A Sentimental Education

Playwright and political activist Tony Kushner provides insight into his intellectual development.

by Paul Hond Published Spring 2011
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As we reach the tower of this cathedral of a play, Prior, having battled with the angel and the disease, stands near the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. It is 1990, and Prior is, by some grace, still alive. “We won’t die secret deaths anymore,” he tells us. “The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.”

The universality of Prior’s message, with its faith in the inevitability of progress, was powerful and present and did not need to be named. Yet for all its loaded content, Angels was no polemic, but a furious, head-spinning dialectic, a rapturous, raging, overstuffed, flamboyantly literate, hilarious, horrifying, always-riveting conversation about love, loss, history, survival, and the politics of responsibility. Kushner’s immense human feeling, a cosmic empathy that he extends to all his characters, aroused terror and pity, while the play’s overt theatricality reminded spectators that they were watching a performance, just as Bertolt Brecht, that famous skeptic of naturalism, prescribed, lest the audience dissolve into emotional catharsis and lose its critical eye. Even Angels’ livid dragon, Roy Cohn, a coarse, closeted lawyer and avatar of egotism (based on the historical Roy Cohn, who as a young attorney helped send the Rosenbergs to the electric chair and acted as Senator Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel during the Army-McCarthy hearings), maintains a certain dignity of ideological and psychological constancy as he dies of AIDS in a hospital bed, haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, and huffing forks of fire till the end.

Angels made Kushner famous, and he began engaging his broadening audience wherever and whenever he could — on Charlie Rose, in magazines and books, at talks at universities and synagogues — in an ongoing conversation about politics, art, psychology, sexuality, and intellectual history, with an emphasis on social justice and liberation. “I believe that the playwright should be a kind of public intellectual, even if only a crackpot public intellectual,” Kushner has written. “Someone who asks her or his thoughts to get up before crowds, on platforms, and entertain, challenge, instruct, annoy, provoke, appall.” Kushner has fulfilled this ideal, providing a penetrating, outspoken, erudite, and at times priestly progressive voice, while risking, with every appearance, with every foreword and afterword, with every inspired speech frantically scribbled in the backseat en route to a college commencement, the order of his writing mind and his finite fund of hours.

In a way, Kushner’s whole life is a piece of writing, the words weaving through shifting modes of presentation, entwined in a continuing dialogue, thesis and antithesis unloosening flumes and plumes of new ideas, a waterfall of confessions, expressions, obsessions, impressions, digressions, whole therapy sessions — one learns quickly that there is very little to say about Kushner that he can’t say better himself.

Still, I wanted to speak with him. I sent out queries and was granted an interview on the morning of February 14, which was a free day for me. My purpose was clear-cut: to find out what role a Columbia education might have played in shaping the vision of a great playwright.


The night before the meeting, my mother called. “So what’s new?” she said.

“I’ve been busy,” I told her. “I’m interviewing a playwright tomorrow.”

“Oh? Who?”

“His name is Tony Kushner.”

“Is he married?” My mother gave a light laugh. She had lost her husband six years earlier, and was on the lookout.

“Yes, he’s married,” I said, and took some pleasure in the details. “To a man. Legally. They got married in Massachusetts in 2008. Progress and hope for the world.”

“That’s because they’ve got Barney Frank up there.” My mother said this without judgment, just putting two and two together. “So when are you going to get married?”

I sighed. “We’ve been through this. I have to figure out what kind of life I want, what kind of compromises I can make. I’m . . . you know, I’m . . .”

“You’re what?”

“I’m ambivalent. I’m divided. My head, my heart. I’m torn. There is a battle within, Mom. A bloody civil war.”

“Then settle it already. No one’s getting any younger.”

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