Tony Kushner flew in to London from New York the weekend before Angels in America, his “Gay Fantasia on National Themes”, opened at the National Theatre. He saw it in preview, then headed home. The man is not easy to pin down; you suspect he is tempted not only to elude potential interlocutors but to give himself the slip. As a playwright, he is, by his own admission, a procrastinator. There was at least one false start before we caught up on the phone a couple of days after the show’s extraordinary first night (or rather afternoon-and-night – the two-part masterwork is eight hours long) at the Lyttelton. “It’s Tony,” he said. It was hard to hear him with the rumble of New York in the background. Was he ringing from the street?
His voice is sweet, warm – faint. I shouted compliments about the play, told him I had seen it three times – the 1991 production at the Cottesloe, directed by Declan Donnellan, the HBO film directed by Mike Nichols and now Marianne Elliott’s phenomenal, sellout 25th-anniversary revival. How did he think it was evolving? Did he feel – as WH Auden once said about poetry – that a play was never finished, only abandoned? “I know what Auden was talking about but, since 1990, I’ve felt that Millennium Approaches is finished, as good as I can make it. But the second part, Perestroika, still has possibilities…” The shriek of sirens removed the remainder of his sentence. He’d phone me back, he said. And when he did – engaging, talkative and finally audible – I had, listening, a sense akin to what one feels watching Angels. Kushner thinks in a wonderful, slightly shambolic, richly intellectual way – and there is always more to say.
It is impossible to exaggerate the impact Angels had a quarter of a century ago. Tony won two Tonys, a Pulitzer and was included in Harold Bloom’s book about definitive literature, The Western Canon (1994). Re-experiencing the plays now, one is reminded of the uniqueness of Kushner’s vision, its mix of camouflage and exposure, vulnerability and high camp. The plays are about so much more than the Aids epidemic. They are shaggy angel stories with an incredible wingspan, under which emotional and political ideas, ordinarily shorn from dramas in the interest of elegance or concision, shelter. And when Angels is well performed – as it is by Andrew Garfield, Denise Gough, James McArdle, Russell Tovey, Nathan Lane and all – it is not self-indulgent but human, by which I mean that it is allowed to be messy, questing and about loss. It is human and humane.
What is new about the National’s production? “Marianne Elliot’s level of engagement,” Kushner replies unhesitatingly. “It is astonishing – her focus on every single moment. She and I were in conversation for more than a year beforehand, I’ve never seen anyone prepare as extensively.” He showed up for the fourth week of rehearsals and was “mainly delighted” by what he saw. He applauds the cast’s comic gifts yet maintains that “the thing that is most thrilling to me is how unafraid they are of exploring the dark places.”
“I came out of the closet at 26,” he says, “in the early 80s, as the epidemic was beginning. I knew many people who died, although I didn’t lose any close friends. It is strange seeing Angels 25 years on. When Declan Donnellan did it in 1991, it was five years after the events the play describes but not much had changed demographically or in terms of medical treatment.” In the US, the first Bush administration’s failure to respond to the crisis accelerated the gay death toll but “by the time Angels came to Broadway, in 1993, we’d turned a corner with Bill Clinton”. Today, being HIV positive is no longer a death sentence: “Watching 30-year-old actors struggling to understand that terrible time is moving for me. It makes me proud the play can be a memento mori and a historical record.”
The play’s meditation on mortality reaches far beyond Aids. Kushner and I are about the same age and I confess that, stealing towards 60, I think about death most days – does he? “Oh yes – but I am 60 now and found 59 much scarier [laughs]. On my 59th birthday, I thought, ‘Oh God, I’m done’ – but once I reached my 60th, it was as if a huge physical cloud had lifted; it was good to cross the line and say: ‘OK, here I am’ – although it still feels weird to say: ‘I’m 60.’ I say it out loud a lot, in public, to inoculate myself against its effect.”
Aside from mortality, the plays explore belonging, loyalty, betrayal and flight. Joe Pitt, a gay Mormon lawyer from Utah, needs to escape his wife, Harper; Jewish Louis takes flight from his sick lover, Prior Walter. How important is loyalty in life? “Love is even more important. The play is about people testing human connectedness and, in Harper’s case, about how pernicious loving the wrong person can be. It is also about what to do when you live in a world with no grand theory to guide you.” This is a theme of many of Kushner’s other works too, ranging from Slavs! Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness to The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures (brevity is not Kushner’s thing).
I remind him of the line from Millennium: “Love is hard.” Has it been for him? “It took a while to find the person [his husband is Mark Harris, writer and editor] with whom I wanted to spend my life but we’ve been together almost 20 years and it’s going well,” he laughs. “I think I’ve done OK. I’ve a circle of people I’m close to – I’ve never been a person who had fantasies about absolute self-reliance. I’m always aware how much I owe to other people.” He describes the shared delight of dividing his year between Upper West Side New York and Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he spends his summers. “It is very beautiful and being in a house rather than an apartment, away from New York’s overwhelming energy, is important. There is no place on Earth more gorgeous than Cape Cod – it is where Tennessee Williams finished The Glass Menagerie. It’s a place that has been central, in its strange way, in American arts and letters.”
When he talks about love, does he not think about the role luck plays? “My husband and I talk about that all the time. It was complete luck we ran into each other, one night 19 years ago, at a friend’s birthday party. People can, unfortunately, also be unlucky. But I am also writing about non-romantic love. There is a great political divide between people who believe human beings are unseverably connected through community and those who believe we make our destinies alone.” For New York Times critic Ben Brantley, this is what Angels is predominantly about: the “moral weight of human connections”.
So why the taking flight among Kushner’s characters? “Everybody knows that to love someone puts you at risk of loss and that is very frightening. It forces us into a recognition of limitations: life is not eternal. The more you are aware how much you need other people, the more you realise you are composed of connections to others – what they give you and you them – and you become aware their loss is going to be calamitous. There’s also the possibility of their losing you. It’s terrifying to contemplate. There’s an understandable impulse to run.” And he talks about Freud’s granddaughter who “threw a little sewing spindle and kept pulling it back” – an early investigation, Freud believed, into what it might be to lose and regain a mother. Alluding to Freud is characteristic. In a fascinating interview in the Paris Review, Kushner spells out what psychoanalysis contributes to his life: “It teaches a kind of ethics, a kind of scrupulousness about behaviour. You learn that you are going to do things you didn’t consciously intend, things that you intend only on a very deep level.”
At another point, he talks about Anna Akhmatova – and her masterpiece Requiem (1935-61), about the Stalinist terror. She was standing in a prison queue in Leningrad when a woman, not knowing she was addressing one of Russia’s greatest poets, asked: “Can you describe this?” And Akhmatova answered: “I can.” Kushner is modestly sure his own task as a writer is also to describe. In his introduction to the Nick Hern Books edition of Angels in America, he explains that he writes on a “knife’s edge of terror and hope”. But it does not sound as though he lives that way? “I’m a fairly happy person. I struggle with anxieties about finance and career like everyone else but have little to complain about.”
Yet in the same introduction, he accuses himself of having “not changed as much as I hoped”. What was it he hoped to change? “I’d hope to be less inflamed by fears, more capable of generosity, freer of things that are obstacles to a sense of being a free agent. I’ve a long list – losing weight, eating better…” he laughs. “I’m also a very reluctant writer. I envy people who are calmer when writing.” And then he adds: “What I do have to complain about is the political situation. There is no possibility of living anywhere other than on a knife’s edge of terror when Donald Trump is president. Everyone sentient has to be wildly alarmed.”
Tony Kushner grew up in a house in the woods in Lake Charles, Louisiana. His parents were musicians. His father was a Juilliard-trained clarinettist turned conductor who headed two Louisiana symphony orchestras for 40 years. His mother was a bassoonist with New York City Opera and recorded with Stravinsky (she also acted in community theatre). “My mother was a tragic soul. She was a born bassoonist – born to play an instrument with the deep melancholy produced by a double reed. She was incredibly lovely, warm and loving but had a darkness, lived with a certain amount of grief and the enormous compassion that often accompanies grief.” Kushner briefly played the cello but gave up “mostly because of struggles with my father, who was a bit appalled I wasn’t making music my first love”. His younger brother is first horn with the Wiener Symphoniker: “He went into the family business.” His older sister was born deaf and is a painter. He says his 2003 musical Caroline, Or Change, with music by Jeanine Tesori (currently on at Chichester), is the closest his work gets to autobiography. He has always been, he says, “tremendously enriched” by the Jewish culture of which he is part, saying: “Much of my politics are the direct result of being a diasporan modernist Jew.”
Angels in America makes it clear that to be born involves being a Jacob and that everyone – gay or not – wrestles with their own version of an angel. What would Kushner’s angel be? “Oh God – my entire life. I struggle endlessly on a personal level with issues of discipline and courage. Everything has been a struggle, I would not trust anything that wasn’t.” And yet Perestroika ends with a toast to life? “I see hope – if you have the option to look for plausible hope – as a moral obligation. That’s not saying you should delude yourself. But it is not over until it is over. Since Trump was elected, there has been enormous pushback against him. I believe he has found the last four months more difficult than he expected – one of the things this proves is the resilience of democracy. The planet is in danger but despair is not called for – all it does is waste time and there’s a lot to be done. As Prior says: ‘The Great Work Begins.’ Let’s get going.”