Monday, November 9, 2009

Tony Kushner at Symphony Center

Tony Kushner, playwright of Angels in America, Caroline, or Change, Homebody/Kabul and others (though not nearly enough), won the Chicago Tribune Literary Prize, given out as part of this year's Chicago Humanities Festival. (Incidentally, he's the third playwright to receive the prize in its 20 years of being awarded, after Arthur Miller and August Wilson.) The presentation of this award took the form of an hour-long conversation between Kushner and Chris Jones, theatre critic at the Trib, at Symphony Center. (Jones' feature on Kushner which ran last week is here, and it's definitely worth a read. Their recap of the event can be found here)

Kushner is high on my list of favorite living playwrights (hell, he's high on my list of favorite paywrights, period), so I jumped at the chance to see him speak. Here are some thoughts from the speech.

1) An hour is not nearly enough time. As anyone who has seen one of his plays knows, he is not a spare writer--words cascade from the mouths of his characters, and the man himself is even more voluble. With such a short time, his responses seemed constrained. I would have loved to see him go on even bigger tangents.

2) Which is not to say he didn't have some great lines. At the start he mentioned his joy whenever "anything I've done succeeds in butch Chicago," especially as he's an "effete New Yorker." He was also capable of being much more serious, describing how in our interconnected world, "no part of the world isn't worth our attention"--and whenever we decide some country is, we're liable to regret it keenly. (The subject was Afghanistan, but the application is quite wide.)

3) Kushner definitely seems to have mellowed a bit. (By the way, how did he get to be 53? He's somehow become an elder statesman.) Perhaps married life agrees with him, but he didn't show quite the same appetite to offend that he used to have. However, Kushner still collowed his own advice from A Bright Room Called Day: "Overstatement is your friend. Use it." Anyone with even the slightest sympathy for the Republican Party would not enjoy his characterization of it today--essentially, that it has been reduced to a repository for "cranks...and Sarah Palin."

4) He also threw plenty of red meat to the left--in addition to his jabs at the Republican Party, he referred to the many morasses that President Obama received from "President Morass" and spoke of those who funded Prop 8 as "Pseudo-religious organizations like the Mormons and the Catholic Church." In addition to the humor, there was plenty of stirring rhetoric: again discussing Prop 8 and Question 1 in Maine, he reminded us that "it is unconstitutional to make a minority group earn its rights." That is to say--gays have the right to marry already, and it is the job of the government to recognize it. It may be a little cheap to say so many obvious applause lines to a mostly liberal group, but I don't care. It felt good.

5) He's thoroughly obsessed with Lincoln. He recently finished a screenplay on the last months of Lincoln's life for Steven Spielberg (the film will supposedly star Liam Neeson, filming has not been scheduled), and in addition to the first question being about Lincoln, he kept circling back to him. This may also be a factor in his mellowing--despite maintaining a Marxist ideology, he seems to have lost faith in revolution, and gained a belief that centrist priogressives are the most likely to achieve real progress.

6) He didn't talk much about theatre. Except for some brief advice for young playwrights (actually do the writing, rather than sitting with the play in your head, get work produced however you can, and don't read Shakespeare when you're writing, as it will only make you depressed), he didn't really discuss theatre much, focusing more on politics. Not surprising perhaps--based on the fact that the previous winners were Miller and Wilson, the prize is frequently given to those with a political perspective--but it would have been great to hear more of Kushner's thoughts on the state of theatre today and his own work. Ah well.

So it was short of being a transcendent talk, but hearing Kushner is always worthwhile. I just hope that whenever he comes by next, he'll have more time to do his thing. (And Court, when are you bringing back Caroline, or Change?)

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