Tony Kushner Has His Day

"I wish I was an octopus," says Roy Cohn in Angels in America, " a f--king octopus." These days Tony Kushner, the man who wrote that line, is a f--king octopus. With life more chaotic than usual—good news and bad news coming at us faster and from more directions than we can handle—what part of it escapes his tentacles? (Story continued below...)

Consider: Kushner was a socialist long before the financial collapse led this magazine to declare that we are all socialists now. The administration has renewed its efforts to address the Middle East crisis, a subject that Kushner has been writing, speaking and generally making himself obnoxious about for years. He is a leading advocate for gay marriage at a time when the issue zooms toward public acceptance (he and his husband, the journalist Mark Harris, share the distinction of being the first same-sex couple to be featured in the Vows column in The New York Times). And just as a bookish lawyer from Illinois settles into the White House, he's writing a Major Motion Picture about Abraham Lincoln that Steven Spielberg will direct. Of the many strange things about American life, one of the strangest is that a 52-year-old gay Jewish Southern playwright finds himself—economically, politically, socially, culturally—so near the heart of the action.

Corporeally, however, Tony Kushner finds himself in Minnesota. Or did, anyway, on a recent Saturday afternoon, when he waved sheepishly and offered a wan smile and looked entirely uncomfortable about the attention he was receiving. To be fair, it was a lot of attention. He had come to the Twin Cities because the Guthrie Theater, one of the nation's leading regional theaters, was kicking off an unprecedented and wholly immersive two-month celebration of his work. All three of the Guthrie's stages would host performances of his plays, as well as lectures, talkbacks and screenings.

But at the kickoff ceremony, the focus wasn't on the writing, it was on the writer. On a platform in the theater's towering lobby, the mayor handed him a proclamation declaring it Tony Kushner Day in Minneapolis. Kushner was clearly honored, but his instinct is to self-deprecate. "I have, I guess, another 11 hours left of Tony Kushner Day," he told the rapt crowd of 100 or so. "Then I'll go back to wishing I was David Mamet."

I had come to Minnesota because I wanted to see what a life of brilliant art and progressive advocacy looked like in the age of Obama, and could think of no finer specimen than Kushner. I had expected—what with the Guthrie lavishing on him the kind of adulation that Fellini would consider over the top and the dawning of a new progressive age for America and all—to find him riding pretty high. But Kushner wasn't in excelsis: he was in extremis.

After the speech, I asked him how he felt about all the praise. "If only they knew," he said quietly. He declined to specify what, exactly, "they" didn't know. But the fact that I was escorting him through the labyrinthine halls of the Guthrie to the small, windowless office where he was going to spend the rest of Tony Kushner Day frantically trying to finish the new play on which the festival depended—the one set to open in just two and a half weeks—contributes to an answer.

Beyond staging revivals of his plays, the Guthrie had commissioned a new work from Kushner: The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism, With a Key to the Scriptures—a title he adapted from a book by George Bernard Shaw that he found in his late grandmother's library. Though the festival had been announced more than a year earlier, his difficulties in finishing the Lincoln screenplay gave him a perilously late start on his new play. And because there were already 11 actors in a rehearsal room downstairs waiting for their lines, and buses zigzagging around town advertising the play, the show had to go on.

Kushner would call finishing this script amid all his other commitments the most demanding stretch of his professional life. It also turned out to be one of the most revealing. While he sat sequestered in his office (bare cubicle desks, cold overhead light, a fallout shelter's charm), the revivals of his plays elsewhere in the building revealed how work as politically engaged as Kushner's changes when our politics change. On his occasional breaks, his conversations revealed how a leading progressive reacts to Barack Obama's presidency. And the whole ordeal revealed how it feels for an artist to be plugged so completely into the 21st-century zeitgeist. For one thing, it is really, really tiring.

If you know of Kushner, chances are it's because of Angels in America, his two-part, seven-hour epic about gays, Mormons, AIDS, Roy Cohn and the national identity that exploded onto Broadway in 1993 and later became an HBO film directed by Mike Nichols. As Prior Walter grapples with a prophecy from heaven (delivered by an angel that crashes through his ceiling), the Mormon Republican lawyer Joe Pitt wrestles with his homosexuality and a half-dozen other vivid characters collide in moving and fantastical ways, Kushner delivers exactly what his subtitle (another riff on Shaw) proclaims his play to be: "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes."

Since then, Kushner's intuitions about society have added a new quality to the lyricism, humor and emotional power of Angels, one that the Guthrie festival makes clear: a freaky clairvoyance. A decade ago, Kushner wrote a play about a dowdy British woman who disappears into an obscure Central Asian nation, and the husband and daughter who go looking for her. By the time Homebody/Kabul opened in December 2001, the United States had invaded Afghanistan.

Next he wrote a musical based on his experiences growing up in a Jewish household with an African-American maid in Louisiana. A year after Caroline, or Change opened on Broadway, Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, and suddenly the lines that a poor black woman sings to open the show, "There ain't no underground in Louisiana, there is only underwater," took on an eerie prescience. In fact, Kushner began hearing that phrase so often that his husband suggested "Eara Lee Prescient" should be his drag name.

At the Guthrie, Caroline now seems so prescient it's unnerving—so prescient it's absurd. If Kushner and the composer Jeanine Tesori tried to write a musical in which everybody is constantly singing about change a few months after an African-American rode the theme of change to the White House, they'd be called shameless opportunists. But this is a revival. Kushner really did write a play that evokes the spirit of Barack Obama's election four years before he announced his candidacy. He really did have Noah, the character based on his boyhood self, call Caroline (apropos of nothing) "the president of the United States." He somehow wrote an epilogue so keyed into its moment that what once felt bitter, even tragic—Caroline's daughter describing how her mother's sacrifices inspired her to fight for civil rights—now seems practically triumphant.

"What is it with you?" I asked him.

The day after Tony Kushner Day, he had emerged from his writing cave for a late dinner at one of the Guthrie's restaurants. He didn't come up with a good explanation for his psychic streak, but he did allow that the show's new resonance seemed "pretty cool" to him: "I would have assumed at some point, if the play lasted, there'd be an audience watching where there's an African-American president. But I didn't think it'd be in 2008."

Kushner has sharp features, dark-framed glasses and an affect that is at once academic and passionately engaged—making it as easy to imagine him strolling the quad with the rest of the adjunct profs as shouting imprecations in the faces of the other literati in some bygone European café. Particularly when the subject is politics, he talks very fast, conveying thoughts that have a tendency to divide, form squadrons, explore trails and reunite a sentence or two later. This happened when our conversation about Caroline became a conversation about Obama—specifically, Kushner's delight at his presidency so far. I wanted to know how he could reconcile his belief that Obama might be "a genuinely great president" with the fact that Obama isn't in favor of one of the causes dearest to Kushner: gay marriage.

"Pbbbht! Of course he's in favor of gay marriage!" Kushner said. "He's absolutely in favor. Does anybody actually believe that Barack Obama and Michelle Obama think that we shouldn't have—that this man who is a constitutional-law scholar—is it a complicated issue? Obama is capable of parsing infinitely more complicated questions than this. Read the Iowa Supreme Court decision—it's magnificently crystal clear. There's no issue here. It's over. It's done. Could the first black man or white man or Jesus Christ himself get elected in 2008 saying he believes in gay marriage? Of course not."

When Kushner talks about gay marriage, he uses a language of civil rights that evokes the era of Caroline: marriage, he said, would mean nothing less than "finally becoming complete citizens of this country." Kushner has worked to bring that about, through both his writing and his marching to protest California's Prop 8 in Manhattan earlier this year. He is also, in a sense, a living marker of how the issue moves fitfully but inexorably toward its resolution.

When Kushner and Harris met 11 years ago, "gay marriage wasn't even much of a phrase, let alone an issue," Harris told me. Their 2003 commitment ceremony made a splash in the Times. But last summer, when they had their legal marriage, nobody noticed. They didn't invite guests to join them at city hall in Provincetown; they didn't even write vows. "The meaningful part of it was walking into a government institution and having them be perfectly cool about giving us paperwork to fill out, just like any couple, and doing it," said Harris. "We said, 'Let's just go to city hall and get married and go to the beach'."

In Minneapolis, Kushner looked as if he could use some R&R. He'd never scheduled a production of a new play without a script before, and now opening night was approaching without even a glimmer of a finished third act. "I'm in a very peculiar cycle right now," he said. "I'm working all day long, every day. I didn't sleep last night at all." At all? "Two and a half hours. That's on top of the day before. It's been at least a week since I've had seven hours of sleep. I have to do that tonight." But he didn't.

Kushner admits to having "a certain degree of unhinged grandiosity that makes it hard for me to say I can't do six things," which is why, even into the fraught final stages of his writing process, he went on doing six things. He hosted a public conversation about a Caryl Churchill play that had been called anti-Semitic (Kushner defended her) and helped to organize a reading of his Lincoln screenplay, which he claims went very well, though its chances of getting filmed remain unclear (big budget, bad economy). The day after our Caroline conversation, he stopped writing to go talk to two groups of students at the University of Minnesota.

First up was the cast of an undergraduate production of A Bright Room Called Day, Kushner's first play, which used the story of young artists in Berlin reacting to Hitler's rise as a metaphor for Reaganism. Though Kushner looked happy to see the students and they beamed at him, his ordeal was breaking him down. As the actors set up the classroom all around us, he said something that I didn't quite catch, but that sounded as if he was asking me if he should "get a mean."

"What?" I said.

"Speed."

Working backward, I figured out that the question I'd half-heard was "I'm wondering if I should take an amphetamine."

"My doctor prescribed them three years ago and I've been carrying them around, but I've never taken one," he said. "I guess I probably shouldn't."

I told him this was where my professional interest as a journalist and my fondness for him personally collided, because if he took speed and started freaking out, I would definitely be writing about it. He laughed, and by then it was time to start the discussion—without chemicals.

After spending an hour talking to the actors about their dual responsibilities as artists and citizens, he crossed the hall to address students taking a course called Tony Kushner in America. Most of the questions he drew were friendly—adoring, even. But a young woman wearing a silver cross necklace told him she thought his plays demonized evangelicals—that is, people like her.

Kushner's response was a 10-minute symphony in the key of Everything That Is Wrong With Evangelicals. He didn't raise his voice, but with a level passion he proceeded to deny that he demonizes anybody, since he doesn't believe in demons; note the folly of a "literal" reading of the Bible, a text that must be interpreted to make any sense; explain why he was "very, very angry" about the way that evangelicals were depriving him of his civil rights by opposing gay marriage; accuse them of damaging America by trying to turn our pluralist secular democracy into a theocracy; and de-ride them for falsely claiming victim status despite their vast wealth and power.

"You seem like a lovely person," he told the young woman, now blushing bright red. "I hope I didn't suddenly turn into this"—and in lieu of a noun, he made an exaggerated snarling face and claws, drawing a laugh.

Anger seems to be, for Kushner, a kind of natural resource—a fuel that propels the machine. That's not unusual for lefty playwrights in New York. What is remarkable—and what the Guthrie festival reinforces—is that his instincts as a dramatist trump even his ferocious partisan sympathies.

In Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy, one of the short works that make up Tiny Kushner, the Guthrie's evening of one-act plays, Laura Bush reads Dostoevsky to Iraqi children killed by American bombs. The opening seems like a perfect setup for character assassination. On two prior occasions when I've seen the play performed, the audiences in the early going have greeted it as such. But Kushner is only laying a trap for the people who share his politics. As the play unfolds, it grants the first lady an aching moral conscience. In a deft reversal, it even indicts the audience that's intent on judging her, arguing that we share the responsibility for what the government does. Laura Bush may have left the White House, but at the Guthrie the message remains clear: we should be as guilt-racked as she is.

In a sense, this just means that Kushner anticipated the all-together-now vibe of the new era and is occasionally willing to write nice things about a Republican—which says more about other writers' tribalism than his independence. The really extraordinary quality of his political writing, though, runs deeper than partisanship. Seeing so many of his plays in quick succession, from Bright Room to the new one, makes the dynamic easier to spot.

However different their circumstances, Kushner's characters are (I like to imagine) standing on a beach, looking out at the sea, feeling the tide pull against the backs of their legs and the sand disappear under their feet. Before long, a wall of water—history—is bearing down on them. Self-regarding, stubborn, weak-willed, if well-meaning, they are swept away by their times. People appear in his plays not as some on the left and right want them to be—noble, heroic, pure—but richly, humanly imperfect. Even the Angel in Angels is a screw-up. "This age wanted heroes," says an artist in Bright Room, speaking for Caroline, the Homebody's daughter, Louis in Angels and, frankly, all but a very few of the rest of us. "It got us instead. A whole generation of washouts."

Kushner isn't shy about where this comes from. "Some of the best stuff I've [written] is about people with real problems," he said. "They're really unhappy, f--ked-up, tortured people. I didn't make all that stuff up. I am that. I'm a very complicated—as everyone is—complicated person with a lot of contradictions." It's no wonder he called writing his Lincoln screenplay "the hardest thing I've ever done"—harder even than Angels. Is any human being less like a Tony Kushner character—drowning in history, conquered by desires and phobias, unequal to the demands of the times—than Abraham Lincoln?

Three weeks later, Kushner looked depleted but used to it, like a public defender, or a mother of twins. When the new play's scenes were slow in coming—and were, even by Kushner's standards, fantastically difficult and dense—the Guthrie was forced to postpone the opening. Even with an extra week, he cut it close. The play's scenes had never been staged—or read, for that matter—in the right order until two days before the first official performance. A new scene was added less than three hours before the curtain went up. Director Michael Greif and his brave actors worked some kind of magic to get it over.

The Intelligent Homosexual's etc. tells the story of Gus Marcantonio, a retired Brooklyn longshoreman and communist who decides, in the summer of 2007, that he wants to die. His three grown children and his sister have come home to talk about it. Over more than three hours of stage time (with two intermissions), we watch family members argue with their spouses, lovers and siblings about Gus and each other but also (this being a Tony Kushner play) about Marxism, Christian Science, labor history and real estate.

The critics who attended press night have knocked the play for feeling unfinished. Well, yes. Even when Kushner has a smooth path to a world premiere, he goes on rewriting his plays for years. Yet some essential qualities are already plain.

This is, for one thing, the darkest play he has written, lacking anything like the warm benediction that closed Angels or the upbeat epilogue of Caroline. It also isn't a play that people will find prescient in a year or two: Kushner wants to lead the public conversation rightnow. He's written a moral response to the financial crisis, spurring the deep soul-searching that's only just getting underway in society. He's written, in effect, a family drama about the morality of money. It expresses a Marxist-tinged horror at the way our relationships are commodified in a consumer society: One of the sons talks about how money warps his relationship with a gay hustler. Gus contemplates suicide in part because it will leave his children a valuable piece of real estate.

But Kushner isn't a pamphleteer: he doesn't claim that Marx or anybody else has the answers. In fact, he is the leading playwright of the 21st century for the precise reason that nobody does a better job capturing the sensation that there are no answers anymore: that modern life means feeling your way instead of relying on one big theory, trying to keep a handle on an overbooked, hyperconnected, overwhelming world.

Only after seeing the play in front of an audience, Kushner said, did he realize why all its disparate concerns—politics, intelligence, homosexuality, family and the rest—ended up knocking around in this story. He was talking about the rewrites that still awaited him but could have been describing the task of the new president he admires so much or the challenge that faces the rest of us in our busy, fragmenting time: "Now I have to pull it all together."

Editor's note: After this story went to press, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that Kushner's new play would open on Broadway in spring 2010, produced by Scott Rudin. (When contacted by NEWSWEEK, a spokesperson for the show would not confirm details of future productions.) The producers asked the national critics not to review the play in Minneapolis— even though several had previously made plans to do so—citing a tradition of New-York-bound productions not being reviewed by New York critics. Also Kushner wanted more time to work on it.

Join the Discussion