Tony Kushner's Tumult and Triumph

CUNY Honor, $100,000 Prize and Working With Spielberg, Highlights of a Busy Year

Exhausting Year: First he won an honorary degree from the City University of New York. Then it was rescinded, then he got it after all. Tony Kushner capped the year by winning a $100,000 prize. And he’s working on a Lincoln biopic with Steven Spielberg.
jonathan kesselman
Exhausting Year: First he won an honorary degree from the City University of New York. Then it was rescinded, then he got it after all. Tony Kushner capped the year by winning a $100,000 prize. And he’s working on a Lincoln biopic with Steven Spielberg.

By Dan Friedman

Published December 05, 2011, issue of December 09, 2011.
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I half expected to see the picture of Tennessee Williams that sat on Tony Kushner’s office desk. I didn’t expect the picture of Pep Guardiola, the youngest and most successful manager in the history of Barcelona Football Club, to be sitting right next to it. A present from the late poet Thom Gunn, its presence on his desk is a testament to Kushner’s sentimentality as well as to the wide regard in which Kushner is held.

On December 5, he is slated to receive a $100,000 prize for Creative Citizenship by The Nation Institute and The Puffin Foundation. The honor recognizing his socially conscious work will be a happy ending to an exhausting year for America’s leading playwright. In July, Kushner brought to a close almost two years of work on an important retrospective season that began in 2010 with a major restaging of both parts of the era-shaping “Angels in America.” Having a new generation of actors interpreting the parts helped him finish and resolve some of the problems that had been bothering him about “Perestroika” for nearly 20 years. Over the summer, he premiered the mini-opera “A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck” at Glimmerglass Festival. Co-written with his “Caroline, or Change” collaborator Jeanine Tesori and based on an episode in the life of Eugene O’Neill, it was successful enough that the Metropolitan Opera has commissioned a full opera from the two of them.

And since October he has been on set with Steven Spielberg, filming and re-writing the epic “Lincoln.” It’s a project in which he became engrossed almost as soon as they finished making “Munich” in 2005, and it is, he says, “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.” In the midst of all this, Kushner had to deal with a media kerfuffle when trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld nearly scuppered an attempt by the City University of New York to give him an honorary degree, levelling ill-founded accusations of anti-Zionism at the writer.

The retrospective with Signature Theatre Company was also the occasion for the premiere of his first major new play in almost a decade, in partnership with the Public Theater. The title of “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures” (also known as IHO) suggests, with a nod to George Bernard Shaw, that it will be “a treatise,” but what Kushner himself likes about the title is that when you go, the play is “intriguing and enigmatic.”

Though the play met with mixed reviews, it does illustrate, Kushner said, the paradox “that the world is only really legible once you give up the idea that the world is literal and offers its meaning easily.

“For me,” he continued, “the most important thing that I got out of Marx and Brecht and Shakespeare was that you have to use your brain and try and read the world.”

Kushner is a little worried about the ability of his country to read the world. “Empty, the daughter, in an earlier draft of the play [IHO], mentions PATCO,” he said, “but a number of my younger friends, very very smart people, political people, had no idea what PATCO was.” That the pivotal breaking of the air traffic controllers’ strike in the early Reagan years has faded into insignificance shows what a toll the heavy drip, drip, drip of propaganda over decades has taken on American ideas of social justice.


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