Kushner freely admits the process isn’t good for much but the play. “When really writing I’m not a good friend. Because writing disorganizes the social self, you become atomized. It scrambles you, sometimes to the point that I’m incapable of speech. I feel that if I start speaking, I’ll lose the writing, like getting off the treadmill.”
But few try harder to live up to their ideals. And where should a playwright be his best self but in his plays? Kushner’s have the double vision of how things are and how they ought to be, the latter shadowing the former, sometimes as angels, sometimes as ghosts. (Sylvia Kushner died, after a recurrence of her cancer, in 1990.) His plots are therefore very crowded, but they gain power from that: “He puts almost indigestible things at the center to force them to expand, to force human insight,” says Eustis. Among those indigestible things are Ethel Rosenberg saying Kaddish over Roy Cohn in Angels, and Laura Bush reading Dostoyevsky to dead Iraqi children in Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy. And among the resulting insights are that people are not one thing or another but both; that they may betray and still be loved; that even as Louis Ironson can grow, so can a president, so can a country, given time and emergency. After all, it was that gradualist Lincoln who brought off the most radical change in American history.
“It’s about the messianic moment,” Kushner says, “making a leap of faith that you can change things you thought couldn’t change. We should recognize in developing a complex and somber view of the world that at some points recklessness counts. ‘I don’t know if this going to work, but let’s try it.’ ”
He’s talking about supporting Obama in the same terms he uses to describe his lasagne dramaturgy. Yet finally, it’s harder than it sounds. In writing Angels, Kushner struggled with the fate of Louis Ironson, who can’t reasonably leave the story when he leaves his lover in Act I. “It took five years to get Louis to come back into the hospital room,” says Eustis. “Finally Tony brought in the scene near the end in which Louis says, ‘Failing in love isn’t the same as not loving.’ It took him that long because he had to figure it out as a human being. It was his synthesis of the contradiction between freedom and responsibility that’s at the heart of Angels: Freedom doesn’t let you off the hook, and failing doesn’t mean you’re not responsible for trying.”
Nor, Kushner might add, does success.