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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Outside the classroom, Kushner, the future political playwright, was gaining an education in activism, having been initially drawn to Columbia out of nostalgia for what he calls the “days of rage” of the 1960s. When Kushner came to Columbia in 1974, the city was on the edge of bankruptcy, and the Morningside Heights branch of the New York Public Library was set to be closed.

“So these old lefties in Morningside Heights went into the library at 113th Street and said, ‘We’re not leaving,’” Kushner recalled. “Word got out. I saw on the bulletin board in Carman Hall that they were having a sit-in. So I went. Then these acid-burnout types who had been around in ’68 came to see what was happening. We stayed for three or four weeks, and it turned into a big thing. We had readings and slept there and wouldn’t leave, and eventually they kept the place open, which was great, because the people who used it were these octogenarians who had been around in the ’30s and ’20s, really old New York, ultra-left, wonderful people.

“By my senior year, I was very involved with the anti-apartheid divestment movement, going to meetings, and directing for the first time.”

Kushner got involved with a theater group called the Columbia Players, and in a preview of his outsized ambition, he directed Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, which had 36 characters. Kushner sewed all the costumes himself.

“And there was no theater major,” Kushner said, “which was a great thing.”

The remark surprised me.

“I feel it’s a great shame that Columbia now has a theater major,” said this man of the theater.

I leaned forward with my face in my hands, concerned. “Tell me why.”

“Because it’s vocational training, it’s not a liberal arts degree. I’m sure that Columbia insists, as many schools do, that their theater majors take lots of academic classes, but I don’t think 18 is a good age to train somebody to be an actor because there’s a certain dismantling of the self that takes place. Good acting training should be sadistic. You have to unlearn a lot of what you think you know about acting, which is very entangled with your sense of self, in that the self that you present on stage has all sorts of complicated relationships with the self you imagine yourself to be and actually are. The difficult process of taking inventory of that and letting go of some of the things that you think make you attractive and appealing and good onstage and in public is very difficult. The first year in most serious acting training is a really hard year, and I think it’s ridiculous to think that people are going to do it when they’re 18 and away from home for the first time. You learn something, but I think you’ll learn it better when you’re four years older.

“Meanwhile, the liberal arts degree is one of the great inventions of Western civilization. It’s the perfect moment to become a brain for four years, and retrain, and learn, and I don’t think you ever get that back, I don’t think life is going to ever give you another four years when you’re allowed to just sit around and be confused.”

I still sat around being confused, but I saw Kushner’s point. I wished I’d read more in college, devoured more, been confused more.

There must be some Brecht plays on my shelf at home, I thought. Maybe tonight I’d curl up with Mother Courage. I then recalled something Kushner wrote in his “Notes about Political Theater” — “I do theater because my mother did theater.” I thought about the term “political theater,” and how it had a dual sense, and then I remembered that Lincoln had been shot in a theater and that Ronald Reagan was an actor.

Following the trail back to presidents, and to Columbia, and hardly knowing what I meant, I remarked to Kushner that lots of people thought Barack Obama ’83CC was a pretty good actor.

“Well, all politicians are actors in some ways,” Kushner said. “So is Lincoln. He was obsessed with Shakespeare, which probably along with the Bible was his favorite reading material. He loved actors and loved talking to actors about Shakespeare, and he loved reciting Shakespeare.” Kushner paused for half a second. “Of course, Obama’s an extraordinary performer, but I think anybody who thinks that he’s —” He veered from the thought, and went on with enthusiasm. “I think he’s an immensely exciting figure who on some level is working off the Abraham Lincoln playbook. He’s certainly one of the best writers we’ve had. So far he hasn’t produced a second Gettysburg Address, and nobody has written another Moby-Dick or Leaves of Grass or Emily Dickinson’s poems. It’s a different era. But I think he’s a brilliant politician, and, I think, possibly a statesman. I think he understands something about democracy that a lot of people have forgotten, which is that to exercise power, there’s a necessity of making compromises.

“The trick for Lincoln, who talked about this a lot, is that you hold on to some kind of moral true north, you keep your eye fixed on the ultimate values and goals toward which you are aspiring.”

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