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Kushner is best known for his award-winning play Angels in America, which is unprecedented in its extensive treatment of homosexual themes and its use of gay characters to examine such traditional issues as culture, politics, and history. Kushner’s themes encompass the gay experience from repression and hypocrisy through denial and self-loathing to the ultimate goals of self-acceptance and self-love.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Kushner was born in New York City in 1956, but his parents, who were classical musicians, moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana, shortly after his birth. His parents encouraged Kushner and his siblings to explore literature and the arts; the children were given a dollar whenever they memorized a poem to recite. His mother was also an actress, and Kushner confided to Susan Cheever in the New York Times that ”that’s the major reason I went into the theater. I saw some of her performances when I was 4 or 5 years old and they were so powerful. I had vivid dreams afterwards.” Kushner realized he was different from most other children in yet another significant way, however. ”I have fairly clear memories of being gay since I was 6,” the playwright told Richard Stayton in the Los Angeles Times. ”I knew that I felt slightly different than most of the boys I was growing up with. By the time I was 11 there was no doubt. But I was completely in the closet.”
He continued to keep his sexuality a secret throughout his undergraduate years at Columbia University, during which time he underwent psychotherapy to try to become heterosexual, even though his therapist told him at the beginning of treatment that psychotherapy did not change people’s sexual orientation. Kushner eventually accepted this and ”came out”—that is, became open with family and friends about the fact that he was gay.
Kushner’s early works include Hydriotaphia (1987), which, inspired by seventeenth-century essayist Sir Thomas Browne, was written in a style reminiscent of classical and traditional poetry; The Illusion (1988), adapted from Pierre Corneille’s L’illusion comique; and Widows (1991), a collaboration with Ariel Dorf-man based on that writer’s novel of the same name. A Bright Room Called Day(1987), perhaps the best-known of his pre- Angels works, concerns a group of liberal-minded acquaintances in the Weimar Republic of Germany, just before the establishment of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. This main story is entwined, however, with the commentary of Zillah Katz, a contemporary young American woman, who draws parallels—sometimes extreme— between Hitler’s regime and the administrations of U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.
When A Bright Room Called Day was performed in New York City in 1991, it received less than enthusiastic reviews. The play did, however, impress Oskar Eustis, then artistic director of the Eureka Theater in San Francisco, California, where the play was first produced. He commissioned Kushner to write a comic play for his theater; this was the play that would become Angels in America, though the Eureka would no longer exist by the time the entire play was ready for production.
A Gay Fantasia
For Kushner, who had been disturbed by the ”homophobic reaction” to Roy Cohn’s AIDS-related death and had decided to write a play about that, Eustis’s offer was oddly prescient. Says Eustis: ”Tony took a deep breath and wrote about what was closest and scariest to him and that unleashed a complexity that is representative of our own lives.”
A complex work, Angels in America was produced in two parts and includes over thirty characters. Though Angels in America is filled with many different characters, it is meant to be performed only by eight actors who each play several roles. In the first part, Millennium Approaches, the story focuses on two couples—two gay men named Louis and Prior dealing with Prior’s AIDS, and Harper and Joe, a nominally straight couple—although the married Mormon man, Joe, is trying to suppress his secret homosexuality. Also central to the play is the figure of lawyer Roy Cohn, who is based on the real Cohn who helped Senator Joseph McCarthy persecute suspected communists during the 1950s. Cohn also persecuted gays, although he himself was a closet homosexual and died of complications related to AIDS.
Millennium Approaches takes its name from the sense of apocalypse the character Prior feels while dealing with his deadly disease. At the end, an angel descends dramatically to visit him, and he is declared a prophet, temporarily, at least, saved from death by AIDS. The second part, Perestroika, by contrast, is a somewhat quieter piece, getting its title from the Russian word ex-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev used for his proposals for ”restructuring” economic and social policies. In the second part of Angels, the glorious being that visited Prior at the end of the first part turns out to represent stasis, or death, and Prior decides to reject it. Cohn dies, but this does not prevent his ghost from reappearing later in the play—in the role of God’s lawyer, no less. Lahr concluded that Kushner’s work is ”a victory. . . for the transforming power of the imagination to turn devastation into beauty.”
In 1995 Kushner wrote and produced what he terms a ”coda” to Angels in America, Slavs! Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness, which Christopher Hawthorne of Salon magazine calls ”a compact, quirky exploration of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ruin, both philosophical and environmental, left in its wake.” Slavs! resembles the Angels in America plays because, according to Kushner in an interview with Andrea Bernstein of Mother Jones, the play proceeds from the problem that if you do not know where you are heading, it is difficult to move or make choices.
Kushner was heavily influenced by Bertolt Brecht’s Epic Theater, a movement started by the German playwright in the early twentieth century that aimed to combine epic story structure designed to elicit emotional response with overt political messages and deconstruction of common theatrical tropes. Here are some other examples of epic theater:
Mother Courage and Her Children (1939), a play by Bertolt Brecht. Possibly Brecht’s finest play and one of the greatest antiwar plays ever written, this tale of the Thirty Years’ War of the sixteenth century serves as a cautionary tale aimed at a Europe on the brink of plunging into world war.
Vinegar Tom (1976), a play by Caryl Churchill. A noted feminist playwright, Chruchill’s early work was also strongly in the tradition of Epic Theater, as in this play about seventeenth-century witch trials that utilizes distinctly Brechtian storytelling techniques, such as the use of incongruent songs to break up the action.
Breathless (1960), a film directed by Jean-Luc Godard. One of the seminal examples of the so-called NewWave of French Cinema, Godard—who had studied under Brecht—made his first film a conscious attempt to bring the traditions of Epic Theater into a different medium.
Kushner—white, Jewish, gay, and coming of age in the South during the turbulent 1960s—developed both a healthy respect and skepticism for the idea of community, a conceit that would come to earmark his work as a dramatist. Says Kushner of the legitimacy of the idea of community, ”It is a fundamental American question because that’s what this country is—a community comprised of not only different [constituencies] but hostile ones and irreconcilably so.”
For Kushner, the nation’s gay and lesbian community is not only one with which he is intimately familiar, but it also serves as an exceptionally apt metaphor for his examination of America as a whole. ”Because the demarcation line is sexual preference, the homosexual community is also a very disparate group of people of all races, cultures and political persuasions,” says Kushner. ”It is synthetic and artificial.” Within these cobbled communities, Kushner ponders man’s proclivity for both xenophobia and compassion.
Works in Literary Context
Kushner’s plays generally focus on themes of change, transformation, and identity, often examined over long periods of time. These grand themes give his plays an epic scope, augmented by the overt politicism of Angels in America and A Bright Room Called Day.
The term epic was originally used to describe the ancient Greek tradition of poems such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. These stories were distinguished by the scope of time they covered—often months, years, or even decades would pass in the course of a story—their wide-ranging, often far-flung locales, which could range from small bedrooms to huge battlefields, their large cast of characters and their complex, intertwining stories.
Several of Shakespeare’s plays followed the epic tradition, and it was carried forward into the twentieth century by playwrights like Bertolt Brecht and Robert Schenkkan, whose Kentucky Cycle is a six-hour, nine-play saga covering two hundred years of history.
Angels in America is another such modern epic. Its locations range from living rooms and offices in New York City to the frozen continent of Antarctica and even the vaults of heaven. Its epic structure can be seen in the large cast of characters and how their various scenes overlap and interweave, often playing out at the same time on stage. This action creates the essential elements of an epic plot: juxtaposition and contrast. Epics, as opposed to climactic plots, do not move forward in a cause-and-effect fashion, where events in one scene directly impact those in the next. Rather, two seemingly unrelated scenes are often placed back-to-back, juxtaposing, or contrasting, characters or themes.
Brecht was a strong influence on Kushner, for Brecht’s vision of Epic Theater, as he called it, was not simply about epic story structure but melding that ancient structure with overt political commentary.
What Brecht proposed, and what Kushner adopted, was a didactic approach—that is, the goal of the play is to educate and inform as much as to entertain. To this end, Brecht also used various devices to call attention to the artificiality of the play’s format, a technique Kushner mirrored in Angels in America, which utilizes a minimum of scenery and often has scene changes occur in full view of the audience. Unlike Brecht, however, Kushner allows his political ideas to be subtly interwoven into the narrative, rather than explicitly stated.
Works in Critical Context
Kushner’s early plays received scant and largely mixed reviews. It was not until Angels in America that he began receiving more widespread and positive critical attention.
Angels in America
Despite its grim subject matter and its open attacks on the administration of former president Ronald Reagan, Angels in America has proved quite popular with mainstream audiences from Broadway to Los Angeles and London. It has also won great acclaim from drama critics, garnering both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for best play in 1993.
Critical reaction to Angels in America has been overwhelmingly favorable. Commentators laud it as the proverbial ”great American play,” claiming it addresses such topics as the value and inevitability of change, the nature of self-interest and community, and the major political issues of the 1980s: gay rights, the end of the cold war, the place of religion in modern society, and the ideological struggle between conservatism and liberalism. Critics have also praised Kushner for avoiding the sentimentality that characterizes most dramas that deal with AIDS. As Don Shewey has stated, “Angels in America is a landmark not just among AIDS plays or gay dramas but in American theater, partly because Kushner has the audacity to equate gay concerns with the fate of this country.”
- ”Angels in America.” Drama for Students. Vol. 5. Edited by David Galens. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 1999.
- Brask, Per, ed. Essays on Kushner’s Angels. Winnipeg, Canada: Blizzard Publishing, 1995.
- Geis, Deborah R., and Steven F. Kruger. Approaching the Millennium: Essays on Angels in America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.
- Vorlicky, Robert, ed. Tony Kushner in Conversation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.
- Blanchard, Bob. Playwright of Pain and Hope.” Progressive 58 (October 1994): 4244.
- Bottoms, Stephen J. ”Re-staging Roy: Citizen Cohn and the Search for Xanadu.” Theatre Journal 48 (1996): 157-184.
- Cheever, Susan. ”An Angel Sat Down at His Table.” New York Times, September 13, 1992, section 2.
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