America is better for Tony Kushner. A self-described “God-believing Jew and a historical materialist socialist humanist agnostic,” Kushner–a member of The Nation‘s editorial board–is a playful partisan, whose sense of humor and a generous, joyful and truthful voice fills his work, including his Pulitzer prize-winning epic play, Angels in America, which premieres this Sunday on HBO.
And The Nation is better for Kushner’s contributions over the years, including his award-winning 1994 essay A Socialism of the Skin, his rabble-rousing commencement address to Vassar’s 2002 class, A Word to Graduates: Organize! and a scene from his forthcoming play about Laura Bush reading Dostoevsky to dead Iraqi children. (Click here to read past Nation articles from Kushner.)
What has always moved me about Kushner is his sense of humanity and humility. “I am a person of the left,” he said in a recent New York Times profile. “But I am uncertain about a great many things; what to do next; where change is coming from; what is the meaning of being left in a world like this?”
And although his writing often describes the outrages of our time (“There is not enough anger for everything that makes me angry,” he once said, quoting novelist Sarah Schulman), Kushner retains his joyful and incendiary spirit–refusing to get preachy or earnest. “I believe that the playwright should be a kind of public intellectual, even if only a crackpot intellectual.” Kushner once wrote. “Someone who asks her or his thoughts to get up before crowds, on platforms, and entertain, challenge, instruct, annoy, provoke, appall. I’m amused and horrified when I realize that, on occasion, I’ve been taken seriously. But, of course being taken seriously is my ambition, semi-secretly-and-very-ambivalently held. I enjoy the tension between responsibility and frivolity; it’s where my best work comes from.”
That abiding belief in personal responsibility (Or, as he puts it, “when you don’t act, you act”) may explain Kushner’s extraordinary outpouring of work in these last years–from poems, criticism, personal essays, political investigations, public addresses, opera librettos, song lyrics and a children’s book.
In the last two months alone, he has published two books, with a third on the way: Brundibar, a picture book filled with melodramatic menace and comedy and real-world politial overtones (with illustrations by Maurice Sendak), Wrestling With Zion, an anthology of progressive Jewish-American responses to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (with his friend the Village Voice writer Alisa Solomon), and Save Your Democratic Citizen Soul!: Rants, Screeds and Other Public Utterances for Midnight in the Republic, a collection of essays due “out before the next election” Kushner promises.
His new play, Caroline or Change, a semi-autobiographical musical about growing up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, has just opened at the Public Theater in New York City to widespread praise. And while working on Brundibar, he wrote the text for The Art of Maurice Sendak, a book-length essay that the award-winning children’s book author considers the best appreciation of his work ever written. And check out this slew of other forthcoming collaborations and projects:
*Only We Who Guard The Mystery Shall Be Unhappy. (The Laura Bush play, in which the First Lady reads the Grand Inquisitor chapter of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov to the ghosts of dead Iraqi children.)
*The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism, with a Key to the Scriptures, to open at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 2005.
*A play about Marx and the Jewish Question.
*An adaptation of The Golem.
*Working as an adviser on HBO’s version of his play Homebody/Kabul.
*An original screenplay about Eugene O’Neill.
It’s hard to feel too bad about the possibilities of the human spirit with Kushner around.