Tony Kushner

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 129,665 words.)