Self-improvement and its Effect on Ambivalent Love in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America

The American political climate of the 1980’s is wrought with capitalistic fervor, the end game being victory over the constant battle for self-improvement. This victory can manifest itself in myriad forms; in ever-symbolic heaps of steaming cash, yes, but also in an aura of power or in happiness, a pervasive comfort and contentment, the absence of fear’s tyranny. Tony Kushner’s esteemed play, Angel’s in America, weaves a tangle of characters all vying for their own homespun brand of self-improvement. Centre stage is Louis, brimming with ambivalent love, willing to sacrifice all to ascend the ladder of self-actualization; settling for a dimmer spotlight is Joe, the prototypical gay Mormon, slashing away at his old values for any chance at the blissful fallacy of self-acceptance; clawing at stardom is the smooth-talking tycoon Roy Cohn, brilliant in his own historical validity, calmly espousing murder and hate in the name of self-advancement, a spitting image of the age-old narcissistic politician. From paramour to pious to political pundit, the archetypal characters unite under the influence of self-renovation, bludgeoning the remnants of decades glorifying the omnipresent nuclear family and selfless relationships, each drunk off a new era of frothing egotism. The notion that “real love isn’t ambivalent” (Kushner 100) is toyed with throughout the text, and as unwavering love leaves little room for the vastness of self-interest, passage ten is permeated with the sweet stink of ambivalence. This passage implies various love-based relationships built on shaky foundations: Louis’ ambivalent love for Prior, contingent upon health; Joe’s ambivalent love for his faith, contingent upon carnal pleasure; even Reagan’s ambivalent love for his children, contingent upon their utility to his role as president. Through exploring the selfishness of pseudo-devotion in this passage, Kushner’s text is arguing that responsibility for others has been washed away from contemporary life in favor of unabashed self-promotion, leaving in its wake fractured relationships and ambivalent love.

Louis, shouldering the role of lover inAngels in America, harbors a relentless “positivist sense of constant historical progress towards happiness”, a seemingly innocuous trait that breeds his inability to “incorporate sickness into his sense of how things are supposed to go” (25). This passionate aversion to the unpleasant – really not such a unique affliction, yet Louis cowers behind this flimsy excuse as if it were a veritable psychological ailment – spurs Louis’ exodus from Prior, his dying boyfriend who desperately needs him. In this compassionless flight, Louis is abandoning his responsibility to his partner in favor of his own comfort, forsaking that which he loves most for a frantic attempt at a happier life, devoid of illness’ insidious whims. In the passage, Louis critiques this casting off of responsibility, first by expressing his worry about Reagan’s children, living purportedly loveless lives, and later by recognizing that “we all know what that’s like”, alluding to the absence of connection and responsibility in modern life (74). He admits to his own ambivalent love and how its tentativeness has destroyed him; Louis is “falling through the cracks that separate what we owe to ourselves and…what we owe to love” (74). In his frenzied endeavor toward self-improvement, Louis has perpetuated the paradigm of neglected responsibility, thereby ravaging his relationship with Prior and sullying their love.

Joe – dancing between the role of faithful husband, dogmatic and devout, and that of closet homosexual, itching to escape the shackles of a sexless marriage – flaunts his overbearing religiosity throughout this passage in an attempt to salvage its illusion. He is affronted by Louis’ evocative claims of Ron Reagan, Jr.’s homosexuality, as well as his diatribe on Reagan’s children’s ostensibly sour home life. He pontificates on Louis’ penchant to indulge the media’s riotous claims as well as conjure up his own; “you shouldn’t just make these assumptions about people” he quips about the homosexuality allegation, and later chastises Louis’ unconditional faith in the liberal media, ironically blind to his own brand of unconditional faith (73). When Louis’ vernacular waxes derogatory – “well darling he never sucked my cock” – Joe’s sputtering indignation heightens as he pleads with his colleague to censor his speech: “look, if you’re going to get vulgar-” he manages before Louis cuts off his half-hearted spiritual detritus (74). All Joe’s objections are founded in religious doctrine; his implicit condemnation of homosexuality, his dogged defense of the conservative beacon Ronald Reagan, and his knee-jerk reaction to expletives; and yet his grievances feel half-baked. Gradually throughout Millennium Approaches, Joe forsakes the traditional Mormon values to which he has devoted his life, running from the lifestyle and religion to which he is wed and toward a grander life in Washington, where he is free to pursue happiness away from his Valium-addicted wife and to express whatever sexuality he desires. Yet in forsaking his responsibility to his mentally ill wife, to his faith, and to his conservative lifestyle, Joe’s love proves ambivalent, and the decay of his relationship with God leaks out throughout the text. His beaming faith seeps through each line of dialogue with Louis yet his conviction is weak; Joe’s craven ambivalence in favor of self-improvement is yet another example of contemporary thoughtlessness.

Reagan, boasting the illustrious role of current American President, effervesces with power and influence, the incarnation of the virile American ideal. The hyperbole of self-promotion, Reagan has in a sense won the game of capitalism – he can socially climb no further, gain no more power, he is victory personified. Louis gives him the sardonic epithet “American Animus” and refers to him as “the Zeitgeist”, titles which denote Reagan’s position not only as a leader but as the very spirit of America, a man who transcends normalcy and defines an era (74). In order to maintain his pristine image of a quasi-god, Reagan must sacrifice a great deal, including his family life; rather than condemn this shedding of familial responsibility, contemporary American society praises it, conceding that self-improvement takes precedence over upkeep of relationships. This narcissistic perspective begets ill-formed, ambivalent relationships, however, as “it’s not really a family, the Reagans…there aren’t any connections there, no love, they don’t ever speak to each other except through their agents” (74). Reagan’s faltering devotion to his family and readiness to ignore his responsibility for his children in order to funnel his time and resources into preening his political prowess infuses his relationships with toxicity, the by-product of propagating the notion that self-promotion trumps all.

Contemporary American thought encourages the pursuit of self-ascension, discarding the notion that one has a responsibility for anyone but the self; this attitude spawns fragile relationships and an oxymoronic ambivalent devotion. Louis flees his alleged love, Prior, in search of an easier breed of happiness, Joe forsakes his religion for a stab in the dark at self-acceptance and heterogeneous thought, and Reagan ignores his children, choosing instead to channel his efforts into cultivating his prestigious position. Through various means of self-promotion, all three ignore their responsibility toward what they claim to love – though arguably this ambivalent love demonstrated is not real love at all – thus shattering essential relationships. Contemporary American doctrine, however, encourages this practise, espousing the credo that one retains responsibility for the self alone; in a political climate where capitalism asserts itself on a biblical scale, self-improvement is the noblest cause.

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