Jewish Journal

Kushner’s (old) testament to Lincoln

by Naomi Pfefferman

Posted on Oct. 25, 2007 at 8:00 pm

Tony Kushner. Photo by Roy Zipstein

Tony Kushner. Photo by Roy Zipstein

Tony Kushner burst into the zeitgeist in the early 1990s with his operatic "Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," a two-evening exploration of rage, hope and irony in the era of AIDS and Reagan Republicanism. The epic, which like all of Kushner's work is as defined by his Judaism as by his gay identity, secured the author a Pulitzer Prize at the age of 36, even as it changed the very nature of American theater.

On Nov. 5, Kushner, 51, will appear at the Celebration of Jewish Books at American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism); there he can be expected to talk not just about his plays, which depict the collision of powerful societal forces and the anxiety of turbulent change, but also about the intersection of life and art.

Kushner's eerily prescient "Homebody/Kabul" spotlights tension between Afghanistan and the West (the play was completed months before Sept. 11, 2001); his translation and adaptation of Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children" highlights the "terrible price" paid by those who live off of war, and his musical, "Caroline, or Change," was inspired by his own upbringing in small-town Louisiana on the eve of the civil rights movement.

Kushner's debut feature film screenplay, Steven Spielberg's "Munich," portrayed conflicted Mossad agents on a mission to assassinate the terrorists of the 1972 Munich Olympics, prompting critics to call him anti-Israel and a self-hating Jew. He replied with a wickedly funny but ultimately serious editorial titled, "Defending 'Munich' to my Mishpocheh."

Kushner is now writing the script for a Spielberg Abraham Lincoln bio-pic, slated for a 2009 release. He is also awaiting the PBS premiere of "Wrestling With Angels," Freida Lee Mock's documentary about the playwright's life, which will air on KCET on Dec. 12 at 9 p.m. He spoke to The Journal by phone from Manhattan.
Jewish Journal: On the one hand, Lincoln and the Civil War seems like a perfect Tony Kushner subject, in that it focuses on a time of drastic upheaval. But much of your previous work has been inspired by your Jewish consciousness -- where's the connection here?

Tony Kushner: Just as is the case with a figure like Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, Lincoln and the abolitionists were Christian but they feel Jewish to me, in a sense. Much of the religious rhetoric of the 19th century, especially around the war, draws heavily from the Holy Scriptures and not so much from the New Testament. So you have Lincoln very rarely citing Christ and often speaking from the Proverbs and Psalms and Isaiah. In a certain sense, his thinking and his ethical deliberation seem very talmudic. The Talmud is really a lot of people very carefully poring over text and trying to come to a way of making scripture, which is poetry, commensurable with ethical thinking, which is a kind of logical thinking, and Lincoln was profoundly logical. He was also a person with great sorrow, someone who understood suffering in a very direct way, and you can't really understand Jewish history if you don't understand suffering and sorrow. He wasn't someone who knew a lot of black people, or who had a close, deep feeling necessarily for slaves on a personal level, but he could connect with their suffering.

JJ: More books have been written on Lincoln than perhaps any other person except Jesus Christ -- it must be a daunting project.

TK: The big problem with the subject is that it's so vast, and that Lincoln is an inexhaustibly interesting person in the middle of probably the most significant years of American history ever. Our country had been struggling with the great contradiction that had existed from the beginning: namely that we were a democracy in which all men were created equal, and yet in which slavery was permitted. This contradiction was repeatedly sidestepped until the tension just got too great and there was an explosion -- the Civil War -- which was this astonishing revolution, very bloody and very costly in terms of human life. And this revolution ended the feudal system of slavery, and the sort of nauseating romance of the Old South, and it was the last moment when it was plausible to consider oneself as being in any way part of the modern world and openly endorsing human slavery. And in my reading of Lincoln's life, he perfectly understood the nature of transformation in a democratic society, and the incredibly tricky balancing act required by its leaders. You cannot do more in a democratic society than people are willing to do, and yet you can't use that difficulty as an excuse for avoiding ethical leadership.

JJ: You've called Lincoln the greatest democratic leader in the history of the world.

TK: I don't know of any greater. And the scary thing about Lincoln is that when you ask what makes him so great, the answer is, on one level, I have no idea; I don't understand what he did any more than I understand how Shakespeare wrote 'Hamlet' or Mozart wrote 'Cosi fan tutti.'

JJ: Many people wonder how you wrote 'Angels in America.'

TK: That's sweet of you to say, but 'Angels in America' is incredibly "small potatoes" when we're talking about something like Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. Not only was he a great political leader and a pretty good military strategist, he was a writer comparable to the greatest American writers of the 19th century -- I'm talking about Hawthorne and Whitman and Dickinson and Melville.

JJ: Lincoln was called on to defend the Jews at one point.

TK: There was that infamous incident where Ulysses S. Grant, who was freaked out about black market cotton trading in the Mississippi Valley, decided to throw all the Jews out of Tennessee because he felt that Jewish peddlers were behind a lot of the trading. And a group of Jewish leaders in Washington went to Lincoln and said, 'Obviously, you can't do this.' And they had a very funny exchange where they sort of swapped proverbs and Lincoln of course immediately contacted Grant, who backed off immediately.JJ: C.A. Tripp's book, 'The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln,' which posited that Lincoln was gay, came out around the time Spielberg asked you to write the film. Has it affected the way you think about Lincoln?

TK: I think everyone assumed I was doing the film because of the gay angle, that it was going to be the 'gay Abraham Lincoln.' But I have to say that while I think the Tripp book is very interesting, I don't think there's enough evidence one way or the other to make a definitive statement about Lincoln's sexuality. When he was the president of the United States, Lincoln seems to almost never have slept. He never took a vacation in the entire time that he was in the White House, unlike the president who's in the White House now, and I don't get the impression that there was much or necessarily any sexual activity, or that he was ever really a person with a great deal of sexual appetite.

JJ: A number of people have wondered why a dramatist of your stature would want to write screenplays. In the theater it's very much been the Tony Kushner show, but when you write screenplays -- especially for a director like Steven Spielberg -- it's about someone else's vision. What was the draw when he called you about 'Munich'?

TK: There are a number of answers -- everything from the fact that I love movies to wanting to work with this extraordinary director to the subject matter. I've been engaged for years in the Middle East debate; I co-edited an anthology, 'Wrestling With Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,' which is one reason I came to Steven's attention. And I was really excited and surprised that Steven wanted to make this particular movie, which I thought was a very difficult, very ambiguous and sad story -- and one that would raise the ire of some in the Jewish community and also the war-against-terror crowd. That was an experience that I had had that Steven hadn't had yet. He was [mostly lauded] for 'Schindler's List,' and he was (and is) a great narrative filmmaker but not somebody who had made a lot of work that was hugely controversial.... I [warned] him that it wasn't particularly pleasant when one becomes targeted by those who are vigilant about crushing any dissent about Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

JJ: Were you surprised by the virulent response to the film?

TK: When it first came out I went to a late showing near my apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and the theater was absolutely packed, and I watched it, and I was really frightened. I thought, 'Oh my God, I can't believe we've done this movie, we're going to get a lot of s--- for it,' and we did. But I wasn't surprised after all.

JJ: A number of people denounced you, and Jehuda Reinharz, the president of Brandeis University, phoned you before you received an honorary doctorate there last year.

TK: We had a good conversation, and I think he was, like, relieved, that I wasn't a crazy person. I didn't get on the phone and say I want Israel to be destroyed. I absolutely support Israel's right to exist and to promote its security, but I also support a two-state solution and peace talks -- which should be conducted even with Hamas, and continued even when there are suicide bombers.

JJ: Did you feel betrayed by the Jewish community in a way?

TK: No, I don't feel betrayed. Listen, I 'get' it. Israel is a tiny sliver of land; we've gone through the Holocaust, and before that 2,000 years of brutality and hatred, and I believe that anti-Semitism is very alive in the modern world. This long history makes us legitimately afraid; we're only about 6 million people on the whole planet, and it would not be all that hard to get rid of us if someone really wanted to. But I don't believe that nationalism is a solution, and ... I don't believe that the survival of Jews as a people is any more guaranteed by the existence of the State of Israel than by pluralist democracy, which is ultimately the only hope for minority groups. The real hope is through instruments like the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which requires states to provide equal protection under the law to all persons, and was first intended to secure rights for former slaves.

JJ: Which brings us back to 'Lincoln.' When will the script be finished?

TK: Actually I'm still struggling, and I'm late on my deadline for the first draft. Steven is being really great, and I'm still tackling it and we'll see what happens. So far I've never been fired from anything, and I'm hoping that will still be the case.

To learn more about the book festival, visit www.celebrationofjewishbooks.com.
For information about the "Wrestling With Angels" documentary, go to http://www.pbs.org/pov.

'Wrestling with Angels' trailer

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