- Tony Kushner: New Essays on the Art and Politics of the Plays
Given James Fisher's earlier, widely praised critical study (The Theater of Tony Kushner: Living Past Hope [Routledge, 2002]), it is not surprising that these current essays on the playwright's art and politics are both stimulating and worthwhile. Fisher has gathered twelve essays, two which he supplied, to explore Kushner's plays across his canon. The first six essays concentrate primarily on Angels in America, while, of the last half dozen, two focus on The Comedy of Illusion, two investigate Homebody/Kabul, one turns to A Dybbuk, and the last illuminates the opera Caroline, or Change, for which Kushner wrote the libretto. Fisher and his contributors set high goals for this collection, which intends "to provide a broader exploration of Kushner's dramatic achievement" (3) by placing him in the context of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Eugene O'Neill, and "other essential U.S. playwrights, as well as international titans of modern drama and literature" (1). In large measure, they succeed.
Two overriding questions raised and variously answered in this volume are What kind of playwright is Kushner? and Who influenced him? [End Page 105] Speaking for many of his contributors, Fisher characterizes Kushner as a "neo-socialist, gay attactivist" (2), a "millennial gay dramatist" (7); yet, he is also classified as the "Activist Jewish Mystic" (91), a Brechtian, and a provocative adapter. Kushner has been influenced by "Marx, Trotsky, Christianity, Judaism, Eastern versions of spirituality, German classicism, poets Rilke and Stanley Kunitz" (92), and the list goes on into the next millennium. Beyond question, Kushner's canon is eclectic; Angels in America (1993), which was made into a six-hour engrossing HBO movie (2003), won a Pulitzer Prize. He also wrote the screenplay for Steven Spielberg's Munich (2006). According to Bert Stern, who contributed the final and eloquent essay on Caroline ("The Therapy of Desire"), Kushner "keeps hope alive" through his contributions to "musical theatre" (214). Both popular and prolific, conflating the sacred and the profane, Kushner is the heir to Tennessee Williams's empire of desire.
That, in essence, is the point of Fisher's own leading essay, exploring Williams's and Kushner's representations of homosexuality, though he is lightning quick to emphasize that, while Kushner is overtly political, Williams was not. Unlike Williams's early "shadowy" or later misunderstood gay characters, Kushner's, argues Fisher, "are outspoken" (25) advocates of his own leftist agenda. However much I want to cavil over Fisher's marginalization of Williams's political intentions and strategies, there is no quarrelling with his keen analysis of gay characters on the American stage and the depiction of them in Williams and Kushner. In fact, as Fisher maintains, "Williams was the theatre's angel of sexuality" (5) who smiled on Kushner.
Following Fisher's helpful opening, many of the essays engage the issue of intertexuality, each from a quite different perspective. In "Inge and 'Little Sheba': Strange Bedfellows," Jeff Johnson extrapolates from two passing references to Inge's play (one by Louis at his grandmother's funeral and the other by Proctor, claiming he tried his "Shirley Booth" best to find Sheba ) a series of links between Doc and Lola and Proctor and Louis. As in Inge's play, the Sheba reference represents fantasy and dreams of youth for Kushner's characters. According to Johnson, like Lola, who must lose illusion to find love, Proctor must suffer unto death with AIDS in order to live his life well. Louis, however, is closer to Doc in his "need for forgiveness and expiation" and experiences the betrayal of "his ideals" (34). But even more importantly, Johnson attempts to "recover" Inge's play from the intolerant "gender politics of the 1950s" (39). Queering Sheba retrospectively in light of Angels, Johnson claims that Kushner's "refusal to concede that homosexual couples do not share the same emotional and ethical verities framing Doc and Lola's dramatic dilemma" accounts for Angels' "unique position...