Manufacturing Passion: Tony Kushner’s Intelligent Homosexual at the Shaw Festival
As part of the Young Playwrights Unit at the Tarragon Theatre in 1985, I presented an idea for an original drama entitled The Nebulae Hypothesis. It featured a black Joan of Arc looking for reasons for her immolation, a blind Oedipus seeking forgiveness from his daughter/sister Antigone, and an unnamed Inuit hunter who functioned as a sort of Arctic Delphic Oracle.
I never completed the work. Though I wasn’t told outright to discard the piece it was subtly suggested that this compote of ideas could never be an actual drama, so I tactfully set it aside and worked on something along the lines of a kitchen sink drama, which worked out to everyone’s mutual dissatisfaction.
Times changed. A mere eight years later Tony Kushner’s Angels in America ushered in a new taste for ideas and intellectual dazzle after winning the Pulitzer Prize. Kushner, a gay man with a lot to say about his dissatisfaction with a contemporary America then just beginning to grapple with the AIDS pandemic, cleverly and transparently used his characters as mouthpieces to speak his mind, while still bringing them fully to life and thereby expressing great emotional truths.
… this is a play of ideas more than anything, yet one disguised as a kitchen sink drama.
Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures debuted in 2009. (It was given further revisions and restaged in 2011.) Like the George Bernard Shaw essay that inspired part of its title (the other part comes from Mary Baker Eddy’s textbook on Christian Science), this is a play of ideas more than anything, yet one disguised as a kitchen sink drama.
The trouble with ideas as drama, as my early would-be mentors no doubt felt, lies in the task of arousing emotions to go with them. For lovers of ideas, that may not seem a problem. For lovers of drama, it is in fact a big deal to bring them to life.
In iHo, as it’s been nicknamed, Kushner’s characters have no problem taking ideas apart and putting them together again. They are by and large all from a family of intellectuals and well-educated thinkers, who also happen to be committed leftists. There are ideas galore on philosophical systems of all sorts: religion, politics, and ethics, to name but a few. In fact they rouse considerable emotions in themselves over and over again. They are, no doubt, lovers of ideas and the unending dialectic that goes with it. As a result, their understanding of the world is largely theoretical.
At the heart of this drama is the patriarch Gus Marcantonio, a retired blue collar worker and ardent trade unionist who wants to sell his house to provide for his three children, and kill himself. In that order. After spending years trying to make positive changes for himself and others, Gus is tired and dissatisfied with his life and the state of the world, and thinks it fitting he should be allowed to make his exit. Not surprisingly, his children have a good deal to say about this.
Act two is a knockout and comes at us with Mahlerian complexity, with two and sometimes three conversations happening simultaneously.
On a superficial level, it’s All in the Family meets Marsha Norman’s ’night, Mother. On another level, these same characters each face some compelling issues: a gay couple must confront the introduction of a third member (a hustler, no less) into their cosy but sterile domestic bliss, while a lesbian couple await the birth of their first child with the child’s biological father and one of the women’s ex-husband hanging around. None of them are very happy in general, but Gus’s declaration of his nihilistic intentions brings out a fervour in all of them.
Despite some awkward casting (these three are siblings? hmm…), the cast spares no effort elucidating and dramatizing what each character is grappling with moments of an almost dizzying intensity result. Act two is a knockout and comes at us with Mahlerian complexity, with two and sometimes three conversations happening simultaneously. Jim Mezon, as Gus, has the lion’s share of the work and creates a formidable presence onstage. He, more than anyone, convinces us of his overriding passion for the ideas he spouts and fumes and spits at each of his family members in turn.
Fiona Reid, as Gus’s sister Clio (a former nun and wavering Marxist), is just as effective in a quietly understated way. Each of Gus’s three kids (and their spouses and even the hustler) has his or her moment of truth as well, particularly when matching wits and personal convictions with Gus one-on-one.
Each of Kushner’s characters has a sacred cause: the workers union, the family, bettering America and thereby the world.
What is missing at the heart of the drama, however, is a cause that’s worthy of all the commotion. In Angels, it was the AIDS pandemic and the surrounding furor that brought out the best and the worst in ordinary as well as extraordinary Americans. (Kushner’s portrait of Roy Cohn reliving his battle with Ethel Rosenberg on his deathbed is one of the most indelible in recent American dramatic history.)
But in iHo, everything centres on ideas. Each of Kushner’s characters has a sacred cause: the workers union, the family, bettering America and thereby the world. They sound great as they bellow at one another again and again. But we, the audience, are not quite sure if we fully believe them. And, ultimately, nothing is decided. Nothing changes.
Not to be unkind, but aren’t these just the sort of conversations we had around our own kitchen sinks and tables over a pot of tea back, say, when we were passionate university students, would-be radicals, political idealists, fill-in-your-own-blanks? Back, that is, when we thought we knew everything. Should we really be surprised to find those ideas have come unravelled? I think not. And despite the vigour with which they’re presented, they’re just not that exciting to revisit on stage all these years later.
The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures runs at the Shaw Festival until Saturday, October 10, 2015. Performances at the Festival Studio Theatre, Niagara on-the-Lake.
Directed by Eda Holmes. Based on the play written by Tony Kushner.
Starring Jim Mezon, Kelli Fox, Fiona Reid
Jeffrey Round’s first two books, A Cage of Bones and The P-town Murders, were listed on AfterElton’s Top 100 Gay Books. His most recent books are the poetry collection, In the Museum of Leonardo da Vinci, and The Jade Butterfly, third in the Lambda award-winning Dan Sharp mystery series. Please visit his website: jeffreyround.com.
Tags: A Writer's Half-Life
, All in the Family
, Angels in America
, Eda Holmes
, Fiona Reid
, George Bernard Shaw
, Jeffrey Round
, Jim Mezon
, Kelli Fox
, Manufacturing Passion: Tony Kushner’s Intelligent Homosexual at the Shaw Festival
, Shaw Festival
, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures
, Tony Kushner