Tony Kushner Considers the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness

By Savran, David | American Theatre, October 1994 | Go to article overview

Tony Kushner Considers the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness


Savran, David, American Theatre


When Bill Kushner diligently guided his 14-year-old son Tony through Wagner's 20-hour Ring cycle, he little suspected his prodigious offspring would end up some two decades later writing the theatrical epic of the 1990s.

Angels in America, with its ground-breaking Broadway run scheduled to continue through January '95, has now begun a national tour in Chicago, while theatres around the world scramble to mount their own productions of the most widely acclaimed new American play in memory. From San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater to Houston's Alley Theatre, from the Intiman Theatre Company in Seattle to the Alliance Theatre Company in Atlanta, Kushner's seven-hour, two-part play will be the centerpiece of the 1994-95 season. At the same time, audiences in 17 foreign countries (including France, Germany, Japan, Iceland and Brazil) will see home-grown productions of Angels over the next year.

From its inception--commissioned by San Francisco's Eureka Theatre Company, it was mounted in workshop and full productions at the Eureka, Los Angeles's Mark Taper Forum and London's Royal National Theatre prior to its April 1993 opening on Broadway--Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes has altered the face and scale of the American theatre. Having amassed the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, two best-play Tonys and a spate of other prestigious awards, it has proven, against all odds, that a play can tackle the most controversial and difficult subjects--politics, sex, disease, death and religion--and still find a large and diverse audience. This achievement is even more remarkable when one considers that all five of its leading male characters are gay. Bringing together Jews and Mormons, African- and European-Americans, neo-conservatives and leftists, closeted gay men and exemplars of America's new "queer politics," Angels attempts nothing less than the creation of a cosmic-scale history of America in the age of Reagan and the age of AIDS.

Tony Kushner, a self-described "red-diaper baby," was raised in Lake Charles, La., the son of professional musicians. The Kushners' rambling house on the edge of a swamp teemed with pets and resounded with music. Young Tony developed an appreciation of opera and the Wagnerian scale of events from his father Bill (Moby Dick remains the playwright's favorite novel), while from his mother Sylvia's involvement in amateur theatrics he learned to appreciate the emotional power of theatre. (He still vividly remembers her performance as Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman--and the tremendous identification he felt with her.) But at age six, when he developed a crush on Jerry, his Hebrew school teacher, Tony knew he was not like other boys. Growing up, as he puts it, "very, very closeted," he was intrigued by the sense of disguise theatre could offer. But because he had decided "at a very early age" that he would become heterosexual, he avoided the theatre in town, where he knew he would find other gay men.

In the mid-1970s, Kushner moved to New York to attend Columbia University, where he studied medieval art, literature and philosophy and read the works of Karl Marx for the first time. Still fascinated with theatre, he explored the mind-bending experimental work of directors like Richard Foreman, Elizabeth LeCompte, JoAnne Akalaitis and Charles Ludlam; immersed himself in classical and modernist theatre traditions; and got involved in radical student politics. It was not until after he graduated from Columbia, however, that he began to "come out"--and much like Joe Pitt in Millennium Approaches, he called his mother from a pay phone in the East Village to tell her he was gay.

Angels in America pays energetic tribute to these diverse experiences and inspirations. Drawing on Brecht's political theatre, on the innovations of the theatrical avant-garde and on the solidly American narrative tradition of Eugene O'Neill and Tennesee Williams, Kushner invents a kind of camp epic theatre--or in his phrase, a Theatre of the Fabulous. …

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