Photo by Jim Newberry
“I love the world! I love love love love the world!” exults an Englishwoman named Homebody in Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul, shortly into her dazzling, play-opening 45-minute soliloquy. Though any character’s expression is only a diffused sliver of the author’s, Homebody’s gentle wit, her breadth of knowledge and passion for research, her relentless curiosity and almost pathological self-awareness combine into a love for the world that seems not unlike Kushner’s. For her own eccentric reasons, Homebody, a British woman with a yearning for connectedness to any world beyond herself, studies an outdated guidebook for Kabul, Afghanistan — a city into which, by Act 2, she will have disappeared, her baffled family on her heels, searching for her.
Right around September 11, 2001, the author of Angels in America was preparing to open Homebody/Kabul (currently in previews at the Taper) at the New York Theater Workshop. That Kushner had conceived of a play about Afghanistan before al Qaeda struck the twin towers brought a fresh wave of astonished praise for Kushner’s prescience — a compliment he denies right before predicting that George W. Bush will lose next November’s election, and that within two years we’ll be in a mega-recession — the inevitable fallout from the nation’s decimation of its manufacturing base. “What recovery?” he says quietly during a walk down Chicago’s North Avenue. “Based on what? Home refinancing?”
Homebody’s opening confession to the audience is reason enough to see this play. Written with strategically arch formality and a poet’s precision of language, it careens with the levity of a pingpong ball between a discourse on Persian history and a meditation on Homebody’s brittle relationship with her bewildered family, and provides further evidence supporting Kushner’s long-held assertion that, in the theater at least, he is a dramatist, not a polemicist. From her stuffed armchair, Homebody keeps swerving across lanes of thought, occasionally hitting the center divider before bouncing into a ditch. After a pause, she crawls out, temperamentally on hands and knees, before resuming:
“My husband cannot bear my . . . the sound of me and has threatened to leave on this account and so I rarely speak to him anymore. We both take powerful antidepressants. His pills have one name and mine another. I frequently take his pills instead of mine so I can know what he’s feeling. I keep mine in a glass bowl next to the bathroom sink, a nice wide-mouthed bowl, very wide, very open, like an epergne, but so far as I know he never takes my pills but ingests only his own, which are yellow and red, while mine are green and creamy white; and I find his refusal to sample dull. A little dull.” (She pauses and resumes reading.) “. . . By 322 B.C., only a year after Alexander’s death, his vast Macedonian empire had disassembled.”
The charge that Kushner’s theater is more pedagoguish than dramatic stems partly from the inability of his accusers to differentiate between a politically charged play and a screed, or between a character and its author. Kushner’s characters may spout diatribes, but his plays, many coming from an Elizabethan tradition, are about the collision of those arguments into a kind of forum. Kushner’s works are composed of conflicts and discussions merging into a skeptical, ironical and often paradoxical vision; a play with a vision can shed some light, whereas a play with an opinion can be merely annoying. It’s helpful to distinguish the two.
Kushner has been plagued by the charge of didacticism since one of his earliest plays, A Bright Room Called Day (1985). Written as a despondent response to Ronald Reagan’s re-election, the play uses a series of short, Brechtian scenes to chronicle the collapse of will among a troupe of leftist Berlin actors as Hitler ascends to power in Weimar Germany. If the left would ever hang together, it could actually avert catastrophe, the play suggests — a conviction that’s continued to streak across the firmament of Kushner’s thought for almost two decades, like a wish made on a perpetually falling star.
Into the Bright Room mix, Kushner adds a contemporary commentator, an irritant by design, a woman named Zillah haunted by nightmares, who, lamenting Reagan’s willful neglect of the AIDS epidemic, compares the former American president to Hitler. Critics jumped to the conclusion that Zillah and her leaps of logic were simply Kushner bounding around in a dress. The Guardian’s Michael Billington savaged the play with such ferocity, Kushner says (with a combination of haughtiness and defensiveness), that he still doesn’t read reviews. (It must have been friends who broke to him the news about The New York Times describing Angels in America as the most important play of the decade.) Still, despite the almost 20 years that separate them, and despite their differing personalities, Zillah and Homebody are both bright women suffering in domestic confines, while an epic unfolds behind them.
Ten years after Angels, which premiered in its two-part entirety at the Mark Taper Forum, Kushner has survived the curses of adoration and celebrity, which are often harbingers of swift descent and disappearance. Instead, though his writing blends the laconic poetical style of Tennessee Williams with the political voltage of Brecht, Kushner’s persona is akin to our country’s Bernard Shaw — a gracious, slightly capricious, yet perennially outraged commentator and provocateur with one foot in politics and the other in the arts. This is a role now usually reserved for TV and movie actors, who generally possess only a fraction of Kushner’s knowledge of world history and literature. (Kushner recently returned from the Occupied Territories and is currently compiling a series of progressive essays on the Jewish-Palestinian conflict, to be co-edited with The Village Voice’s Alisa Solomon.)
That such a respected Jewish-gay spokesperson for the injured, the insulted and the oppressed should come from the theater is, in these times, an anomaly that is very good for the theater — though that didn’t stop Kushner from poking fun at his craft in his Vassar College commencement address last year: “This is a time of crisis, and in a time of crisis we all have to focus on getting real, and you, what do you do? You get a playwright to deliver the 2002 commencement speech.”
None of Kushner’s other plays (Slavs!, The Illusion, Henry Box Brown or The Mirror of Slavery, Hydriotaphia or The Death of Doctor Brown) or adaptations (The Dybbuk, The Good Person of Sezuan, Stella) have been of the epic scale or enjoyed the critical acclaim of Angels in America (“a gay fantasia on national themes”). However, his first-ever musical, Caroline, written with composer Jeanine Tesori and directed by George C. Wolfe, is in rehearsals at the New York Public Theater. Caroline is the story of a black maid to a Jewish family in 1963 Lake Charles, Louisiana, where Kushner spent much of his youth and developed his political outrage — before studying medieval literature at Columbia University and stage direction at NYU.
Kushner met with the Weekly in the offices of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater, where actors in the Los Angeles production of Homebody/Kabul (produced in association with Steppenwolf) were rehearsing. The meeting was scheduled for 9 a.m. because Kushner had planned to attend rehearsal at 11. He arrived somewhat disheveled and distracted, having been writing all night and having left his backpack at some unremembered location back at his hotel. A phone call later, he calmed with the knowledge that his backpack had been located and secured. He also decided to skip the rehearsal, giving us a more leisurely interview and himself the opportunity to resume writing in the afternoon. The interview began with a testy exchange about rewrites, after which we decided to move on to the more relaxed confines of a local coffee shop to resume the conversation.
L.A. WEEKLY: How is Homebody/Kabul evolving, how is it different, what’s being worked on?
TONY KUSHNER: I sort of feel that too much has been made of the rewrites. I am sort of trying to trace back why I became . . . Why are you asking me this? Would you ask this of any playwright having a piece moving from Chicago to L.A.?
Last year, when Homebody was supposed to open at the Taper, you wrote me that the reason it was being delayed was that you felt you wanted to do a lot more work on it and didn’t have the time, because of Caroline being in workshops and the filming of Angels for HBO. It’s an earnest question.
[Softening.] I am a little frustrated, there was this enormous press about the rewrites. [Michael Phillips reported in the Chicago Tribune that not much had changed since the New York version.] Of course, I’m angry with Phillips. What he said is absolutely untrue. Everything has been substantially worked on, it’s verifiable, even from the published version . . . it’s frustrating. I think it’s in very good shape here. All the changes have to do with the psychological dynamics between the characters and not with Afghan politics. It’s still set in 1998, and nothing of that has changed. It was Hugh Kenner, on Ezra Pound, who said that the task of the epic poet is to complete the poem while writing it in public. He was referring to the Cantos and to Faust and Faust II, where installments of it would appear with vast public involvement. If it’s going to be discussed, I want a fair hearing. It would be disingenuous to say I don’t want to have this conversation. Maybe this is just contradictory, but I also want people to come in and sit down and just see the play. The monologue, I haven’t touched. When something is finished, you sort of know, and when it isn’t, you know that, too. There are certain plays that are unfinishable, you can make the decision to stop working on it, which is what I’m going to do.
You’ve written some drama criticism yourself.
On occasion. A while ago, a critic was taking a leave from a newspaper in New York, and I was invited to fill in for six months.
I’m not saying. I didn’t take the job. I didn’t want to deal with the enmity.
Of having to tell the truth?
About my colleagues. Or of heaping praise on a certain play and then dealing with the enmity that creates. When I was completely unknown, I used to say much more terrible things about writers. When I was young, I hated all those guys — Albee, Williams. I wrote this terrible review of Albee’s Seascape; it’s embarrassing now because I revere these people — or Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge — no American playwright has ever understood so profoundly the mechanics of getting an audience and keeping them and moving them to the next point, and the fact that it’s in the service of such monumental ideas is amazing. That at one point I actually thought Long Day’s Journey was not a good play is just embarrassing.
Do you believe in the devil?
Oh well, I don’t know, sure I do, I believe in evil. I believe in the power and the importance of the imagination, whether or not I actually believe in the devil I can’t say, I’m an agnostic. No, I absolutely believe in a category of evil; it’s a mistake to dismiss it. I know that Saddam Hussein is an evil man and that George W. Bush is an evil man, whatever sort of lip service in their nefarious careers they’ve given to sham compassion or devotion to their people. I don’t believe that, on some fundamental level, either is capable of understanding how important a single human life is. While we know about the crimes of Hussein, what do you say about the man, legitimately or not, the president of the United States, about a man who is about to send thousands of children to war against other children, who pumps his fist into the air and says, “Feel good!” Bush’s machismo may give Peggy Noonan an orgasm, but most people are now a little bit creeped out by it.
This is a really deeply flawed, fucked-up human being, surrounded by people who are similarly lacking, someone like Condoleezza Rice, who can take the legacy of civil rights and use it for the invasion of Iraq. These are bad people, because they promote a lethal kind of chaos, and they are transparently cynical and self-serving. These are people who will do anything to grab power. That’s a through line from McCarthy to Richard Nixon. McCarthy fucked up, he was first denounced by a Republican senator — that would never happen today. There’s a direct line between McCarthy and Iran-Contra, redistricting, the stealing of the presidential election and this ridiculous recall in California.
Have we reached a point of no return?
No, by no means, I don’t think Bush is going to win the 2004 election. I’m not particularly prescient, but I think he’s going to lose. I don’t think we’re in any sense beyond hope. We’re in a lot of danger. I’ve been saying this for a while now. It’s an absolute moral imperative for individuals to find a way to become actively involved in the electoral process. It’s time for the left to abandon its infantile obsession with anarchist utopia, and a third party — there’s absolutely no room in the political process for a third party.
So there’s reason to feel reassured.
Oh, no, I don’t think we should feel reassured. Hope is not a balm, it’s a bomb. It’s a force in the world, a manifestation of fury, because of revolution and outrage and civil disobedience. Hope is not a reassurance, reassurance is sometimes a kind of despair. When one says one has hope, it means one is full of fire. As Brecht said, “The support of the oppressed for the oppressed is the world’s one hope.” That’s a lesson we keep failing to learn. Now we’re in the 21st century, it’s really time to get it. There are several reasons that Bush is in the White House: judicial malfeasance on the part of the Supreme Court; criminal behavior in Florida on the part of Katherine Harris; Al Gore is the most untalented politician in the world; and Ralph Nader ran for president. If you keep going back in time, invariably when you see a promising political movement die, at the termination point you see a failure of solidarity on the part of the progressives. It’s easier for the Republicans because they’re dealing with crazy people. It’s easier to manipulate them. These people follow Robertson and Falwell. If they don’t know they’re following clowns, it’s clear they don’t have anything on the ball. If you don’t vote for the next Democrat, whoever it is, even if it’s, God forbid, even if it’s Joe Lieberman, if you vote for a third-party candidate, you are handing the world over to these people.
There’s something I was meaning to ask you . . .
[Lips curling into a slight smile.] Is it true I’m really gay?
Congratulations on your wedding [to Mark Harris, earlier this year].
Does being married make you feel more settled? Or, rather, how does it touch upon your anger at homophobia? How does being married change that?
I met somebody who I love very much and we’ve been together for five and a half years and I feel this is the person I want to spend my life with, and he feels the same . . . But, of course, a week after our wedding, that fuckhead [Senator Rick] Santorum [R-Pa.] makes his pronouncement about gay weddings, and it’s always been clear that the two beachheads for gays were going to be marriage and military service. What we really need, obviously, are two things: a federal law against discrimination on the basis of gender/sexual orientation and transgender issues that just clobbers all state ordinances against gay people teaching, getting married, whatever. I think the other thing that’s important on a constitutional level is that the court finally give us recognition as a class protected by the 14th Amendment, and then all this ends then and there.
What about the Gallup Poll showing a decline of support for such proposals?
I’m not in the least concerned. I have faith in the 40 percent of the population that hasn’t wavered. I don’t think it’s a fight we’re going to lose.
It’s obvious Bush is using this issue to bait the Democrats.
Bush will say whatever he needs to say to appease whomever he needs to appease; he’s too stupid to make up his own mind. He’s not an ideologue, he’s manipulated by ideologues. He’ll never object to anything Karl Rove tells him to say. They’re too smart to do anything before the election.
What did you find in your visit to the Occupied Territories?
Islamic fundamentalism is inextricable from the history of colonialism. If you go down that road, don’t skip back to the Crusades — all that nonsense about Christianity versus Islam. This is a war about oppression, not religion. Sunni Muslims never provided a breeding ground of the kind of intense anti-colonialist, Muslim groups like al Qaeda. Their brand of fundamentalism that’s producing suicide bombers has nothing to do with religion, or the Crusades. It stems entirely from modern colonialism and the intense sense of oppression it has produced.
How do Sharon’s policies affect your sense of identity as an American Jew?
I don’t believe in any nation defined by religion — I believe in secular democracy — I feel very, very passionately that millions of American Jews feel this way too, that Ariel Sharon is a disaster for the people, that his government has taken an irreparable, dismaying turn for the development of the country. Ariel Sharon and Hamas are partners who want the same thing — that there be no peace. The wall Israel is building will ghettoize the Palestinian continent into eight sectors that Sharon hopes will disintegrate from within. Hamas wants no peace because they have a crackpot notion that Israel is going to be defeated, which will never happen as long as the U.S. is around.
Is there anything in the works for some kind of resolution?
Nothing. The Palestinians have to have their own roads and infrastructure; there’s nothing like that planned. No schools, no irrigation, there’s no capital. These people are living on scraps of desert, standing in line for hours in the heat to get back into Gaza, to do work in Israel, because there’s no work anywhere else, the kids living in concrete tombs, no movie theaters, nothing. Meanwhile, how many Israelis die protecting the psychos from Brooklyn who make up the populations of these settlements?
In a 1995 survey for Baltimore Center Stage, you wrote that your favorite occupation was writing plays and that you would like to be the author of five important plays and many minor ones. Aside from the obvious hardships of “trying to catch the wind in a sieve” [Brecht’s phrase], do you find any ecstasy in writing?
Ecstasy? I don’t know, there are these moments. Perestroika [Part 2 of Angels in America] was written in a 10-day extravaganza on the Russian River, and it came pouring out. It came pouring out, my mother came pouring . . . I had always been afraid that I couldn’t finish the play, a lot of it was shit, but some of it was usable. But most of writing is misery, complete torture, weirdly exhausting, physically difficult, deeply draining and fatiguing. Making up people with a degree of specificity — to give the play a life, it feels like you’re taking something out of yourself. In the old days I would eat immensely, but I can’t do that and not weigh 1,000 pounds. There is something unbelievably exciting about watching a good production with an audience and feeling that you’ve made something useful and new that didn’t exist before, that you’ve moved people. With the musical Caroline, the first time we did a sing-through, people were sobbing, not just like theater sniffles, they really lost it. Donna Murphy, a friend of mine, said, “See, you only get this in musical theater.” It’s true. I’ve been profoundly moved by drama, but I’ve never cried as much as I’ve cried watching the movie of West Side Story.
Homebody/Kabul starts previews at the Mark Taper Forum on Sunday, September 21, and opens Thursday, October 2. It plays Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; matinees Saturdays and Sundays, 2:30 p.m.; through November 9. For tickets, call (213) 628-2772. Tony Kushner speaks at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Monday, September 22. For information or tickets, call (310) 825-2101.