I am transcribing some extracts from a 1999 interview I recently read with playwright Tony Kushner. The interviewer is theatre producer Richard Eyre and this comes from his book, Talking Theatre which I’ve reviewed here
Did you know what [Angels in America] was going to be about when you wrote it?
I knew that I wanted to write about Roy Cohn, who had just died of AIDS in ’86. I had a dream about an angel crashing through the ceiling over the bedroom of a man in a pair of pyjamas, and I knew [the title], but I didn’t know why. I was interested in Mormons for all sorts of reasons, so I knew I wanted them to be in the play, and I knew that I wanted it to be in America during the time that I was writing, or at least only a couple of years prior. It came out of a very dark and terrible time. It came during a period when the President of the United States had been President for seven years before he had uttered a word about AIDS. When I wrote the play nothing had been said about it. When Roy Cohn – who was a person I always hated – had died, even the Left indulged in a great deal of homophobic, AIDS-phobic gloating about the manner of his death. There was an ugly current all around the world that this was a visitation on an evil group of people who had really deserved it, who had earned it by their misbehaviour. And there seemed to me to be a certain kind of consonance, and also a kind of irony, that this powerful, conservative counter-revolution was taking place at exactly the moment when we were being hit by the greatest biological disaster of the twentieth century. When people were more than ever having to explore the extent to which we were really interconnected, the reigning ideology was one of complete selfishness and disconnection. It felt incredibly important to write specifically about the moment that we were living through, and to try and make some sense of it.
O’Neill said: ‘I don’t think you can write anything of value or understanding about the present. You can only write about life if it’s far enough in the past. The present is too mixed up with superficial values; you can’t know what is important and what is not.’ What made you so confident about writing about the present?
I’m not confident about anything, but what he says is probably true. I felt a sort of terrible pressure at the time; I was very, very angry when I started writing. Virginia Woolf says you shouldn’t write out of anger, or if you do it’s going to weaken what you do, and I think she’s probably right about that. I thought that Reagan’s behaviour during the AIDS epidemic was especially monstrous and that he was in every other way monstrous. I thought Margaret Thatcher was and continues to be monstrous. I was annihilated by the epidemic, by friends dying, and a politically grounded oppression with a biological disaster of these proportions was overwhelming. I felt an incredible need to deal with that and to write about being gay, which I hadn’t done. You could say that O’Neill in writing Long Day’s Journey Into Night is writing about something that happened thirty or forty years before the time he wrote it, but it’s got an immediacy. And Miller and Williams were writing absolutely about their moment. You could also say that Shakespeare uses an incredibly transparent kind of metaphor that only just barely disguises the fact that he’s really writing about Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Writing real historical drama seems to me to be very difficult and risks losing a kind of direct communication
(My note – So it’s necessary to have distance to draw a parallel with now, so we can make sense of our experience in The Universal?)