That Angels came so close to the burning heart of the Zeitgeist left Kushner fearing he would never get there again. But in fact he has been there so often that he seems to have passed right through it. If you reread the plays in sequence, he emerges as a necromancer in black robes, consulting the dead to predict the future. Angels, so much a cry in the dark about AIDS when it was written, seems now to be as much about the Earth’s potentially fatal illness as gay men’s; the writing of Homebody/Kabul anticipated by years the U.S. war in Afghanistan. In East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis, an unproduced teleplay commissioned by Alec Baldwin, Kushner imagined an anti-tax radical website called www.teaparty .com—in 1996. And though Caroline, or Change, one of the two or three great musicals of the new century, couldn’t sustain an audience when it transferred to Broadway after a sellout run at the Public, it amazingly suggested, in 2002, the imminence of a black (if female) president.
The fate of the actual first black president has been on Kushner’s mind as he takes stabs at rewriting iHo, though the original was inspired, in part, by the Broadway stagehands’ strike of 2007. “I thought all us liberal-shmiberals would be out on the line with them,” he says, “but instead it was: ‘They’re ruining the theater with their featherbedding.’ It was stunning to me, because isn’t the idea of labor unions that you get working-class people to live in nice houses and send their kids to college? It’s great that they’re making $100,000 a year, why the fuck shouldn’t they? Why shouldn’t they have an iPod?”
The strike got him thinking about the “old bad propensity for progressive people, when confronted with triumphant political evil, to take careful aim and shoot themselves in the feet.” The resulting play, he says, “is about a specific issue in terms of the American left, of which I consider myself a part. We are all aware of the monstrous price people pay for powerlessness, but are less honest with ourselves about how, when you have no power, you have some relief from responsibility. To be oppressed is to be given the opportunity to see certain things. It’s better, of course, to have power and try to retain the insight into powerlessness you personally gained or can glean from history. But I don’t know if we recognize the degree to which we’re satisfied with our inability to change. Revolution becomes a fantasy people hold without ever having to be responsible for it. I’m hugely impatient with it now. There is a failure to recognize that the infantile anarchism that was part of the sixties was co-opted by the counterrevolution, by the anarchism of the Reagan years, and turned into a kind of ego anarchism-libertarianism that meshed perfectly with Ayn Rand and all that nonsensical malevolent crap.
“Mark and I just had a discussion about it; we don’t see eye to eye”—Kushner married Mark Harris, a journalist who sometimes writes for New York, before a rabbi in Manhattan in 2003 and then legally in Massachusetts before a “lady motorcycle cop,” in 2008. “But I feel that after Obama’s inauguration the left immediately settled into our very familiar role of being the backseat drivers or principled opposition, and have expressed volubly every disappointment. Not even after the inauguration. The minute they heard that Rick Warren was speaking at the inauguration, LGBT people were saying, ‘It’s over, he’s just like all the others.’ Let alone those who say there’s no difference between Republicans and Democrats, which I think is glib and profoundly dangerous. What frightens me is that I feel that we’re in the process of dismantling the coalition of constituencies that brought Obama to the White House.
“My feeling is that there are too many of us on the left who believe that politics is an expression of personal purity. Because of our divorcement from electoral politics and abandonment of a belief in the possibility of radical change through participatory democracy, we have become profoundly uncomfortable with, and ignorant of, the complexities and discomfort of making change in a democracy. I’m guilty of this in some of the earlier things I wrote, too. I have no illusion of being able to change Rush Limbaugh’s mind, or of being able to make John Boehner anything other than a profoundly indecent person, but what makes something happen in an electoral democracy is compromise, negotiation, and strategizing, and to a certain extent even what in the Clinton era became fashionable to call lying. There are lies, and those should not be tolerated. But there is a degree of rhetorical finesse that’s required to maneuver through very treacherous waters. I’m willing to believe that this man who got himself elected president is actually a very skilled politician and is negotiating imponderably difficult conditions.”