Issue 201, Summer 2012
Tony Kushner was born in New York in 1956 and raised in Louisiana. He moved back to Manhattan to attend Columbia College in 1974. He has lived on the Upper West Side more or less ever since. In the late nineties, discouraged by a series of bad dates that left him convinced he was “done with men,” he bought a house in the Hudson Valley. But then he met the writer and editor Mark Harris, a devoted New Yorker who prefers the beach to the woods. Kushner and Harris, now married, spend a portion of each summer in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Our interviews took place during the summer of 2011 in a café in Provincetown and in Kushner’s New York City office. This room, which happens also to be a kitchen, is bedecked with two large canvases painted by his sister, Lesley; stout terra-cotta angels dressed in papier-mâché robes; and a movie still of Glinda the Good Witch in an ornate silver frame. Kushner is tall, with a mass of dark curly hair, a soft face, and a gentle, open manner. He delivers fierce opinions in genial, unruffled tones at lighting speed. It is obvious that for Kushner, speaking is an immensely pleasurable activity.
When we met, the Signature Theatre Company had just wrapped up its 2010–2011 season, devoted to Kushner’s plays. For the occasion, Kushner had made large revisions to his most recent play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, and to Angels in America, his sprawling, two-part “Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” When Angels was first produced, in the early 1990s, it won two Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize, appeared on Harold Bloom’s list of essential literature in The Western Canon, and placed Kushner in the middle of the growing debate over gay rights, a place he has occupied ever since. The 2003 HBO movie, directed by Mike Nichols, introduced a mass audience to the qualities that animate all of Kushner’s plays: an outlandish sense of humor, a dark vein of raw fury, and a gymnastic compassion that extends in unlikely directions.
His full-length works include A Bright Room Called Day, about the failure of the German Left in the 1930s; Hydriotaphia, a madcap comedy featuring the seventeenth-century polymath Thomas Browne on his deathbed; Slavs!, in which ex-Soviet apparatchiks confront the wreckage of communism; Caroline, or Change, a musical written with the composer Jeanine Tesori, about an African American maid in the civil-rights era; and Homebody/Kabul, about an Englishwoman who abandons her safe middle-class London life for Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
Apart from these, Kushner has written screenplays for Steven Spielberg, translations and adaptations of plays by S. Ansky, Corneille, and Brecht, a children’s opera with Maurice Sendak (on whom he has also written a monograph), and numerous one acts and essays. At the time of our interviews, Kushner was finishing an opera about Eugene O’Neill and writing a screenplay about Abraham Lincoln. Kushner attributed his increasingly pragmatic politics to his admiration for Lincoln, Obama, and his father, who was ill and much on Kushner’s mind; William Kushner died on March 11, 2012.
You’re part New Yorker, part Southerner.
Yes. My mother was from New York. Her father, Benny, was a union glazer who went out on strike and got shut out, and then got sick. He was unemployed a lot after that, and they lived on welfare in the Bronx, in real poverty. My grandmother had managed to finagle free piano lessons for my mother’s sister Martha. My mother, who was younger, tagged along, and the piano teacher spotted her musical talent. Her other sister, Lucy, who was a good deal older than my mother, had married a music contractor. My grandmother wanted her kids to have meaningful occupations, to get out of poverty but also to achieve impressive things. So she pushed Lucy to push her husband, Artie, to find my mother an instrument to play. Artie ruled out traditional instruments for women, the flute and the harp—too much competition—and chose an instrument on which she’d really stand out. He didn’t know of any female bassoonists.
She was a great bassoonist. She might have been a little bit held back by the fact that her hands weren’t enormous—she was about five foot two—and there’s a lot of acreage to cover with bassoon keys. But she had a bassoonist’s soul. She had a very deep and somewhat tragic sense of life.
She was one of the first women to hold a principal chair in a major orchestra. She played with the New York City Opera, recorded with Stravinsky, and toured with Sadler’s Wells Ballet. At one point she got a job as first bassoonist for the Orlando Symphony. My father had just been hired as first clarinet, so they sat side by side in the orchestra. They met and married and then came back to New York.
When you were two, they moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana. Why?
My father was from Lake Charles. His father, and his father, and his father owned a small lumberyard there. But I think my parents moved partly because of the difficulty of the music business. My mother was not an aggressive person. She had a lot of ambition, but she was a woman of her generation. When my sister, Lesley, was born deaf, my parents couldn’t deal with it, especially my mother. There was something clearly wrong—Lesley wasn’t learning how to speak. Then when I came along, a year and a half later, I talked a lot very early and it became even clearer that Lesley’s speech development wasn’t proceeding along normal lines. Still, it took until she was four and a half before they got her hearing tested. My mother’s brother was a great psychoanalyst. His work is cited in Brown v. Board of Education. He was an incredible man, brilliant, I adored him, but he was a product of his time as well—this was the fifties—and he apparently told my mother that he didn’t feel Lesley was really deaf but that she was refusing to speak because my mother was away, touring.
And she believed him?
Some women would have said, Go fuck yourself. My mother didn’t. As a clarinetist in New York, my father wasn’t making a great deal of money, and if my mother had stopped working, they wouldn’t have been able to manage. So my paternal grandfather said, Come down and help me run the lumberyard.
My father was not at all interested in the lumber business. In the late 1990s, he sold it to a man named Carlbert Berard, his contemporary in the African American family that had worked as foremen at the lumberyard for three generations. So it became the Kushner-Berard Lumber Company. But when they first moved to Lake Charles, both my parents also taught music at the local college and played in the tiny local orchestra, the Lake Charles Symphony. Then, when I was ten or eleven, my father was hired to be the conductor of a small symphony orchestra in a nearby town called Alexandria. He spent the next thirty-seven years conducting there. And when the Lake Charles Symphony needed a conductor, he was hired there as well. He’s been the musical soul of his town. I think he has had a really great life.
And how about your mother?
She was the first bassoon in the Lake Charles Symphony, and she became an actress in community theater because she no longer had enough of an outlet as a bassoonist to express herself. My mother was always tortured a bit by her sense of having given up a successful career as a bassoonist. That might be a partial explanation for why her daughter became a wonderful painter, her eldest son became a playwright, and her youngest son is first horn of the Wiener Symphoniker.
On the wall over here, I have a signed print of a poem by Robert Duncan, “My Mother Would Be a Falconress.” It was the urtext of my psychoanalysis. Duncan imagines himself as a falcon and his mother as a huntress. He goes and fetches little birds out of the sky for her, but he doesn’t eat them, he brings them to her. He’s constantly tempted to break the bond and fly off, become a wild thing. At the end of the poem he does, and it sort of kills his mother.
You’ve said that your mother’s spirit haunts Homebody/Kabul.
After my mother died, in 1990, I felt a kind of bafflement. There is simply no way to comprehend the vanishing of this person. The first night after the funeral, I had a dream—it was raining outside and she was sitting on her grave in her nightgown, just getting soaked to the skin, and I had to go and find the cemetery. I think that’s how I came up with the idea of the homebody disappearing.
My mother was a really great bassoonist and a wonderful actress, but she had a very odd relationship to her accomplishments. I’m interested in narcissism in women—not pathological narcissism, but healthy narcissism—the way women had such a difficult time, certainly in my mother’s generation, in feeling pride and assertive self-possession and self-identity. She was supposed to, in a certain sense, not be a person. Pride in accomplishment is so essential, and with my mother it tended to manifest itself furtively. There was a lot of hiding and exposing and hiding again. That’s certainly what makes that character in Homebody work. She reveals herself, then conceals herself, over and over again. She has these dazzling displays of erudition and vocabulary followed by self-abasement. It’s what makes her mysterious and alluring, I think. My mother was a mysterious person. You had to work really hard to figure out what was going on with her. And you rarely succeeded completely.
All About Eve is one of my favorite films, but recently Mark and I watched this Sidney Lumet film called Stage Struck, which is also about an actress. The difference between the two films is amazing. In All About Eve, Bette Davis has that horrible speech about how if you’re a woman with a career, you wind up with nothing but a suite of French provincial furniture. So she’s going to become a wife. Eve Harrington is going to become a monster. At the end of Lumet’s film, the actress says, Fuck you, I don’t want to have kids. I want to be a great, famous actress. And she walks out, and she isn’t beaten up for it or condemned. It was made about eight years after All About Eve. Well, there it is.
It’s still very hard for women. I see it in my work with Jeanine Tesori. She’s one of the great theater composers, and I’m amazed at how tight some people—mostly men—are with praise for her. They’re just not quite comfortable with it. It’s not happy-making to them that this extraordinary composer is a woman. It would just be better for them if she were a guy.
Was your mother’s acting your first exposure to theater?
Pretty much. When I was a little kid, my aunt Martha would take me to children’s plays, and I remember those very vividly, mostly because I adored her, so going out with her was the best thing in the world.
But I think what made me go into theater was seeing my mother onstage. The first thing she did was Mrs. Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank. The second thing she did was a play about Freud called The Far Country. She played a paralyzed woman in Vienna who goes to see Freud. I remember her in this wonderful nineteenth-century gown being carried by her husband and laid on Freud’s couch. I think I was four or five years old.
Right after she was in that play, my sister had her first fitting for hearing aids in New York, so my mother and sister went up there on a bus and I stayed at my paternal grandmother’s house in Lake Charles. My kindergarten class went to a barnyard to pet animals and I got some allergy to something. The next day I woke up and couldn’t move. For two or three days I was paralyzed. A cousin of mine, who was my father’s age and was a doctor in Lake Charles, came and carried me into the living room. I still remember having dreams about him carrying me around. It was very sexual and great.
When I was seven, I saw my mother do Death of a Salesman. It had caused a split in the little local theater, the decision to produce Salesman, because it was a dirty play about an adulterer—and, I’m sure, because Miller had refused to testify and was married to Marilyn Monroe and was a liberal. The splinter group that produced the play staged it in the round, which also was a big scandal. The regional-theater movement was just starting, and theater-in-the-round was a new thing. The reason it was important to me was that I watched my mother acting and looked across the stage and saw all these adults, who were her friends, weeping. Especially at the end. It was the sixties, so women wore mascara, and I remember seeing all these raccoon eyes. I remember thinking, Something’s going on here. I don’t quite understand the play, but my mother is making all these people cry. I’ve always thought that made me want to be a playwright.
Did you ever want to be an actor yourself?
When I’m writing a new play, there’s a period where I know I shouldn’t be out in public much. I imagine most people who create go through something like this. You willfully loosen some of the inner straps that hold your core together. You become more porous and multivalent and multivocal, so that the multitudes you have inside yourself can start to get up and walk around and emerge. Then, hopefully, you put them back into the cave. But to really play Linda Loman, you have to go there every night. So you live in a state, I would imagine, of permanent looseness in the core, which I find frankly terrifying.
I’ve become close friends with very few actors. They are of course dazzling people and I need them to do my work. When I meet a new actor with whom I want to work, it’s like discovering a new color. But I’ve always had an instinct of maintaining a certain distance from actors, because I find them uncanny and unnerving.
Sometimes a phony-baloney actor will hoodwink the public for decades, but the actors we really revere aren’t kidding around when they act. They suffer. Part of what we are paying to see when we go to the theater is suffering. We want to see actual suffering. There’s a certain Christ-like thing going on—the actors are suffering so we don’t have to.