Back to the beginning for Pulitzer playwright
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
Tony Kushner: “As long as I’m growing, that’s what’s important to me”