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Kushner Goes Public

An intelligent spectator’s guide to who the playwright really is

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Oskar Eustis (L) and Tony Kushner (R) last night.(Steve and Anita Shevett/Public Theater)

Tony Kushner’s talk at the Public Theater last night was scheduled on the occasion of the staging of his new play there, but the attendees in animated conversation beforehand were not, of course, discussing his new play. Kushner spoke directly about the City University of New York’s Board’s decision to prevent John Jay College from awarding him an honorary doctorate only briefly. Of a planned meeting today of the executive committee, which is expected to overturn the Board’s decision, he said, “We’ll see what happens.” Of his views on Israel, he cited the letter he sent to the Board. He referred to CUNY Board Chairman Benno C. Schmidt, Jr.’s “statement that’s sort of an acknowledgement of wrongdoing,” calling it not quite an apology but “apology-ish” (Kushner’s interviewer, the Public Theater maven Oskar Eustis, quoted Schmidt’s admission that the Board “made a mistake of principle, and not merely of policy”). He said that while he knows that much of the support for him has nothing to do with him per se, he also remarked, “I have never in my entire life experienced the volume of warmth and support … it’s just completely overwhelming.” And he did briefly comment that the reaction on his behalf indicates that “we’re in a different place in this country on our understanding of the crisis in the Middle East.” He added, “And what this guy”—CUNY Board member Jeffrey Wiesenfeld—“wanted to happen, which was a rally to this ring of a bell, didn’t happen—quite the contrary.” As far as the evening’s explicit commentary went, the rest was silence.

It is a bit of unlucky timing that the opening of An Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures last week coincided with the end of the academic year and, so, with the CUNY to-do. Although you could consider it lucky timing under the no-such-thing-as-bad-P.R. paradigm, demand for a three-and-a-half-hour play with a 14-word title is relatively inelastic, and, anyway, if critics such as Tablet Magazine contributing editor Seth Lipsky (as well as the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which echoed his argument) are dead-wrong about anything (actually, they are about many things) it is that, in the words of Lipsky’s New York Sun, “you would need a late-model electron microscope spectrometer to separate Mr. Kushner’s politics from his art.” All due respect, but has he read the plays? “It is precisely the liberal politics in his art that has caused the academic elites to rise up on his behalf,” the Journal added. Life is too short to enumerate all the ways that is wrong, and how wrong it is.

Besides, Kushner’s personal politics are in one way somewhat less lefty than his critics say (though very harsh on Israel’s policies, Kushner is not, as Wisenfeld has accused, a “Jewish anti-Semite,” much less a strict anti-Zionist), and in another way much less lefty—repeatedly he made the case for incrementalist, ameliorative liberalism, chastising progressives who languish, like pigs in mud, in the “luxury of powerlessness,” and eagerly praising President Obama precisely for his compromises. “People say all he’s interested in is getting re-elected,” he observed. “That’s all I’m interested in!” But the main point is that if Kushner’s rhetoric can at times be caricatured as that of the Upper West Side bubble—George W. Bush is a “monster,” for example—the man nonetheless is always acutely, scrupulously, at times absurdly aware of exactly what the other side’s position is.

Kushner and Eustis were introduced by actress Cynthia Nixon (who was herself introduced by the director of the Public’s talks series, Jeremy McCarter—who, disclosure, is a friend). Her hair is longer now and dirty-blonde—she resembles the young woman she was in Robert Altman’s Tanner ‘88, made in that year—but spoke in the acerbic tone we have come to know well through her portrayal of Sex and the City’s Miranda Hobbs. She described her very long relationship with the Public and nearly as lengthy relationship with Kushner (she played Harper in the early-‘90s production of Angels in America—the role played by Mary-Louise Parker in the HBO version). She recounted that a friend had just emailed her, “Does it strike you that the events of the last few weeks, months: The Arab spring, killing Bin Laden, the CUNY affair … are all aspects of a Tony Kushner play?” This new play, she said, has at its center a patriarch considering suicide—“It’s like Death of a Salesman if Willie Loman actually consulted with people.” What I’m trying to get across is that Nixon killed.

Then Kushner and Eustis came out, the former in brown slacks, a blue shirt, and a black jacket (longer than a sport coat), the latter in a black suit, and with the trademark booming voice and circle of facial hair that practically compel one’s fingers to type the word “leonine.” Eustis commissioned and directed the very first production of Angels, we learned, and in fact was the very first person whom Kushner, back in its earliest stages, told the title to. Eustis’s response was: “Write the fuck on.” Thank God Kushner did—Angels in America is one of the greatest glories of the past half-century of American culture. It is also, in its unbelievably brash and wide scope, concern for universal human nature and social justice, New York centric-ness, and specific characters—Roy Cohn, Ethel Rosenberg, a young stand-in for Kushner—an unmistakable piece of American Jewish culture. (And also of American gay culture: If, as Susan Sontag wrote a few years after Kushner was born, “The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony,” then Angels may stand, in time, as the apotheosis of that modern sensibility.)

Eustis began by pulling out a brown envelope. It seems the Public building, on Lafayette Street in lower Manhattan, had been the headquarters of the Hebrew National Aid Society, and, in the course of current renovations, discovered in the wall—literally, in the cement, under one of the staircases—was this envelope, which contained union cards in Hebrew. Unions are a big theme of Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide (or “iHO,” as Kushner calls it). Discussing unions involved one of Kushner’s signature demonstrations of his fundamental fair- and open-mindedness. I don’t want to sugarcoat him too much: His rhetoric can be crude. Attacks on unions, he said, were “Reaganite crap,” and that was probably one of his nicer descriptors. But before he launched into that, he recited—very clearly by compulsion—all of the arguments against unions, about how they make the money go to the wrong people, and are corrupt, and all that (and all that, going on and on), all the “Reaganite crap.” He devoted far more time to the brief against his side than anyone else I can conceive of would have. The man is obsessed with knowing all about the other side, and indeed in plays such as Angels, he at times gives the other side the best lines. (You weep at Roy Cohn’s death in Angels, and are forced to watch Kaddish said for him, even as other parts of the play have shown Cohn to be the horrorshow he in fact was.) It was telling that Nixon, who has seen iHo, asked Kushner in her introduction which side he fell on in a debate that two of his own characters in his own play have. Just reading the play and seeing it performed, there is really no way to know!

During the final, question-and-answer section, somebody asked if King Lear haunted iHo and its depiction of a dying patriarch and his fraught relationship with his daughter. Kushner, who with iHo has written the closest approximation yet of the American family drama, acknowledged that Lear as well as Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya were the two non-American plays that he felt influenced by. He viscerally reacted to the Shakespeare comparison—“it’s in bad taste,” he joked—but earlier, he had spoken of Shakespeare so earnestly, involuntarily miming somebody shielding himself from the sun’s rays when speaking of the Bard, in a way I vaguely recalled. And I didn’t realize where I recalled it from until Kushner cited his old college Shakespeare professor, Edward Tayler. Mainly because he is the professor in David Denby’s book about it—but also because he remains a legend in Morningside Heights—Tayler is the professor most associated with Columbia University’s Core Curriculum, an overbearingly earnest two-year program in which all College undergraduates read the “Great Books” of Western literature and philosophy. (My favorite cultural artifact of the Core is this picture of Anna Wintour’s daughter lugging a copy of the Iliad to a Fashion Week runway—after all, Columbia first-years are expected to have the first six books read by day one.) It is a rigorous, somewhat bizarre, enormously enriching experience that Kushner and the president he loves (and, as you surely have guessed, I) underwent.

The Core is unabashedly dorky—in the way that you read the actual books themselves firsthand; in the way you discuss them, seminar-style, as though you are the first people to come upon them; in the way that you study them in a neo-classical library with the author’s names chiseled on the top; in the way that you find yourself discussing them with your fellow students long after you need to—and as Kushner discussed Ibsen and Shakespeare and Nietzsche with this unabashed dorkiness, I realized that he remains fundamentally a Core guy. Which is to say, he never really left, and continues to discuss things about which he is inexpert (like, say, the Mideast conflict) as though he is an expert, and he said some controversial things, and didn’t realize there might be blowback. Is there some naivete in this? Sure. But mainly there is open-mindedness and the spirit of free inquiry, which are only foggy-headed abstract concepts if we permit that to happen. Kushner, who produces some of our country’s masterworks in his day job and prods in other arenas in his spare time, is exactly what we should want our intellectuals to be and exactly what we should want our universities—particularly our public universities—to honor. Not that we need worry: If it doesn’t today (and all indications are that it will), CUNY will eventually see the error of its ways. The world only spins forward.

After Reversal, Honor Is Likely for Kushner [NYT]

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Alter says:

All very interesting. Let’s hope that the Executive Committee of the CUNY Board of Trustees will remove this stain on its character, which, like it or not, is rubbing off on Israel, Israelis and Jews. Stupidity never spawns good.

Marc, this is a long piece, that I will read through, but do you honestly believe that Tony Kushner’s art and politics can be treated discretely or compartmentalized somehow? If memory serves, at the end of Angels in America, in the scene by Bethesda Fountain, the characters actually weigh in on the conflict in the Middle East, in a way that seemed almost gratuitous and tacked on, to me anyway. The drama itself is framed in political terms.

It’s funny; I remember when they shot The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Philip Kaufman, I believe, asked Milan Kundera what was essential to the novel, and needed to be preserved in the celluloid version. The love story, he replied. But do you really think you could do the same with Kushner? What would you have left over?

Norm says:

If the Executive Committee of the CUNY Board of Trustees capitulates under heavy leftist pressure, it would be a
shame. Mr.Kushner’s membership in the JVP, his wish Israel
should have never been created, his support for groups
with anti-Israeli BDS-programs, are qualifying him as a
political extremist who doesn’t deserve a honorary doctorate from CUNY.

Beatrix says:

Kushner should have his award because Americans believe in freedom of speech. This award shouldn’t be viewed as support for his statements:

Israel was “founded in a program that, if you really want to be blunt about it, was ethnic cleansing.” “It would have been better had the State of Israel never been created” and that Israel is involved in the “deliberate destruction” of Palestinian culture and identity.”

Well, said, Beatrix, although the guy was not being carted off to Birmingham Jail, though given some of the reactions, you might be excused for thinking that was the case.

And where were all the defenders of free speech when Martin Peretz’s award at Harvard was scratched, under political pressure?

Abbi says:

“deliberate destruction” of Palestinian culture and identity.”

Really- so please explain why the Palestinian population has increased exponentially in the last 63 years. If we have been engaging in ethnic cleansing, we’ve been doing a piss-poor job of it.

The way I see it, the decision of awarding/not awarding an honorary degree isn’t the problem. The board has the right to choose who they want to honor, but the way this played out is where they messed up particularly in the issue coming up at the last minute as a reason to not give the award leaving no time to fully investigate if there was enough there to warrant withholding the award.

Lillianf says:

Tracy observes that Kushner “continues to discuss things about which he’s inexpert (like say the Middle East conflict) as though he’s an expert,” and then blithely dismisses this as merely a manifestation of Kushner’s “naïveté” But Kushner, because of his legitimate success, has the public ear. If one of the foremost cultural figures of our time slanders Israel with outrageous accusations of “ethnic cleansing” there are many out there who, alas, take his word for it. If he’s not an “expert” on so incendiary a subject as Israel, doesn’t he have a moral responsibility either to get his facts straight or keep quiet?

Marc Tracy says:

@fw as I recall the scene it is Louis–Kushner’s obvious stand-in–talking about the Middle East, and Prior, the play’s actual conscience, saying that while these are important arguments it’s not what he wants to focus on right now. Louis is one voice in Angels.

fw says:

I thought I remembered Jeffrey Wright as Belize putting in a plug for the Palestinians. Nothing wrong, or surprising, about that. One of many voices perhaps, but all of them, with the exception of the demonized Roy Cohn, from the Left. Not that I would want to be mistaken as an apologist for Cohn, but I don’t think having a sentimental attachment to Marxist thought is any more honorable, or intellectually tenable, knowing what we do about Stalin and the tens of millions he murdered. And distasteful as it may be, the Rosenbergs, putative heroes of Kushner, or at least deified martyrs, served him loyally.

Dani Levi says:

Nixon, Kushner and Eustis are all with JVP. Eustis even made it on onto their website on a photo.
Looks like this dismissal provoked the hornets nest in NYC.
It is funny how the left all bitch about the Israeli lobby and then the left has the exact same thing on the other side.

I really enjoyed this piece’s thorough exploration of the topic. The only opinion I would add is that of Time’s writer, Stanley Fish (http://nyti.ms/muRu7M/)
To summurize his argument, there was nothing academically wrong in the board’s decision to deny Kushner the degree. An honorary degree is not a right, and as he states, most decisions are done in similar fashion.
However, it was incredibly stupid. Fish mentions that the last time a nominated honoree was denied was in 1961. One can speculate similar fallout (thought the internet makes the sin much more egregious) and it will certainly be a long time before another board votes down an honoree based on political opinions.
Speaking about the legalities of the case doesn’t seem to go anywhere. The real sin was not in Wiesenfeld’s ill-informed and highly personal complaint. It was in the remainder of the CUNY board’s failure to even attempt to unearth hard facts regarding Kushner’s positions. Had Kushner indeed been a raging anti-Semite, or violently anti-Israel, there would be many condemning his denial, but at the end of the day it would settle into a matter of opinion. The real culprits are those that choose hearsay over evidence, and make rash decisions without true basis. And as I’ve gleamed from this article, that is something Kushner had to make a stand against.

As a separate point, to those who claim to perceive Kushner’s personal opinions by his artistic point of view, I ask you kindly to use the vast capabilities of the human brain and have some depth. Of course an artist’s opinions leak into their work (we wouldn’t respect it if it didn’t take a stance), but the characters in a play and the words they say are not the artist’s soap box, and are rarely treated as such by their scribe. Kushner is an intelligent, opinionated individual, and whether you agree with his positions or not, he deserves, at the very least, our respect. And a CUNY degree wouldn’t hurt either.

Ezekiel says:

The accusation of Israel of Ethnic Cleansing is slender. Israel, with a large and thriving Arab minority, obviously did a very lousy ethnic cleansing job, if it ever contemplated one. On the other end of the spectrum, the entire Jewish existence in the Middle East – outside of Israel – has been erased with resounding success by Israel’s Arab neighbors. Communities in Iraq, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, which thrived for centuries before Muhammad was born, are gone. The leaders of these countries did a better job than Hitler, yet they are completely guilt free. Today, continuing on the same shameless path, the Palestinians demand that any peace agreement with Israel would be predicated on the Ethnic Cleansing of all Jews within their territory!
Alan Dershowitz is right. If you hold Israel to impossible moral standards; if you perpetuated falsehoods lifted from questionable sources without trying to corroborate them; if you defend a blood libel such as the “Seven Jewish Children,” etc., then you are an Anti-Semite. It may be a mild case of fashionable, Lefty Anti-Semitism, but it still reeks.

corey says:

fw Take another look at Angels, several characters other than Cohn are hardly of “The Left” (Whatever that means these days). Like the Mormons, the Rabbis, the Angel, Prior’s ancestors…

Also, what makes you think someone with what I’d call a progressive, egalitarian, tolerant point of view has, (therefore?) a “sentimental attachment to Marxism” not to mention the rather sudden leap from Marxism to Stalinism? Stalin killed a hell of a lot of Marxists. As to whether the Rosenbergs “loyally served” Stalin, that point is, at best, still arguable. As far as I can tell it has indeed been established that Julius passed something on to the Soviets, but whether it made a difference, what Ethel’s involvement was, the role of Greenglass and more still have no definitive answers. In any case, in Angels, Ethel is a ghost who haunts Cohn, which makes all kinds of sense apart from the actual Rosenbergs historical actions.

David44 says:

“And where were all the defenders of free speech when Martin Peretz’s award at Harvard was scratched, under political pressure?”

They were probably reading the newspapers and noticing that Martin Peretz’s award at Harvard was not scratched, whether under political pressure or anything else; hence there was nothing to protest about. It’s interesting that your memories have reversed reality in order to create a fake story of Peretz’s “persecution” that never actually happened, but that says more about you than about the alleged hypocrisies of the defenders of free speech.

Dani Levi says:

Actually Marty Peretz’s speech at Harvard was cancelled ( so much for free speech, musn’t upset the left!). And he did apologize profoundly.
The more I look at the lefts double standard, be it in Israel or in the USA, the more hypocritical I find them.

Thank you, Dani. Yes, David44, they asked Peretz not to speak, and if you’ve no objections to that, we’d like to ask you to do the same.

brynababy says:

Whatever one thinks of his artistry, Kushner’s voice is a major and loud one. Therefore his excruciatingly ugly comments and view-points of Israel take on a weight in the eyes of others that is unfair, untrue and has to be considererd when evaluating Kushner’s deserving of any awards.

I am a liberal, I am on the ‘left’, but my God, I surely do not think like some of the ‘lefties’ I have been reading in regard to this situation!

brynababy says:

To Lillian F: Yes! Yes! Yes!

the postman says:

As so often happens in Tablet, the comments section is as interesting as the article itslef. Thanks, folks!

Harrietb98 says:

How about printing Jeffrey Weisenfeld’s side of the story?

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Kushner Goes Public

An intelligent spectator’s guide to who the playwright really is

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