Of angels and agnostics
15 February 2009
New York playwright Tony Kushner writes about angels, but he is not so sure there is an afterlife. “Religion’s a complicated thing for me,” he says over the phone from the apartment he shares with his husband on Manhattan’s upper west side right behind the Lincoln Centre.
The 52-year-old, best known as the author of
Angels in America
, the critically lauded two-part play set in the eye of the AIDS storm in the 1980s and a lasting theatrical indictment of the social values of the Reagan era, is an agnostic.
Nonetheless in his most famous work, a self-described “gay fantasia”, Kushner imagines – somehow both poignantly and comically – an angel crashing to earth to summon a dying gay man with AIDS from his sick bed as though the patient, abandoned by his boyfriend, is some sort of prophet.
The first part of Angels in America,
, earned Kushner the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for drama. It is being revived in Sydney for this Mardi Gras season, almost 19 years since first being performed in a workshop by the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles in May 1990.
The playwright scored Tonys for both the first and the second part,
. The HBO filmed mini-series version of
Angels in America
, made in 2004, combined both parts.
Kushner saw little need to alter the words as the work transferred from theatre script to screenplay: the story remains embedded in the epoch of 1985 and 1986, when young and youngish gay men in America were expected en masse to tend to the ill and the dying and suddenly face their own mortality.
Says Kushner: “It certainly occurred to me at the time that qualities of compassion and sacrifice were being demanded by this biological disaster, at the moment that a new political philosophy had appeared on the scene that insisted sacrifice and compassion were weaknesses and that connection and community were illusions and malevolent.”
The play is careful not to mythologise all gay men as martyrs, however, with one of the main characters, Louis, running away because he is not able to watch his partner Prior’s bodily decay.
The work is about many things and cannot, says Kushner, be reduced to one message; there is no clear line on religion and spirituality or easy lesson to glean from the apocalyptic overtones. Such clever ambiguities as well as strong acting in the mini-series from Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Jeffrey Wright and Mary-Louise Parker – abetted by Emma Thompson as a rather fetching angel – earned five Golden Globes.
Yet while angels have been willing vessels for Kushner’s explorations, “I struggle with the question of whether there is or there isn’t anything beyond this material world, and I’ve never found an answer that feels in any way definitive,” he says. “[But] I can’t leave [the question] alone either.”
Kushner’s latest play,
The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures
, which makes its world premiere at the Guthrie Theatre in downtown Minneapolis on May 9, sounds a little like the rich blend to be found in Angels in America: high brow drama and quick-witted comedy meets a little politics and theology, all carefully balanced so as not to overwhelm the art.
Or not – who knows? Kushner has vowed not to discuss his new play yet, out of deference to the theatre’s publicity embargo.
In recent years, Kushner has not only proven he is among his country’s greatest playwrights, but can also turn out a successful Broadway musical –
Caroline, or Change
– as well as screenplays, having co-written
for Steven Spielberg.
He’s now writing a film script on Abraham Lincoln for Spielberg and, given Lincoln put into effect the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution – abolishing slavery – the subject matter would seem ideal movie material considering the election of Barack Obama to the US presidency.
Kushner however sounds slightly tentative: “Things are very complicated in Hollywood right now, but Steven seems very pleased with it, and I’m working on it every day. I’m up to my fifth draft at this point. I’m hopeful it will become a film.”
He watched Obama’s inauguration on TV. “I couldn’t go to DC, I was immensely disappointed. Of course I’m excited and thrilled and stayed home and cried through most of the thing,” he laughs. “It’s a day a lot of us thought would happen, but not this soon.”
At the same time, Kushner takes a leaf from the songbook of Neil Young, who sings
Impeach the President
, and argues George W. Bush should have been tried in court: “I think he’s guilty of war crimes,” says Kushner, citing America’s “secret prisons and torture”: “It was a really criminal administration, and I don’t mean that in any way hyperbolically, I mean it literally.”
In 2003, Kushner and his partner Mark Harris, whom he met at a party in 1998, affirmed their relationship with a commitment ceremony at their favourite New York restaurant, Gabriel’s. The pair – both Jewish, though Kushner says he is observant only during key festivals such as Passover – had a rabbi bless their vows by wrapping the pair in a prayer shawl.
The couple subsequently wed in August 2008 in Massachusetts – where same-sex marriage is legal – and New York State has been compelled by the courts to recognise marriages such as theirs.
The pair look a little alike in photographs – Kushner the taller one, both brunette, both bespectacled – although Harris was described in a notable and charming “vows” column in
The New York Times
in 2003 as being “as neat as someone in a toothpaste commercial” while Kushner “exudes anxiety”.
Harris, now 45, was formerly the editor at large of
magazine, and is now a freelance writer, having recently written the well-received
Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of a New Hollywood
Kushner readily admits he used to have a lot of “hysteria” in his life and still works best when a deadline has passed, but Harris has soothed him somewhat, and being with someone immersed in pop culture is a good fit.
“Mark is smarter than me,” Kushner insists. “We’re very well matched. We watch a lot of the same things –
, which I think is a great work of art;
, which I have enormous admiration for, and shows like
– the British version and the American version – I love those. I’m a big fan of Tina Fey and
The playwright who delves into theology and realpolitik also has ample time for the disposable, admitting he watches “much too much” television: “
I can’t live without; I simply adore it, because I don’t know how to make a dress.”
Gay equality will come, he believes. Kushner says it is “unimaginable” that Barack Obama, as a constitutional law scholar – and a man with a “sophisticated understanding of what’s at stake for gay people having equal protection under the law” – will be “anything other than completely supportive of absolute marriage equality”.
Though it may be some years before Obama sets the national tone on the issue and the US courts strike down discriminatory laws, Kushner says.
Angels in America: Millennium Approaches runs until February 21 at the Riverside Theatres Parramatta 8839 3399