Tony Kushner

Playwright and 2012 National Medal of Arts Recipient
Tony Kushner

Photo by Gloria Wegner

Tony Kushner: The job I gave myself when I started writing "Angels" is just, describe what it feels like to be alive at this particular moment with the epidemic absolutely established as this kind of horrendous fact. It was a tough time, '85, '86, those were hard years, and I thought, how can I describe to an audience what this feels like to me?

Jo Reed: That was 2012 National Medal of Arts recipient Tony Kushner, talking about his much-acclaimed play, "Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes".

Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.

Tony Kushner's two-part play, "Angels in America" was a theatrical milestone.  The seven hour epic about the AIDS crisis in New York in the 1980s had gay men front and center, grappling with a moral debate and shabby politics as so many died, seemingly unnoticed.  It was both deeply personal and highly political. Furious and compassionate, it moved from gritty to fantastical, funny to poetic.  It forced audiences to rethink theater and allowed other playwrights to expand the possibilities of the stage.  Opening in New York in 1993, the play swept all awards, including a Pulitzer and two Tony Awards. Tony Kushner adapted "Angels in America" for HBO. The resulting miniseries was nominated for 21 Emmys, receiving 11, including one for Tony Kushner's screenplay.

 In the 20 years since "Angels in America" opened on Broadway, Kushner has continued to create work of daring, brilliance, and versatility. From the musical "Caroline or Change" to his translation and adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage", from collaborating on children's books with Maurice Sendack, to writing the screenplay for the film, "Lincoln", Kushner flings his creative net wide and the catch has been impressive.

I spoke to Tony Kushner when he came to Washington, DC to receive his National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama. The hotel room was a little noisy, but Tony Kushner is one of the great conversationalists. So this is the first of a two-part interview. Although Tony was born in New York City, he was raised in southern Louisiana, and that seemed like a good place to begin our conversation.

Tony Kushner:  My parents were both professional musicians. My father was a clarinetist, trained at Julliard. My mother was a bassoonist, trained at Eastman. When, my sister was born first and then I was born second, I think-- my sister is deaf, and I think that my mother was worried about touring as much. She was playing I think at the time with the Sadler's Wells Ballet, she was also with the New York City Opera, and I think being on the road a lot felt like a difficult thing to maintain, and if she gave up her income, they were just worried that they wouldn't be able to make it in New York, and my father's father said-- my grandfather said, if you want to come back to Lake Charles in Louisiana and help me run the family business, which was a small lumber company, you can do that, and I think my mother was also, I mean, she was a very successful bassoonist, but it was very much a man's profession, being a classical musician in general, but there were no female bassoonists.

Jo Reed:  I was going to say, and a bassoonist in particular.

Tony Kushner:  And she was a small woman, and just-- she just had this astonishing lung power. So she was an improbable figure, and I think the competitiveness was maybe hard for her, for a woman of her generation. So I think that there was a maybe a desire to get out from being in the top tier of New York serious music performance, so they moved to Lake Charles. She continued to teach, and she played in the Lake Charles Symphony, my father eventually became the conductor of the symphony.

Jo Reed:  So it was a musical household, you grew up with a lot of music in your house.

Tony Kushner:  Yes. They were always practicing and always playing, and we went to endless concerts and chamber concerts and recitals, and so I grew up surrounded by music. My brother is the first horn of the Vienna Symphonica. So he carried the torch.

Jo Reed:  Was there any sense that perhaps you would pick up the torch?

Tony Kushner:  I played the cello until I was 13, and then because of the difficulties that I was having with my father, I think, I stopped playing, which I really regret. I'd love to have continued, just to have the skill. But I stopped playing at 13, and pretty much promptly forgot everything that I ever knew about music.

Jo Reed:  And when did you first discover theater?

Tony Kushner:  Very young. My mother, when we moved to Lake Charles needed an outlet for her immensely expressive personality. She was very quiet person in a lot of ways, but she had an enormous amount of feeling, and a real artist's soul and needed to express it, and she decided she wanted to try acting. So when I was five years old, she did her first part which was playing one-- I forget what the name of the character is, but it's-- the play is "A Far Country," where she played one of Freud's-- I think it's based on Anna O., and she did that, and then when I was six years old, six or seven, she did Linda Loman in "Death of a Salesman," which I remember with complete vividness. That was a transformative experience, and I think that's where it started for me, was watching her onstage and seeing the, when they did "Death of a Salesman," which is sort of controversial, it was in 1960, I think, and it was still considered, sort of a dirty play by a commie. Because it was about adultery. It's so shocking to think that "Death of a Salesman" could be considered obscene, but I think more than Miller's politics, the fact that they were going to do a play actually about an adulterer was what made the group that really wanted to do the play split off from the main group of the Lake Charles little theater, the amateur theater down there, and they formed their own theater, and they did it in the Round. So I remember watching it, and you could see the adults in the seats opposite. So when my mother did the saddest scene ever written by an American playwright, the Linda Loman at the gravesite at the end of "Salesman"-- and it was the early 60s so women had mascara that wasn't waterproof yet, so everybody had like these big raccoon eyes I could see, all these grownups were crying, and I think that had a huge impact on me, and I think that's where I got-- began to get really interested in theater.

Jo Reed:  But not acting, writing?

Tony Kushner:  I acted once. I was in a kid's theater production of the Wizard of Oz, and I played the Cowardly Lion, and I was stuck inside a giant papier-mâché lion's head, and I was imitating Bert Lahr, and I thought doing a very good job of it, and then my grandmother came up to me, after the first performance and said, "I couldn't understand a word you said," which was kind of the end of my interest in being an actor. I've never really wanted to act. I have great admiration for actors. I don't understand how they do it, stage actors, especially. I don't understand how you get up eight times a week and play Medea, and not just die at the end of the first week. They're kind of heroic in terms of what-- the really great ones, in terms of where they're willing to go, and I can't imagine doing it, and my father who was a musician, as I said, was also a great lover of literature, and memorized poems, and paid us a dollar if we would memorize poems. So the house wasn't just full of music, it was also full of books, and we read a lot, and memorized a lot of poetry, and I think the sound of recited words, and my father's immense love of language kind of rubbed off. So I think between my mother and my father I was sort of destined to be--to try to be some kind of a playwright.

Jo Reed:  And of course, human speech has a rhythm of its own.

Tony Kushner:  And a music, yeah.

Jo Reed:  Yeah.

Tony Kushner: And the Deep South had an effect. I think it's not an accident that writers like Horton Foote, and Tennessee Williams, William Inge come from-- I mean, there's a lyricism and an open expressiveness in Southern speech, and I grew up surrounded by that. It's very different than urban Northern speech.

Jo Reed:  At the same time, I can imagine that it wasn't always easy being a Jewish gay guy growing up in the Deep South, which Louisiana was.

Tony Kushner:  Yeah, very deep, but also, the southern part of the state is completely anomalous, it's because of Cajun Creole culture, because of the presence of the Gulf and the Mississippi, the mouth of the Mississippi, and New Orleans which has a tidal impact on the entirety of the bayou region, and Louisiana's in the bottom of the state, next to Texas, and it's-- so it was much more Catholic than Baptist, although, very segregated, more Caribbean than the rest of the United States. New Orleans culture had an effect across the entire bottom of the state. So it was the Deep South, I feel like everything that was sort of terrible and hard in the South, and other places in the late 50s early 60s was somewhat ameliorated in Lake Charles by the swampiness of it, and bayou culture, which is a little bit more live and let live. It's less tightly organized and policed, and there's I think a great deal more intimacy between the races, and different cultures. There are a lot of Jews in the southern part of Louisiana, especially, many of them came from New York, but a bunch of them came through Galveston, Texas, which is very near Lake Charles. You know, I encountered bits of anti-Semitism here and there. I didn't grow up in a place like Manhattan, where you could go to school and you were one of hundreds of Jewish kids. My sister and my brother and I were the only Jewish kids, often, in our classes, but there was a small, tightly knit Jewish community. I used to be very angry at the way that it felt assimilated. There was an organ, and a choir, so you were in a church, and it didn't-- when I came to New York, and actually started seeing what Jewish services in sort of conservative and orthodox shuls were, I felt like well this place was trying too hard to be Christian, but I've come, as I've gotten older, to appreciate that these people who showed up in this little tiny southern town in the late 19th century absolutely never hid who they were. They built a temple, they were an organized community, and we were taught, as all of the Jewish kids that I knew in Lake Charles were taught, that you never apologized for who you were, you didn't accept anyone's condemnation or prejudice against you, that it was their problem and not your problem, and there was a great pride in being Jewish, and I've said this a lot, but I think that it was pretty easy to translate that into an understanding of how to be gay, I mean, it's not that it wasn't difficult, but as I went through adolescence, and then went away to college, I had a model already made of how to be a minority that isn't necessarily accepted and may even be despised, that rejects the prejudices of the larger society, of the majority, and insists on its legitimacy and validity as a community, against whatever kind of negative feelings are coming from the majority, and so it was a great model for coming out.

Jo Reed:  And that's what you do on stage, don't you, you represent a view of that minority living within the majority and demanding its due. I'm thinking, I guess most specifically of "Angels in America".

Tony Kushner:  Well, I think certainly with "Angels", you know, there was a political act in writing a gay play, it was still-- I mean, it wasn't two days after Stonewall. I started working on the play in the late 1980s, and it was on Broadway in 1993, which was, you know, fairly advanced. It's a very different time than now, but it wasn't at the earliest days, but still there was a great deal of political power in showing people on stage who hadn't been shown ordinarily, and representations of gay men and lesbians were not unheard of, but there was still-- especially in a play that went to Broadway and won prizes and stuff-- it was kind of a new thing, and I think that that empowered people. It's not what I intend to do as a writer. I don't think that my job is to represent people, or to assist in a political struggle. I feel like it's my job as a citizen to do that, but as an artist, my job is more I think to try and describe the world as truthfully as I'm able to do it, and to get below the surface of things, to get at truths that aren't as readily apparent, and that's really, I think all I intended to do. The job I gave myself when I started writing "Angels" is just, describe what it feels like to be alive at this particular moment with the epidemic absolutely established as this kind of horrendous fact, and Ronald Reagan as President of the United States, and a feeling of not just paralysis, but a kind of a backward sliding away from some of the cultural and political and social gains of the revolutions of the 60s. It was a tough time, '85, '86, those were hard years, and I thought, you know, how can I describe to an audience what this feels like to me, and that's what you I think try to do.

Jo Reed:  Yeah, I don't think of it at all as a political play, but I think it's a play that's certainly informed by politics, and that's a big difference.

Tony Kushner:  Yeah, I mean, I don't know how to write people who don't talk about politics. Everybody I know talks about politics, and I think everybody, everybody, and especially in a democracy, you know, whether we talk about politics intelligently, or not intelligently is always a question, but I didn't know how to write about people who didn't talk politics, and I didn't know how to write about people who talked politics but weren't specific, because that's what politics is. So they couldn't just talk about "the system," they had to talk about Reagan, I mean, they had to talk about specific things. I mean, I've said this before but you know the three great American plays, the three plays that we think of as kind of the three pillars, "Long Day's Journey into Night," "Streetcar Named Desire," and "Death of a Salesman." And "Salesman" is obviously overtly a political play; you can't understand the Loman family tragedy, if you don't understand their economic situation. But "Long Day's Journey" is among many other things, a play about immigrants, and about the immigrant experience, I mean, Tyrone, O'Neill's father wasn't just a skinflint because he was just a skinflint. He was terrified of poverty, because he came from the kind of desperate poverty that Irish immigrants faced when they first arrived in the-- where he, this boy had to support an enormous family by working in a brickyard, and was-- had what every American who comes from immigrant stock knows, which is this kind of desperate economic insecurity, and so the play-- I'm also-- "A Long Day's Journey" is a play about healthcare in a way, and "Streetcar" is a play about rape, and about women, and about-- it's universal, it will last forever, but it's also very much about the immediate postwar world. Stanley is not just a mythic animal type, he's a guy who's been in the war, who has that kind of warrior energy, and Blanch is a victim of, of the end of a chain of economic decline in the South that goes all the way back to the Civil War, and at the end of the play she's raped, and so it's I think in many ways a sort of proto-feminist, powerful proto-feminist play, and so all these plays are political, we think of them as being family plays, but they're not just that.

Jo Reed:  And it's also so interesting with literature, the more specific somehow, the more universal it becomes.

Tony Kushner:  Yeah.

Jo Reed:  With great literature.

Tony Kushner:  Yeah. And you have to be wary of the notion that if something is meant to last, it will avoid being topical in any way, because that's, of course, not true. It is true that the topical jokes in Shakespeare are very hard to make work, and the jokes that aren't topical are still hysterically funny 400 years later, but the grid and texture of our actual experience is one of the things of which art is made, and it's a terrible mistake. I always think about Proust and "Remembrance of Things Past," where he devotes dozens, if not hundreds of pages, to sort of denouncing the idea of political art in a book that is filled with the Dreyfus case, and in its way, kind of lurching towards some kind of a beginning of articulation of the issue of homosexuality, I mean, and anti-Semitism, and World War I, it's in its way, a very political book.

Jo Reed:  It's packed.

Tony Kushner:  Yeah.

Jo Reed:  I want to talk about "Angels", and I want to talk about the process of writing it. Did you know what you were doing when you were doing it? Did you know you were writing this monumental--not just in terms of subject matter, but a seven hour play from a relatively unknown playwright takes a lot of guts.

Tony Kushner:  That was sort of an accident. It was also at a time when the only two-- play that lasted two evenings that anybody had heard of was "Nicholas Nickleby," and that was the Brits who were allowed to do anything because they spoke…

Jo Reed:  It was the Royal Shakespeare. They're royal.

Tony Kushner: …they had an accent. And it was Dickens, and it was this big event, and actually, "Nicholas Nickleby" almost failed, initially because nobody wanted to see it. So the idea of it being something that would last over two evenings, or a whole day was kind of unheard of. It was my second play, Oskar Eustis, who was running the Eureka Theatre Company, Oskar commissioned the play, he had done my first play, "A Bright Room Called Day," which is three hours long, and he said, it was a little too long, and "Angels" had to be, he felt, two and a half hours. So that didn't happen. I think this is really true-- we got an NEA grant, it was the thing that the NEA was giving then, I don't think they still give it, called the special projects grant, that was given to a theater that had a standing company of actors-- it was around the time that Carol Churchill was doing all of these plays with British acting companies. So the idea was to get American playwrights to work with a standing company of actors, and produce a play for them. So we applied, we never thought-- I mean, Ronald Reagan was still president-- I described the play fairly honestly, as much of I knew of it, in the application that we get the grant, and we got the grant, and as I remember, it was something like I got ten thousand dollars total, and the company got like fifty thousand dollars for production-- the check came in like four installments or something. So as I was just beginning to write the play, this check arrived and it had a watermark of the eagle or something, and it said ‘The People of the United States of America,' and I remember calling Oskar in San Francisco and saying, I'm staring at this check, and I'm incredibly moved by this. This play has been commissioned by the people of the United States of America, and Oskar and I both, you know, are both people to the left, but I think one of the things that happened when I was working on "Angels", we had lots of conversations about-- and sort of beginning to admit to ourselves that as much as we felt deeply indebted to the revolutions of the sixties, and as critical as we were feeling, especially, in the 80s of the policies of the U.S. Government, that we both were great readers of American history, and deeply committed to the idea of democracy, and this was what a little bit hard for the people on the left to admit to one another, that we believed that it was actually working in this country, that democracy was producing measurable social and even economic justice and progress, and that there were many instances in this country's history of democracy working, proof that the idea was legitimate, and I think that that had a big impact on the play. So I think when I gave it the-- it seemed to be the ironic subtitle of "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," I was really referring to that sense that the people had paid for the play, so I wanted to give them a lot of play for their money.

Jo Reed:  Well, you certainly did. How did Oskar respond as it kept coming and coming and coming?

Tony Kushner:  Well, he was-- at first, you know, it took a long time to write the first part. It was supposed to be written in about six months, and it took about a year and a half to get the first part done, and I would send him each act as I was done, and each act was about sixty pages done, which is about an hour on stage, and I'd said, you know, something's wrong, because by the end of the first hour, according to the outline, the angel was going to crash through the ceiling, and he kept saying, well, you know, I really like the stuff that you're doing, so keep going, and we'll cut it, we'll make some cut, and then we did a reading of the play, of just the first part, and it wasn't even complete. I didn't get her-- I didn't get all the way to the end of the third act. On the flight over to San Francisco, I wrote the scene where Ethel Rosenberg appears. This is the point at which the play had sort of taken on a life of its own, and I didn't even know she was going to appear, I just wrote the scene with Roy and Joe have this horrible fight, and then I just knew she was going to walk in the door, and we did a reading of it, and I had written the part of the angel, who hadn't really yet appeared, she'd only-- you'd only heard her voice a couple of times for an actress in the Bay Area, named Sigrid Wurschmidt, who at that point had been diagnosed with breast cancer, which killed her before she could ever play the part. She was quite young. She was a great actress and a really wonderful person, and we all went to lunch at her house after the reading, and everybody's excited about the reading, but-- and she's the first person. She pulled me aside and she said, do you have anything more? And I said, well I have all these notebooks, and she said, show me something in the notebooks that you really liked, and I turned to a page-- I'd already written Harper's monologue for the end of Perestroika-- I had just written it one day sitting in the park-- about souls rising up from the earth.

Harper: God! It's been years since I was on a plane. When we hit 35,000 feet we'll have reached the tropopause, the great belt of calm air. As close as I'll ever get to the ozone. I dreamed we were there. The plane leapt the tropopause, the safe air, and attained the outer rim, the ozone which was ragged and torn, patches of it threadbare as old cheesecloth and that was frightening. But I saw something only I could see because of my astonishing ability to see such things. Souls were rising, from the earth far below, souls of the dead, of people who'd perished from famine, from war, from the plague and they floated up like skydivers in reverse, limbs all akimbo, wheeling and spinning. And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles and formed a web, a great net of souls. And the souls were three atom oxygen molecules of the stuff of ozone and the outer rim absorbed them and was repaired. Nothing's lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we've left behind and dreaming ahead. At least I think that's so.

 Tony Kushner: And Sigrid read it and she said, this is really beautiful, and the play has to include this, and whatever Oskar or anybody tells you, make it as long as you want it to be, and if it has to be two evenings, then let it be two evenings long, who cares, it's really gonna to be good. And I said, well Sig, nobody watches a two evening long play, but that was the beginning of the idea, I think.

Jo Reed: And Perestroika was still being developed.

Tony Kushner: I did major rewrites for the 20th anniversary revival of the play in New York, at the Signature in 2010. I listened to the play with the cast. It was the first time that I'd been deeply involved in a production of "Angels" in a really long time, and I'd gone through the whole casting process-- I really wanted to make sure since it was coming back to New York for the first time, that it was a great cast, which it was, and I listened to them reading it, and I suddenly heard things in Perestroika that I think I had always intended, but hadn't known how to do, and I started doing some rewrites, and it's not like it's unrecognizable, but I feel like the play is finished in a way that it never was before, and I'm fairly certain-- you know, there are some plays that you write and you just know at the end that you're done, and you'll know when it's done, but you'll reach a place-- this is certainly true of the first part of "Angels", it was true of "Caroline, or Change," of my adaptation of "The Illusion," I felt like, okay, it's finished. I may change a word or two, here or there, but it's a kind of a done deal.  And then there are plays that you know will never be finished, and you'll always, when you hear them, think, "What if I do this? And what if I do that?" And there are four versions of "Hamlet", which I think gives everybody permission--

Jo Reed: <Laughs> To tweak.

Tony Kushner: Yeah, it's interesting, the two part play, there are of course two great antecedents. There's "Faust". And there's "Peer Gynt". And both of those plays, the first part is this kind of perfectly crafted little folk play that works absolutely flawlessly. And the second part is this big gigantic omnidirectionally exploding thing. And I used to say it's like "Abbey Road" and then the "White Album". I mean you know, you pack everything into making something-- making a perfect machine. And then you have to release all the stuff that you had. So, maybe that's the model that I was working from.

Jo Reed: It's not a bad one. I kind of like it.

That was Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright and 2012 National Medal of Arts recipient, Tony Kushner.

You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.

Next week, part 2 of my conversation with Tony Kushner, when we talk about his current play, "The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures" and his screenplay for the film, "Lincoln".

Special thanks to Kyle Warren, Jennifer Kreizman, and Glenn Whitehead.

We heard Mary Louise Parker in an Excerpt of "Angels in America", directed by Mike Nichols, written by Tony Kushner and used courtesy of HBO.

Excerpt of "Some Are More Equal" by Paul Rucker and Hans Teuber from the CD, Oil, used courtesy of Paul Rucker.

Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

The Art Works podcast is posted each Thursday at You can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U- just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

In part 1 of a two-part interview, Tony Kushner talks about his early attraction to theater and writing Angels in America. [28:50]