Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 832
Tony Kushner, born in New York City and raised in Lake Charles, Louisiana, was the middle child of William, a Juilliard-trained clarinetist, and Sylvia (Deutscher) Kushner, a bassoonist, one of the first American women to hold a chair with a symphony orchestra. Both nurtured young Tony’s interest in the arts.
In 1974, Kushner began attending Columbia University, graduating in 1978 with a B.A. in English literature. During these years, Kushner continued to struggle with his sexual identity and eventually shared his self-acceptance as a homosexual with his family. Fellow student Kimberly Flynn, a close friend, became a mentor for several of Kushner’s plays, especially his two-part masterpiece Angels in America (pr. 1991-1992).
Kushner greatly enjoyed the New York professional theater scene, read plays voraciously, and developed an interest in the works and theories of dramatist Bertolt Brecht. He enrolled at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, earning an M.F.A. in directing in 1984.
Kushner began writing plays in the early 1980’s and soon began winning significant national awards. One noteworthy early play is A Bright Room Called Day (pr. 1985), where Kushner likens the extreme conservatism of the Ronald Reagan era to Nazi Germany. A group of friends is gradually destroyed during Adolf Hitler’s terrifying rise to power, underscoring the need to combat evil and the price of inaction. Kushner reaches further back in time for his parallel subject matter in another early play, Hydriotaphia: Or, The Death of Dr. Browne (pr. 1987). Kushner’s dark and thoughtful comedy chooses Sir Thomas Browne’s last day on Earth to raise questions about death, its effect on others, and Americans’ capitalistic obsession with materialism.
Millenium Approaches, part 1 of Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, was produced in 1991 in San Francisco and became a huge Broadway success in 1993, winning the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize in drama. This unique epic involving eight actors, some playing multiple parts, takes place in mid-1980’s New York City when the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) epidemic was quickly decimating the gay community, yet President Reagan remained silent. This profoundly passionate play interweaves the lives of such disparate characters as a young gay man with AIDS and his partner who abandons him; a closeted gay, Mormon lawyer and his mother and wife; a compassionate, gay African American nurse; and the incarnation of corruption, lawyer Roy Cohn.
Perestroika (pr. 1992) extends beyond Millenium Approaches and won Kushner another Tony Award. The journey of each character intersects with the others; old relationships dissolve, new ones form, and the themes of Millenium Approaches further deepen and broaden, ending Perestroika with an affirmation of human courage, forgiveness, perseverance, and interdependence.
First produced in 1994, Slavs! (Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness) was written as a coda to Angels in America. Kushner compares the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster with his perception of the environmental and social damage caused by American capitalists.
Among Kushner’s reimaginings of great world literature, his adaptation of seventeenth century dramatist Pierre Corneille’s L’Illusion comique (1636) is most popular. Kushner’s The Illusion (1988) poetically explores the theater’s illusions versus the cold realism of life as well as different types of love. Kushner’s 1994 adaptation of Brecht’s The Good Person of Setzuan accents the ugly ways in which goodness is punished and evil is rewarded. In A Dybbuk: Or, Between Two Worlds (pr. 1997), Kushner adapts a complex 1912 Yiddish play about how tragic circumstances are overcome by love.
Though he has rewritten the play some seventeen times, Kushner originally wrote Homebody/Kabul (pr. 2001) as a gift for his friend, actress Kika Markham, who performed the opening monologue to great acclaim. Afterward, Kushner added the remaining scenes about the difficulty of international communication and understanding.
Beginning as an opera libretto in 1998, Caroline, or Change, book and lyrics by Tony Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori, was first performed in 2003. Kushner takes his audience back to his southern childhood and his family’s relationship with its African American maid just before the Civil Rights movement.
In 2002, Kushner collaborated with acclaimed children’s literature writer-illustrator Maurice Sendak to create Brundibar (Czech for “Bumblebee”) based on the 1938, life-affirming opera performed fifty-five times by Jewish children at the Nazi concentration camp Terezin; the opera’s composer, Hans Krasa, was murdered at Auschwitz.
In 2003, acclaimed theater and film director Mike Nichols directed a film version of Angels in America. Meryl Streep and Al Pacino starred in this stunning rendition of Kushner’s epic work; shown on cable television’s Home Box Office (HBO), the film was nominated for an unprecedented twenty-one Emmy Awards and won eleven, including one for Kushner’s screenplay.
In 2004, Kushner debuted the first act of a work-in-progress, titled Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy, a scathing indictment of President George W. Bush’s policies, including the war in Iraq, which was presented in its early form during the 2004 presidential election campaign.