Playwright with a political soul

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It comes as no surprise that Tony Kushner’s musical Caroline, or Change, about to open at London’s National Theatre, plunges straight into one of the seminal moments of US history: the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy assassination in 1963. Kushner is not a playwright who shirks the big themes. Let others nudge their intimate chamber
dramas on to the stage with shrugs, whispers and nuance; Kushner’s works explode with ambition and political resonance.

He is best known for 1993’s Angels in America, the sprawling, seven-hour work that earned him a Pulitzer prize and two Tonys and had the critics’ circles of America’s leading newspapers spinning with superlatives. Caroline, which has music by Jeanine Tesory, has had a more muted reception – it could scarcely have competed with its predecessor’s pyrotechnics – but prompted comparisons with Porgy and Bess when it opened in the US a couple of years ago.

Set in Louisiana, the state of Kushner’s upbringing, it tells the story of a black maid working for a southern Jewish family, as both she and the young son of her employer struggle to make sense of the social upheaval engulfing the nation. Whereas Angels in America was a sharp riposte to the unforgiving Reagan years that Kushner had just lived through, Caroline catapults us, in his eyes, to a more dynamic era altogether.

“It was a very hopeful place,” he says with an air of near-
melancholy, when I ask him where the US stood in the winter of 1963. “It is not in any way sentimentalising that moment to say that it was a triumph, for civil rights, for
African-Americans. The right people got elected, and a real revolution was created by legislative, judicial and executive means.

“There is no way that, by 1963, the US government was not going to understand what was going on at ground level. When it was faced with violence in the south, instead of cracking down on the supposed criminals, Kennedy said: ‘We are in trouble – why? What is the cause of this?’ And he understood that he had to make some changes.”

The sub-text hangs heavy in the air. It is the type of inspired leadership, Kushner implies, that has not been seen in his homeland for a good while. “We are in dreadful, dreadful shape,” he says of the current incumbent’s efforts to lead the country, but goes on to blame his own side for allowing George W. Bush to become president. “There was this streak of anarchism among the left that turned people away from the belief that electing politicians could change things. That moment of abandonment was catastrophic. It let Nixon in – and then far worse than Nixon.”

It is impossible to discuss the theatre with Kushner without politics intervening in some shape or form. A self-described gay Jewish socialist, he has had enough causes running through his upbringing to provide a lifetime of theatrical fireworks. He lit most of them with a flourish in Angels in America (“A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” ran the grandiloquent subtitle) but then used the leftovers in the spookily prescient Homebody/Kabul, a play about a middle-
aged British woman who dis-appears in Afghanistan after
she falls in love with a Muslim.

It featured a Taliban mullah, women in burqas and a reference to Osama bin Laden – and all of this written before the attacks of September 11. By the time the play opened in December 2001, the US was a very different place, at once fragile and belligerent. Kushner admits to a certain amount of first-night anxiety, but no more than usual.

“I wasn’t really nervous because the play began with this hour-long monologue from a very respectable British woman who puts the whole thing in context, in a very measured way.” Besides, he says, the notion that the US was “drowning in jingoism” at that time does not hold water. “That was coming from the Bush administration and Washington. In New York, there was just this general feeling of devastation, the kind of grief that no one had ever experienced before. No one was talking on the streets.”

The writer John Lahr recently said that, after 9/11, the American public shied away from the artistic representation of big issues and went through a phase of just wanting to be “tickled” when they went to the theatre.

“No, I didn’t find that to be true at all,” Kushner responds. “There was an immediate hunger to address the important issues. It’s like during the Depression: people point to all those films with dancing and singing, but there were Hollywood film-makers doing very serious things too.”

Did he feel, as a New Yorker trudging through those speechless city streets, an artistic responsibility to tackle the events of 9/11?

“I think I may be about to write about it now,” he says tentatively. “Although it’s a bit like writing about the Kennedy assassination – a lot of people have been there. But not at the time. I received four phone calls on that morning: ‘We are running a piece about the way in which 9/11 has changed the world. Would you like to comment?’ I thought no one would do that, but they did. I invoked Jewish law, and said I was still in mourning.”

Kushner says that was the time for a better president to spring into effective action. Instead, “Bush essentially stood on a mass grave and said ‘Go shopping!’ I thought
it was horrendous. And the idea that we will go to eat meals at a restaurant inside the Freedom Tower – what is wrong with a
hill of grass and a marker saying, ‘On this spot, people died’?”

Kushner wrote the screenplay of Steven Spielberg’s recent Munich, which dealt with the aftermath of the terrorist murders of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games. He draws a parallel between the actions of the International Olympic Committee then, which insisted that the Games should continue after the slaughter, and the re-action of the Bush administration after 9/11. “We must go on, otherwise the terrorists win,” he lampoons. “Well, they didn’t win, but what they did happened. It is not a fact that can or should be erased.”

But he also says he understands the public’s occasional reluctance to grapple with such sober themes in art. “I know so many people who say they have bought the DVD of Munich but haven’t quite found the right time to watch it. I know what they mean.”

It’s no surprise that Kushner’s outspokenness breeds many enemies, who snipe from a wide variety of perspectives. After Caroline opened, the Chicago Sun-Times accused him of writing “in the classic style of a self-loathing Jew [who] has little but revulsion for his own roots”, an attack that, un-usually, prompted the playwright to respond in print.

The accusation still smarts. “I hate being called a self-loathing Jew. I am not a Zionist, but I am not an anti-Zionist. I recognise the beauty of the Zionist dream.” What concerns him are some of the policies being pursued in the Middle East that will not ultimately lead to the long-term safety of the Jewish homeland. But prejudices, he says, feed one another: “It is very upsetting to a lot of Jews that I am gay, and they question my authority to talk about non-gay issues.”

Another recent criticism of his work, he says resignedly, claimed that Kushner didn’t know “what it means to care about someone else”. “It doesn’t take too much to know what that is about,” he says. “This gay man probably doesn’t have children, and doesn’t understand parental responsibility . . . ” He lets the rest of the predictable argument disappear into the air.

And then, wearily, as if suddenly sceptical of the capacity of rational argument to solve anything in the world, he ends our interview by blowing a giant raspberry.

‘Caroline, or Change’ previews at the LytteltonTheatre, London, from October 10. Tel 20 7452 3000

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