Tony Kushner: Why I’m Writing a Play About Donald Trump
As the U.K. production of ‘Angels in America’ hits American cinemas, Tony Kushner reveals his plans for a Trump play—and talks about what Roy Cohn taught Trump.
From the summer home where he and his husband, Mark Harris, live in Provincetown, Massachusetts, the playwright Tony Kushner is speaking for the first time about the play he is planning to write about President Donald Trump.
It comes during a discussion of the much-praised London National Theatre production of Angels in America, Kushner’s defining AIDS-era masterpiece set in 1985 and first performed in 1991, which is being beamed into American cinemas this and next Thursday.
While we’re talking, there is a sudden outbreak of yappity barking. Loofah, their mini-poodle, is a “New York apartment dog,” Kushner explains, affectionately trying to shush her. “She’s guarding the house constantly. Two gay men and a poodle.” He laughs.
Sometimes the stereotypes are true, I say.
“Exactly,” says Kushner drily. “Speaking of images from the past.”
“It feels very soon,” he says of the Trump play which he has just begun to work on. “The nightmare is in high gear. It certainly feels like folly that I or anyone else has a definitive understanding or comprehensive understanding of what going on. I have my guesses like everyone else has, but it will take some time and a lot will depend on how it is resolved.”
The play, he says, will not focus on the Trump presidency itself, but will be set two years before the election. Kushner says he will try to write Trump as a direct character, rather than anything oblique or symbolic. “He’s the kind of person, as a writer, I tend to avoid as I think he is borderline psychotic,” Kushner says. “I definitely think that incoherence lends itself well to drama, but he really is very boring. It’s terrifying because he has all the power, but without the mental faculties he ought to have. I think he is seriously mentally ill, and the fact that he is in the White House is very frightening.
“He may do things that do not surprise us. We can imagine the worst he can do—mishandle things so much that we end up in a nuclear war. We know that he will never reveal a depth of humanity, because he’s been around for decades and there has never been a sign of it.
“He just runs round and round in his grim little well saying the same things over and over again. Occasionally he will write or say something funny like ‘Covfefe,’ but the last five months have been astonishingly one-note and flat. He is precisely the kind of person who you would not want to be stuck next to at a party. You can't get away from how grotesque he is. Reagan was really disgusting too, but not as venal.”
For Kushner, “the main problem is how our country can give such power to a madman and crazy person; how a country commits political suicide—and I don’t think analogies to Hitler are misplaced in that regard.
“For 40 years the Republican Party has said that government is evil and greed is good, that history is of no interest, and courted white supremacy. The result of the election was the expression of what they want, and it showed a majority of white evangelicals did not care about the behavior of a president that doesn’t seem that Christian. Donald Trump is the antithesis of everything Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount.”
Trump was, of course, exceptionally close to Roy Cohn, Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s “red”-baiter-in-chief and later Trump’s lawyer and close adviser, whom Kushner bought to such delicious, villainous life in Angels. (Nathan Lane is playing Cohn in London.) His speech scorning being gay and what power means remains a venomous, chilling classic piece of writing.
“The difference between Trump and Cohn—for all the malevolence and disturbance Roy was capable of—is that he was also capable of genuine loyalty and an affectional constancy,” says Kushner. “People he knew and cared about he stayed loyal to for decades.
“The part of Roy’s legacy that we see most visibly with Trump is the art of The Big Lie. It’s a Joe McCarthy trick. He developed it. It’s the kind of thing that a person who is profoundly damaged at their core is particularly good at.
“I don’t know when Trump lies—about the size of his inauguration crowd, winning the popular vote—if he is aware of it. Maybe sometimes he is, sometimes he isn’t. I didn’t have the sense with Roy that he lost sight of where the divide between fantasy and reality lay, which Trump does I think.
“What they share is McCarthy’s belief that you shouldn’t be a small, nervous liar. Make it huge, and never admit it, even if people might scream in your face it about it being a lie. In the immediate moment, bend reality around what you say. Whether you are discovered, come up with an even bigger one.
“Roy had learned this from [famed malevolent gossip] Walter Winchell, and Trump learned it from Roy: the idea that all publicity is good publicity, always make sure you’re in the newspapers.”
Cohn also taught Trump, says Kushner, “to occupy a grey area of wall. A couple of times Roy came close to guilty indictments; he didn’t pay income taxes; he almost destroyed a respectable law firm. But he was careful that his behavior never led him to go to prison. Trump is also a master of that.”
Kushner found himself defending Roy Cohn was after The Nation published an obituary of him, which seemed to Kushner profoundly homophobic. “It linked gay men and fascism, it talked about what Roy’s body looked like at the end of his life. I had friends in similar conditions. Up to that point I had thought of Roy as the devil; from then on I had sympathy for the devil.”
Will Kushner aim to finish the Trump play before the end of the president’s first term? “I’m slowing down. I am not disciplined, I’m the very opposite. I find writing difficult. I’m trying to become a faster writer, but I don’t feel like I have to get something done while he’s still in office. I gambled with Angels, which is set in the Reagan era but which I felt would be historically significant 30, 40, 50 years later, because something really fundamental had shifted under Reagan. The same thing is true with Trump.”
Will Cohn turn up as Trump’s angel or devil in the Trump play? Kushner laughs. “I think I’ve done all I want to do with him. Maybe not. We’ll see.”
Tony Kushner is not, he emphasizes, in any way related to Jared Kushner. "Of course, that is something of a misery," he says of sharing the surname of Trump's son-in-law. "'Kushner' is the equivalent of 'Smith' and 'Jones' in Eastern Europe." There are many 'Kushners' to be proud of, Kushner says, like the novelist Rachel Kushner. "The New Jersey branch of the family are nothing to brag about."
Whenever Kushner sees a headline, he says, "like 'Kushner Scandal Growing,' I do have a moment of 'Oh my god, they caught me.' I have to remember it's not me, but that putz."
There Must Be an Angel
Come Thursday night, Kushner says he and Harris will likely not be stealing themselves into a Cape Cod cinema to watch the NT Live presentation of Angels, even if there is talk of trying to mount something in Provincetown itself.
There’s no dark reason why not, Kushner says; he was just very involved with the London production, now busy with other projects, and needs “an Angels break.”
However, he adds sheepishly, curiosity may lead him and Harris to “run and stick our noses into one or other theatre where it will be happening.”
If you have not seen the play, you may have seen the 2003 movie, starring Meryl Streep and Al Pacino and directed by Mike Nichols. Broken into two parts, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika,” it follows the tangled and occasionally fantastical stories of Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield in the National production), a closeted Mormon called Joe (Russell Tovey), and the gleefully despicable Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane) as AIDS, homophobia, tragedy, loyalty, failing health, ignorance, faith, love, secrets, and hope vividly clash. And, of course, there is theatre’s most famous appearance by an angel.
Kushner, who won two Tonys for the two parts of Angels in 1993 and 1994 respectively, had never seen anyone preside over an Angels production as exactingly as Marianne Elliott and designer Ian MacNeil did for the National Theatre: There were “many meetings, hours of conversation, and thousands of probing, interesting questions.”
The biggest topic of conversation, Kushner says, was Prior’s journey once the angel arrives; what is expected of him as a prophet as opposed to an evangelist.
Elliott’s polite but insistent interrogations gave Kushner the chance to “think hard why certain things happened. I found I had different answers at 59, 60, than I had in my early thirties when I was first working on the play.
“There’s always a moment of panic when a really smart director challenges you. Marianne was incredibly polite, respectful and collegial. She wasn’t saying, ‘This is a pile of shit, what are you talking about?’ But she really grilled me. But that moment of panic is: What if this actually doesn’t make sense and it is bullshit?”
Instead, mutually beneficial elucidation ensued.
The toughest moment to get right was the “Anti-Migratory Epistle,” a sequence where “something is going on fundamentally mysterious which is not meant to be completely comprehended. There’s a fine line between letting an audience in as much as I can without losing the mystery.”
Kushner also told the actors—too young to have lived through the dark years of governmental indifference, medical horrors, and rank prejudice in the 1980s—what he remembered of those terrible times.
“It’s sort of astonishing to people, and sometimes astonishing to me. I find myself thinking: Did that actually happen, was there a time in New York City when someone who was catastrophically ill couldn’t get someone to bring food into their room because they were so afraid? That I had a friend whose nurse wore a Hazmat suit. That I heard of an orderly who left food at the door, making enormously sick people get up out of bed to get it. Or that thousands of people were sick and dying and in terrible need and the federal and New York City governments were willing to pretend this wasn't happening.
“And the sheer scope of the epidemic… and what it felt like every day to learn the names of a few more people who had suddenly died. And how terrifying and horrible that time was. It is moving to me to see that memory being passed along.”
In the ’90s and even the aughts, the devastating time became “an ineffaceable part of history,” said Kushner, “as opposed to when it was happening and you couldn’t get anyone to pay attention to it.
“But the actual gritty terribleness of it on daily basis I think people wanted to move away from, the memory of it, because it was too terrible. But now you see, as with all traumatic memory—it’s a cyclical thing—there’s an appetite now to look at what that time felt like.”
Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart gives “a more granular description” of the same era, says Kushner, though Angels “is not intended to be a chronicle play as Normal Heart is.”
Kushner lauds the whole Angels production, and mentions Russell Tovey's performance as the closeted Joe, “when it was far more common than now, and social pressures more terrible, to lead you to do that. I think he has done an astonishing job of capturing it. It’s moving to see people determined to remember and explore the past, and it’s also moving to know that that is now the past and good riddance. It was awful.”
Kushner also defended Garfield, who caused a recent online kerfuffle after saying during an on-stage discussion he was gay "without the physical act"--a controversy generated by his remarks being taken out of context, the actor later said.
Kushner agrees. "One of the things that make a great actor is being able to empathize and dig deep into a character. Andrew does that magnificently. He's a really great actor, and he has dug deep into what it means to be the gay man in this play. He wasn't assuming any degree of superiority in what he said. He didn't write Angels in America. I did. I'm a gay man. Andrew is a straight actor and he has every right to tell my stories. If we are now saying that in order to tell a story you cannot imagine or portray any other life than your own, then that is the death of fiction. This controversy blew up, and blew out. That tells you everything. There's nothing there."
Kushner recalls one critic "writing something along the lines of 'Donald Trump is in the White House. Andrew Garfield is not your enemy.' And 'know who your enemy actually is,' is a pretty good rule," Kushner says. "Andrew is a great guy."
The Duties of the Writer
Kushner didn’t intend Angels to be a manifesto, although some very good theater can proselytize and propagandize, he says. “I don't want to intend for plays to be one thing or another,” he says, citing the poet Anna Akhmatova, who within her masterpiece Requiem about the Stalinist terror, writes of a woman waiting alongside her in bone-chilling cold outside the Lubyanka, headquarters of the secret police, for news of loved ones.
The woman asks Akhmatova, as a poet, can she describe this. Yes, she can, Akhmatova replies.
“That seems to me a set of marching orders for a writer,” says Kushner. In the mid-1980s, he recalls Oskar Eustis, now artistic director of New York’s Public Theater and then co-artistic director of San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre (where Angels was first performed in 1991), commissioning Kushner’s first play.
“I was just coming out, right as the AIDS epidemic was beginning and as a progressive person of the left was watching this terrifying political catastrophe (the Reagan administration) in its brazen triumph knocking down every aspect of hard-won social and political progress the country had made since the Great Depression.
“Act-Up [the direct action HIV and AIDS advocacy group] came into existence. There was Rock Hudson’s death. Roy Cohn died at the same time. Hudson’s death, the death of this really beloved movie star, really made the world pay attention, as did Elizabeth Taylor testifying before Congress—it was then people thought, ‘This is really sad.’ And this four years after all these people dying around them and nobody caring. When I started working on Angels there was a little bit of distance.”
Angels mixes both elements of requiem and anger, I say.
Kushner assents. “There is requiem and rage in everything I write. Everything I write has a mix of grief and loss and rage.
“In A Room of One’s Own, [Virginia] Woolf wrote of her amazement at writers like Shakespeare and Jane Austen being able to write without anger. Anger is a consuming emotion: it can damage your work. I sometimes wonder if I had less anger whether I would be a better playwright.
"At the point of writing Angels I had a tiny reputation. I didn’t ever imagine the play becoming a big event. The subtitle is A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, which sounds grand but was meant ironically, and was my permission to get big.”
The spurs to write it were two-fold Kushner says: grief and a dream he had of a sick guy on a bed and an angel crashing through the ceiling. “The guy was a friend who was a dance student I knew at NYU when I was a directing student. He was one of the first people I knew with AIDS, in 1985. I had the dream in St. Louis: I was the angel crashing through the ceiling.
“I also write a lot of out of hope, although some days are obviously harder than others. My 20-year-old niece saw the play at the National recently and said what surprised her was its optimism. My later plays, like The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide (to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures, to give its full title) are darker. My first play had a devil, the second an angel. In the last 25 years I have gotten a little more realistic I think.”
LGBT rights are “in an interesting place,” under Trump, says Kushner. “The succession of victories we had doesn’t mean that homophobia, injustice and inequality are over. Any minority can be victims of oppressive legislation and violence. Whatever rights any group of oppressed people achieve have to be renewed in every generation.”
Kushner doesn’t think that Trump “has a particular animus to gay and trans people, but he has an appalling indifference. So when it comes to people like Jeff Sessions and Betsy DeVos he doesn’t do anything when it comes to things like the rescinding of the Obama directive on trans students. Trump needs their applause, and he is particularly needy for it now.”
The problem, for anti-LGBT conservatives, is that LGBT people are not as available “as red-meat to their base as we were in the past,” he says.
“LGBT equality has radical implications, because it forces society to recognize there is an unruliness and complexity in human sexual expression, which has now expanded to gender.
“The LGBT liberation movement is radically socially transformative because it forces society to see that gender is not limited to man/woman and sexual expression is not limited to heterosexuality.”
How Kushner Came Out
Kushner grew up first in New York, then Louisiana. His father, William, was a clarinetist turned conductor, and his mother, Sylvia, a bassoonist. “It was a house full of music. My parents were practicing all the time. My little brother Eric is the ‘full horn’ at the Vienna Philharmonic. The house was full of books. My older sister Lesley is deaf and is a wonderful painter. It had a large impact on me. I very much regret I didn’t stick with learning the cello.”
Kushner came out at 26. “For my generation, that wasn’t early. I had issues. I was and am a big believer in psychoanalysis. My analyst back then told me my sexual identity wouldn’t change. He had never heard of anyone gay becoming heterosexual. That made him pretty different to a lot of psychoanalysts at that time who would say different. I got lucky.”
A 2005 New Yorker article lays bare the difficulties his parents had around his sexuality, initially anyway. “I was afraid to tell my parents. My father struggled with the thought of it. It bothered him. He was a man of his time, but he had certainly changed by the time of his death, aged 88, in 2012. He was very proud of me, and recited a Shakespeare sonnet at my wedding.
“My mother died in 1990, and was lovely about it, and to my boyfriend at the time. My siblings were great. My whole family made it clear to me they loved me.”
Still, Kushner retained “a fantasy of staying straight” for quite a while, and worried about disappointing my family. But they had set a good model of how to be Jewish in a small southern town, he says, encouraging their children not to hide and be open. “I used that as the model for coming out, as well as the African-American civil rights movement.”
How important is love, and his relationship with Harris, a journalist and author, to Kushner?
“I love him so much,” he says. “He is a really amazing person. We’re a very good match for one another. We get one another very deeply. We’re both writers, in very different ways. He’s hugely supportive of what I do. The level of freak accident and chance in life is something. I think about if we both hadn’t both been at that party 20 years ago… I can’t imagine life without him.”
Remaking ‘West Side Story’ With Steven Spielberg
While theater “is where I really like to be,” Kushner is also a lauded screenwriter: Golden Globe-nominated for Munich in 2005, and Globe- and Oscar-nominated for Lincoln in 2012. He is currently writing four films: He Wanted The Moon for Plan B, Brad Pitt’s film company; a film about the politician and civil rights icon Barbara Jordan for Viola Davis; and two films for Steven Spielberg. One is The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortera (about the Vatican’s imprisoning of a 6-year-old boy in 1858), “for which we are looking for an amazing 6-year-old to cast,” he says, and which Mark Rylance and Oscar Isaac have already signed on to.
For Spielberg too, he is rewriting the book, “not the score,” for a remake of West Side Story. “I am not touching in any way the greatest score of a musical ever written. I love the  film [directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, starring Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno]. Who doesn’t? I am not changing the story, the setting, the period. It is still the Upper West Side in the late 1950s, but I’m exploring the story.
“I’m interested that we see love at first sight, as opposed to lust as it first sight. By the time they’re singing ‘Maria’ and ‘Tonight’ things are at a much deeper plane than just two horny kids.”
Kushner also wants to complete a musical about the death of Eugene O’Neill that he is writing with the Tony Award-winning composer Jeanine Tesori (who he made Caroline, Or Change with). “And I have three other big play ideas, so I have to get busy.”
How was turning 60 last year, I ask Kushner. “Horrible,” he shoots back. “I turned 61 on Sunday. It feels very strange. It’s advanced middle age, or early old age. It’s pretty clear to me this is altered landscape.
“You think about years ago when there were two generations between you and the abyss, now one’s parental generation is mostly gone, and you say, ‘What’s standing between me and the abyss? Oh, nothing.’ You consider the span of life and regard the end of life. But I also don’t want to prematurely age, or push myself into the grave.
“I do see playwriting like nuclear physics—it’s a profession for younger people—but I do still have so many things I want to do. So I gather my nuts and berries for winter. I love that line in The Normal Heart (that Felix says to Ned about his books): ‘I think you’re going to have to face the fact you won’t be able to read them all before you die.’ And there’s that Edward Bond line from Summer: ‘What’s more useless than death? Life without death would be.’ And I always loved that line from Brecht: ‘Death is no good for anything.’”
Angels in America will be broadcast live to cinemas across the U.K. and internationally as part of National Theatre Live, with Part 1 on Thursday July 20 and Part 2 on Thursday, July 27. Find your nearest cinema here.