angels as an instance of...

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Allen J. Frantzen (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Frantzen, Allen J. “Alla, Angli, and Angels.” In Before the Closet: Same-Sex Love from “Beowulf” to “Angels in America,” pp. 264-92. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Frantzen examines the representation of Anglo-Saxon identity in Angels in America in terms of Kushner's sexual identity politics.]

Rome, not Northumbria, is the center of The Man of Law's Tale, and celibacy, not marital bliss, is the Man of Law's preferred mode for Christ's holy ministers. Chaucer's text looks neither to the vernacular tradition of married clergy that the Wycliffites sought nor to the celibate clerical world...

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Matthew Wilson Smith (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Smith, Matthew Wilson. “Angels in America: A Progressive Apocalypse.” Theater 29, no. 3 (1999): 152-65.

[In the following essay, Smith examines the conflict between apocalyptic and progressive impulses in Angels in America.]

I. APOCALYPSE DESCENDING

Outside of Chekhov, I can think of no playwright whose characters philosophize so much about history as Tony Kushner's do; Kushner's characters are forever musing upon, arguing about, engaging with history. But while in Chekhov's plays such philosophizing talk is generally just that—talk, mere talk—in Kushner's it is urgent, of the essence. Which is to say that,...

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Daryl Ogden (essay date fall 2000)

SOURCE: Ogden, Daryl. “Cold War Science and the Body Politic: An Immuno/Virological Approach to Angels in America.Literature and Medicine 19, no. 2 (fall 2000): 241-61.

[In the following essay, Ogden examines Kushner's representation of sexual identity in Angels in America in terms of the intersection of medical and political discourse around the AIDS epidemic.]

Early on in Millennium Approaches, Part One of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, Roy Cohn's physician informs his patient that he's suffering from AIDS. Roy, the former assistant United States prosecuting attorney in the Rosenberg spy case and the right hand of Joseph McCarthy...

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Roger Bechtel (essay date fall 2001)

SOURCE: Bechtel, Roger. “‘A Kind of Painful Progress’: The Benjaminian Dialectics of Angels in America.Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 16, no. 1 (fall 2001): 99-121.

[In the following essay, Bechtel examines the underlying political ideology of Angels in America in terms of the leftist cultural theories of Walter Benjamin. Bechtel asserts that Kushner's play ultimately achieves a “historical disruption” of status quo politics.]

Broadway is, without a doubt, that which critics love to hate. Even without leveling sardonic broadsides at overproduced mega-musicals or overweening star turns, we can always count on Broadway to be our...

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Mark Steyn (review date February 2002)

SOURCE: Steyn, Mark. “Goin' to Afghanistan.” New Criterion 20, no. 6 (February 2002): 35.

[In the following review of Homebody/Kabul, Steyn comments that the characters are not well developed, the plot is unfocused, and the play lacks a clear sense of purpose.]

There was an extraordinary picture in Newsweek the other day of some ferocious bearded warriors. They turned out to be Green Berets dropped in Afghanistan early in the war to liaise with anti-Taliban forces. All thirty-something, trained as soldiers, emergency workers, horsemen, and linguists, they speak at least four languages and on the ground muddled through with Arabic for the first few...

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James Reston Jr. (review date March 2002)

SOURCE: Reston, James, Jr. “A Prophet in His Time.” American Theatre 19, no. 3 (March 2002): 28-30, 50-3.

[In the following review, Reston offers praise for Homebody/Kabul, calling it a brilliant play and a major accomplishment.]

Early in the second act of Homebody/Kabul Tony Kushner's brilliant play about Afghanistan, I gave up on my quest for a purely artistic evening. Foolishly, I had tried to imagine what this theatrical experience might have been if Sept. 11 had never happened; if America had not gone to Afghanistan—in truth and in its mind—through the fall of 2001; if I personally had not been so transfixed and paralyzed and fascinated by...

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Robert Brustein (review date 18 March 2002)

SOURCE: Brustein, Robert. “Angels in Afghanistan.” New Republic 226, no. 10 (18 March 2002): 27-8.

[In the following review, Brustein criticizes Homebody/Kabul, commenting that the events of the play seem inconsequential in light of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, and asserts the play is lacking in focus, direction, and unity of theme.]

Tony Kushner may be the luckiest and the unluckiest dramatist in town. Having had the foresight to write a play about Afghanistan before the September 11 attacks, he opened it last December, with America's presence in the area still dominating the front pages. That was the lucky part. It was...

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Richard Coles (review date 7 June 2002)

SOURCE: Coles, Richard. “Unveiling NW5.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5175 (7 June 2002): 18.

[In the following review, Coles comments that Homebody/Kabul is an insightful and thought-provoking play.]

Imagine a vast but indeterminate place, an artifice cobbled out of contending cultures and histories, at once civilized and barbarian, timely and timeless, impenetrably strange and startlingly familiar. Homebody/Kabul is itself a kind of theatrical Afghanistan; it is a demanding evening, although during the week in which another American import, Madonna, made her London stage debut, it was good to be reminded that a night in the theatre can be...

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Richard Hornby (review date summer 2002)

SOURCE: Hornby, Richard. “Free Association.” Hudson Review 55, no. 2 (summer 2002): 286-92.

[In the following review, Hornby asserts that, while Homebody/Kabul is written in a formless style, it is a major play by an important playwright.]

George Bernard Shaw once said that when he wrote his plays, he never thought about plot. Instead, he just created some characters and “let 'em rip.” This reaction against the well-made plays that dominated the late nineteenth-century stage continues in our own day, with playwrights spewing out dialog at random. Some, like Samuel Beckett, have consciously applied the free association technique of psychoanalysis, letting...

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James Fisher (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Fisher, James. “Introduction: The Feathers and the Mirrors and the Smoke.” In The Theater of Tony Kushner: Living Past Hope, pp. 1-20. New York: Routledge, 2002.

[In the following essay, Fisher explains the significance of Kushner's work to American theater of the late twentieth century and turn of the millennium.]

Art is necessary in order that man should be able to recognize and challenge the world. But art is also necessary by virtue of the magic inherent in it.

—Ernst Fischer (14)

Tony Kushner's sudden and conspicuous arrival on the international stage in the early 1990s was as...

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Peggy Phelan (review date March 2003)

SOURCE: Phelan, Peggy. Review of Homebody/Kabul, by Tony Kushner. Theatre Journal 55, no. 1 (March 2003): 166-68.

[In the following review, Phelan compares productions of Homebody/Kabul staged in New York and in Berkeley, California. Phelan asserts that the first act of the play is stronger than the second act.]

Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul was the winner of the Dramatists Guild Hull-Warriner award for best play of 2001. Kushner began writing Homebody/Kabul about three years before “Taliban,” “Northern Alliance,” “burqa,” and “Afghanistan” became the lingua franca of denizens of the United States. Indelibly linked now...

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Natalie Meisner (essay date spring 2003)

SOURCE: Meisner, Natalie. “Messing with the Idyllic: The Performance of Femininity in Kushner's Angels in America.Yale Journal of Criticism 16, no. 1 (spring 2003): 177-89.

[In the following essay, Meisner examines Kushner's representations of women and femininity in Angels in America.]

We pay a high price for the maintenance of the myth of the individual.

—Tony Kushner1

It may seem an odd project to focus on the female characters in Tony Kushner's two-part modern epic Angels in America since the plays' action revolves around Prior, Louis, Joe, and the other male...

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Stephen Aiello (essay date October 2003)

SOURCE: Aiello, Stephen. “Aristotle and Angels: Tragedy in the Age of Anomie.” Florida English (October 2003): 6-16.

[In the following essay, Aiello compares Angels in America with Aristotle's Poetics, claiming that Kushner's play vitiates the form of tragedy.]

It seems to be a contentious position throughout drama criticism that although there may be a tragic sense felt collectively in contemporary life that somehow such an experience when dramatized must be weighed against the classical tradition of tragedy. Thus, any reading of a modern drama as a tragedy dares to confront the same essentialist views as Arthur Miller did when he claimed a tragic...

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Publishers Weekly (review date 3 November 2003)

SOURCE: Review of Brundibar, by Tony Kushner. Publishers Weekly 250, no. 44 (3 November 2003): 72.

[In the following review, the critic comments that the main story in Brundibar is ultimately one of hope, although it includes a darker subtext.]

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Kushner adapts this allegorical tale from a Czech opera created by Hans Krása and Adolf Hoffmeister in 1938. [In Brundibar,] a doctor wearing the Star of David on his jacket dispatches siblings Aninku and Pepicek to town to find milk for their sick mother. Sendak, in a mix of fantasy and reality elements reminiscent of his In the Night Kitchen (especially the cameo...

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