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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Kushner arrived at 8:05 a.m. at the appointed spot, a café on the Upper West Side. I was waiting at a back table and signaled to him. He wore a stuffed knapsack, round glasses, and a dark half-zip Columbia (the sportswear brand, not the school) fleece pullover. We said hello, shook hands, and sat. I told him how knocked out I was by Angels. He nodded and thanked me. He seemed a little distracted. He ordered oatmeal, with the fruit and nuts on the side, and a cup of decaf. I ordered a slice of whole-grain toast and an espresso. Kushner said that he had just been doing rewrites on his new play, which was in rehearsals. I felt guilty for pulling him away from what sounded like pretty urgent business, but I figured he knew what he was doing.

To get the ball rolling, I said, “So I read that you’ve been writing a screenplay about Lincoln.”

Kushner averted his eyes. “Well, I can’t talk about it a whole lot because we’re going to start filming in the fall of this year —”

“Oh, no, not that,” I said, worried that he thought I was looking for gossip (“Is Daniel Day-Lewis tall enough?”). “I mean, how, uh, has Lincoln emerged for you as a character?”

Kushner nodded once; his needle steadied.

“Steven Spielberg did this film that I wrote for him, Munich, and we both had a very good time doing it, and he asked me to consider this Lincoln project,” Kushner said. “At first I said no, because I found the prospect of writing about somebody as great as Lincoln daunting. As a person he’s an incredibly fascinating study. His psyche is so available to us because of the things he wrote and said. He was a president who wrote and talked about emotion in his public utterances, and more in his letters. The hard thing is that Abraham Lincoln was a genius — I use that word very, very seldom — but I think that he was really one of the upper-echelon geniuses, like Shakespeare or Mozart or Michelangelo. It’s very difficult to write about people like that. Although you can describe the parts of them that seem approachable in terms of how their personalities developed — in Lincoln’s case, his mother died and his sister died when he was very young — what has to remain a mystery is how they did the thing that we most value them for.”

Kushner has a Mahlerian profile, with the glasses and thick hair and forehead, but his face and voice more resemble the actor John Turturro. His manner is warm and relaxed, utterly social, and modest in proportion to his reverence for the artists and thinkers, dead and alive, with whom he communes.

“I think the case could be made that Lincoln is the greatest leader of a democratic country the world has ever known,” said Kushner. “When you look at the horrifying circumstances that he inherited when he became president, and the way that he not only managed to keep the country together but created from the chaos of the beginnings of the war something that eventually became a revolutionary event that overturned institutionalized slavery — in a sense he saved the idea of democracy, made it possible. This is what he says in the Gettysburg Address: that given that the 1848 revolutions in Europe were fairly recent events, the jury was still out on whether or not democracy could work or whether it would simply degenerate into anarchy. The Civil War was, as he says, a great trial of that idea, and he identified slavery as the source of the threat of disintegration of the Union, and saw the way in which slavery and democracy are absolutely antithetical to one another.”

Our food arrived. As Kushner stirred his oatmeal, I thought back on what he said about the limits of biography, and how the principle might apply to Kushner himself. We know, for instance, that he was born in New York City in 1956 and grew up in a small Jewish community in the small southern city of Lake Charles, Louisiana; that he was aware of being gay at the age of six, and that he wrestled with shame and self-hatred and alienation into adulthood; that his father, Bill, a Juilliard-trained clarinetist and poetry lover, had moved the family to Lake Charles to run the family lumber business, and paid his three kids (two boys and a girl) a dollar for every poem they memorized; that Sylvia, Kushner’s mother, had been, at 18, first bassoonist in the orchestra of the New York City Opera, and later played Linda Loman in a Lake Charles Little Theater production of Death of a Salesman that put an arrow in young Tony’s heart; that his parents were New Deal liberals who encouraged Kushner to embrace that which made him different (they meant his Jewishness); that he tried psychotherapy while at Columbia in hopes of changing his sexual preference; that in 1981 he came out to his mother, who was heartbroken at first, but soon came around; that Sylvia died of lung cancer in 1990; and that Bill continued to have trouble accepting his son’s identity until the praise for Angels helped open his mind.

We know these things, and much more.

And yet.

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