Tony Kushner 1956-
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.
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.
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.
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.