Tony Kushner (left) and husband Mark Harris
The chance to hear Tony Kushner speak again, a decade after his talk at Bard College, was too enticing to miss. Through a lucky coincidence, I also got to meet one of my few heroes.
I first became aware of Tony Kushner’s work when my wife took me to see the original Broadway production of “Angels in America.” We went to New York, checked in at the hotel we had booked for the night, ate lunch, and went to the matinee performance of Part 1. That part ends with a scene of epiphany when a man sick with AIDS is visited by an angel who proclaims him a prophet. I was so moved by that scene that I literally lost the power of speech. If Tara hadn’t been with me to guide me, I could never have found my way back to our hotel, just a few blocks from the theater.
Taking in the whole play in a single day might have been a mistake, since its impact was so overwhelming. But I’ve never forgotten the experience, which still ranks as one of the most powerful I’ve ever had, comparable to the birth of a child or the death of a parent. This might sound like an exaggeration but it’s not.
I got to experience “Angels in America” again when a filmed adaptation was broadcast over HBO. It was the kind of work that justifies the whole medium of television. I watched it on two Sunday evenings, surrounded by friends, and again was astonished by the power of this great writer. We had another showing a few years later, with similar results.
A few days before the broadcast of “Angels,” I ran into a novelist I know slightly. I asked her if she had HBO and she said she did. I told her about the coming broadcast. She said she was planning to watch the first hour, but it was running from 8 to 11 and she always went to bed at 9. I told her she would never be able to turn the TV off. She said I didn’t know her well enough. I bet her a dollar she wouldn’t be able to stop watching it. A couple of days after the broadcast I got a dollar bill in the mail.
While “Angels” remains his best-known work, Kushner is far from a one-hit wonder. Tara and I have been to see several of his other plays, including the more recent “Homebody/Kabul,” the musical “Caroline, or Change,” and the early “A Bright Room Called Day.” I’ve also read some of his excellent essays.
We got to see him in person when he was given an honorary degree by Bard College about a decade ago. The event was not, as usual, part of a college graduation but a separate event. Kushner performed in a brief one-act play, the title of which I cannot remember or locate. In it, Laura Bush, a former librarian, read a story to a group of dead Iraqui children. As usual with Kushner’s work, it was both funny and moving. Kushner, incidentally, took the part of Laura Bush. He then gave a brilliant talk, largely centered on current politics. Bard promised me a transcript, but it turned out that the talk had been completely spontaneous and Kushner had no text available.
When I received a flyer for a Kushner talk at Temple Emanuel in nearby Kingston, I immediately ordered tickets. A few days later, I ran into a woman at the Woodstock post office who was mailing out flyers with Tony Kushner in large type. I remarked to her that I had already bought tickets for the talk, but she told me that these invitations were for a “meet and greet” session earlier in the day, going out to a selected small list of people. I told her I would be interested, and she gave me one.
So it was that, through nothing but dumb luck, I got to go to the afternoon session. The admission price was $150, including the evening talk. But I don’t have many living heroes, and the event was two days after my birthday. So I gave myself a ticket as a birthday present.
The event took place at a private home in Kingston. While most of the attendees were admiring the view of the Hudson River from the back porch, or looking at the impressive artwork throughout the house, I realized I felt tired and sat down on a chair in the living room. Someone politely informed me that the chair and the one next to it were being saved for Mr. Kushner and Rinne Groff, the playwright who was going to be his conversation partner. OK, I said, and I got up and sat down in another chair right next to those two. Sure enough, Kushner and Groff arrived a few minutes later, shook a few hands, and sat down in those chairs, Kushner right next to me.
I introduced myself, thanked him for his work, and told him quickly the stories of my reaction to seeing “Angels” on Broadway and of the dollar bill. Then I explained that I ran a classical record label, and because I’d read that he loved Beethoven I had brought him some samples as a gift. “What’s your label called?” he asked. “Oh, it’s small, you won’t know it,” I said. “It’s called Parnassus.” “Don’t you have CDs by some famous pianist?” he asked. “Sviatoslav Richter,” I said. “Oh, yes,” he replied. “Those were favorites of my friend Maurice Sendak. He gave me one of them.”
After he chatted with a couple of other people, Kushner was introduced by the host of the event. Then, instead of circulating, as I had expected him to do, Kushner began a dialogue with Groff. He told some very interesting stories that were not, of course, repeated during the evening. Someone asked him how he wrote, and he showed off his antique glass fountain pen. “I like fountain pens,” he said, “because you can see the difference in the emphasis of the stroke of the pen on the paper. It shows how you were feeling when you wrote something.” He also explained that this particular pen didn’t leak or explode in pressurized airplane cabins.
As part of his work on a collected Library of America edition of Arthur Miller’s plays, Kushner met the librarian of the institution which bought Miller’s papers. The librarian told him of going to Miller’s home to help him sort through his boxes. Miller came across a batch of letters tied with a pink ribbon. “What are those doing here?” he exclaimed. “These were from Marilyn.” He immediately threw them into the fireplace, where they burned quickly.
He also said that he had been writing something about Sendak and visited him. Sendak showed him 70 volumes of journals he had kept for most of his life. Kushner said he would like to read them. “Oh, no” Sendak said. “Nobody else will ever read these.” They were gone when he died.
As the event broke up and Kushner rose to leave, he turned to me. “Thank you so much, Leslie,” he said, and hugged me.
After the evening talk, which was mostly about Abraham Lincoln and Kushner’s recent screenplay, my friend Judy Kerman suggested that it was time for us to watch “Angels in America” again. She’s right. But first I have to get to “Lincoln.”