The SALON Interview: Tony Kushner

America's real taboo is talking about a different society, says the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright

Published June 10, 1996 11:31AM (EDT)

in the early '90s, "Angels in America" transformed Tony Kushner from a young writer working in obscurity into the most highly acclaimed playwright of his generation. ("Angels" -- a "gay fantasia on national themes" in two parts, "Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika" -- won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 and a slew of Tony Awards.) Since then, Kushner has also built a reputation as one of the most outspoken literary figures in America -- a man who will talk just as easily about Roseanne or Gingrich as O'Neill or Ibsen. In an age when the American theater has grown increasingly divorced from public life, Kushner, like a latter-day Arthur Miller, stubbornly insists on the playwright's role as political provocateur.

His latest play, which he has called a "coda" to "Angels in America," is "Slavs! Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness" -- a compact, quirky exploration of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ruin, both philosophical and environmental, left in its wake. Kushner has also been working on both a film of "Angels" and an ambitious new trio of historical plays about "the phenomenology of money." We caught up with him recently in San Francisco, where he had come from his home in Manhattan for an appearance with fellow playwright Anna Deavere Smith.

You had dinner at the White House last year. What was that like?

I was invited for a dinner of the national Medal of Arts honorees, and I went with my best girlfriend Michael Mayer, who directed the national tour of "Angels." I wore my pink triangle, and I got to explain to Al Gore and the people at his table what a pink triangle was --

Al Gore didn't know the meaning of a pink triangle?

I'm sure he knew what it meant. He was probably just being polite. In any event, he didn't ask -- somebody else at the table, a rich man from Miami, asked what it meant. And Al didn't volunteer the information. I can't believe he doesn't know, although maybe he doesn't. I would imagine that he's afraid to seem like someone who would know such a thing.

Later on we went to this big ballroom, and there was dancing, and this woman from Washington came up to me and said, "Did you get to talk to the President?" I said, "I did, and I'm sort of displeased with myself because I didn't get to tell him what I wanted to say." She said, "Come tell him now," and she grabbed my hand and dragged me over there and said, "This is Tony Kushner, and he has something he wants to say to you." And I told him that I thought he was blowing it, and that he was alienating the people who elected him, and he was going to lose to Dole if he didn't behave more like a progressive Democrat, because that was what had gotten him elected.

And he smiled and said thank you about 40 times, and didn't look at me once. And as I was walking away, apparently he said to somebody standing next to him, "Take his name down." I thought that meant that I was going to get audited, but apparently what it meant was this State of the Union thing -- because he called me a couple of weeks later and asked me to write my version of the State of the Union address. And after that Michael and I danced to "Unforgettable," right next to (Republican Senator) Alan Simpson and his wife, and we had a very nice time doing it. It was wild, completely wild.

A lot of commentators are arguing that the differences between Dole and Clinton are essentially minimal.

That's idiotic. It's completely idiotic. A Republican president with a Republican Congress will destroy this country. These people are insane. Late-term abortions -- Dole announced that he didn't think Clinton should have vetoed the bill. So at this point, if Dole were president, late-term abortions would be illegal. There will be an attempt to have a constitutional amendment against abortion period if Dole is elected. There will certainly be a balanced-budget amendment. Gun control will be destroyed.

Dole was at one point sort of like what Clinton is -- a kind of libertarian-ish, tepid Republican -- but he isn't anymore. He's made lots of promises to the radical right, and he plans to say anything that will get him elected. And then like Bush, who did the exact same thing, he'll try and carry those things out. I think it would be absolutely catastrophic. Anyone who says they're not voting because they hate Clinton and it would offend their principles is an idiot. This is maybe the most significant election since the first time FDR got elected.

You've become something of a spokesman for and in the gay community. Is that a role that you mind shouldering?

Well I don't know how much I'm a spokesman. There's always this dilemma about wanting to be an activist, but also finding that the time that it takes can be pretty destructive to making art. I really admire people who can do both, but it's very rare, and the sad fact is that when you try to mix the two the art suffers, and sometimes the activism suffers as well. I feel that if there's something that I need to contribute to in terms of writing a letter or making a statement, or if I get called to go on "Nightline," like I did in January, that I have a responsibility as a citizen to do that.

But I don't aspire to a leadership position. I don't want to run for office, and I don't want to run an organization, and I really feel that whatever contribution I have to make I'll make as a playwright. I'm trying to write fewer essays and introductions and blurbs and all of that this year, because I think it has been a huge distraction from the one thing I do relatively well, which is write plays.

I heard you say once that you think it's easier to come out as a gay man in this country than as a socialist. Can you elaborate on that a little?

It's a more acceptable thing now: we all know that we have to be nice to homosexuals. We've all been scolded and seen enough episodes of "Roseanne" to know -- and we have "The Birdcage" to remind us if we had forgotten in the last 15 seconds -- that the cool thing now is to be tolerant of homosexuals, who after all are asexual and funny and not any threat to anything. At least that's how most Americans want to think about it.

But the notion that anybody has a continued interest in alternative economic formations -- alternative to capitalism -- is shocking and appalling to people. There's a real anger I've seen in audiences for "Slavs!," in places like Baltimore and Los Angeles, a very cold reception that I think is based on the absolute certainty, as people have been promised over and over by the media, that we don't have to think about these issues at all anymore. The idea that someone is still writing plays about them is hopeless. I don't think that anybody's going to kill me because I say I'm a socialist, but I think people find it risible.

Let me ask you about the "Angels" film, for which you wrote the screenplay, and which I understand Robert Altman is scheduled to direct.

Well, Robert Altman is not going to be directing it. He thinks that it needs $40 million, and that we're never going to raise that, and so it's a mistake to try and make it. I think that we can do it for less than that, and there are a few companies that will come up with something that seems to me be to be adequate, so we'll see. My guess is that if it's going to happen, it'll happen soon -- it'll start filming sometime in the fall. And I really don't care, except I want the money.

There is certainly a long history of playwrights moving into film, and not always with the purest of artistic motives. Did you have any qualms about doing that?

Yeah, I don't particularly want to do it -- though I say that and I'm writing three screenplays at the moment. I think that it's a mistake to do it. Screenwriting is primarily a narrative art -- and I don't think that's true of playwriting, which is dialogic and dialectic, and is fundamentally always more about an argument than it is about narrative progression. I suspect, in fact, that novel writing and screenwriting have more in common than playwriting has with either of the other forms.

So, yes, I'm very worried about it, because I think that a lot of talented playwrights wound up producing much less than they should have, and progressing less surely than ought to have, because they've spent a certain amount of their creative life doodling around in Hollywood. I think it's had a baleful impact. Some writers' work has just been destroyed by it. And I don't think you ever get good as a screenwriter either, so what winds up happening is you're weakened on both fronts. I think playwrights generally don't really care about film enough to become great screenwriters.

Having said all that, I'm deeply trying to make money in Hollywood, like every other idiot in the world. But mostly what I'm working on now is a new play.

I've heard you describe it as a set of new plays.

I'm writing three plays -- one at a time, of course. They're history plays, and they're all about money -- the phenomenon and the phenomenology of money. The first one will open in the Spring of 1997 at the National (Theater, in London) with George Wolfe directing it, and then go to the Public (Theater, in New York). I'm excited about it. It's an incredibly great story, and if I don't fuck it up, and stay out of its way, I think it'll be a very good play.

The first play is about the British textile industry?

It's about the relationship between the British textile industry and American slavery in the 19th century, and about the international character of capital, in the way that slavery, this bizarre holdover from earlier social formations, was primarily bankrolled by a foreign country in the interest of supporting an empire. I'm interested in the question of the internationalist solidarity of labor: I think a very good case can be made that the British working class is essentially what kept Britain out of our Civil War.

This is the first time you've tackled race in a significant way in your work.

Absolutely, and I wouldn't do it if George (Wolfe) weren't directing it, because I think it's too easy to make a complete idiot of yourself. But the fact that he's directing it makes me feel fairly secure, and it'll have a very large African-American cast. That's the great thing about writing plays, that it's a collaboration, and that hopefully will keep me from doing anything too fucked up. I know that it's going to be controversial, and that people are going to be angry about it. Just the idea of a white writer writing about a former slave, it's offensive to some people. I feel like going back and reading William Styron to figure out what he did wrong, so that I don't repeat his mistakes. But it's absolutely the time to be writing about race, and it's wrong almost to not do it.

You've just been at the Lousville festival of new plays. What's your feeling about the state of American theater?

The defunding of the NEA is cataclysmic. The character of American theater becomes more reactionary the more imperiled it gets in terms of box office.

Everything that has happened during the last 30 years of American theater, which was a really exciting period, has had to do with the presence of the Ford Foundation, and the NEA, and the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Lila Wallace, all those grants. If that starts to dry up -- partly because the NEA is drying up, and partly because social funding across the board is being killed from a government standpoint, so foundation money is going to get scarcer for the arts -- it's going to be very destructive.

It's also a hard time in the theater because cable television has created a vacuum, sucking everybody down to L.A. It's getting harder and harder to cast well. Even in New York, it's really hard to cast well, because now that 900,000 hours of broadcasting has to be filled each month, everybody and his mother is making movies. You have to be a really shitty actor not to have some job in L.A. It's not the same problem in Berlin or Vienna or London or Paris, because in those places there is one capital city where all the work is done -- film, television, and theater. So you can act at the National at night, and film during the day.

Given the presence of so many actors, why hasn't L.A. become more of a center for theater?

I've never understood why. I don't understand why Hollywood doesn't foot the bill. It would cost them nothing. It doesn't make sense to me that people in L.A. don't want to go to the theater. Nothing can happen in L.A. except movies, it's so completely seductive -- it's all anybody's ever thinking about. It's like living in Hapsburg Vienna and not being a member of the royal family: All you're thinking about is, where was the emperor spotted last, and what was he wearing, and who dressed him, and who's sitting next to him? And all anybody in L.A. is thinking about is, what is Tom Hanks doing right now and why aren't I doing it with him?

It's enough to make you wonder if film is becoming the dominant medium in America, to the exclusion of all others. I even have my doubts about whether the next truly great American novel will be noticed on a large scale.

It isn't going to be. Really really good sales for a serious novel at this point is 60,000 copies --in a country of 240 million people! It's almost like you might as well not bother to write it. The market for serious literature -- and I think to a great extent for serious theater -- is really dying. It's pretty grim. I don't know what'll turn it around. The students I taught this year at NYU, the undergraduates, it's scary -- they're not literate.

What's frightening, of course, is this generation of people in their 60s and 70s, who are really literate, who have a really good education, are dying out. And what dies out with them is that really encyclopedic knowledge that allows you to crack reality open and say this is what's really going on here, and say it authoritatively. And bring history to bear on a moment and say this is what this is like, this is what happened last time somebody tried this, and so on. No one can even remember that the kind of bullshit that Gingrich is slinging around is what Ronald Reagan and David Stockman were doing in 1980, because that's already such ancient history. Trickle down economics can come back 15 years later and nobody even remembers that it was here 15 years ago.

What was your reaction to the news that Andrew Sullivan, the gay editor of The New Republic, is HIV-positive, and that he has known for three
years, and is now resigning?

Well I'm really sorry that he's sero-positive. I wouldn't wish that on anyone. I'm sorry that he's dealing with that. But I still think politically I pretty much disagree with him from stem to stern. His decision to resign makes sense to me. I didn't like the way he ran The New Republic, but the person they get to replace him will probably be worse. At least Andrew was like the E.M. Forster character, Maurice: His homosexuality gave him a streak of decency and compassion that leavened his Thatcherite horseshit, and Catholic horseshit. And I think the next person will not be openly gay.

The magazine is garbage. It's been garbage for years. And people got upset because Andrew articulated what's always been true of The New Republic, because it's always been sort of, "We're much smarter than partisan politics, we don't take sides, we manage somehow to transcend that." It's nonsense. Politics is a matter of being partisan. So his post-ideological politics are just an open declaration of what's always been hollow about The New Republic, which is that they straddle the fence and wind up being about nothing.

Do you think a gay man who's in a position of prominence has any kind of responsibility to disclose the fact that he's HIV positive?

I don't feel that there's absolutely a responsibility to disclose it. I would, if I were positive. But I don't think it's the same thing as disclosing that you're gay. And I don't even know that I agree with outing people about that. I think you're talking about somebody's health, and people have a right to privacy. On the other hand, Andrew Sullivan published I think a really awful article on the New York Times op-ed page a few months ago, saying why is everybody being so negative about AIDS, we've got all these breakthroughs on the way, and we have to get out of this ACT-UP nonsense, and we have to start to admit that there's good news, and everything's going to be fine.

Well, he's nuts. Everything's not fine, and rates of infection aren't going down, education's failing right, left, and center, kids are getting infected, African-Americans are getting infected at higher rates, and the new drugs are great on one level but none of them work for more than 18 months. So I don't know what he's talking about. And it sounds a little bit like -- now that we know that he's positive -- that it's in a certain sense denial, that he's being in a certain sense more optimistic than the situation warrants.

When you were working on the first part of "Angels," did you have any inkling about what kind of splash the play was going to make, that it would absolutely turn your life upside down?

It feels very distant from me at this point. And God knows when I was writing it I thought that it was this preposterous, lengthy thing that would be the end of my very short and not very distinguished career. Now that I'm really working on the new play it's become very clear to me how intimidated I am by the success of "Angels." I thought it wouldn't bother me, because I don't walk around all day polishing the Tony awards, and wondering how I'll get another one. But I think I've been kidding myself that it wouldn't be a hard act to follow; it's going to be a very very hard act. People even attacked "Slavs!" in places, saying it's not "Angels in America." And I can imagine what kind of hideous plays I would write if every time I wrote a play I attempted to write this gigantic statement. People would get tired of me really fast.

It doesn't seem, though, at least from your description of the new plays, that those reservations have kept you from trying to write something quite ambitious all over again.

Well, that's what I do. I'm not a miniaturist. I think that these three new plays are somewhat more tightly focused than "Angels" -- they're not as kaleidoscopic and they're certainly not these big field paintings. They're focusing on very specific things. But at the same time I like big, splashy, juicy plays, and that's what they're going to be.

By Christopher Hawthorne

Christopher Hawthorne is arts editor of the East Bay Express in Berkeley, Calif.

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