Arts: A seriously funny writer

High drama and big ideas made Tony Kushner's Angels in America a worldwide hit. But wit held it together. By David Benedict
Click to follow
Fingers on buzzers for today's culture quiz: name the great American comic writers of the late twentieth century. Woody Allen? Nora Ephron? The teams behind Friends or Seinfeld? Narrow it down to playwrights and suddenly it's a much tougher question. But even if you had hours to think, chances are you wouldn't come up with Tony Kushner.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Kushner's two-part epic Angels in America went down a storm. As soon as the rave reviews flooded forth, you couldn't get into the 1992 National Theatre production for love or money and the subsequent Broadway production ran for two years during which he scooped, among other wildly prestigious gongs, fistfuls of Tony awards and the Pulitzer prize.

Kushner was dubbed the most important American playwright since David Mamet and although audiences and critics thrilled to the play's immense and intense theatricality and the potency of its thematic breadth, looking back, almost no one remembers that Angels is laced with a fiercely dramatic wit. In the most unlikely of circumstances - it's a vast state-of-the- nation play dealing with faith, politics, living and dying - it is often laugh-aloud funny. Which is why its author, now in his early forties and over here for the world premiere of his latest play Home Body/Kabul, regards himself as, essentially, a comic writer.

The laughs, though are sometimes unconscious. Kushner is in the luxurious position of having seen his play produced countless times across Europe and America - not always to his complete delight - but no matter what, the biggest laugh always comes when Hannah, the austere Mormon mother having difficulty coming to terms with Prior's gay sexuality, tentatively asks "Are you a hairdresser?" To which he replies, "Well it would be your lucky day if I was."

Kushner grins. "On the face of it, not a very funny line and when I wrote it, it just went by but it gets enormous laughs pretty much every time and I don't know why. Actually Mel Brooks himself told me it was a very funny line..." He stops, shrugging self-deprecatingly at his pleasure in the compliment.

"That's like James Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night being proud of praise from Edwin Booth. `Hey, Mel Brooks says I'm funny!' It's bizarre." Pride aside, he always regarded Perestroika, the second part of Angels, as a comedy. Declan Donnellan, the director of the London production, told him to cut it because there were too many jokes. "He may have been right about that." Nonetheless, he likes the way laughter builds a community in an audience very swiftly. "It's the audience's most aggressive way of showing the dialectic between them and the actor. Unless, of course, they sit up and boo which, unless you're at the opera, they don't do very much these days." He raises an eyebrow. "I'm sort of glad that they don't."

He's also acutely aware of laughter's other uses. "It allows the audience to render a quick, abrupt judgement. It focuses attention. You've got them for the next twenty-five seconds, they're fixed waiting for the next laugh and you can do other things while they're rapt." That instantaneous judgement is also crucial in that laughter is an unfiltered, automatic response. "You can be hating and disapproving of something and, suddenly, you catch yourself laughing at something somebody has done before you have a chance to think you hate that person. That's a good thing."

Which is why more conventional theatregoers who would normally balk at the extraordinarily confidently presented ideas about, for example, gay sex, have found themselves under the play's spell. Not for nothing did he subtitle it "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes", a conscious nod towards Bernard Shaw's similarly grand "A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes", which is the subtitle of Heartbreak House.

The sudden explosion of Angels, however, created fallout. As it hit Broadway, Kushner found himself at a panel discussion at the New York Public Library with a heavyweight African-American writer.

"He turned to me and said, `I don't know who you are, but I'll tell you one thing. If this play of yours is as big a success as they're all saying, the best thing that could possibly happen to you is you find a nice big hole somewhere and just disappear into it. That's the only way to save yourself." He dismissed it at the time, but five years on, he recognises it as smart advice. "It took me a while to realise that the success of Angels scared the shit out of me. It would be disingenuous, stupid and obnoxious to say I haven't enjoyed the success and that I'm not still enjoying it... I made money and so on. But anonymity is a really great thing for a writer. I see my friends who are playwrights who haven't had the success I've had and they just don't have that kind of scrutiny.

"There's a scary feeling now. Everything I write could find some theatre that would produce it because my name is attached, and a little bit of me thinks, `so how do I know if they actually think it's good?' Are they just doing it because they imagine, whether it's true or not, that it has some kind of box-office value?"

Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it? "That's completely true. It's an absolute devil's bargain. There's a hysteria in America about fame and success. It's a commonplace but it's true: in Britain there's an ambivalence. It's desired and wonderful and people who get it are happy but it isn't the be-all and end-all. Really great writers like Caryl Churchill are treated like people who have done their job because it is considered a job. It's a legitmate occupation: it's what you do for a living. Theatre is part of the fabric."

He likens theatre writing in America to playing Three Card Monte. "You should be making movies or money. Writing is business and the lack of a profit is just squiffy and weird."

The news that he has quit New York to live in the country in order to concentrate on completing his largest ever play, Henry Box Brown, (a five- year-old National Theatre commission) suggests, however, that he has finally relaxed. Not that he's exactly had writer's block. Slavs was done at Hampstead "really, really well", he's written an adaptation of The Dybbuk and two full-length librettos for a proposed opera by Bobby McFerrin which foundered when McFerrin jacked in the enterprise. One of these has been turned into a play for New York's Public Theatre, which also has another of his works lined up for production.

But first, there's Home Body/Kabul. A solo written for actress Kika Markham who was in his A Bright Room Called Day at the Bush in 1987, this is, to a degree, Kushner in miniature. In this strange meeting, the storyteller says: "And marvellous, as dislocations are", and this is a tenet of both Kushner's philosophy and his craft.

Typically, scenes are stripped down to a theatrical essence wherein ideas can be juxtaposed to create dramatic friction. "The world is constantly creating its own kind of surrealism. This business of making shocking juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated things has a tremendous dramatic effect and can sometimes create a kind of a third term between the two."

For Kushner, the excitement is about disassembling unrelated ideas and tracing connections between them. "The woman is speaking about the dreadful process in the modern world in which whole peoples and cultures are `cleansed' or appropriated by other more powerful cultures. And that line about dislocations being marvellous goes on to say, `and always bloody'. There's a violence about this as well."

Yet, as with Angels, the dramatic investigation of serious ideas is less than po-faced and pompous. "The force created between unconnected things can also have a kind of humour." His tone, and that of the play, is ironic. "The narrative promises to come to a conclusion, and does, but it takes you in all sorts of different directions to get there.

"She's an unreliable narrator. That makes her fun rather than funny. I hope."

`Home Body/Kabul' is previewing at The Chelsea Centre, London SW10 (0171- 352 1967)