Tony Kushner On Arthur Miller, Marilyn and Marriage Equality

The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright talks about editing Arthur Miller’s plays, Philip Seymour Hoffmann, marriage equality, Lincoln, and the relative merits of writing plays and movies.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Director John Huston was supposed to direct The Misfits in the spring of 1960, but a writer’s strike delayed the start of the big-budget western until summer, when temperatures can—and did—reach 110 degrees in the Nevada desert where the film would shoot. Huston and screenwriter Arthur Miller had been polishing the script for years and went right on polishing as production ran over both its schedule and its budget.

Considering Huston’s gambling problems, Clark Gable’s health problems, Montgomery Clift’s drinking problems, and Marilyn Monroe’s drug problems (and crumbling marriage to screenwriter Miller), The Misfits was as apt a description for the creators and cast as it was for the name of the film. Shortly after filming, Gable had a heart attack and died. Within a year and a half of filming, Miller and Monroe would divorce and Monroe would die of an apparent drug overdose.

In 2004—nearly a half-century later—Arthur Miller revisited the filming of The Misfits in his lightly fictionalized play Finishing the Picture. The entire play is set in the producer’s hotel suite in that same Nevada desert as the Marilyn-like actress—named Kitty in the play—sleeps and the producer, director, writer, and Kitty’s acting coaches discuss whether the drug-addled actress will be able to finish the film.

“Arthur Miller was very interested in politics and power relationships,” said Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who has edited the Library of America’s The Collected Plays of Arthur Miller. “He wanted to understand how to make sense of life and explore life’s meaning in a way that you can’t do unless you’re willing to deal with all of those aspects of his life.”

The never-before-published Finishing the Picture is included in the just released LOA’s third and final Miller volume, Collected Plays: 1987-2004. Kushner recently sat down with The Daily Beast to talk about Arthur Miller’s career, the enduring appeal of Miller’s best-known plays, and Kushner’s own career as a playwright and screenwriter.

The new volume of the Arthur Miller collection is the first U.S. publication of Finishing the Picture, which Miller wrote shortly before he died in 2005. What’s that play about?

It’s about Marilyn Monroe’s struggles with depression and drugs and various other interferences during the making of a film, and it’s about the collapse of his marriage to Monroe. It’s kind of a surprising thing. For a very long time, he was famously close-mouthed about his marriage to Monroe and her problems, and right at the end of his life he decided to write this play about it.

Is it sort of a biography of his Marilyn years?

I never actually asked him about it, but he was getting old and I think knew other people were going to write about his life and wanted to do his own dramatic account.

There have been at least five Broadway productions of Miller’s Death of a Salesman over the years. How many of those did you see?

I saw the Robert Falls production [in 1999] with Brian Dennehy. I saw the Philip Seymour Hoffman production [in 2012] with Linda Emond that Mike Nichols directed. I saw the filmed version with Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich [in 1985, which starred the Broadway cast]. I didn’t see the original in 1949. I’m not old enough. Does that leave one out?

There was a 1975 production.

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Was that George C. Scott?

Right, and Harvey Keitel.

I arrived in New York in 1974, but I didn’t see that one.

Is Death of a Salesman a play that directors change by moving a few particular levers?

The first production of Death of a Salesman that I saw was when I was 6 years old in Lake Charles, Louisiana. My mother played Linda Loman. It’s a play that works like almost nothing else. It takes an audience by the lapels and never lets go. It’s like Shakespeare in that way. It’s a harrowing and astonishing experience. In my opinion, it’s the most beautifully constructed play by an American playwright.

What’s true of any great play is that it changes radically depending on the director and the actors. When you see Dustin Hoffman or Brian Dennehy or Philip Seymour Hoffman, you’re going to see very different productions. There are many interesting and not-easy-to-answer questions about the play. It’s not so much moving the levers as having characters that are immensely deep and complicated and contradictory, and different interpretations can make it different things.

Tell me about the Philip Seymour Hoffman version.

Philip was one of the great actors of all time. He completely invested in the idea that Willy Loman was actively suicidal instead of despairing. His Loman was a detached, lonely figure with an almost creepy sense of disconnection from the people that he loved the most. It would come back to him how important these people were, but you could understand how this guy fought his way through the encounter. It was terrifying.

Do you see it as a play about economic anxiety?

One of the extraordinary things about Salesman is that Arthur Miller leaves some of the larger questions—the relationship with economics and politics and personal typology—he doesn’t try to nail those things down as exclusive of all other problems. There’s this terrible pain in this family that manifests in different ways, but what I love about the play is that you cannot escape the importance of economics in trying to understand what happens to the Lomans. It’s inescapably a play about human beings living at a particular time in the political economy. It’s a rather remarkable feat.

You wrote an essay for the Library of America collection in which you say that Miller “was one of those political people who refused an identification with a specific race or nation or movement or party.” Would you say that The Crucible or Death of a Salesman are ideological plays?

All plays are ideological. All of his plays have a consciously embraced ideology. The way I look at it is that when you write, there is a psychological framework or a philosophical framework or a theological framework or a political framework or a thousand other ways to approach reality. And all of these frameworks are fairly shabby constructions that we concoct and put names onto to give us a way of organizing reality, but they’re not unto themselves.

A political play is going to be very much caught up in questions of psychology and philosophy and theology, and a theological play will be caught up in politics and psychology. Arthur Miller was very interested in politics and power relationships. He wanted to understand how to make sense of life and explore life’s meaning in a way that you can’t do unless you’re willing to deal with all of those aspects of his life.

You mentioned The Crucible, which he wrote in response to what what going on during the McCarthy era, and it’s kind of a beautiful expression of that moment. He’s got such an empathic imagination that you don’t have cardboard characters in The Crucible. They’re wonderful characters to play because they’re not illustrations of a point. They behave like real people, and so you feel like you’re watching life itself instead of Arthur Miller grinding an ax.

Your bio in the collection says, “Tony Kushner is one of America’s most acclaimed playwrights.” If we’re talking about me, I’d probably put that on my business card.

I hate stuff like that. It’s true I’ve had some success as a playwright, but there are a lot of good playwrights writing right now. I try not to think about stuff like that too much.

At this point in your career, you have transitioned from writing mostly plays to writing mostly film, right?

I’m trying to achieve a balance. Right now, I’m doing more film and television work than I am theater. I’m not happy with that, which I guess sounds like a cliché.

Is that mostly a commercial thing? That film and TV are where the work is?

I don’t know a playwright in the United States today who makes a living completely from writing plays. I know some people who don’t do film work, though not many. If you’re going to be a playwright at this moment, you have to either teach or do film and television. It’s a hard thing to balance.

Miller wrote in an essay that’s included in the new volume that a screenplay is “the first element in a collaborative art” and a play is more of “a thing in itself.” Has that been your experience?

Yes, very much. Film is really a director’s medium; he’s the person who has the authorial voice. Screenwriting is in every sense from the procedural—from how films get to together to shooting to the editing room—the writer’s not necessarily present for that.

Did Arthur Miller ever direct his own plays? Have you ever directed your plays?

Arthur famously directed Salesman in China [in 1983], which was the first Western drama to be invited by the Chinese government. He wrote a book about his experience (Salesman In Beijing) working with Chinese actors. Mostly, he did not direct his own material. I have a master’s degree in directing, but I’ve never particularly wanted to direct my plays. There are some really wonderful playwrights like Richard Melton who do a fantastic job directing their own material.

I can’t speak for Arthur—and this is nothing he and I ever talked about; I wish I had asked him the question—but part of what interpreting consists of is being lost. It’s exploring and not knowing and entering the world of a script with the cast that you’re directing, and you stumble around in the dark for a while trying to figure out what this thing is.

If you have the playwright directing it, you have somebody who already knows so much about that world that it can sort of cauterize the exploratory process. The dilemma of being a director of actors—which is probably true in film as well as theater—is that when the actors start performing the play, it has to be theirs on the stage. The great actors become those people. You don’t want them on stage trying to remember what you told them to do. You want them up there living. It’s a complicated process of instructing and liberating at the same time. It’s tricky for anybody to do well, and it’s a very hard thing for a playwright to do it.

Did you know Miller fairly well?

Not at all, actually. I met him a couple of times. When Angels won its second bit of Tony Awards for part two, I sat behind him at the ceremony. I had never seen him before, and it was like God was sitting there. I’m a fairly retiring person, so I don’t seek out people I admire. If I see them at a party I may go up, but it takes a lot for me to introduce myself. I don’t want to be a pest. Arthur was one of the big three—Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, and Tennessee Williams.

[Kushner’s Angels in America is actually two plays: Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, which won the Tony for Best Play in 1993, and Angels in America: Perestroika, which won the award in 1994.]

Did you spend much time with him?

I presented him with an award in Providence, Rhode Island, so I got to hang out with him there a little bit. He came to my office at one point; he liked to photograph writers in their offices. He surprised me by asking me to interview him on stage at the Jewish Museum, and we hung out for about an hour before and an hour after. I was always a little afraid of him. He was a lovely human being and great to talk to, but I could never completely get over the awe. When I was sitting on stage with him, it was like a jolt of electrical power: Oh my God, I’m talking to Arthur Miller. He wore his immense fame very gracefully.

I’m reasonably good friends with Rebecca Miller, his daughter, and of course Daniel Day Lewis, who is his son-in-law. When I was working with Daniel with the rewrites on Lincoln, we were at Arthur Miller’s house in Connecticut. We worked on the script in Arthur’s study, and on the wall over the fireplace, there’s a portrait of the young Abraham Lincoln that Arthur had put up.

You have said before that the Lincoln shooting script had been cut down quite a bit from the first draft. Were you trying to create a volume of pages to be cut down, or was that just where you wound up when you wrote it?

The first draft was the last four months of Lincoln’s life. It was 500 pages long and broke up pretty neatly into four sections. Steven Spielberg and I struggled for a couple of years trying to figure out how to reduce that massive amount of material into a screenplay. Steven always liked the first part—the part about the 13th Amendment—the best. I thought he would go for the dramatic stuff at the end of the Civil War, but he was very drawn to the political struggle. And at one point, he said, “We should make a movie about Lincoln conducting his campaign to pass the 13th Amendment.”

You gave a speech at Ithaca College’s commencement a few weeks ago, and the substance of it was, “Be an activist.” Is that mostly right?

Yeah, I basically said that the world is incredibly fucked up and that the whole point of the system that had worked well enough to deliver them to a day when they were graduating with a degree was that we’re in desperate trouble and have been waiting for them to show up. They should have a day of celebration and then get to work fixing everything.

I know you have views on marriage equality. Would you consider yourself an activist?

I try to be active as much as I can be. I’m not a professional or a full-time activist. I’m a playwright. But I do want to have a direct impact on the way the world works. There’s only one way to do that, and that’s through political activity. Writing a play, being a journalist, being a doctor, being a nun—those are ways you can have an impact. Arthur Miller is a great inspiration in that regard. He’s a good model of an engaged writer.

Why do you think popular views on marriage equality changed so much so fast?

There’s no easy answer to that. Behind the Windsor case was a century at least of direct political action for LGBT rights. From planning and organizing to planting a beachhead, it wasn’t a sudden thing. It’s something the LGBT community has been fighting for for a very long time. With the African-American civil rights movement and then the feminist movement, the various groups that had been marginalized and in a vulnerable position pushed and shed blood for equal protection under the law.

What’s great about the country when it works is that there’s been an accumulation of collective wisdom about discrimination, about what’s antithetical to democracy. The progress is not irreversible—look at what’s happening with abortion—but when something big enters American culture, it’s hard to get rid of it. Things start to happen. There was a political machinery in place thanks to the political geniuses who constructed the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that things can change.

What we’re seeing in the last two years is an avalanche of jurisprudence and the Supreme Court going from divided to making a clear decision about whether LGBT people are a suspect class, whether they’re entitled to 14th Amendment protection. But reading between the lines of their decision—including the dissent in Windsor of a hideous old homophobe like Scalia—the trend in the United States now is toward not discriminating against people on several grounds, now including marriage.

I’m terrified about what’s going to happen before the end of June. I’m afraid that the Supreme Court will find some way to dodge marriage equality or that they’re going to give us what we’ve been fighting for since Stonewall and a hundred years before Stonewall and then gut the Affordable Care Act, which is what they did two years ago with the Voting Rights Act. That kind of trade-off would be scary, and I hope that doesn’t happen.

Are you working on anything now that you can talk about?

I’m working on a film—a couple of films—with Steven Spielberg. One of those will film this fall or the following fall. It’s based on the novel The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara by David Kertzer. It’s about an 1858 kidnapping of a Jewish child in Bologna, Italy. I am working on a biopic about Barbara Jordan with Viola Davis, and I’m developing a series with HBO. I can’t really say anything about the HBO series.

Films in the ’40s were a lot like plays and have gotten less and less so over time, and TV has gotten less like plays over time. Miller wrote in an essay that there are more good films than there are good plays. Is the play still the thing?

It’s a thing. Plays still do something that I don’t think any other medium does. There are certain ways in which film and television far outstrip theater—certainly in terms of reach. My husband, Mark Harris, who is a film historian and film and television journalist, pointed out to me on the first night that Angels in America aired on HBO that more people were watching it than had probably seen the play all over the world. The scope of the audience is infinitely vaster.

There are illusions you can create on film that are vaster than you can in theater, but I think that the veiled illusion is part of the power of theater. That double awareness of reality and illusion that theater teaches is something that theater still does better than anything else.