Tony Kushner by Craig Lucas

BOMB 43 Spring 1993
043 Spring 1993
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Tony Kushner, author of Angels In America. Photo by Schwartz/Thompson.

Tony Kushner’s seven-hour epic, Angels in America, A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, was seen for the first time in its entirety at Los Angeles’s Mark Taper Forum in the Fall of 1992. The play, which is in two parts—Millennium Approaches and Perestroika—concerns itself with Roy Cohn at the time of his AIDS diagnosis in 1985, a gay Manhattan couple, one of whom also has AIDS, a black male nurse (and ex-drag queen), and a seemingly-straight Mormon couple. Millennium Approaches received London’s Evening Standard Award as best play of 1992. This interview took place in a small office at the Theater Communications Group where auditions were being held for the upcoming New York production of Millennium, to be directed by George C. Wolfe, opening at the end of April at the Walter Kerr.

Craig Lucas It must all be overwhelming.

Tony Kushner Yeah, it is. It’s been a very, very strange time. I feel very lost and confused and sort of unclear about what I should be doing with the play, where I should be going with it and where I should be going after the play is done, and it’s not going to be done for quite a while because we’re not even going to open Perestroika until October of next year, and then it’ll be opening in London at the same time.

CL Will you get a chance to work on a production of Perestroika before it comes to New York?

TK I’m going to workshop it with some NYU graduate students. And I think that’s probably all I’ll do with it. I’m beginning to run out of steam, because I’ve been working on the play pretty much since 1988; I wrote one play in the middle of working on Angels, but that was an adaptation [Corneille’s The Illusion]. So I feel like it’s time to move on. I don’t want this to be the only thing that I ever write. And I have a lot of plays that I’ve backlogged in the meanwhile, so I wanted a director that I could just give the play to for New York and not really have to sit and watch very closely. I hope that I am banned from rehearsals. It’s like being in therapy with somebody for a long time. I’ve done as much work with these people as I can possibly do. It’s time to go and find another gig.

CL It can turn into a cottage industry, and you don’t want to be that mother hen following it around.

TK And the question of whether you want to make it into a film, or whether writing a screenplay is a good idea. You can spend years and years and years, and it’s probably a terrible mistake. One thing the play’s taught me is that I can let it go.

CL What you have in your favor is the force of your clarity, a lucidity. So much modern art is about ambiguity and what one is going to read into it. You’ve created a moral universe which allows audiences to watch your characters run 180 degrees in the wrong direction. It’s enjoyable to watch Roy Cohn, and at the same time even the most right wing fundamentalist homophobe would not suspect that you were endorsing this man’s values.

TK Yeah, I hope not. I mean, I still feel—especially in Perestroika—there were people in the audience in LA who cried when Roy Cohn died. And the audience was kind of shifting in their seats and thinking, “Well, should we be crying?” Which is, I guess, the point. I mean, I’d like to explore being ambiguous a little bit more in the future. I feel sometimes that that’s kind of a flaw in the work.

CL It’s not that there are no contradictions. I simply mean there’s this sense of mastery. For a seven-hour play, it’s very economical. There’s not a lot of fat.

TK Yeah. Millennium was about 40 pages longer in it’s first draft and Perestroika was literally twice the length, so they’ve both been boiled down. I don’t think that there is actually a great deal of fat. I’ve listened to Millennium now for a long time, and I’m a very fat writer in several senses of the word. (laughter) I’ve been working with a lot of very good editors and directors, and because we knew that the ultimate thing was going to be as prodigiously long as it is, we couldn’t really afford to be sentimental about anything, everything that could possibly go would go. One of the things that worries me about the play is that everybody in it, except for Roy, is sort of a decent person trying their best. And that’s part of the appeal of the play, but it’s the part of me that I worry about being excessively liberal, that I genuinely believe people are primarily motivated by the good. And I wonder if that makes everything a little bit vanilla. There’s a certain kind of writing that starts with a more cynical set of assumptions about people, that produces a harsher picture of reality. And the world is a harsh place, so I’m trying to figure out what it is in myself that resists seeing the world that way. Excessive optimism or sentimentality or something … I don’t know.

CL Well, I’m here to dissuade you from this delusion. I think you picture a complex universe.

TK I’m not sure that I’m explaining myself correctly. You want to believe that people are usually behaving according to standards that they’ve set for themselves that are assigned qualifications like good and bad. And the thing that works about Roy is that I proceeded from the assumption that his world made sense to him and that he wasn’t operating with conscious knowledge of being a bad man. And I think that people do proceed, for the most part, from that assumption. But—

CL Hitler.

TK Hitler. Well, yeah, but then there, exactly. Where does evil come from? Is Bush really proceeding from just a very bad ideological system that he’s being true to, that he’s consequently doing very bad things because of his fidelity to that? Or is there something else at work? Because when you look at somebody like Bush, you see a monstrously cynical man, or one reading of Bush might be that. He’d be an interesting character for a play because the question is whether or not people that do really terrible things are always self justifying in the way that I have Roy self justify, or whether or not there’s more clarity about the malevolence that they’re creating.

CL Like Richard the Third.

TK Yeah. Which is a very daring … or Iago … There are characters in Shakespeare which at some point say to the audience: “There is no human justification for what I am, and I represent a kind of evil that’s more radical and more profound than human evil.” That’s the question that Hannah Arendt asks or gets asked when she puts forth the notion of the banality of evil in Eichman in Jerusalem. For somebody like Eichman, for a petty demon, that seems a sufficient explanation, but for somebody that really does immense historical damage, not a Roy Cohn, but an Adolf Hitler, how do you describe that evil, what do you call it, and how do you account for it in a system that doesn’t have a very clear spiritual dimension? If there isn’t a devil, then what is that evil? I mean, I feel that maybe the plays are a little too forgiving. But I don’t know.

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Stephen Spinella in The Mark Taper Forum production of Angels in America. Photo by Schwartz/Thompson.

CL Do you think there is a devil?

TK I just had a big argument with a friend of mine who was telling me (she’s a very political radical feminist, Kimberly Flynn who Perestroika is dedicated to, and very smart) that she fears the devil and believes in the existence of the Satanic. And I guess I don’t. But then maybe I just don’t want to believe it. That’s what I mean by saying that I worry about being too liberal. I mean, so much of what we’ve lived through in the last 12 years has shown us that these people really are murderers. I mean, they’re very, very, very evil people.

CL Yes, I agree. But you know you can be a murderous villain simply by virtue of leading an unexamined life.

TK Yeah … you can be that. But do you want to say then that all evil is to be ascribed to ignorance and a lack of examination and a lack of analysis? There’s something very comforting about believing that, because it suggests a continuity between yourself, the people that you know and love and have conversations with and reason with, and those people who are doing this terrible thing. It suggests that Bush or Reagan or a Hitler or the neo-Nazi skinheads who are now beating up disabled people in Germany, that these people are really just part of the human community, and that there’s some way … if their system is bad, as long as they’re basically faithful adherents to a system in the way that you are faithful to a moral vision that you have, then you should be able to convince them of the inappropriateness of their system and reason them out of their evil behavior. But that may in fact be wrong. There may be something at work, and I don’t know what that something is, but there may be a kind of active malevolence that’s beyond … that has to be resisted, I think, finally with force. So you have writers like Larry Kramer, for instance, whose anger clearly goes in the direction—I don’t know whether Larry has actually ever advocated violence or not (but I guess he sort of has) but certainly people who have no real problem saying, “These people are our enemies, and there is no community between us.” I think that may be the difference between being a radical and being a liberal. You’re not sentimental about letting go of that continuum.

CL I think that abuse, whether it comes in the form of poverty or ignorance or sexual molestation, can actually twist a mind and a psyche to such a degree that you have Jeffrey Dahmers on a mass scale.

TK Yeah.

CL Witness the fascists in Germany. Those are, I believe, sociologically induced psychoses.

TK Yeah.

CL They’re not going to be changed in individuals who are over a certain age.

TK Right.

CL But perhaps the way the next generation is raised can be changed. By force, I agree. It’s a curious contradiction, though. In your play, A Bright Room Called Day, you call the Gulf War a misadventure, or your character Zillah does, and she states that the U.S. is trying to start World War III. But then another character, Paz, is held up to criticism for not shooting Hitler when he has the opportunity. I sometimes drop my liberalism when I think about Hussein or Milosovec who through the force of their will and hatred would certainly annihilate you and me. How far are they from Hitler? I’m not sure that I’m so far from Mr. Bush, though he may have had different goals in mind, surely he did, when he used force against a murderous dictator. What are your feelings about Serbia and Bosnia? Do we have any responsibility there?

TK I think that those situations are terribly difficult. It’s very hard for me to ever say that I think unilateral military action on the part of the United States can be a great thing at this point. The idea of the United States armed forces going in and suppressing and controlling a population of any sort is so fraught with history. And I don’t trust our government, I don’t trust our motives, so I don’t think that I would ever really be … I mean, it’s like in Somalia. It’s hard to believe that the United States ever would act out of—or that any government really ever acts out of altruism. One would really like to see somebody go in and just kick the shit out of the Serbs in Bosnia; the situation is horrible, and it’s terrible to watch a Holocaust unfolding, and to feel that we’re sitting around and doing nothing, but it’s also hard to feel that once you let that thing out … I mean, you’re a fool to think that you’re going to be able to control it. Congress doesn’t control it. We don’t know what we’ve been using; in Iraq they were using what I consider nuclear weapons—bullets covered with radioactive waste. There’s those Tomahawk missiles which don’t work and which basically are happier hitting things in cities than flying off into the ether. I think we’ve completely lost the possibility of limited warfare.

CL By the same token, if there had been a way for us to militarily intervene in Germany in 1933, we might have prevented …

TK Right, and there would have been a catastrophe if Roosevelt had not been President and we had not broken out of isolationism and stood up against Hitler. And so I’m not a pacifist in any way, I just think that in terms of this particular situation it’s very complicated. And I think that ethnic cleansing and the progressive Balkanization of that entire part of the world has to stop somehow. I think Saddam is a danger, but I don’t believe economic sanctions were given a chance. I think that what the real New World Order … One thing that the Cold War seems to have eliminated is an ideological wall that prevented a certain kind of discussion. There’s the possibility now of the countries of the world acting in concert to manipulate trouble spots out of military conflict. And I think that could have worked in Iraq. And of course that’s also very problematic, because you wind up with kids not getting medicine and people dying of starvation in countries that are sanctioned, but the end of the cold war doesn’t mean the end of American Imperialism. And what one doesn’t want to see is a failure to compete economically transformed into our becoming a bully with our weapons.

CL This is the whistle Noam Chomsky keeps blowing. The more our economy fails to produce anything anybody needs or can afford, the more we put all of our eggs in the military basket and become this international arsenal, selling weapons to Iran and Iraq so that neither side can win, and all we see are dollar signs, and nobody’s even looking past next month.

TK Dollar signs and this national sense of failed virility, so that the minute we start dropping bombs on anybody, everybody feels very good for five minutes. And there is a fantasy sense that we’re still the number one country on earth because we can go in there and kick this person, and we forget we’re talking about this completely decimated country that was annihilated two years ago and has never rebuilt and has no military machine at this point, and what we’re doing is going in and ineptly trying to bomb a couple of—I mean, they announce that we’ve gone in and it was very quick and here are a couple of videotapes, and then the next day it turns out they didn’t hit any of their targets and they dropped bombs on hotels and on private buildings and orphanages, and everybody’s shuffling and saying, “Well, we’re trying to hit our targets.” I mean, in addition to the fact that we’re not much of an economic superpower, in point of fact, although we have the ability to destroy millions of lives, the army doesn’t seem to be very good any more. It seems to be run by people who don’t know how to run the technology that we’ve created. We spent so much money building machines, and none of these people really know how to work them. Which is one of the reasons that Desert Storm evaporated as an exploitable issue within days after the first shot was fired; it became clear that we were killing our own people, that we were doing things no civilized nation would ever want to admit to doing, like burying people alive in trenches. And, in addition to being an unsuccessful war, because we didn’t really get rid of Saddam, it was an ineptly handled one against a vastly inferior enemy.

CL While you were in auditions today we swore in a new President.

TK Yeah, did you watch him? I heard the speech was like hot air.

CL Maya Angelou was so moving … . How do you feel about Clinton?

TK I don’t know, I mean, I’m really thrilled that he won, and I’m really thrilled that those bastards are out and I’m really thrilled at the way in which it’s becoming a simple fact now that the whole twelve years of Reaganism was a horrendous mistake; it says a great deal about the American people, and about the way that this weird amalgam of different populations and this very troubled history, still produces a country that’s committed to participatory democracy of some sort. And to not finding easy, ugly solutions … Because the British couldn’t get rid of Thatcher, they still have Major around. I thought the Republican National Convention was a watershed event. They saw that Reaganomics was failing, and they pulled out their witchiest stuff, and you could just feel it not working. Feel people sort of curdling.

CL In A Bright Room Called Day. Zillah says of our much-touted ‘great communicator,’ “what Reagan communicated was that you can be even more divorced from History and Reality and Language than he was from Jane Wyman and STILL BE THE MOST POWERFUL MAN ON EARTH!” So many of my friends and I are critical of the status quo, and yet there isn’t an explicit or articulated vision of how things …

TK How to improve it.

CL I often wish that there was a party I could belong to. Or a school. And I’m embarrassed and afraid sometimes to say that I am attracted to Marx, that I think there is something wrong with the division of wealth in our society, and I feel very vulnerable when I say this. I fear I may lose the ability to make a living as a writer and be vilified as a socialist—which certainly happened to many writers during McCarthy. Do you worry about these things?

TK Oh yeah. I know exactly what you mean when you said you wished there was a party to belong to. The idea of socialism is still completely valid, and the collapse of the Soviet system doesn’t in any way mean that capitalism has succeeded. Capitalism is always going to be successful economically in the sense that about 10% of the population will have a lot of money and 1% will have immense amounts of money and everybody else will live lives that are either full of fear or full of poverty, and there’ll be huge numbers of people out of work. Socialism is simply the idea that people are better off if we work collectively and that the economic system we live in is made by people and therefore can be controlled intelligently rather than let loose. There’s no way that can’t be true. As long as there are decent people in the world, there’s going to be a demand for socialism. I mean, the demand for health care right now, which is a demand that 80% of the people in this country share, is a demand for a certain kind of socialism. People wanted to get rid of Bush because they wanted the restitution of the social net that FDR put into place. We don’t want to live in an outlaw, in a bandit country anymore.

CL At the same time they want to see the end of welfare.

TK Yeah, well, welfare is the demon and people don’t even think about what it means. What it is basically is the fear and terror of being poor. Fear of the notion of being dependent in a country where dependency is a shameful thing. Everyone recognizes their potential for being homeless, for being on welfare, so we hate people that are because they frighten us. David Duke made great political hay out of welfare expenditures in Louisiana which, when it was examined, amounted to 5% of the state budget. So it’s a complete, idiotic fantasy. What really makes you nuts is that people want health care and they don’t want to pay taxes. But then again they don’t get anything for their taxes. In Europe you pay a huge amount, but you actually get services that you would want. Here all you get are Tomahawk missiles. Here all you’re doing is bailing out savings and loan associations. You don’t get anything back. So you need to hold onto your money, because you’re not going to get anything from the government. It’s very embarrassing and difficult to say that you’re a socialist at this point in history, but lots of people, I think, really still are.

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Joe Mantello and Stephen Spinella in The Mark Taper Forum Production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Photo by Schwartz/Thompson.

CL Another thing in your work that makes me feel less alone in the world is that it doesn’t share the kneejerk, dismissive attitude towards Freud. Have you been analyzed?

TK Oh, yes, endlessly … I sound like Woody Allen, I really have been analyzed virtually all of my adult life … . And I’ve just gone back in. And I absolutely believe that the people of the Frankfurt school were on the right track in trying to come up with some political theory that incorporated Freud and Marx, because it seems to me that there’s much consonance between the two world views. There’s a direction you can take Freud in that’s anti-collective, just as there’s a direction you can take Marx in that’s anti-psychoanalytic, but neither of them need to be seen that way. And the deepest Freudians, including Freud himself, have acknowledged the existence of the collective, and have not seen people as being hermetically sealed entities, just as the best Marxists were very sophisticated and believed in psychoanalysis; Trotsky sent his own daughter into psychoanalysis. One has to acknowledge the profoundly anti-social dimension in people and recognize that it isn’t truer—you don’t want to privilege it above the social dimension, but recognize that these two things are thesis and anti-thesis, that they’re in constant struggle with one another, and that a real collective doesn’t annihilate the idea of people being differentiated from one another and having specific detail. The thing that I find so moving about Brecht’s plays, especially some of his early plays before he went into exile, is that it was obvious to him because of the discourse in which his work was situated in Germany where psychoanalysis was seen as being incredibly bourgeois, and being a Communist at that point and not being a Leninist and not really spending too much time worrying about the internal, but Brecht was very, very clear and was struggling with the question of how the individual is transmuted into the socialist subject. Because here’s this guy who’s clearly a genius and who knows himself to be one of the greatest writers of the century, believing also very deeply in the need to be part of a mass, of a group. And I think obviously in great pain and agony, trying to figure out how to kill off this glorious ego or to make this glorious ego function in the services of a collective will without losing what makes it glorious. And you can sort of re-write the whole arc of his career thinking of the characters in his plays as all struggling with that. It’s the great failure, again, of socialism: they crushed those people, but they didn’t make them better. There’s this great thing from Bulgakov in like 1920: “People keep talking about the new Muscovites after the revolution; they seem to me much like the old Muscovites except the housing shortage has made them sour.”

CL Your plays are filled with visions and angels, devils and revelations. Do you hold a belief system about God?

TK I’m an honest to god agnostic. I think that agnosticism really is a tough position and it isn’t a shoulder shrug, you know, “I don’t know and I don’t care.” If you don’t care, you’re really an atheist, you just don’t want to call yourself that because you don’t want people to think you’re Madeline Murray O’Hare or something (who I think is one of the great, fabulous Americans). I’m in a position of constant confusion about it. I don’t understand how to incorporate the existence of evil into any theological system, I just don’t. I don’t feel comfortable saying that evil is a part of life, because I don’t know how you then become anything other than complacent in the face of it, and justice is something that I do believe in. Louis says in Angels that justice is God. That’s the one thing that I feel, you know, that when justice wins, when you’re reading history, that’s what feels the best to you. Or to me anyway. But I also really can’t say that I am sure that there isn’t a God, and there are many smart people like Martin Luther King who believed in God. And I have a sense that the material world is not all that there is. When one loses people that one loves, one’s inability to accept that life ends with the material body … sort of punches holes in the walls of one’s resistance to the notion of something beyond.

CL The magician at the end of The Illusion suggests something which Christian theologists have been trying to articulate for 2000 years, that time and the physical universe are illusions which are created in the separation, and our belief in this world is the dream.

TK Yeah.

CL And he says it very beautifully in terms of love being perhaps the only reality.

TK I also believe that it has a lot to do with being in theater … the whole thing of the real and the unreal, the uncertainty about which is which. I decided I really wanted to be a playwright and be in theater when my Shakespeare professor at Columbia read for us the Theseus/Hyppolita debate at the top of Act Five of Midnight. This sounds incredibly corny, but it’s true … it’s the closest thing that I’ve ever come to magic. And also to a sense of collectivity and a sense of energy that’s not bound by physical bodies. Because sex, of course, requires a certain degree of … I mean, it’s better when there’s contact … but in the way that an audience and actors create something, and they really do create something. It isn’t just an old theater cliché, the event that takes place on any given night is something that a bunch of people who are not speaking to one another and don’t know each other make almost before the first line gets spoken … there’s a kind of thing that will happen. And some of it you can tease out and say: “Well, this person coughed on that line and so he didn’t get his laugh and so the whole play fell apart,” but it’s never reducible to that. There’s something in the air … I feel in a certain sense that the theater is the closest that I come to a religion.

CL The afternoon that my lover and I saw Millennium Approaches at the National, we were so invigorated. As you know he has AIDS, and I worried that the play was going to send him into a tailspin. We were so elated, and so sorry when it was over, we were on such a theater high, we went and saw Heartbreak House that night. Which was how I came to be reminded that your subtitle, A Gay Fantasia On National Themes, comes from Shaw—something which nobody seems to have noted. How do you feel about Shaw?

TK Oh, I love Shaw. Yeah, you’re the first person. John Bellucci, the actor who played Roy Cohn in San Francisco … And I didn’t know what it had come from … kept saying, “Something else is called that.” It strikes terror in your veins because you’re going to find out that someone else …

CL Oscar Hammerstein.

TK Or somebody your own age. And then he said it was Heartbreak House. I wanted a title that had a musical sound to it. Every playwright probably wants their plays to have a kind of musical structure, its themes and interweaving.

CL Did you work from an outline? The design is so ingenious.

TK I started to, but it just fell apart completely, and I had never really been successful at doing an outline. Because I really didn’t know what I wanted it to say; I had no idea what the second part was supposed to be about. When I first started writing it, it didn’t have a second part; it was three acts, they each had like 56 scenes in them, and I could tell that I was heading into trouble, but by the time I got past the end of the second act, and there were things that happened in the second act that I hadn’t planned for …

CL Such as?

TK Well, Joe’s mother coming out at the end of the act and selling her house in Salt Lake. And I didn’t know why she was selling her house or what she was doing … .

CL I love that the first part ends, she arrived in New York, it’s a promise and it’s completely unanswered and unaddressed. To me … obviously it throws you into the second play, but it also has the feeling of life lived. Change. And so much of the play is about change and how painful it is (I love what Harper says in Perestroika about God slitting you open with his thumb and pulling all your guts out and rearranging them and stuffing them back in, and that’s how change happens) … It must have cost you an enormous amount of pain to shape these plays.

TK Well, yeah. Millennium has been shaped a good deal, but the first draft of it and this draft are within shooting distance of one another. Perestroika has just changed and changed and changed and changed, and it’s still changing, and that’s appropriate, because that’s what the play’s about. It’s a little miracle of compression at this point. Millennium introduces eight major characters, only five of which are dealt with substantively, and nothing happens in Millennium. And in Perestroika everything happens. Probably there could have been third play. It was originally five acts long and a 293 page manuscript that I’ve had to just crush down. It’s a little uncomfortable that it’s happened in such a public way, because now the critics in San Francisco who saw the really long version wrote that I had ruined it, that I’d cut too much out, and I think that when people who saw it in LA—it’s going to lose some more before it gets to New York—will say, “But what about that?” And everybody will say how their favorite things were lost. And that’s been hard, but it’s nothing compared to the thrill of getting it done. I can’t think of any other play where there were two parts, and the first half went out and did its thing, and then the second part has to sort of live up … it’s a really weird situation.

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Stephen Spinella and Joe Mantello. Photo by Jay Thompson.

CL Are you at all struck by the irony of those who saw nothing in A Bright Room Called Day now jumping up and down and screaming about Angels? I mean, the same person wrote these two plays.

TK I know that while Bright Room would never be a big success, if you took Zillah out of it, and just did the German scenes, people would say, “Well, it’s a nice play.” Or they’d say it’s not a good play, but it would be this tepid little non-event. But having this character get up and say Ronald Reagan and Adolf Hitler are virtually the same thing, and that fascism starts at home and whatever it is that Zillah’s saying, just made people ballistic. Even though Zillah comprises about six pages out of a 130 page manuscript … I didn’t read any of the reviews in New York, because when it got trashed in London I stopped reading reviews forever.

CL You don’t read them now.

TK No. I can’t. I was reading Michael Billington’s review in the Guardian of Bright Room in London, and it was so angry and he was so incredibly contemptuous of everything in the play, that I felt like if I read this all the way through and read any more of these, I’ll never write again. And this isn’t fair because I just started, and I don’t think that these people are getting what’s good about the play. It’s sort of amazing to me that, from what I’ve understood of the critical response to Bright Room, virtually no separation was made between me and Zillah, and no one noticed that she is in fact a character, she speaks to people, and that she’s full of contradictions and that she herself says to the audience that this is deliberately overstated, you need to overstate. Not five months later after everybody got hysterical, John Frohnmayer was standing in front of the National Press Club saying, “What’s happening at the NEA will lead to fascism in America.” By the time the Republican National Convention was getting reviewed and the farther reaches of Iran Contra, you had Murray Kempton and all the poobahs of the press saying this is fascism. All of a sudden it became sayable.

CL Not to Al D’Amato.

TK Well, he doesn’t know how to pronounce the word. Dale Collins did this great column where she went to all the Senate Candidates in the fall and asked them to name the two books that they had read in the last year and liked the best and she cornered D’Amato without any of his aides around and he came up with one that clearly didn’t exist, and then he said, “Oh yes, another book, The Rise and Fall of the Second Reich.” Collins said, “Well, what’s a Reich or two between friends.” (laughter)

CL … To get back to change, I was thinking how it was within the last ten years that John Simon felt free to call a play “faggot nonsense” in New York Magazine. Things can seem to go along one way for so long and then be transformed … I don’t think AIDS is the only force that has shoved homophobia and homosexuality out into the open, but it is nonetheless dazzling to me that now I can pick up the paper and read articles about gay people whereas ten years, fifteen years ago I could not. I’m frightened for what’s going to come because I feel we’re a very visible target now—

TK Yeah.

CL We’re not so very different from European Jewry in the ‘30s. We’re accepted in certain sophisticated urban quarters, in our ghettos, and nice people don’t openly say mean things about us, but lots of people would like to see us dead. Do you have thoughts about why homophobia holds on and what is under the surface now and …

TK What one must understand is that when one examines any great social phobia, one will be examining really the heart of the society that hates. Sexual politics is the eye of the storm, and racism is the eye of the storm even though blacks are 11% of the population. That the oppressed minorities in this country’s history, or anywhere in the world, are the thing by which the majority defines itself, and that it has no identity except as not being the thing that it’s despising. The Catholic Church is an enormously complicated institution; it represents one of the biggest stumbling blocks that the progress of gay rights faces. Because how do you get around fundamentalism, how do you get around doctrine?

CL With a certain amount of learning. John Boswell writes that early Christians honored gay marriage and that the earliest existing Christian marriage ceremony is between people of the same sex.

TK Right.

CL The Vatican may wish to tear the page out of the books.

TK Well, they do destroy stuff, but they don’t really need to. They’re not like the Mormons who actually do have to put things in their secret vaults. The fact of the matter is that the Holy Texts of Christianity contain passages that clearly anathematize homosexuality as a practice. And if you believe in a fundamental reading of those texts or if you believe that the Vatican, that the Cardinals and Pope interpret doctrine, which they do, which is part of the doctrine of Catholicism, then you can’t do anything about it. You either have to go for a reformation which is, I think, coming in this country, or you just sign on for the whole nine yards. I mean, Boswell’s great, but a lot of what he’s talking about is Christianity as it was practiced before Paul, before the gospels were really codified, and yes, there was a tremendous—Elaine Pagel’s book also shows there was a tremendously weird bunch of religions going around back then that were all sort of vaguely Christian or Jewish or something.

CL But so many Catholics are willing to put aside notions on contraception. They’re just not willing to put other—

TK I think that women are going to be the great beach heads for the church, because I don’t think that women are really interested in back-room abortion anymore, or in having 50 babies in a row. They’re really tired of watching successions of uninspired male priests tell them what the church is about. They clearly are the life force of the church. Just like the third world, there’s going to be people of color in the church (who are far and away the most populous element) who are going to get tired of an endless succession of Europeans. And the first time there’s a Latin American pope or an African pope, we can hope for certain kinds of incursions into church reactionary thinking that we’re not seeing. I do feel, like you, things are changing remarkably. I mean, the plays you’ve written, Angels, there’s a space for us now, and a way that straight critics and straight audiences can listen, that just didn’t exist ten years ago. And it is going to make life better and also more difficult because there are going to be backlashes like what’s happened in Colorado, all over the place.

CL Well, I feel very strongly that you have opened that space out. Thank you.

Craig Lucas is a playwright who lives and works in New York. His current project, God’s Heart, is a collaboration with songwriter Michael John LaChiusa.

Annie Baker by Elianna Kan
Baker Annie 1
Richard Foreman by Eric Bogosian
Article 1768  Forman 01

“I am personally happiest when I am forced to solve a problem. The aggression onstage has to do with that.”

Dan Scardino by Michael O'Keefe
Dan Scardino 01

Don Scardino tells actor pal Michael O’Keefe about escaping a dead-end acting career to become a director, and his battle to stay loyal to theater work while being wooed by offers in film and television.

Guillermo Calderón’s Villa by Tom Sellar
Crystal Finn, Vivia Font, and Harmony Stempel sitting around a wood table in Villa, a play by Guillermo Calderon at the MESS International Theater Festival in Sarajevo, 2012. Photo by Maria Paz Gonzalez.

It takes a rare kind of playwright to evoke the head-spinning contradictions in our national political psyches.

Originally published in

BOMB 43, Spring 1993

Featuring interviews with Tony Kushner, Ousmane Sembene, Jeanette Winterson, Andres Serrano, Faye Myenne Ng, Vernon Reid, Gillian Armstrong, Andrew MacNair, Laurie Carlos, Srinivas Krishna, Mira Schor, and Barbara Hammer.

Read the issue
043 Spring 1993