Cheslie Sluyk, MAPH'10

My experience as an artist is … uncertain and if you’re comfortable with that I think you can hope certainly that the work of art that you create is going to have an effect on the world. ”
—Tony Kushner
American playwright

UChicago Arts writer and MAPH student Chelsie Sluyk interviews American playwright Tony Kushner.

UChicago Arts: Right now, the Court Theatre at the University of Chicago is producing The Illusion, and the New Budapest Orpheum Society will be performing pieces of Brundibar, and students with the University Theater will be doing a reading… All of these performances bring up the question of theater, or more generally art and artifice and its power to move and change the world. What do you as an artist and activist feel about that right now?

Tony Kushner: I don’t know that my feelings have changed that much. It’s an interesting reading … Art has a power in the world but it’s an indirect power. But you have to recognize the kind of power that it has; that it suggests certain things to people. It doesn’t necessarily speak with the language of exhortation. It speaks with a language that’s more meticulous and open to interpretation. So consequently what the audience chooses to do with it or not do with it.

My experience as an artist is … uncertain and if you’re comfortable with that I think you can hope certainly that the work of art that you create is going to have an effect on the world. And we certainly have many instances of works of art that have had an effect. But I don’t think that you should.

As far as I’m concerned as an artist I don’t feel that I necessarily want to have confidence that what I do is going to change things. I would like that to be an aspiration, and whether or not I have achieved that at any point is something that I really don’t have room to say. I honestly don’t know I believe things can change the world. I believe that political action can change the world, and I believe that activism can change the world. But I don’t think art and action are the same thing. I think that they’re fairly distinct forms of activity.

UChicago Arts: Can you talk a little bit about the importance of art in the context of your coming here to the University of Chicago, and the importance of art in education?

Tony Kushner: I think it’s enormously important to have arts education for kids in the elementary schools and I think it should be an absolute part of every curriculum for elementary and secondary education. Because I think that an exposure to culture and an ability to read and understand and speak the language of various media is enormously important so kids should be exposed to poetry and to painting and dance and singing.

We don’t do a very good job of teaching that in the United States. We don’t do a very good job of teaching science and math either. We don’t spend enough money on it. And the result: We’re raising generations of people who I think are … going to have trouble understanding things that people in a successful democracy are going to need to understand.

I believe in a liberal arts education. I did study directing at NYU. My original degree was in medieval studies at Columbia. I feel very deeply that learning how to write a play or learning how to act or learning singing …or painting even—these are things that you certainly thoughtfully study as an undergraduate. But if you major in them it’s essentially vocational training as opposed to what I think an undergraduate education should be … where you get to learn how to read really hard books, think critically about them, and come to an understanding that’s guided by scholarship, and learn how to write about them, and how to construct sentences on your own.

I feel concerned about the extent to which young people who are interested in the arts immediately go in search of that kind of vocational training, which I think in many instances is something you can do more profitably when you’re in your early-to-mid 20s. So, I’m all for arts education, but not so much as an undergraduate major.

UChicago Arts: So you think people should study other subjects, and if they decide to do that as a career, it will inform their writing later, just learning about all kinds of other subjects?

Tony Kushner: Absolutely. I think that if you’re going to be a playwright, I think it is enormously important to read history, to read political theory to read philosophy, to read psychology, and you know, to specialize in … one subject with a kind of intensity that you do when you major, so that you’re not completely a dilettante.

You have enough opportunities to be a dilettante later on. Life really is dilettantism in a sense I mean, when you write, when he or she decides to attack a subject has to become. You acquire as deep a knowledge as you can acquire in the amount of time that you have to acquire it which is usually months or a couple of years. And that is not enough to gain a deep knowledge. Essentially you achieve the dilettante status.

Critical skills as a reader will stand you in very good stead as a writer and also in very good stead as an actor, or a director or a painter. Being able to read the text and interpret it effectively, confidently with acuity and discernment is enormously important for the arts.

UChicago Arts: You've come to the University of Chicago before, first in 1994 to discuss Angels in America with Charlie Newell in his first year as artistic director at the Court Theatre, and again when Caroline or Change was scooping up Jeff awards left and right. I’ve heard you've had a relationship with Charlie Newell for some time. What is your relationship with Mr. Newell like and what has been your experience with the University of Chicago and Court Theatre?

Tony Kushner: You know we heard wonderful things about the production [of Caroline] when it opened, so Jeannie and I went out to see it, right around the time of the election. We thought it was a wonderful production and Charlie and I, we actually had a couple of really great conversations while he was preparing for the show over the phone and then he told me he wanted to do The Illusion. And I was very happy about that and we’ve also had some really great conversations about The Illusion.

UChicago Arts: So, you’re going to see The Illusion. What is it like to revisit old plays? Do you feel like you’ve grown or changed since then?

Tony Kushner: I had written the first two acts of the first half of Angels, and I basically wrote The Illusion because I was in need of rent money, and then it became a success and then all over the country, and whether it put me on the map or not, I don’t know, but it certainly paid for the next couple of years of writing. And I’m also fond of it, so we’re going to be doing it next year in New York as part of my season at the Signature Theatre, which is going to start with Angels being revived for the first time in New York in almost 20 years, and then we’re going to go on to the new play, and then finish with The Illusion.

It’s very useful for me to watch it at this particular moment. It will be helpful to see how it works, and the ways that it’s working now as opposed to how it was working in the early ’90s, and so we talked about it. I heard a reading of it recently in New York, so I know that I won’t be too embarrassed by it. You’re always afraid when you see something that you haven’t seen of yours in an really long time that it will seem incredibly young or bad or something. And I enjoy The Illusion. I was proud of it, and I always feel faithful to it.

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UChicago Arts: I agree. I think it is still a really amazing piece. But do you think that you’ve changed at all since that piece? The next big thing on the horizon is, as you mentioned, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. People have called it your first epic play since Angels. I know it is very different from Angels. It focuses on just one family, and there are no supernatural elements, but it’s just as big in scope. What has changed in your thinking or approach between The Illusion, Angels, and this new piece? What should people expect?

Tony Kushner: Well, you know there are a number of plays between The Illusion and this new piece, including Angels because as I said, I’d only written a part of it when I did it, and I don’t really know how to answer that. I’ve always thought The Illusion was sort of anomalous in my body of work because it’s an adaptation—I mean I did the same thing with Brecht, but I was very faithful to the original with Brecht. With The Illusion I felt a need to do something with the original because there’s magnificent stuff in the original, in the Corneille, but I think there is stuff that doesn’t work the same way it did in the 17th century, and there were opportunities in The Illusion for expanding it and playing around with it and it’s really the most romantic and the least overtly political of all my plays, so it’s hard to kind of see it in a continuum, so I think—there’s Homeboy/Kabul, and Caroline, or Change and so you know, it’s a little hard to know how to answer that.

I’m definitely a different person, and I always feel that when I listen to a play like The Illusion, I feel that I can hear a writer at work who is very new to the process and is having a lot of fun with it. Maybe in a way that I don’t have anymore because the expectations are higher, I mean nobody knew who I was when I was writing The Illusion, I didn’t have anything to prove especially, and there was kind of this freedom to try anything I want, which I think is a freedom that you can feel in Angels, and then maybe becomes more of a struggle after that because the expectations are much, much higher after that, and I feel that to a certain degree of regret. I mean I’m very happy about what’s happened to me, and the success of Angels, but some regret that I don’t have that—you know invisibility is both a curse and a privilege.

UChicago Arts: Speaking of adaptations, the Brundibar, you wrote a libretto for that, so it is also adapted from someone else’s work. What is it like to approach someone else’s work instead of just starting from scratch, and what kind of ethics or thoughts do you come at that with?

Tony Kushner: For me, you look at the material you’re approaching and it has a very different. Each piece you’re coming to has a very different demand. For Brundibar, there basically was no good English language libretto for it, and it’s a piece that I really love. Apart from it’s historically significant origins, tragic origins—the Holocaust. I actually think this work of art, Brundibar, is just a fantastic piece of music for children. It’s like one of the great musical pieces for children, and its just unbelievably melodic and witty and lovely, and it covers and enormous amount of terrain in half an hour. It’s a brilliantly economical piece, and my main objective in working on Brundibar was to create a singable English language libretto with the meter and the rhyme scheme for example of the Czech, and set to music and was pleasant, and entertaining to listen to, and I think that I succeeded in that. I mean, I really like my libretto. But I think the fun of doing that kind of a translation, (or adaptation—it’s not really an adaptation) is that you listen to the music over and over and over again until you get the exact number of beats and stresses, and then you try to figure out English words that are roughly equivalent to the Czech, and work out how to make a rhyming meter—a verse lyric for them, and I enjoy doing that.

I loved doing that with Mother Courage and with The Good Person of Sezuan, and with Brecht’s lyrics. And when you’re doing the text, it’s much less constricted, you’re not bound by meter and rhyme, and absolutely at that point, the question is mostly, “What is it about this work in another language that makes you want to do and English language version of it?” “What about it do you love?” and ways that can be expressed in English. And how perfect is this thing you’re adapting? Mother Courage is I think the perfect play, so I didn’t change much of anything. The Good Person is a great play, but not perfectly shaped because Brecht died before he got a chance to really put it in production. So I think there’s some sculpting work to be done on it, but I think it’s a very great play, and as I said, The Illusion is a wonderful play, but it has a very peculiar ending and Corneille has two illusions not three, so there were revisions that were made to help make it something better. It’s not as great a play as the great plays by Corneille, and it’s not as great a play as mother courage, so I felt I had a bit more freedom to play around with it.

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UChicago Arts: After the play there was a discussion, and everyone was asking about the moon. I mean that’s definitely not something that was in Corneille. What is going on? What does that mean?

Tony Kushner: One thing is that one of the reasons The Illusion has survived, that people kind of pull it out of the moth balls for a while and look at it is the character of Matamore. He’s just this … lone solider. And I really love Matamore; I loved writing him, and I found what happened to him very moving. And when I was working on the adaptation, it felt to me that he should come back somehow at the end of the evening, that it wasn’t right to just sort of get rid of him a little bit more than half way through. That the audience wanted to see him again, and I wanted to see him again, and probably everyone within the show sees him as sort of a lunatic, and so that’s even more associates with lunatics and moon.

And he can’t deal with the world, and needs to go somewhere else, and that’s somewhere else that he sets of for.

UChicago Arts: So it kind of came out of your emotional attachment for the character?

Tony Kushner: Yeah, and it feels resonate with the general themes of the play with the illusions and love, and so on.

By Cheslie Sluyk, MAPH'10

Originally published on April 6, 2010.