Tony Kushner, Uncensored

A modern legend of the stage tells Toronto about his craft and his critics

Photograph by Ed Ritger
Playwright Tony Kushner.
Photograph by Ed Ritger
Ed Ritger / CC BY 2.0 Playwright Tony Kushner.

Last month, at the Panasonic Theatre in Toronto, I attended the finale of Ayad Akhtar’s 2012 record-breaking Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced—which now stands as the highest-attended play in the venue’s history. Disgraced tells the story of a refined, highly assimilated Pakistani American lawyer who is forced to rethink his Muslim identity when a relative asks him to advocate on behalf of an Imam who has been accused to aiding terrorists.

The world of theatre—and the performing arts more generally—is dominated by progressive political viewpoints. But Disgraced surprised me. During a tempestuous dinner-party scene that dominates the plot, Muslim and Jewish characters take turns showing us their best and worst sides. They try hard to suppress their tribalistic hatred for other groups—and then turn their hatred inward when they inevitably fail. The play completely eschews simple, syrupy lessons about tolerance, and pushes audience members to think about whether immigrants can ever truly assimilate into a new society.

Three weeks later, on May 9, I returned to the very same Panasonic, this time to hear another Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright—Tony Kushner—speak about the state of modern theatre.

Kushner, best known as the creator of Angels in America and the screenwriter of Lincoln and Munich, did not speak specifically to the example of Disgraced. But his theory of art and activism explains the success of Akhtar’s blockbuster perfectly.

“The work dies if you tell the audience how to respond to it,” Kushner told interviewer Philip Akin. “Instead, it has to be a dialectic. Whether it’s ‘don’t buy blood diamonds’ or ‘be nice to gay people,’ audience members are going to respond with ‘Look, can I just sign a pledge card and go home and watch TV, or do laundry or whatever?’ I mean, anything is better than being propagandized.”

Akin, the founding director of Obsidian, Canada’s leading black theatre company, had asked Kushner to comment on a photo showing him protesting at Columbia University in 1978. Akin described the idea of protest as being at the core of Kushner’s work—much in the way the hair of magical creatures sits at the core of the wands in Harry Potter’s imaginary universe. But Kushner pushed back on the compliment, urging a sharp distinction between the worlds of activism and art.

“The power of art has to be indirect,” he told Akin. “And if you can’t make peace with that indirect role, well you’re going to have a really hard time being an artist . . . I sometimes imagine the relationship between audience and artist as kind of like between dreamer and dream. When the dream is over, the audience decides what it means. They think about it. But they don’t sit bolt upright and say, ‘Oh I get it, [Sophocles]. I have to go kill my father and sleep with my mother!”

Later in the evening, Kushner told Akin that the worst thing an artist can be is a didactic bore: “To bore your audience—that is an act of aggression. It’s like you’re at a party, and some guy traps you in the corner, droning on about stuff, and you feel your life source draining out . . . Playwrights can do that to their audiences. Think of it. You’re taking ninety minutes of someone’s life. Multiply that by hundreds of people in the theatre, eight performances per week, month in, month out. Add up all those thousands of hours. If you’re boring people, well, it’s like, in terms of time, you’ve wasted the full life of a toddler.”

Monday night’s event—presented by the Koffler Centre of the Arts—was teeming with young playwrights, directors and actors looking to learn from a master. And much of the evening had the feeling of a sort of expert seminar on the art and science of theatre: “At the heart of it has to be a conflict, a dialectic”—there’s that word again—“between two characters. It can be Lincoln versus Booth. But ultimately, there has to a battle of wills. That’s what drives things forward.”

At one point, Kushner described one of the great low points in his career. He’d been working on the Lincoln script for four years, when Steven Spielberg told him (falsely, as it turned out) that the project wasn’t going to happen. Kushner fell into a state of self-pity—until he found himself in a stark Amsterdam-based production of Angels In America, directed by Ivo Van Hove: “The stage was basically just this empty space. And the soundtrack was David Bowie records—characters would just walk over to a record player and put them on. It was amazing. It was so simple. It restored my faith in what I was doing.”

When someone in the crowd asked Kushner what great writers he would recommend as inspiration for today’s young playwrights, he responded: “Read all the Greeks. Every Euripides you can get your hands on . . . And read shitty plays, too. It pays to read or see something that makes you say ‘Hey, I can do better than that.’”

Hamlet is a miracle—the ultimate play. But that doesn’t mean you should spend a lot of time reading Shakespeare. Whatever you read by him, he got there first. You’re not going to do it better than he did. Same thing with Ckekhov. If you ever write a play and you read it over, and you think ‘Oh, this is very Chekhovian!’ trust me, it isn’t. And don’t read [Samuel] Beckett—too many people have died trying to write like Beckett. Same with [Bernard] Shaw. Rememeber that every great play you have seen is a play where the playwright has solved something. But it’s already been solved. So watch it, and then put it away in your mind.”

As Kushner was reminded in Toronto, his adage that art and activism should be pursued on separate tracks is not universally embraced. In the lead-up to his appearance, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto—a Jewish group that provides an annual grant of $250,000 to the Koffler Centre—publicly disassociated itself from the event, citing Kushner’s role on the advisory board of a progressive group that endorses the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel (despite the fact that Kushner, in his personal capacity, has said he opposes BDS).

The Koffler Centre stood firmly by Kushner, and the event itself was well-attended. When Akin asked Kushner a question about the UJA’s reaction, the crowd seemed to burble audibly even before he answered—suggesting that at least some of the attendees may have shown up specifically to show support for a left-wing thinker who was being attacked for criticizing Israel.

“I am a Jewish gay man, born in the deep south—Louisiana,” he told the crowd. “I am old enough to remember some of the civil rights movement. And while I’m not an expert on the Jewish-Palestinian conflict, I rely on the [moral] teachings I experienced as a Jewish youth.”

“Back then, I would have fights with Gone-with-the-Wind types. This was a time when these people still called the Civil War the ‘War of Southern Independence.’ The textbooks told us that slaves liked being slaves. No one wanted to hear anything that aroused any doubt about this. So if you introduced any kind of new information, they would hysterically push it away. This is what you see in the United States—and now Canada, apparently—when it comes to Israel. The attitude is that ‘This information is too dangerous for Jews to hear.’ I’m tired of it.”

Not everything was this heavy on Monday night. At one point, for instance, Akin and Kushner spent about five minutes discussing their shared love of fountain pens (a subject that had my audience companion, who is also my boss, and who uses a ballpoint, loudly grumbling for the speakers to “move on”).

Kushner owns about 120 fountain pens, apparently. Akin has upwards of 500, and actually helps run an annual fountain-pen-themed event here in Toronto. We also learned that Kushner got his first fountain pen for his bar mitzvah (a Parker 75), and that he possesses one specimen that once was used by Arthur Miller.

“I have never used it,” he told us. “The problem is that it is full of dry ink, and so I just put it away in a drawer.”

“That can be fixed!” said Akin, with much enthusiasm.

“Actually, I figure that when I get older, and reach a certain age, I will a pick a much younger playwright and give the thing to him,” said Kushner.

“Then he can put it in a drawer and figure out what to do with it.”

Jonathan Kay
Jonathan Kay (@jonkay) is a journalist, book author and editor, and public speaker.