Tony Kushner: "Me? I am the wicked son"

By John Nathan, October 19, 2006
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Tony Kushner was slammed for his screenplay of Spielberg’s ‘Munich’ and for his strident criticisms of Israel. He is also rated as America’s greatest living playwright.

The National Theatre’s latest production (it opened last night) is “Caroline, or Change,” a musical set in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where, according to the show’s lyrics and its author Tony Kushner, “nothing ever happens.”

Kushner should know. He was raised there, though born in New York. Yet, out of the humdrum Lake Charles of his childhood, Kushner has written the book and libretto to a musical set in 1963 (to Jeanine Tesori’s music) that takes in America’s greatest political struggle, that of civil rights for its African-American population.

Central to the show is the relationship between a black maid called Caroline and Noah, the Jewish son of her white employers. It is Kushner’s most autobiographical work. Eight-year-old Noah is an amalgam of the author and his younger brother Eric. The Caroline of the title is modelled on their family’s black maid Maudi Lee Davis, to whom the musical is dedicated. It is a startlingly imaginative piece in which household appliances, such as a washing machine, are given their own numbers to sing, while Caroline (played by Tonya Pinkins, who created the role in New York) is imagined by Noah as the President of the United States.

“I’ll never be able to write anything without including the political context,” says Kushner after a day’s rehearsal of the musical, which arrives at the National from New York, where it premiered in 2004. But he is actually referring to a future project, what he calls his next “big gay play.” This of course is a tag that precisely fits Kushner’s Pulitzer-winning epic, “Angels in America,” which also won a clutch of Emmys with the HBO version starring Al Pacino and Meryl Streep.

That work, possibly the greatest play of the 1990s, provided the theatre’s starkest examination of Reagan’s America. Kushner’s first play, “A Bright Room Called Day” (1984), had already made the “deliberately irresponsible” (Kushner’s words) comparison between Reagan and Hitler.

It may indeed have been irresponsible, but events have a habit of vindicating Kushner. The morning “A Bright Room Called Day” opened, American newspapers carried pictures of a naive Reagan laying a wreath on the graves of SS soldiers in Germany. And Kushner’s later play “Homebody/Kabul” was written before the attacks on the World Trade Centre, yet contained the line, “the Taliban are coming to New York.” It opened a month after 9/11, a few blocks away from Ground Zero.

That prophet-like vision is undiminished with “Caroline, or Change,” which contains the lyrics “Nothin’ ever happened underground in Louisiana, there is only underwater” — a line written years before hurricane Katrina hit the state, and which now has a chilling resonance. Perhaps that is what mostly gets on the nerves of what Kushner calls “the hysterical right” — that he is so often proved correct.

Israeli government policy regularly comes in for Kushner criticism (he has previously told the JC that Ariel Sharon is “one of the world’s worst people”). So when Steven Spielberg commissioned Kushner to write the screenplay for “Munich,” Spielberg’s hugely controversial 2005 film about Israel’s covert response to the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics, it was a red rag to a bull. And the bull charged.

Israel’s consul-general in Los Angeles attacked the film for its “moral equivalence.” It is a phrase frequently used by commentators when they perceive that a violent response to terrorism is portrayed as being morally equivalent to the terrorist act that provoked it.

The papers were full of intelligence experts, some with Mossad connections, discrediting the film, Kushner and Spielberg. There were (unsuccessful) calls by the right-wing Zionist Organisation of America to rescind the honorary doctorate awarded to Kushner by the (Jewish- sponsored) Brandeis university near Boston. Kushner’s critics unearthed an article in Ha’aretz in which the playwright was quoted as saying that the creation of Israel was a “mistake,” and that Zionism “is not the right answer.”

“People on the right are rather unscrupulous in their use of quotes,” says Kushner with calm contempt. The quotes, he says, came from his liner notes for an album by The Klezmatics. He accepts that in them he describes the state of Israel as a “moral, political catastrophe for the Jewish people…” “[But that] was followed immediately by my saying this absolutely does not mean I believe the state of Israel doesn’t have a right to exist, or that it shouldn’t be defended. And I went on to say that, if I were to imagine laying down my life for any country, it would be Israel as much as any other.”

Kushner, who looks younger than his 50 years, delivers all this in a softly spoken, articulate torrent. His patter is said to be inherited from his mother Sylvia (a bassoonist who recorded with Stravinsky) and it is something that Kushner himself perfected as a high-school debating champion. “The thing that complicates my position is that I’m not anti-Zionist, but I’m not a Zionist. I’m a diasporan Jew. I do actually think that what was hoped for in founding Israel — the end of Jewish suffering at the hands of antisemites — was not something that could have been accomplished by the creation of a new national entity.”

There was a similarly angry response to “Munich” in Britain. “I was really disturbed that a certain amount of the press in England, which has generally been so critical of Israel, suddenly was giving columns to ex-Mossad agents with enormous axes to grind. As if that was an answer to a work of historical fiction. It’s not, it’s beside the point.”

But isn’t there something in the “moral equivalence” argument? “Let’s answer this as talmudists,” says Kushner. “What would Jewish law say? We don’t believe in direct, simple, unthinking vengeance. There’s an immense body of very scrupulous, talmudic consideration about when violence is acceptable and when it isn’t.”

There is only one directive, Kushner observes, “…that life is supposed to be of absolutely non-negotiable value. Besides that, there is no instance in which killing is approved by the Talmud that isn’t qualified and hedged round by many, many, many, generations of great minds trying to understand and address the moral complexities of any act of violence.

“If I condemn utterly, as I do, the horrendous murder of children in Beslan, that doesn’t mean it’s of no interest to me to try and understand why anyone would do it. And when I look at the history of Russia’s war with the Chechens, I start to understand certain things.”

But how do you sustain this view when killers and their supporters are unwilling to agonise over the same moral questions? “That’s of no interest to me. I can’t control them. I certainly can’t sit around waiting for them to show good faith. That’s not what you do. What you do — and again, this is completely Jewish law — you take care of your own stuff. Make sure you’re a righteous person. In theory, if you struggle to do that, the world will follow. You don’t get to be an asshole because somebody else is one.”

It is a view expressed somewhat more poetically in the film when Mossad’s bomb-maker

expresses his doubts. “We’re Jews,” he says. “Jews don’t do wrong because our enemies are wrong. We’re supposed to be righteous. That’s a beautiful thing. That’s Jewish and now we’re losing it. That’s everything. That’s my soul.”

The backlash to the film was not unexpected, says Kushner. He warned Spielberg, but the film director was determined to make the movie. It was a brave film for Spielberg to make, argues the playwright. Brave because Spielberg went “to the heart of the touchiest subject with the Am-erican Jewish community who feel very proud and connected to him, feel he’s expressed incredibly important things in ‘Schindler’s List.’”

Whereas Kushner, on the other hand…?

“Whereas I on the other hand — I’m the wicked son,” he chuckles.


Tony Kushner in brief

Education
Studied literature at Columbia University, New York, and contemplated nursing or law as alternative careers.

Formative theatrical experience
Watching his mother Sylvia in amateur productions of “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “Death of a Salesman.”

Reputation
Hailed by many as America’s greatest living playwright. Has won two Tonys and a Pulitzer.

Non-dramatic works
include poems, essays, public addresses, opera librettos and a children’s book.

On being Jewish in Louisiana
“There was no apology for being Jewish, but nobody wore a yarmulka. There was at the same time a very powerful sense of Jewish identity.”

Lives in New York with journalist Mark Harris, with whom Kushner traded commitment vows three years ago.

Mid-East political wants
“A serious peace process in the Middle East, the wall and settlements dismantled, the presence of a real, real international peacekeeping force to patrol borders and Jerusalem.”

Last updated: 2:02pm, August 28 2014