Playwright of Pain and Hope

By Blanchard, Bob | The Progressive, October 1994 | Go to article overview

Playwright of Pain and Hope


Blanchard, Bob, The Progressive


All theater is political," says playwright Tony Kushner, the author of Angels in America. "If you don't declare your politics, your politics are probably right-wing. I cannot be a playwright without having some temptation to let audiences know what I think when I read the newspaper in the morning. What I find is that the things that make you the most uncomfortable are the best things to write plays about."

Kushner, thirty-eight, conjures a theatrical world on an epic scale. Angels in America is actually two three-and-a-half-hour plays: Millennium Approaches (Part One), 1993 winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for best play, and Perestroika (Part Two), 1994 winner of the Tony Award for best play.

What makes Angels a masterpiece is that it works brilliantly on two levels: as taut, serious, heartbreaking drama about the AIDS epidemic and as a witty, sexy evocation of gay life in contemporary America.

"Initially, I worried that there isn't enough anger in Angels," says Kushner. "I was concerned because being polite in political activism is not a very effective tool. You can't persuade people who are basically out to destroy you that they shouldn't do that by being nice to them. Yet I came to believe what Virginia Woolf writes in A Room of One's Own: It's better not to write out of anger. In her estimation, writing without anger yields a clarity that an angry writer lacks."

Kushner says his belief in political activism is based on his reading of world history. It's also "a survival tactic. Otherwise, it would be hard to get out of bed in the morning. If you don't believe in the potential of human agency, you disengage from the world, and you start to die when you do that. It's important that I write for an audience I consider to be as informed and confused as I am."

Solace for the characters of Angels in America comes through the experience of hope. Yet the playwright makes a critical distinction: There are two kinds of hope--naive, childish hope and clear-eyed, knowing hope that is hard-won by confronting terrible exigencies and the pain of being truly alive. By the end of Perestroika, it is the latter hope Kushner's characters have earned.

"Perestroika is about the characters' learning how to change," says Kushner; in his playwright's notes to Perestroika (both Millennium Approaches and Perestroika are now available in print from Theatre Communications Group), he writes, "The problems the characters face are finally among the hardest problems--how we let go of the past, how to change and lose with grace, how to keep going in the face of overwhelming suffering. It shouldn't be easy."

I fell in love with the theater when I was four or five years old," says Kushner. "My mother was a professional musician and amateur actress, and I often saw her perform in plays when I was growing up."

While attending Columbia University in New York City, Kushner went to the theater almost every night. "I think there's a natural proclivity for gay people--who historically have often spent their lives hiding--to feel an affinity for the extended make-believe and donning of roles that is part of theater. It's reverberant with some of the central facts of our lives. Also, theater has always been populated by a lot of homosexual people. That re-creates itself generationally because the theater becomes a more inviting place to go, a place where you don't have to be butch."

It was at Columbia, as he was reading Karl Marx with "great excitement," that Kushner discovered the German playwright Bertolt Brecht. For Kushner, this was an awakening. Here was a crystallizing opportunity, he recounts, to connect "radical, dignified left politics and theatrical practice."

"To me, Brecht is central," says Kushner. "Playwrights who aspire to a theater of political analysis and engagement--and who envision the theater as a platform for social debate--can see in the life and work of Brecht what the marriage of art and politics has to offer.

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