Peabody award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is Senior Editor for Politics & Policy for WNYC News. She has previously served as Metro Editor, Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
Tony Kushner On His New Play, Unions, Forgiveness and Mark Ruffalo
Friday, March 11, 2011
Tony Kushner won a Tony and a Pulitzer for "Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes"--a seven-hour epic play about the AIDS epidemic in Reagan-era New York, which was later made into a drama for HBO.
WNYC’s Andrea Bernstein saw the play when it opened on Broadway in 1993, and sat down with Kushner not long after that.
Kushner’s new play, starting previews later this month at the Public Theater, is called "The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures." It’s a family drama about a union leader, Gus Marcantonio, and his grown children, two of whom are lesbian or gay. The play mulls a central issue of our times: whether workers have a right to unionize and whether that’s good for society.
Kushner and Bernstein have had a series of conversations over the years about art and politics. They recently sat down in an Upper West Side café to talk about "Angels in America," Kushner’s new play, dubbed “iHo,” writing the screenplay for Stephen Spielberg’s Munich and why the sex in The Kids are Alright between Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo is hotter than the lesbian sex in that move--and what that has to do with his new play.
Angels In America continues its run at the Signature Theatre through the end of April.
Andrea Bernstein: Your new play is the…
Tony Kushner: "Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures."
AB: Thank you.
TK: God, when was it, about 1997, my grandmother--my father’s mother--died in Louisiana where I’m from, and I went down to Louisiana to help my father sort of pack up. Her husband--my grandfather--had been dead since 1984 and she died in 1997 and we went down to sort of pack up the house.
They were wonderfully educated people and they had the kind of library that you’d expect very educated Jewish people of their generation to have. They had the Encyclopedia Britannica 11th Edition and they had the plays of Ibsen and the novels of Mark Twain, Dickens and they had a lot of Shaw. And one of the things I found that I’d never even heard of it was this book that Shaw wrote called "The Intelligent Women’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism," which I thought was just a wonderful title.
And I sort of decided, I took the book, and I decided on the spot I was going to use this title somewhere. You know the subtitle to "Angels in America," is "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," which is borrowed from or stolen from "Heartbreak House, a Fantasia on Russian Themes," I think is the subtitle. So I think something about "The Intelligent Women’s Guide" just really excited me.
I read the book and I knew that I wanted, I wrote an essay with that title, and I wrote a weird sort of id fragment thing with that title and then, you know, when I was working on this play for the Guthrie I decided I would call it that. But I changed “Women” to “Homosexual.” And then for some reason, the key to the scriptures came in, which is from Christian Science, from Mary Baker Eddy, "A Guide to Science and Health with a Key to the Scriptures," a kind of foundational text of Christian Science, which I had never read and knew absolutely nothing about. But I knew I wanted to have it in the title. It's now emerged as a good thing in the title.
AB: But you know the word homosexual--in "Angels in America" when the word, when the line was uttered: Are you a homosexual? It was a gasp moment in 1993--it was almost like using the “N word,” it was kind of bad. But now, I mean, you know, nobody really says it. I’m wondering why in 2011 we’re seeing that word in a title.
TK: Well, I’ve never thought of it as the “N word,” I mean, the gay equivalent of that would be, you know, faggot or queer. But we, the L.G.B.T. community, during the Act Up days, the Queer Nation people appropriated that epitaph and turned it into a label that we were sort of for the most part proud to own. And there are still young people I meet who were not really born yet who call themselves queer: "We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it" as we used to say. "Homosexual" is not so much an epithet as a clinical term.
I hear my father’s voice when I use the word. I mean, he’s really great on gay issues now and very accepting, but when he was struggling to come to terms with it he’d say, you know, “since you are a ho-mo-sex-ual.” And it was like every syllable contained worlds of "I can’t believe I’m having to say this." In The New York Times we used to be "avowed homosexuals." There’s something sort of quaint about it in a way.
The two main characters who are LGBT members are a brother and a sister. The brother is a homosexual. "The Intelligent Gay Man’s Guide” sounds like a self-help book. And while I don't necessarily agree that it’s equivalent to the “N word,” I don’t think it shocks us in the way that it did when we were still mortified and embarrassed and nobody ever said “gay” or “homosexual” or anything in public.
When I was in Minneapolis and the play was opening there, the Guthrie Theater put the title on all these buses all over Minneapolis and they made the words “Homosexual” and “Socialism” really big. So these buses were zipping around and I called my husband Mark who was in New York and I said if I’ve accomplished nothing else at least I’ve made something that makes buses all over Minneapolis, Minnesota driving around and all you can read is "homosexual socialism."
AB: In the play there’s this whole huge question of unionism and the labor movement as one of the big themes.
TK: Yeah, basically the play is about a retired longshoreman who is also a member of the Communist Party and has been, and whose family, the last name is Marcantonio. He’s a cousin, a second cousin, of Vito Marcantonio the communist who was an actual historical figure, a six-term communist congressman from East Harlem. He was not actually a member of the Communist Party, but he was a radical, he said it on the floor of the House of Representatives, “I’m a radical.” And he was a pretty remarkable figure.
This is a branch of the family connected to his, it’s the branch of an Italian American family, they live in Brooklyn, have a brownstone in Brooklyn and they’re very politically left and have been for generations. And the play is set in the summer of 2007. This retired longshoreman’s name is Gus Marcantonio, brings his three adult children home because he intends to commit suicide and he tells them that he’s going to do that and various things ensue. It’s very much a play about unionism, it’s a play about communism and Marxism and socialism. And it’s about despair and death and it’s about sex. It’s a big play. I’m enjoying working on it and I’ve had an amazing cast.
AB: It has a shorthand "iHo?" Is that an iPhone app?
TK: There’s stuff in the play about iPhones. So everybody gets tired of saying "The Guide," or "The Intelligent Homosexual," so we eventually found this short hand "iHo," which we thought was funny. For a little bit, I was even thinking of making that the title of the play but I decided to stick with my long title.
AB: So this question of unionism is so politically current. Maybe in 15 years we’ll come back and talk about how it wasn’t really of this particular moment, but it’s such a huge discussion right now because of this question of pensions and what public sector workers are entitled to and it is exactly landing, when the discussions are in a frenzy in New York and other states about what should public sector workers get.
TK: I just watched a documentary from last year about education in this country. And there’s a sort of "the problem is unions" mentality in it. There may be serious problems within unions, there almost always are, but the problem is not having unions. The problem with education in this country is not teachers’ unions. The problem with outsourcing of jobs is not unionized labor. The decline of union membership across the board is maybe slowing down or reversing in some sectors is I think again a great tragedy.
And 15 years from now, I hope we’ll be saying the play turns out to have staying power. But the issue of whether workers should unionize goes to the absolute heart of questions about the nature of human society and what it is, of what is the glue that holds human society together which in a certain sense [is] what Marx is asking. And in a certain sense, even though many trade unions are not Marxist, it’s what trade unionism is asking--what’s the relationship? This longshoreman was a member of the strikes in the ‘70s about containerization and the Brooklyn waterfront.
Or to use a more recent example, one of the things that galvanized me to write the play was the stagehand strike on Broadway when [International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees] Local 1 went out on strike and I was shocked to hear people who were playwrights and actors sounding--and you should pardon the expression but I think I can say it--uncharacteristically sounding like Reagan Republicans, like P.A.T.C.O. [Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization] union-era union smashers.
AB: Okay, you’re going to have to explain that for some people.
AB: What are you talking about? P.A.T.C.O.?
TK: Really? People don’t remember P.A.T.C.O.?
AB: Oh, come on. Everything has a context. When I saw "Angels in America" with my daughter, I had to explain to her--when you got AIDS in those days, you were going to die. But then along the way she was nudging me, who’s Ethel Rosenberg and who’s Roy Cohen? P.A.T.C.O.--definitely. People are going to be seeing this play who weren’t born when P.A.T.C.O. happened.
TK: Yeah, yeah, great. I think that part of the thrill of watching a play is that things fly by you and you either put a mental post-it on your head or you don’t. Or, you try to remember it in the lobby at intermission. And my plays have two intermissions, so you have a lot of chance to do that. You try to figure out what you just heard and you buy the play and read it. But I don’t think there’s any play that I’ve seen that I really liked where I kind of got everything just as it was happening. And if it’s asking people like your daughter to say ‘Who is Ethel Rosenberg?,’ great. We should never forget who Ethel Rosenberg or Roy Cohn is, we should never forget the P.A.T.C.O. strike was the air traffic controllers’ strike and Reagan wouldn’t negotiate with the air traffic controllers and broke the union. I do know that it was a signal to business, which is what it was intended to be, that all bets were off and that government was not going to be in the business anymore of protecting the rights of workers to unionize.
AB: Without going into easy shorthand about who’s at fault, this anti-public sector union sentiment is definitely tapping into something deep with people who do not have unionized jobs and do not have benefits and are just struggling to get by. I spent a lot of time out in the swing counties before these elections. One of the things that kept coming up as a theme was people saying: "I have nothing. I have lost my job, I’m eking by or I’m partially employed. The taxes that I do pay are going for these other people to have this thing that I don’t have." And I’m wondering how you speak to that?
TK: In so many ways. For one thing, you go right after the absolute lie that most of what anyone in this country pays in taxes go to pensions for federal workers or go to any kind of domestic spending of any kind of constructive sort whatsoever. They don’t.
A lot of what your taxes pay for in terms of productive dollars go to things you don’t really want to lose: federal highways, safety control, the E.P.A. (Environmental Protection Agency), things that you’re really relying on even though you don’t know you’re relying on them, because they keep your world as habitable as it is and as livable as it is.
But you also say, "It’s terrible that you have nothing." You should be angry. Really look at where the money’s gone. Look at the fact that the discrepancy between the poorest in our country and the richest in our country is greater now than it has ever been in our country’s history.
What it’s tapping into deep is the sense that people are working very hard and they can’t send their kids to college and they can’t save up for their own retirement and they can’t, they are not living lives that are dignified and safe and, you know, they have a right to be angry about that.
Union abuse of power--any human organization is susceptible to that. Any time that you have elections and people ascending into hierarchies of power you have to be careful, you have to watch out, you have to police these things, you have to have government oversight so that unions don’t fall, don’t become quasi-criminal organizations. There’s obviously a history and a tendency of that. But again--that’s never been the problem.
The central problem is, in a capitalist system, where people have to sell their labor on the market to make a wage, if you don’t give people the right and make it not only a right but a protected activity, a privileged activity, to group together and to unionize, individuals on the market selling their labor are going to be at a hideous disadvantage and are going to work in jobs that are inadequately recompensed, dangerous and this will eventually result, as it has, in the immiseration of huge swaths of the population.
AB: I understand that the lesbian character falls in love with a man or has sex with a man or there’s some kind of The Kids are All Right theme here?
TK: No. There’s no The Kids are All Right theme, nobody falls in love with a man. There’s a lesbian, I mean, I wrote the play in 2007/08 so I didn’t take this idea from The Kids are All Right.
AB: No, I didn’t think...
TK: There’s a character, one of the main characters is a lesbian and she has an ex-husband and I don’t want to give away too much also. But yeah, something like that happens. Believe me—it doesn’t in any way resemble The Kids are All Right.
AB: Have you heard the swirls of discussion about The Kids are All Right?
TK: I like The Kids are All Right.
AB: I like The Kids are All Right, too.
TK: Wonderful film.
AB: But there has been a sort of undercurrent of disgruntlement from some quarters, you know, why do you have basically these lesbians who only have bad sex, and then the only good sex in the movie is between Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo. I just wondered if you had heard that?
TK: I don’t know. I mean, my read of that was that, and this may be my middle-aged read, but Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo, I mean, first of all there is good sex. I mean, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore are doing their thing with the porn tapes and they’re, you know, they’re doing it. It’s not as robustly depicted as the forbidden sex that she has with, the stupid, self-destructive, forbidden sex that she has with Mark Ruffalo which, you know, something being forbidden and stupid and self-destructive is frequently a real turn-on for most people, so there’s a hotness to it.
On the other hand, I think there’s no question, the filmmakers are very clear, that Annette Bening and Julianne Moore have a sexual relationship, and what matters to me is that while she has a couple of wild afternoons in bed with Mark Ruffalo, and who wouldn’t want to have a wild afternoon in bed with Mark Ruffalo? Or Julianne Moore for that matter.
The thing that she has with Annette Bening, which is a marriage and a family, Julianne Moore who I feel is a, I mean, I think Julianne Moore’s performance in that film is astonishing and you see her reaction when it’s discovered is so devastated and so heartbroken and you see what really matters is this connection. A married couple that’s been together for decades or however long these two have been together doesn’t have sex the same way that you might have if you go out and cheat. That’s why people cheat.
There’s a great deal of dissatisfaction on the part of disenfranchised or dispossessed communities that have been chronically under-represented, as absolutely lesbians have been in film, that when a film appears, and it’s a relief that here’s a film, an important popular film, in which the big central love story is between two women. And that’s a relief. And then that relief, I think, allows all of your feelings of frustration, you know, when you don’t think there are ever going to be films about lesbians, you grumble to yourself but you sort of learn to pack it away, you can’t even afford to feel frustrated because you can’t even imagine that there’s going to be a time in your lifetime when this is going to happen, when you see this on screen.
Then you see this on screen and I think that gives you hope and right along with the hope comes the "But why aren’t they more like this or that," "Why aren’t they more like the lesbians that I know? Or me?" and I think that’s absolutely legitimate, but I think maybe it’s also legitimate to stop and say "Okay, so this doesn’t answer everything, but maybe it’s a beginning."
AB: Does this ring a familiar cord? You were the guy whose big gay play had a gay man who left his lover with AIDS?
TK: And, you know, I don’t really remember that much, I remember a couple of people, I won’t name who, but activists who kind of grumped about it, but I--and it was scary to write it because nobody else had written, everybody else, the characters were mostly doing what most gay men did at the early years of the epidemic, which was to take care of the people who were sick. But I felt I was hearing a lot of anguish and stress and duress and unhappiness and a couple of times I heard about people walking out because men are not really culturally conditioned to be very good at caretaking, and I thought this was a paradox because this was the heart of the Reagan years when we were suddenly being told that selfishness was a virtue and being indifferent to the sufferings of others was a way of making, you know, you take care of yourself and that will take care of everybody else somehow magically.
And I felt this is an interesting paradox, what if I make a character who in a certain sense says "I want to try what everybody’s talking about, which is being a selfish bastard and running with my fear away from the people I love instead of fighting my fears and staying with the people I love," and that’s what Louis does. I thought that was interesting. I don’t think I got a lot of flack from it. I got flack from other things, but it’s also, you know, again, a play and a movie, you want to be socially responsible as an artist, but you’re not making a campaign poster or a pamphlet. You’re not writing an essay.
There’s a way in which, if the play is good, if the film is good, it’s going to do things that you may not always want it to do, and I think it may not always be a good idea, in fact it’s frequently a very bad idea to say to yourself, "Oh, you can’t do that, you’ll get in trouble," "Oh, that’s not good for the cause." I think it’s a good thing to be able to say, "That’s not good for the cause," or for things that you believe in that’s going to injure people you don't want to see injured. But once you’ve marked that, I think you then also need to be able to say "But, maybe, as this unfolds, the idea will turn into something else and I’m not going to try to make it absolutely toe the line in every instance." That’s not the same as being irresponsible or indifferent, but I think that it’s, you know, plays, works of art, have their own deep internal logic that ultimately I think you have to have the faith will result in something useful for people who are struggling for justice and for progress and equality. And you have to believe that if you believe that is ultimately where the human race wants to go, and I do believe that.
AB: It was interesting to me when I went to see "Angels in America," I was so convinced that "Angels in America" was a play of its time and I, you know, I also obviously knew that it had many timeless themes. But what surprised me when I saw it in late 2010, early 2011, was that none of that punch was diminished. Why do you think that is?
TK: I’ve always felt that if you write as deeply as you’re able about political questions, that those questions are as deep as any other questions. That everything else that is interesting to people and that are more usually what we think about when we think about timeless subjects--psychology or philosophy or theology--are all implicated in politics and involved in politics. So, if you think about what’s going on in any given moment, you find I think all of life’s greatest questions are presenting themselves and you probably won’t be able to answer them in the moment, but what’s going on in the world around you, in your immediate vicinity and elsewhere at any given moment, will sort of throw you back to those questions and force you to consider them and even give you new information that may allow you, if not to answer them, then to progress towards a deeper understanding of ways in which they might be answered or at least what the questions actually are.
Why do we still watch "A Doll’s House"? I mean, women still have, I mean I was just reading this thing about women in shelters in Afghanistan, which was so horrifying, women all over the world still have it really rough, and in some places in the world they have it much rougher than Nora had it in "A Doll’s House", but in America and most of the industrialized world, feminism has made significant advances and there’s a very different set of questions and problems confronting women than were confronting women in late 19th-century Norway, and yet "A Doll’s House" is as gripping and moving and important a play as it ever was, because liberation is, in a certain sense, specific, but also very much universal. It’s political but it’s also a personal issue, and you may watch "A Doll’s House" thinking about women in Afghan shelters, or you may watch "A Doll’s House" thinking about a way in which you haven’t liberated yourself from some personal struggle. But because Ibsen did such an extraordinary job of tracing the steps toward Nora walking out that door, you watch the play in 2011 just as moved as I imagine people were in 1897, and people will be watching it in 3011, if there are any people left on the planet, because it speaks the truth, it gets at some very deep and complicated truth.
So, that’s what you aspire to, and I mean, I hope that if "Angels" has survived, that’s part of it. I’d also say that the depressing side is that some of it still feels current, because we’re still stuck in the same horror that we were stuck in when I wrote the play in, you know, 1988 was when I started writing it. I mean it would be great to say since 1993 or ‘94, we’ve made so much progress toward addressing climate change, that we’re fine and this, but, you know, we haven’t.
AB: Except that this specific issue of that play, the ozone layer, in some ways that was addressed--
TK: Well, the ozone layer was addressed in that the hole didn’t do what we were most afraid it was going to do, it kind of sealed up, we think. But what it was the first measure, one of the first really sort of shocking measurable signs of--has now been producing apocalyptic signs on an almost monthly, if not daily, basis that we’re, the play was never about the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica, it was about the collapse of this incredibly intricate system that we’ve interfered with.
Of the most upsetting moments now in the play for me is the angel’s speech at the very end of the play when Prior is in heaven and she starts talking about, you know, "Don’t go back to the planet because you have no idea how bad it’s going to get." When she starts to talk about the life, you know, I mean the line that she has "Before life becomes merely impossibly for a long time before it’ll become completely unbearable." I mean, I hope we’re not headed toward that, but we’re in very, very, very serious trouble.
The global pandemic of AIDS it’s, if anything--the number of people who we know of who have AIDS now on the planet is, is, tenfold the number when I wrote the play. And, in a certain sense, the play is about a time when the epidemic was not being responded to by the Reagan administration, not being responded to by the country or by the planet, that homophobia was keeping its silence. We’ve been in a very dark and difficult place, our country and our world, since the play first appeared, and some of what it’s expressing concern about is, you know, very much with us.
AB: I was sobbing at the end for that very reason, because even though as I just mentioned, the play felt so of the moment, the very final scene where they’re at the Bethesda Fountain and the theme of that is: we’ve found our way out, sort of. We’re oriented toward the light. And then I really started to feel very upset because I thought--we didn’t know anything then! I mean those problems seem so grave, and now look.
When we sat down shortly after that was written and I said to you, "Are you optimistic?" And you said "Oh, you have to have hope." So, how do you feel now?
TK: Well, I feel the same way, I mean, I said, I think I may have said it first to you, that I think that hope is a moral obligation and I’ve been saying that for a long time now, I don’t think that hope is just a feeling state. I think that hope is a choice that you make. It’s not a choice to deny reality, but it’s a choice to use your intelligence to examine the world in front of you and the obstacles to progress and to try to identify places from whence progress can reasonably be anticipated and to try to put your efforts into making those--I mean that, to me, is what hope is, it’s an activity, it’s an action in the world. Just as I think despair is, I think that both take effort.
And I remain optimistic, I think there is still work to do, I think there is still struggle to be undertaken. I mean, I find the epilogue of the play kind of moving because of the way that Michael Greif and the actors worked on it. They did something with it that I didn’t know that you could do, which is to make it in a certain sense this sort of statement of fragility, rather than confidence. I mean, interestingly, I watched the play recently right after Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was overturned. And, when Prior says in the epilogue "We’ll be citizens," that’s so much more plausible now than it was in 1992, I mean it was completely plausible then, but not in any way something that was imminent. And I don’t think it’s imminent yet like it’s going to happen tomorrow, but I think that the, I think that there’s been immense progress.
When I wrote the thing, it was very important to me, the epilogue, it was very important to me to show that Prior five years later was still alive. Because everything that I saw and every fiction that I read about the epidemic always ended with the character who has AIDS dying, and at the time it was very important for the P.W.A. community--the People With AIDS community--to show not only the toughness of the struggle, and its fatality, but that some people survived.
And I wanted to show--Roy Cohn died in the play--but I wanted to show Prior alive, and I remember the way that Steven Spinella did it, it had this incredible sense of life refusing to let go. And it still has that, but with, I think, Michael and the cast made the decision that you saw that he was alive, but you also see that he may not be alive for a lot longer, which I always thought was the case in 1990, not many people lived for more than three or four years from first diagnosis.
AB: So much of your writing and your art has been defined by someone you don’t like as president. So I was dying to say, "Okay, Tony Kushner, what are you going to do now that Barack Obama is president?" But things went so quickly, from Obama won this landslide historic presidency to a pretty loud rebuke.
TK: There’s always going to be a backlash, there’s always going to be a mobilized right any time there’s a progressive victory, there’s no point in American history when that wasn’t true. I think the dialectic insists in fact that whatever viewpoint is carrying the day, whatever ideology dominates, there’s going to be resistance and opposition.
Meanwhile, Obama seems to me to be handling it splendidly, I mean the big news cycle said "Oh my God! The country’s turned their back on him and he’s over and he’s done and blah blah blah" didn’t happen. He knew exactly what he was doing.
For me, the, this is a very talented, very smart politician, I’m not saying he’s perfect, I’m not saying he’s God or Abraham Lincoln. But he’s closer to Abraham Lincoln than anything we’ve had in a really long time, I think. And one of the ways he seems to me to resemble Lincoln is that he understands that it’s absolutely essential to keep the conversation going to keep the wheels of government functioning. So, when he announced that he was going to make a concession on the Bush-era tax cuts, and the progressive community rose up in this unified scream of horror, that it was really now just completely over with him and he’s just revealed himself to be nothing more, that he’s no better than Bush. And then, you know, five minutes later he’s the first person to really use a lame duck session to get serious change to happen in this country, including the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
AB: One moment where I was really sobbing during "Angels in America" is where Louis says the Mourner’s Kaddish over Roy Cohn. And I was like "Wow. You can really forgive anybody anything."
TK: I think struggling with forgiveness is an issue. I think that when Louis says the Kaddish over Roy Cohn which, I want to remind you, ends with both Ethel and Louis calling Roy a son of a bitch, there’s a, you know, when I think about forgiveness I always go back to the Greeks, I always go back to the Eumenides--the end of the "House of Atreus" cycle when Orestes having murdered his mother is being chased by these fiendish furies all over the planet and not being allowed to rest and finally in the amenities and this thing that I find just tremendously moving, it's resolved by making a kind of deal with them. Apollo says to Orestes, "Build them a nice temple so they can feel honored and rest," and then says to the amenities, who are called the kindly ones but who are actually these snake-headed women with puss dripping out of their eyes who chase him around the attic lands not letting him rest. Apollo says to them, "If he builds you a nice temple, you’ll leave him alone, right?" because what are we going to do? If there’s no way, you know, you can’t.
It’s the truth and reconciliation commissions in South Africa or Chile. It’s what eventually has to happen in Israel and Palestine. It’s what’s going to have to happen to some extent in a different way but certainly going to have to happen in Afghanistan and in Iraq. At some point you say, you can’t get perfect justice in this world. You have to be willing to sort of say "Okay, I, you know, as long as we are now on the path toward a better world, I’m not going to try to go back into the past and try to get vengeance for the wrongs that were done to me or the people that I love who are no longer here." That will only lead to more suffering and more horror.
AB: Is that what you feel--do you feel that you accomplished that in Munich?
TK: Did I accomplish that?
AB: I mean, that was about that cycle, a cycle of vengeance, right?
TK: I don’t know that I, I mean, I’m very proud of Munich and what I feel that Steven [Spielberg] and I feel we succeeded in doing it, which was a difficult thing, which was to talk about a horrendous act, a horrendous crime, and you know, not turn the perpetrators of the crime into cartoon figures, which is what I think upset people most--they wanted them to be cartoons, the guys, you know, again, the people that went into the Olympic Village and are seriously damaged, borderline demented people. Is there an origin to that?
You know, the people who murdered the Israeli athletes are dreadful, monstrous people. But they’re people. So, is it useful to try to understand them and to try to understand what causes that kind of aberration in humans? Yes. Is it useful to try to understand the kind of aberration, what causes the kind of aberration that made those Chechnyans murder those children in that Russian school a few years ago? Absolutely. It’s not that understanding implies forgiveness. Understanding implies an attempt to try to alter the circumstances.
AB: And yet, thinking about this issue of hope, the very final scene in Munich is there in a park in Williamsburg. Right? Looking on lower Manhattan. Queens? And there in the distance are the World Trade Center towers and people who I know who aren’t New Yorkers don’t even get that scene, it goes right by. But there is that whole discussion at the end--nothing to do with the World Trade Center, but there are the Twin Towers.
And it’s just this moment of incredible foreboding, like more bad is to come. So pretty much kind of a--I don’t know, I wouldn’t call it cynicism--but there’s certainly an anti-optimistic moment there.
TK: Well, it’s a very painful moment because, of course, what’s being discussed is a guy who’s an Israeli, a very proud Israeli, and his decision to not return to Israel. Because, you know the play, the film, is also about the policy of targeted assassination that Israel undertook in reaction to the Munich murders, and the question which we felt and I still feel in the years immediately following 9/11 was an immensely important question: Do you believe in law? Do you believe in justice? Do you believe in international law?
Or do you believe that each nation has a relationship to other nations that is essentially an outlaw relationship? Do we simply, you know, is each nation a cave person with a club and whoever has the biggest club?
I don’t believe that. Steven Spielberg doesn’t believe that. Most people don’t really believe it or wouldn’t want to believe it if they thought long enough about what the implications of that are. The population of the planet has been struggling, maybe not spectacularly successfully, but we’ve certainly been struggling since the 18th century to develop a field of international relations and international law, that there are laws that exist on the planet that nations agree to and submit to. And you know does this mean that bad people go unpunished? Absolutely.
Sometimes bad people go unpunished. You know, nobody’s really gone to prison for what happened, except for Madoff who absolutely should have gone to prison, but there are a lot of other people who should go to prison for the sub-prime mortgage crisis and so on and it’s like--didn’t happen. And ordinary petty criminals who get away with it. That happens. But the law is very important. And so, you know, what Steven and I are trying to say is, you know, do you have international law, can a country make a decision to send assassins into another country and shoot a foreign national on another country’s soil and if you agree to that, then, what else are you agreeing to? What about torture?
What about rendition? And all these things that have become issues for us. And I think that the film tries to address that. And the ending doesn’t feel cynical to me. It feel scary, it should have felt scary, it was a scary, and we were embarking on a scary, you know, but again, you go back to the root causes, I mean, for me the heart of Munich, of that film, is that conversation he has in the safe house with the Palestinian terrorist about, really about, do you really want this land so much and do you really, you know, care about it? It’s a scene I’m very, very proud of, I think Steven filmed it spectacularly, I think the acting is really great, and I think it’s, you know, these I think are incredibly important questions. What are we, you know, what are we hoping for in the world ahead?
Had, you know, when you go back to what Clinton accomplished in terms of the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and you go back, you know, you were saying when you were watching the end of "Angels" and remembering how much simpler now the problem of the world seem than the ones that we’re facing today and I agree with you. They weren’t simple, but I wish we could be, you know, oh my God, grappling with things on that scale instead of things on the overwhelming scale that we’re dealing with now, well, go back to everybody throwing up their hands in horror and disgust when the Camp David talks fell apart and you know so on and so forth. But when Rabin and Arafat and Clinton were really working on this stuff, and even after the assassination of Rabin when Ehud Barak was following or trying to follow in the footsteps.
You know, in 2000 before Bush became president, even though Clinton was gone, on their own Israelis and Palestinians got together in Taba and started really trying to hammer something out, they were really in the spirit. Diplomacy works, it has an effect.
And what peace in the Mideast could have brought, would it have stopped the towers from being attacked and destroyed and all those people being murdered? No, I don’t think necessarily that it would, but you know, it was a loss of a kind of progress that I think is really hard to contemplate. And I think the reason we need to think about it is, you remember for the purpose of knowing, hoping to learn something that will help you move ahead.
AB: In "Angels in America," Louis says to Prior, "What does it feel to be a child of the zeitgeist?" Do you think that you’ve ever really been able to answer that?
TK: There’s no way to actually--I mean, we’re all of course child[ren] of whatever zeit we happen to be geists of, or whatever the geist of our particular zeit happens to be, I should say. When Louis asks that question of Joe, he’s asking himself as well, he’s talking about Reagan’s kids but he’s talking about, you know, if this guy is as he said the American animus, then as Americans what are we, and he tries to answer it. And that’s all you can do. You know, you write a play or a movie or a novel or poem and you’re attempting in some way to make yourself open to a kind of energy in the world, a kind of mood, geist is spirit, so maybe spirit, I don’t know. There’s a way of, Tennessee Williams says becoming the nervous condition of society, of the human race, to be available to be the breakdown that the world is having to at least find a way to articulate, to put on stage the bad dreams the world is having at the moment that they can recognize as the bad dream. As is the case when people dream they can make the decision--well, "I kind of hear what this is and I’ll do something about it," or "I don’t recognize this and I won’t." Whatever. But I think that that’s what you’re trying to do. It always fails. I mean, the ultimate aim of art, I think, is to resurrect the dead. That’s what Orpheus tried to do. And that doesn’t succeed, you can’t do that. But the failure is what we call art. Really great failure is really deep, rich spectacular failure, are the deep, rich spectacular works of art of our time. I hope that answers the question.
AB: Is there anything else that you want to say about your new play or any of your new productions that I didn’t ask you?
TK: I have been for a while now, I’ve become the editor for Author Miller’s plays for Library of America, so I’ve spent a lot of time with Miller, and I’ve been working on a screenplay for quite some time about Eugene O’Neill, so I’ve spent a lot of time with O’Neill, I just finished an introduction for a new addition of the "Glass Menagerie" so I’ve spent time with Tennessee. And I’m 54 years old and I started this play three years ago right after I turned 50. And I’m an American playwright, I’ve been writing plays for 30 years. And I think there was a part of me that felt--the big three: "Streetcar," "Long Day’s Journey into Night" and "Death of a Salesman," are family plays and they’re an old kind of, they’re plays that I revere. And wouldn’t it be interesting to write a big family drama. And I’m interested in the fact that in the last two to three years, right around the time that I started working on "iHo," family dramas have kind of come back, family dramas that are kind of political. Lisa Kron’s remarkable play "The Wake." Richard Nelson’s play about the elections recently. Maybe.
There’s been a lot of sort of "Maybe those giant plays are now old enough so they don’t have to scare us as much as they used to." We’re sort of going back to them and going, "That’s an interesting form." That was sort of the way in which American theater finally kind of announced its maturity to the world, with those post-war masterpieces. And we’ve all been defining ourselves against it in a certain way and some other masterpieces have been written since then, I don’t know if as great as those three plays but certainly some great stuff. And, I felt--and I think it’s clearly an impulse that I share with other playwrights--let’s go back to the family drama that’s mostly set in a room in an apartment somewhere, in a house, and see what’s in that unit and in that world that attracted the titans of our profession and maybe now of interest to their decedents--us.
AB: What’s the answer to that? What is so compelling over and over again about that form?
TK: I have a lot of different theories. You could say that the family drama starts with Aeschylus, so it’s not exactly invented by Arthur Miller. It's interesting to me that "Angels in America" is not about--there’s a mother and a son. Other parents are referred to. And then there are, Roy talks about being a father to Joe. Hannah talks about, becomes something to Prior. There are new families that get built. But it’s not family drama in that sense. I think maybe because we’re in a period of transformation and crisis but also hope that people are returning to central units. You can write monologues, but drama is always more exciting when it's--unless you’re Samuel Beckett--always more exciting when it’s two or three people on stage. And I think that there’s a question of saying, "Let’s return to this particular contested terrain which is about relationships, blood relationships, a community that you're born into, a tribe." And examine what the fundamentals of tribalism of connectiveness of society are, which I guess originate in family units.
The family is a contested, politicized terrain now. The family, lesbian and gay adoption of kids and marriage, and I mean all these issues now are all very politicized, and always have been. So, the family is an interesting way to return to something that’s supposed to be a haven from that old Victorian notion that’s still with us--that the family is that fortress against the outside world, against the world of politics. But of course, it isn’t in any way.
AB: Is that something that you ever think about for yourself, in terms of your own family, kids?
TK: Oh, I have a family, I have my brother and sister, my brother-in-law, my father, aunts and uncles and cousins that I love and I have my husband who is my family, who I love. And I have very close friends. I have seven god kids and my two nieces who I adore. I don’t feel like I am family-less.
Mark and I have talked about it and I’m not going to have, we’re not going to have children. I’m 54 years old. I have a lot of work that I really want to do. I don’t feel that it would be a good idea for me right now. Of course, I won’t pretend that I don’t miss it. I love kids, I love babies. That’s something that I wish I had that I don’t have, and I am sure there are also people with many wonderful children who also wish that they had other things. You never get everything you want in life. I’m a very lucky person. I don’t feel deprived about it. I don’t think that it’s something that either Mark or I feel the need to do.
AB: The baby part is very fleeting.
AB: That goes very quickly. The baby part.
TK: I know, I know. It’s hard.