Tony Kushner life and biography

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Tony Kushner biography

Date of birth : 1956-07-16
Date of death : -
Birthplace : New York City, New York, U.S.
Nationality : American
Category : Arts and Entertainment
Last modified : 2010-08-24
Credited as : Playwright, won Lambda Literary Award-Lesbian and Gay Drama 1996, wrote the screenplay for the movie Angels in America

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"Sidelights"

Playwright Tony Kushner took the theater world by storm in the early 1990s with his epic drama, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. A seven-hour play in two separate parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, Angels in America explores in uncompromising terms what it was like to be gay and affected by AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) during the 1980s and 1990s. Despite its grim subject matter and open attacks on the administration of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, the play has proved quite popular with mainstream audiences from Broadway to Los Angeles and London. It has also won great acclaim from drama critics, garnering both the Pulitzer Prize for drama and two Antoinette Perry ("Tony") awards for best play in 1993 and 1994.

Kushner was born in New York City in 1956, but his parents, who were classical musicians, moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana, shortly after his birth. His parents encouraged Kushner and his siblings to explore literature and the arts; the children were given a dollar whenever they had memorized a poem to recite. His mother was also an actress, and Kushner confided to Susan Cheever in the New York Times that "that's the major reason I went into the theater. I saw some of her performances when I was four or five years old and they were so powerful. I had vivid dreams afterwards." Kushner realized he was different from most other children in yet another significant way, however. "I have fairly clear memories of being gay since I was six," the playwright told Richard Stayton in the Los Angeles Times. "I knew that I felt slightly different than most of the boys I was growing up with. By the time I was eleven there was no doubt. But I was completely in the closet."

He continued to keep his sexuality a secret throughout his undergraduate years at Columbia University, during which time he underwent psychotherapy trying to become heterosexual, even though his therapist told him at the beginning of treatment that psychotherapy did not change people's sexual orientation. Kushner eventually accepted this and "came out," meaning he told his family and friends that he was gay.

Kushner's early plays, however, did not focus on gay themes. A Bright Room Called Day, perhaps the best-known of his pre-Angels works, concerns a group of liberal-minded acquaintances in the Weimar Republic of Germany, just before the establishment of Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime. M. Elizabeth Osborn described the plot in Contemporary Dramatists, saying, this "circle of friends disintegrates under the pressures of Hitler's rise to power, one after another forced into hiding or exile until just one woman, Agnes, is left cowering in her apartment." This main story is entwined, however, with the commentary of Zillah Katz, a contemporary young American woman, who draws parallels--sometimes extreme--between Hitler's regime and the administrations of U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Sr. Osborn quoted Kushner as explaining that he continues to rewrite Zillah's lines because he "will cheerfully supply new material, drawing appropriate parallels between contemporary and historical monsters and their monstrous acts, regardless of how superficially outrageous such comparisons may seem. To refuse to compare is to rob history of its power to inform present action."

When A Bright Room Called Day was performed in New York City in 1991, it received less than enthusiastic reviews. A somewhat neutral Gerald Weales in Commonweal labeled it "ambitious," but observed that he felt it was "a more despairing play than it probably intended to be." Less ambiguous was the response of Frank Rich in the New York Times, who took exception to Kushner's linking of Nazi Germany with the United States during the 1980s. "Is the time ever right for a political work in which the National Socialism of the Third Reich is trivialized by being equated with the 'national senility' of the Reagan era?" he demanded. Rich also called the work "fatuous"and "an early front-runner for the most infuriating play of 1991." A Bright Room Called Day did, however, impress Oskar Eustis, then artistic director of the Eureka Theater in San Francisco, California. He commissioned Kushner to write a comic play for his theater. This was the play that would become Angels in America, though the Eureka would no longer exist by the time the entire play was ready for production.

Though Angels in America is filled with many different characters, it is meant to be performed by eight persons who each play several roles. In Millennium Approaches, the story focuses on two couples--two gay men named Louis and Prior dealing with Prior's AIDS, and Harper and Joe, a nominally straight couple--although the married Mormon man, Joe, is trying to suppress his secret homosexuality. Also central to the play is the figure of lawyer Roy Cohn--based on the real Cohn who helped Senator Joseph McCarthy persecute suspected communists during the 1950s. Cohn also persecuted gays, although he himself was a closet homosexual and died of AIDS. The play's Cohn, whom Joe works for, is true to the somewhat rapacious image of the historical figure. Lloyd Rose in the Washington Post explained that "Cohn is clearly meant to be the Devil of the piece: the man who lies to himself, who abuses his power, who has sacrificed his moral self for success. Yet the play jolts with energy whenever he's onstage, because his self-hatred turns splendidly and splenetically outward. . . . Cohn rages against the definitions society would force on him. He destroys his own soul in satanic spite, and he goes down raging and in flames." In one scene, for example, after his doctor has told him that he has AIDS, Cohn declaims against labels: "They tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology, or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout. . . . Now to someone who does not understand this, homosexual is what I am because I have sex with men. But really this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout. Does this sound like me, Henry?"

Yet, while "the play is a political call to arms for the age of AIDS," as Rich noted in the New York Times, "it is no polemic." Critics of Millennium Approaches in its various performances greeted it with high praise. Rich himself first reviewed the London staging of Angels in America's first part, and at that time hailed it in the New York Times as "a searching and radical rethinking of the whole esthetic of American political drama in which far-flung hallucinations, explicit sexual encounters and camp humor are given as much weight as erudite ideological argument." John Lahr in the New Yorker noted that Kushner, "with immense good humor and accessible characters . . . honors the gay community by telling a story that sets its concerns in the larger historical context of American political life."

Millennium Approaches takes its name from the sense of apocalypse the character Prior feels while dealing with his deadly disease. At the end, an angel descends dramatically to visit him, and he is declared a prophet, temporarily, at least, saved from death by AIDS. Perestroika, by contrast, is a somewhat quieter piece, getting its title from the Russian word ex-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev used for his proposals for "restructuring"economic and social policies. As Lahr reported, Perestroika "is the messier but more interesting of the two plays, skillfully steering its characters from the sins of separation in the eighties to a new sense of community in the embattled nineties." In the second part of Angels, the glorious being that visited Prior at the end of the first part turns out to represent stasis or death, and Prior decides to reject it. Cohn dies, but this does not prevent his ghost from reappearing later in the play--in the role of God's lawyer, no less. The comedy of Millennium continues; in Perestroika, according to Lahr, "Kushner uses laughter carefully, to deflate the maudlin and to build a complex tapestry of ironic emotion."Lahr concluded that Kushner's work is "a victory . . . for the transforming power of the imagination to turn devastation into beauty."

In 1995 Kushner wrote and produced what he terms a "coda" to Angels in America, Slavs! Thinking about the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness, which Christopher Hawthorne of Salon.com called "a compact, quirky exploration of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ruin, both philosophical and environmental, left in its wake." Slavs! resembles the Angels in America plays because, according to Kushner in an interview with Andrea Bernstein of Mother Jones, the play proceeds from the problem that if you do not know where you are heading, it is difficult to move or make choices. In Slavs!, the character Prelapsarianov, "the world's oldest living Bolshevik," asks, "How are we to proceed without theory? Is it enough to reject the past, is it wise to move forward in this blind fashion? . . . You who live in this sour little age cannot imagine the sheer grandeur of the prospect we gazed upon."Slavs!, Kushner told Mother Jones, answers the conundrum of whether we make history or are made by history by arguing that socialists need to stop looking to the past for an appropriate antecedent upon which to model the present revolutionary response. Kushner also remarked that in the United States it is easier to come out as a gay man than it is as a socialist. Reviews of Slavs! were somewhat lukewarm, and Kushner suspects it is because "people have been promised over and over by the media . . . that we don't have to think about these issues" anymore.

Continuing Kushner's search for how the past informs people's present choices and shapes the choices they make about the future is his play, A Dybbuk; or Between Two Worlds,an adaptation of S. Ansky's 1920 Yiddish play. A Dybbuk concerns the marriage of a young woman, Leah, the daughter of a wealthy man who has broken off negotiations with three prospective husbands because he is displeased with the financial terms of the engagements. A poor Yeshiva student loves Leah, and she secretly returns his passion. When the father announces that he has finally settled on an appropriate husband for Leah, the student, Khonen, turns to dark spiritual forces to prevent the marriage. Khonen returns as a dybbuk, a spirit that takes possession of Leah's body. When the father turns to a Hasidic rabbi for assistance, he finds himself under judgment. It seems that long ago, the father promised Leah to Khonen, but greed for a wealthy match had blinded him to Leah's fate. In the end, he pays for his transgression by donating half his wealth to the poor. Commenting on the play in Variety, Charles Isherwood suggested that the play's central truth "is the idea that even the smallest, most unintended immoral act can have profound social and even metaphysical consequences."

Writing in New York magazine, John Simon observed, "In A Dybbuk . . . Kushner's adaptation of S. Ansky's old chestnut, the work comes funnily, furiously, crochetily alive, as it links the two worlds of the living and the dead, the musty past and the lively present." Isherwood further commented, "The strange flavor of the play defies easy description," but overall he commended the closing speech and the ways in which the play finds connections with the evil of the Holocaust. Ben Brantley of the New York Timesnoted that there are "lovely touches" throughout the production, "not least the hauntingly atmospheric music of the Klezmatics." Brantley lamented the play's "analytical detachment," but found that "Kushner and Neugroschel have imbued much of their adaptation's language with an exquisite sense of poetry."

Homebody/Kabul, Kushner's play about Afghanistan, opens with an hour-long monologue by a British housewife on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything in it, and the remaining two hours and forty minutes are taken up with a murder committed in Kabul. The first hour, in which the woman reveals her empty marriage and encounter with an Afghan shopkeeper, has been performed by itself. James Reston, Jr. wrote in American Theatrethat "the Homebody's confrontation with the terrible emptiness of her life leads to her disappearance. The playwright has her act on her romance, even if it means going to an unimaginably awful place, where she can take on the burqua, submit to a husband as his second or third wife, devote herself, unthinking like a teenager in a madrassa, to committing the entire Koran to memory. She acts on romance, and she sticks to it. She has rejected the values of her home, of her life, of her society, of the West. In the act is the whiff of metaphysical treason."

Toby Young reviewed the play in the Spectator, saying that the central focus "is the clash between the militant fundamentalism of the East and the moribund humanism of the West, yet it also touches on other, equally big subjects, such as the limits of scientific knowledge and the roles played by language and history in exacerbating international conflicts."

Robert Brustein noted in the New Republic that the play opened in December, 2000, prior to the attack on the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001, after which Brustein felt it "was crying out for revision." Brustein felt that although the play is set in 1998, "it is now impossible to imagine these Western characters circulating among the Taliban without thinking of abductions, corpses, bomb craters, detention camps, and the recent terrorist attacks." He continued, "On second thought, instead of trying to update his play, Kushner might better have employed his energies trying to find some unity for it, or at least settling on what it was supposed to be about in the first place. I say this with profound respect for Kushner's talents. He is one of the very few dramatists now writing whose works are contributions to literature as well as to theater."

PERSONAL INFORMATION

Born July 16, 1956, in New York, NY. Education: Columbia University, B.A., 1978; New York University, M.F.A., 1984. Memberships: AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), American Academy of Arts and Letters. Addresses: Office: Walter Kerr Theatre, 225 West 48th St., New York, NY 10036. Agent: Joyce Ketay Agency, 1501 Broadway, Ste. 1908, New York, NY 10036.

AWARDS

Directing fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts, 1985, 1987, and 1993; Princess Grace Award, 1986; playwriting fellowship, New York State Council for the Arts, 1987; John Whiting Award, Arts Council of Great Britain, 1990; Kennedy Center/American Express Fund for New American Plays Awards, 1990 and 1992; Kesserling Award, National Arts Club, 1992; Will Glickman playwriting prize, 1992; London Evening StandardAward, 1992; Pulitzer Prize for drama, Antoinette Perry Award ( "Tony") for best play, and New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best New Play, all 1993, all for Millennium Approaches, Part One of Angels in America; American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, 1994; Tony Award for best play, 1994, for Perestroika, Part Two of Angels in America; Lambda Literary Award, Drama, 1994, for Angels in America; Lambda Literary Award, Lesbian and Gay Drama, 1996, for Thinking about the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness: Essays, a Play, Two Poems, and a Prayer; Village Voice Obie Award, 2002, for Homebody/Kabul; Emmy Award for Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special for "Angels in America" (HBO), 2004; inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2005; Literary Prize Lifetime Achievement Award, Chicago Tribune, 2009.

CAREER

United Nations Plaza Hotel, New York, NY, switchboard operator, 1979-85; St. Louis Repertory Theatre, St. Louis, MO, assistant director, 1985-86; New York Theatre Workshop, New York, artistic director, 1987-88; Theatre Communication Group, New York, director of literary services, 1990-91; Juilliard School of Drama, New York, playwright-in- residence, 1990-92. Guest artist at New York University Graduate Theatre Program, Yale University, and Princeton University, beginning 1989.

WRITINGS:
PLAYS


* Yes, Yes, No, No (juvenile; produced in St. Louis, MO, 1985), published in Plays in Process, 1987.
* Stella (adapted from the play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe), produced in New York, NY, 1987.
* A Bright Room Called Day (produced in San Francisco, CA, 1987), Broadway Play Publishing, 1991.
* Hydriotaphia, produced in New York, NY, 1987.
* The Illusion (adapted from Pierre Corneille's play L'Illusion comique; produced in New York, NY, 1988, revised version produced in Hartford, CT, 1990), Broadway Play Publishing, 1991.
* (With Ariel Dorfman) Widows (adapted from a book by Ariel Dorfman), produced in Los Angeles, CA, 1991.
* Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Part One: Millennium Approaches (produced in San Francisco, 1991), Hern, 1992, Part Two: Perestroika,produced in New York, NY, 1992.
* A Bright Room Called Day, Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 1994.
* Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (includes both parts; produced as two-part television film on Home Box Office, 2003), Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 1995.
* Slavs! Thinking about the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness, Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 1995.
* A Dybbuk; or, Between Two Worlds (adapted from Joachim Neugroschel's translation of the original play by S. Ansky; produced in New York, NY, at Joseph Papp Public Theater, 1997), Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 1997.
* The Good Person of Szechuan (adapted from the original play by Bertolt Brecht), Arcade, 1997.
* (With Eric Bogosian and others) Love's Fire: Seven New Plays Inspired by Seven Shakespearean Sonnets, Morrow (New York, NY), 1998.
* Henry Box Brown, or the Mirror of Slavery, performed at Royal National Theatre, London, 1998.
* Homebody/ Kabul, (produced in New York, NY, 2001), Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 2002.
* Caroline or Change (musical), produced in New York, NY, at Joseph Papp Public Theater, 2002.

OTHER

* A Meditation from Angels in America, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 1994.
* Tony Kushner in Conversation, edited by Robert Vorlicky, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1997.
* Death and Taxes: Hydriotaphia, and Other Plays, Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 2000.
* (Adapter) Brundibar (also see below), illustrated by Maurice Sendak, Michael di Capua/Hyperion Books for Children (New York, NY), 2002.
* (Adapter, with Maurice Sendak) Brundibar (opera), first produced in Berkeley, CA, at Berkeley Repertory Theater, 2005, produced in New York, NY, at New Victory Theater, 2006.
* (Adapter, with Maurice Sendak) The Comedy on the Bridge (opera), first produced in Berkeley, CA, at Berkeley Repertory Theater, 2005.

Kushner also wrote the screenplay for the television movie adaptation of Angels in America.

MEDIA ADAPTATIONS

Angels in America was adapted for a television movie produced by HBO, 2003, and as an English-language opera that premiered at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, 2004.

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