April 9, 2010

Kushner gives notes on life and the liberal arts

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Playwright Tony Kushner’s talk given in Mandel Hall this Tuesday got off to a rough start when the sound system faltered and Kushner was given a handheld microphone. Asking if he could have one clipped to his lapel, moderator Charlie Newell offered to trade and began unbuttoning his shirt to remove the mic. The mishap fittingly foreshadowed Kushner’s later description of why he loved theater, which, unlike film, holds the possibility of failure in front of a live audience. “I find it exciting in a kinky sort of way,” Kushner said.

Artspeaks, a U of C organization that brings speakers from the arts to campus, hosted Kushner. In addition to his talk on Tuesday, the playwright participated in an open conversation with University Theater/Theater and Performance Studies on Wednesday and was interviewed during the Jean and Harold Gossett Lecture on Thursday.

Kushner’s play The Illusion, based on 17th-century playwright Pierre Corneille’s play of the same name, is also currently playing at Court Theater.

Kushner devoted most of Tuesday’s talk to discussing the play. He began writing it while he was writing Angels in America—between the first and second acts of Millennium Approaches. A theater, hoping to put on a production of The Illusion, came to Kushner when they realized the only existing translation of Corneille’s 1636 play was written in iambic pentameter. Kushner doubted the play would work, fearing that the play’s “surprise punchline” would lose its effect once critics gave away the ending, but he decided to give it a try.

Plus, Kushner said, he was stuck on Angels in America. “[It was] just craziness, and the angel hasn’t arrived yet, and I’m 120 pages into it,” he said.

The Illusion achieved critical and financial success—Kushner said it was the first time he was able to live off money he made writing. Critics liked the play so much that when Angels in America came out, they thought The Illusion was the real success and Kushner’s glory days were past.

Kushner also discussed his relationship with his parents, which played an integral part in both Angels in America and The Illusion. He said his relationship with his parents was complex when he was growing up, in part because he was gay. As he grew older, he became capable of seeing it from the perspective of his parents. His father, too, has changed: “After Angels he had a big turnaround—now he’s like the Poster Parent for PFLAG or something,” said Kushner.

In The Illusion, a father sees three separate visions of his prodigal son. “It is a play to a great degree about paternity,” said Kushner. “It sort of ends up as a gray mess of middle-aged disillusion.” “I’m very fond of my father but we had a tough relationship when I was growing up because I was gay and that was very difficult for him to deal with.”

Kushner is currently working on a screenplay on Abraham Lincoln for a movie that will be produced and directed by Steven Spielberg. Kushner, who seems to have a talent for evoking contemporary preoccupations in apparently timeless works, described President Barack Obama as “The most Lincolnian figure to come into the White House since Lincoln.” At first knowing nothing about Lincoln, Kushner said he is now obsessed. Kushner has read “well over 150 to 200 books on Lincoln,” and while he said that usually after doing intensive reading for research he forgets everything as soon as he’s done, “I think with Lincoln it will become a lifetime obsession.”

Appropriately enough, the playwright also discussed his college experience during the talk. As a voracious reader, Kushner discovered Marx, Brecht, and his favorite playwright Shakespeare. “The only thing you need to do to understand Shakespeare is to count to two, because everything is a double relationship,” he said.

Another heavy influence was Brecht. “The only thing I wanted to do was to meet Brecht, which was difficult to do because he had died a month after I was born,” he said. Kushner’s first play was about an “extraordinary event that happened in 16th century France,” he said cryptically. Kushner doesn’t show the play to anybody now, which he described as not very good.

Kushner earned a B.A. in medieval studies from Columbia University, and he is a passionate proponent of liberal arts education. College should be about confusing you as much as possible, Kushner said. It’s the perfect time to read literature and texts that are challenging—and challenge the way you see the world—when you’re in college, he said, because your brain is still “spongy” but you are no longer tormented by the throes of puberty.

Mourning the rise of college degrees in the fine arts, he applauded the U of C for not granting a theater degree. (When a student in the audience informed him that a degree in Theater and Performance Studies does exist, he confirmed with her that it did, in fact, include reading, and said that was acceptable.)

“People who have no idea what acting is, literally no idea, are professional actors.” he said. “Having actors who know how to read books would be a great thing.” Not knowing how to read well is potentially dangerous for playwrights, Kushner warned. “If you can’t read well you’re going to not, probably, write well...unless you’re Shakespeare or Yeats, but there are, like, three of those people.”

Studying theater is especially enlightening, he said, giving you a critical consciousness. “It teaches you not to be a fool,” he said.

He spoke eloquently on the beauty of theater and the unique qualities that separate it from other mediums—beyond the thrill of an art form just as prey to sound system problems as Mandel Hall. Kushner said a play is never finished because it constantly changes as new, different productions come into being. “You can’t say it’s done...and when it is done it’s gone, it’s not just finished. It’s evaporated.”

“I love the difficulty of writing for the theater. I love the inescapable poverty of the form,” he said.

Kushner, who spoke about the devastating experience of losing his mother to cancer after decades of overzealous radiation therapy, said the job of the writer is to tell the truth, as much as possible.

“Art has the promise of a kind of resurrectionary power, but nothing, as far as we know, brings the dead back.”