Kushner, Tony (Drama Criticism)
Tony Kushner 1956-
Kushner is best known for his award-winning Angels in America (1991 and 1992), which is unprecedented in its extensive treatment of homosexual themes and its use of gay characters to examine such traditional issues as culture, politics, and history. Focused on the 1980s, Angels in America examines American society during the Reagan/Bush years with a strong emphasis on the implications and consequences of AIDS. Kushner's themes encompass the gay experience from repression and hypocrisy through denial and self-loathing to the ultimate goals of self-acceptance and self-love.
Kushner was born in New York City in 1956 and was raised in Lake Charles, Louisiana. His parents were classical musicians, and his mother's performances as an actor influenced the young Kushner toward a career in theater. Though aware of his sexual preference from an early age, Kushner attempted to overcome his homosexuality through psychotherapy. He eventually came to terms with his sexual orientation and opened his writing to homosexual themes. He worked as an assistant director at the St. Louis Repertory Theatre after receiving his M.F.A. in directing from New York University in 1984. He returned to New York in 1987 and produced several of his early works, including Stella and Hydriotaphia. In 1993 the first part of Angels in America, Millennium Approaches, was produced on Broadway to universal acclaim. Millennium Approaches won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for Best Play, and the New York Drama Critics Award for best play. Kushner won another Tony for best play in 1994 for the second part of Angels in America, Perestroika.
Kushner's early work did not focus strictly on gay themes. The best-known of his first efforts, A Bright Room Called Day, for example, examines the responses of a group of friends in pre-World War II Germany to Hitler and Nazism. Kushner then proceeds to make comparisons between the Third Reich and the administrations of United States presidents Reagan and Bush. Kushner's other early works include Hydriotaphia, which, inspired by seventeenth-century essayist Sir Thomas Browne, was written in a style reminiscent of classical and traditional poetry; The Illusion, adapted from Pierre Corneille's L'illusion comique; and Widows, a collaboration with Ariel Dorfman based on that writer's work of the same name. Of course, his most enduring work thus far has been Angels in America.
Millennium Approaches comprises the first half of Kushner's two-part drama. Although it features over thirty characters—including the oldest living Bolshevik, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, a black drag queen, and an elderly rabbi played by a young Gentile woman—Millennium Approaches has five main protagonists: Roy Cohn, the infamous, real-life prosecutor and the former henchman of Senator Joseph McCarthy; Prior Walter, a young man who has been diagnosed with AIDS; Louis Ironson, a Jewish homosexual who is Prior's lover; Joe Pitt, an ambitious, bisexual Mormon who works for Cohn; and Harper Pitt, Joe's wife. Concerned with the characters' relationships with one another as well as the interconnections within America's pluralistic society, the play contains numerous subplots that chronicle the characters' reactions to AIDS, the breakdown of their relationships, and the subsequent formation of new bonds. One storyline, for example, revolves around Cohn's relentless and absurd pursuit of political power in the Reagan era. The personification of evil and self-interest in the play, Conn attempts to place Joe Pitt as his man inside the Justice Department. Upon learning that he has contracted AIDS, Cohn denies his own homosexuality and continues with his machinations; defining homosexuals as people who lack political power, he argues that because he has power he is not gay, he is simply a heterosexual who has sex with men. Another plot revolves around the grief that Prior and Harper experience when their respective mates, Louis and Joe, desert them. As Louis and Joe become more involved with one another, both Prior and Harper experience loneliness and various hallucinatory visions: Prior sees himself dancing with Louis while Harper fantasizes about being in Antarctica. At the conclusion of Millennium Approaches, an angel appears to Prior and pronounces him a prophet. In Perestroika, the second half of Angels in America, the partners learn to accept the losses and changes that occurred in the first half of the play and to transform them into positive experiences, while Cohn, who refuses to learn, dies of AIDS. Prior proclaims his own unique gospel and in the final scene directly addresses me audience, extending the play's message to the entire human community.
Critical reaction to Angels in America has been overwhelmingly favorable. Commentators laud it as the proverbial great American play, claiming it addresses such topics as the value and inevitability of change, the nature of self-interest and community, and the major political issues of the 1980s: gay rights, the end of the Cold War, the place of religion in modern society, and the ideological struggle between conservatism and liberalism. Critics have also praised Kushner for avoiding me sentimentality that characterizes most dramas mat deal with AIDS. Frank Rich, writing about Millennium Approaches, has declared the play "a true American work in its insistence on embracing all possibilities in art and life."
A Bright Room Called Day 1985
Yes, Yes, No, No 1985
Hydriotaphia, or, The Death of Dr. Browne 1987
Stella [adaptor; from the drama by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe] 1987
The Illusion [adaptor; from the drama L'illusion comique by Pierre Corneille] 1988; revised 1990
Widows [adaptor with Ariel Dorfman; from a book by Dorfman] 1991
*Millennium Approaches 1991
Slavs! (Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness) 1995
A Dybbuk 1997
The Good Person of Sezuan [adaptor; from the play Der gute Mensch von Setzuan by Bertolt Brecht] 1998
†Death and Taxes: Hydriotaphia and Other Plays 1999
OTHER MAJOR WORKS
Thinking about the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness: Essays, a Play, Two Poems, and a Prayer (miscellany) 1995
Tony Kushner in Conversation (interviews; edited by Robert Vorlicky) 1997
*These works comprise parts one and two of the two-part drama entitled Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.
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Interview with Kushner (1994)
"Tony Kushner Considers the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness: An Interview by David Savran," in American Theater, Vol. 11, No. 6, October 1994, pp. 20-7, 100-04.
[In the following, Kushner discusses the influences on his work and his development as a writer.]
When Bill Kushner diligently guided his 14-year-old son Tony through Wagner's 20-hour Ring cycle, he little suspected his prodigious offspring would end up some two decades later writing the theatrical epic of me 1990s.
Angels in America, with its ground-breaking Broadway run scheduled to continue through January '95, has now begun a national tour in Chicago, while theatres around the world scramble to mount their own productions of the most widely acclaimed new American play in memory. From San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater to Houston's Alley Theatre, from the Intiman Theatre Company in Seattle to the Alliance Theatre Company in Atlanta, Kushner's seven-hour, two-part play will be the centerpiece of the 1994-95 season. At the same time, audiences in 17 foreign countries (including France, Germany, Japan, Iceland and Brazil) will see home-grown productions of Angels over the next year.
From its inception—commissioned by San Francisco's Eureka Theatre Company, it was mounted in workshop and...
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Frank Rich (review date 5 May 1993)
SOURCE: "Embracing All Possibilities in Art and Life," in The New York Times, 5 May 1993, pp. C 15-16.
[In the following review of the New York production of Millennium Approaches, Rich declares the play "a true American work in its insistence on embracing all possibilities in art and life."]
"History is about to crack open," says Ethel Rosenberg, back from the dead, as she confronts a cadaverous Roy Cohn, soon to die of AIDS, in his East Side town house. "Something's going to give," says a Brooklyn housewife so addicted to Valium she thinks she is in Antarctica. The year is 1985. It is 15 years until the next millennium. And a young man drenched in death fevers in his Greenwich Village bedroom hears a persistent throbbing, a thunderous heartbeat, as if the heavens were about to give birth to a miracle so that he might be born again.
This is the astonishing theatrical landscape, intimate and epic, of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, which made its much-awaited Broadway debut at the Walter Ken-Theater last night. This play has already been talked about so much that you may feel you have already seen it, but believe me, you haven't, even if you actually have. The new New York production is the third I've seen of Millennium Approaches, as the first,...
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Frank Rich (review date 24 November 1993)
SOURCE: "Following and Angel for a Healing Vision of Heaven on Earth," in The New York Times, 24 November 1993, pp. C 11, 20.
[In this assessment of Perestroika, Rich considers the play "a true millennial work of art, uplifting, hugely comic and pantheistically religious in a very American style. "]
If you end the first half of an epic play with an angel crashing through a Manhattan ceiling to visit a young man ravaged by AIDS, what do you do for an encore?
If you are Tony Kushner, the author of Angels in America, you follow the angel up into the stratosphere, then come back home with a healing vision of heaven on Earth. Perestroika, the much awaited Part 2 of Mr. Kushner's "Gay Fantasia on National Themes," is not only a stunning resolution of the rending human drama of Part 1, Millennium Approaches, but also a true millennial work of art, uplifting, hugely comic and pantheistically religious in a very American style.
Set at once in New York City in the real plague year of 1986 and on a timeless, celestial threshold of revelation, it has the audacity to ask big questions in its opening moments: "Are we doomed? Will the past release us? Can we change? In time?" And then, even more dazzlingly, come the answers...
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Angels In America
Gordon Rogoff (essay date 1993)
SOURCE: "Angels in America, Devils in the Wings," in Theater, Vol. 24, No. 2, 1993, pp. 21-9.
[In the essay below, Rogoff sardonically traces the evolution of Angels in America, maintaining that the changes made in the course of its various stagings lessened the work.]
As one who lives a life rather than a "lifestyle," I'm not sure what a gay play, let alone a gay fantasia, might be. But there they fly, those miniprovocations and tiny half-thoughts, now glued permanently to whatever may be dredged from the experience of seeing George C. Wolfe's musical-comedy version of Tony Kushner's Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, subtitled "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes." Well, if not exactly a musical-comedy, a play now underscored with so much musical blather instructing us what to feel or think, that it might just as well go all the way. A few years ago at the Public Theatre, Wolfe made a lovely, sensual Caribbean mess out of Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle, a scattershot entertainment that never enlightened but was intoxicating fun to watch until the awful Azdak came on, proceeding to be weighty and witless. At the time, it looked like Wolfe's bad luck with a not-so-good actor. With Angels in mind, however, it looks like Wolfe's revenge on complication...
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Brask, Per, ed. Essays on Kushner's Angels. Winnipeg: Blizzard Publications, 1995, 154 p.
Contains two essays on Angels in America translated from Danish and German.
Geis, Deobrah R. and Steven F. Kruger, eds. Approaching the Millennium: Essays on Angels in America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997, 306 p.
Contains essays dealing with the play from a variety of perspectives, including history, politics, and performance.
Hornby, Richard. "Dramatizing AIDS." The Hudson Review XLVI, No. 1 (Spring 1993): 189-94.
Review of Angels in America that praises Kushner for avoiding sentimentality in the depiction of AIDS.
Shewy, Don. 'Tony Kushner's Sexy Ethics." The Village Voice XXXVIII, No. 116 (20 April 1993): 29-32, 36.
Discusses the commotion surrounding the Broadway production of Angels in America and includes an interview with Kushner.
Steyn, Mark. "Communism Is Dead; Long Live the King!" The New Criterion 13, No. 6 (February 1995): 49-53.
Negative assessment of Angels in America that finds the play overblown and Kushner a "preposterously well-meaning moralizing sentimentalist."
Weber, Bruce. "Angels' Angels." The New York Times Magazine CXLII, No. 49,312 (25 April 1993): 27-31, 48-58.
(The entire section is 210 words.)