Before Lincoln, there was a gay fantasia on national themes: 20 years ago, Tony Kushner’s two-part six-hour epic Angels in America landed on Broadway, winning the Pulitzer and a pair of Tony Awards for best play, and launching him into the American pantheon. Now, he is a twice-Oscar-nominated screenwriter, and Toronto’s Soulpepper is in the midst of a well-received revival of Angels. Once, he considered himself a radical; but if his politics haven’t mellowed, he has become more realistic about what’s possible. We reached Kushner at his house in Provincetown, Cape Cod, where he and his husband, Mark Harris, spend their summers.
Just before we spoke, I was rereading the 1991 New York Times review of your play, A Bright Room Called Day, in which you drew some straight lines between the fascism of Hitler’s Germany and Reagan’s America. Boy oh boy, Frank Rich really hated it.
I was saying that there’s an ideological continuity between the precepts of the fascist right and Reaganite right, reactionary forces that put Reagan in the White House, and Thatcher in Britain. That, of course, now, is like – so what? Everybody believes that. But it was a very different time back then, and people were completely horrified that I was saying that. It’s almost as if there was no play except the modern day interpolations.
You got a very different reception for Angels. Do you know how many times it’s been produced?
No idea. When we were preparing the (2010) production in New York at the Signature Theatre, we tried to find that. But we never got a completely accurate count: the people that handle stock and amateur rights, the record keeping is not always on computer, it’s sort of buried. So – I have no idea. A lot.
I’d heard the success of Angels kind of froze you, that you had to find a different process of writing, almost a new way of being.
You know, writing is scary. I write a lot by hand, I don’t even put it on the computer, because it preserves the fantasy that it’s really just for you, and you don’t have to show it to anybody: The minute it goes on the computer, it begins to look like a finished script, and I think that privacy, the ability – not the ability, the right to screw up and do a bad job, and write a terrible line or a really terrible scene, is an essential freedom, it’s an essential privilege of being a writer. When you get to be sort of well known, you kind of know that, unless you literally stick it in a drawer and don’t let anybody see it – in which case I’d go broke, because it’s how I make my living – that when I’m writing a movie about Abraham Lincoln for Steven Spielberg, I know that what I’m writing is quite likely going to be seen by millions and millions of people.
It took you more than seven years to write Lincoln; your plays and operas sometimes take five, six, seven years to write.
There are some plays I’ve written fairly quickly, but I tend to go back to them over and over. When I did the Signature production of Angels, I did some serious rewriting of Perestroika (Part 2 of Angels).
Why are you still changing things, 20 years later?
I wrote Perestroika under incredibly difficult circumstances. I had written a draft, it was very, very long, almost twice as long as the finished version, in 1991 I think, and then we decided to do Millennium (Part 1) alone without Perestroika – we sort of contractually had to in San Francisco. The National Theatre in Great Britain became aware of it, and Richard Eyre asked to do it in London, and Frank Rich saw it in London, and it was a big hit, and he reviewed it there, and before it had arrived, created such enormous buzz about it – and then it opened on Broadway, won the Pulitzer, it was this huge thing, and I was still working on Perestroika, so it was really written in public in a way that’s kind of weird, especially for a playwright. It’s hard to focus.
You’ve said that working on Lincoln was a gift that changed your view of politics. What do you mean?
It felt like the perfect way to (view) the Obama administration and to understand what Obama’s trying to do and what he’s facing and what strategies he’s employing, necessity, as an elected leader of a democratic society, and a very divided democratic society.
Does change happen evolutionarily or revolutionarily?
I used to be a good lefty who would automatically have contempt for the idea of evolutionary change, because the pace was too slow. I sort of believed that Pasolini was right, that liberalism is fascism in slow-motion. But I think he was actually very wrong. What history seems to teach – at least as I read it – is that revolutionary change is not only enormously difficult and enormously rare, but it’s also costly and rarely productive.
I don’t hope you don’t mind me saying this, but – it sounds like you’re a fellow in your 50s.
I know, isn’t it horrible?! I mean, I worry about that. The only way that I can ameliorate that at all is to say that I’m working very hard not to become cranky about young people. You know, when a radical movement starts up, I’m gonna’ try to be supportive, as much as I can.
Watching Angels this week, I was struck by how different the context is now than 20 years ago, when AIDS was still a full-blown plague, and the gay community had so little political strength. How has the play’s meaning changed for you?
I keep hearing from college professors that young people really like the play. That’s great to hear. I feel that – the epidemic is in some ways (manageable with a drug protocol). But in a way the AIDS epidemic has become invisible again. For different reasons, not so much because of homophobia, but … racism … and a contempt for populations of the poor. But it’s much more widespread, it’s a global pandemic now of tens of millions of people. And yet we don’t hear about it, we don’t talk about it.
What really hit home in the (2010) Signature production, what has darkened the play considerably, is all the stuff about global warming and ecocide. When I wrote it in 1988, I remember thinking: Well, what if they discover a hole in the ozone layer? Or whether it’s just some weird fluke? I think that it didn’t feel that way to me, it felt like we were in a new kind of trouble, far more terrifying than the threat of nuclear holocaust – which was the most terrifying global threat, previously. It’s much scarier than it was, and it produces a kind of darkness in the play. It felt more metaphoric in 1990, and now it’s not metaphoric at all.
This interview has been condensed and edited.