Why Republicans are at the top of Kushner's hit list

Tony Kushner is furious about George Bush, simplistic thinking and his own failure to prevent the Iraq war

By John Nathan, September 7, 2010
Jews are among Tony Kushner’s fiercest critics. “They are welcome to their opinions,” he  says

Jews are among Tony Kushner’s fiercest critics. “They are welcome to their opinions,” he says

To get an instant impression of the subject of this article you could do worse than tap the words "Tony" and "Kushner" into YouTube. There is an eight minute, 57-second video which shows the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning playwright saying thank you for his latest honorary degree.

Delivered in 2008, before Obama swept into power, this is classic Kushner, delivered at high-speed. The thank-you takes in the two subjects that have occupied his continent-sized intellect for most of his 54 years - his contempt for Republicans in general (and America's previous president in particular) and his support for gay rights.

It is a performance that makes Woody Allen look lacking in intelligence and anxiety. In those eight minutes Kushner refers to all the hard-working psychotherapists whom he can hear imploring him not to question the wisdom of awarding him an honorary degree, and his parents who are telling him not to question the graciousness of the decision.

Then the speech vaults on to a subject that concerns everybody - the human condition. He feels like a lab rat, he tells his audience. This rat used to be fed tasty morsels but now - ow! - the rat gets only electric shocks. Iraq - ow!; sub-prime mortgages - ow!

In its way it is like watching one of his plays, only in miniature. Like the five works that arrived at the Tricycle Theatre in London for their UK premiere this week called Tiny Kushner - "tiny" because the word sounds like "Tony", and because the plays are very short.

I am not an anti-zionist. Nor am I a zionist. I am a diaspora Jew

Tony Kushner

They are an eclectic bunch these five plays - often surreal, mostly funny and, as anyone who knows Kushner's work would expect, all of them political. The fifth and most controversial of them imagines George W's wife Laura Bush meeting three dead Iraqi children, killed as a result of American bombing. "Saddam Hussein is a terrible man," says Laura. An Angel agrees, but Laura knows that the shadow of culpability also lies across her and her husband.

Yet, although on the page the play, which was first seen in 2003, reads like a full frontal attack on Republican foreign policy, it is not just Laura and her husband's administration that this stalwart of the American left is having a go at. "The play brings us into the same moral landscape," maintains Kushner, speaking from his New York office. "I was feeling angry at myself and at the people on the Progressive side of things for having surrendered power to such an extent that we were unable to stop the war from the beginning."

And that is the point about Kushner's politics. Whereas many political pundits see ambivalence (which is the title of one of the plays) as a form of equivocation, for Kushner it is exactly what is required to understand the complexity of a situation. Which is why as an outspoken critic of Israel he resents the "anti-Israel " or "anti-Zionist" labels which his opponents stick on him. "I am not in any way an anti-Zionist," he says. "Nor am I Zionist. I am a diaspora Jew."

There is a double dimension to the reputation enjoyed by this New York-born, Louisiana-raised son of a conductor/clarinetist (his father) and a mother who played bassoon with Stravinsky. Not only is he rated as one of America's greatest living dramatists, but the most important too. It is a distinction that rests on the rare ability of this Jewish, gay, playwright to campaign for the progressive values he holds so dear, reflect them in his plays but not to the point that the politics diminishes their drama. The plays do not serve as sermons, which is what happens when lesser writers attempt to impose their politics on their work; they are enquiries into the human condition and are usually saturated with a Jewish sensibility. Take Angels in America, the play for which he is best known and which won a Pulitzer and two Tonys, one for each part of the seven-hour epic when they premiered in New York in 1993. (The HBO mini-series starring Al Pacino and Meryl Streep won an Emmy). Set in the 1980s, Angels takes in Reagan's America and the onset of Aids. Although the themes are universal, two of the play's main protagonists are Jewish- Roy Cohn, Kushner's version of the real-life McCarthyite lawyer; and Louis, one of the epic's flawed heroes.

Perhaps this Jewishness is why some of his most vehement critics are Jewish. "Well, yeah. We don't have the Pope," he says. "There is no orthodoxy. My Jewish critics are welcome to their opinions but they don't represent Jews. They sometimes sound as if they think they do. I think all I've ever done in terms of my criticism of Israel is work very hard to avoid any kind of simplistic analysis of the situation. And I never want to sound more certain of anything than I actually am."

As well as knee-jerk defenders of Israel, this point is also directed to those on his own side of the political spectrum. "I would say that an example of the left betraying its ethos of politics of complexity is the factually and historically erroneous comparison of Israel to South Africa which is an obscuring and deeply damaging tack to take."

It is what Kushner calls "bad rhetoric". Bad rhetoric leads to bad policy. "It has led to people in the UK - and people are trying it now in the United States - to call for sanctions and boycotts of Israel similar to the ones that had the effect of dismantling apartheid in South Africa. But you know, the situations are very different and a lack of awareness of those differences is calamitous."

Just as calamitous is the comparison made between Israel and the Nazis, he says. "I think its stupid and it makes it impossible to have any discussion with anybody." But doesn't Caryl Churchill's controversial play, Seven Jewish Children, which starts with atrocities committed by Nazis and ends with atrocities committed by Jewish Israelis, make that link? Kushner strongly defended the work against accusations that it is antisemitic.

"What Caryl Churchill has written on paper is misrepresented. It's an attempt to understand other people, and overcome the very considerable divide between two groups - non-Jewish British culture and Jewish British culture. The play gave a sense that the Holocaust was not just another nasty aspect of the Second World War but something radically different, and I think Caryl clearly understands that."

As part of this discourse, Kushner and the Village Voice theatre critic Alisa Solomon, who also defended Churchill's play, co-edited an anthology of Jewish writings, called Wrestling with Zion, Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. If a playwright and critic can find common ground, surely there must be hope in the Middle East, they say in their introduction. With the first Palestinian-Israeli peace talks in years, does Kushner still have hope?

"I'm increasingly one of the few people willing to say this. A two-state solution seems the only possible solution and needs to happen. If Obama can stay in the White House and secure his power in Congress enough to put a lot of pressure in the right places, diplomatic efforts will lead somewhere."

'Tiny Kushner' is at the Tricycle, London NW6 until September 25. Tel: 020 7328 1000

Last updated: 3:01pm, February 18 2011