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.
†This volume includes the plays Hydriotaphia; Reverse Transcription; Terminating, or, Sonnet LXXV, or, Lass meine; Schmerzen nicht verloren sein, or, Ambivalence; East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis; and David Schine in Hell
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 full productions at the Eureka, Los Angeles's Mark Taper Forum and London's Royal National Theatre prior to its April 1993 opening on Broadway—Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes has altered the face and scale of the American theatre. Having amassed the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, two best-play Tonys and a spate of other prestigious awards, it has proven, against all odds, that a play can tackle the most controversial and difficult subjects—politics, sex, disease, death and religion—and still find a large and diverse audience. This achievement is even more remarkable when one considers that all five of its leading male characters are gay. Bringing together Jews and Mormons, African- and European-Americans, neo-conservatives and leftists, closeted gay men and exemplars of America's new "queer politics," Angels attempts nothing less than the creation of a cosmic-scale history of America in the age of Reagan and the age of AIDS.
Tony Kushner, a self-described "red-diaper baby," was raised in Lake Charles, La., the son of professional musicians. The Kushners' rambling house on the edge of a swamp teemed with pets and resounded with music. Young Tony developed an appreciation of opera and the Wagnerian scale of events from his father Bill (Moby Dick remains the playwright's favorite novel), while from his mother Sylvia's involvement in amateur theatrics he learned to appreciate the emotional power of theatre. (He still vividly remembers her performance as Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman—and the tremendous identification he felt with her.) But at age six, when he developed a crush on Jerry, his Hebrew school teacher, Tony knew he was not like other boys. Growing up, as he puts it, "very, very closeted," he was intrigued by the sense of disguise theatre could offer. But because he had decided "at a very early age" that he would become heterosexual, he avoided the theatre in town, where he knew he would find other gay men.
In the mid-1970s, Kushner moved to New York to attend Columbia University, where he studied medieval art, literature and philosophy and read the works of Karl Marx for the first time. Still fascinated with theatre, he explored the mind-bending experimental work of directors like Richard Foreman, Elizabeth LeCompte, JoAnne Akalaitis and Charles Ludlam; immersed himself in classical and modernist theatre traditions; and got involved in radical student politics. It was not until after he graduated from Columbia, however, that he began to "come out"—and much like Joe Pitt in Millennium Approaches, he called his mother from a pay phone in the East Village to tell her he was gay.
Angels in America pays energetic tribute to these diverse experiences and inspirations. Drawing on Brecht's political theatre, on the innovations of the theatrical avant-garde and on the solidly American narrative tradition of Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams, Kushner invents a kind of camp epic theatre—or in his phrase, a Theatre of the Fabulous. Spanning the earth and reaching into the heavens, interweaving multiple plots, mixing metaphysics and drag, fictional and historical characters, revengeful ghosts and Reagan's smarmy henchmen, Angels demonstrates that reality and fantasy are far more difficult to distinguish, on stage and in the world, than one might think. It also reasserts, as political activists have insisted since the 1960s, that the personal is indeed the political: Exploring the sometimes tortuous connections between personal identity (sexual, racial, religious or gender) and political position, it dramatizes the seeming impossibility of maintaining one's private good in a world scourged by public greed, disease and hatred.
Yet Angels in America is by no means a play about defeat. On the contrary, it consistently attests to the possibility not only of progress but also of radical—almost unimaginable—transfiguration. Its title and preoccupation with the Utopian potential inscribed in even the most appalling moments of history are derived from an extraordinary mediator—the German-Jewish Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin. In Benjamin's attempt to sketch out a theory of history in "These on the Philosophy of History," written in 1940 as he was attempting to flee the Nazis, this most melancholy of Marxists uses Paul Klee's painting, "Angelus Novus," to envision an allegory of progress in which the angel of history, his wings outspread, is poised between past and future. Caught between the history of the world, which keeps piling wreckage at his feet, and a storm blowing from Paradise, the angel "would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed." But the storm "has got caught in his wings" and propels him blindly and irresistibly into an unknown future.
For Kushner, the angel of history serves as a constant reminder both of catastrophe AIDS, racism, misogyny and homophobia, to name only the most obvious) and of the perpetual possibility of change—the expectation that, as Benjamin puts it, the tragic continuum of history will be blasted open. And the concept of utopia to which the angel is linked ensures that the vehicle of enlightenment and hope in Angels—the prophet who announces the new age—will be the character who must endure the most pain: Prior Walter, a man born too soon and too late, suffering from AIDS and the desertion of his lover. Moreover, in Kushner's reinterpretation of American history, his utopia is inextricably linked both to the extraordinary idealism mat has long driven American politics and to the ever-deepening structural inequalities that continue to betray and mock that idealism.
It is hardly coincidental that Angels in America should capture the imagination of theatregoers at this decisive moment in history, at the end of the Cold War, as the United States is attempting to renegotiate its role as the number-one player in the imperialist sweepstakes. More brazenly than any other recent play, Angels—not unlike Wagner's Ring—takes on questions of national mission and identity. It also attempts to interrogate the various mythologies—from Mormonism to multiculturalism to neoconservatism—that have been fashioned to consolidate an American identity.
At the same time, the play is intent on emphasizing the crucial importance of the sexual and racial margins in defining this elusive identity. In mis sense, it seems linked to the strategies of a new activist movement, Queer Nation, whose founding in 1990 only narrowly postdates the writing of the play. This offshoot of the AIDS activist group ACT UP agitates for a broader and more radical social and cultural agenda. Like Queer Nation, Angels in America aims to subvert the distinction between the personal and the political, to refuse to be closeted, to undermine the category of the "normal," and to question the fixedness and stability of every sexual identity. Reimagining America, giving it a camp inflection, Angels announces: "We're here. We're queer. We're fabulous. Get used to it!"
I interviewed Tony Kushner on a cold Sunday afternoon in January in his apartment on New York's Upper West Side.
[David Savran]: How did your early ideas about theatre change?
[Tony Kushner]: As a freshman at Columbia, I read Ernest Fisher's The Necessity of Art and was very upset and freaked out by it. The notion of the social responsibility of artists was very exciting and upsetting for me.
I arrived from Louisiana with fairly standard liberal politics. I was ardently Zionist and, where I grew up, the enemy was still classic American anti-Semitism. It was a big shock to discover all these people on the left at Columbia who were critical of Israel. My father is very intelligent in politics but very much a child of the Khrushchev era, the great disillusionment with Stalinism. I guess I just believed that Marxism was essentially totalitarianism and I could hear in Fisher a notion of responsibility that is antithetical to the individualist ideology that I hadn't yet started to question.
One of the things that changed my understanding of theatre was reading Brecht. I saw Richard Foreman's Threepenny Opera at Lincoln Center in 1976 and thought it was the most exciting theatre I'd ever seen. It seemed to me to combine the extraordinary visual sense that I had seen downtown with a narrative theatre tradition that I felt more comfortable with. There was also the amazing experience of the performance. When Brecht is done well, it is both a sensual delight and extremely unpleasant, and Foreman got that as almost nothing I've ever seen. It was excoriating and you left singing the songs. So I read the "Short Organum" and Mother Courage—which I still think is the greatest play ever written—and began to get a sense of a politically engaged theatre.
It was in Brecht that I think I understood Marx for the first time. I understood materialism, the idea of the impact of the means of production, which in Brecht is an issue of theatrical production. I started to understand the way that labor is disappeared into the commodity form, the black magic of capitalism: the real forces operating in the world, the forces of the economy and commodity production underneath the apparent order of things.
Because of Brecht I started to think of a career in the theatre. It seemed the kind of thing one could do and still retain some dignity as a person engaged in society. I didn't think that you could just be a theatre artist. That's when I first read Benjamin's Understanding Brecht and decided I wanted to do theatre. Before that I was going to become a medieval studies professor.
I loved the Middle Ages and I think there's something very appealing about its art, literature and architecture, but I was slowly getting convinced that it had no relevance to anything.
What about the Middle Ages? The connection between art and religion?
I have a fantastical, spiritual side. And when I got to Columbia, I was very impressionable. In the first class I took, a course in expository writing, we did Beowulf. I found the magic and the darkness of it very appealing and I was very, very moved—as I still am—by being able to read something 900 years old, or 2,000 years old in the case of the Greeks, and to realize that it isn't in any way primitive. You also realize—although I don't believe in universal human truths—that there are certain human concerns that go as far back as Euripides or Aeschylus.
And of course medieval art and culture predates the development of bourgeois individualism, which you go to great pains to critique.
It's extraordinary to see that great richness can come from societies that aren't individuated in that way. The anonymity of the art is terrifying to a modern person. It's not until very late, really until the beginning of the Renaissance, that you start to have artists identifying themselves. You realize these human beings had a profoundly different sense of the social.
At the same time, I started to get very exciting about Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. I directed Jonson's Bartholomew Fair as my first production at Columbia, and it was horrible.
It's a very difficult play.
I didn't start easy—36 parts. I couldn't even find 36 actors. One of them didn't speak English and we had to teach him syllabically. You can't understand most of it anyway, because of the references to things that have long since disappeared, but I had fun doing it and decided at that point—although I'd tried writing a couple of things—that I would become a director because I didn't think that I'd ever write anything of significance. I was also attempting to follow in the footsteps of people I really admired like Foreman, Akalaitis and Liz LeCompte. I thought the best thing to do was to write the text as a director, so I spent two years answering switchboards at a hotel and two years teaching at a school for gifted children in Louisiana. I directed several things there to get over my fear of directing—The Tempest, Midsummer Night's Dream—and I did my first take at The Badan-Baden Play for Learning, which I'm beginning to think is, next to Mother Courage, the best thing Brecht ever wrote. Then I applied to NYU graduate school in directing because I wanted to work with Carl Weber because he had worked with Brecht—and he looked like Brecht. At my second attempt (George Wolfe and I just discovered that we were rejected by him in the same year), I got in.
Your own work, with its multiple plot lines, has some resemblance to Bartholomew Fair, but it is also engaged in the American narrative tradition. What impact have Miller, Williams and O'Neill had on your writing?
Miller, none. I do actually admire Death of a Salesman. I can see how, in its time, it had an immense impact. And it's still hard to watch without sobbing at the end. But some of it is a cheat. It's melodramatic and it has that awful, '50s kind of Herman Woukish sexual morality, the supposed tragedy of the little man and all that—but it's incredibly pathetic, or bathetic.
I sneered at O'Neill for a long time, but I'm beginning to realize that two or three of his plays—not just Long Day's Journey into Night—are amazing. I've always loved Williams. The first time I read Streetcar, I was annihilated. I read as much Williams as I could get my hands on until the late plays started getting embarrassingly bad. I've always thought Orpheus Descending is a fascinating play, much more fascinating than the Broadway production directed by that Tory Peter Hall, which I thought was just awful. I'm really influenced by Williams, but I'm awestruck by O'Neill. I don't feel that he's much of an influence because he's from a very different tradition with a very different sensibility.
I think John Guare is a very important writer. Landscape of the Body, the Lydie Breeze plays, House of Blue Leaves are amazing. Like Williams, Guare has figured out a way for Americans to do a kind of stage poetry. He's discovered a lyrical voice that doesn't sound horrendously twee and forced and phony. There are astonishingly beautiful things scattered throughout his work.
As I was watching Perestroika—the opening tableau, the spectacle, the angel—/ also thought about Robert Wilson.
Hollow grandiosity [laughs]. I saw Einstein on the Beach at the Met in '76 and was maddened and deeply impressed by it. I'm very ambivalent about Wilson. The best I've ever seen him do—the piece I loved the most—was Hamletmachine. Watching Hamletmachine, I felt: This is such tough theatre, this is hard work. I was always afraid of making the audience work. But I was horrified by what I saw of The CIVIL WarS. It really seemed like Nuremberg time—done for Reagan's Hitler Olympics. What he does to history—this notion of Ulysses S. Grant and Clytemnestra and owls and Kachina dancers—excuse me, but what is this? What's going on here?
So you see a complete dehistoricization?
Absolutely. And to what end? These figures are not neutral, they're not decorative. You do see ghosts of ideas floating through, but it feels profoundly aestheticist in the worst, creepiest way, something with fascist potential. Also, the loudest voice is the voice of capital: This cost so much money, and you've spent so much money to see it. There's a really unholy synthesis happening of what is supposed to be resistant, critical and marginal, marrying big money and big corporate support. Wilson is an amazing artist, but a disturbing one.
Maria Irene Fornes is also very, very important to me. I saw her really experimental stuff like The Diary of Evelyn Brown, based on these endless, tedious lists of what a pioneer woman who lived on the plains did during the day—and Fornes just staged them. It was monumentally boring and extraordinary. Every once in a while, this pioneer woman would do a little clog dance. You saw the great tediousness of women's work, and yet it was, at the same time, exalted, thrilling and mesmerizing. Then Fornes moved into plays like Conduct of Life and Mud. I think she's a great writer and director, and the extent to which she's not appreciated here or in England is an incredible crime and an act of racism. And she's the only master playwright who's actually trained another generation—so many wonderful writers like José Rivera, and Migdalia Cruz and Eduardo Machado.
And then there's Caryl Churchill, who is like … God—the greatest living English-language playwright and, in my opinion, the most important English-language playwright since Williams. There's nothing like Fen or Top Girls. She came to see Angels at the National Theatre in London, and I felt hideously embarrassed. Suddenly the play sounded like a huge Caryl Churchill ripoff. One of the things that I'm happy about with Perestroika is that it's a bigger and messier work—I found a voice, and it doesn't sound as much influenced by Churchill as Millennium.
The important thing about the British socialist writers, even the ones I find irritating, is that their style comes out of the Berliner Ensemble touring through Britain—they have a strong Marxist tradition they're not at war with, and they've found a way (Bond, of course, did it first) to write Marxist, socialist theatre that has a connection with English-language antecedents. So it was very important for me to read Brenton, Churchill, Hare and Edgar. During the late '70s, when there was nothing coming out of this country, they seemed to be writing all the good plays.
As the subtitle of Angels makes plain, this play recognizes that gay men have been at the center of certain crucial themes and identities in our national life. How do you see Angels in relation to the development of queer politics?
I'm in my late thirties now and of the generation that made ACT UP and then Queer Nation—a generation stuck between the people who created the '60s and their children. I see traces of the Stonewall generation, of Larry Kramer and even, to a certain extent, Harvey Fierstein—but also the generation of [filmmaker] Greg Araki and [actor] David Drake, that Queer Nation, Boy Bar kind of thing. I feel that I'm part of a group of theatre people that includes Holly Hughes, David Greenspan, Paula Vogel … As I've said in other interviews, I think of it as a change from the Theatre of the Ridiculous to the Theatre of the Fabulous.
The Queer Nation chant—"We're here. We're queer. We're fabulous. Get used to it!"—uses fabulous in two senses. First, there's fabulous as opposed to ridiculous. In The Beautiful Room Is Empty, Edmund White writes about the Stonewall rebellion being a "ridiculous" thing for the people who were involved: It was a political gesture, what Wayne Koestenbaum calls "retaliatory self-invention," a gesture of definance. That's the essence of the ridiculous. And the drag gesture is still not completely capable of taking itself seriously. I don't want to talk in a judgmental way, but mere's still a certain weight of self-loathing, I think, that's caught up in it. You couldn't say that Charles Ludlam was self-loathing. But mere is a sense in which masochism (I'm sounding like Louis [the character in Angels] now) and flashes of intense misogyny—when another victim of oppression is sneered at and despised because of her weakness—come from the fact that one hates one's own weakness. There's a certain embracing of weakness and powerlessness in the Ridiculous.
John Waters, too, is a good example of that.
Yes. And there's also an incompatibility with direct political discourse. How can you be that kind of queer and talk politics? Of course, what AIDS forced on the community was the absolute necessity of doing just that—of not becoming a drab old lefty, or old new lefty, but maintaining a queer identity and still being able to talk seriously about treatment protocols and oppression.
So there's fabulous in the sense of an evolutionary advance over the notion of being ridiculous, and fabulous also in the sense of being fabled, having a history. What's very important is that we now have a consciousness about where we come from in a way that John Vaccaro and Charles Ludlam, when they were making pre-Stonewall theatre, didn't have. Think back to [avant-garde performer and filmmaker] Jack Smith, that whole tradition of which he was the most gorgeous and accomplished incarnation. Ludlam died before ACT UP started. Had he lived, there's no question but that he would have had no problem with it. I knew nothing about his theoretical writings when he was alive, I just knew he was the funniest man I'd ever seen. But he was working through a very strong politics and theory of the theatre, and I'm sure the times would have made many amazing changes in his art.
So I feel we're another step along the road now. It's incumbent upon us to examine history and be aware of history, of where we've come from and what has given us the freedom to talk the way we do now. We're the generation that grew up when homophobia wasn't axiomatic and universal, and when the closet wasn't nailed shut and had to be kicked open.
The progress narrative you're constructing here makes me think that Perestroika 's idea of history is not only rooted in dialectical materialism but also in your belief in the possibility of progress and enlightenment.
As Walter Benjamin wrote, you have to be constantly looking back at the rubble of history. The most dangerous thing is to become set upon some notion of the future that isn't rooted in the bleakest, most terrifying idea of what's piled up behind you.
When I started coming out of the closet in the early '80s, and was going to the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights meetings, they were so bourgeois and completely devoid of any kind of Left political critique. There was no sense of community with any other oppressed groups, just "let's get the gay rights bill passed in New York and have brunches and go to the gym." It was astonishing to discover that only 10 years before there had been the Gay Activist's Alliance and the Lavender Left and hippie gay people, and I thought, "What happened? Where did they go?" Of course, they went with the '60s. But ACT UP changed all that. Now it's hard for people to remember that there was a time before ACT UP, and that it burst violently and rapidly on the scene.
It seems to me that this development of queer politics has in part prepared for the success of Angels in America.
Absolutely. It kicked down the last door. The notion of acting up, much more than outing, is what really blew out liberal gay politics. I mean, you depend upon the work that's done by the slightly assimilationist but hard-working, libertarian, civil rights groups, like the NAACP, but then at some point you need the Panthers. You need a group that says, "Enough of this shit. This is going too slow. And if we don't see some big changes now, we're going to cause trouble. We really are here. Get used to it." Up until that point, the American majority—if there is such a thing—fantasizes that the noise will just go away, that it's a trend, a swing of the pendulum. The way Angels in America talks, and its complete lack of apology for that kind of fagginess, is something that would not have made sense before.
Unlike Torch Song Trilogy, in which Arnold just wants to be normal, Angels in America, along with queer theory and politics, calls into question the category of the normal.
Right. Creating the fiction of the white, normal, straight, male center has been the defining project of American history. I'm working on a play about slavery and reading 18th-century texts, and it has been the central pre-occupation in American politics for the entire time during which this land has been trying to make itself into a country. The founding fathers weren't getting up and arguing about making homosexuality legal, but it's been an ongoing issue. And in this century, it's been an obsession during various times of crisis. It always seems to me that in the concerns of any group called a minority and called oppressed can be found the biggest problems and the central identity issues mat the country is facing. Because of Brecht, and from reading the history of the collapse of the Weimar Republic when I was writing A Bright Room Called Day, I realized that the key is the solidarity of the oppressed for the oppressed—being able to see the connecting lines. This is one of the things that AIDS has done, because it's made disenfranchisement incredibly clear across color lines and gender lines.
I keep thinking of that line from Walter Benjamin's: "Where we perceive a chain of events, [the angel] sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. " The scene in heaven in Perestroika really took my breath away, seeing the wreckage behind the scrim.
And mere's a whole scene mat we didn't perform because it just didn't play: These very Benjaminian, Rilkean angels are listening on an ancient radio to the first report of the disaster at Chernobyl. Benjamin's sense of utopianism is also so profoundly apocalyptic: a teleology, but not a guarantee, or a guarantee mat Utopia will be as fraught and as infected with history. It's not pie in the sky at all.
I think that is also a very American trope. In The American Religion, Harold Bloom keeps referring to this country as the evening land, where the promise of Utopia is so impossibly remote that it brings one almost to grieving and despair. Seeing what heaven looks like from the depths of hell. It's the most excruciating pain, and even as one is murdering and rampaging and slashing and burning to achieve Utopia, one is aware that the possibility of attaining Utopia is being irreparably damaged. People in this country knew somewhere what they were doing, but as we moved into this century, we began to develop a mechanism for repressing that knowledge. There's a sense of progress, but at tremendous cost.
It's Prior who carries the burden of that in Angels. Embedded even in his name is the sense that he's out of step with time, both too soon and belated, connected to the past and future, to ancestors and what's to come.
He's also connected to Walter Benjamin. I've written about my friend Kimberly [Flynn], who is a profound influence on me. The line that Benjamin wrote that's most important to her—and is so true—is, "Even the dead will not be safe if the enemy wins." She said jokingly that at times she felt such an extraordinary kinship with him that she thought she was Walter Benjamin reincarnated. And so at one point in the conversation, when I was coming up with names for my characters, I said, "I had to look up something in Benjamin—not you, but the prior Walter." That's where the name came from. I had been looking for one of those WASP names that nobody gets called anymore.
Despite all these Utopian longings, at the center of both Bright Room and Angels are characters, Agnes and Louis, who are, in one way or another, liberals. In both plays you've well-intentioned liberals whose actions are at an extraordinary remove from their intentions. Why?
I've never thought of Louis and Agnes as a pair, but they really are. I think they're very American. American radicalism has always been anarchic as opposed to socialist. The socialist tradition in this country is so despised and has been blamed so much on immigrants. It's been constructed as a Jewish, alien thing, which is not the way socialism is perceived anywhere else in the world, where mere is a native sense of communitas that we don't share. What we have is a native tradition of anarchism, and that's a fraught, problematic tradition. Ronald Reagan is as much its true heir as Abbie Hoffman. Abbie Hoffman was an anarcho-communist and Ronald Reagan is an ego-anarchist, but they're both anarchists.
The strain in the American character I feel the most affection for and that has the most potential for growth is American liberalism, which is incredibly short of what it needs to be, incredibly limited and exclusionary—and predicated on all sorts of racist, sexist, homophobic and classisi prerogatives. And yet, as Louis asks, why has democracy succeeded in America? I really believe that there is the potential for radical democracy in this country, one of the few places on earth where I see it as a strong possibility. There is an American tradition of liberalism, of a kind of social justice, fair play and tolerance—and each of mese things can certainly be played upon in the most horrid ways. (Reagan kept the most hair-raising anarchist aspects of his agenda hidden, and presented himself as a good old-fashioned liberal who kept invoking FDR.) It may just be sentimentalism on my part because I am the child of liberal-pinko parents, but I do believe in it—as much as I often find it despicable. It's sort of like the Democratic National Convention every four years: It's horrendous, and you can feel it sucking all the energy from progressive movements in this country, with everybody pinning their hopes on this sleazy bunch of guys. But you do have Jesse Jackson getting up and calling the Virgin Mary a single mother; on an emotional level, and I hope also on a more practical level, these are the people in whom to have hope.
None of the characters in Angels, though, is involved with mass-movement politics.
That's because the play is set—and I mink this is very important—at a time when there's no such thing in the United States for generally progressive people. For someone like Belize, there isn't anything: The Rainbow Coalition has started to waffle and fall apart. And there is nothing in the gay community—there's the Gay Pride parade, and Gay Men's Health Crisis getting humiliated at the City Council in Newark every year—1984-85 was a horrible, horrible time. It really seemed as if the maniacs had won for good.
What Martin says in Millennium now seems like a joke that we can all snigger at, but at the time, I just wrote what I thought was most accurate. The Republicans had lost the Senate, but would eventually get that back because the South would go Republican. There would never be a Democratic President again, because Mondale was the best answer we could make to Ronald Reagan, the most popular President we've ever had. So none of these people had anything they could hook into, which is the history of the Left. When the moment comes, when the break happens and history can be made, do we step in and make it or do we flub and fail? As much as I am horrified by what Clinton does—and we could have had someone better—we didn't completely blow it this time.
I'm interested in father-son relationships in the play—the way that Roy Cohn is set up as the masochistic son of a sadistic father, Joseph McCarthy, and how he, in turn, is a sadistic father to Joe. Isn't a sadomasochistic dynamic really crucial for mapping so many of the relationships in the play? Both Louis and Harper seem amazingly masochistic, in very different ways.
I want to explore S&M more because feel that it's an enormously pervasive dynamic, that it's inextricably wound up with issues of patriarchy, and that there are ways in which it plays through every aspect of life. I think it's something that needs to be understood, thought about and spoken about more openly.
We subjects of capitalist societies have to talk about the ways in which we are constructed to eroticize and cathect pain, as well as the way pain is transformed into pleasure, and self-destruction into self-creation. What price must we finally pay for that? Until now, there's been a kind of dumb liberation politics—all forms of sexual practice are off-limits for analysis, and S&M is fine, we just leave it in the bedroom. But of course it's not just the kind of S&M that's acted out that needs to concern us. I think that sexuality should still be subject to analysis, including the question of why we're gay instead of straight, which I think has nothing to do with the hypothalmus or interstitial brain cells, but has to do with trauma.
But isn't all sexuality rooted in trauma?
We're just good Freudians. Yes, it's all trauma and loss, and the question is, are there specific forms of trauma? I believe that there is an etiology of sexuality that's traceable if anybody wants to spend the money on an analyst. Oedipus is still legitimate grounds for exploration and inquiry. And I think that the notion of the cultural formation of personalities is of tremendous importance. Roy's generation of gay men, for example, had that kind of deeply patriarchal, gender-enforced notion of the seduction of youth—the ephebe and the elder man. That comes down from the Greeks, homosexuality being a form of tutelage, of transmission, of dominance and submission. It felt to me that that would absolutely be part of Roy's repressed, ardent desire for Joe. Then what you see replicated in the blessing scene is a form of love which has to flow through inherited structures of hierarchical power.
These are some of the oldest questions with which we've been torturing ourselves: What is the relationship between sexuality and power? Is sexuality merely an expression of power? Is there even such a thing as a "sexuality"? If we buy into the notion of the construction of these forms of behavior, and the construction of personalities that engage in these behaviors, do we believe in the de construction of these forms? What is that deconstruction? There's the issue of reforming the personality to become a socialist subject: By what process, other than submission, does the individual ego become part of a collective? Is there a process other than revolution, other than bloodshed, agony and pain—which is fundamentally masochistic—by which we can transform ourselves? That's a big question, and it turns you toward things like Zen.
That's the question of the play: What is there beyond pain? Is Utopia even imaginable?
If our lives are in fact shaped by trauma and loss—and as I get older it seems to me that life is very, very profoundly shaped by loss and death—how do you address that? How does one progress in the face of that? That's the question that the ATOS epidemic has asked. There is no place more optimistic man America, in the most awful way (like "Up with People!"). These questions make so many people queasy, and become the subject of so much sarcasm, but identity is shaped, even racial identity. If there weren't bigots, there wouldn't be a politics of race. There has to be a politics of difference that speaks to the presence of enormous oppression and violence and terror. The more we know about history, the more we realize—and this is an important thing about sadomasochism—that it never ends. You can see in our present moment a thousand future Sarajevos. You know that when you're 90, if you live so long, they'll still be fighting. Even after the Holocaust, the monsters are still among us. And can you forgive? That's why I ask this question of forgiveness, because its possibility, like that of Utopia, is undertheorized and underexpressed.
Relating to the question of forgiveness, why do you use Mormons in the play, along with Jews? The angels are so clearly Old Testament angels, angels of the vengeful God. How does that tie in with the Mormon religion?
There are interesting similarities between Mormonism and Judaism. They both have a very elusive notion of damnation. It's always been unclear to me, as a Jew, what happens if you don't do good things. Presumably you don't go to Paradise. There is a Hell, but, even among the Orthodox, there isn't an enormous body of literature about it—it's not like Catholicism. Mormonism has a Hell but it also has three or four layers of Heaven.
Also, like Judaism, Mormonism is a diasporic religion, and it is of the book. It draws its strength very much from a literal, physical...
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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...
(The entire section is 6866 words.)
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...
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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...
(The entire section is 37747 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 210 words.)