This is much more evident now, in what he calls “the Meistersinger years,” than it was in his youth. His origin story is, like his dramaturgy, a cabinet of curiosities: the “fairly chaotic” household of New Yorkers displaced to Louisiana, the clarinetist father and bassoonist mother, the hearing-impaired older sister, the musical younger brother, the bizarre combination of cosmopolitan culture and southern gothic. He was free to roam the “riverine, woodsy” landscape of his neighborhood but was left in the dark about matters closer to home. His mother’s disappearance during a harrowing bout of breast cancer when he was 11—she was poisoned by over-radiation after a mastectomy and only survived thanks to two surgeries over a period of six months—was explained in the local manner: “She was fine and in New York shopping and was way too busy to write.” His sister, Lesley, now a painter living in Brooklyn, was determined to discover the truth, but Kushner preferred to distract himself with anger: a version of the avoidance of emotional pain that is at the heart of his difficulty writing.
In any case it was, he feels, a sign of a kind of attention deficit that produced his magpie erudition. That he eventually pinned that erudition to the stage may be another of his mother’s inadvertent gifts; she was, he says, “the local tragedienne,” playing Betty the Loon, Mrs. Frank, and an “indelible” Linda Loman at a community theater in Lake Charles. In kindergarten, after seeing her carried into Freud’s office and laid on a couch in the melodrama A Far Country, Kushner got sick, became paralyzed, “and had to be carried to my bed.” In that strange, almost hysterical identification with a character played by his mother, many of the strands of his adult personality and profession find their origin. “It was then I became a playwright,” he says.
Also, one might infer, a dedicated analysand. His faith in therapy is so conflated with his progressive politics that he sometimes comes off as the commandant and sole internee in an endless reeducation camp. (To his non-fans, his plays feel like much the same thing.) It is one of his best features that, however grand he gets, he sees himself coming from miles away: the pretentiousness, the too-muchness, the debilitating anxieties that no real activist lets get in the way. But it is sometimes unclear whether his willingness to absorb all censure, and trump it with his own, is a sign of radical vulnerability or a diabolically clever defense against it. Into one of his iHo notebooks he has pasted a copy of a letter he received from Eustis’s stepfather, a very thoughtful old communist who took issue with the play’s portrayal of the radical left. But the man’s neatly typed criticisms do not compare with some of the things Kushner himself scrawls in the notebooks, such as “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing and I’m going to die in the gutter.”
Hollywood has paid him handsomely, though. It has also repaired the “bitter disappointment” he felt early on, when his television and film work had yet to achieve what he most wanted from it: “to provide its author a pretext to meet Meryl Streep.” (Streep starred in the 2003 HBO mini-series of Angels; the next year Kushner held her umbrella at a New Dramatists luncheon.) Though he struggled to adjust himself to a visual medium, he doesn’t disdain the product as many playwrights do: “The Wire and now Breaking Bad are the best drama being written anywhere,” he says. “It’s a race to the bottom to see who can depict the most awful things most truly.”
The Lincoln portrait isn’t that kind of story; Kushner took pains, he says, to avoid the feeling of a mini-series or “a pageant at the Mall of America.” And he has accepted not having the last word—as if a writer ever does. His Munich screenplay, intended as “a critique of state vigilantism,” had Israel absolutists apoplectic, and he is often the object of ad hominem—sometimes creepily homophobic—attacks for his politics. But within the theater his stances only enhance his status, and he gets what he wants. “Look, if you’re lucky in my profession,” says Eustis, “you encounter someone who you just believe in absolutely. I believe in Tony absolutely. He is the greatest living playwright; that’s a slightly provocative statement as long as Edward Albee is alive. He knows, although he acts sometimes like he doesn’t, that he has a standing offer from me to produce anything he wants me to produce.”
Keep in mind that this comes from a man who, after working on early versions of Angels for years, and co-directing the Los Angeles production, was basically fired by Kushner as the play headed to Broadway. (George C. Wolfe took over, to great acclaim.) Loyalty came in second place to what Kushner saw as the needs of the work—or, looked at less charitably, to ambition. It was, after all, the moment of his big break, and for a playwright those moments are surpassingly brief and rare. Of course, they are also brief and rare for directors. In any case, though the two men fell out for a year or two, they managed to repair the relationship to the point that Eustis, not exactly a meek personality, could say recently that it is sometimes the joy of his professional life “to carry Tony Kushner’s bags.”