Of the 100 or so books Tony Kushner lugged to Provincetown for a four-week holiday this summer, about the trashiest was The Oxford Book of Death. He gestured toward it on a bookshelf in the penitentially furnished guest bedroom he was using as an office. “Do you know Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks?” he asked, petting another spine. Also handy were The Theory of Revolution in the Young Marx; Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite; treatises on suicide, Lenin, longshoremen, Horace, red-diaper babies, and probabilism.
Even Brecht, his hero, read detective novels for pleasure, but if you’re Tony Kushner, to whom everything is a dialectic, your concept of vacation will challenge your concept of vocation, and lose. Or something very different from either will emerge: a weird amalgam of cooking, board games, procrastination, paralysis, and the fear, often realized, of disappointing others. For Kushner, the conflict between being a good person and enjoying life—between the community and the individual or, if you like, between socialism and capitalism—is not an abstraction. His 1994 play Slavs! bears the subtitle Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness, and he really does think about them constantly. In the bathroom of a previous house, in upstate New York, he installed subway tile that spelled out WE ENJOY BEING IN THE OPEN COUNTRYSIDE SO MUCH BECAUSE IT HAS NO OPINION CONCERNING US. A touch of ego-deflating Nietzsche in the shower is very Tony Kushner.
So is renting a gorgeous home on Commercial Street and then fretting, in the back, over revisions of a new play about the problem of economic justice in America. (Hence the books.) Officially and with characteristic exuberance called The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures, it had its premiere at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis last year and will begin performances at the Public Theater in March, in a co-production with the Signature Theatre. At the Signature, the new play is a tent pole of its hagiographic Tony Kushner season, which begins next week with the first major New York revival of Angels in America and concludes with The Illusion, his 1988 Corneille adaptation, in April. Though the Signature has devoted seasons to playwrights who were younger than Kushner (he’s 54), it has never devoted so much money: Angels alone, says artistic director James Houghton, is “the largest project we’ve ever worked on.”
The canonization of Saint Tony—complete with miracles and a few stigmata—comes at an odd moment in his professional life. As a dramatic writer, he has never been more popular. The Signature sold all 10,000 subscription seats for Angels on the first day they were available; 10,000 nonsubscription tickets, released six weeks later, sold within an hour, crashing the website. And it’s not just Angels: Everything but his pocket lint is being remounted. An evening of early one-acts called Tiny Kushner has played Minneapolis, Berkeley, and London. Henry Box Brown, an unpublished oddity he’d all but disowned, was recently resurrected by NYU graduate students. The result is a useful overview of Kushner’s astonishingly fast transformation from early-eighties East Village egghead to Broadway radical darling of 1993. All the ingredients—the political ferocity, the high-low humor, the psychological acuity, the deep river of lyricism and daredeviltry of form—are there from the beginning; in his masterpiece you suddenly see them emulsify.
On the other hand, except for the new play, he has produced nothing big for the stage since Caroline, or Change in 2002. The man who could say, in 2000, “I love movies, but somebody else should write them” has spent much of the interim writing several, including two for Steven Spielberg, no less: the 2005 thriller Munich and an Abraham Lincoln screenplay he thinks may be “the best thing I’ve ever written.” Whether we will ever get the benefit of that achievement is an open question. Liam Neeson, long slated to star, dropped out this summer, leaving the fate of the project uncertain.
Weighing years of potential output in the theater against the inducements even an unmade movie can offer—well, such are the compromise calculations that can distract a progressive artist, if he’s lucky, at middle age. (Is befriending Daniel Craig adequate compensation for ceding copyright on one’s work?) But just as distracting to Kushner have been the compromises of progressiveness itself. He has arrived at the point where what he has created or might create, however valued, is not as politically fungible as what he can say right now from atop the pile of his published works. So the BlackBerry pings. Will you chair the New York Civil Liberties Union’s “Broadway Stands Up for Freedom” fund-raiser? Will you accept the Shofar Award from Central Synagogue and speak to the congregation afterward? What about a rally, interview, petition, preface, panel, blurb, favor for an old pal? Even with a business manager, a lawyer, a personal assistant, and three agents, he cannot handle it all, and his attempts to prioritize just wind themselves into circles. “The primary thing I should do,” he says, “apart from being a good husband, brother, son, and friend, is to be a citizen activist. But I’m afraid it takes away from the writing. Not that anything depends on whether I put an essay in The Nation or not. But you want to participate.”