Tony Kushner, who speaks in Houston this month, chats about his masterwork, ‘Angels in America,’ politics, comics, and the meaning of fabulousness.
By Neil Ellis Orts
Tony Kushner needs little introduction. Preeminent American playwright; winner of Pulitzer, Tony, Emmy, and Obie awards; forever immortal as the creator of Angels in America, the grandly epic stage play and HBO television presentation—ringing any bells? On May 19, Inprint, the local literary organization, pre sents an evening at the Alley Theatre with Kushner, whose recent works also include the 2002 musical Caroline, or Change (music by Jeanine Tesori), the dramas Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy and Homebody/Kabul, and a new translation of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. In 2006, the feature-length documentary Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner premiered at Sundance Film Festival and was recently broadcast on PBS. In anticipation of his Houston appearance, I asked Kushner what he would be reading. “If there’s something that I’ve just been working on that day that I want to try out, sometimes I do that,” he responded. “I have my little pieces that I know work, mostly stuff from the plays. It really depends upon what’s going on at the moment.” After the reading, Alley artistic director Gregory Boyd conducts an on-stage conversation with Kushner. What follows may give you an idea of how broad and stimulating a conversation with Kushner can be.
Neil Ellis Orts: I want to talk to you a little bit as a practicing artist and theorist. In a conversation you had with Michael Cunningham
Tony Kushner: That’s a very long time ago, and I really haven’t thought about that in a long time. I was a really great admirer of Charles Ludlam and the Theatre of the Ridiculous. I felt that at the time of the Theatre of the Ridiculous, which was certainly a gay aesthetic—I don’t know that I’d ever say there was only one gay aesthetic—but the Theatre of the Ridiculous was certainly part of a nascent, emerging aesthetic and political personality. It was a part of the grand coming out of the closet of the whole gay community. It sort of originates in the ’50s and then emerges into a higher form in the early to mid-’70s. I think that by the time people like me or Michael—and we’re very different writers, obviously—were coming along, there was a new kind of gay sensibility emerging.
In fact, the principle difference between the ridiculous and the fabulous has to do with irony, that irony is, among many other things, a coping mechanism. It provides you with a distance between what you really want in your heart of hearts and what you know the world is going to allow you to have. And when the world is not going to allow you to have very much of what you really want, you develop an ironic stance to your own oppression. It’s a survival mechanism. It’s also a way of expressing discontent and, in that sense, surviving discontent. In some cases, you need the expression of your own discontent because you’ll be crushed by external forces, but also you can be crushed by internal forces if you give too full a voice to what you really want when there’s no hope of getting it. When that distance is narrowed by liberation, by emancipation, by a successful liberation movement, irony is perhaps not as necessary as a strategy for survival.
It becomes more possible to say directly what you want because you have the hope of actually attaining it. So I think that is what I was talking about, which is not in any way to demonize irony, which I enjoy immensely, or to say that we’re done with that now, we shouldn’t be ironic anymore. Irony is a very complicated phenomenon and there are all sorts of reasons for its manifestation.
But I think I was also playing a little bit on the word fabulous. I mean, it’s a very gay word. If you’re trying to sound straight, you don’t say “Oh, that’s fabulous.” There is a certain sense in which fabulous is also a kind of a riff on the idea of historicity. One of the prizes you win when you set yourself free as a community is the luxury and authority and freedom to begin to unearth where you come from and what people who were like you were like in very, very different times.
In Angels in America, you took the gay couple — one who is advancing through AIDS — and instead of having the brave partner who cares for the ailing one, you choose the harder thing of him saying, “I’m out of here.” And in Caroline, or Change, instead of the surrogate mother maid, you chose to write about this woman who very much wants none of that. Do these characters come to you and you start learning about them as you write, or do you construct the characters more intentionally, crafting them?
Well, I certainly learn about the characters as I’m writing. The more experience I’ve gotten as a playwright, the more likely it is that the characters are going to surprise me, and that’s a nice thing. But usually when I start I’m thinking about both the characters and also sort of intuiting the kind of play I want it to be—I mean, most writers would want to avoid, as much as possible, clichés because they’re boring.
Even if the audience is fooling itself that it’s having a good time because the show is doing exactly what it has expected a show to do, I think the audience is actually bored. It’s like eating a lot of junk food and slowly starving to death. I think that for the most part what people want is complexity and surprise and contradiction and their expectations challenged. So you tend to think, as a writer, “What stories and situations and people will take you surprising places?” In the case of Angels, at the time I started working on the play, I was intrigued by the fact that men were suddenly being asked to take care of very, very sick people and deal with a lot of illness and mortality that I think men have a hard time with. I think women are conditioned to deal with those sorts of situations better.
It was also a time when Reaganism was in its first flowering, and we were being told every day that the way to take care of other people is to be as selfish as you possibly can be and to take care of yourself, first and foremost. And I thought that was a kind of terrifying and fascinating irony, the fact that at the moment when people were being told every day how wonderful selfishness was and how we should all read Ayn Rand and we should all be trickle-down types, my community was being asked to learn skills at caretaking that did not come easily. And I thought it would be interesting to dramatize that by showing somebody who actually has a very, very hard time dealing with disease, as is true of many of us, and who actually can’t handle it at first and learned.
When you say that people want complexity and the difficult storyline, do you think that’s especially true of the theater audience? Because there’s evidence in the culture that suggests that there are a lot of people who don’t want that.
Well, I think that there are a lot of people who, of course, don’t want that—what I would say rather is that there are people who think they don’t want it. I mean, if you ask them, “Do you want to go to a film or to a play or pick up a novel and have all your most dearly held assumptions challenged?” most people will say, “No, I want to have a good time.”
I’m not kidding myself, I mean yes, of course, it’s much easier to find a theater audience that’s interested in difficulty and complexity, but there are a lot of movies that—it’s been a very good year for film. You look at the films that were nominated for the Oscar, and you know, There Will Be Blood is a very, very, very hard movie, and it didn’t make as much money as Horton Hears a Who, but it’s made a good deal of money, I think the most money a Paul Thomas Anderson film has ever made, and it’s a very tough, very upsetting experience. But I think people went to it because of the sort of astonishing integrity of the thing. The success of The Sopranos, the success of a movie like There Will be Blood, I think suggests that there’s an appetite for difficulty. It’s never going to be, probably, as enormous as the appetite for pablum, but I don’t think that pablum is all that people want.
On a much lighter note, you have a history with comic books, as do many of our generation. And so I have to have my comic-book geek conversation. What were some of your favorite comics as a kid growing up?
I was a big Marvel Comics fan. When I was a little kid—God, I can barely remember—I think Casper, the Friendly Ghost, and Wendy, the Good Little Witch, and what was the devil? Hot Stuff, I guess was his name. I liked those. By the time I got to be about nine years old or so, I discovered superhero comics—not the DC Comics, Batman, Superman bunch—and I really loved Marvel. I loved Spider-Man. I loved Fantastic Four. I loved Doctor Strange, Daredevil. I thought those were great. I liked those until I was like 11 or 12, I think.
Well, we clearly have nothing more to talk about because I was always a DC fan.
The man I’m married to was a DC fan. When Mark was a kid, he only read DC, so we’ve argued about this. It’s just two different worlds. I maintain that the Marvel stuff was just more interesting, because there were all sort of anti-heroes. I mean they were always in trouble with the law. Batman has this great dark side now that they’ve done so much work in recent times, but when I was a kid, he was just—I mean he had a great costume, but other than that, another DC goody-goody. And Superman, who was unbelievably tedious, compared to the sort of psycho-pathology of Spider-Man. It wasn’t very interesting, I thought.
I was reminded earlier today that you wrote the introduction to Howard Cruse’s Stuck Rubber Baby.
Yeah! I love Howard’s work very much, and I love Stuck Rubber Baby. I think it’s a wonderful work. I felt it’s never really gotten the audience that it deserved. I think he was a little ahead of his time. I own several of the original pages.
I actually at one point asked Howard if he’d like to do a comic book version of the play, of Angels in America, because in a certain sense graphic novels are plays—you write dialogue. But he was in the middle of Stuck Rubber Baby and he said, “Mmm, no thanks.” I think it was somebody at DC maybe—I was asked at some point to maybe contribute to some sort of anthology comic book thing, and at some point I would love to try it.
There’s one thing I didn’t want to lead with because then we’d spend the whole time on. How are you feeling about the ’08 election process so far?
I’m feeling basically OK about it. I think I’m like every Democrat. I’m concerned about the way that the primary battle between Clinton and Obama is playing out. I’m a little worried that if it goes on uninterrupted for another two or three months, that there’s the possibility that they’re going to start to do damage to one another, and at this point I have to honestly say that she’s getting a little more reckless about it than he is. . . .
I think that both of them would make absolutely superb presidents. I think McCain will be pandering as he has in the last few years increasingly to the crazy part of his crazy party… . You know, he’s an infinitely smarter person than George Bush and a worthier person, but he’s got terrible problems. I can’t imagine that either Obama or Clinton, barring some sort of scandal or something—I can’t imagine that either one of them could lose to him. The most important thing right now is that whoever wins by the convention, everybody has to get behind them and everyone has to remember that no matter what you feel about the person who wins, no matter how angry you are that your person didn’t win, it’s immensely important that a Democrat is in the White House next year. I mean, I think the fate of the world—not to be too Marvel comic book about it—but I think the fate of the world depends upon it, I really do. I think we can’t afford another disaster like this. I feel hopeful. I think one thing is that anyone who is running for president needs to really, really want to be president. And to really want to be president, you have to really believe that you are the person who should be in that place. So you can always wind up telling yourself—and your advisors are certainly going to say it to you—it doesn’t matter if we destroy this other guy in the process. What matters is that you get the nomination. And when they start thinking like that, that’s when you get into a problem situation.
Writer and performer Neil Ellis Orts interviewed choreographer Bill T. Jones for the March OutSmart. Orts recently had work included in the 2008 issue of MO: Writings from the River, published by Montana State University, and the anthologies Charmed Lives (Lethe Press) and Able To… (neoNuma Arts).
Kusher on Stage
Inprint, the nonprofit literary organization affiliated with the University of Houston creative writing program, presents an evening with Tony Kushner on Monday, May 17, 7:30 p.m., at the Alley Theatre. Tickets are $20. Details: 713/521-2026, www.inprinthouston.org.
‘Angels’ in Fort Worth
This month, Fort Worth Opera presents a new production of Angels in America, an adaptation of the Tony Kushner play by composer Peter Eötvös and librettist Mari Mezei. The opera, on stage at the Scott Theatre May 17–June 7, is part of “More Life: The Art and Science of AIDS,” a series of performances, exhibitions, and programs organized by the three AIDS service organizations in Fort Worth: the AIDS Outreach Center, Samaritan House, Tarrant County AIDS Interfaith Network. Details: www.morelifetexas.org, www.fwopera.org.
Houstonian John Painter is one of the artists invited to show work at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center during the “More Life” series (the title derives from one of the final lines in Kushner’s play).