“You don’t want people who are in the play just to represent certain ideas. You want the ideas to be fluid and dialectical, dangerous.”
An outspoken social and political critic, Tony Kushner is a Pulitzer-winning playwright and screenwriter who uses “Reaganite” like a swearword and ties everything back to Walter Benjamin. His written works include “Angels in America,” “Homebody/Kabul,” “A Bright Room Called Day,” “Hyriotaphia,” “Slavs!,” the musical “Caroline or Change,” a new translation of Brecht’s "Mother Courage,” and the films “Munich” and “Lincoln.” He received the National Medal of Arts from President Obama this year.
When Kushner visited Harvard two weeks ago to receive the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal, he remained in Cambridge for only a few hours before flying around the country—to Manhattan, to California, and then back to upstate New York. He called me from Syracuse University, where he visited classes and appeared in an onstage Q&A about his work. He told me he loves talking with students: “This is not teaching, but it’s the closest I can get to teaching right now,” he said. I asked him why he decided to stop teaching, and our interview got started:
1. TK: I have some real questions about the teaching of playwriting on a graduate level, which is the way that I taught for five years at NYU…. Most playwrights write 10 or 12 or 15 really serious plays in their lifetime. Shakespeare wrote 38 and Shaw wrote 39 just to spite Shakespeare, but you don’t have a huge number of plays in you, and I don’t know that in your mid-twenties you should be thinking of the work that you’re doing as homework assignments. And the part of it that I really don’t understand—it’s very counterintuitive to me—is that you take a play that you’re in the process of working on in the first draft, which is such an excruciatingly difficult and vulnerable time, and you take a scene and bring it into a room full of other writers and read it out loud to them, and they tell you what they think you should do with it. It just seems crazy to me, and a real way to knock yourself off whatever kind of balance beam you’re trying to tread.
If you teach playwriting, I think you become to some extent an editor. You’re looking at somebody else’s writing, and you’re trying to apply a kind of critical, knowing eye to what somebody else has done. It switches on a part of your brain that I, at least, find very difficult to work with when I’m trying to really invent, especially a first draft.
But then you’re sitting there saying to a playwriting student, “This line is a problem,” “Here’s where you lose track of this,” “Here’s why this scene ceases to be about action and becomes novelistic,” “Do you need this line?” “Can you condense this?” “What about this structural element?” Some of that can be good advice, but then you go and sit down at your own desk and start writing, and you hear your voice saying these things to you. I don’t edit and write at the same time, when I’m doing a first draft. I’m sure some people feel that I should edit a lot more, but the editing part comes later. It’s just a different head, so I find it very hard to teach classes and then go back and write.
2. FM: Did you ever take a writing class?
TK: I think I took two, actually, at Columbia. There were no arts majors at Columbia when I was a student there—undergraduate student there—so there was no possibility of majoring in playwriting, which I think was a great thing.
3. FM: What sort of things were you writing? What were your plays about?
TK: The first class was one semester, and I just wrote one weird little scene, about a middle-aged man who throws a paint balloon at the local branch of his bank. That’s literally all I remember about it. And then in my senior year I took another playwriting class and I wrote a play about the dedication of the cathedral at Rouen.
A lot of very late medieval-early Renaissance ecclesiastical luminaries showed up to dedicate the cathedral, which was, as I remember, one of the signature moments of the beginning of the gothic period, and sort of the flowering of scholasticism giving way to humanism and all that stuff. I wrote it in this incredible caffeine-induced writing marathon of like three weeks at the end of the second semester so that I could graduate on time, in between marching around campus and pretending that it was not 1978 but 1968. I’ve got the manuscript somewhere, but it’s probably horrible. It sounds horrible!
4. FM: You’ve read a lot of theory, and you’ve said that Walter Benjamin has influenced your work. How?
TK: Well I mean obviously in one way. In the “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” he talks about the angel as being blown backwards from paradise to the future—the backward looking angel, this figure of reaction and regret and loss. I had a dream, and that was the origin of the angel in “Angels in America.” The “Theses on the Philosophy of History” is just so gorgeous; it’s this incredible prose poem. And that’s had an enormous impact on me, as well as his ideas about ownership in “Unpacking My Library,” and the relationship to the inorganic, intimacy with the inorganic, in “The Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the marriage of Jewish mysticism and Messianism with Marxism and the revolutionary politics of the time.
5. FM: When you’re working on something new, do you start by thinking about big concepts, or do you start with characters and plotlines, and which do you think is a bigger focus for you?
TK: It really depends. Sometimes I have an idea for a character or a story; sometimes I have a title; sometimes I get hired by Steven Spielberg, and he tells me what he wants me to write about—I wouldn’t say yes to a project if he said, “I want you to write about x,” and it was something that I just didn’t feel any particular interest in writing.
6. FM: Why did you take on those projects, then?
TK: Kathy Kennedy, Steven’s producer, wanted to meet me, and she told me she was working on this film about the Israeli athletes who were murdered and a film about Abraham Lincoln, and I wound up writing both of those film. When she described what she and Steven were doing, I was really surprised because I assumed that Steven’s politics would be much more mainstream in terms of Israel. And I was really thrilled to hear that they were doing something that sounded to me like it was very risky and brave in terms of the way that it might be received.
I wanted to write a movie—I’d never written one before—and I thought it’d be sort of fun. I’d never written anything like “Munich,” where people are chasing each other and shooting each other and stuff like that. And I’ve written about the Middle East conflict, so I was happy to have a context to explore some really difficult questions—the terribly difficult questions of the legality and criminality of conducting missions on foreign soil, against foreign nationals, and the very very dark and troubling grey area, if it’s even a grey area, that you run into with this.
The main fun, for me, of writing is that it’s a way of really churning your own way through something that you don’t understand, without any guarantee that you’ll come up with an answer, but that you’ll maybe clarify all the questions for yourself. And “Munich” just seemed like it would be a really interesting way to address this. I always thought I would write about the Middle East at some point dramatically. I never thought I would get into this particular subject, but I could tell that it grabbed me. I immediately started thinking of things I wanted to do with it. An idea can also start with a larger sort of theoretical or philosophical or theological question, and then you start to look for a story that seems to be a congenial kind of home for that.
7. FM: How do you find that story?
TK: You sort of free associate. There’s no one answer to that. With the last thing that I wrote, “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures,” there was a civic, political thing that I’ve been grappling with a lot in the last twenty years, of the revolution-versus-evolution question in progressive politics. The nature of the idea of “revolution”—and this is going back to Walter Benjamin.
You hear a lot of people talking about it, and it’s not clear what is meant now. What has the idea of revolution actually done to progressive politics or for progressive politics? I wanted to explore the fact that I seem to have become more interested in radical change through evolutionary means, which is something I used to have great contempt for. Is that just because I’m now 57, and I’m getting old and weary and complacent? My father was at that point beginning to succumb to kidney disease, which killed him finally about a year and a half ago, so I was beginning to deal with that. And there was a strike of stagehands in New York, and I had some really surprising arguments with other playwrights and people of the theater, who I would assume would be pro-union and who sounded like union-busting Reaganite creeps, and I thought, “God, the language has changed dramatically.”
So I started thinking about all that stuff, and I eventually wound up with an old man and his children, and it just evolved. That takes a while. You don’t want to create a story that’s just an allegory. Allegories are fine, but they’re a little bit dead as drama. You don’t want people who are in the play just to represent certain ideas. You want the ideas to be fluid and dialectical, dangerous. So you put the intellectual investigation aside for a bit and dig into your story. The main thing is that you let the characters do what they need to do rather than insist that they follow your little schematic, which is something you need to have as a security blanket to get you started, but then if the characters really have life in them, they’ll start to dictate certain things.
8. FM: How do they do that?
TK: As you’re writing a scene, you sit there and you make six attempts to write a scene that your outline says should happen next. You realize with increasing dread that it isn’t what should happen next, and that you can’t figure out the scene because the person that you’ve been in the process of assembling would never do the things that that person would have to do for the scene to happen.
Or a pleasurable thing: you suddenly wake up in the middle of the night and think, “Oh my god, the next scene is this, and I don’t know how that connects to anything, but I’m gonna write it and see where it goes from there.” And it’s always a shoveling back and forth between what you intend and the kind of stuff your unconscious is churning up and all the different people inside of you are churning up. You have to be able to hear them as well as maintain some semblance of structure and causality and so on.