COVER STORY

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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“Were you a history major?” I said, taking a stab.

“Medieval studies.”

“Medieval studies?” I saw stone towers, horses, flashing swords. “How did that come about?”

“I took a freshman expository writing class, and everybody was taught by a graduate student doing some sort of fellowship. The woman that I had was a medievalist who specialized in Anglo-Saxon literature. This was the first time I’d been in the room with a literary scholar, and I was reading Beowulf and The Song of Roland and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I had never realized what literature could do, how rigorous you could be about breaking it down and discovering extremely sophisticated aesthetic and philosophical machinery at work, and how the form and the content related, and how this poem, Gawain, which you could read as this fun spook story, is actually about art, about the power of the imagination, about artifice. That was a great revelation to me.

“Midway through my junior or senior year, I went to Karl-Ludwig Selig, the big Don Quixote specialist, and told him I wanted to take Edward Tayler’s two-semester Shakespeare class. A friend of mine had taken the class and said I had to do it. And Selig said, ‘You need to take Latin if you’re going to be a medievalist, and Shakespeare isn’t medieval, so we think you shouldn’t do that.’ So I switched to English.

“In my senior year I took Kenneth Koch’s 20th-century poetry class, which changed my life. He was a wonderful, wonderful teacher. After reading and talking about a poet, he had us write imitations of that poet. I had such awe for the poems and for how difficult poetry was to write. I’m not a poet, but I would write imitations for the requirement, and Koch would give me A’s and A­-pluses. I was intimidated by him, so I never tried to become friendly with him, and he didn’t particularly encourage that, or maybe he had some students he seemed to like a lot and I wasn’t one of them. But a couple of times he liked some image and underlined it and wrote ‘good’ on the side. And at that point I wanted to be a playwright, to be a writer. And I kept thinking. ‘Either he’s made a mistake, or is it possible that he thinks I have talent?’ It was very hard for me at that point to —”

Kushner searched for the words, his eyes lowered, and we both said, “accept that.” For a second I thought I was watching Kushner accept it anew.

“But Tayler’s Shakespeare class,” Kushner said. “Nothing I’ve ever done in my life on an intellectual level was as exciting as that.”

Edward Tayler began teaching Literature Humanities in 1960. When he received the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching in 1996, the citation noted, “Your students call you magical, learned and passionate, tough yet tender, witty, humane, wholly unique. Many report that you have changed their lives.”

“Tayler’s approach to Shakespeare was dialectical,” Kushner explained. “He said that to read Shakespeare, you only have to be able to count to two. As he saw it, Shakespeare is organized along polarities, and if you could identify the polarities you could start to understand the central dynamic principle of Shakespeare’s plays. I think there’s a great deal of truth in that.”

In my notebook I wrote the number two. I recalled the concluding words of “With a Little Help from My Friends,” Kushner’s post-Angels essay on the myth of the isolated artist and the truth of collaboration. “Marx was right: the smallest indivisible human unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction.”

“I also took a really good class in 20th-century drama with Matthew Wikander,” said Kushner. “That’s where I first read Brecht.”

Brecht. Kushner’s maestro, his model of the political artist, who proposed a socially engaged theater that edified as it entertained.

“Around that time, Joe Papp brought Richard Foreman from his loft to Lincoln Center to do a new version of The Threepenny Opera, which had only been done in the U.S. in Marc Blitzstein’s version in the ’50s. It’s a bowdlerized Threepenny, all the dirty words are taken out, its ugly, scabrous spirit has been removed. It’s still a huge hit because the music is so sublime, but listening to that version you didn’t really get what Brecht was doing; it just seemed sort of quaint. Papp used the very good, very direct Manheim translation of Threepenny, and Richard Foreman, who’s an amazing artist, was the perfect person to do it, and it was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen.

“Dialectics is the heart of Marxism, and it’s also very much the heart of Brecht. I’ve said this before, but Brecht taught me about Shakespeare, Shakespeare taught me about Brecht, Marx taught me about Shakespeare, and Brecht taught me about Marx.”

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