Tony Kushner considers the longstanding problems of virtue and happiness.
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. Spanning the earth and reaching into the heavens, interweaving multiple plots, mixing metaphysics and drag, fictional and historical characters, revengeful ghosts and Reagan's smarmy henchmen, Angels demonstrates that reality and fantasy are far more difficult to distinguish, on stage and in the world, than one might think. It also reasserts, as political activists have insisted since the 1960s, that the personal is indeed the political: Exploring the sometimes tortuous connections between personal identity (sexual, racial, religious or gender) and political position, it dramatizes the seeming impossibility of maintaining one's private good in a world scourged by public greed, disease and hatred.
Yet Angels in America is by no means a play about defeat. On the contrary, it consistently attests to the possibility not only of progress but also of radical--almost unimaginable--transfiguration. Its title and preoccupation with the utopian potential inscribed in even the most appalling moments of history are derived from an extraordinary mediator--the Geman-Jewish Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin. In Benjamin's attempt to sketch out a theory of history in "Theses on the Philosophy of History," written in 1940 as he was attempting to flee the Nazis this most melancholy of Marxists uses Paul Klee's painting, "Angelus Novus," to envision an allegory of progress in which the angel of history, his wings outspread, is poised between post and future. Caught between the history of the world, which keeps piling wreckage at his feet and a storm blowing from Paradise, the angel "would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed." But the storm "has got caught in his wings" and propels him blindly and irresistibly into an unknown future.
For Kushner, the angel of history serves as a constant reminder both of catastrophe (AIDS, racism, misogyny and homophobia, to name only the most obvious) and of the perpetual possibility of change--the expectation that, as Benjamin puts it, the tragic continuum of history will be blasted open. And the concept of utopia to which the angel is linked ensures that the vehicle of enlightenment and hope in Angels--the prophet who announces the new age--will be the character who must endure the most pain: Prior Walter, a man born too soon and too late, suffering from AIDS and the desertion of his lover. Moreover, in Kushner's reinterpretation of American history, his utopia is inextricably linked both to the extraordinary idealism that has long driven American politics and to the ever-deepening structural inequalities that continue to betray and mock that idealism.
It is hardly coincidental that Angels in America should capture the imagination of theatregoers at this decisive moment in history, at the end of the Cold War, as the United States is attempting to renegotiate its role as the number-one player in the imperialist sweepstakes. More brazenly than any other recent play, Angels--not unlike Wagner's Ring--takes on questions of national mission and identity. It also attempts to interrogate the various mythologies--from Mormonism to multiculturalism to neoconservatism--that have been fashioned to consolidate an American identity.
At the same time, the play is intent on emphasizing the crucial importance of the sexual and racial margins in defining this elusive identity. In this sense, it seems linked to the strategies of a new activist movement, Queer Nation, whose founding in 1990 only narrowly postdates the writing of the play. This offshoot of the AIDS activist group ACT UP agitates for a broader and more radical social and cultural agenda. Like Queer Nation, Angels in America aims to subvert the distinction between the personal and the political, to refuse to be closeted, to undermine the category of the "normal," and to question the fixedness and stability of every sexual identity. Reimagining America, giving it a camp inflection, Angels announces: "We're here. We're queer. We're fabulous. Get used to it!"
I interviewed Tony Kushner on a cold Sunday afternoon in January in his apartment on New York's Upper West Side.
SAVRAN: How did your early ideas about theatre change?
KUSHNER: As a freshman at Columbia, I read Ernest Fisher's The Necessity of Art and was very upset and freaked out by it. The notion of the social responsibility of artists 'was very exciting and upsetting for me.
I arrived from Louisiana with fairly standard liberal politics. I was ardently Zionist and, where I grew up, the enemy was still classic American anti-Semitism. It was a big shock to discover all these people on the left at Columbia who were critical of Israel. My father is very intelligent in politics but very much a child of the Khrushchev era, the great disillusionment with Stalinism. I guess I just believed that Marxism was essentially totalitarianism and I could hear in Fisher a notion of responsibility that is antithetical to the individualist ideology that I hadn't yet started to question.
One of the things that changed my understanding of theatre was reading Brecht. I saw Richard Foreman's Threepenny Opera at Lincoln Center in 1976 and thought it was the most exciting theatre I'd ever seen. It seemed to me to combine the extraordinary visual sense that I had seen downtown with a narrative theatre tradition that I felt more comfortable with. There was also the amazing experience of the performance. When Brecht is done well, it is both a sensual delight and extremely unpleasant, and Foreman got that as almost nothing I've ever seen. It was excoriating and you left singing the songs. So I read the "Short Organum" and Mother Courage--which I still think is the greatest play ever written--and began to get a sense of a politically engaged theatre.
It was in Brecht that I think I understood Marx for the first time. I understood materialism, the idea of the impact of the means of production, which in Brecht is an issue of theatrical production. I started to understand the way that labor is disappeared into the commodity form, the black magic of capitalism: the real forces operating in the world, the forces of the economy and commodity production underneath the apparent order of things.
Because of Brecht I started to think of a career in the theatre. It seemed the kind of thing one could do and still retain some dignity as a person engaged in society. I didn't think that you could just be a theatre artist. That's when I first read Benjamin's Understanding Brecht and derided I wanted to do theatre. Before that I was going to become a medieval studies professor.
I loved the Middle Ages and I think there's something very appealing about its art, literature and architecture, but I was slowly getting convinced that it had no relevance to anything.
What about the Middle Ages? The connection between art and religion?
I have a fantastical, spiritual side. And when I got to Columbia, I was very impressionable. In the first class I took, a course in expository writing, we did Beowulf. I found the magic and the darkness of it very appealing and I was very, very, moved--as I still am--by being able to read something 900 years old, or 2,000 years old in the case of the Greeks, and to realize that it isn't in any way primitive. You also realize--although I don't believe in universal human truths--that there are certain human concerns that go as far back as Euripides or Aeschylus.
And of course medieval art and culture predates the development of bourgeois individualism, which you go to great pains to critique.
It's extraordinary to see that great richness can come from societies that aren't individuated in that way. The anonymity of the art is terrifying to a modern person. It's not until very late, really until the beginning of the Renaissance, that you start to have artists identifying themselves. You realize these human beings had a profoundly different sense of the social.
At the same time, I started to get very exciting about Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. I directed Jonson's Bartholomew Fair as my first production at Columbia, and it was horrible.
It's a very difficult play.
I didn't start easy--36 parts. I couldn't even find 36 actors. One of them didn't speak English and we had to teach him syllabically. You can't understand most of it anyway, because of the references to things that have long since disappeared, but I had fun doing it and decided at that point--although I'd tried writing a couple of things--that I would become a director because I didn't think that I'd ever write anything of significance. I was also attempting to follow in the footsteps of people I really admired like Foreman, Akalaitis and Liz LeCompte. I thought the best thing to do was to write the text as a director, so I spent two years answering switchboards at a hotel and two years teaching at a school for gifted children in Louisiana. I directed several things there to get over my fear of directing--The Tempest, Midsummer Night's Dream--and I did my first take at The Badan-Baden Play for Learning, which I'm beginning to think is, next to Mother Courage, the best thing Brecht ever wrote. Then I applied to NYU graduate school in directing because I wanted to work with Carl Weber because he had worked with Brecht--and he looked like Brecht. At my second attempt (George Wolfe and I just discovered that we were rejected by him in the same year), I got in.
Your own work, with its multiple plot lines, has some resemblance to Bartholomew Fair, but it is also engaged in the American narrative tradition. What impact have Miller, Williams and O'Neill had on your writing?
Miller, none. I do actually admire Death of a Salesman. I can see how, in its time, it had an immense impact. And it's still hard to watch without sobbing at the end. But some of it is a cheat. It's melodramatic and it has that awful, '50s kind of Herman Wouk-ish sexual morality, the supposed tragedy of the little man and all that--but it's incredibly pathetic, or bathetic.
I sneered at O'Neill for a long time, but I'm beginning to realize that two or three of his plays--not just Long Day's Journey into Night--are amazing. I've always loved Williams. The first time I read Streetcar, I was annihilated. I read as much Williams as I could get my hands on until the late plays started getting embarrassingly bad. I've always thought Orpheus Descending is a fascinating play, much more fascinating than the Broadway production directed by that Tory Peter Hall, which I thought was just awful. I'm really influenced by Williams, but I'm awestruck by O'Neill. I don't feel that he's much of an influence because he's from a very different tradition with a very different sensibility.
I think John Guare is a very important writer. Landscape of the Body, the Lydie Breeze plays, House of Blue Leaves are amazing. Like Williams, Guare has figured out a way for Americans to do a kind of stage poetry. He's discovered a lyrical voice that doesn't sound horrendously twee and forced and phony. There are astonishingly beautiful things scattered throughout his work.
As I was watching Perestroika--the opening tableau, the spectacle, the angel--I also thought about Robert Wilson.
Hollow grandiosity [laughs]. I saw Einstein on the Beach at the Met in '76 and was maddened and deeply impressed by it. I'm very ambivalent about Wilson. The best I've ever seen him do--the piece I loved the most--was Hamletmachine. Watching Hamletmachine, I felt: This is such tough theatre, this is hard work. I was always afraid of making the audience work. But I was horrified by what I saw of the CIVIL WarS. It really seemed like Nuremberg time--done for Reagan's Hitler Olympics. What he does to history--this notion of Ulysses S. Grant and Clytemnestra and owls and Kachina dancers--excuse me, but what is this? What's going on here?
So you see a complete dehistoricization?
Absolutely. And to what end? These figures are not neutral, they're not decorative. You do see ghosts of ideas floating through, but it feels profoundly aestheticist in the worst, creepiest way, something with fascist potential. Also, the loudest voice is the voice of capital: This cost so much money, and you've spent so much money to see it. There's a really unholy synthesis happening of what is supposed to be resistant, critical and marginal, marrying big money and big corporate support. Wilson is an amazing artist, but a disturbing one.
Maria Irene Fornes is also very, very important to me. I saw her really experimental stuff like The Diary of Evelyn Brown, based on these endless, tedious lists of what a pioneer woman who lived on the plains did during the day--and Formes just staged them. It was monumentally boring and extraordinary. Every once in a while, this pioneer woman would do a little clog dance. You saw the great tediousness of women's work, and yet it was, at the same time, exalted, thrilling and mesmerizing. Then Fornes moved into plays like Conduct of Life and Mud. I think she's a great writer and director, and the extent to which she's not appreciated here or in England is an incredible crime and an act of racism. And she's the only master playwright who's actually trained another generations--so many wonderful writers like Jose Rivera, and Migdalia Cruz and Eduardo Machado.
And then there's Caryl Churchill, who is like...God--the greatest living English-language playwright and, in my opinion, the most important English-language playwright since Williams. There's nothing like Fen or Top Girls. She came to see Angels at the National Theatre in London, and I felt hideously embarrassed. Suddenly the play sounded like a huge Caryl Churchill ripoff, One of the things that I'm happy about with Perestroika is that it's a bigger and messier work--I found a voice, and it doesn't sound as much influenced by Churchill as Millennium.
The important thing about the British socialist writers, even the ones I find irritating, is that their style comes out of the Berliner Ensemble touring through Britain--they have a strong Marxist tradition they're not at war with, and they've found a way (Bond, of course, did it first) to write Marxist, socialist theatre that has a connection with English-language antecedents. So it was very important for me to read Brenton, Churchill, Hare and Edgar. During the late '70s, when there was nothing coming out of this country, they seemed to be writing all the good plays.
As the subtitle of Angels makes plain, this play recognizes that gay men have been at the center of certain crucial themes and identities in our national life. How do you see Angels in relation to the development of queer politics?
I'm in my late thirties now and of the generation that made ACT UP and then Queer Nation--a generation stuck between the people who created the '60s and their children. I see traces of the Stonewall generation, of Larry Kramer and even, to a certain extent, Harvey Fierstein--but also the generation of [filmmaker] Greg Araki and [actor] David Drake, that Queer Nation, Boy Bar kind of thing, I feel that I'm part of a group of theatre people that includes Holly Hughes, David Greenspan, Paula Vogel...As I've said in other interviews, I think of it as a change from the Theatre of the Ridiculous to the Theatre of the Fabulous.
The Queer Nation chant--"We're here. We're queer. We're fabulous. Get used to it!"--uses fabulous in two senses. First, there's fabulous as opposed to ridiculous. In The Beautiful Room Is Empty, Edmund White writes about the Stonewall rebellion being a "ridiculous" thing for the people who were involved: It was a political gesture, what Wayne Koestenbaum calls "retaliatory self-invention," a gesture of defiance. That's the essence of the ridiculous. And the drag gesture is still not completely capable of taking itself seriously. I don't want to talk in a judgmental way, but there's still a certain weight of self-loathing, I think, that's caught up in it. You couldn't say that Charles Ludlam was self-loathing. But there is a sense in which masochism (I'm sounding like Louis [the character in Angels] now) and flashes of intense misogyny when another victim of oppression is sneered at and despised because of her weakness--come from the fact that one hates one's own weakness. There's a certain embracing of weakness and powerlessness in the Ridiculous.
John Waters, too, is a good example of that.
Yes. And there's also an incompatibility with direct political discourse. How can you be that kind of queer and talk politics? Of course, what AIDS forced on the community was the absolute necessity of doing just that--of not becoming a drab old lefty, or old new lefty, but maintaining a queer identity and still being able to talk seriously about treatment protocols and oppression.
So there's fabulous in the sense of an evolutionary advance over the notion of being ridiculous, and fabulous also in the sense of being fabled, having a history. What's very important is that we now have a consciousness about where we come from in a way that John Vaccaro and Charles Ludlam, when they were making pre-Stonewall theatre, didn't have. Think back to [avant-garde performer and filmmaker] Jack Smith, that whole tradition of which he was the most gorgeous and accomplished incarnation. Ludlam died before ACT UP started. Had he lived, there's no question but that he would have had no problem with it. I knew nothing about his theoretical writings when he was alive, I just knew he was the funniest man I'd ever seen. But he was working through a very strong politics and theory of the theatre, and I'm sure the times would have made many amazing changes in his art.
So I feel we're another step along the road now. It's incumbent upon us to examine history and be aware of history, of where we've come from and what has given us the freedom to talk the way we do now. We're the generation that grew up when homophobia wasn't axiomatic and universal, and when the closet wasn't nailed shut and had to be kicked open.
The progress narrative you're constructing here makes me think that Perestroika's idea of history is not only rooted in dialectical materialism but also in your belief in the possibility of progress and enlightenment.
As Walter Benjamin wrote, you have to be constantly looking back at the rubble of history. The most dangerous thing is to become set upon some notion of the future that isn't rooted in the bleakest, most terrifying idea of what's piled up behind you.
When I started coming out of the closet in the early '80s, and was going to the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights meetings, they were so bourgeois and completely devoid of any kind of Left political critique. There was no sense of community with any other oppressed groups, just "let's get the gay rights bill passed in New York and have brunches and go to the gym." It was astonishing to discover that only 10 years before there had been the Gay Activist's Alliance and the Lavender Left and hippie gay people, and I thought, "What happened? Where did they go?" Of course, they went with the '60s. But ACT UP changed all that. Now it's hard for people to remember that there was a time before ACT UP, and that it burst violently and rapidly on the scene.
It seems to me that this development of queer politics has in part prepared for the success of Angels in America.
Absolutely. It kicked down the last door. The notion of acting up, much more than outing, is what really blew out liberal gay politics. I mean, you depend upon the work that's done by the slightly assimilationist but hard-working, libertarian, civil rights groups, like the NAACP, but then at some point you need the Panthers. You need a group that says, "Enough of this shit. This is going too slow. And if we don't see some big changes now, we're going to cause trouble. We really are here. Get used to it." Up until that point, the American majority if there is such a thing fantasizes that the noise will just go away, that it's a trend, a swing of the pendulum. The way Angels in America talks, and its complete lack of apology for that kind of fagginess, is something that would not have made sense before.
Unlike Torch Song Trilogy, in which Arnold just wants to be normal, Angels in America, along with queer theory and politics, calls into question the category of the normal.
Right. Creating the fiction of the white, normal, straight, male center has been the defining project of American history. I'm working on a play about slavery and reading 18th-century texts, and it has been the central preoccupation in American politics for the entire time during which this land has been trying to make itself into a country. The founding fathers weren't getting up and arguing about making homosexuality legal, but it's been an ongoing issue. And in this century, it's been an obsession during various times of crisis. It always seems to me that in the concerns of any group called a minority and called oppressed can be found the biggest problems and the central identity issues that the country is facing. Because of Brecht, and from reading the history of the collapse of the Weimar Republic when I was writing A Bright Room Called Day, I realized that the key is the solidarity of the oppressed for the oppressed being able to see the connecting lines. This is one of the things that AIDS has done, because it's made disenfranchisement incredibly clear across color lines and gender lines.
I keep thinking of that line from Walter Benjamin's: "Where we perceive a chain of events, [the angel] sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet." The scene in heaven in Perestroika really took my breath away, seeing the wreckage behind the scrim.
And there's a whole scene that we didn't perform because it just didn't play: These very Benjaminian, Rilkean angels are listening on an ancient radio to the first report of the disaster at Chernobyl. Benjamin's sense of utopianism is also so profoundly apocalyptic: a teleology, but not a guarantee, or a guarantee that Utopia will be as fraught and as infected with history. It's not pie in the sky at all.
I think that is also a very American trope. In The American Religion, Harold Bloom keeps referring to this country as the evening land, where the promise of Utopia is so impossibly remote that it brings one almost to grieving and despair. Seeing what heaven looks like from the depths of hell. It's the most excruciating pain, and even as one is murdering and rampaging and slashing and burning to achieve Utopia, one is aware that the possibility of attaining Utopia is being irreparably damaged. People in this country knew somewhere what they were doing, but as we moved into this century, we began to develop a mechanism for repressing that knowledge. There's a sense of progress, but at tremendous cost.
It's Prior who carries the burden of that in Angels. Embedded even in his name is the sense that he's out of step with time, both too soon and belated, connected to the past and future, to ancestors and what's to come.
He's also connected to Walter Benjamin. I've written about my friend Kimberly [Flynn], who is a profound influence on me. The line that Benjamin wrote that's most important to her--and is so true--is, "Even the dead will not be safe if the enemy wins." She said jokingly that at times she felt such an extraordinary kinship with him that she thought she was Walter Benjamin reincarnated. And so at one point in the conversation, when I was coming up with names for my characters, I said, "I had to look up something in Benjamin--not you, but the prior Walter." That's where the name came from. I had been looking for one of those WASP names that nobody gets called anymore.
Despite all these utopian longings, at the center of both Bright Room and Angels are characters, Agnes and Louis, who are, in one way or another, liberals. In both plays you've well-intentioned liberals whose actions are at an extraordinary remove from their intentions. Why?
I've never thought of Louis and Agnes as a pair, but they really are. I think they're very American. American radicalism has always been anarchic as opposed to socialist. The socialist tradition in this country is so despised and has been blamed so much on immigrants. It's been constructed as a Jewish, alien thing, which is not the way socialism is perceived anywhere else in the world, where there is a native sense of communitas that we don't share. What we have is a native tradition of anarchism, and that's a fraught, problematic tradition. Ronald Reagan is as much its true heir as Abbie Hoffman. Abbie Hoffman was an anarcho-communist and Ronald Reagan is an ego-anarchist, but they're both anarchists.
The strain in the American character I feel the most affection for and that has the most potential for growth is American liberalism, which is incredibly short of what it needs to be, incredibly limited and exclusionary--and predicated on all sorts of racist, sexist, homophobic and classist prerogatives. And yet, as Louis asks, why has democracy succeeded in America? I really believe that there is the potential for radical democracy in this country, one of the few places on earth where I see it as a strong possibility. There is an American tradition of liberalism, of a kind of social justice, fair play and tolerance--and each of these things can certainly be played upon in the most horrid ways. (Reagan kept the most hair-raising anarchist aspects of his agenda hidden, and presented himself as a good old-fashioned liberal who kept invoking FDR.) It may just be sentimentalism on my part because I am the child of liberal-pinko parents, but I do believe in it--as much as I often find it despicable. It's sort of like the Democratic National Convention every four years: It's horrendous, and you can feel it sucking all the energy from progressive movements in this country, with everybody pinning their hopes on this sleazy bunch of guys. But you do have Jesse Jackson getting up and calling the Virgin Mary a single mother; on an emotional level, and I hope also on a more practical level, these are the people in whom to have hope.
None of the characters in Angels, though, is involved with mass-movement politics.
That's because the play is set--and I think this is very important--at a time when there's no such thing in the United States for generally progressive people. For someone like Belize, there isn't anything: The Rainbow Coalition has started to waffle and fall apart. And there is nothing in the gay community--there's the Gay Pride parade, and Gay Men's Health Crisis getting humiliated at the City Council in Newark every year--1984-85 was a horrible, horrible time. It really seemed as if the maniacs had won for good.
What Martin says in Millennium now seems like a joke that we can all snigger at, but at the time, I just wrote what I thought was most accurate. The Republicans had lost the Senate, but would eventually get that back because the South would go Republican. There would never be a Democratic President again, because Mondale was the best answer we could make to Ronald Reagan, the most popular President we've ever had. So none of these people had anything they could hook into, which is the history of the Left. When the moment comes, when the break happens and history can be made, do we step in and make it or do we flub and fail? As much as I am horrified by what Clinton does--and we could have had someone better--we didn't completely blow it this time.
I'm interested in father-son relationships in the play--the way that Roy Cohn is set up as the masochistic son of a sadistic father, Joseph McCarthy, and how he, in turn, is a sadistic father to Joe. Isn't a sadomasochistic dynamic really crucial for mapping so many of the relationships in the play? Both Louis and Harper seem amazingly masochistic, in very different ways.
I want to explore S&M more because I feel that it's an enormously pervasive dynamic, that it's inextricably wound up with issues of patriarchy, and that there are ways in which it plays through every aspect of life. I think it's something that needs to be understood, thought about and spoken about more openly.
We subjects of capitalist societies have to talk about the ways in which we are constructed to eroticize and cathect pain, as well as the way pain is transformed into pleasure, and self-destruction into self-creation. What price must we finally pay for that? Until now, there's been a kind of dumb liberation politics--all forms of sexual practice are off-limits for analysis, and S&M is fine, we just leave it in the bedroom. But of course it's not just the kind of S&M that's acted out that needs to concern us. I think that sexuality should still be subject to analysis, including the question of why we're gay instead of straight, which I think has nothing to do with the hypothalmus or interstitial brain cells, but has to do with trauma.
But isn't all sexuality rooted in trauma?
We're just good Freudians. Yes, it's all trauma and loss, and the question is, are there specific forms of trauma? I believe that there is an etiology of sexuality that's traceable if anybody wants to spend the money on an analyst. Oedipus is still legitimate grounds for exploration and inquiry. And I think that the notion of the cultural formation of personalities is of tremendous importance. Roy's generation of gay mien, for example, had that kind of deeply patriarchal, gender-enforced notion of the seduction of youth--the ephebe and the elder man. That comes down from the Greeks, homosexuality being a form of tutelage, of transmission, of dominance and submission. It felt to me that that would absolutely be part of Roy's repressed, ardent desire for Joe. Then what you see replicated in the blessing scene is a form of love which has to flow through inherited structures of hierarchical power.
These are some of the oldest questions with which we've been torturing ourselves: What is the relationship between sexuality and power? Is sexuality merely an expression of power? Is there even such a thing as a "sexuality"? If we buy into the notion of the construction of these forms of behavior, and the construction of personalities that engage in these behaviors, do we believe in the deconstruction of these forms? What is that deconstruction? There's the issue of reforming the personality to become a socialist subject: By what process, other than submission, does the individual ego become part of a collective? Is there a process other than revolution, other than bloodshed, agony and pain--which is fundamentally masochistic--by which we can transform ourselves? That's a big question, and it turns you toward things like Zen.
That's the question of the play: What is there beyond pain? Is Utopia even imaginable?
If our lives are in fact shaped by trauma and loss--and as I get older it seems to me that life is very, very profoundly shaped by loss and death--how do you address that? How does one progress in the face of that? That's the question that the AIDS epidemic has asked. There is no place more optimistic than America, in the most awful way (like "Up with People!"). These questions make so many people queasy, and become the subject of so much sarcasm, but identity is shaped, even racial identity. If there weren't bigots, there wouldn't be a politics of race. There has to be a politics of difference that speaks to the presence of enormous oppression and violence and terror. The more we know about history, the more we realize--and this is an important thing about sadomasochism--that it never ends. You can see in our present moment a thousand future Sarajevos. You know that when you're 90, if you live so long, they'll still be fighting. Even after the Holocaust, the monsters are still among us. And can you forgive? That's why I ask this question of forgiveness, because its possibility, like that of Utopia, is undertheorized and underexpressed.
Relating to the question of forgiveness, why do you use Mormons in the play, along with Jews? The angels are so clearly Old Testament angels, angels of the vengeful God. How does that tie in with the Mormon religion?
There are interesting similarities between Mormonism and Judaism. They both have a very elusive notion of damnation. It's always been unclear to me, as a Jew, what happens if you don't do good things. Presumably you don't go to Paradise. There is a Hell, but, even among the Orthodox, there isn't an enormous body of literature about it--it's not like Catholicism. Mormonism has a Hell but it also has three or four layers of Heaven.
Also, like Judaism, Mormonism is a diasporic religion, and it is of the book. It draws its strength very much from a literal, physical volume, which isn't sacred like the Torah--but it's all about the discovery of a book. Neither religion is about redemption based on being sorry for what you've done and asking for forgiveness. The hallmark of Mormonism is, "By deeds ye shall be known." Ethics are defined by action, and that is also true in Judaism. Your intentions make very little difference to God. What counts is what you do and whether you're righteous in your life. That appeals to me. It also feels very American.
I started the play with an image of an angel crashing through a bedroom ceiling, and I knew that this play would have a connection to American themes. The title came from that, and I think the title, as much as anything else, suggested Mormonism because the prototypical American angel is the angel Moroni. It's of this continent, the place in Mormon mythology that Jesus visited after he was crucified. It's a great story--not the Book of Mormon, which, as Mark Twain said, is chloroform in print, but the story of Joseph Smith's life and the trek, the gathering of Zion. The idea of inventing a complete cosmology out of a personal vision is something I can't imagine a European doing. I guess Swedenborg and Blake sort of did that, but it didn't become a theocratic empire. And unlike Swedenborg's vision (which is rather elegant and beautiful) and Blake's (which is extraordinarily beautiful but mostly incomprehensible), it's so dumb. It's naive and disingenuous. It's like Grandma Moses, the celestial and the terrestrial heavens with all this masonry incorporated into it. It's American gothic.
I wanted Mormons in this play. I find their immense industry, diligence and faith moving. The symbol of Utah and of the Mormon kingdom of God is a beehive, which is, in its own way, a socialist, communist image. There were in fact a lot of experiments in Utah of communally owned property, which is what Joseph Smith originally dictated, with wealth held in common, and experiments with controlled economies. Their social experiments were independent of, but similar to, European socialist, communal notions of the 19th century.
Now, they're right-wing and horrible. But the Mormons I've met, I've actually liked. There's something dear and nice about them. When I was working on Joe, I wanted to write a conservative man that I actually liked. I didn't finally succeed [laughs], although I feel that he gets somewhere and will ultimately be redeemable, in Angels, part three.
You're working with Robert Altman now to turn Angels into a movie.
Yes, I'm writing the screenplay. Nashville had a profound impact on me, with its extraordinary interweaving of stories. I wanted somebody I respected and whom I knew would make the film version very unlike the stage play. I'm completely confident of that [laughs]--Altman allows a certain kind of messiness to be a part of his aesthetic, which appeals to me a lot, and I'm sure he's the only person in Hollywood who would have said immediately, as he did, that we have to do two films.
I hope I can get him to deal with the difficult question of gay sexuality. He hasn't always been great about that, but I can't believe that he'd want to do this without being aware that there are going to be men naked in bed together, or in the park. This can't be another one of those films with two men lying in bed with the bedsheet pulled up against their pecs. I think it will be very important, given the way that Altman improvises, that he has some gay actors in the cast. I don't want to see a lot of straight people trying to figure out what it's like.
You're working on another play?
I haven't completely committed myself to what the next big one is going to be, but I have two that are cooking: One is about Vermeer--it's sort of a history of capitalism; the other is a play about a slave named Henry Box Brown who mailed himself out of slavery in a box to Philadelphia. Then I discovered by a fluke that Henry Box Brown wound up in England and toured English textile towns trying to get them to boycott Southern cotton before the Civil War. When I was working on Millennium at the National, I went to one of the towns, and I've just unearthed a whole treasure chest of amazing characters from the Industrial Revolution. George Wolfe is going to direct it both here and at the National, probably with white British actors and African-American actors.
So you remain committed to writing history plays.
There's a kind of safety in writing a history play--you can make up everything. It insulates you to a certain extent from the assault of everyday life. But I've also decided to write more Angels in America plays, and those may be the only ones in which I deal with contemporary reality.
When I was writing Perestroika this summer, I got very, very angry at the characters. At first, I thought it was because I was sick of them, but now I've come to realize that I hated the idea of not being able to work on them anymore. I want to know what happens to them. I already have most of the plot of part three in my head. It won't be continuous, but I could have a cycle of nine or ten plays by the time I'm done. The characters will get older as I get older. I'll be bringing in new ones and letting characters like Roy go. I'm excited about that. I think it's harder to write that kind of play than a history play.
Although I think of Angels in America as a history play.
In a sense, it is--although when I started writing it, it wasn't. It receded into the past. As it gets older, it will become increasingly about a period of history. There is a danger for me of writing too much out of books, because I'm sort of socially awkward and not much of an adventurer. I don't want to write only about the past. Brecht never wrote anything about his contemporaries, did he?
Except it's set in Chicago and they're speaking in a very different way.
What about the learning plays?
But again, they're drowned in pseudo-Confucian poetry and set in China and other places.
But in all of his work he was historicizing his particular moment.
Exactly. That's all you can ever do.
David Savran's most recent book is Communists, Cowboys, and Queers: The Politics of Masculinity in the Work of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. He is professor of English at Brown University. An unabridged version of this interview will appear in Speaking on Stage: Interviews with Contemporary American Playwrights, edited by Philip C. Kolin and Colby H. Kullman, to be published by the University of Alabama Press in 1995.
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|Title Annotation:||interview with playwright Tony Kushner|
|Date:||Oct 1, 1994|
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