Thursday, July 14, 2011

Terry Teachout on Tony Kushner


Several bloggers, among them George Hunka at Superfluities Redux, have linked to a Terry Teachout essay in this month's Commentary.

Teachout, after seeing, (or enduring, as he might say,) An Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Captalism and Socialism with Key to the Scriptures posits that Tony Kushner's early mega-success of Angels in America had more to do with timing and proper politics than the perfection of the actual work.

However, the real thrust of his piece is to present evidence that Kushner's early triumph combined with a continued indiscriminate praise of his work may have rendered the playwright incapable of discipline in his writing.

Had Kushner trimmed away the proliferating subplots of The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide and concentrated ruthlessly on this theme, the results might well have been as exciting as the best parts of Angels in America. Instead, he has drowned it in a sea of rampant verbiage. The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide runs for three hours and 40 minutes, far longer than the average modern-day production of the longest of Shakespeare’s plays, and it does not profit from that added length. Most of the characters are talking machines who often sound like robotic replicas of one another, and the play’s promiscuous use of overlapping dialogue renders much of the second act all but unintelligible to boot.

Like all genuine artists, Kushner writes not as he should but as he must, and his diffuse discursiveness is undoubtedly in part a function of his temperament. Still, the success of Angels in America seems to have confirmed Kushner in the belief that the iron law of economy that governs traditional theatrical storytelling does not apply to him. Not only is The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide enervatingly long-winded, but his last full-evening play, Homebody/Kabul (2001), was an even longer monstrosity in which a genuinely provocative discussion of Islamic fundamentalism and its discontents was buried beneath an incoherent mélange of domestic melodrama and arch drawing-room comedy.


The length complaint is a hard one to parry in any duel, whether between artist and critic, or critic and critic. To be fair, I know it isn't the whole of Terry's essay, but it makes the rest of it a little harder to contemplate.

I guess I can't defend the actual length of Kushner's plays. How could I? They are long. In fact, they are very, very long. They are, when compared to most dramatic writing, exceedingly long. I will have to concede this.

Are they unnecessarily long? A harder question to my mind.

I will leave the debate over The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to those who have seen it. (It may be a while until we get a production of that play here in the Boston area.) However, I have seen three productions of Angels in America over almost 15 years, and my appreciation for that play grows with each experience.

While I'm open to suggestions that certain scenes or exchanges could be trimmed a bit, I'm not really on board with Teachout's main contention when he reviews Kushner's works.

The idea that Angels in America or Homebody/Kabul are really three or four plays that should be separate nights of theater, each standing on their own, is hard to support. Even Teachout keeps admitting that one of the major attractions of Kushner's work is the very scope and ambition of each project.

Kushner recently revealed that he is looking to write more for television.

In an interview in TimeOut New York, (an interview that spawned a lot of blogospheric reaction about the ability of a playwright to make a living wage,) Kushner said the following:

I make my living now as a screenwriter! Which I’m surprised and horrified to find myself saying, but I don’t think I can support myself as a playwright at this point. I don’t think anybody does. I’m going to start work on developing a series for HBO, because I’m naturally given to episodic stories of considerable length. And I won’t have to listen to complaints about how wordy and long my work is if you can watch it on your telephone on the subway: You can make it conform to your day as if it were a book. For people who write in long form, like me, that’s of serious interest, and I think we haven’t really taken that in yet. In a way, film and television are in the same sort of traumatic trance that print journalism is. The technology has outpaced our comprehension of its implications


So, maybe Kushner, contrary to what Teachout is suggesting, has indeed been able to hear those criticisms.

19 comments:

George Hunka said...

Art,

I'm not sure that turning entirely from the medium of theatre to those of film and television indicates that Kushner has a receptive ear to these criticisms. True, film and television have more precise strictures in terms of time (the episodic form of a television series maxes out at an hour or so, a film at about 150 minutes); it's the inability to confront this shortcoming in his theatre work that Terry has in mind, I think.

Kushner to be fair is not alone. O'Neill's mid-period work like "Marco Millions" and "Strange Interlude" ran eight or nine hours, and this too might reflect O'Neill's larger ambitions -- whether these plays exhibit the same failures as "Angels in America" or "Homebody/Kabul" is, in the end, for the spectator to say. But O'Neill's work did become shorter; even "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and "The Iceman Cometh," as long as they are, run about half the length of "Angels in America." They are also quite talky, but are in many ways miracles of lyrical compression. These late plays of O'Neill's need to be as long as they are, in terms of both form and content. And they do, at least to my mind, express a concision that's absent from "Angels."

Best,
George

Art said...

Hi George,

I was perhaps being a bit cagey with my last sentence. I was just joking about how Kushner certainly is aware that his personal artistry is open to these criticisms.

I'm glad you bring up O'Neill as, to my mind, he is probably the most relevant comparison. And Kushner certainly is a student of O'Neill's work.

George Hunka said...

As he is Heiner Muller's actually, writing the foreword to a collection of Muller's plays in 2001. O'Neill and Muller -- the man has eclectic enthusiasms, I'll grant him that.

allieleigh said...

For the record, there was a production of Angels in America in Boston about 3 years ago from Boston Theatre Works before it closed. Also--there are definitely college groups that have done it recently.

Art said...

Hi Allie,

Thanks for commenting.

I saw the Boston Theatre Works production and even wrote about it here, I think.

I don't think anybody was saying that we hadn't seen Angels around here.

Thomas Garvey said...

Sigh. This may goad me into finally completing my analysis of "IHo." Teachout is clearly writing from an aggrieved political position that he steadfastly neglects to mention - which is intellectually dishonest of him, by the way, but what the hell. I'm certainly not surprised to discover that a conservative finds the overlapping, contradictory, frustrating strands of "IHo" so artistically problematic. I mean life's just not LIKE that for conservatives, is it? No, of course not. (What Hunka's excuse is, I've no idea.) Well, at least this has given me an idea for a title for the second part of my analysis - "The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Why Terry Teachout Is an Idiot."

Art said...

Tom,

I'm looking forward to the completion of your IHo article as well.

When I posted this, I actually looked to see if you had finished it, yet.

Teachout clearly outlines political problems he has with the play. For instance, he often brings up the Rosenberg issue. He also attributes a good deal of the huge success of Angels to politics. But, you're right, he never comes right out and gives full disclosure that Kushner's political beliefs are not his.

I am a little curious as to George's thoughts as well. Although, in his brief post, he confesses to an ambivalence towards Kushner's work, not to any sort of confusion.

George Hunka said...

I have not seen iHo and can't comment on that. I was discussing my own experience and response to Angels in America (which Terry also discusses).

Terry would have to speak for himself on the relevance of his political beliefs, whatever they are, to his criticism. I can say that I am far more in sympathy with Kushner's politics than not. I imagine that political assumptions may color a critic's response to a work, but not necessarily. To say, as Terry does, that "Part of the reason why Kushner is so admired by elite opinion makers is that he is ... the living embodiment of their unanimously held views on a wide range of political and social issues" is not an ideological response, but an observation that any critic of any ideological persuasion can fairly make.

I think Terry's response is fair-minded and pays as much attention to Kushner's strengths as his weaknesses ("impressively ambitious ... emotionally powerful and theatrically effective ... exciting"), which doesn't sound like a takedown to me. At any rate, a negative ad hominem response to Terry doesn't address Terry's points.

His comments on the Rosenbergs is based on extensive journalistic research by Ron Radosh and Joyce Milton, which he cites in the essay. If Kushner's admirers are going to make the argument for Kushner as a progressive leftist, it is for them to respond to Terry's observation that Kushner's treatment of them is problematic based on the facts, and whether or not this compromises the ideological integrity of Kushner's work.

George Hunka said...

By the way, Terry's comments are based on the mixed reviews that iHo received; they are indeed quite mixed, and can be found on StageGrade here:

http://www.stagegrade.com/productions/793#

I find it doubtful all the mixed reviews are the product of political prejudice; and besides, whether an individual reviewer is a dues-paying member of the Communist Party or the John Birch Society is irrelevant. To believe otherwise is bad faith, to say the least.

Thomas Garvey said...

Aren't you forgetting the Israel Lobby, Art - with which Teachout's boss, the Wall Street Journal (not to mention Commentary!) is rather closely aligned? Indeed, Teachout baits the readers of "Commentary" - a neoconservative (read far-right) Jewish publication - with Kushner's famously ill-advised comments regarding Isreal right at the top, even though said comments don't appear in any of the plays; the rest of the article is in a way only window dressing for a neocon kick at Kushner after their attempt at smearing him at CUNY failed. Teachout dresses up his article as criticism (even though its "insights" are banal), but it's obviously a piece of propaganda disguised as critique.

For the record, no one has ever argued that Kushner's plays were without flaw. The consensus is "flawed, but great." A consensus with which I agree, btw, and I'm certainly happy to discuss their flaws (in a manner that is balanced by an awareness of their greatness). In the end, Teachout's hatchet job only reminds me that dismissing politically difficult art because of its supposed formal flaws is an old, old, OLD game. And while I'm sure the editorial board at the WSJ is patting Teachout's head over this one, to my mind he deserves a swift kick in the pants.

Thomas Garvey said...

Oh, wake up, George. Don't tell me you really are blind to the notorious rightward tilt of the 'criticism' in "Commentary"! And honestly - you're going to accuse someone else's writing of "longeurs"? YOU, George Hunka?? And didn't you just announce that Hans-Jürgen Syberberg‘s visually striking but monolithically dull, seven-hour Hitler: A Film from Germany was "a masterpiece of the form"? Having sat through a good chunk of that some three decades ago, I can honestly say thanks, but I'll take Angels in America ANY DAY.

As for the "Stage Grade" bell curve - let's see, who's bringing up the rear of that but - yes, Terry Teachout!! He bestows an "F+" on Kushner, and is joined in his assessment by that well-known liberal thinker, John Simon, who gives IHo a straight "F," probably because it distracted him from fond memories of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (or some actress's pubic hair). Simon and Teachout aren't alone in their opinion, it's true - the "New Jersey Newsroom" couldn't agree more, and even the Village Voice gives the play a "D." (Although StageGrade's dour summation of Feingold's review seems rather more negative than the piece itself - an impression I had several times as I read through the StageGrade reviews.)

I'll also just say that I happened to be at the same performance as Terry Teachout - he's fairly recognizable! - and when he says things like "much of the second act [is] all but unintelligible," he's just not telling the truth. Somehow I could follow the dialogue, and it seemed to me that the audience was, too - they were quite engaged throughout. The play may be tiring, but it's never boring, and it ends with two of the best scenes Kushner has ever written - one, in fact, is as good as the Roy Cohn scenes from Angels, the very ones Teachout is so enamored of (and which, btw, completely contradict his claim that Kushner "demonizes" the right). I will admit that iHo is probably too long - by about fifteen minutes. A running time of three and a half hours would suit it perfectly.

And George, one more suggestion: before you jump on another neocon bandwagon, why not SEE THE PLAY first? I mean, how could it hurt?

Art said...

@george

But isn't that the real problem with Teachout's essay?

You say you find it hard to believe that the mixed reviews are the result of political prejudice.

However, Teachout's thesis is asking us to accept that the positive reviews have been the result of political prejudices. Or maybe I'm misreading it.

Art said...

@Tom

Hmmm. I actually felt the Feingold summation of a D was pretty accurate on Stagegrade. But the funny thing is that it is almost the opposite of what Teachout emphasizes in his review and essay.

Feingold goes out of his way to state a few times that the evening is many things, but,(here he agrees with you,) it is not boring.

BTW, George and I both stated that we hadn't seen IHo. I know I can speak for only for myself, but I thought that Teachout's piece was geared mostly towards Kushner's overall career and style, so I felt comfortable with a little post about it.

Thomas Garvey said...

Hi, Art. Feingold says in part:

"To be fair, Kushner’s high-flying speeches, which swoop and veer like hawks across the skies above the earthbound plod of his dramatic action, constitute a sort of theatrical event in themselves. Often crisscrossing, in a coordinated multivoice babble that suggests one of Rossini’s comic-opera finales with the music omitted, they offer an exhilaration that, in tandem with the play’s continual touching on one or another of a string of big themes, makes you glad to have sat through an evening that otherwise, when added up, leaves you with only frustrating tidbits of a puzzle unfinished as well as unsolved. Whether the exhilaration outweighs the frustration is for audiences to decide. Here, in either case, they at least have a playwright who has not settled for putting everything together tidily in a set of predigested assumptions. If what he offers instead is an inchoate mess, at least it’s a high-mettled, frolicsome, intellectually challenging mess, certainly self-indulgent, but never drab."

He says he's frustrated, and that the play is unfinished. But he also says he's glad he saw it. He even calls the dialogue exhilarating. I can't recall the last time I gave a show a "D" that I also described as "exhilarating." (I, also, was exhilarated by IHo.)

I'm not saying you were wrong to post about this, Art, BUT . . . I wish you had given a little background about the axes Teachout has to grind, and the axes "Commentary" has to grind. I mean, you're talking about a neocon critic who is willfully blind to Kushner's critique of capitalism - no wonder he can't understand the dialogue! (If he did, his head would explode.) And he's publishing his innocent little essay about Kushner's lack of formal discipline in "Commentary," an Israel Lobby rag which would be quite happy if an anvil fell on Tony Kushner tomorrow and squashed him flat. Given that framework, their sympathetic concern for Kushner's artistry just rings a little false to me, okay? Sorry if I over-reacted, but we're talking about our greatest living playwright (probably), flaws and all - and he is tackling a huge political question in a fascinating, if sometimes frustrating, way. He's not writing about his orgasm, or that Racism Is Wrong! He's after a level of complexity that most of today's critics, like most of today's playwrights, simply cannot envision or understand. And I guess I just respect that, and it angers me when others don't.

Art said...

No problem. I appreciate you bringing in the axes.

With Feingold, I'll concede, I guess I just put more weight on the messiness and emptiness that Feingold seemed to be mentioning.

George Hunka said...

It should be pointed out that Teachout's F+ is counterbalanced by a review in The Nation (a progressive leftist publication which frequently runs Kushner's essays, but infrequently runs theatre reviews) by Margaret Spillane, a review characterized by StageGrade as an A. Is Spillane's review also indicative of the ideology of the publication that prints it, and therefore propaganda too?

I see your point, Art, that by claiming that Kushner's reputation is inflated by progressive critics who share Kushner's politics, he leaves himself open to the charge that he himself may be accused of a similar prejudice in his essay. For what it's worth, Spillane does not explicitly share her personal political opinions in her review, either. I myself prefer to think that both Spillane and Teachout are approaching Kushner's work in good faith.

For the record, I was one of the few theatre bloggers who vociferously supported Kushner in the CUNY controversy, early and often (see here for these posts). Many others were silent about it -- and that includes most Boston theatre bloggers as well.

Esther said...

I saw both parts of Angels in America at the Signature in April and it was an unforgettable experience. I'd read the plays and I'd seen the HBO miniseries but this was different, more intimate and absorbing. Really, the 7 1/2 hours did not seem long at all.

I think part of it is that the plays, especially Millennium Approaches, are so well-structured that they don't feel long. Each act is normally about an hour, so you get a break, a chance to stretch your legs. (The only time this breaks down is the first act of Perestroika, which is more like 90 minutes and does feel a bit long.) Plus, you've got lots of rather short scenes involving two or three people and that keeps the whole process moving along.

I didn't see iHo but I did see The Illusion. And even though it was only 2 1/2 hours, it "felt" longer than Angels.

I don't know, I kind of think that Tony Kushner had two great plays in him and he used up all of his most poetic language, his most compelling characters and ideas, in Angels.

Thomas Garvey said...

Oh, for heaven's sake, George, you just sound sillier and sillier. I'm not really impugning your politics, I'm impugning your perceptiveness. Of course Teachout's "appraisal" is a politically-motivated hatchet job at what he and the editors of Commentary have guessed is a vulnerable moment in Kushner's career. Of COURSE. How you could have fallen for Teachout's transparent bamboozlement I've no idea. But in future, do not assume that zealots on the right (or the left) - or their lackeys, like Teachout - are ever writing in good faith. EVER. You know, I think if there were a Greek word for precisely the way you're being stupid, then perhaps you could understand it! But I'm afraid I have little Latin, and less Greek.

Scott Walters said...

I think the O'Neill comparison is a good one. I remember watching the film of "The Iceman Cometh" when I was in high school -- it had an intermission. I don't think it is fair to treat Angels in America as a single play, unless we are going to treat, say, "Star Wars" as a single film and accuse Lucas of being long-winded, or Shakespeare's "Richard II," "Henry IV," and "Merry Wives of Windsor" as one play. Is "The Oresteia" too long? Teachout makes a silly, ahistorical argument. Argue the merits of the play, not some platonic ideal length.