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."