Sex, Politics, and Faith: Tony Kushner’s American Drama

by Janelle Reinelt*


Taccone and Kushner

Last June I saw Tony Kushner’s epic new play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. It is directed by Tony Taccone. Since then, I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind . . . .

Kushner is arguably (North) America’s leading playwright: super-intelligent and sophisticated, yet funny and insightful, he manages to create complex imaginative plays such as Angels in America (1992), Homebody/Kabul (2001), and Caroline or Change (2002). In the UK, the sort of play he writes is called a “state of the nation” play, because although it features compelling characters in personal situations, it also represents the national “structure of feeling,” its political and social exigencies, its history and/or its present moment.

Kushner writes centrally about gay and lesbian life, and also about ethnic and racial identity. His own Jewish upbringing has provided material for his plays, and religion(s) has also always played an important role in the motivations and commitments of some of his characters. In Angels in America, he explored Mormon religion, its history in the US, and its effects on characters raised in that tradition; and there is plenty in this new play about Catholicism–this time from within an Italian immigrant family drama. The other thing that stands out in Kushner’s work is its concern with Left history, politics, and culture. Angels looked back to the McCarthy era; Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg are among the characters. Slavs (1994) dealt with the transformation of the USSR after 1985, and the central figure in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide is Gus, a union leader, Communist Party member, and father to a number of children who are affected by their political upbringing in many significant ways: When Pill talks with his young hustler lover about paying for sex, Karl Marx’s theory of alienation and ideas about commodity fetishism are interwoven into the dialogue of an intense lovers’ quarrel so seamlessly that you could almost, but not quite, miss the reference.

Kushner’s play stays on my mind because it dares to be intellectually profound and makes no apologies for its provocations. Under Taccone’s direction, Kushner’s comic gifts got full attention, and Taccone’s penchant for farce could be seen in the wild mayhem of a full-scale family blow-out argument, orchestrated so that everyone is yelling over everyone else, but a number of complete and discrete arguments can still be gleaned through the cacophony.

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide is a major American family drama and, like Death of a Salesman or A Raisin in the Sun, it takes place within the domestic space of a family, while bursting out of those boundaries into the larger social milieu. The plot begins when Gus tells his sister that he intends to commit suicide, and she summons his three grown children to the family home for the crisis. His oldest son Pill is a history teacher who can’t finish his dissertation (on the history of the San Francisco waterfront strike of 1934). His daughter, Empty (her initials, M.T., stand for Maria Theresa), is a labor lawyer, and perhaps the closest in her ideals and commitments to her father’s life of political activism. The youngest son, V (Vito), the most disaffected of the children, seems to have no respect for the lifetime values of his father and only scorn for his union achievements. These siblings, together with Gus’s sister Clio (who has been both a Carmelite nun and a Maoist guerrilla), try to weigh whether Gus has, as he claims, Alzheimer’s, and if so, if ending his life is a rational decision on his part. The question of why he would really choose to do it is perhaps the central question, to which Alzheimer’s is clearly not the true answer. If the play has a through-line, it is the gradual revelation of Gus’s loss of faith in his Party, his socialist ideology, and any vision for a fair and equal society, plus an examination of what possibilities (if any) exist to transcend this state of affairs.

Gus, like his immigrant father and grandfather before him, had been a dockworker and a union and Communist Party member, deeply involved in struggling for workers’ rights. The pinnacle of achievement of his protests was also, he believes, its nadir: The struggle of the ILWU in 1972–73 to gain a Guaranteed Annual Income for its members was won, but only for the senior members, whereas the rest got no concessions. From Gus’s point of view, it was all downhill from there. He tries to explain his despair to V:

We won a victory for a great principle, that labor creates wealth and should own the wealth it creates. But to win that, we sacrificed another principle: union. Over the years, that’s come down on me like the wrath of Heaven. When we agreed that some, not all, would get, we gave up the union, we gave up representing a class, we became… Each one for himself. . . .  I see those younger men, I used to see Shelle’s husband, around? I pretend I’m old, don’t see well, I pretend I don’t remember them. I pretend to forget … what I can’t bear to have in my head.

Each child has his/her own complicated relationship to Gus, and the last act is structured around major unresolvable arguments with each of them. Gus is disappointed that Pill hasn’t followed him into his political work (and thinks homosexuality is a bourgeois corruption). He fights against V’s reactionary politics and calls him an ignoramus, and even Empty, with whom he shares so much, is disparaged for her optimism and dedication to her labor law practice, in which Gus can no longer believe. He is contemplating selling the house, another way to destroy his investment in the utopic American dream: “I want to liquidate. And then vacate.”

Sexuality runs through the play like a river, but the “guide” part of the title doesn’t deliver on these problems: Pill has borrowed $30,000 from Empty to pay for sex with Eli, so his long-time partner Paul threatens Eli and moves them to Minnesota to get away from him. Empty had saved that money to pay to have a child with her partner Maeve, but in addition to giving the money away, she does not seriously want to have a child. Maeve, who is pregnant, is not happy about this. . . (This is an understatement.)

Religion crops up in unexpected places, from Clio’s Carmelite past to Paul’s occupation (a tenured theologian and Maeve’s doctoral supervisor). Her dissertation is a survey of apophatic-docetic Christologies! We don’t find out exactly what these are, any more than we know why Clio left the Carmelite order, so the Christian theological parts of the play mainly establish that religion runs through this family as deeply as communism. Kushner seems to believe that faith in a political party is much like religious faith. Both are based on possibilities that transcend actuality and demand an ideal vision of this or another life. Thus, Gus’s plan to kill himself is a symptom of complete loss of faith, and the entanglements and embitterments of the family add up to a loss of faith in the strength of family-making. Clio, with her life of commitments to religious and radical service, brings these themes together.

The play ends with a highly ambiguous scene between the young hustler Eli and Gus. They establish a strange friendship across their differences, based on their shared experience of being intellectually and spiritually bankrupt. Will Gus kill himself? Everyone has to make up her/his own mind about that.

This extraordinary play will have a future life, I’m sure. It still has some ragged edges. The second time the family blows up in a torrent of shouting each other down, it is annoying for members of the audience, who cannot hear and follow the dialogue. And Kushner doesn’t gain anything dramaturgically. But this is how Kushner polished Angels in America and Homebody/Kabul. He developed and rewrote the play over a series of key productions. I hope the Berkeley Rep experience brought him the vision to keep improving this one.

The play exhibits a great number of citations to and evocations of other theatrical events. The title glosses both Shaw’s An Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism and Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. (Eddy founded the Christian Science religion in the nineteenth century.) The play explicitly references Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, while Arthur Miller’s View from the Bridge seems to ghost the proceedings (Miller’s take on a Brooklyn longshoreman who destroys his family). I thought of Clifford Odets writing about the Jewish Left in Awake and Sing (1935), also a family play about loss of faith through multiple generations. Earlier this year I saw a production of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child in Portland, Oregon, and remembered it as his 1970s deconstruction of the American family. Surely if Shepard (born 1943) was speaking for his generation, Kushner (born 1956), too, is speaking for his. This rich tapestry of theatrical associations makes The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide a pleasure for frequent theatregoers, but even if one doesn’t make all these connections, the spirit and force of this great play still asserts itself. Bravo Tony K, Tony T, and their wonderful ensemble.

Janelle Reinelt is Emeritus Professor of Theatre and Performance at the University of Warwick in the UK. With Jerry Hewitt, she is the author of The Political Theatre of David Edgar: Negotiation and Retreat for Cambridge University Press.

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Janelle Reinelt, “Sex, Politics, and Faith: Tony Kushner’s American Drama.” Social Justice blog, 9/29/2014. © Social Justice 2014.

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