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Elliot Leven

Tony Kushner

David Frum


Do we separate the artist and the art ? Leven says Yes. Craig Posner Responds

By Elliot Leven, March 20, 2012

 Editor's note: Our op-ed columnist Elliot Leven has written his thoughts about the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre's decision to stage Tony Kushner's Angels after a reader, Craig Posner wrote in sending us a link to David Frum's artilce on Tony Kushner in the National Post. Kushner has written that Israel’s creation was a mistake and an example of “ethnic cleansing " in a letter referred to in Commentary Magazine.

Frum writes: "Perhaps you have heard of the playwright Tony Kushner? Kushner is the author of Angels in America, a seven-hour long play that combined ideas of gay liberation with ideas left over from 1950s-vintage Communist fellow traveling. The play gained immense praise in the 1980s. I won’t debate the merits of the play here, but I will note for the record that in a quarter-century of spending a lot of time with literary types, I have never heard anybody quote a memorable line from the play or spontaneously mention the names of any of its characters. Kushner has always seemed to me the 20th century equivalent of those 19th century academic artists who painted huge scenes from history: like, say, Henry McArdle, whose vast depictions of the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto hang in the Texas legislature. Kushner may not have much to say, but he needs a lot of space in which not to say it.  

"One subject on which Kushner has pronounced is the state of Israel. Briefly: He thinks its creation to have been a mistake. That’s far from a unique opinion of course. It’s an opinion shared with many millions of people, many of whom have been willing to back their view with war and murder. Kushner goes only so far as lending his name to those who would wage economic warfare against Israel: He serves on the advisory board of Jewish Voices for Peace, a group that accepts boycotts, sanctions and divestment of Israel as legitimate tools of politics."

Frum continues : "It’s strange. The world is full of failed states. Yet nobody ever suggests a debate on whether it was a good idea to create, say, Sierra Leone.Barely half the population of Iran are ethnic Persians. When do we debate the redrawing of Iran’s boundaries so as to show respect to the aspirations of those of its people who speak Turkish languages, or Kurdish, or Arabic?.."

"Kushner describes his critics as people “whose politics are based substantially on fantasy and theological wishes.” Personally, I think that’s a much more accurate description of those who place faith in peace negotiations with a Hamas-Fatah Palestinian unity government — or those who fix blame on Israel for the terrible problems of the whole vast Middle East — or those who regard Tony Kushner as a great artist of the age."

Citing Frum's article Craig Posner wrote to us that he disagreed with  WJT's decision to stage Kushner's "Angels" given Kushner's positions on Israel. Elliot Leven in the article below  supports the WJT's position. We welcome comments by readers on what their views are on this one are.


by Elliot Leven

From March 21 to April 1, 2012, the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre will perform Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. (Actually, the WJT will perform the first half of the lengthy play; the full play would run over six hours.) The WJT has made an excellent choice.

 “Angels” is set in New York City during the 1980s. The central characters are gay Americans (some Jewish) caught up in the AIDS crisis. Creatively combining fact and fiction, the play incorporates real historical characters such as Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg. Cohn was a right-wing Jewish lawyer who helped the notorious McCarthy committee persecute American communists. He helped send American Jews Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair for spying for the Soviets. He was also a deeply-closeted gay man, who died of AIDS in 1986. In perhaps the most memorable scene in the play, Ethel Rosenberg’s ghost visits the dying Cohn in the hospital, and sings him Tumbalalika in Yiddish.
Though the play does not focus on Jewish themes, there is ample Jewish content. Indeed, the opening scene is set at the funeral of a Jewish grandmother who came to America from Eastern Europe. The eulogy comments on the unique journey made by such immigrants.
 “Angels” is a very well-written, controversial, thought-provoking, often hilarious play. It was staged in Winnipeg once before, at the MTC Warehouse. I am sure that WJT audiences will applaud loudly for this fine drama.
Which brings us to Tony Kushner and Israel. Though Kushner is proudly Jewish and loves, among other things, klezmer music and Yiddish curses, he has publicly criticized the State of Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. Among his more controversial comments have been musings that the Jewish people might have been better off if the modern State of Israel had not been created. He has clarified these controversial remarks by pointing out that he supports Israel’s right to exist today, and favors a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In a May 14, 2011 opinion piece in the National Post, Canadian Jewish journalist David Frum criticized Kushner for his musings about Israel and, after claiming that he did not want to debate the merits of Angels in America, made several snide remarks about the merits of the play.
Today, Craig Posner questions whether the WJT should stage Angels. I think that it should.
Firstly, there is a difference between the artist and the art. Many great artists were not very nice human beings. Do
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Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.