Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Tony Kushner

It couldn’t happen here

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Note: This week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of Very by the Pet Shop Boys. Over the next few days, I’ll be devoting a series of posts to the legacy of my favorite album of all time.

When I started reading The World Only Spins Forward, the excellent oral history of Angels in America, I was mildly struck by the fact that it doesn’t begin with the playwright Tony Kushner at all. Instead, it opens with an account of the Briggs Initiative, an episode from the history of gay rights that has largely faded from memory. As the historian Rick Perlstein explains:

Through 1977 to 1978, there were the gay rights fights in Miami, the Briggs Initiative in California, the Equal Rights Amendment, and abortion—the movement is beginning to take shape in parallel to Reagan’s very aggressive, full-time efforts to begin working for the Republican nomination…On the general election ballot in California, you have the Briggs Initiative, the first statewide attack on gay rights. Not only that, but in the biggest state. It was an incredibly, incredibly scary prospect. This was a law that would have made it illegal for gays to teach in the schools and also illegal for supporters of gays to teach in schools. It was a very, very creepy law.

The initiative—which would have turned “the advocating, soliciting, imposing, encouraging or promoting of private or public homosexual activity” by public school employees into a fireable offense—had the unintended effect of catalyzing the nascent gay rights movement, which came up with a remarkable counterattack. It successfully reached out to Ronald Reagan himself to make the case that the proposed law was expensive and pointless, with the candidate ultimately writing in the Los Angeles Examiner: “Whatever it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual’s homosexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child’s teachers do not really influence it.” The proposition went down to defeat, but it left behind some valuable lessons. The activist Cleve Jones recalls: “Harvey [Milk’s] constant exhortation to people to come out, I really think, became the main driving force behind everything we’ve achieved in the decades that followed…One of the words we used a lot was demystify. You know, we needed to demystify homosexuality with the boring reality of our ordinariness.”

Ten years later, a similar law was proposed in the United Kingdom, and the outcome was very different. The amendment known as Section 28, which was introduced into parliament at the end of 1987, made it illegal for local authorities to “intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality,” or to “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” It was largely a reaction to the AIDS crisis, which led to a rise in homophobia, and a panicked response to the existence of a handful of books—notably David Rees’s novel The Milkman’s On His Way—that advocates claimed were being taught to young children. As one member of the House of Lords stated during the debate:

One argument that has been put forward…is that the kind of words in the amendment…might have the effect of censoring as teaching material works of literary value. I do not believe that that follows logically at all. No one will use those words to censor out the reading of works by authors such as Oscar Wilde or Virginia Woolf…[The Milkman’s On His Way] deals in explicit—some would say pornographic—detail with the sexual intercourse between a teenager and his male adult lover. I will not read out the most sensitive and the most explicit parts. It is recommended for children still at school. For members of the committee who have not had a chance to realize what we are talking about—we are not talking about Oscar Wilde or Virginia Woolf—I quote: “Kisses, gentle hands touching skin. Drifting towards sleep. ‘I don’t have to wonder if you enjoyed it,’ he said, later. I smiled. No answer was needed. ‘Or if we were the right way round.’ I opened my eyes. ‘I just want it again. For ever and ever like that. Till I’m ninety-six and dying.’”

And another member warned: “Homosexuals regard themselves as normal. One has only to look through the entire animal world to realize that it is abnormal…When one is young at school one is very impressionable and may just as easily pick up bad habits as good habits.”

On May 24, 1988, the amendment was passed into law—it wouldn’t be repealed for another fifteen years—and its most lasting impact, as with the Briggs Initiative, was to galvanize the opposition. One of the most notable opponents was Ian McKellen, who at the time was most famous for his work as a stage actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company. During a radio debate with Peregrine Worsthorne, the editor of the Daily Telegraph, McKellen was asked if he would like to see Section 28 abolished. In response, he replied almost casually: “I certainly would. It’s offensive to anyone who is—like myself—homosexual, apart from the whole business of what can and cannot be taught to children.” As he later remembered in an article for Capital Gay magazine:

A year ago, I was one of those men, content to be gay, but unaware that I might have any relevance to the lives of other gays, whose lives are more vulnerable than mine to homophobia…I’d been an actor before anything else. Yet there I was, with those tireless arts lobbyists, meeting daily in the smoky bar of the London Drill Hall, plotting to attack the Government on behalf of all lesbians and gays, attacking censorship and, selfishly, that part of Section 28 which could affect my livelihood.

In June, McKellen organized a special gala, “Before the Act,” the the Piccadilly Theatre in London, to highlight gay and lesbian writers and composers whose work might be affected by the amendment. The performers included Stephen Fry, Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave—and the Pet Shop Boys, who had featured McKellen earlier that year as a vampire in their video for “Heart.” At the beginning of the second act, they performed “It’s a Sin” and “One More Chance,” in one of their first live shows of any kind. Neil Tennant wasn’t officially out yet, but the performance was a clear statement, or at least an invitation for their fans to connect the dots.

It was a turning point, but also a reflection of their particular attitude toward the relationship between art and politics. The Pet Shop Boys had dealt obliquely with AIDS in such tracks as “It Couldn’t Happen Here,” the first song in the great sequence that runs through “Being Boring” and “Dreaming of the Queen.” Yet their journey was a complicated one, in part because of Tennant’s own ambivalence toward being seen as a gay artist. Like McKellen, he came out during an interview, but in a very different context, while speaking to Paul Burston of Attitude:

“The Pet Shop Boys came along to make fabulous records, we didn’t come along to be politicians, or to be positive role models. Having said all that, we have supported the fight for gay rights…What I’m actually saying is, I am gay, and I have written songs from that point of view. So, I mean, I’m being surprisingly honestly with you here, but those are the facts of the matter.” Having finally got all that off his chest, Neil Tennant pours himself a glass of mineral water and takes his sweatshirt off. He is looking distinctly pink around the gills. Maybe it’s the effect of suddenly admitting that for all these years he has been singing nothing but the truth. Or maybe it’s just the unbearable heat in here.

In recent decades, gay themes have come to the forefront of their work, but they’ve never entirely shed their early air of reserve. (As the scholar Nabeel Zuberi brilliantly observes in the book Sounds English: “The Pet Shop Boys are unlikely to have made the kind of music they did if they hadn’t been closeted. Their particular evocations of England in the 1980s and 90s depend on a repression that is part of that residue of English nationalism’s effect on the body.”) And it was a process of evolution that seems to have begun on June 5, 1988. Afterward, they only called the gala “a brilliant event,” but it set off a train of thought that climaxed five years later in Very. Like the Briggs Initiative, Section 28 inadvertently created a set of strategies for survival—artistic, personal, and political—to which we should all pay attention. Because it could happen here again.

The promised land

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Note: This week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of Very by the Pet Shop Boys. Over the next few days, I’ll be devoting a series of posts to the legacy of my favorite album of all time.

On November 8, 1992, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles presented the second half of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. It premiered less than a week after the presidential election that seemed to herald the definitive end of the Reagan era, against a backdrop of change that led one critic to describe the play as arriving “at the very pivot of American history, when the Republican ice age it depicts has begun to melt away.” And it wasn’t just a matter of good timing. The themes of progress and historical transition were embedded right there in the text, starting with its title. When the lights went up at the beginning of the first act of Perestroika, the audience was treated to the sight of Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, the World’s Oldest Living Bolshevik, “unimaginably old and totally blind,” standing before a red flag as he spoke from the podium:

How are we to proceed without Theory? What System of Thought have these Reformers to present to this mad swirling planetary disorganization, to the Inevident Welter of fact, event, phenomenon, calamity?…Yes, we must must change, only show me the Theory, and I will be at the barricades, show me the book of the next Beautiful Theory, and I promise you these blind eyes will see again, just to read it, to devour that text. Show me the words that will reorder the world, or else keep silent.

But after four hours of agonized searching, the play concluded with its central figure, Prior Walter, delivering not another theory, but a benediction: “This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all…You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.”

Less than a year later, the Pet Shop Boys released their fifth studio album. Like Kushner’s epic play, it might well have been subtitled “a gay fantasia on national themes,” and its critical and commercial reception was mostly rapturous. As far as I know, however, few listeners have ever drawn a connection between Very and Angels in America, despite the fact that they emerged simultaneously from a confluence of circumstances that were remarkably similar. Both were wildly entertaining works of art that were also haunted by the AIDS crisis, and both seized on flamboyant theatricality as a strategy for conveying unconstrained emotion. In the liner notes for the album’s extended release, the journalist Chris Heath writes:

Arma Andon, their American manager at the time, had asked them why they staged these elaborate, costumed, theatrical fantasies in concert, but rarely explored the same kind of presentation in videos or for records, and they begun to wonder the same thing themselves. “Also,” says Neil [Tennant], “I think we thought we’d done to death the classic Pet Shop Boys thing, and it was finally completely summed up on the cover of Discography, Chris [Lowe] stony-faced and me with an ironically-arched eyebrow. We kind of thought: right, we’ve just completely done that now, let’s do something not real.”

The result was an explosion of color, texture, and science fiction imagery that extended to the packaging of the album itself, a pebbled orange art object that looked as if it might have emerged from an alternate universe. It was a reaction against years of ironic detachment, and it reminds me of Kushner’s notes on the staging of Perestroika: “The moments of magic—all of them—are to be fully realized, as bits of wonderful theatrical illusion—which means it’s OK if the wires show, and maybe it’s good that they do, but the magic should at the same time be thoroughly amazing.”

But the most striking similarity between Very and Angels in America has to be their unexpected obsession with Russia. In “I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing,” the repressed narrator dreams of taking all his clothes off and dancing to The Rite of Spring, while the next track, “Liberation,” was inspired by Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. This was all fairly standard for Neil Tennant, whose most famous song includes the line “from Lake Geneva to the Finland Station,” but there had never been anything quite like the closing cover of the Village People’s “Go West.” As they later recalled in a retrospective interview:

Neil: “After it came out, we had the whole how-we-changed-Russia thing.”
Chris: “It does sound surprisingly like the former Soviet anthem, we have subsequently discovered. It’s remarkably similar.”
Neil: “We did bits in Moscow for the ‘Go West’ video simply because we were going to Moscow for the launch of Russian MTV. It was just a coincidence, and we thought, ‘Where do you go when you’re East? You go West.’ So we did some filming in Red Square, pointing. But according to this artist we know in Russia, people thought that we had done a song that was based on the Soviet national anthem, and these Hungarian fans wrote to us and said, ‘I hear this song and I am frightened’, because they thought it was suggesting that the Russians should invade Eastern Europe again, because they would go west. Maybe that’s why the Russians like it.”

And it’s hard to watch the ensuing video—with its rows of marching muscle men with red flags—and still believe that it was all “just a coincidence.”

So what exactly was going on here? Long before the premiere of Angels in America, Kushner told an audience at the Public Theater in New York: “There are moments in history when the fabric of everyday life unravels, and there is this unstable dynamism that allows for incredible social change in short periods of time…During these periods all sorts of people…are touched by the spirit of revolution and behave in extraordinary ways.” They wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing. And in an interview at Northwestern University in 1995, Kushner came as close as he ever would to explaining his thinking:

Part of what I’m trying to get at with Perestroika, and what all the characters in it are wrestling with, is that we’ve earned the right now, after what happened to communism in Russia and the transmogrification of the ideal of socialism into Stalinism, that big theories are very dangerous things. I think that we absolutely need them. We have a responsibility to create them. But at the same time we also have to find perhaps theories that are less totalizing. We can’t really trust a total theory anymore.

Or as Tennant observed a decade later in “Twentieth Century”: “Sometimes the solution is worse than the problem.” (The same song also includes the lines: “Well I bought a ticket to the revolution / And I cheered when the statues fell / Everyone came to destroy what was rotten / But they killed off what was good as well.”) For a gay man of a certain temperament, it must have been tempting to take the upheavals in the former Soviet Union as a metaphor for another restructuring closer to home, with its possibility of revelation or liberation. “The world only spins forward,” Prior says at the end of Perestroika, and a year after the release of Very, Tennant came out, as the New Statesman later observed, “to the surprise of nobody.” But in the case of both Russia and gay rights, any notion of lasting change may have been premature, and in ways that wouldn’t be clear for decades. As Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov darkly warns: “If the snake sheds his skin before a new skin is ready, naked he will be in the world, prey to the forces of chaos. Without his skin he will be dismantled, lose coherence and die. Have you, my little serpents, a new skin?”

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September 24, 2018 at 9:19 am

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.

The feathers and the smoke

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I read the comics. I got liberated from reading the New York Times and addicted to reading Newsday because it has comics, and the New York Times doesn’t. I get very cranky if I don’t have my comics every day…Theater is as much a part of trash culture as it is high art. It always is that. And it’s incredibly important for people who are working in theater to always remember that it’s show biz and it’s sort of sleazy, and a lot of the traditions that you’ve inherited and a lot of the ways that you have at your disposal for telling a story are ways that were developed by, incredibly, sort of lowbrow, popular entertainment. The theater always has to function as popular entertainment. Or at least the theater that I do, because I don’t have the talent for doing anything else…It has to have the jokes and it has to have the feathers and the mirrors and the smoke.

Tony Kushner, in an interview reprinted in Tony Kushner in Conversation

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July 8, 2018 at 7:30 am

Life on the last mile

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In telecommunications, there’s a concept called “the last mile,” which states that the final leg of a network—the one that actually reaches the user’s home, school or office—is the most difficult and expensive to build. It’s one thing to construct a massive trunkline, which is basically a huge but relatively straightforward feat of engineering, and quite another to deal with the tangle of equipment, wiring, and specifications on the level of thousands of individual households. More recently, the concept has been extended to public transportation, delivery and distribution services, and other fields that depend on connecting an industrial operation on the largest imaginable scale with specific situations on the retail side. (For instance, Amazon has been trying to cross the last mile through everything from its acquisition of Whole Foods to drone delivery, and the fact that these are seen as alternative approaches to the same problem points to how complicated it really is.) This isn’t just a matter of infrastructure, either, but of the difficulties inherent to any system in which a single pipeline has to split into many smaller branches, whether it’s carrying blood, water, mail, or data. Ninety percent of the wiring can be in that last mile, and success lies less in any overall principles than in the irritating particulars. It has to be solved on the ground, rather than in a design document, and you’ll never be able to anticipate all of the obstacles that you’ll face once those connections start to multiply. It’s literally about the ramifications.

I often feel the same way when it comes to writing. When I think back at how I’ve grown as a writer over the last decade or so, I see clear signs of progress. Thanks mostly to the guidelines that David Mamet presents in On Directing Film, it’s much easier for me to write a decent first draft than it was when I began. I rarely leave anything unfinished; I know how to outline and how to cut; and I’m unlikely to make any huge technical mistakes. In his book Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman says something similar about screenwriting:

Stephen Sondheim once said this: “I cannot write a bad song. You begin it here, build, end there. The words will lay properly on the music so they can be sung, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper song.” I sometimes feel that way about my screenplays. I’ve been doing them for so long now, and I’ve attempted most genres. I know about entering the story as late as possible, entering each scene as late as possible, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper screenplay.

Craft, in other words, can take you most of the way—but it’s the final leg that kills you. As Goldman concludes of his initial pass on the script for Absolute Power: “This first draft was proper as hell—you just didn’t give a shit.” And sooner or later, most writers find that they spend most of their time on that last mile.

Like most other art forms, creative writing can indeed be taught—but only to the point that it still resembles an engineering problem. There are a few basic tricks of structure and technique that will improve almost anyone’s work, much like the skills that you learn in art books like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and that kind of advancement can be enormously satisfying. When it comes to the last mile between you and your desired result, however, many of the rules start to seem useless. You aren’t dealing with the general principles that have gotten you this far, but with problems that arise on the level of individual words or sentences, each one of which needs to be tackled on its own. There’s no way of knowing whether or not you’ve made the right choice until you’ve looked at them all in a row, and even if something seems wrong, you may not know how to fix it. The comforting shape of the outline, which can be assembled in a reasonably logical fashion, is replaced by the chaos of the text, and the fact that you’ve done good work on this level before is no guarantee that you can do it right now. I’ve learned a lot about writing over the years, but to the extent that I’m not yet the writer that I want to be, it lies almost entirely in that last mile, where the ideal remains tantalizingly out of reach.

As a result, I end up revising endlessly, even a late stage, and although the draft always gets better, it never reaches perfection. After a while, you have to decide that it’s as good as it’s going to get, and then move on to something else—which is why it helps to have a deadline. But you can take comfort in the fact that the last mile affects even the best of us. In a recent New York Times profile of the playwright Tony Kushner, Charles McGrath writes:

What makes Angels in America so complicated to stage is not just Mr. Kushner’s need to supervise everything, but that Perestroika, the second part, is to a certain extent a work in progress and may always be. The first part, Millennium Approaches, was already up and running in the spring of 1991, when, with a deadline looming, Mr. Kushner retreated to a cabin in Northern California and wrote most of Perestroika in a feverish eight-day stint, hardly sleeping and living on junk food. He has been tinkering with it ever since…Even during rehearsal last month he was still cutting, rewriting, restructuring.

If Tony Kushner is still revising Angels in America, it makes me feel a little better about spending my life on that last mile. Or as John McPhee says about knowing when to stop: “What I know is that I can’t do any better; someone else might do better, but that’s all I can do; so I call it done.”

The Wrath of Cohn, Part 3

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On December 4, 1983, the readers of Parade magazine were treated to the cover story “How to Stay Fit” by President Ronald Reagan. In the article, Reagan, or his ghostwriter, described his fitness and diet regimen, which included “the cutting, hauling, and stacking of the wood” at his ranch, and finished:

I don’t want to be be overbearing about the need for exercise, but I would encourage each of you reading this article to think how you could get a little more physical activity into your life. I guarantee that you will feel better both physically and mentally…The next time they report I’m out riding or chopping or otherwise getting the old circulation going, why don’t you get out there and enjoy some exercise yourself? If all of us do, America will be in better shape, too. I’ll be thinking of you. Good health to you all.

In retrospect, it’s hard to read this without reflecting that it appeared at the exact moment that the Reagan administration was studiously ignoring—if not actively mocking—the AIDS crisis. It must have seemed odd to many people even at the time, and its backstory is even stranger. The attorney Roy Cohn had met with Ed Rollins, Reagan’s campaign manager, who was concerned about public perception of the president’s age and health. Cohn recalls in his own autobiography: “I thought about it, and I said it seemed to me that a well-placed magazine article showing the president’s physical prowess would be the best answer. The obvious magazine was Parade…The article served its purpose. It was widely received and acclaimed.”

Parade was “obvious,” needless to say, because it was published by Cohn’s good friend Si Newhouse, and everyone in the Reagan camp was pleased by the result, including Nancy Reagan, who, according to Roger Stone, “thanked [Cohn] profusely for it. She knew that Roy could get things done, and she respected and used people who could get things done.” Stone, like Ed Rollins, later worked on the Trump campaign, and much of Cohn’s advice, particularly on the media, has been passed down to the current administration. In all of the profiles about Cohn’s relationship with Trump—which often mention Rupert Murdoch, but not Si Newhouse—it’s this aspect that strikes me the most. Jonathan Mahler and Matt Flegenheimer wrote last summer in the New York Times: “Among the many things Mr. Trump learned from Mr. Cohn during these years was the importance of keeping one’s name in the newspapers. Long before Mr. Trump posed as his own spokesman, passing self-serving tidbits to gossip columnists, Mr. Cohn was known to call in stories about himself to reporters.” And in Vanity Fair, which has seamlessly pivoted to attacking Trump after decades in which it glorified him, Marie Brenner wrote:

Another of Cohn’s tactics was to befriend the town’s top gossip columnists, such as Leonard Lyons and George Sokolsky, who would bring Cohn to the Stork Club. He was irresistible to tabloid writers, always ready with scandal-tinged tales. “Roy would be hired by a divorce client in the morning and be leaking their case in the afternoon,” New Yorker writer Ken Auletta recalled. Columnist Liz Smith said she learned to distrust most items he gave her. A similar reliance on the press would also become a vital component of the young Trump’s playbook.

And when Trump heard of Cohn’s death, according to the Times, he said to himself: “Wow, that’s the end of a generation. That’s the end of an era.”

Roy Cohn would receive his most famous afterlife as the most vivid character in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, in which he dominates the play to an extent that seems to have troubled even his creator. (In an interview with Adam Mars Jones, Kushner said: “I’m a little worried that in the process of figuring [Cohn] out I’ve overdone it and he’s maybe too sympathetic a character.”) It’s a stunning portrait, and it resonates even more deeply today. Reading it over this week, I was most struck by the speech in the first part, Millennium Approaches, that Cohn delivers to his doctor, Henry, as his body is ravaged by AIDS:

Homosexual. Gay. Lesbian. You think these are names that tell you who someone sleeps with, but they don’t tell you that…Like all labels they tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology, or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout. Not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will pick up the phone when I call, who owes me favors. This is what a label refers to. Now to someone who does not understand this, homosexual is what I am because I have sex with men. But really this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows…I have clout. A lot. I can pick up this phone, punch fifteen numbers, and you know who will be on the other end in under five minutes, Henry?

Henry ventures his best guess: “The President.” Roy shoots back at him: “Even better, Henry. His wife.”

This has the ring of authenticity, and the speech itself reflects what Cohn evidently believed about himself. (In a profile written a decade ago by Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker, Roger Stone said: “Roy was not gay. He was a man who liked having sex with men. Gays were weak, effeminate. He always seemed to have these young blond boys around. It just wasn’t discussed.”) Toward the end of Perestroika, the second part of the play, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg says to the dying Cohn:

They beat you. You lost. (Pause). I decided to come here so I could see could I forgive you. You who I have hated so terribly I have borne my hatred for you up into the heavens and made a needlesharp little star in the sky out of it…I came to forgive but all I can do is take pleasure in your misery. Hoping I’d get to see you die more terrible than I did. And you are, ’cause you’re dying in shit, Roy, defeated. And you could kill me, but you couldn’t ever defeat me. You never won. And when you die all anyone will say is: better he had never lived at all.

I don’t know if Kushner ever really believed this—one of Cohn’s last lines in the play is “I win!”—but it doesn’t seem true now. Cohn wasn’t defeated at all, although the extent of his victory took thirty years to become manifest. On the day after the election, Stone told Vanity Fair, Trump mused: “Wouldn’t Roy love to see this moment? Boy, do we miss him.” And when I think of Cohn today, I remember these lines from Kushner, and I know that the play isn’t over:

Roy: I’m immortal, Ethel. (He forces himself to stand) I have forced my way into history. I ain’t never gonna die.
Ethel Rosenberg: (A little laugh, then) History is about to crack wide open. Millennium approaches.

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