Tony Kushner’s Theatre of Exile

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By David Y. Chack

Four men entered Pardes. One looked and died, one looked and went mad,
one ‘cut the shoots’, and one entered in peace and departed in peace.
Babylonian Talmud, Mishnah Hagigah 2:1

I interviewed Tony Kushner in the spring of 2008 in Union Square in New York City. It was fitting that Kushner – who describes himself as a “commie,” Jewish, radical, gay, man – would have his office there. This was the location of many demonstrations in the early 1900s for workers striking for better conditions and fair wages. I sat on the low asphalt wall drinking coffee and waited until 15 minutes before our appointment and then walked across the wide street toward the building.

I had arrived early and easily found the name of the office and floor I had been directed to. As I made my way towards the office door, my heart beat faster. My mind was in hyper-gear reviewing the questions I had prepared and the many erudite points I was planning to make. I had talked with Kushner before, to set up the interview, and I had been  impressed with the depth and breadth of his knowledge. I hoped I was up to the challenge of being in dialogue with him.

I knocked on the closed door. No one answered and no sound came from inside. I knocked again and tried to look inside, past the posters hanging on the window of the door. No answer. I pulled out my cell phone and rang the number of his assistant. I heard ringing inside but no one answered. Then I pulled out my laptop and checked the last email I had received with the details of  my appointment. There I saw something that I had overlooked. In the email it said that the interview would take place in another office on a different floor from the main office. I ran downstairs as fast as I could. I was at least five minutes late. I found the non-descript office and knocked on the door. There was some noise inside from a chair moving. Then the door opened. There, slightly disheveled, with a stubbly beard, stood Tony Kushner.

We discussed the enigmatic story in the Talmud  about the four great Jewish teachers, who entered Pardes, in  ancient Judea, during the Roman period when Jews and early Christians who lived in a time of a devastating plague, were tortured and faced exile for their beliefs and practices. He talked about the story  in light of how Pardes is that place of ascent to God. We wondered if perhaps the rabbis were fleeing their plight. Or maybe they wanted to call God to account and ask for a intervention on earth. Instead they had to face who they deeply were, to themselves.

Prior also comes face-to-face with the Angel, mimetically performed in Angels in America.

Angel’s Voice: Whisper into the ear of the World, Prophet,
Wash up red in the tide of its dreams,
And billow bloody words into the sky of sleep.

Prior:              Maybe I am a prophet. Not just me, all of us who are dying now. Maybe we’ve caught the virus of prophecy. Be still. Toil no more. Maybe the world has driven God from Heaven, incurred the angels’ wrath. I believe I’ve seen the end of things. And having seen, I’m going blind, as prophets do. It makes a certain sense to me.

Angel’s Voice: FOR THIS AGE OF ANOMIE: A NEW LAW!
Delivered this night, this silent night, from Heaven,
Oh Prophet, to You.

Prior:                I hate heaven. I’ve got no resistance left. Except to run.

                                                   ANGELS IN AMERICA: PERESTROIKA; ACT II: SCENE 2

Just as the ancient Jewish teachers went into Pardes, Prior came before the divine and found either enlightenment or total despair. Prior felt both and he wanted to flee, even as he was already living in the margins as a gay man with AIDS. For Kushner, the elements of Jewish mysticism that come from this ancient yet similar time period, provided him with what he needed to construct this awesome mysterium tremendum or revelation in Angels.

Jewish mysticism also provides Kushner with a structure for Angels, coming from kabbalistic cosmology developed by Rabbi Isaac Luria in the 16th century in the wake of the expulsion and forced conversions of well over 200,000 Jews from Spain and North African countries. Jews had to reconcile the paradox of their exile with a belief in the creation of the universe by a beneficent God, in order to survive. Luria’s system demonstrates that a being as powerful as the One who can create a universe withdrew in a divine “contraction” (like giving birth). Then the fragments of that contraction, shards of God’s essence, were exiled throughout the world. In other words, the theory concludes, exile is intrinsic to the world and what is equally intrinsic is humanity’s mission to gather these sparks of light for healing or restoring the world to wholeness. In Hebrew this is called Tikkun Olam.

Kushner also explained more about the play’s title, Angels in America. We talked about him using the text from Walter Benjamin’s essay on the “Angel of History” in  his Thesis on the Philosophy of History:

Untitled1“The Angel of History:  A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

Kushner was drawn to the text, the life, and the exile of Walter Benjamin for his play’s title. Walter Benjamin, a great German-Jewish literary critic, philosopher, and urbanist was forced to flee the Nazis, from occupied France in 1940, to an uncertain escape over the Pyrenees towards Spain. He never made it and committed suicide. As Raymond Barglow wrote in Tikkun Magazine, “For Walter Benjamin…the very notion of “historical progress” was a cruel illusion…Now…the course of history had been commandeered by Fascism, a ‘catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin.” A final legacy from Benjamin was the manuscript, Theses on the Philosophy of History, from which comes the text of The Angel of History.

Kushner uses the text and Benjamin’s embodiment of it to show the weight of history on the outsider forced to live in exile. The Angel of History demonstrates how we are tormented from the origins of creation by the storms of the past that leave carnage and wreckage in their wake. Caught in the whirlwind just as the Biblical Job was who cursed the day he was born in his encounter with an all-powerful God who allows evil to be visited on the innocent — Benjamin’s Angel calls for civilization to take responsibility for the genocides and atrocities that pile up in the name of religions, nationalities, peoplehood, and so-called morality. For these reasons the Angel is propelled forward in exile, terrified of what lies ahead.

Tony Kushner sees himself as a person in exile. But unlike Benjamin, Kushner continues to hope. About to leave, I came face-to-face with him and asked about the Jewish need to be creative and what he made of it. He said, “It is in order to survive.” I thought about the Talmud and its intertextual dialogue of stories and teachings over the millennia. I thought about the holiday of Purim from the ancient Persian Jewish community, that through play and performance transformed a near-extermination of the Jewish people into a comedic satire. And I thought about the Yiddish play by Ansky The Dybbuk (which Kushner adapted after Angels), that through the transgressive and demonic, comments on suffering and the outsider in society. Kushner follows in that tradition. His play, Angels in America is a fantasia for survival, a coming out of exile, and his way to do Tikkun Olam. In the mold of a contemporary prophet, not one who seeks miraculous interventions, but one whose message places the responsibility for change on the individual – Kushner seeks survival through a humanity and civilization that is transcultural and transgendered; that welcomes the stranger and the outsider; and longs for a time of oneness even in our uniqueness and differences.

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