Commentary Magazine


Tony Kushner’s Characters Should Stop Talking Now

Ever since his two-play cycle Angels in America opened on Broadway in 1993, Tony Kushner has been the sole American playwright to approach the pinnacle of broad-based cultural réclame that Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams attained in the 1940s and Edward Albee in the 1960s. One striking aspect of his celebrity is that critics are all but unanimous as to the merits of his work. Frank Rich called Angels “the most thrilling American play in years” in his New York Times review of the 1993 production, which was also Kushner’s Broadway debut. Since then, there has been scarcely any dissent from this categorical judgment, or from the notion that Kushner is, as Newsweek dubbed him in 2009, “the playwright at the heart of America’s cultural moment.”

Part of the reason why Kushner is so admired by elite opinion makers is that he is, as Newsweek pointed out, the living embodiment of their unanimously held views on a wide range of political and social issues:

Kushner was a socialist long before the financial collapse led this magazine to declare that we are all socialists now. The [Obama] administration has renewed its efforts to address the Middle East crisis, a subject that Kushner has been writing, speaking, and generally making himself obnoxious about for years. He is a leading advocate for gay marriage at a time when the issue zooms toward public acceptance (he and his husband, the journalist Mark Harris, share the distinction of being the first same-sex couple to be featured in the Vows column in the New York Times).

The supremely high esteem in which Kushner is held in bien-pensant circles was demonstrated in May when the board of trustees of the City University of New York voted to deny him an honorary degree, citing his belief that Israel was “founded in a program that, if you really want to be blunt about it, was ethnic cleansing. . . . I have a problem with the idea of a Jewish state. It would have been better if it never happened.” The response of the cultural establishment to the board’s decision was so reflexively and overwhelmingly negative that CUNY’s executive board voted a few days later to overrule it and confer the degree.

As it happens, the uproar at CUNY took place at the end of a theater season during which Kushner was omnipresent. In October, the Signature Theatre Company mounted the first New York revival of Angels in America, which played to full houses throughout its long run. Seven months later, the Public Theater gave the New York premiere of The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, Kushner’s first new full-length play in a decade. But unlike the Angels revival, which was greeted with the usual lockstep praise, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide received unexpectedly mixed notices—albeit mostly of the cautious kind in which the reviewer takes care to make clear his otherwise extravagant admiration of the author. Even so, it was evident from the reviews that Kushner’s new play was felt to have fallen well short of Angels.

In fact, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide and Angels are of a piece. Like Kushner’s other plays, they are the work of a flawed artist ill served by the indiscriminate esteem in which his work is held—and whose problematic style may at last have reached the point of diminishing critical returns.

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Angels in America, whose subtitle is “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” deserved much of its success. An angry tale of the early years of the AIDS epidemic, it is an impressively ambitious piece of work, the equivalent of three full-length plays loosely woven together into a two-part structure, and its strongest scenes are both emotionally powerful and theatrically effective.

Best of all are the scenes in which Kushner turns Roy Cohn, the much-reviled associate of Joe McCarthy, into a fictional character. A closeted homosexual, Cohn died of AIDS in 1986 without publicly admitting that he was gay, much less that he had AIDS. Kushner’s Cohn is a monster of ego and appetite who refuses to acknowledge, even to himself, the meaning of his deadly illness: “Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout. Does this sound like me?”

The scenes featuring Cohn, gripping though they are, remain secondary to the main line of the narrative, in which the lives of three other gay men are intertwined. The first of these men is Joe, a Mormon lawyer with Republican connections (Cohn is his patron) who tries without success to conceal his sexual urges from his unhappy young wife. Simultaneously, Kushner tells the story of Prior and Louis, a gay couple that comes to grief when Prior develops full-blown AIDS and Louis, unable to accept his lover’s physical decline, embarks on an affair with Joe.

Each time Cohn leaves the stage, however, the dramatic tension slackens, and that slackness suggests Kushner might have done better to put the play’s most vividly drawn character at center stage. Yet one of the particularly impressive things about Angels in America is the sheer scale of its ambition—how much it tries to do, and how willing its author was to take chances instead of sticking to conventional models of theatrical construction. This is why Angels, for all its obvious flaws, has been so influential with younger playwrights, who have also been attracted by Kushner’s use of magic realism (much of the play’s second part consists of staged versions of the AIDS-induced hallucinations of Prior and Cohn).

Here as elsewhere, the problem is that Kushner habitually allows his ambition to run roughshod over his sense of artistic balance. Taken together, the two parts of Angels, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika,” add up to a seven-hour span, a severe trial of the patience of even the most passionate playgoer (especially since “Perestroika” contains more than its share of momentum-killing longueurs). And while it is hard to say whether the play’s total effect could have been improved by cutting—Kushner’s prose style is naturally diffuse—many of the hallucination scenes are quite clearly superfluous. This is especially true of the scenes in which Cohn is haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, whom he helped to send to the electric chair in 1953. Kushner, a self-styled “red-diaper baby,” implies in Angels that Ethel and her husband Julius were innocent of the charge of transmitting U.S. atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Given the fact that Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton had definitively established a decade before Angels that the Rosenbergs were in fact guilty, this element of the play is not merely dated but laughably so—and that becomes even more true as the years pass and more evidence surfaces of the extent of the Rosenberg crimes.

Kushner’s erratic sense of balance is also apparent whenever the characters in Angels hold forth on the evils of Reagan-era conservatism. Not only do their anti-Republican tirades have a musty, shopworn air, but they also point to Kushner’s worst tendency as a “progressive” artist, which is to demonize those with whom he disagrees. True though it is that Roy Cohn was an unsavory piece of work, what do we learn about him from being told by Louis that he is “a polestar of human evil … the worst human being who ever lived”? Even the most brilliantly limned caricature must acknowledge the humanity of its subject in order to hit the target. Sometimes Kushner does this, but too often he settles for the hectoring shrillness that is a hallmark of politicized art.

The weaknesses of Angels in America are to be found throughout Kushner’s full-length plays, all of which are both too long for their own good and so strident at times as to be off-putting to anyone who does not already subscribe to their author’s militant leftism.

Since most regular New York playgoers are more or less in Kushner’s camp, however, the politics of Angels proved for the most part to be advantageous at the box office. No less important to its success was that Kushner was among the first gay playwrights to be unapologetically gay. He presented homosexuality not as a problem but as a normal part of life at the exact moment when the rise of the AIDS epidemic had led growing numbers of Americans to view gays with greater sympathy and to empathize with their struggles.

As Time explained in its review of Angels:

The author and the delighted spectators reflect an evolution in attitude akin to what happened among blacks and women: one generation sought empathy; the next demanded justice; the generation equivalent to Kushner’s just flat-out asserted equality and spurned any more debate.

Flash forward almost two decades to this year’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, in which the normality of homosexuality is so taken for granted that Kushner is free to emphasize instead his enduring interest in radical politics. The title, a double-edged variation on George Bernard Shaw’s Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism and Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, the “bible” of Christian Science, is the key to the play. For a central part of Kushner’s purpose is to show what can happen to those who treat politics not as a means to an end but as a quasi-religious end in itself.

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide is about the Marcantonios, an Italian-American family from Brooklyn whose 72-year-old patriarch, Gus, is a Communist longshoreman turned labor organizer. Having grown tired of life and fearing that he is falling victim to Alzheimer’s disease, Gus (a fictional cousin of Vito Marcantonio, the only full-blown Communist fellow traveler ever to serve as a member of the House of Representatives) assembles his sister and his children and tells them that he wants to commit suicide. As a good Communist, though, Gus offers to let them vote on his plan and agrees to abide by their collective decision.

This is a somewhat contrived but nonetheless potentially involving premise, as is the pivotal conflict that emerges later in the play. We learn that as a delegate for the longshoreman’s union, Gus helped to negotiate a strike settlement in 1973 that gave him and other senior members of the union a guaranteed income for life, thus making it possible for them to retire at once—but leaving their less senior brethren out in the cold.

To be sure, Gus has used his long years of leisure well, turning himself into a self-made intellectual. But he is still the truest of true believers in the promise of Marxism, and it follows that he is now wracked with guilt for what he takes to be his treachery: “When we agreed that some, not all, would get, we gave up the union, we gave up representing a class, we became … each one for himself.”

What is most intriguing about this plot twist is that Kushner means it not as an indictment of left-wing hypocrisy but as a critique of the proclivity of radicals to succumb to the idea of an unrealistic perfectionism. Gus’s self-flagellation, Kushner says, was inspired in part by a strike in 2007 by stagehands working in the heavily unionized Broadway theater industry.

I thought all us liberal-shmiberals would be out on the line with [the stagehands], but instead it was: “They’re ruining the theater with their featherbedding.” It was stunning to me, because isn’t the idea of labor unions that you get working-class people to live in nice houses and send their kids to college? It’s great that they’re making $100,000 a year, why the f— shouldn’t they?

It may have been his intention to make a case for “featherbedding,” but the play turns out to be more fluid and ambiguous than that. The members of Gus’s family, we soon see, have all been emotionally crippled by the utopian dreams of earthly paradise that have left them variously unable to come to terms with the limitations of life in the real world. Only his daughter, a lesbian labor lawyer, is fully at home in the quotidian realm of action, and Gus curtly dismisses her work as mere gradualism: “What you call progress, I call the prison rebuilding itself. Thickening the walls.”

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Had Kushner trimmed away the proliferating subplots of The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide and concentrated ruthlessly on this theme, the results might well have been as exciting as the best parts of Angels in America. Instead, he has drowned it in a sea of rampant verbiage. The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide runs for three hours and 40 minutes, far longer than the average modern-day production of the longest of Shakespeare’s plays, and it does not profit from that added length. Most of the characters are talking machines who often sound like robotic replicas of one another, and the play’s promiscuous use of overlapping dialogue renders much of the second act all but unintelligible to boot.

Like all genuine artists, Kushner writes not as he should but as he must, and his diffuse discursiveness is undoubtedly in part a function of his temperament. Still, the success of Angels in America seems to have confirmed Kushner in the belief that the iron law of economy that governs traditional theatrical storytelling does not apply to him. Not only is The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide enervatingly long-winded, but his last full-evening play, Homebody/Kabul (2001), was an even longer monstrosity in which a genuinely provocative discussion of Islamic fundamentalism and its discontents was buried beneath an incoherent mélange of domestic melodrama and arch drawing-room comedy.

Could it be that Kushner (as the saying goes) came to believe his own reviews? If so, then perhaps the reception of The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide will inspire him to reconsider. Anyone capable of writing the best scenes in Angels in America, after all, is surely capable of sustaining their incisiveness throughout the length of an entire play. But as it stands now, Kushner’s chronic garrulity threatens to reduce him to the status of a historical curiosity, a gifted but undisciplined writer who failed to live up to his early promise.

The critic Cyril Connolly memorably described Marcel Proust and James Joyce as “giant invalids” who lacked “that dull but healthy quality without which no masterpiece can be contrived, a sense of proportion.” That may seem a foolish misjudgment of the authors of Remembrance of Things Past and Ulysses, but it is hard to quarrel with the same proposition when applied to Tony Kushner. He lacks the essential gift of a great artist: the knowledge of when to stop talking and let an audience make up its own mind.

About the Author

Terry Teachout, COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, wrote about blacks, Jews, and American popular music in the last issue. He is at work on a biography of Duke Ellington.




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