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Saturday, January 7, 2017

Tony Kushner


The difficulty of helping a Ph.D. candidate to write a dissertation on Tony Kushner is rooted the endless recycling of drama as metaphor in the cycle of ethnic living.  For how do you explain to a student with any degree of clarity that criticizing Kushner's merits as a Jewish American playwright can't be segregated from ethical criticism of Kushner's wavering status as a political artist?  Eventually, the student might grasp the point about compatible contradictions, but you can't be sure gets the point about what is and what is not implacable.  In the case of Kushner, there is a Jewish ghost problem.  Like the ghost in Shakespeare's Hamlet, the ghost of Lillian Hellman escapes from artistic representation in Angels in America ---as the nasty character Roy (Roy M. Cohn 1927-1986) spits out "…Like even a Jew should worry mit a punim like that" (Perestroika, Act 3, Scene 2)---to endlessly make a mad-driving noise: "Adieu, adieu, adieu! remember me" (Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5).

Kushner is no Shakespeare, nor does he wish to be.  Indeed, as far as twentieth century American theater is concerned, he fails to be a worthy rival of Hellman, Tennessee Williams, August Wilson, or Adrienne Kennedy.  Kushner has good intentions that beg for criticism.  As he said in conversation at Northwestern University, April 12, 1995: "The kind of theater that I do, which is very much in the tradition of psychological narrative realism, may not actually be about moving people to action, or at least it would be an odd ambition for an artist in that tradition to have.  I really believe that this kind of theater works in the way that dreams work….You're going to be left alone, and you can be in this kind of semitrance state with a bunch of other people who will be sharing a vision that you're watching" ("The Theater and the Barricades." Tony Kushner in Conversation. Ed. Robert Vorlicky. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011. 207).  Give me a break already with the conflation of dream and the psychoanalytic representation of dream vision.

In the current Age of Trump, all of us are actors/characters in the vulgarity of dream and dreaming. And if the language of ethical criticism can't show us an exit because there is no exit (shades of Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialist drama), many of us might  grow comfortable with desperate moves and grow to love the implacable theatricality of fascism.  Methinks Tony Kushner protests too much about the kind of theater  he does. Angels in America is a relic of the America that has abandoned us or that we have abandoned. And I might help the Ph.D. candidate more in 2017 by urging that he write a dissertation on John O'Neal's Junebug Jabbo Jones cycle of plays (see Don't Start Me to Talking/Plays of Struggle and Liberation/The Selected Plays of John O'Neal. Ed. Theresa Ripley Holden. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2016).  Thus, implacable theatricality can be broken.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            January 7, 2017

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