Category: Prior Walter

“Weird Name. Prior Walter. Like, ‘the Walter before this one.’”

Posted June 5, 2012 - 10:46am

-Emily, Millennium Approaches, Act 2

When he was writing his “Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” Tony Kushner felt it important to have a character “who can claim antecedents stretching back a millennium.” Placing this in contrast to his Jewish, African-American, and Mormon characters emphasizes, as Kushner told the New York Times, that “a certain sense of rootlessness is part of the American character.” It also gave him a way to remind his audience that “Plagues and epidemics are nothing new,” by bringing in two prior Priors in Act 3, both victims of horrible plagues that struck England in the 14th and 17th centuries. But why did he give the character such a “weird name,” as Emily notes?

Well, there actually was a “Walter before this one.” In an interview with American Theatre magazine, Kushner says he’d “been looking for one of those WASP names that nobody gets called anymore,” but that the name really came out of a conversation with his friend Kimberly Flynn (to whom Kushner dedicated Perestroika). They often discussed the German-Jewish Marxist writer Walter Benjamin, whose writings Flynn had introduced him to. Flynn “said jokingly that at times she felt such an extraordinary kinship with him that she thought she was Walter Benjamin reincarnated. And so at one point . . . I said, ‘I had to look up something in Benjamin – not you, but the prior Walter.’”

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