The Playwright Relishes Politics

Playwright Tony Kushner broke with a self-imposed seclusion as he works on the screenplay for ``Angels in America'' to discuss his latest play, ``SLAVS!,'' with the Monitor. Excerpts from the interview follow.

Do you consider yourself a Marxist?

I consider myself a socialist. I'm very interested in Marx, and I think there is a great deal of value in Marx ... but I wouldn't want to limit myself to that.

What does the question posed in the play - ``What is to be done?'' - mean to you, today?

I've always been moved by the simplicity of the question. There is a call to action implicit in the question and also an assumption that something can and therefore must be done.

It suggests that one has to ask very simple and at the same time very profound questions.... Why are families falling apart? Why are kids carrying guns?... Why is there poverty?... There is so much material wealth in the world, infinitely more than every human being on the planet needs to live a decent life, and yet we know that the vast majority of the people on this planet lead completely terrible lives. So why is that? I think the literature on the history of socialism is more likely to ask that question than the literature of the entrepreneurial right, which basically says: ``That's not an interesting question.''

At the end of the play, the little girl says the socialist experiment has failed, and perhaps a redistribution of wealth is not possible.

The little girl at the end is making the terrifying implication that what has failed ... is not simply Stalinism but the notion that there is a rational way to organize the distribution of goods on the earth. She's implying that this means imperialism, war, poverty, and a radically unequal distribution of wealth. I have a little kid saying that because I think the audience will listen to her in a very particular way, very carefully....

Earlier in the play, the Soviet elder Prelapsarianov calls for a new theory. Do you sympathize with his view?

I agree with Prelapsarianov that to the extent that perestroika can be called a failure, it has something to do with the lack of a clearly articulated theoretical vision of democratic socialism.

We become very distrustful of grand theories.... Look at all the trouble grand theories have gotten us into. On the other hand, it is very hard to proceed through the world without one. All successful social movements have had one or two.

In the play there is a generational progression from older men to younger women. What are you suggesting about women's role in changing the world?

Especially when things get really bad, a lot of the burden of maintaining a dissent and an opposition tends to fall on women. Frequently the men are either killed or imprisoned or co-opted in some way. When you look at the history of the resistance to Stalin ... the women often did the incredibly courageous work of keeping the resistance alive.

The problem with totalitarian or fascist organizations that are patriarchal is that in the gender division of labor, women are assigned the roles of becoming supermoms. But the business of being a mother, the business of caring for people, leads one into politics very powerfully....

You said earlier that you gave up apologizing for Stalin. Did you feel compelled to do that at one point?

Not really apologizing. But there is the fact - and I worry about this with ``SLAVS!'' - that Stalinism was an aberration that was created with a great deal of participation from the West.... I don't think that one wants to put the blame on that entirely. But the notion of communism in one country, which is a terrible idea, and Stalin's first real deviation from the true path, is something that was created because the West simply would not allow communism to move out beyond the borders of one country.

What was the draw of Steppenwolf Theatre?

I was curious because their style is not necessarily my style. There is a certain amount of visceral, hair-pulling energy that they have that I tend to shy away from both in writing and in staging. I was basically pleased with the results.

Where does your interest in Slavic peoples and culture come from?

I am Eastern European Jewish, and of course a lot of the movers and shakers of international socialism have been Jews. I am very proud of the fact that my paternal great-grandparents came from Kovno, Lithuania. Several of the Narodniks who assassinated [Czar] Alexander II [1818-1881] came from Kovno. It was some sort of hot-bed of Jewish radicalism.

My maternal grandfather was a trade unionist. I have an aunt who worked for [the Soviet News Agency] Tass in the 1930s briefly when it had an office in the US. I am not a red-diaper baby. My parents were good FDR liberals. But underneath the New Deal there was a certain notion of the social that was very much participated in by Eastern European Jews....

You have never been to Russia?

No, I never have. I had a chance to go before I wrote ``SLAVS!'' but I decided it would be more fun to do my little fantasy version of it and then see what it was like.

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