A Flock of Angels
Two decades of millennium approaching.
That his writing time must be jealously protected does not mean he uses it more efficiently than when no one wanted anything from him. In Provincetown, the revisions of The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide were not exactly flowing, no doubt because the story hits close to home. Like Kushner’s own family, it features a widower father and three adult children. But in the play the father is a retired longshoreman and Communist Party member who, despairing over the compromises he made, gathers the clan around the dinner table to discuss his plans for suicide.
“I find this particular play very frightening,” Kushner says, “because I don’t feel in control. I don’t know that I’ll get to the bottom of it. It’s about old-fashioned Freudian things like death drives: things that are antithetical to progress and hope. But I have to explore it—not to get rid of it but to give it its full voice and power.”
One Minneapolis critic, in a grudgingly respectful review, said the play skated “precipitously close to the razor’s edge of incoherence.” That edge is pretty much where Kushner aims to be—“at the place where my abilities end.” But in this case he got there inadvertently; thanks to his immersion in Lincolnalia, he wrote much of the play on the fly. On the first day of rehearsal, the cast had no dialogue. By the end of the run, they had perhaps too much: three hours and 28 minutes of operatic family drama, where family is understood to mean not just a brownstone full of squabbling Italian-American leftists but also the country and the world. If the play grew great and cumbersome in its first gestation—the director, Michael Greif, described pages flying out of the printer, with most of the new material “so right that we were able to just incorporate it as is”—at least Kushner shortened the title, for daily usage, to iHo.
Kushner is loyal to gay themes. (In iHo the gay son falls in love with a hustler; his lesbian sister does something decidedly nonlesbian.) As a result, he often seems, in his plays but also in the work that distracts him from his plays, to be the gay world’s leading and perhaps only public artist. Also the theater’s. Also the left’s. There are, of course, gay commentators with a wider audience in America, but they aren’t artists; there are major playwrights who are produced more often, but they aren’t political; there are even a few bedraggled artists (aren’t there?) who sign petitions and talk to Charlie Rose about the redistribution of wealth. But they don’t work in the theater. The kind of figure that flourished in the arts from the fifties through the seventies, often using the stage as a venue—Mary McCarthy, Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller, James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, Edward Albee, Leonard Bernstein, Susan Sontag, and, later, in his AIDS plays, Larry Kramer—has all but disappeared. Surely replacements exist, waiting in the wings, but the theatrical platform they might in the past have mounted has shriveled almost to nothing. It’s hard to think of anyone but Kushner who has the intellectual heft, the opportunity, and the desire to balance on what’s left of it.
In any case, he tries. But while he can write a commencement address (as one friend put it) “in the time it takes the rest of us to turn on the computer and brew a cup of coffee,” the reputational writing comes insanely slow. The only thing that speeds him up is the passing of a deadline; until then, he desperately pursues distractions. First he must gather the “means of production”: not just reference works but also the perfect fountain pens and notebooks—eighteen for Lincoln so far. Soon enough he’s on Google “and going down a hidey-hole that leads to another and you never get back.” When that pales, there’s always life: e-mail, “closet-cleaning overdrive,” gardening, napping—“and, well, you know, other things.” Kushner performs a Blanche DuBois twinkle, pretending to be embarrassed. “You can become a lotus-eater, or one of those rats that stop asking for food and just die.”
Yet for all his fetishes and distractions, Kushner has produced a dozen or so major plays in the 23 years since he made his professional debut with A Bright Room Called Day. None has saturated the culture like Angels, which ran for twenty months on Broadway, winning two Tony awards for best play and (as he calls it) the Poulet Surprise. Nor has its fame diminished; in this season’s premiere of The Simpsons, we learned that even 8-year-old Lisa is a fan of the “gay fantasia on national themes,” having played the Angel at arts camp.