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Kushner, Tony (b. 1956)  

In addition to being a prize-winning playwright, Tony Kushner has become a celebrity spokesman for gay politics and AIDS activism.

Kushner was born into a Jewish family in New York City, but grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Although he recognized his homosexuality at a very young age, he did not come out until early adulthood. He left Louisiana to attend Columbia University as an undergraduate and stayed in Manhattan to study theater directing at New York University, where he cofounded the Heat and Light theater cooperative.

In addition to the two-play cycle Angels in America, Kushner is the author of three children's plays; of adaptations of works by Corneille, Brecht, Ansky, and Goethe; and of the original dramas A Bright Room Called Day (1987), Slavs! (1994), which is included in a collection of essays, Thinking about the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness (1995), and Hydriotaphia or The Death of Doctor Browne (1999). By the late 1990s, by virtue of the extraordinary theatrical and critical success of Angels in America, which garnered him a Pulitzer Prize and two Tony Awards (among other honors), Kushner had become a celebrity spokesman for gay politics and AIDS activism.

Kushner acknowledges the creative influence of literary figures such as Herman Melville, Bertolt Brecht, and Walter Benjamin. Melville's influence is manifest in the breadth and poetry of Angels in America. Brecht's insistence on socially conscious, proletarian drama is evident in Kushner's depictions of normal people in politically charged crises, and Benjamin's mysticism and apocalypticism inform Kushner's sense of history as wreckage and his alertness to historical turning points. Like Goethe and Brecht, Kushner is committed to a theater of ideas.

Kushner's plays frequently use startling juxtapositions to provoke analysis and thought. A Bright Room Called Day, for instance, takes place in the declining Weimar Republic of the 1930s. However, the action is interrupted periodically by the political, social, and apocalyptic commentary of a young, punk, Jewish woman living in Reagan-era New York. This device explicitly invites us to compare Adolph Hitler and Ronald Reagan.

Slavs! is set in the last decade before the fall of the Soviet Union, the action taking place prior to and after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident. Its central characters are two women, a pediatrician and a security guard, whose love affair and its collapse is paralleled by that of the Soviet civil infrastructure and political organization.

Kushner's most recent dramatic project is a trilogy concerned with money. The first installment is entitled Henry Box Brown, which dramatizes an African-American slave's escape from the South in a packing box. He is also at work on a prose book whose working title is The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism, With a Key to the Scriptures.

Kushner's most famous drama, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes--Part One, Millennium Approaches, premiered in 1991; Part Two, Perestroika, premiered in 1992--might be characterized (to use a phrase coined by Sarah Schulman in her novel Rat Bohemia) as "fabulous realism." Its success is due in part to its sheer audacity in fusing disparate character and plot elements. Its power results from the complexity of the characters, its accessible and poetic language, and its persistent optimism even in the face of disaster and loss.

In addition to taking its issues seriously, Angels, which is usually performed over two nights, also takes its audiences seriously, offering them ideas as well as action. Not surprisingly, the play has elicited provincial criticism for its frank sexuality and leftist politics.

Kushner's plays examine many of the issues that also figure in his own gay activism: liberalism and socialism in a post-Marxist age; communitarianism in a culture that privileges individualism; spirituality (particularly informed by Jewish kabbalah mysticism) in a secular era; erotic experience as a portal of the transcendent; and sexuality, ethnicity, and race in a postidentity age. Kushner, viewing his sexuality not as a stable identity but as a dialectical subject position, regards it as an artistic and political asset that provides him an outsider's vantage point from which to analyze social relationships.

Thomas Lawrence Long


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literature >> Brecht, Bertolt

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Brask, Per, ed. Essays on Kushner's Angels. Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada: Blizzard Publishing, 1995.

Freedman, Jonathan. "Angels, Monsters, and Jews: Intersections of Queer and Jewish Identity in Kushner's Angels in America." PMLA 113:1 (1998): 90–102.

Geis, Deborah R. and Steven F. Kruger. Approaching the Millennium: Essays on Angels in America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.

Vorlicky, Robert, ed. Tony Kushner in Conversation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.


    Citation Information
    Author: Long, Thomas Lawrence  
    Entry Title: Kushner, Tony  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated August 11, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, New England Publishing Associates  


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