Tony Kushner

Playwright and 2012 National Medal of Arts Recipient
Tony Kushner

Photo by Joan Marcus-Hires

Tony Kushner: You find people who you can argue with. It’s not about ownership. It’s about wanting to find the truth. And no one will surrender as long as they believe they’re right. But they’re not in it to be right. They’re in it to find something. And everybody respects everybody. And you arrive at exciting things.

Jo Reed: That was playwright and 2013 National Medal of Arts recipient, Tony Kushner, talking about the art of collaboration.

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.

This is the second of a two-part interview with the award-winning writer, Tony Kushner.  We spoke in a noisy D.C. hotel room when he was in town to receive his National Medal of Arts Award from President Barack Obama.  Last week, we discussed his early experiences with theater and the writing of his game-changing play, Angels in America.

This week, we turn our attention to his current work in theater, his screenplay for the film Lincoln, and his politics.

Tony Kushner has been at the center of the Gay Rights Movement and is  a self-proclaimed man of the left. But although he is deeply political thinker, and his work often engages with politics, he is not polemical.  On the contrary; much of his power is derived from the fact that his choices are artistic, not political, and that his complex characters are far from stock figures. Take Gus Marcantonio  for example , who's at the center of  Kushner's  recent play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.  Gus is a former longshoreman, a labor activist, and a communist who has decided to commit suicide.  After one failed attempt, he's gathered his children together to get their support for his plan to end his life.

Clip from The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures:

"I shouldn't have cut my wrists on your birthday. [Laughing from crowd] In my head, it was your mother's...yea, well...anniversary. It's unfortunate, she died on your birthday so..."

"So...you thought you would give 'em a matching set?"

"She died giving birth anyway not on..."

"This is insane!"

"No, I mean, you make it sound like she, ya know, baked a cake and then toppled over."

"But so this time...so I decided this time...after your birthday, not on. I waited."

Jo Reed: The play has Kushner's trademark humor, but it's also an examination of the Communist Party, the labor movement, and trade unionism.  As in much of Kushner's work, historical allusions are front and center, most obviously in Gus Marcantonio's name, which is a reference to a left-wing Congressman  of the 1930s and 40s, Vito Marcantonio.

Tony Kushner: In the play, he’s Vito Marcantonio’s younger cousin. And part of his early days of political involvement were working for Vito Marcantonio on one of his six campaigns for the House. And Vito Marcantonio, who was a six-term Congressman from East Harlem, was never a member of the Communist Party, but largely toed the party line, so was a pretty great person. And there were a number of things that I wanted to deal with in the play. One of them was that there’s so much in our culture about Italian-American criminality, the mafia and the mob. And this is what you mostly get to see. And there’s a whole part of the Italian-American early experience, the immigrant experience, the immigrant generations of Italian Americans, that have to do with political radicalism and political involvement. Everybody knows who the godfather was, but how many people now remember Sacco and Vanzetti, and the Italian Americans who were essential in the early years in trade-unionism, and people like Vito Marcantonio. There’s a radicalism that came right from Italy to the United States that was a very different form of left thinking that was enormously important in shaping American political thought. And I wanted to deal with a family of really tough, really smart, Italian-American political people. And I was fascinated. I had no idea that there had been this guy that East Harlem had sent back over and over and over again. And in many ways, I think he was an immensely admirable man.

Jo Reed: It’s quite topical. It continues the conversation, this great discussion about the place of unions in the United States and how that’s playing out. And I’m sure that was a discussion you wanted to participate in?

Tony Kushner: Yeah, when I started thinking about the play, I’ve always been completely pro-union. And I absolutely believe in labor unions. And I was beginning to work on the play when the stagehands, Local 1 of the Teamsters, went on strike on Broadway. And I went to a couple of meetings of the Dramatist Guild expecting to find everyone kind of ready to go out and strike. The Dramatist’s Guild is not a union because we own our own copyrights, so we can’t unionize. But I expected everyone in the theater to kind of be ready to go out on strike with the stagehands. And I was sort of shocked at how the conversations really reflected the thirty plus years of Reaganite thinking about labor unions that these guys were stealing our money. And they were expecting to be paid even when they weren’t needed. It’s horrifying that you have to pay somebody to sit. If you only need three stagehands, why do you have to pay the other two guys? Why can’t they go away? The short-sightedness of it, the injustice of it, hearing people who were good liberals say things like, “These guys make a hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year now. Their kids go to college. And they have a college fund that’s bigger than the actor’s equity fund,” and it’s like, "Great. I mean isn’t that the point? That the stage hand makes a hundred and fifty-- that can live in Great Neck or whatever, and they can send their kids to college? What, do you need them to be en-paupered to make the world seem right to you?" And if you fire stagehands every time you need a small crew, then what happens when you need a big crew? Do you really want to hire some guy off the street who’s never been backstage to be hanging out with your cast and moving your scenery around? It’s a skill.

Jo Reed: Your heavy scenery.

Tony Kushner: Yeah, your heavy scenery. And it’s a skill. And it’s a talent. And you don’t throw people out. As Willy Loman says, “A man is not a piece of fruit.” You eat-- you peel off the rind. It’s-- I thought, "God, these were principles of economic justice that this country really learned the hard way in the Great Depression, and in the New Deal, and in the Wagner Act, and the building of labor unions in this country before World War II and we’ve forgotten so much of it." So, I wanted to start talking about that. I think we’re re-learning it now. I think there are many instances where you start to see people beginning to understand what the struggle of the public employees unionizing and so on, that unions are a good thing. And a country that doesn’t support labor unions is a country that’s going to have horrendous income disparity. And horrendous income disparity is the greatest single indicator of human unhappiness around the world-- is a country with-- that’s too polarized in terms of wealth and poverty.

Jo Reed: You have been editing Arthur Miller’s work for--

Tony Kushner: I still am.

Jo Reed: You still are.

Tony Kushner: I have one more volume.

Jo Reed: For [The] Library of America. And you think about longshoremen on stage, thinking about A View from the Bridge. And I was just wondering if part of what you were doing in that play was continuing a conversation with Arthur Miller?

Tony Kushner: Oh, absolutely. I mean I had just turned, when I started working on we call it "I-HO" [The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures] for short, I was-- I just turned fifty a couple of years before, and so, I was feeling very middle aged and thinking I’m an American playwright, and I’ve never written a kitchen sink drama. And I have been spending all this time reading Arthur’s work. And I’d known him a little bit. I spoke at his funeral and I admired him immensely. I read his magnificent autobiography Time Bends, which I think is as great as any of his plays, which is to say very, very great. And I think about [Eugene] O’Neill and thinking about Tennessee [Williams] and that thing. Whenever you get interviewed as a playwright, and if you write plays that are seen as political, people will always say, “Why don’t Americans ever write political plays? Why are they always kitchen--?” I thought well, it would be fun to kind of write a play in a living room and see what that was like. And for the most part, "I-HO" takes place in one building. And a lot of it takes place in a living room. And I think-- and Gus, the main character, is modeled after the great post-war monster protagonists. You think about the guys, the James Tyrone, Willy Loman, Stanley Kowalski, these very difficult men who were also very admirable, and powerful, and moving, and magnetic. And so, I think I wanted to do one of those guys. And I had a great deal of fun. I’m still working on the play.

Jo Reed: It strikes me that a play, in some ways, it has two lives. There’s what you write, the play. And then there’s the production. And it’s different. And is it hard for you, as the person who birthed this play, not to jump in? Or do you jump in?

Tony Kushner: Oh, I do jump in.

Jo Reed: You’re a jumper.

Tony Kushner: Oh, yeah absolutely. I mean American theater practice is so afflicted by the lack of money, we don’t rehearse anything long enough. I mean any play of two or three hours long should literally be in rehearsal for two or three months and we rehearse it for six weeks. Then we sell tickets to previews. But previews are actually rehearsals that people are people are paying money for because the theaters can’t afford to keep rehearsing. And then we sell tickets to the performances, which are actually rehearsals. By the end of the run, maybe you’re starting to see what the thing might be. I just think it takes much longer to discover these worlds than we give ourselves time to do. And that makes relationship between the playwright and the director very, very difficult because there’s no time built into the process for the playwright’s necessary involvement and then necessary withdrawal. There is absolutely point, unless the playwright is directing the work, where you should go away. You have too much...I mean John Lahr said it about [Samuel] Beckett directing his own work. He said he had too much authority. You know too much. And you kind of kill spontaneity and invention and discovery. But you do know a lot at the beginning. And there’s a great deal that you can impart at the beginning. But there’s just not enough time. So, it’s a really tricky, difficult thing. And I’ve never found an answer to it. It’s...I mean but it’s also part of the fun of theater. I just worked on the new edition of Angels following these rewrites. And I realized that when I was reading the book, the published script, which has done really, really well as a kind of a reading thing, that I...when I was younger, I put in very, very few stage directions. I kind of liked the idea that people would have to figure it out. And over the years, I’ve seen the same mistakes being made over and over. So, I started putting in more stage directions. But that kind of slows up the reading process. You want the reading the process, experience of reading a play, to some degree, contain some of the excitement of watching something on stage, the pacing and the rhythm of it. If you’re putting too many...I mean O’Neill is our greatest playwright and I revere him, but those stage directions are..."John is four foot seven, and he has a carbuncle on his nose and red hair...it's like..."

Jo Reed: It’s true.

Tony Kushner: Okay, but what if I can’t find somebody that looks like that. Can I cast Christopher Plummer? I mean it’s ridiculous. And you know when you’re reading stage directions somehow that that’s not the meat of the matter. So, you kind of want to, I mean in a couple of his plays like Hughie, it really is. But mostly, it’s like, “Go away, and let me just read the dialogue and find..."

Jo Reed: Like Shakespeare?

Tony Kushner: Well, like Shakespeare who has no-- yes, exactly.

Jo Reed: "Exit."

Tony Kushner: "Exit the stage, get pursued by bears." That’s the one.

Jo Reed: That’s my favorite.

Tony Kushner: Yes, my father, when he was dying last...two years ago, I said like two days before he died, I went up and I said, “How are you feeling?” in the morning when I had just woken up and he said, “Exit, pursued by bear.” But that’s the fun thing is that you’re writing something that isn’t ever completely at home in any place. And it has this kind of wonderful ambiguity and ambivalence, amphibiousness almost. When you go to see Hamlet, no matter how great the production, things are flying past you. And if you’re paying any attention, you think, “Oh my god, I’ve got to go home and read this because I’m getting about a tenth of it.” And every time you sit down and read “Hamlet”, because it’s Shakespeare, the theatricality just comes wafting up at you. And you think, "I wish I was seeing this on stage." Or you’re putting it on in the little stage in your head. So, you’re never in one place or the other. And I think that that’s part of the joy of the form, is dealing with that, strategizing and working with that complexity. You’re writing a text that’s both a score for a kinetic event, but it's also a book for a reader. And the greatest playwright that ever lived is also the greatest writer that ever lived, the greatest poet that ever lived. So, those thirty-eight plays, or whatever they say there are now, thirty-nine, or I don’t know...I’ve lost count but the canon, the Shakespeare canon, is probably next to the King James Bible, the Koran, the Torah, a couple of other books...one of the great indispensables in the world, and it’s a book of plays mostly, sonnets but...

Jo Reed: I want to talk about film, very briefly. You wrote the screenplay for Angels in America. How different writing for film than writing for stage?

Tony Kushner: Oh, it’s a completely different form in a lot of ways. In some ways it’s similar. You write dialogue, and you have to be good at that. And I find that it’s very helpful to know how to construct a scene, that it’s only a scene as long as there’s an active conflict. And as soon as the conflict is resolved in one way or another, the scene is done. And you have to stop it. And to write a scene that actors can sort of feel supported by is something that you train yourself in as a playwright. And I’m sure screenwriters, some screenwriters, do the same thing. But I think that the forms are so radically different in so many ways. I mean, In one way, as Marx would tell you, property relationships are everything and-- or certainly have an effect on everything. And I used to say this before I wrote my first screenplay, and it turned out to be true, you don’t own your words when you write a screenplay. You sell them to someone else. And the lack of ownership changes your relationship to the words. It’s also not a writer’s medium. I mean the theater isn’t either, but the play is the only thing that will survive when the production goes away. And the play is the thing that’s there before anybody else gets there. It’s the thing that’s in the room when these strangers come together to try to put a world together. So, the play-- and the tradition of the theater of course is that the play’s the thing and the law of the United States of America is I own the copyright to this thing. If you,  it's like, if you’ve moved into my apartment, I’m your landlord. If you do things to the walls that I don’t like, you’re out. I have never done this. Nobody does this anymore. But if I discovered a production that that made significant changes to the text of a play that I’d written, I have the right to pull the rights to it. I own it. So, that makes the playwright have a power, a contractually guaranteed power, that has an effect. And not only do you lose that power in film, but also, this is the cliché, but it’s really true at least in my experience, it really is a director’s medium. And you discover that. I mean the screenplay is not the thing. The film is the thing. The screenplay is the suggestion of many suggestions about what the film might be. But it’s going to both contribute mightily to the final product, and also be subject to the edit, processes of the editing room, and also the processes of filming. One thing that I discovered on the very first day of filming Angels, you have a scene. They film it. And it’s done. You can always tell yourself in a lousy production of a play, “Well, the next time we’ll get it right. I shouldn’t have cast this actor. The next time, I’ll get somebody that can play the part.” There’s no next time with a film. Nobody’s ever going to re-film the screenplay from Munich or Lincoln. I don’t want them to. I’m very happy with the way they turned out. But you have this feeling. I’ve discovered now that actors and directors feel the same way. Every night when you get back from the set, you lie in bed thinking, “Why didn’t we do this? Why didn’t I write this?” Because it’s done. It’s gone. It’s over. It’s a finished thing. And all that ambiguity and ambivalence that I was talking about with the play...the film is a commodity form. It winds up on a DVD or streaming as a file of bits. But it’s a finished thing. And it won’t change. It's one reason why it’s so much easier to watch films than to watch plays because you can hate them freely if you’re hating them. And you know that they’re going to be the same now as they will be seventy years from now. Or if they’re old as they seventy years ago, they don’t alter. And you don’t have to work to make them happen. You turn on the machine, and they go like a novel does. A play needs you and makes you do work and enlists you in the joy of it when it’s great, which is one of the reasons why it’s so much fun, and also enlists you in the agony of watching it flop, which is no fun at all. It’s the worst experience. So, it’s the difference between engaging in the commodity form ultimately and something that’s alive and not controllable, and not reproducible exactly from night to night. And you’re working with all of those things. I learned working on Angels that stage writing I think is a little bit heated up to compensate for the cooling distance of however many feet between the edge of the stage and the first row of seats, or the last row of seats. People are not seeing close ups. So, you have to make everything a little bit more charged and electric to kind of reach out and pull them in. The minute you put that writing on a camera, and the camera is two inches from somebody’s face, and they’re talking that way, it’s too much. It becomes too hot, and you have to kind of cool it down a little bit. I think it needs a slightly cooler, a little will go a longer way in a certain sense. But I love it. I love working. I’ve worked with Mike Nichols and Steven Spielberg. And, I’m working on a film for Mike right now and a new film for Steven. And there are people, you find, every once and a while, a collaborator. Oscar Eustace was one, Jeanine Tesori, who I wrote Caroline, or Change the musical with, we’re working on an opera together. You find people who you can argue with. It’s not about ownership. It’s about wanting to find the truth. And no one will surrender as long as they believe they’re right. But they’re not in it to be right. They’re in it to find something. And everybody respects everybody. And you arrive at exciting things. And I feel like I’ve been immensely lucky that my only three experiences as a screenwriter have been with two guys I admire immensely as artists and who treat writers-- certainly treated me and treat me as a colleague. And they’re collaborators. So, that’s thrilling. And I really enjoy it. I mean I just think-- And I love movies. I love television. I love watching it. So, it’s fun to have made a few.

Jo Reed: Now, with Lincoln you had to have done a lot of research. Wasn’t that years for you?

Tony Kushner: It took seven years from start to finish for me.

Jo Reed: Was it hard to stop researching and get writing?

Tony Kushner: I’m still researching. I can’t stop reading about Lincoln. It’s terrible. I’m now working on three or four other things that have nothing to do with Abraham Lincoln. And in some ways I’m relieved. But in other ways I’m like I knew this would happen if I went into this that I’ve become one of those Lincoln obsessives. You just fall so deeply in love with him. And the material is so absolutely central to the heart of the human experience, the democratic...our national experience. The Civil War is the navel with an n-a-v-e-l. It’s the thing from which everything, everything goes into it, and everything comes out of it. And I just think that the issues that he contended with, the ways that he contended with them, the things that he wrote are absolutely essential. And it’s a great way to-- it’s like Shakespeare. It’s a way of studying humanity.

Clip from Lincoln:

"Euclid's first common notion is this, things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other. That's a rule of mathematical reasoning, its true because it works. As done, and always will do. In his book, Euclid said this is self-evident. You see there it is. Even in that two-thousand year old book of mechanical law, it is a self-evident truth that things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other."

Tony Kushner: But I’m not going to ever write about him again, I don’t think, or at least not in dramatic form. So, I need kind of put him away. I needed to know a lot before I could start believing that I had a right to write about him. You have to get to a point, and you’ve become sensitive to what that point is in yourself when you sort of begin to believe yourself. And you’re not just making stuff up. You’re actually talking with a certain kind of rich knowledge. The problem is you’re a dilettante, and of course it’s going to evaporate fairly quickly.

Jo Reed: Right. Okay. National Medal of Arts, how did you find out?

Tony Kushner: Rocco Landesman called me.

Jo Reed: Oh, you heard from Rocco?

Tony Kushner: Yes, he called me I guess two months ago or something when they were calling people. And he had asked to be able to call me. And I was absolutely and completely blown away. I was just walking. I just finished actually having lunch with Oscar. And I was walking down the street. And the phone rang. And it was him. And I’m still kind of stunned. I’m waiting for somebody to say, “Oh, we’ve made a mistake. We didn’t mean you. We meant the British Holocaust historian named Tony Kushner who’s written all those wonderful books.” I’m so happy about it and so happy to be receiving it from this president who I admire so enormously and who I think has done such astonishing service to the country and the world. And we got to show the movie to him last November and have dinner with him. And I’m glad that I get to see him again. So, it makes this really an amazing moment.

Jo Reed: It’s like being doubly blessed.

Tony Kushner: Absolutely.

Jo Reed: Well, many congratulations.

Tony Kushner: Well, thanks so much. It’s really fun talking to you.

Jo Reed: I really enjoyed talking to you, too. Thanks.

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.

Special thanks to Kyle Warren, Jennifer Kreizman, and the Public Theater. Excerpt from Lincoln with Daniel Day Lewis and David Straithern. Directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Tony Kushner.

Excerpt from The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. Directed by Michael Greiff, written by Tony Kushner, presented by the Public Theater and the Signature Theater Company.

Excerpt from Opening Credits by johnny_ripper, from the C.D., A Soundtrack for a Film That Doesn't Exist used courtesy of Creative Commons and found on WFMU's Free Music Archive at freemusicarchive.org

Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

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

Next week, it's a visit to the Galax Fiddle Convention.

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 the second of our two-part interview, talk about his latest play and his screenplay for the movie, Lincoln