This article was published originally on Jspace News on June 20, 2012.
Tony Kushner is arguably the most famous American playwright alive today. He also happens to be Jewish. While fans may know him best for hits like “Angels in America” and “Caroline, or Change,” Kushner has also been quietly working for years on a project close to his heart: editing “The Collected Works of Arthur Miller” with the Library of America. The first volume has been circulating for some time, and Volume II was just recently released.
Jspace caught up with Kushner to discuss Miller, himself an iconic Jewish playwright; Willy Loman, Miller’s most revered character; and why Jewish and American aren’t mutually exclusive terms.
Jspace: Was Willy Loman, the protagonist in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” Jewish?
Tony Kushner: My feeling is there’s really no question that Willy Loman is Jewish. Miller makes it clear that the characters are primarily based on a couple of people he knew from the Jewish neighborhood he grew up in in Brooklyn. But my feeling is that the Loman family is sort of identifiably pre and post war Jewish New York. There’s a number of complicated reasons why the Lomans do not refer to themselves as being Jewish.
The play is very, very specific to its time period, sort of the beginnings of the economic collapse following World War II and the period of recession going into the 60s following the end of the economic boom. In “All My Sons” [Miller] deals with the nature of war. The nature of war is economic. So you know that you’re an American, you know that you’re in New York, you know you’re dealing with a guy who is living in the late 1940s, early 1950s, but the language is stripped of a certain kind of specificity while remaining realistic language. I think Arthur was a great experimenter with language. There’s really a powerful attempt to make the language that is spoken in the play very clean and spare and I think in a way classic. Timeless. And because I think it’s because he was aiming for tragedy on the level of Sophocles.
And I think he succeeded. I think that the fact that he succeeded has made the play one of this country’s most universal and exploitable plays. He wrote beautifully about doing “Salesman” in Beijing in the 80s. You can sort of pick it up and put it anywhere. And I remember when I was on the Executive Council of Drama Schools in the early 90s, it was sort of a running joke that when delegations of theater artists came, the only person they ever really wanted to meet was Arthur Miller. He was the last of the sort of great patriarchs of the revolution that swept through the transformation of American drama that began with [Eugene] O’Neill and concluded with [Tennessee] Williams and Miller.
I feel like in terms of his Jewishness, I feel very strongly that Miller was certainly a Jewish identified writer. He wrote about being Jewish, he wrote plays about being Jewish, and the older he got the more open about it he got. I think there’s a clue there. For people who are from the Jewish American writers of Arthur’s generation, assimilation was a very important thing. And being American. He was like the immigrant parents, it was sort of beaten into them. They weren’t taught Yiddish. They weren’t sent to yeshiva. They didn’t even go to shul. They’re supposed to become assimilated and be able to function in America. Look at a writer who is as profoundly Jewish and profoundly Jewish identified as [Arthur Miller]. Saul Bellow, from the other side of the political spectrum. His first great work of art, the first sentence of “The Adventures of Augie March,” is ‘I am an American, Chicago born.’ Not, “I am a Jewish American.” And there’s no question that Augie is Jewish, but he is also very much an American. And I think that’s what the emphasis is on.
Sam [Freedman, New York Times writer] was reaching [in a recent article] towards an idea that part of Willy’s tragedy is a lack of a strong ethnic identity or cultural or religious identity. That Miller was making a point. But I don’t agree with that at all. I don’t believe that we’re meant to think that had Willy gone to shul on Shabbat and had he identified himself as a Jewish guy, that his tragedy would have in some way been adverted. The destruction of this man that we witness, his self-destruction and also that he is destroyed by the world in which he lives, is completely, absolutely meant to be, and irreducibly is part of, the greatness of this play. A tragedy of a formal social organization that absolutely devalues the human and makes a human being interchangeable, disposable. Cogs in a machine by which rich people get richer.
I mean, it’s not a simple play. It’s not an easy play. It’s not street scene or 1930s agitprop. It’s much deeper and richer and more complicated. But I don’t think we’re meant to think that for Willy, there is a personal pathology that has produced some sort of separation from his Jewishness and that’s a big part of is what’s wrong. I don’t think that was at all intended.
Now I could be wrong about that, but that’s my reading of it. I think one of the things that makes the play so great is it’s hard to think of other plays that succeeded in this. But there’s absolutely no way to understand what’s wrong with this guy if you don’t understand the political economy of his world. And it’s the indiscernibility of those, of the personal and the social. That’s part of the genius of the play. There are people who say that the play on one level is kind of old-fashioned, creaky, rusty, nonsense, but it’s a great play about a great character. You literally can’t even understand what’s happened to Willy if you don’t understand what’s happened to the salesman. You can’t separate the two at all. And any attempt to do that just misses the point entirely.
There are parallels between your work and Miller’s work: Two Jewish playwrights using theater for social advocacy. Do you feel a kinship with him and is that perhaps why you have paid such attention to his plays?
I feel an enormous indebtedness to him. “Death of a Salesman” was the first play I saw when I was 6 years old, my mother was in a production in Lake Charles, Louisiana. And I saw the “The Diary of Anne Frank” and a couple of other Broadway hits that were being produced in the little theater in Lake Charles, but nothing had that impact on me as a 6 year old. I didn’t really know what was going on. But I could tell this was a play that was having a profound effect on the grown ups in the audience– the power of it was clear even as a little kid. So yeah, he had a huge impact on my life in a way.
I think of my mother in that production as sort of the beginning of my interest in theater. And as a writer of drama, I mean when I was much younger I was somewhat critical of O’Neill and of Miller. I was always a fan of Williams because he was gay and he was southern and I found him and the lyrics of his writing gloomy, powerfully. But with Arthur and with O’Neill, both writers that I now revere, when I was 18 or19 I was really scornful. Probably some sort of Oedipal thing going on. But they seemed corny to me and individualist and I was very much looking at everything through the eyes of Brechtian theory [universal appeal technique] and not impressed with them.
As I started to write plays, I reread “Salesman” and “View from a Bridge” and there’s a magnificent sort of erratic construction in these works. They serve as the greatest structure of dramatic events this country’s ever produced. And I think in terms of social advocacy, Arthur is important as a model in two ways. In one way because he doesn’t write polemic, he writes drama, which is really different. And the plays are not plays that present problems and provide answers for those problems, they’re deeper and more complicated and more tortured than that. That’s when they’re at their best. And as it progresses, they become more and more what we would call personal, and less and less obviously political.
At the same time Arthur used his immense fame for social good. He was a brave, tireless fighter, a scrupulous and courageous public intellectual, an advocate. Those are important things. I think he remains the luminous example of a writer as a citizen. It’s always good to have role models and certainly for me, when faced with a choice between doing something political and doing something that I really enjoy doing, I say to myself, “What would Arthur Miller do?” I knew him a little bit but not well, but the Arthur in my head is a very interesting and valuable figure.
You wrote the screenplay for “Munich.” The Olympic Committee is currently receiving flak for refusing a proposed moment of silence for the 40th anniversary of the attack. Do you have any reflection on the decision?
Well I mean this is completely repulsive. Not surprising because the Olympic Committee reacted disgustingly when it happened. I wasn’t there of course, I was only 10 or 11 years old. But, in working on “Munich” I found their reactions really horrifying. I had a conversation with one of the widows of one of the athletes in Tel Aviv after the movie came out. I don’t understand the Committee’s decision to continue with the games when these men had been murdered, I find it shocking.
The way that the Olympic Committee behaved then was terribly tough. It’s an appalling and disgusting decision. I don’t that think you deal with tragedy by pretending it didn’t happen. I don’t think that you deal with tragedy by saying that if murderers interrupt the flow of everyday life, that they’ve won. They have interrupted the flow of everyday life. What happened to those guys was a monstrous tragedy and it’s disrespectful not to stop this sporting event, very disrespectful. For whatever kind of reasons, I’m sure the kind of rhetoric that you expect from these people. But also it’s misguided geo-politics. It’s a terrible decision to try and make what happened 40 years ago political.
“Caroline, or Change,” your Broadway musical, featured Klezmer music. Can we expect more musicals in the future from Tony Kushner, and if so will we hear Klezmer music again?
Jeanine Tesori, who wrote the music for “Caroline,” did an opera with me last summer for Glimmer Glass. It was a one act so we’re now working on the second and expanding it into a full-length opera about Eugene O’Neill. And I’m very proud of it. I think it’s very good. And we have plans to do other things, so it’s a possibility.
I grew up in the Deep South. What I listened to was classical music, because my parents loved classical musicians. I felt I wanted to be very true to what the Jewish world of Lake Charles, Louisiana in the 1960s. It was before “Fiddler on the Roof,” which was for a lot of Jewish Americans in my generation the first exposure we had to anything that sounded remotely Klezmer. When I finally heard my first Klezmatic album it was a giant revelation. I love the music very much. I have another piece I’ve been working on for a long time and the Klezmatics wrote some music for it. And it isn’t finished yet. We did a reading of it years ago at the Jewish Museum [in New York]. Susan Sontag was in it, and it’s about my grandmother. So it’s quite possible we’ll one day see that finished.