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.