This year’s big movie was Lincoln, the film about the sixteenth president and his bold bid to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. I went to the film looking forward not only to Steven Spielberg’s directing and the star turns of Daniel Day Lewis and Sally Fields, but most of all to the Tony Kushner screenplay.
I have been a die-hard Kushner fan since I saw Angels in America back in the early 1990s. I drove 500 miles round-trip for that production and it was worth every mile. When the Guthrie Theater stages a Kushner festival a few years back, I went to every single event, from Caroline, or Change starring the brilliant Greta Oglesby to the evening of Tiny Plays in the Dowling Studio. What I remember most about the interview of Kushner by Joe Dowling is that, when someone in the audience rose to complain that a music stand was blocking the view, it was Kushner himself who leapt to his feet to move it—a gesture so instinctively good-hearted that I loved the man as well as his work.
Kushner had been commissioned to do a new work for the Guthrie festival. But Kushner had also been hired on to the Lincoln production not long before. Rumor was that Kushner showed up in Minneapolis with a blank notebook and wrote most of The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to the Universe with a Key to the Scriptures in the Guthrie bar. The result was sort of a mess, although not at all unwatchable, and the “premiere” was also, as far as I know, the finale.
One of the on-going devices of the Kushner play was to have two or more characters talking over one another for long stretches—just as Abe and Mary do when their grief over their son’s death overflows. “Ah, the last vestiges of the Guthrie commission,” I thought. I also swear that Mary Todd Lincoln sprang full-blown from Kushner’s imagination. She is the sort of loopy, tormented yet sage and insightful female that Kushner first introduced as Harper in Angels in America.
No hard feelings about the Guthrie commission, Mr. Kushner. I completely understand why the Lincoln project compelled you.
Kushner is a secular atheist Jew (he used to claim to be Bolshevik but I think he has mellowed to socialist with age). He recalls growing up using the Freedom Seder at the family Passover celebrations. The Jewish liberals of his parents’ generation tied their own liberation story, told in Exodus, to the civil rights struggles in the south. That’s why Abraham Joshua Heschel walked at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s right hand. It’s why Michael Schwerner died along with Andrew Goodman and James Chaney in Mississippi.
Tony Kushner is uniquely qualified to tell the story of the Emancipation in the same way that Arthur Miller was uniquely qualified to write about the Salem Witch Trials. There are no yarmulkes or Torah scrolls in sight, but these are expressions of Jewish ideals and beliefs, make no mistake.
And reading them makes me hope that I, too, can be a Jewish writer someday. I’m going to start here (and you can, too!):