Sitting comfortably in a makeshift living room assembled onstage, Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner had a public conversation that lasted just short of two hours with Dr. Sherwin Nuland, clinical professor of surgery at the Yale School of Medicine at Battell Chapel Tuesday.
Kushner, best known for his play “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” arrived as the first speaker this year of the David and Goldie Blanksteen Lectureship in Jewish Ethics. During the lecture, titled “Jewish in America,” he covered topics ranging from the upcoming election to the craft of playwriting.
Calling himself both “a God-fearing Jew,” and a “hysterical, materialistic, socialist, humanist agnostic,” Kushner addressed the ambiguity he finds in religion.
“Part of the problem is trying to establish a relationship with the ineffable,” he said. “It’s the same with any art form. Anyone in theater has to have some sense of a relationship between people receiving the art and people making the art, an interaction that transcends its original control.”
Much of his talk reflected the political nature of his most recent work, “Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy,” a political play in which Laura Bush reads to a group of deceased Iraqi children.
“I’m on a diet so I can never eat, and I’m married so I can’t do other things,” he said. “This is something to do when my anger level gets out of control.”
After reading an excerpt of his play, a process he likens to “soft puppet theatre,” Kushner addressed the current political state. The neo-liberal establishment is making a mistake in its reluctance to be identified with the poor and disenfranchised, Kushner says. Citing the magazine The Republic as an example, Kushner said neo-liberals are too comfortable with their proximity to power and the respectability it buys. The price they pay is the denial of a shared position with the powerlessness, he said.
His criticism of the Bush administration drew the most applause; at one point, Nuland suggested holding the election in the room.
“This guy has catalyzed a level of antipathy that I’ve never seen,” Kushner said. “If he shows up for the debate, he’ll just be reading from a teleprompter. I think he actually memorizes in iambic pentameter.”
Kushner emphatically clarified that he is not a pessimist, going as far as predicting a victory for Kerry. This led Nuland to question him about the legitimacy of hope.
“Hope is for those who have not been so burdened by life that despair is unavoidable,” Kushner said. “I’m very suspicious of despair. There is always an avenue for transformation, which is to say hope is a moral obligation.”
Kushner’s lecture was jointly sponsored by the Slifka Center and the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies. Nuland said he was pleased by the turnout.
“I don’t think we’ve had an audience like this since the Dalai Lama arrived [to speak at Yale] eight years ago,” he said.
Sarah Peterson, a director who has worked at the Long Wharf Theatre, extolled Kushner’s personal qualities.
“He’s the sort of person you want to [study] under,” Peterson said.
There will be a reading of “Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy” at Long Wharf Theatre on Oct. 25.