On the Hook: Tony Kushner and the Labor Movement

In 1997, the playwright Tony Kushner was going through some books that had belonged to his grandparents when he came across one by George Bernard Shaw that he had never heard of:  The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and CapitalismKushner thought the title was funny, and he played around with it for more than ten years until he found a way to make it into a title for his important new play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism with a Key to the Scriptures.  In 2009 Kushner stopped working on iHo (Kushner’s nickname for it) to mount a new production of his Pulitzer Prize winning Angels in America, but he brought iHo back to the stage this spring, in New York, where it most certainly belongs.  After previews in March iHo had its official debut at the Public Theater on May 5 to mostly rave reviews.

Kushner’s play caught my attention because the central character, Gus Marcantonio, is an Italian-American longshoreman,union man, and communist, age 73, with one failed suicide attempt under his belt.  The play takes place as Marcantonio wrestles with whether to kill himself as the dramatic personal lives of his three grown children and their lovers/spouses/partners unfold around him.

It is no accident that Marcantonio is a longshoreman.  The longshoreman is the stage artist’s ultimate working-class symbol, especially for the generation that came of age in the 1950s.  In 1950, Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan wrote a never produced screenplay about a longshoreman called The Hook.  Kazan went on to direct Budd Schulberg’s ode to the longshoremen, On the Waterfront.  (And for the real story behind On the Waterfront—the story about how the screenplay emerged much more out of Schulberg’s admiration for the longshoreman’s labor priest than out of Kazan’s spite for his political enemies, see James Fisher’s riveting On the Irish Waterfront).

In 1955, Arthur Miller returned to the docks with his one-act play, A View From the Bridge, about an Italian longshoreman, Eddie Carbone, who falls so obsessively in love with his own niece that he has her fiancé, who is an illegal immigrant, deported back to Italy in a jealous rage.  Ostracized by his community for betraying one of his own countrymen, Carbone kills himself with his dock hook.  The play was revived last spring on Broadway.  And then in 1957, Martin Ritt, who later made his mark on labor film history with Norma Rae, directed a little film about a friendship between a black and white dock worker (played memorably by Sidney Poitier and John Cassavetes) called Edge of the City.  In 1962 Sidney Lumet directed the film version of Miller’s, A View from the Bridge, filming it partly in Red Hook (Brooklyn) and partly in Paris.

My point with this history of the postwar longshoreman on stage and screen is that Kushner cares about what happened in the 1950s, too.  Through his unrepentant communist longshoreman character Kushner suggests that the world that our fathers (and mothers) made in the postwar era is with us still.  The Cold War may be over, but the debate over what capitalism is, as both a social and economic system, and how damaging it can be is not.  Kushner’s longshoreman character is also a bit of history rewritten, since the union movement in the 1950s became mostly detached from the communist movement, as unions were pressured, internally and externally, to purge communists from their leadership ranks.  Kushner’s play invites us to ponder: What if McCarthyism had never happened?  What if the left had been able to grow in power and prestige alongside the US labor movement, which continued to be surprisingly militant far into the 1950s?

Kushner’s play not only provokes these questions, but in a bizarre real life drama that unfolded during the first week of May, Kushner himself became embroiled in a McCarthy-era-like scandal during which an important union came to his defense.  The board of the City University of New York (CUNY), at its monthly meeting on May 2nd, rejected a proposal to grant Kushner an honorary degree from John Jay College.  The decision was provoked by the outspoken complaints of a CUNY board member, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, who accused Kushner of being rabidly anti-Israel.  Kushner immediately responded with an angry letter, and dozens of faculty (and graduate students) who are members of CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress (PSC) snapped into action, organizing a facebook page and a letter writing campaign.  One week later, after a veritable tsunami of protests, emails, letters, blog posts, and editorials on Kushner’s behalf, the CUNY board met again to overturn its decision.  When the students of John Jay College graduate on May 29th, at Madison Square Garden, Kushner will be there to receive his honorary degree.

Here in the rustbelt, the Kushner affair might look a little bit like New York inside baseball.  Many of the key players are in and of the Big Apple (like former mayor Ed Koch, Yeshiva University professor Ellen Schrecker, CUNY board member Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, who grew up in the Bronx, and Kushner himself, who was born in Manhattan).  But, in fact, both the Kushner affair and Kushner’s play iHo are pungent reminders of the power and importance of unions when it comes to cultural production and academic freedom.

Kushner himself noted the connection between the union themes in iHo and the faculty union, the PSC, that came to his defense, in a recent interview on Democracy Now.

When I got to the Public Theater on opening night there was a group of people standing outside with picket signs, and as I was approaching I thought, oh, god no, it’s going to be one of those groups calling me an anti-Semite, some sort of horrible picket, and I got up there, and they were faculty members from various schools at CUNY, political science professors…about 8 or 9 of them, from the PSC, and they were there picketing against Wiesenfeld and what had happened with the Board of Trustees, and that was a lovely and heartening thing…and since the play was dealing with labor unions and pickets, there was a certain consonance there.

As we continue to see the reverberations from the midwest’s “union spring,” and as the attacks on public sector and other unions continue, I offer this reflection on the importance of unions to more than just bread, butter, and the bottom line.  When I consider the Kushner affair, and Kushner’s current play, I am all the more moved by the swift, powerful, and righteous actions taken by the CUNY Professional Staff Congress.  We must defend the rights of unions so that unions can, in turn, defend us when we find ourselves on the hook:  whether we are on the docks, in the classroom, or on the stage.

Kathy M. Newman

This entry was posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Kathy M. Newman, Working-class politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to On the Hook: Tony Kushner and the Labor Movement

  1. Skid Marquez says:

    Interesting choice of the name Marcantonio which was the name of a former New York socialist congressperson (Vito) who forged a multi-ethnic (Puerto Rican, Jewish, Cuban-American, and Italian) working-class base for a pretty radical agenda.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s