Finding the truth where certainties collide

Tony Kushner is arguably the most prominent left wing playwright in the United States today. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for the first part of Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, a two-part epic play about the AIDS epidemic in New York. It was later adapted into an HBO miniseries for which Kushner wrote the screenplay, earning him an Emmy in 2004. All of his plays are imbued with questions of social justice, exploring the relationship between the personal and the political. His most recent play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism & Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, tells the story of Gus Marcantonio, a retired longshoreman, union activist, and former member of the Communist Party and his family in Brooklyn. It recently enjoyed a sold-out run at the Public Theater in New York City. While his work has earned him accolades and awards, he is no stranger to controversy. Most recently, City University of New York (CUNY) trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld tried to prevent Tony Kushner from being awarded an honorary degree because of his comments on Israel. The public outcry at this blatant act of censorship led the decision to be overturned, and Kushner was ultimately given an honorary degree in May 2011. He spoke to Megan Behrent.

ANGELS IN America is celebrating its twentieth anniversary. Few plays have had such a profound political impact and resonated with so many people. Twenty years later, it still sells out. What do you think of its impact? What is its legacy?

I AM very pleased that it has a life of its own, and I’m certainly very proud of it. I try not to think too much about things like legacy and so on. That’s sort of not my concern, and I think to allow myself to wonder about that kind of thing would be to set myself up for difficulty in the future. I don’t want to have to worry about writing plays with legacies when I sit down to write, so for the most part I tend not to speculate on stuff like that. It’s had a very nice life, it’s twenty years old, and it seems to be holding up well. I felt in the revival in New York that it was still very much capable of producing meaning for contemporary audiences, so it hasn’t dated particularly or died. I’m happy about that, and I hope I’ll feel the same way when it’s revived in another twenty years. I hope it’s revived in another twenty years. It seems to be built to last. And that’s a nice thing. I hope that’s the case. 

ALL OF your plays, including Angels in America, seem to interrogate the relationship between the political and the personal. Was there any particular event or series of events in your life that politicized or radicalized you?

I'M ACTUALLY talking to you from Louisiana. I’m here visiting my father who still lives in the town that I grew up in. I grew up during, obviously, a very political, a very politicized time, a time of social unrest, and a lot of radical activity, and really a revolution on a number of fronts in this country. Certainly, there were enormous amounts of activism producing radical social change. I learned a lot from that. My parents were progressive people. My mother grew up on welfare in the Bronx during the Depression.

Both of my parents were from the Depression era, and great believers in government, and they were very decent progressive people. I could probably dare to say people of the left—not of the radical left, but my father’s a great student of history and someone who thinks very hard and very cogently and intelligently about politics. I learned a great deal from him. My mother’s family was a Jewish family from the Bronx, very left people. My grandfather on my mother’s side was in the glaziers union and had lost his job during the Depression because of a very ugly strike. So I grew up with good labor politics. I think I was sort of born to be politically minded. I assume that’s the origins of it. 

You know, my parents are both musicians, classical musicians. They both believed in the seriousness of art, that art was not purely entertainment; that it should have an entertainment value but that it also could be used to dig deep— and it really mattered to people, and that life without art was a life not worth living. There’s a great deal of importance in culture and that culture is a significant source of meaning and comprehension. My father is a wonderful musician, a great reader of poetry, of literature, and I think I also inherited from them a sense that you make art with your entire being and that it’s a life and death thing. It’s a way of making a living but it’s not just that. I feel very grateful for all of that. 

I think it was a useful thing growing up in the Deep South on a number of levels. I’ve said this a lot, but I grew up in a very small Jewish community within a larger Christian community so I had a direct experience of what it felt like to be a member of a minority, not exactly a persecuted minority because there was no sort of particularly malevolent or aggressive anti-Semitism, but there was certainly anti-Semitism around and a very strong sense of being other. I feel that I learned a lot from that. 

Also, I was gay all my life, and I think I used the lessons of being Jewish in a small Southern town during the civil rights era, and sort of transferred them. It took some time, but I learned many lessons about how to claim an identity that was an uncomfortable identity for people, and not throw a lot of yourself to the dispossessed, or dispossess an identity because it was despised culturally. The problem was with the culture and not with oneself or one’s group. So I used those lessons in coming out of the closet. 

AS A writer, you clearly identify with the left, and are arguably the most prominent left wing playwright in the United States. I’m sure you’re inundated with requests to speak and lend your name to political causes. What do you think is the role or responsibility of a left-wing political writer? You’ve at times been accused of “preaching to the choir,” and I think rightly argued that even those already on the left need to be challenged and inspired. What, for you, is the purpose of political art? 

NOTHING IRRITATES me more than this sort of idiotic idea that if you write progressive plays, or plays that deal with political subjects from a progressive point of view, that you’re preaching to the converted or preaching to the choir. There’s a very silly idea that since most people who go to theater are progressive people, that what everybody needs to hear are right-wing plays that will shock them. Or if I’m writing progressive plays, that I should go and perform them at Crystal Cathedral or in Lynchburg, Virginia, for Donald Wildmon’s group in wherever the hell his “American Family Association” is. It’s a silly idea. 

I’ve always said that preachers preach in places that are filled with believers, not usually those in need of conversion. So you know John Donne and Martin Luther King Jr. were great preachers preaching to their congregations, and the role of the preacher is not to talk to people who don’t believe. In fact, prophets in the Holy Scriptures weren’t speaking to worshipers of Ba’al; they were speaking to the Israelites. 

The idea is not that you find people who don’t believe what you believe and then give them messages. I think that’s based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what art is about—that art is some sort of dull instruction manual or a public service announcement. And it isn’t that. The great preachers and great religious writings or sermons—the sermons of somebody like Donne, or King, or Martin Luther, or Thomas Aquinas, or the rabbis in the Talmud—are particularly for the faithful, and their purpose is to help the faithful grapple with the absolutely inevitable concomitant to any great faith, which is doubt. 

When I was a medieval studies major at Columbia there was a famous medieval theological text, “The Cloud of Unknowing.” There’s a version of this in every religion on the planet, which says that the Almighty, if there is a divinity, exists in an obscured place. Consciousness is not able to penetrate without a tremendous amount of work, or it will simply not penetrate at all. That’s what preaching is about. You go to the edge of what you’re certain about. You go to the place where your certainties collide with other things that you suspect or fear may be true. Where one certainty collides with another certainty, and you make plays out of the clashing of those things.

You make plays out of going into the dark. You don’t have a candle or you don’t have a map or you don’t have any idea what you’re doing, and you ask the congregation, which is very likely to be grappling with the exact same issues, to come with you. Then, you go forward collectively, to explore the dark and the unknown. I think that’s when any art form becomes very exciting. It’s when you are really risking something, because you’re saying something that may get you into trouble. I also feel that should be, in my opinion, the hallmark of the left, of being a progressive person. 

I’ve said many times that I think conservative thinking is a thought disorder. It asks questions, sometimes asks very good questions, but it stops asking them at the point where the answers begin to unsettle some basic assumptions. I’m talking about serious conservative people, not crazy conservative people, the people who should know better, and the problem is almost always that they ask questions just up to the point of discomfort, and then stop. I think that’s why a lot of them don’t go to the theater. I think if you’re a progressive person, one thing that you should believe as kind of a mandate is that you keep asking questions past the point at which you feel secure that you know what the answer is going to be. And there is a risk in that. The answers could be very uncomfortable and move you into some place very problematic. 

And that’s what I feel one’s job is as an artist. Really in a way, the only thing I think that you have to do as an artist, the only actual requirement for the job, is that you tell the truth as much as you are able, recognizing that the truth is dialectical and therefore contradictory and paradoxical and not a stable, single thing. You try to tell the truth by finding ways around the various kinds of police against the truth, which are not always external. In fact the most fearsome obstacles are internal. You yourself are a great and formidable adversary to discovering and articulating the truth and part of your job is to try and figure out ways to strategize around that internal police network and let what’s true out into articulation and expression. I think that’s your job. In terms of what art does and what art is meant to do, I think that artists should try not to think too much about what their art is meant to accomplish apart from trying to grapple with finding meaning and finding truth. 

I think that if you start to believe that your art is a political act you’re going to really probably screw up your art. My political action is political action. When I’m an activist, when I’m involved, when I’m engaged, when I help organize things, when I participate in demos, if I get arrested, if I do a fundraiser for a cause, or write an essay or a letter designed to change people’s opinions— then, I’m being political. I’m exercising my historical agency in a direct way. 

When I write a play it’s different; I don’t think that I will be doing my audience any favors if I believe that my art has a direct impact on them in terms of changing their minds and making them see something differently. I find that deprives me, as an artist, of the right to be really confused and to write about confusing and bewildering things. I would have very little reason to write if it weren’t to explore these things. I don’t present. I am a talented playwright, I don’t know that I’m any more intelligent or competent in terms of political analysis than many of the people in my audience. I think people in groups are more intelligent than people alone, and audiences are very, very smart. 

So I don’t assume that they need to hear me lecture them. If I do need to lecture, if I need to say things that I think nobody else is saying, then, well, I’m sort of well known and I could get an op-ed piece published if I tried or certainly get something published in the Nation, or I could start talking about this issue or that issue more in interviews. I should take advantage of my reputation and sort of lecture people, but I don’t think that that’s what my plays should be. 

I RECENTLY saw The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism & Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures and loved it. Even more than your other plays, it seems to be a meditation on or even assessment of the left—particularly the Communist Party, although not limited to it. I’ve read that this play has been in the works for a long time, but was there a particular motivation? Why now? What was the inspiration for the play?

PART OF it is a personal thing. My father is now quite old and his generation is largely gone, and I’m fifty-five and I’m looking at issues of mortality and life in a slightly more middle-aged way. The play is not autobiographical in any way; my father is not a communist longshoreman, but it has some autobiographical elements. On one level, I was working out or working with some issues in my own life. Most of the characters are my age and the father is close to my father’s age—my father is actually sixteen years older than Gus, but there were personal issues I wanted to deal with. And, I have an intuition when I’m starting to work on a play that maybe there’s an issue that seems to be a truly political question: to me, in this play, the question of revolution. When I was younger, I was never a member of any particular party, but I learned from Marx and from Lenin and from Brecht a contempt for the socialism of the nineteenth century, for Eduard Bernstein, for any kind of gradualism, and anything that rejected the idea of revolution.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve struggled more and more with questions of revolution. I have no answers. It’s not that I’ve decided that all revolution is bad, or that revolution is a terrible thing. But I have some very serious questions about what revolution means and what it means to the left in this country. I think various events in recent years have really stirred me very deeply about this during the build up to the Iraq war: the complete lack of actual, real, political power of the left; our complete inability to stop this horror from happening; and the fact that, as is often the case, the earliest people to organize resistance to the war were socialists and people on the far left, let’s say serious left. But I would go to teach-ins where audiences were being told by these people who I admired immensely for organizing resistance to the war, that we can’t count on Congress, we can’t count on the courts, we have to take to the streets. As a gay man, I absolutely revere the cultural revolutionaries and the political revolutionaries of the sixties, the counter-culture movement, because among so many other great things, it made LGBT liberation possible. 

But it does seem to be an interesting phenomenon that at a moment that American political democracy came to what seems to me a kind of apotheosis with the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act—that a hundred years of African-American agitation for civil rights led to a moment when Washington actually, in the early sixties, began to respond and respond powerfully to social agitation. A kind of concerted effort of people on the street and people in the halls of power began to produce real radical social transformation. It was at that moment, in part because of the Vietnam War, maybe largely because of the Vietnam War—I’m not a historian of the sixties so I’m not entirely sure why this happened—but, a kind of anarchist streak in the counter-culture movement led the left by the end of the sixties, beginning of the seventies, largely to abandon any belief in the effectiveness of government and the radical potential of American democracy. Instead, we became post-modernist. By the end of the seventies we had handed over pretty much all meaningful political power to the radical right who certainly took advantage of it and created a counter revolution which has come close to destroying the planet and may yet succeed. 

We’re in terrible trouble. 

Many of these horrors originate in Reaganism. When we had that immense demonstration against the Iraq War in New York, in February of 2003 when the war started, it was the largest demonstration I think I’d ever seen. I spoke at it and standing on that stage, it was unbelievable. It was one of the coldest days I’ve ever experienced, but a million people maybe turned out to protest the war on that terrible cold day. And then Bush, the next day, said, “Well, it was kind of a focus group.”

Everybody got very angry, but it was one of the true things that motherfucker ever said, because that’s exactly what it was. We had exactly the power of a focus group. We could give our opinion and he chose not to listen to us. We had no one in Congress that had any need to listen to us. We hadn’t really done anything to make sure that we had—I mean, there were a couple of lefty people in Congress who sort of got in by accident.

For the most part progressive politicians in the Senate, not Obama but Hillary Clinton certainly, handed over war powers to Bush. So we had no means of making an impact. 

That’s a point at which it just seemed to me, what would the history of this country be if some of these brilliant people who organize so magnificently were working to elect genuinely radical politicians to Congress and really working within American democracy? Is it really the case that we would be in the same situation that we’re in now because corporations own everything and there is no American democracy?

I think that’s cynicism. I greatly admire Howard Zinn and I admire Gore Vidal, but I think there’s a kind of cynicism that was taught for decades about this, that the Democratic Party and the Republican Party are identical and so on and it persists to this day. I have a lot to think about in the play about what the meaning of evolution or evolutionary change vs. revolutionary change is. What is it that we’re talking about when we talk about revolution?

The play is a very big play and I’m still working on it. I’m hoping to get another production maybe in Chicago in a year and I don’t feel that I finished it yet. I feel that I’ve gotten closer. There are a lot of things that are very interesting to me. The question of suicide, for example, which I think I began to explore—specifically a relationship that I’m intuiting rather than I’m able to really speak coherently about, something between the violence of suicide and the violence of revolution that, I shouldn’t even really say that because it’s going to sound horrible. It doesn’t mean what it sounds like it means. 

It is interesting that Marx’s daughter and his son in law committed suicide. [Paul] Lafargue, who committed suicide, was one of the first to articulate the possibility that work, that labor, was something that the human race might choose to screw off. I found that very moving and very interesting in terms of this particular strike that I was dealing with and the guaranteed annual income. Workers arriving at a place where they’re not actually working anymore. 

I’M ACTUALLY a public high school teacher and a union activist myself, and so I really appreciate the way in which the play raises issues about the labor movement. It has a particular resonance for me, as today unions are frequently faced with similar dilemmas: for example, deals which protect current union members, but sell out the “unborn,” or the future members. The main character Gus’s major accomplishment and central regret is his role in winning longshoremen protections guaranteeing them work—but at the expense of new hires, thus dividing the union. What do you think is Gus’s legacy for unionists today? Was there a particular reason why you chose this historical moment? Or the longshoremen in particular? 

GUS IS a very complicated character, so I’m not holding him up as an example or anything. I was very moved by the number of teachers who came up to me, and they seemed to be more and more by the end of the run at the Public Theater. I felt like word had gotten out among teachers and it makes sense, because of course one of the places now where the right is really attempting to do lasting damage to the idea of unionism is with teachers unions. When I was starting to think about the play I was involved in a strike—the Writers Guild went out on strike. At the same time, the stage hand union, Local 1, went out on strike. I’ve said this before, but I was really shocked when I went to work on the executive council of the Dramatists Guild, which is as close as playwrights can get to a union. We can’t actually unionize because we own the copyrights to our work, so it would be a violation of antitrust laws if we did. We have this guild, and I went to the meeting at the time of the strike thinking, “Well, we’re going to sit around and talk about how we are going to support the stagehand union.” Instead, I was really shocked, because it was all these liberal playwrights, many of whom sounded like management, and were saying, “These guys make too much money and they have college funds for their kids. Why is that fair? I don’t have any college funds for my kids. They live in big houses in Long Island, and they make $100,000 a year. They have health benefits and we don’t have them.”

It was real scarcity economy thinking. Everyone had a story: “I do a play and I only need two stagehands backstage, but the union forces us to hire four. They sit around playing cards. That’s why our tickets are so high, and that’s why my royalties are so low.” It was a very bracing reminder of how thoroughly the rhetoric of the Reagan years concerning the right of workers to organize and the very relationship of workers to social wealth had transformed how we think about unions and how much of what we had learned during the great years of trade unionism in this country had gone up in smoke, for people who should really know better.

Yeah, maybe your show only needs two stagehands, but it’s a very specific skill and if you make the other stagehands go and stand in the unemployment line, or find other work, then, when you have a show that needs five stagehands, where are you going to get the five stagehands? Let alone the morality and the ethics of it. That, I think, really pushed me towards this. I had always been interested in the longshoreman strike, I think, in part because I’ve been doing a lot of work on Arthur Miller’s plays, editing his collected plays for the Library of America. A View from the Bridge is a play that I really love. 

Bill [William] DiFazio, who is a professor at St John’s, had written a book about the longshoreman strike, specifically about the GAI,1 and I was interested in the idea of a guaranteed annual income, that workers had the right to demand an income that was not connected to work. And that, in the early seventies, was an idea that was conceivable, it was powerful, it could have currency among working-class guys who you have to assume had politics all over the place, but not necessarily left politics. But they got the logic of it. They understood that the containers and the robot cranes were purchased by wealth that they had helped create over the years. 

They were entitled to a continuing economic connection to this industry, even if the industry didn’t specifically need their backs and their shoulders anymore. It didn’t need them to drive forklifts. So, not so long ago, in the 1970s, you could still say to people, “You have a right to share in this wealth” and they would respond, “Yes, we do.” You think about nowadays of course, this would be, it seems, like madness to most people. It’s like “Well, fire them, it’s not their factory.” The ideology of Reaganism has so pervaded our understanding that the very basic tenets of trade unionism have been lost. So I felt like it was a good time to work on a play like this. 

YOU BROUGHT up Arthur Miller and A View from the Bridge. I know you recently edited the collected works of Arthur Miller. It’s hard not to think of Death of a Salesman while watching The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide, particularly as a family drama that also raises larger political issues. As a high school English teacher, I often teach Miller and was thinking about his essay “Tragedy and the Common Man,” in which he argues that, “There is a misconception of tragedy …. [t]hat it is of necessity allied to pessimism.” Whereas, “in truth, tragedy implies more optimism in its author than does comedy,” because “[t]he possibility of victory must be there in tragedy.” For Miller, the tragic hero’s struggle “demonstrates the indestructible will of man to achieve his humanity.” Thus, in tragedies “alone, lies the belief—optimistic, if you will,in the perfectibility of man.” He therefore concludes: “It is time …that we…took up this bright thread of our history and followed it to the only place it can possibly lead in our time—the heart and spirit of the average man.”2 What do you think of this idea? Is this something you agree with? How does Miller’s argument resonate with your own work? 

I READ that essay, and, I think it’s an interesting one. I use Death of a Salesman as an example of this too, sometimes when I teach—it’s a Nietzschean idea of tragedy. It’s openly not about loss but about clearing. It’s basically what Marx and Engels were referring to when they said, “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.” When Biff yells at Willie over and over again, “We’re nothing,” you know, Why aren’t you saying it? “We’re nothing, we’re nothing.” It’s the idea—and this connects to revolution as well—that in order for the new to be born, the old in a certain sense must be destroyed or has to recognize its innate extinction and surrender to it. The loss of that sometimes quite marvelous existence is painful.

It’s like what they say about Lenin. He had a great fondness for the haute bourgeoisie in Moscow, he loved hearing stories about how they packed up all their stuff and headed out of the country. But he admired them—they were the people who had really made society run. He had admiration for Henry Ford as a captain of industry. He got how ingenious these people often were. When you lose that there’s something great being lost, but, in the devastation something new begins to emerge and I feel that’s in a certain sense what Gus is going for in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide. I feel like I’m still working on a way to make that work dramatically. I don’t think I quite got there, but the idea is an idea of revolution as well. It’s the annihilation of an old order in order to clear the stage for the birth of something new. I think it’s a very interesting and problematic model for change. 

WHAT WOULD it take for Gus to want to live at the end of the play?

I DON'T know whether Gus dies. I’ve been very careful not to answer the question of whether he survives or not at the end of the play. But, if you watch the play and listen to it, something happens after MT (Empty) [Gus’s daughter] leaves. You know, you don’t know about what’s happened in between her departure and Eli’s arrival, but, one thing that’s interesting is that after she leaves, he doesn’t take an overdose of pills, he goes and gets that suitcase that’s come out of the wall. And, certainly something happens in the process of explaining the contents of that box to Eli. It has, it seems to me, a fairly powerful affect on Gus. The last line of the play is, “I’m thinking.” Something is going on, and obviously I didn’t write the play as a sort of “whodunnit”—I don’t want people to even worry about solving that, but it’s important to me that it has, I hope, an interesting hovering quality. You don’t know which way he’s going to go.

I LOVE the end and the fact that it is left open so that the audience has to think about it and come to their own conclusions. 

WHAT I love is that when people talk about it, it’s as if it’s a mystery to be solved—“Do you think he did it, do you think he didn’t do it?” But if I really wanted it to be solved, I probably would have just said it. What I think is interesting about indeterminate endings is that they should throw you, that it’s a clear indication that, in a certain sense, whether he does or doesn’t do it isn’t the point. The point is something else. One thing I love about that last scene is the moment that he asks Eli, he says, “They pay you for sex,” which is somewhat shocking, but people mostly take that as a kind of a joke. But, then, when he asks, “How much do they pay you?” towards the end, the whole scene, which has a very tender feeling before that, becomes something really scary and strange. 

And, I love that. One of the things that I wanted to do is write about money. And, I love that suddenly this relationship, which is taken as kind of paternal one, that Eli is the last kid to show up in a way, and, I guess is teaching him and talking to him; and then, the minute he brings up money, everything shifts. Each person will have a different interpretation of how it’s shifted, but for me it’s a very deceptive way of reminding us of how unbelievably powerful money is. Not that we need many reminders, because god knows we experience it. 

LIKE MILLER, you’ve also been a target of modern day McCarthyites who have tried to silence you because of your politics (most notably, the attempt to prevent you from receiving an honorary degree from CUNY). What effect has this had, if any, on you or your work?

SOME PEOPLE think that I deliberately court controversy, but I’m not actually really interested in it. When it comes, it comes. It’s always upsetting and difficult to be attacked. But, on the other hand, if you are being attacked by terrible people, then it means that you’re probably doing the right thing. I wouldn’t want people like this guy Wiesenfeld, the trustee, singing my praises. We don’t agree about a lot—pretty much everything, I guess.

It was very difficult that it happened right during the opening week of The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide, but it was also kind of lovely. On opening night I went to the theater, and as I was walking up to the theater I saw there were people who were standing there with picket signs and, I said to my husband, “Oh God, they’re out here.” I thought it was going to be some right- wing groups attacking me because of my Israel politics, and, I got closer and I saw that the signs were all in support. They were CUNY political science professors who had shown up to picket on my behalf. And that was very nice. The outpouring of support for me, but more importantly, support for the idea of academic freedom, and disgust at this guy’s tactics. They absolutely were routed. They had to beat a very hasty retreat and offer me the degree. 

But I didn’t do that. That was because of the enormous outcry from people all over the country and in Europe as well. So, I thought that was great. It reminds you that there are an awful lot of sane and progressive people out there who care very passionately about many of the things that I care about, and that we are a community. We can stand up against these dreadful people when we need to. 

  1. Guaranteed Annual Income. A provision won by the International Longshoreman’s Association in 1965 which guaranteed workers an annual income even if their jobs were eliminated by containerization as the use of large containers reduced the need for workers to load and unload.
  2. Arthur Miller, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” originally published in The New York Times, February 27, 1949.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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