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Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies hosted Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner for a conversation with Harvard professor Stephen J. Greenblatt Tuesday evening.
More than 150 people crowded into Sanders Theatre for the talk, titled “An Evening with Tony Kushner,” which was funded by the Alan and Elisabeth Doft Lecture and Publication Fund.
Critically acclaimed for his play, “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” Kushner spoke about the theme of Jewish identity in his work and the ability of art to push boundaries.
During the talk, Kushner said he feels “deeply indebted to Jewish teaching” for informing his work and its lessons, citing “Jewish notions of fairness and decency and responsibility.”
“I love Jewish dialectics, I love what I see as an ethical mandate to not be a fundamentalist but to be a reader of text and an interpreter of text,” Kushner said.
Greenblatt, also a Pulitzer Prize honoree, asked how Kushner knows when he is finished with his writing process.
Kushner stressed the importance of rewriting, especially for plays, which he said are “never finished.”
“Every time I get involved in any production with the second part of Angels, I do rewrites,” Kushner said, a lesson he said he learned from Shakespeare.
“That was I think his business model,” said Greenblatt, a literary historian who is an expert on Shakespeare. “In fact, he figured out that it was better to leave it open.”
Greenblatt also asked Kushner for his opinions on Shakespeare’s play, “The Merchant of Venice,” which some scholars contend is anti-Semitic for its portrayal of antagonist Shylock.
“Does it make you squirm in your seat? Do you think it should be banned?” Greenblatt asked.
Kushner replied that he thinks “no art should be banned,” even art that may make people feel unsafe.
“I think it’s so rare that you encounter a work of art that has enough force to actually make you feel unsafe, but in the rare moments when you do that, you should treasure it at that point,” Kushner said. “That’s the whole point of art.”
Audience members asked Kushner questions during the second half of the event.
In response to a question on his relationship with Israel, Kushner said he believes the existence of a Jewish state is important, even as he hopes for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s removal from office.
“I of course absolutely want Israel to continue to exist. I want Israel to change,” he said.
“I have absolutely no idea what's gonna happen next,” he added. “But I feel a certain amount of optimism.”
Kushner said complexity is key to his creative process in response to a question from Crimson Magazine editor Sazi T. Bongwe ’26.
“If I’m not confused by it, I shouldn’t write a play about it,” he said.
Kushner said his “only real job” as an artist is to “try and figure out how to tell the truth.”
Still, Kushner said he believes art and activism are distinct.
“I’m never feeling that I have to write a play that will create a revolution,” he said. “I think the power of art is an indirect power, and if you can make peace with that, I think you’re going to access something quite extraordinary.”
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