02 February 2019

A word or two from Kushner

There are plays that are better read and there are plays that are meant to be seen.

After much deliberation, my friend Cam and I settled on watching Tony Kushner's Angels in America in March for our long-overdue rendez-vous (we'd bump into each other at theater press nights during our newspaper days, and the viewing habit kind of stuck). So I got myself a copy of the two-part drama, as is customary.

Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes: Revised and Complete Edition. Theatre Communications Group. Kindle Edition, 2013.

Though not a spectacle in a circus sense, Angels has sensory elements that beg to be realized onstage. We encounter celestial props, symphony-like stage directions, and the pinpoint accuracy of speech: "A sentence is no less an action than a blow with a broadsword or a passionate kiss," offers Kushner in his notes on language (p 315).

He also makes an impassioned comment on being funny versus being a joke. How "schticky winking at the audience" must be avoided at all costs:
Apologies if I'm sounding strident, but I've learned that there are dire consequences if this reality is parodied or traduced. People can enjoy pratfalls, mugging and easy laughs, even while determining that they won't be fooled again into deep investment in what's proved to be unserious. Once faith in the seriousness of what's onstage has been withdrawn, however briefly, it's unlikely to return fully. (p 318)
And for about a thousand times he reminds us that "the Angel is related to humans but isn't human". I'm excited to see how Atlantis, the production house bringing the show to our shores, will engage the playwright's vision.


In the months immediately preceding 2019 I somewhat learned to admit that I couldn't do — never mind every thing — the most important things alone. Then as if on cue here comes Kushner and his essay on America's myth of the Individual and the writer's myth of solitariness, found at the end of the book. It's titled, With a Little Help from My Friends.

True to his imperatives, his own thoughtful wordings won't go unnoticed. He's already written a lot in the acknowledgments section, but in this piece (originally published in The New York Times in 1993), he graduates from expressing gratitude to challenging his colleagues, or the reader in general, to keep their ego in check and give as they take.

Let me leave you with these beautiful, scathing words:
Way down close to the bottom of the list of the evils Individualism visits on our culture is the fact that in the modern era it isn't enough to write; you must also be a Writer, and play your part as the protagonist in a cautionary narrative in which you will fail or triumph, be in or out, hot or cold. The rewards can be fantastic; the punishment dismal; it's a zero-sum game, and its guarantor of value, its marker is that you pretend you play it solo, preserving the myth that you alone are the wellspring of your creativity. (p 328)

Update (25.3.19): Read after-show thoughts here.

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