Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Millennium Approaches

Science for the people

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“My immediate reaction was one of intense loss,” Fern MacDougal, a graduate student in ecology, says in the short documentary “Science for the People.” She’s referring to the experience of speaking with the founders of the organization of the same name, which was formed in the late sixties to mobilize scientists and engineers for political change, and which recently returned after a long hiatus. As Rebecca Onion elaborates in an article on Slate:

In some areas—climate, reproductive justice—our situation has become even more perilous now than it was then. Biological determinism has a stubborn way of cropping up again and again in public discourse…Then there’s the sad reality that the very basic twentieth-century concept that science is helpful in public life because it helps us make evidence-based decisions is increasingly threatened under Trump. “It feels as though we’re fighting like heck to defend what would have been ridiculous to think we had to defend, back in those old days,” [biologist Katherine] Yih said. “It was just so obvious that science has that capability to improve the quality of life for people, even if it was often being used for militaristic purposes and so forth. But the notion that we had to defend science against our government was just—it wouldn’t have been imaginable, I think.”

Science for the People has since been revived as a nonprofit organization and an online magazine, and its presence now is necessary and important. But it also feels sad to reflect on the fact that we need it again, nearly half a century after it was originally founded.

In the oral history The World Only Spins Forward, Tony Kushner is asked what he would tell himself at the age of twenty-nine, when he was just commencing work on the play that became Angels in America. His response is both revealing and sobering:

What a tough time to ask that question…I don’t think that I would talk to him. I think it’s better that we don’t know the future. The person that I was at twenty-nine very deeply believed that there would be great progress. I believed back then, with great certainty—I mean I wrote it in the play, “the world only spins forward,” “the time has come,” et cetera, et cetera…Working on all this stuff right after Reagan had been reelected, it felt very dark. I’m glad that I didn’t know back then that at sixty I’d be looking at some of the same fucking fights that I was looking at at twenty-nine.

And one of the great, essential, difficult things about this book is the glimpse it provides of a time that briefly felt like a turning point. One of its most memorable passages is simply a quote from a review by Steven Mikulan of L.A. Weekly: “Tony Kushner’s epic play about the death of the twentieth century has arrived at the very pivot of American history, when the Republican ice age it depicts has begun to melt away.” This was at the end of 1992, when it was still possible to look ahead with relief to the end of the administration of George H.W. Bush.

It’s no longer possible to believe, in other words, that the world only spins forward. The fact that recent events have coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of so many milestones from 1968 may just be a quirk of the calendar, but it also underlines the feeling that history is repeating itself—or rhyming—in the worst possible way. It forces us to contemplate the possibility that any trend in favor of liberal values over the last half century may have been an illusory blip, and that we’re experiencing a correction back to the way human society has nearly always been. (And it isn’t an accident that Francis Fukuyama, who famously proclaimed the end of history and the triumph of western culture in the early nineties, has a new book out that purports to explain what happened instead. Its title is Identity.) But I can think of two possible forms of consolation. The first is that this is a necessary reawakening to the nature of history itself, which we need to acknowledge in order to deal with it. One of the major influences on Angels in America was the work of the philosopher Walter Benjamin, of whom Kushner’s friend and dramaturge Kimberly Flynn observes:

According to Benjamin, “One reason fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm,” a developmental phase on the way to something better. Opposing this notion, Benjamin wrote, “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that ‘the state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” This is the insight that should inform the conception of history. This, not incidentally, is the way in which ACT UP, operating in the tradition of the oppressed, understood the emergency of AIDS.

Which brings us to the second source of consolation, which is that we’ve been through many of the same convulsions before, and we can learn from the experiences of our predecessors—which in itself amount to a sort of science for the people. (Alfred Korzybski called it time binding, or the unique ability of the human species to build on the discoveries of earlier generations.) We can apply their lessons to matters of survival, of activism, of staying sane. A few years ago, I would have found it hard to remember that many of the men and women I admire most lived through times in which there was no guarantee that everything would work out, and in which the threat of destruction or reversion hung threateningly over every incremental step forward. Viewers who saw 2001: A Space Odyssey on its original release emerged from the theater into a world that seemed that it might blow apart at any moment. For many of them, it did, just as it did for those who were lost in the emergency that produced Angels in America, whom one character imagines as “souls of the dead, people who had perished,” floating up to heal the hole in the ozone layer. It’s an unforgettable image, and I like to take it as a metaphor for the way in which a culture forged in a crisis can endure for those who come afterward. Many of us are finally learning, in a limited way, how it feels to live with the uncertainty that others have felt for as long as they can remember, and we can all learn from the example of Prior Walter, who says to himself at the end of Millennium Approaches, as he hears the thunder of approaching wings: “My brain is fine, I can handle pressure, I am a gay man and I am used to pressure.” It’s true that the world only spins forward. But it can also bring us back around to where we were before.

The dreamlife of angels

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A few weeks ago, I finally got my hands on a copy of The World Only Spins Forward, the oral history of Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America. The journalists Isaac Butler and Dan Kois have delivered a book that feels indispensable, particularly at this historical moment, and it’s impossible to open it to a random page without being immediately sucked into the narrative. Its most vivid figure, not surprisingly, is Kushner himself, who emerges both as an authentic genius and as an insufferable collaborator. Here, for instance, is the account of his first viewing of Declan Donnellan’s landmark production in London:

Kushner: I typed up my notes on the plane flying back to the United States. I spent the entire flight just typing up notes. There were, like, fifty pages of notes. I hit the send button on the fax machine as soon as I landed, not thinking about what time it was in London.

Donnellan: Nick [Ormerod] and I came home, and I thought we’d been burgled because there was so much paper floating around! It turned out it was all coming from the fax machine.

And the director Oskar Eustis recalls: “The way Tony gives notes on his shows is incredibly difficult for every director he’s ever worked with. There’s a few directors who have essentially turned the room over to Tony and let him do the line-by-line work with the actors. There are directors who have barred Tony from the room and forced him to accept it. But there’s never been the ‘normal’ relationship between playwright and director with Tony. It doesn’t exist.”

Yet as much as I enjoyed Butler and Kois’s book, which should be required reading for anyone interested in politics or theater, it leaves one aspect of the story unexplored. Kushner is present throughout as an activist, an intellectual, a creative force, and a prickly personality, but only rarely as a writer. We hear surprisingly little about the decisions that went into the construction of these two massive plays. As far as the oral version is concerned, it’s as if Kushner took his grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, went away for a while, and came back with Millennium Approaches. Even his struggles with Perestroika, which he has never finished revising, occur mostly offstage. The closest we get to a look at his process is a tantalizing glimpse like this:

Kushner: We made a mistake. When I wrote Perestroika, it was five acts long. We had this play, Millennium Approaches, that everybody was really loving. Oskar and I both felt that Perestroika should replicate it in some way. It was inevitable that we were going to try to squeeze Perestroika into a three-act structure. It doesn’t work in three acts…

Eustis: The thing he did, and it remains the most brilliant thing I’ve ever seen a writer do: he took this difficulty of making these characters change and he made it the content of the play.

This is heady stuff, but it just leaves us wanting more. And when Kushner does appear in the book, it’s often in the thankless role of a giver of notes, not that of the artist who somehow set this whole unlikely project into motion in the first place.

The picture that emerges is that of a play shaped profoundly by its cast and directors, which seems fair enough—Kushner wrote many of these roles for the actors who originally performed them in San Francisco. But also points to a weakness of the oral history format itself. Over the last decade or so, we’ve seen an explosion in the form, both online and in print, and I’ve devoted entire posts here to similar books about the Creative Artists Agency and Saturday Night Live. And it isn’t difficult to see why they’re so popular. When properly done, they’re compulsively readable, and it’s much easier to envision the average reader plowing through ten thousand words of oral history than a conventional article of the same length. (For me, the ultimate example remains the twelve thousand words that Thrillist devoted to a single scene from The Avengers.) It also has its problems, as The World Only Spins Forward, which is an exemplary model of the genre, makes all too clear. It values the anecdotal over the introspective. The fact that it depends on good stories means that it can overstate how much of a phenomenon took place in public, or overemphasize the importance of elements that lend themselves to retelling. It naturally hinges on the candor and cooperation of the participants, which means that Kushner’s reticence about his own creative process leaves a hole in the narrative, however open he might be on other topics. When you rely entirely on the voices of others, it can lead to insights that wouldn’t emerge in any other way, but it also means that certain subjects receive less attention than they deserve. You can’t write an oral history about how a play was written in private, which would require a combination of memoir, interview, and textual analysis that just isn’t possible in the oral form. And the result serves as a reminder between the difference between history and what another gay icon once called “the bones from which someday a man might make history.”

None of this would matter if Butler and Kois’s book weren’t so good, and its limits only serve to highlight Kushner’s genius. The greatness of Angels in America lies precisely in its ability to orchestrate a range of voices, including ones that had rarely been seen before on the stage, and to fit them into a compelling structure. It demands something more than simple transcription, including weird, intuitive choices of the kind that an oral history can never completely manage. (Kushner’s play also deserves credit for making its viewers uncomfortable. The book compares its cultural impact to that of Hamilton, which is comparatively reluctant to explore the darker aspects of American history. Hamilton isn’t likely to disturb or implicate you unless you’re actually Mike Pence, and I have little doubt that Angels, which inspired protests as well as huge box office, is ultimately the greater work of art.) It’s the kind of play that could only have emerged through much solitary, unglamorous work, and it’s this unspoken element that may end up being the most instructive. We’re living in a time in which private life is under constant threat of being obliterated by the public, which may be another reason why oral history is thriving. At such moments, it can seem hard to justify the creation of imaginative literature, much of which necessarily occurs out of sight. The World Only Spins Forward is one of the best books I’ve read all year, and it provides a crucial perspective as we try to figure out what kind of culture we’re going to get out of this agonized period of regression and rebellion, which has so much in common with the decade that produced Angels in America. But it takes a real effort of the will to keep the silent, lonely, even prophetic figure of the writer alive in the murmur of so many other voices. And that’s where the great work begins.

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