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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After the interview I went to the office to do some research. That’s when I found out that Roy Cohn was Roy Cohn ’47CC, ’49LAW. Then I realized that Cohn would have been on campus at the same time as Allen Ginsberg ’48CC. Talk about poles. I read some more Kushner and went home.

Early that evening, my mother called.

“Happy Valentine’s Day!” she said. “Any plans tonight?”

“No, just staying in. Work to do.”

“Still on the fence.”

“Ambivalence expands our options,” I said, quoting Hendryk from Terminating, a short Kushner play. “Ambivalence increases our freedom.”

“I don’t know where you get these ideas.”

“Ambivalence is what made Lincoln a great president,” I said. “He was in touch with his doubts, and was willing to talk openly about them. That’s how he worked through extremely difficult questions.”

There was a pause. “You are not Abraham Lincoln.”

“That’s not the point.”

“So how was the interview with the playwright? What did he write?”

“His name is Tony Kushner, and his new play is called The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.”

“The what?”

“It’s set in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, in 2007, and it’s about a retired longshoreman, Gus Marcantonio, who’s a cousin of a historical figure, Vito Marcantonio, a socialist who represented East Harlem in the ’30s and ’40s.”

“A socialist?”

“Gus summons his three children to his house for a series of shocking announcements,” I said, paraphrasing the description on a postcard that I’d picked up at the Public. “The play explores revolution, radicalism, marriage, sex, prostitution, politics, real estate, and unions of all kinds. Oh, and two of Gus’s kids are gay. Shall I get tickets?” I didn’t wait for an answer. “Kushner said he was thinking a lot about Arthur Miller while he was writing it. He loves A View from the Bridge. That had a longshoreman in it.”

“Well, anything with a longshoreman sounds good,” my mother said. “When are you coming to visit?”

“Soon. I promise.”


Later that night, I grabbed an old anthology of plays from my bookcase. Inside it were some of Kushner’s heroes: Brecht, Eugene O’Neill, Miller, Tennessee Williams. I took the book and my voice recorder into my bedroom so that I could listen to Kushner’s words while I skimmed the pages.

I lay on my bed and turned on the recorder. Kushner’s voice rolled out. I closed my eyes and listened.

“One of the great gifts that one can get from the

theater is that ability to see two things at the same time. When you’re watching a play, you believe in the reality of the thing you’re watching, while at the same time being acutely aware that what you’re watching is not real. You have to develop that double vision, that ability to be within the event and out of the event at the same time. That’s critical consciousness: the ability to see past the surface into the depths and inner workings of what’s gone into creating the surface effect.

“Theater can help with that, and to a certain extent you have to be able to see double when you’re looking at reality. Tayler would say you’ll be reality’s fool if you don’t.”

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