August 24, 2007
Tony Kushner as film subject
Award-winning playwright discusses politics, hope, Israel.
American playwright Tony Kushner is best known for his award-winning
play Angels in America, a stage production that was also
adapted into a six-hour, star-studded movie. Now the outspoken activist
and writer is himself the subject of a film the documentary
Wrestling with Angels, which recently screened as part of
the Vancouver Queer Film Festival. Kushner makes for an interesting
and inspirational subject for an interview, as well.
Jewish Independent: How do you feel when a fan, albeit a
very accomplished one, comes up to you and asks to do a documentary
Tony Kushner: Well, I was sort of intrigued by it. I was
hesitant and it took me a long time to decide that I would want
to go ahead and do this. Frieda contacted me right at a moment when
I was very, very busy and there was a lot of stuff on the horizon,
there was a lot of stuff that was going to happen and I thought
it would be an interesting moment if anybody was ever going
to make this kind of documentary about me, that this would be a
good moment because there was just a lot going on and I would be
able to provide sort of interesting things to watch rather than,
you know, the usual stuff, which is just sort of me sitting at my
computer looking unhappy.
JI: The documentary takes place in the few years prior to
the 2004 election, when President George W. Bush was reelected.
How do you feel about how things have turned out since then, since
the time the film ended?
TK: If it's structured chronologically, it ends on a very,
I imagine, bleak note, because the reelection of Bush was a really
terrible moment and things have obviously changed since then. I
think, in some ways, for the better, at least politically, one could
say. We [the Democrats] took back the House and the Senate in 2006,
and I think the administration is very much on the ropes right now.
I mean, they've had a really terrible time since he was elected,
getting anything in terms of their horrendous agenda, like destroying
social security, and, even the positive things they attempted, like
supporting change in the immigration policy in the United States,
they were completely derailed by their own party. A lot of the really
hideous stuff that they planned hasn't gone the way they wanted
it to go, so, in a way, things are now looking very good for the
presidential and congressional elections in 2008.
And then, on the other hand, one would have to say that the news
from Iraq is, worse and worse and worse. The extent to which they've
completely made a mess of Middle East politics just becomes clearer
and clearer with every passing day. Yesterday, on the front page
of the New York Times, is the president of Afghanistan and
the president of Iran having a friendly chat together. Obviously,
the Middle East is going in a direction that has nothing to do with
anything that the Bush administration would want and I think we're
at a very dangerous and very frightening place.
I see signs of optimism I felt reasons to be optimistic in
2004, after the defeat of [John] Kerry because, still, he got 59
million votes, which is a lot in a country where the troops are
in the field and the economy is not tanking. Getting rid of an incumbent
president is very difficult and I thought it was going to be very
hard to win in 2004 and Kerry was not a great candidate and, still,
I thought people were organizing in a new kind of way on the left,
on the progressive side of things, and I think that's continued
and I'm hoping that we'll hold and manage to maintain some sort
of coherence in 2008.
JI: You obviously are very engaged in the world and politics
and have many things you want to say. How do you reconcile all that
with the stories you want to tell?
TK: It really depends on the project that I'm working on.
Sometimes you write something as a direct response to a political
moment but, usually, when I'm working on a play, the play takes
a very long time, for me, to take shape and it never occurs to me,
this is my chance to say this about that. Even sometimes, like when,
on the eve of the Iraq war, when I got very angry and upset and
in despair, I wrote a one-act play about Laura Bush
turn out exactly the way I thought it was going to turn out and,
I think, that its message is, whatever its message is, is somewhat
complicated, so I think that, if wanted to just simply make a statement,
I would write an essay and try and find a place to put it.
If I get very upset about something that appears in the newspaper
or I feel [there] is a need to speak out directly, there's usually
some venue for that theatre, it seems to me, is not necessarily
the most obvious or utilitarian way of making a point. I don't think
the pleasures of the theatre have as much to do with going and being
lectured at as they do with being confronted with life in all of
its variety and complications and needing to sit through what's
on stage in the way you have to sit through what's on life. It's
just that what's on stage can be more contained and one is in the
position of a safe observer of life without fear of consequence
when one is watching the theatre.
JI: Who was the inspiration for the character of Harper in
Angels in America? Why does she get all the best lines, such
as those concerning how people can change, sewing up the holes in
the ozone layer, etc.?
TK: She's definitely one of my favorites of the characters
that I've written and she has the best speech that I ever wrote,
which was the ozone layer speech. I'm very fond of her change speech.
I tend to write, [and] I think it's true of a lot of gay playwrights,
I tend to really enjoy writing women. I'm having a hard time right
now because I'm having more fun writing Mary Lincoln than Abraham
Lincoln [for a screenplay about the former president]. There are
all sorts of complicated reasons for that. I really love my mother
and I'm really close to my sister
. I think that gay liberation
comes out of feminism and
the way that women fight to have
power and agency in the world is informative to me and moving to
JI: Do you think maybe she more represents your views, the
playwright's voice, than, say, the character of Louis, who's often
thought of as your voice in the play?
TK: Louis is certainly the character who's, demographically
at least, closest to me, although, in many ways, I'm nothing like
Louis. Louis has much more courage than I have and does really appalling
things that I hope I would never do. In some ways I was imagining
what it would be like if I did some of the things that Louis did,
and how would one handle that kind of guilt and that's a big part
of what's interesting in the play.
I like Louis a lot as a character but, in thinking about the various
kinds of tragedies that result from oppression
one sees over and over again in terms of homophobia is that gay
men and lesbians and bisexual and transgendered people are forced,
because of a policing of sexual roles, into marriages and relationships.
Like most gay men, I had a girlfriend in high school and, when I
finally had the nerve in college to come out to her, it really devastated
her and I've always felt really terrible about that.
I thought that I was going to become heterosexual and, of course,
in 1974, it didn't even seem remotely possible to say, in high school
in Louisiana, 'by the way, I'm gay.' There was dishonesty in that
kind of lying to oneself and to others. So, I think that, in many
ways, one of the significant tragedies of the oppression of gay
men is, if you're going to count lives that have been wrecked by
homophobia, one thing that you need to count is the number of straight
women who marry gay men, believing that their feelings of romantic
love are going to be reciprocated and who find out, frequently,
that's not the case. I think that's [why] I wanted to include that
in the play and that's probably one of the places that Harper comes
JI: There is much empathy in Angels in America and,
in the documentary, director Oskar Eustis speaks of empathy as being
an important aspect of both theatre and politics, and you're very
involved in the latter as well.
TK: I think Oskar's point, I've heard him say this before,
is that, historically speaking, the invention of drama, of at least
drama as we understand it in the West, with a protagonist, with
characters who demand empathy in the audience, drama and democracy
both emerge at roughly the same moment
. There's capacity in
human beings that's developing then, of what Oskar calls empathy,
the ability to imaginatively project yourself into the life of another
human being. And I think this is true. This is why I frequently
say that I think that conservative thinking is a kind of thought
disorder, because I think it stops at the moment where a kind of
opening of oneself up to the experiences of an other is too alarming
and too threatening, poses too much of a danger to one's sense of
privilege or status or power in the world and one closes off the
boundaries you make sure that that other person isn't going
to get in and I think
that Oskar's point is really well taken.
In order to form workable, coherent societies in which power is
not entirely focused on the top, but is disseminated among an enfranchised
citizenship, what one needs, and what's probably the hardest thing
about making democracy work, is an imaginative leap into the lives
of others. Again, [in] my Lincoln work now, it's stunning to see
the number of times that Lincoln, who didn't really know black people
and didn't necessarily entirely 'get them' I don't think
Lincoln was some sort of spectacularly advanced person in terms
of understanding what black people were about and understanding
their full humanity, but there was some truth that he got, even
when he was very young, that a slave doesn't want to be a slave.
He says, in a speech, why, if slavery is such a good thing, which
was what the South was always claiming, why is it that no slave
ever says this.
It was a gentle way that he had of saying to the American people
over and over again, he actually said at one point in one speech,
[where] he's talking about black soldiers in the Union army, and
he says, everybody is driven by motive. And that's a stunning statement
and that's what we lose in our, quote, unquote, war against terror,
is the idea that human beings do things for reasons, even if the
reasons are twisted and bizarre. They do things because they are
driven by an internal logic that's not at all different from your
internal logic in terms of its basic machinery, and understanding
what that logic is, is kind of the job of being in a society. To
let go of that task and to start to turn to language that denies
people that basic humanity, even if those people are terrible people
and do terrible things, [if you] say, well, they're demons, they're
devils, they're not human, they're just evil, you make life easier
for yourself in the short run and much more difficult for yourself
in the long run and really begin to destroy the basic fabric of
JI: How did growing up in the South, and being Jewish, influence
your work and who you are?
TK: I've always said that growing up Jewish in a very small
southern community was enormously important in terms of my development
as a gay man, because I was taught by my parents at a very early
age how to claim an identity that the majority of people in your
society don't recognize as legitimate, or maybe even despise. I
didn't confront a lot of virulent anti-Semitism in Louisiana in
the small town that I grew up in, but there was some anti-Semitism
for sure and a very pronounced sense of being 'different than.'
We were taught by my parents, who are very proud of being Jewish
and who wanted us to be proud of being Jewish, my sister and my
brother and I, that you didn't apologize for it, you didn't hide
it, you didn't try to fit in by denying who you were. You said,
I'm glad that you are whatever you are, but I'm Jewish and this
is what I do and I won't do what you do necessarily at all times
and you have to deal with that. That was an important lesson to
learn and I simply applied it directly to the process of coming
out of the closet. It probably would have not been the same clear
lesson if I had grown up, let's say, in New York, where there are
many, many more Jews.
I feel like I am, in many ways, a southern writer. I think there's
a certain kind of lyricism in southern writing that I feel entitled
to claim as my own, and a certain appreciation of nature that comes
from having grown up in the woods in the middle of a steamy, southern
town, and probably a certain kind of rhythm that's slower and less
urban, even though my work is almost always set in urban settings
[But] I have very great anger at the South, and at my own state,
actually, for its complete refusal to ever really understand why
things are always going so badly for it, really, since the Civil
War and before.
A failure to come to terms with the mistakes that you have made
is always very costly and I see that endlessly repeated in my home
state of Louisiana, which [has] made sure that you can't get an
abortion and gay people can't get married, so they think they've
actually done their job governing the state, meanwhile the place
is so appallingly corrupt. Everybody's on the take, most of the
elected officials are morons and the great city of New Orleans,
which is a national treasure, is allowed to basically get washed
out to sea and it's still, two, three years, whatever it is after
Katrina, still in great peril from the sea a situation that
we could absolutely fix if we had a federal government that was
worthy of the name and also, it has to be said, a state and local
government in Louisiana that was worthy of the name. But it's clinging
to a kind of reactionary politics and the politics of anti-government.
JI: Given all you've just said, how do you maintain your
sense of optimism, your reason for going on and fighting the
man, so to speak?
TK: I think despair is always a mistake, on some level. There
are people who, obviously, are so burdened by life that despair
is not an option, it's just what's forced on them, and those people
deserve our sympathy and our support. But most of us, even those
of us who have to struggle with fairly substantial burdens, people
are very strong, really, and resilient, and most of us have the
strength and the internal integrity to keep going in spite of all
the shit that gets slung at us by life.
In terms of politics, despair is very often a mistake. It comes
at dark moments, but the dark moments at which people resolve to
keep going always turn out differently and better than the dark
moments at which people give up in despair. The best example, I
think, in history or, certainly one of the best examples, that's
little considered, is that, after their first electoral victories
in 1932, the Nazis, in the next parliamentary elections, began to
lose substantial votes to the political left and things really were
turning around in mid- to late-1932, and then [the president of
Germany, Paul von] Hindenburg appointed Hitler as chancellor, in
part because the German Catholic Church and the German business
class got worried that Germany was going to go 'Red.' And people
sort of collapsed into despair in the face of that and it was a
terrible failure of the socialist democrats and the communists to
make common cause to defeat Hitler, and we all know what happened.
I think that those moments of despair are the ones to keep in mind,
especially those of us who live in functioning democracies
if we don't despair, if we keep working, there is no reason to give
up hope right now. As I said, I think things have turned around
JI: Do you believe in God? Would you call yourself a religious
Jew or a secular Jew?
TK: I call myself an agnostic Jew. I believe that any great
religious tradition has room for agnosticism in it. There's room
for it in all great religious traditions, there's room for doubt
in any great enterprise of faith. If I had to describe myself in
one way or another, that's probably how I would describe myself.
JI: What would be your ideal Israel, your ideal situation
of Israel with its neighbors in the Middle East?
TK: It's under a lot of attack, these days, from right-wing
theocrats within Israel, but my feeling is that there's a very strong
democratic tradition in Israel a secular, pluralist, democratic
tradition in Israel. I believe that there's a great deal of jurisprudence
and legislative history and executive action in Israel that supports
a vision of Israel as a progressive, democratic, secular, pluralist
state. I don't know how you reconcile that with the notion of Israel
as a Jewish state and that's always been a question that I've had
about it, but I leave that to Israel to work out. I believe that
there are a lot of people in Israel who absolutely want to see the
country equally enfranchise its Jewish citizens and its non-Jewish
citizens, its Arab citizens, and I would hope that would be an ongoing
struggle that resolves itself in the direction of pluralist, constitutional
democracy; a secular, pluralist, constitutional democracy. And there's
good reason to hope for that and I think that needs to be supported.
In terms of the Palestinian situation, as I've always said, I'm
in favor of a two-state solution. I hope, [and] in the way that
I would imagine, that the political realities are such that there
might be a merging of the two countries because [they're] geographically
kind of ridiculous looking on a map, with Gaza on one side and the
West Bank on the other and Israel this kind of weird hourglass shape
in between, and the economics [are] just so obviously, so intimately,
intertwined and there's no reason on Earth why, eventually, Israel
and a Palestinian state couldn't come to some kind of
least, lives of incredibly intense co-operation. But, at the moment,
what I absolutely support is peace talks, regardless of suicide
bombers or the firing of rockets or whatever. Hamas, Fatah, Israel,
the United States, the Quartet, everybody should sit down as soon
as possible and begin negotiating a peace. And I think you negotiate
with all sorts of people. If Hamas refuses to recognize the right
of Israel to exist, then you negotiate with an awareness of that,
but you still negotiate. You don't give things away that you can't
afford to give away to an enemy that says you don't have a right
to exist, but you negotiate.
Diplomacy has been so ill served in the last eight years that it
needs desperately to be tried in all sorts of situations
I believe that negotiations can happen, I mean, look at Ireland.
I believe that situations that seem impossible can be not
always, but mostly can be negotiated through and, given what's
actually on the ground in Israel and in the territories, I think
the Israeli right has to accept the fact that the Palestinians are
not going away and that this problem is not going to be one that
can simply be resolved by not resolving it and waiting long enough
until somehow the Palestinian population has dispersed itself and
it's not going to be an issue in 100 years. I don't think that's
going to happen. I don't think that can happen in the modern world.
And I think that a just peace and a workable Palestinian state have
to be arrived at.
I want the state of Israel to continue to exist. I've always said
that. I've never said anything else. My positions have been lied
about and misrepresented in so many ways. People claim that I'm
for a one-state solution, which is not true.
JI: It does seem that, in the Diaspora, debate on Israel
is limited. For example, there was much controversy surrounding
the movie Munich, which you co-wrote, and criticism that
it offered the view that Israel didn't have the right to defend
TK: It also got five Oscar nominations and did very well.
It has continued to do very well and has shown on HBO. I felt that
we finally won the Munich battle, but we were very, very
viciously attacked by people who simply feel that it's not permissible
to raise any questions about the government of Israel or America's
support of the right-wing government in Israel. And, of course,
that's unacceptable, and it's not Jewish.
JI: And it's not even Israeli
TK: No, of course not, the Israelis are infinitely more intelligent
about these discussions than we certainly are in the United States.
Any kind of automatic silencing of dissent poses great dangers to
Had there been a much more vigorous debate in the United States
about the policies of the Sharon government at the beginning, even
going back to Clinton, had it been permissible to really raise questions
about how that reality was represented in this country, a great
deal of bloodshed would have been avoided. People have to be willing
to talk out about these things and I think that's beginning to happen
more and more.
JI: You've won Tony, Pulitzer, Emmy and Academy awards, what
would be especially meaningful for you to accomplish in the future?
TK: I just want to do more work and get better at what I
do. That's really all I'm looking for. I have a number of projects
that I'm excited about working on and I'm eager to get going on
those and to just keep working. The awards thing, that's always
nice, but it's not, hopefully, what you're working for, and you
just keep going and [I'll] just stick to my computer and my pen
and keep working.