Tony Kushner's Centennial Medal Speech

January 25, 2018
Tony Kushner delivers the Centennial Medal Speech during the American Academy in Rome’s 2017 Fall Gala
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Tony Kushner’s Centennial Medal Speech
American Academy in Rome
2017 Fall Gala
The Pool, Seagram Building, New York
Wednesday, 8 November 2017

I’m surprised by this evening because my connection with the American Academy in Rome is really rather tenuous. I believe at some point in the 1990s, John Guare suggested that I think about doing a residency at the Academy. When John tells me I should read a book, I read it; when John tells me I shouldn’t bother reading a book, sometimes I still bother reading it but so enormous is the esteem in which I hold the Great Guare and his monumentally important body of work that the book he’s said I shouldn’t bother with is usually spoiled for me. In nearly all things I try to do what John says I should do, because what serious playwright would disregard his advice? But even though John made the Academy sound like a paradise for artists, and even though I recall Adele Chatfield-Taylor joining him in admonishing me to come to Rome, and friends of mine found my reluctance to go puzzling, even perverse, I’m an awkward, antisocial person and a pathologically reluctant, dilatory writer. John, Adele and of course Rome itself stirred in me fantasies of mornings of unstoppable inspiration and industry, fueled by espresso served by a handsome waiter in a nearby coffee bar, long revitalizing walks in the Trastevere and even longer, delicious, soul-stirring dinners with other writers, and sculptors, composers, scholars, talking the stately midnight through until we stand at our great window, looking at the dawn; but these fantasies had to contend against nightmares in which after miserable mornings, unhinged by too many cups of espresso served by an increasingly contemptuous handsome waiter, paralyzed by the sounds leaking in through the floor, ceiling and walls of other writers, and artists, composers and scholars hard at work, their pens scratching, keyboards clicking or tinkling, brushes and chisels daubing and hammering, and pages of books being rapidly turned having been rapidly, painstakingly read and notated, after long pointless afternoon flight through the streets of the Trastevere pursued by the furies, I’d sit alone in some lovely dining room while at another table, the Academy’s other residents talked the stately midnight through, and some of their talk included whispering about me that all I’d managed to do since arriving was compulsively shop for notebooks and pens in Roman stationery stores. The nightmares seemed the likelier scenario, given the givens, so I stayed in New York and avoided writing by fantasizing about how much I’d be doing if I’d done a residency at the American Academy in Rome.

My only other connection to the Academy at least involved setting foot on the actual premises, in Rome, nearly twenty years ago, when Maurice Sendak and I went to Italy for the purpose of driving around to see Piero della Francescas in Urbino, Sansepolcro, Arezzo and Monterchi. Maurice never learned how to drive a car, so I drove him to all these places from our headquarters near Cortona. I’m a terrible driver, and Maurice, along with his ferocious vitality, always had a serious death wish, so we made perfect traveling companions, especially since my poor sense of direction was outmatched by Maurice’s rarely having any notion, once he’d left his house, of where he was or how he’d gotten there. At one point, deciding that we were heading away from Monterchi rather than toward it, I tried to turn the car around and I got both the front and back wheels unbudgeably stuck in Appian-way-era stone rain gutters astride a one lane road high up on a hill. And it was raining. It turned out that this road was the main traffic artery between wherever we’d come from and wherever we were heading, and soon a dozen lorries and their drivers were marching around the car, shouting and gesticulating. Suddenly a very, very old man in a white lab coat arrived on a motorcycle; the lorry drivers stepped aside; he placed two large rocks in the gutters, wedged a piece of wood he carried in a pocket of his lab coat under a back wheel, got into the driver’s seat, next to Maurice, who during the whole farrago had ignored the lorry drivers and refused to get out of the car; the old man in the lab coat put the car in reverse, floored the gas and the car popped out of the gutters. I was afraid it might fall straight down the hillside, taking Maurice with it before we’d managed to see every Piero della Francesca in Italy, but it didn’t.

Maurice and I started our trip in Rome, where we visited David and Susan Kertzer who were in residence at the Academy. Oskar Eustis, our mutual friend, introduced David and me after I’d read and adored The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. I gave the book to Maurice, who also loved it, so we visited the Kertzers at the Academy, and I believe had lunch there? I’m not sure about that, and I’m afraid I remember very little of the Academy except strong pangs of regret elicited by a general impression that the place appeared to be, as John Guare had told me it was, kind of paradisaical. The Academy visit was eclipsed by our visit, with the Kertzers, to the Protestant Cemetery, because Maurice wanted to visit John Keats’s grave. Keats was Maurice’s favorite poet, and when he put his hand on Keats’s headstone, he burst into tears.

Five years ago, several months after Maurice died, I went back to Rome to do research for a screenplay I was writing for Steven Spielberg for a film we’re making of The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. I also brought a small Bakelite Mickey Mouse box containing some of Maurice’s ashes to the Protestant Cemetery; I poured the ashes into the ivy at the foot of Keats’s grave.

The first time I went to Rome, I hated it—for about twenty-four hours. In Fiumicino, right after I landed, I learned that back in New York, my favorite aunt had been diagnosed with cancer, so I was in a dreadful mood, and I spent my first day in Rome on the phone to doctors, relatives and airlines, arranging to return home. I walked out of the hotel in the afternoon and found the city noisy, abrasive, architecturally and historically incomprehensible and overwhelming. I went back to my hotel room to resume fighting with airline representatives with renewed determination to get out of this obviously overrated backwater of a city.

I woke up just after dawn the next morning and went for a walk before heading back to the airport. I was crossing the Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore when the rising sun crested the buildings opposite and the basilica began to glow a miraculous, delicate autumnal gold—it was like an ecstatic vision, I was a medieval-studies major in college for a moment I panicked, imagining explaining to my poor aunt Martha that I’d had a Pauline conversion—first cancer and now this! But it was just a Roman morning. I spent the next hour walking around, still overwhelmed but now in a good way, surrendering to the incomprehensible and discovering, in the process, furtive moments of comprehension. I discovered, in Rome’s insane juxtaposition and superimposition and pentimento improvisations, revisions and inconclusive erasures of history, a magnificent, living, external mirror of my own deeply convoluted, involuted, fluid and ossified, paralyzed, paraleptical and endlessly distractibly digressive relationship to time. Rome in that morning became my second favorite city on earth, and I cherish and feed the fantasy, and perhaps, who knows, one day it’ll become a reality, of a residency there. I should probably hurry and get over there while there’s still a Pope in the Vatican who doesn’t inflame my atavistic anticlericalism.

Whether or not that happens, and whether or not, if it happens, it’s at the Academy, I’m grateful to the Academy for the place it occupies, in my imaginary landscape and much more importantly, in reality, a home away from home for American artists and scholars, in which the difficult work of attempting through creation and investigation, to apprehend and/or comprehend this overwhelming, often incomprehensible country of ours, is supported within the all-important context of clarifying distance, of the self broadened by being a self abroad.

The film of Lincoln is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals—and by the way, maybe by way of illustrating the broadening of vision by looking abroad, I thought nothing could possibly be more complicated than the American Civil War until the screenplay for Edgardo Mortara compelled me to read about the Risorgimento. Doris refers to one of Abraham Lincoln’s last letters as being perhaps the first mention by an American president of the possibility of government subsidization of the arts; he asks one of his secretaries to look into the possibility of America’s foreign embassies offering minor positions without too many responsibilities to young men interested becoming artists; Lincoln felt the undemanding jobs would give them time to develop as artists, development that, he clearly felt, would benefit from happening Elsewhere, where one is not only a resident but where one must, compelled by strangeness, by otherness, reawaken one’s capacities to be a student. Lincoln casually envisioned this largesse as an aspect of the role government would play in an America reborn in and reconsecrated to equality and freedom. At home as he was with the conditional, ineffable nature of the democratic experiment, and with the inexorability and inescapability of tragedy, he probably wouldn’t have been surprised at the recrudescence of barbarism that today poses such a dire threat not only to our democracy and to our union, but to all nations, to the globe itself—and I think he’d want me to pause here before concluding and give a shout out to yesterday’s victorious antibarbaric warriors of Virginia, New Jersey, Maine and all across America.

Having done that, I’ll conclude by thanking the American Academy in Rome for its long and extraordinarily distinguished support of American arts and scholarship, mighty bulwarks against the barbarians—and Rome, of course, can tell us a lot about necessity and the consequences of failing to bulwark against the barbarians. Thank you, Academy, and thank you supporters of the Academy, for the work you’ve done and continue to do.

And thank you for this lovely honor, for changing our tenuous connection into something of great constancy, but howsoever strange and admirable.