Back to the be­gin­ning for Pulitzer play­wright

TONY KUSH­NER

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - BY JOHN NATHAN

TH E R E L A T I V E L Y u n k n o w n , l i t t l e re­vived A Bright Room Cal l e d Day, be­ing per­formed later this month at South­wark Pl a y house’s L i t t l e space, may not be high on most the­atre­go­ers’ list of must-sees. But it should make fas­ci­nat­ing view­ing for any­one cu­ri­ous to know the be­gin­nings of its writer, who grew into one of the ti­tans of con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can drama. Tony Kush­ner’s ca­reer is partly de­fined by the Pulitzer-win­ning An­gels in Amer­ica and in­cludes plays such as the prophetic Afghanistan-set Home­body Kabul and the au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal mu­si­cal Caro­line or Change that looks at Amer­ica’s Civil Rights move­ment through the eyes of a Jewish fam­ily. In par­al­lel to all this, a slowly de­vel­op­ing but very pro­duc­tive re­la­tion­ship with Steven Spiel­berg has re­sulted in Os­car-nom­i­nated screen­plays for the films Mu­nich and Lin­coln.

But look­ing back to the first and only pre­vi­ous pro­fes­sional pro­duc­tion of A Bright Room Called Day, in New York in 1985, Kush­ner re­calls: “It cer­tainly didn’t make any­one happy the last time it was on.” By this he means that there were crit­ics — po­lit­i­cal and the­atri­cal — who took ex­cep­tion to one of the play’s char­ac­ters com­par­ing Ron­ald Rea­gan to Hitler. Given Rea­gan’s pop­u­lar­ity, it is hardly sur­pris­ing that the com­par­i­son did not go down too well.

“It doesn’t re­ally do that,” says Kush­ner, not quite man­ag­ing to hide his ir­ri­ta­tion at the way his play has been sum­marised. “It says that the hor­ror of the Re­ich shouldn’t be re­moved from the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum,” by which he means Amer­ica’s po­lit­i­cal spec­trum.

Ac­tu­ally, the an­swer is a lit­tle longer than that. And, as the play caused a storm of crit­i­cism — with par­tic­u­lar ou­trage at a Jew ap­par­ently re­gard­ing Rea­gan as bad as Hitler — the an­swer is prob­a­bly worth dwelling on. Kush­ner pa­tiently ex­plains that the play’s in­ten­tion was to show that Hitler was the ben­e­fi­ciary of a process made pos­si­ble through the ex­pe­di­ency of other

‘BE­ING CALLED A BAD JEW OR A SELF-HAT­ING JEW IS A VERY UP­SET­TING THING’

politi­cians. And that process ex­isted in Amer­ica as much as it did in Ger­many. For ex­am­ple, “Hitler was al­lowed to be­come chan­cel­lor as a way of stop­ping the so­cial­ists and the com­mu­nists. They thought he could be con­trolled.” In the same way, John McCain be­lieved Sarah Palin “could get him into the White House.” So that clears that up.

Kush­ner is speak­ing from his house in Prince­town, Cape Cod, the pretty set­tle­ment that nes­tles right on the very tip of Mas­sachusetts’s curly At­lantic penin­sula. With its cosy New Eng­land wooden houses, it’s known for its artists, beaches, boats and chi chi shops. More fit­tingly, the town used to be home to Ten­nessee Wil­liams and Eu­gene O’Neill, two of Amer­ica’s three great­est play­wrights — if youa­greethatthethirdis­ArthurMiller.It also has a thriv­ing gay com­mu­nity. And it is prob­a­bly these last two facts about the place that at­tracts Kush­ner and his hus­band, jour­nal­ist Mark Har­ris, who Kush­n­er­mar­riedin2008.

It is a cor­ner of the world where some of the most press­ing is­sues this pro­gres­sive Jewish cam­paign­ing play­wright has ar­gued over — gay rights, Is­rael’s treat­ment of Pales­tini­ans, Amer­i­can eco­nomic and for­eign pol­icy — might feel just a lit­tle less press­ing. Some of the most bruis­ing ar­gu­ments have been with Jews, who es­pe­cially see Kush­ner’s crit­i­cism of Is­rael as a be­trayal. Most re­cently, a Jewish trustee of the pres­ti­gious City Univer­sity New York ar­gued that Kush­ner was not wor­thy of an hon­orary doc­tor­ate be­cause of his views on Is­rael. Given the chance, he’s main­tained that such quotes are of­ten taken out of con­text. On one oc­ca­sion, he told me he could imag­ine cir­cum­stances in which he would fight for Is­rael.

“These things are a nightmare when they hap­pen,” he says. “That one got to be big­ger and nas­tier than usual. I’m a fan of the univer­sity but not the trustees. They gave me a grudg­ing ‘what­ever we may think of him’ kind of apol­ogy, which I ac­cepted.”

Does he find it harder to deal with this kind of crit­i­cism from Jews. “It’s hurt­ful be­cause be­ing Jewish is so enor­mously im­por­tant to me. Be­ing called a bad Jew or a self-hat­ing Jew is a very up­set­ting thing. It al­ways has the aw­ful feel­ing of a fam­ily fight. And it’s al­ways dis­ap­point­ing be­cause I be­lieve so deeply in the Jewish con­tri­bu­tion to eth­i­cal thought and free­dom of speech. You think, ‘we know bet­ter. We know what it’s like to be on the re­ceiv­ing end of il­lib­er­al­ism, and cen­so­ri­ous­ness — we sup­pos­edly be­lieve in the truth. So the in­hu­man­ity and the in­de­cency is not nec­es­sar­ily greater from rightwing Jewish groups than any other right wing group. But pro­gres­sive Jewish groups — de­cent Jews — shouldn’t kid them­selves that the Jewish right is nec­es­sar­ily nicer than other right-wing groups. They are just as ruth­less and re­lent­less and ir­re­spon­si­ble.”

Clearly the ap­petite for ar­gu­ment is undi­min­ished. Kush­ner is 58 now and al­though the stairs are harder to climb, there is no urge to look back on a ca­reer that be­gan with A Bright Room Called Day and ask “what the shape of all this has been? I try hard not to think ‘when will I write an­other play that will be as big a deal as An­gels?’ That would be a way of stop­ping my­self in my tracks.” Hav­ing said that, his lat­est play, with the snappy, Shaw-in­spired ti­tle of The In­tel­li­gent Ho­mo­sex­ual Guide to Cap­i­tal­ism and So­cial­ism with a Key to the Scrip­tures is an­other gay play of huge An­gels- like am­bi­tion.

And his next film with Spiel­berg is about the con­ver­sion of Edgardo Mor­tara, an Ital­ian Jew who was re­moved from his par­ents as a child by the Pa­pal au­thor­i­ties and raised as a Catholic. Noth­ing he has writ­ten is like it. But then that’s the point.

“As long as I can say, ‘I’ve never done this be­fore’, or ‘ I don’t think I could have done this years ago’ — as long as I’m grow­ing, that’s what’s im­por­tant to me.” ‘A Bright Room Called Day’ is at South­wark Play­house un­til Au­gust 16. 020 7407 0234

PHOTO: JOAN MAR­CUS

Tony Kush­ner: “As long as I’m grow­ing, that’s what’s im­por­tant to me”

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