Angels in America
Central Park: A Setting Central to Angels in America
Seven-hundred and fifty acres of preserved greenery in the heart of New York City, Central Park has long been a refuge for those wishing to escape their hectic Manhattan lives and is arguably one of the most famous parks in the world, enjoyed by millions every year. In his two-part epic about the 1980s HIV-AIDS epidemic sweeping numerous gay communities across the United States and its effects, Angels in America, playwright Tony Kushner anchors much of the thematic elements of the story within the park and, in doing so, uses Central Park as a stark reminder of how close to home the AIDS epidemic was to citizens. Characters spend various scenes strolling through famous and recognizable landmarks within Central Park, including an area known as the Ramble, and the Bethesda Fountain. Thus, Central Park in the play Angels in America represents not just a place where characters can cope with difficult news, and take a momentary leave from their busy lives, but as a place of forming character relationships and, much like the biblical Bethesda Fountain, of healing and rejuvenation.
Perhaps the most plot-advancing role Central Park plays in the story is how it acts as an area where inter-character connections are made. At the heart of the story about how the HIV-AIDS epidemic affects several seemingly-distant people greatly, an intricate nexus of character relationships, some already formed before the commencement of the narrative and some formed during the story, demonstrates the far-reaching implications of the public health crisis. Central Park serves as an area where these seemingly distant characters interact and where much of their relationship-forming takes place. Central Park is first introduced to us in Act Two, Scene 4 when Louis, visits “the Ramble in Central Park” (55). Probably to relieve the significant stress of Prior’s infection and constant sickness, Louis visits the Ramble, implied as a place where gay men find sexual encounters, and meets a character known only as the Man in the Ramble. Louis and this mysterious Ramble-man engage in protected intercourse right in this wooded portion of Central Park. The concealed identity of Louis’ partner, when taken with the context of their location within the park, represents a degree of anonymity that can be associated with the time period. Furthermore, the fact that HIV-AIDS is a sexually transmitted disease brings about the implication that the HIV virus has probably been transmitted within the park. Evidence of this can be seen when Louis, during intercourse with the Man, asks, after the condom potentially breaks, for the man to infect him. Secondly, the reputation of the Ramble being a location where gay men look for sexual encounters is further corroborated when it is learned that Joe, another gay character, has frequented the Ramble himself.
The use of Central Park as a locus where gay men can search for sexual partners serves as the first textual anchor to Central Park and sets the tone for future character connections that take place within the park. Although brief, this relationship, something facilitated by the existence of Central Park, serves to greatly reveal Louis’ character and his mechanisms for coping with his lover’s illness.The second relationship formed in the park was between Louis and Joe after Joe follows Louis to the Park. In this scene Louis, sitting “on a bench in Central park” (121), is approached by Joe, and Louis asks “do you know the story of Lazarus?” (121, Louis) and whether or not Joe believes in the biblical story wherein Jesus breathed life into Lazarus and “brought him back from the dead” (121, Joe). Throughout this meeting, the beliefs of the über-religious Joe are challenged as he extends beyond his comfort zone to a fledgling relationship with Louis. For instance, Joe asks Louis “can I please just touch you … um, here” (123, Joe) and, after touching Louis’ face, states “I’m going to Hell for doing this” (123, Joe). Next, Louis reveals his weariness of “the Republican stuff” (123, Louis) in Joe’s beliefs, representing his insecurity with a group of people vocally denouncing his sexual orientation, yet also revealing deep conflicting emotions with Joe and ultimately strengthening their relationship. Following this, Louis invites Joe “home with [him]” (123, Louis), further deepening their relationship. Here, Central Park helps form the relationship between Louis and Joe as well as push both beyond their respective comfort zones: Joe’s religious aversion to gay relationships and Louis’ weariness of Republicans.
Unbeknownst to Louis and Joe who are engrossed in their dialogue, Prior, alone in his apartment, is being tormented by the Angel of America because “the Great work begins” (125, Angel). Thus, in this scene, Central Park also represents a place where Louis is sheltered from the reality of Prior’s suffering and the distress of his tormentation by the Angel. Another important character encounter that takes place in Central Park is a rekindling of relations between Louis and Prior much later in the story. After realizing he wants to see Prior, Louis decides to meet a recalcitrant and hostile Prior in the neutral zone of a Central Park bench, thrusting Central Park into the role of mediator between the warring parties of Prior and Louis. Throughout their meeting “trying to arrive at a resolution” (217, Louis), Louis maintains that he is afflicted inside because he was never given a chance to “find [his] footing” (218, Louis). However, Prior insists that he doesn’t “see any bruises” (217, Prior) and that “[he] wants to see blood” (220, Prior). His desire to see visual examples of Louis’ suffering is revealed “because [he] can’t believe [Louis] even [has] blood until [Louis] shows it to [him]” (220, Prior). In this scene, Central Park becomes a neutral zone where Prior and Louis can rekindle the relationship they used to have.
The next day, a similar scene takes place between Louis and Belize at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. Seeing Louis “sitting on the fountain’s rim” (227), Belize comes in and commences their conversation with a comment regarding the Bethesda Angel on the fountain Louis is sitting on. Asking what the Angel commemorates, Belize reminds Louis of Prior and his affection for obscure history and sets an emotional tone for the rest of the conversation. Belize continues by revealing that “Prior and me, we went to the courthouse. Scooped [Joe] out” (227, Belize). Believing that their sleuthing is all in an attempt to extract pain out of him, Louis states “you had no right to do that” (227, Louis) and they have “extracted every last drop of, of schadenfreude” (228, Louis). Belize reveals his motive for confronting Louis by stating that Louis dating Joe “is a record low: sharing your dank and dirty bed with Roy Cohn’s buttboy” (228, Belize). Belize’s warning, phrased as Belize being disappointed at Louis, is met with incredulity from Louis; he states “Not…Roy Cohn. Joe wouldn’t – Not Roy Cohn. He’s like the polestar of human evil, he’s like the worst human being who ever lived, the, the damage he’s done, the years and years of, of…criminality” (229, Louis). His attitude changes midway through his reassurance rant when “he stops himself” (229) and Belize states that Louis doesn’t “even know Thing One about [Joe]” and that Louis was incorrect in his assumption that Prior left Belize for him. Belize summarizes the tension within Louis by stating that “big ideas are all that [Louis] loves” (230, Belize) because Louis overlooked his new beau’s other alignments and the fact that racially-motivated prejudice exists daily in the United States. In this scene, Central Park and the Bethesda Fountain serve as the metaphorical fuse of the informational bomb of Joe being “Roy Cohn’s buttboy” (228, Belize) as the fountain’s angel gave Belize an adequate conversation starter. Secondly, the city of Bethesda Maryland was where the real Roy Cohn died – further deepening the level of allusions Kushner uses in the work. Lastly, the approaching storm represents a significant foreshadowing of events to come – especially the brawl between Louis and Joe, where Louis confronts Joe about his dealings with Roy Cohn and receives the visual elements of suffering that Prior wishes to see in him.
Closing out the play, Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain hosts the play’s epilogue where Prior, Belize, Louis, and Hannah converse on the rim of the Bethesda Fountain, much like Louis and Belize did in their earlier scene, overlooked by the Bethesda Angel on a sunny day just following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Prior states, referring to Central Park, that “this is my favorite place in NYC. No, in the whole universe. The parts of it I have seen. ” (288, Prior). From someone who has seen heaven, typically considered to be paradise, the admission that Central Park is more special to Prior reveals a great deal about his character and his decision to remain among the living in the mortal world, rather than in the heavenly world as the Angel of America had previously offered. Next, Prior mentions that the Bethesda Angel is his “favorite angel” because she is stationary and because of her many contradictions: “they commemorate death but they suggest a world without dying” and “they are made of the heaviest things on earth, stone and iron, they weigh tons but they’re winged, they are engines and instruments of flight” (289, Prior). Prior’s statement about this preferred angel’s stationary position most probably refers to his terrifying account of his experience with the Angel of America. After Prior describes why he likes the fountain’s angel, Louis recalls the story of the original Bethesda Angel, who “landed in the Temple Square in Jerusalem, in the days of the Second Temple, right in the middle of a working day she descended and just her foot touched earth. And where it did, a fountain shot up from the ground” (289, Louis). Belize then adds that “if anyone who was suffering, in the body or the spirit, walked through the waters of the fountain of Bethesda, they would be healed, washed clean of pain” (289, Belize). This allusion to the healing power of the biblical fountain can be cross-applied to Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain where significant healing of relationships, Louis and Prior’s relationship for example, took place.
Ultimately, Central Park, a zone of pastoral stasis within the heart of New York City, represents, in the play Angels in America, a place where characters can escape significant stress in their lives – evidenced by Louis in the Ramble, a place where relationships are formed – evidenced by Louis and Joe, a place where identities are pondered – evidenced by Belize’s confrontation of Louis, and as a place where religious ideas are thoroughly contrasted with earthly actions – evidenced by the political banter in the epilogue.
The Unstoppable Forces of Change in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America
There are many factors that work together in motivating human beings to take action or to remain stagnant. Tony Kushner, a gay, Jewish playwright, often displays the underlying effects of homosexuality and religion on a character’s actions. Kushner’s two-part, seven-hour play Angels in America features a heavy emphasis on belief systems and ethics that motivate change. His characters experience major life alterations that are prompted by both the sociopolitical environment of the Reagan era and their own personal sets of values. Tony Kushner combines politics and oppositional belief systems, as well as inevitable change, in Angels in America that force characters to evolve within the context of queer New York in the 1980s.
In Angels in America, certain characters portray politics as the driving force of everything in America. Louis Ironson, the Jewish ex-lover of Prior Walter, whose case of AIDS slowly renders him more and more ill, is one of these believers. In one of Louis’ argumentative dialogues with his friend Belize, he explains his view: “There’s only the political, and the decoys and the ploys to maneuver around the inescapable battle of politics” (Kushner, Millennium 96). Kushner spends the majority of the play proving this statement wrong in saying that Americanism is comprised of so much more than just politics; it is an identity, and its people and history must be included in it. The play occurs within the context of the 1980s, when two movements defined societal change: the AIDS epidemic and increasing openness of homosexuality. In the eighties, the Reagan administration reigned over the American people. Ronald Reagan, the President from 1981 to 1989, was incredibly conservative, religious, and virulently anti-gay. Reagan responded to the question of gays having equal rights and being properly represented by stating that it was an “alternative lifestyle that I do not believe society can condone, nor can I” (qtd. in Carpenter). The Reagan administration is well-known for having completely ignored the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s. It was five years into his presidency before Reagan even said the word “AIDS” in public. It was almost seven years before he made a speech about the illness, which, by that point, had killed over 650,000 Americans (La Ganga). In 1982, Press Secretary Larry Speakes held a press conference in which a reporter asked about AIDS for the first time. Government officials responded with laughter and joking responses such as, “I don’t have it…do you?” (qtd. in Lawson). The Reagan administration’s beliefs caused a lack of motivation to act.
Certain characters in Angels in America are imbued with this same sense of complacency. Roy Cohn is a character in the play, but he was also a real person in the eighties who also worked in the Reagan administration. Despite being extremely homophobic and consciously working under a homophobic administration, Cohn was a closeted homosexual and eventually died of AIDS, as he does in the play. Cohn agrees with the belief that one motivational force has influenced everything, in some way or form: politics. While explaining his plans for Joe, a Mormon and closeted gay man, to move to Washington and work under Reagan, Cohn says, “This stinks, this is politics, Joe, the game of being alive” (Kushner, Millennium 71). Cohn believes that every aspect of Americanism can be traced back to political influence; he even equates politics to life itself. Louis later unconsciously agrees with Cohn by stating, “There’s only the political, and the decoys and the ploys to maneuver around the inescapable battle of politics” (Kushner, Millennium 96). Though political liberalism is a value explored by Kushner, it does not prove to call the characters to arms. For instance, Louis knows and understands that the Reagan administration is unjust, and that the modern world of politics persecutes queer men such as himself. Yet, he and Joe both work in a courthouse where Cohn is their boss, and take no action against him. This “complacent political attitude” perpetuates lack of action within the audience, according to critics (Norden 92). Kushner demonstrates how politics can motivate action, yet can also cause a lack thereof. All the same, politics clearly play a large part in the events that unfold within the characters’ respective lives, thus representing their importance in modern-day, real life change.
The characters’ insistence on the importance of politics even surpasses that of religion; Louis is one such character. He demonstrates his opinion by saying: “There are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past” (Kushner, Millennium 96). Kushner attempts to invalidate this statement as well; he consistently demonstrates that there are angels in America, literally and figuratively, and that religion is an invisible force that drives much of the world’s action. To his story, faith is an equally powerful motivating force as politics. Two religions, Mormonism and Judaism, both strongly influence characters’ attitudes towards change; Joe and Harper are Mormon, and Prior and Louis are Jewish. Both religions provide a system of ethics for their believers. Even if the characters are not devout, they share these value systems and, knowingly or unknowingly, draw upon them in times of need. The play’s very first scene is at a Jewish funeral led by an ancient rabbi, Isador Chemelwit. Immediately there is a discussion of Jewish values. After discovering that Prior has AIDS, Louis asks the rabbi if it would be unjust to leave Prior, hypothetically. The rabbi responds by rejecting his Catholic-seeming confession: “Catholics believe in forgiveness. Jews believe in guilt” (Kushner, Millennium 25). There is also a recurring allusion to the biblical story of Jacob. At one point, Joe looks back on a childhood memory of reading this story: “Jacob wrestles with the angel…Jacob is young and very strong. The angel is…a beautiful man, with golden hair and wings, of course” (Kushner, Millennium 51-52). For Joe, this parable represents his years of battling with his homosexual identity. Growing up Mormon, Joe was consistently taught that homosexuality is a sin.
Because of his religion, Joe keeps this part of himself hidden from the outside world. Upon reflecting on his youth, Joe realizes that he read this parable so often because it was his own way of admiring masculine beauty in an accepted way. Thus, these pictures eventually sparked his cognizance of being homosexual. The allusion to Jacob foreshadows a later scene where Prior literally wrestles with the Angel. Prior must fight this huge, winged angel in his hospital room. At one point, the Angel actually calls Prior “Jonah” (Kushner, Perestroika 173). Jonah, according to the Bible, was a prophet who rejected his role and religious duties. Prior does the same once he is in counsel with the Angels; he refuses to use the text they gave him, and defiantly says, “I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do…I’ll take my illness with me and. And I’ll take my death with me, too. The earth’s my home, and I want to go home” (Kushner, Perestroika 278-279). Thus, Prior is fated by the title that the Angels give him to make the choice of living life as a weak and sick mortal rather than acting through Angels and God as a messenger. He turns his back on the offer of immortality and greatness, just as Jonah did. He may then be doomed to Jonah’s fate, of being punished until he repented to God, but he still chooses to take fate into his own hands. Unknowingly, Prior follows the path that his religion has set for him, the path that ironically inspires him to choose himself over religious duty.
Though religion is depicted as an important motivator in this play, change often occurs without a clear reason. Kushner’s belief that change occurs as a storm that cannot be fought off can be inferred from his works; this view was inspired by the writing of Walter Benjamin. His essay describes the angel in the painting Angelus Novus caught up in the wind of progress which “irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward” (McNulty 135-136). Kushner uses Benjamin’s description of Angelus Novus as inspiration for his Angel and reinterprets it in Angels in America; Kushner demonstrates that, even as people look constantly towards the past, they are thrown into the future simply because of the inevitability of time passing. The title of the third act of Millennium Approaches is “Not-Yet-Conscious, Forward Dawning.” This is a direct quotation from Ernst Bloch’s “The Principle of Hope.” Bloch says that humanity is gifted with “a Not-Yet-Conscious, one that has never been conscious and has never existed in the past, therefore itself a forward dawning, into the New” (qtd. in Chambers-Letson and Takano 267). Like Benjamin, Bloch held the view that change is an unstoppable force, and that the realization of this conscious is contingent upon change. Though much of the change experienced by Kushner’s characters seems to be instigated by politics or religion, some of their experiences are not prompted by any specific cause; they simply change, as all people do, over time. Kushner argues that, regardless of how unexpected or painful change can be, it keeps happening. At one point, he comments on this in an interaction between Harper and one of her delusions. The apparition explains that change can sometimes feel quite literally like being gutted and disemboweled. Yet it also says “it’s up to you to do the stitching. And then get up. And walk around” (Kushner, Perestroika 200). Although the pain that change inflicts often cannot be stopped, the storm of progress constantly pushes onwards, forcing people to move on.
Tony Kushner incorporates politics and religion as forces that drive change and action within Angels in America. Yet, he also explores the idea that change often just happens, without any clear motivator. Its occurrence is one of the few constants remaining in modern life. Though most of the characters’ actions are driven by such forces, many of them are also subtly motivated by self-interest. For instance, Louis abandons Prior because he refuses to face his fears of illness and death. He then leaves Joe because he knows that he must choose love for Prior over lust for his replacement. Harper leaves Joe because she must stop waiting for him to reciprocate her affection. Thus, Kushner presents another value; eventually, the only person’s feelings and wellness that matter are one’s own.
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Bible. New International Version, Bible Gateway. Bible Gateway, www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+32%3A22-31&version=NIV. Accessed 5 Feb. 2017. Butler, Isaac, and Dan Kois. “Angels in America: The Complete Oral History.” Slate, Slate Group, 28 June 2016, www.slate.com/articles/arts/cover_story/2016/06/oral_history_of_tony_kushner_s_play_angels_in_america.html. Accessed 10 Jan. 2017.Krebs, Albin. “Roy Cohn, Aide to McCarthy and Fiery Lawyer, Dies at 59.” New York Times, 3 Aug. 1986, Science sec. New York Times, partners.nytimes.com/library/national/science/aids/080386sci-aids.html. Accessed 1 Feb. 2017. Lawson, Richard. “The Reagan Administration’s Unearthed Response to the AIDS Crisis Is Chilling.” Vanity Fair, 1 Dec. 2015. Vanity Fair, www.vanityfair.com/news/2015/11/reagan-administration-response-to-aids-crisis. Accessed 10 Jan. 2017.Mahler, Jonathan, and Matt Flegenheimer. “What Donald Trump Learned from Joseph McCarthy’s Right-Hand Man.” New York Times, 20 June 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/06/21/us/politics/donald-trump-roy-cohn.html. Accessed 10 Jan. 2017.Reagan, Ronald. “Remarks at a Conference on Religious Liberty.” 16 Apr. 1985. The American Presidency Project, edited by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, American Presidency Project, www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=38486. Accessed 1 Feb. 2017. Speech.
The Past in 20th Century Drama
George Santayana’ s oft-quoted aphorism—“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”—has entered cultural ubiquity and become a cliché, paraphrased ad nauseam by politicians and philosophically-inclined college students. Still, the over-saturation of this sentiment does not make it any less true, and American playwrights working in the last quarter of the twentieth century seemed to know that. For example, the most representative artistic movement of the era—postmodernism—is characterized by an interest in representing and reinterpreting history on the stage. Unlike the Modernists of the first half of the century, postmodernists did not view their forbears as artists to transcend. Instead, they innovated by broadcasting their influences and interpolating them into new material. These playwrights knew that to adequately comprehend the present—the increasingly complicated contemporary world—they needed a deep understanding of the past. More importantly, they recognized the power of history and memory, acknowledging that nostalgia can quickly spiral into a corrosive delusion and warp one’s view of the present. These characteristics are best exemplified by David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, and Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog. While none of these plays can be definitively labeled as postmodern, their characters embody a postmodern understanding of the past, recalling events differently and tailoring history to their own needs in order to imagine better lives for themselves. In Topdog/Underdog, Lincoln’s analysis of history can apply to most of the characters in these plays: “People like they historical shit in a certain way. They like it to unfold the way they folded it up. Neatly like a book. Not raggedy and bloody and screaming” (Parks, 52). Ultimately, these plays suggest that while history is fungible, it cannot be outrun.
In Glengarry Glen Ross, Shelly Levene is caught up in a romantic vision of his past self, a salesman who could land big clients and big commissions. At the start of the play, however, he is older and washed-up, begging Williamson for the more promising leads. Characteristically, he references his past sales numbers, trying to pass them off as a barometer of his current capabilities: “April, September 1981. It’s me,” he says, “[…] Sixty-five, when we were there, with Glen Ross Farms? You call ‘em downtown. What was that? Luck? […] My stats for those years? Bullshit… over that period of time…? Bullshit. It wasn’t luck. It was skill” (Mamet, 17-18). Going further, Shelley operates under an anachronistic understanding of the world. At the beginning of the play, he is still holding on to the idea—however lightly—that his age gives him a hierarchal advantage and commands respect; he does not realize that his age has had the opposite effect, and has essentially made him obsolete. For example, he tries to invoke his age when bargaining with Williamson, saying, “I’m older than you. A man acquires a reputation. On the street. What does when he’s up, what he does otherwise…” (Mamet, 24). His reasoning is also outdated; Levene does not realize that Williamson does not care about antiquated notions of “reputation.” Although Levene is convinced that he is a competent salesman who has been stained by a streak of bad luck, there is nothing in the text to indicate that Williamson is wrong to deny him the leads. In fact, Levene’s nostalgia—his romanticization of past sales—is arguably grounded in more fiction than reality. In the beginning of the play, Levene asks Williamson, “Nineteen eighty, eighty-one… eight-two… six months of eighty-two… who’s there? Who’s up there?” (Mamet, 17). Williamson responds curtly and with confidence: “Roma, [followed by] Moss” (Mamet, 17). Levene’s conception of the past—the aspect of his character that gives him his self-confidence—compels him to steal the leads from the office. This, of course, causes his tragic downfall.
Angels in America: Millennium Approaches—first performed in 1991—is steeped in history: the play is set during the Reagan-era, partly as a means of understanding the significant effect that the 1980s had the on the gay community; Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg—two real-life historical figures—are characters in the play. Further, Kushner makes it clear that Angels in America rehashes the past as a means of understanding the present and the future. The hole in the ozone layer—one of the physical causes of Harper’s anxiety—is an objective correlative for the anxiety that the gay characters feel for immediate future: in 1985, when the play is set, Reagan had not even acknowledged the AIDs crisis, a disease of plague-like proportions that made homosexuals feel even more alienated from and rejected by the contemporaneous American society. Roy—a closeted homosexual, or at the very least, bisexual—articulates this feeling in a conversation with his doctor. He denies his sexuality because he thinks it would tarnish his legacy: “‘Gay,’ ‘homosexual,’ ‘lesbian;’ you think they tell you who a person sleeps with, but they don’t tell you that. Like all labels, they refer to one thing and one thing only: Where does a person so identified fit in the food chain? […] To someone who doesn’t understand this, homosexual is what I am because I sleep with men, but this is wrong. […] They are men who know nobody, and who nobody knows” (Kushner, 51). With this, he is trying hard to rewrite history. Later, Roy brags to Joe about how he finessed the legal system to ensure that Ethel Rosenberg was sentenced to death. He says to Joe, “Was it legal? Fuck legal!” (Kushner, 114). This immorality comes to haunt Roy in the form of Rosenberg’s ghost, reminding the audience the importance of the past, and that it is impossible to escape.
The importance of history is most obviously present in Topdog/Underdog, the two-person drama that centers around African-American brothers named Lincoln and Booth. Although Parks insists that the play is entirely bereft of symbolism, it is hard to overlook the significance of the two characters’ names. John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Abraham Lincoln is one of the most important events in American history. In the beginning of the play, Lincoln is looking toward the future, happy to be finished hustling three card monte. Eventually, he falls back into the game—back into his past—and history repeats itself, with Booth shooting Lincoln. Booth, meanwhile, is another character that tries to rewrite history. For example, in the first scene, he tells Lincoln, “My new names 3-Card. 3-Card, got it? […] Call me 3-Card from here on out” (Parks, 19). They also interpret the past differently, viewing their parents’ abandonment on distinct, opposing terms. When Lincoln says, “I dont think they liked us,” Booth immediately responds, “Naw. That aint it” (Parks, 67). They interpret the past differently because they need to interpret it differently. They thrive on their individual interpretations: Booth stays positive by imagining that their parents loved them; Lincoln, on the other, stays grounded by knowing that they did not.
The past is essential: it both informs and directs our present; people are constantly grappling with the implications of the past. These three plays show the complicated relationship that most modern people have with both American history and their own personal histories. The past is inescapable, yet, in order for growth, it needs to be transcended.
The World Only Spins Forward: An Analysis of Irony, Character, and Ending in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes
Embedded deep within American culture is a multitude of internalized subjects that, for a time, seemed to be tearing individuals apart; examples of these topics are religion, sexuality, race, gender, economic class, and far more. Tony Kushner’s magnum opus, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, throws all of these matters onto a stage, analyzes them, humanizes them, and ultimately brings his characters into a unified coexistence despite the forces keeping them apart. This unified coexistence, Kushner argues, is progress, and the audience grows to understand Kushner’s hypothesis: that progress can be achieved by the fundamental act of forgiveness. The play is set in the 1980s, one of the most dividing ages in American history, and contains characters who are forced to overcome this age of internalized irony in order for the world to survive chaos. The endings of both parts of the play are crucial to this idea, as they shape the actions of the play’s events into Kushner’s aforementioned thesis of progress and growth. The analysis of character in the age of irony and the importance of the ending parallel each other through the play before amalgamating in the epilogue. The final scene exhibits for the audience four characters (Prior, Louis, Belize, and Hannah) who specifically triumph over previously restrictive ironies and brings the activity of the play into summation in order to convey Kushner’s true point: individuals must keep the world in it’s state of “painful progress” by forgiving themselves and each other.
In order to discuss the importance of the triumph over irony, it is necessary to divulge on the age the play is set in: the 1980’s, sometimes called the “Me Decade”. It is the age of consumerism, with the rise of the “yuppie” character and cultural emphasis on flaunting wealth and status, seemingly supported by the economic policies of Ronald Reagan. It is an economically ironic time, with the rich becoming very rich and the poor are still, if not more, poor. Thus, the country is in an economically polarized state of being, drawing the ire of many who recognize the inequality. Abroad, communism remains the perennial threat held over American capitalism, despite its apparent victory in parts of the American experience. Meanwhile, the discovery of AIDS in 1981 turns a national ambivalence toward homosexuality into a full-blown war between heterosexuals and homosexuals, thus dividing the country into an even more divided state of being. In summation, the 1980s was a decade that characterized itself by deepening rifts between all types of people. The characters of Angels in America are confronted with these issues head-on, and slowly discover that unity is the only way to survive what could potentially be the death of American society.
Prior Walter is one of the many characters forced to face the irony within him in order to survive the time he lives in. He describes himself as a WASP, a societal group usually connected to heterosexuality, and is so well bred that his family goes, “Back to he Norman Conquest…there’s a Prior Walter stitched into the Bayeux Tapestry” (Kushner I, 135). Despite this apparent social distinction, Prior unknowingly separates himself from it by living as a gay man, and even more so by living as a gay man with AIDS. This description of Prior is solidified in Millennium Approaches, where the ravages of his disease, his heartbreak when Louis leaves him, and eventually his call from the Angel shown him being acted upon. This serves only to isolate himself from the things that characterize him other than his disease and his sexuality, such as his breeding and economic status. Prior becomes a fighter throughout Perestroika in many ways, such as learning to curb the effects of his disease and making amends with Louis. By coming to terms with the realities of his life and making the best of them, Prior reconciles the themes that divided his inner self in Act I. The Angels have asked Prior to be their voice in the world and to tell the world to stop moving. In reclamation of his own self, Prior tells them after rejecting their request, “Bless me anyway. I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do” (Kushner II, 135). Prior has forgiven his inner ironies and resolved that to live with them is better than not living at all, and this is brought into universality in the epilogue.
Louis, a cappuccino intellectual with endless views on everything from his left wing politics to philosophy, is ironic in two aspects: his attraction to a closeted republican and his disconnected relationship with Judaism. While he and Joe attempt to be happy despite their differences, their differences prove to be their inner-foundations, thus barring them from a life of coexistence. The irony of their relationship is something that neither of them can work through; it’s seen when Louis confronts Joe with his homophobic ghost writings and Joe can only yell back “WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME! I LOVE YOU. I LOVE YOU” (Kushner II, 110). With Joe unable to face the contradictions he lives by, the relationship ultimately fails because it is fundamentally paradoxical to Kushner’s idea of progress and growth. Meanwhile, Louis’ disconnection from Judaism is symbolized by the death of his grandmother, about whom he says, “I pretended for years that she was already dead…I abandoned her” (Kushner I, 24). The quote is a metaphor of his abandonment of Judaism; a religion that Rabbi Chemelwitz says advocates “guilt” (Kushner I, 25). Louis finally understands this idea of guilt after abandoning Prior, but in the end of Perestroika he reconciles himself with Prior and finally with Judaism by reciting the Kaddish with Ethel Rosenberg over Roy Cohn’s body. In this scene, Louis symbolically takes responsibility for abandoning his lover (who was temporarily in the afterlife at the time) and his religion, displaying a major growth in moral character. Though Louis cannot fix what he has done, his inner development is a progressive journey that leads to his placement in the epilogue.
Hannah’s presence in the play is one characterized by rebirth, first by her initial call to purify her son and instead renewing herself. Hannah is shown to believe that her purpose is to help other people, regardless of whether they ask or not. Ironically, she is entirely unable to “straighten out” her son despite her intentions, and inadvertently becomes the protector of Prior. Even though her first words to him are, “We’re closed. Go away” (II, 98), Hannah finds herself helping him within a matter of sentences when he has a fever and she helps him to the hospital. Not only does the sequence reflect on Hannah’s naturally altruistic nature, it is completely ironic that she is helping a homosexual (a way of being she doesn’t condone or understand) and that it was purely by accident, never by intention. The acceptance of the irony of their relationship, rather than the rejection of it, is what causes Hannah’s rebirth, put into action during her lesbian encounter with the Angel, which is made possible by her companionship with Prior. Their relationship leaves Hannah a reawakened person, which is elaborated upon in the epilogue.
The character of Belize is remarkably different from the rest of the characters, even the other three who appear at the end. He is at odds with the world racially as a black man, sexually as a gay man, and gender-wise as a former drag queen. Despite these themes that isolate him, Belize has already resolved his inner ironies and instead acts to resolve the ironies within others. As a nurse at New York Hospital, he must care for Roy Cohn, despite their obvious hatred for each other and Roy’s unwillingness to admit his true self. He plays the confidant and adversary to Louis, even though the two disagree constantly and as Prior’s former lover, Belize should be on Prior’s side of the argument. Belize’s constant efforts to heal others are summed up in his request that Louis recite the Kaddish for Roy, saying, “He was a terrible person. He died a hard death. So maybe…A queen can forgive her vanquished foe. It isn’t easy, it doesn’t count if it’s easy, it’s the hardest thing. Forgiveness. Which is maybe where love and justice finally meet. Peace, at last. Isn’t that what the Kaddish asks for?” (II, 124). Belize’s role in the age of irony is not for him to reconcile himself; his character’s purpose is to help others mend the rifts that tear people apart, which he says is only achieved through forgiveness. Belize’s presence as a guiding light to the other characters is a crucial mechanism of Kushner’s to prepare the audience for the play’s conclusion, and thus the stating of its purpose.
Kushner gives the audience two scenes preceding the epilogue to signify the conclusion of the play. In the first scene, Prior descends from Heaven and wakes up with his fever broken, to which Nurse Emily exclaims, “Well look at this. It’s the dawn of man” (II, 139). The scene, and this quote specifically, let’s the audience know that all of the action in the play has drawn to a close and that man finally has the foundation to rebuild society. To conclude Harper’s storyline and show the inevitability of this progress, Harper is shown on a night flight to San Francisco, where she remarks that, “In this world, there is a kind of painful progress” (II, 144). To show a character like Harper, who has been terrified of movement throughout the play, embarking on a major journey forward in her life is symbolic of the unavoidable progression humanity must take on in order to rebuild their lives and their world. Because neither scene fully shows the ideal society that Kushner attempts to convey, an epilogue is necessary to wrap up his argument. However, both sequences are crucial to the plot as they conclude the action of the play and make way for the epilogue to reveal Kushner’s speculative world.
The epilogue is set at a pivotal time in world history, in January of 1990; as Louis describes, “The Berlin Wall has fallen. The Ceausescu’s are out. He’s building democratic socialism. The New Internationalism…Remember back four years ago? The whole time we were feeling everything everywhere was stuck, while in Russia! Look! Perestroika! …The whole world is changing!” (II, 145). Louis’ explanation addresses what Kushner believes to have been the overarching problem of the 1980s; that it was stagnant, that nothing was moving. Millennium Approaches addresses this issue, as the main characters were (mostly) succumbing to the perils of the age, and if they were to move in any direction, it would almost certainly be downhill. This is what the Angels want, the stop of progression in the world so that God can be found once more. But what Kushner has proven in Perestroika is that, as Prior puts it, “We’re not rocks- progress, migration, motion is…modernity” (II, 132). It isn’t possible to live in a world that doesn’t move, a world that encompassed the 1980s, in Kushner’s view. For the characters and for Kushner, that first month of 1990 marks the beginning of this modernity, this embracing of migration. For the audience, a scene that takes place in a new era signifies not only the end of the play, but also the beginning of a new world.
The end of the play is a pivotal moment in the piece; it is the moment where the audience is given the achievement striven for in the action. The achievement in Angels in America is the embodiment of Kushner’s “Gay Fantasia on National Themes”, the embodiment created by these four characters. This “fantasia” is what Kushner believes should be America’s future, a future where the gaps between sexualities, religions, genders, and races should be mended, and Kushner presents the audience with characters who represent all four of these things. They are able to meet at the fountain that day because for those characters, those boundaries that once pulled themselves and each other apart have been mended and transcended.
Prior, Louis, Hannah, and Belize have all survived the age of irony and they are reunited in the epilogue, set at Bethesda Fountain. Prior has remained alive because of his overarching desire to live, despite the limitations his disease has given it. Louis, in his abandonment of Prior, relationship with Joe, and reconciliation with religion, has grown into someone who lives by the morals he once could only talk about rather than live by. Hannah, despite the teachings of her religion against movement, has embraced progression so much that she is a completely different person, dressing as a New Yorker. Belize, whose inner conflicts were resolved long ago, nevertheless appears at Bethesda Fountain, still working as a moral guide for the characters. These specific characters come together at the end for the same purpose: to validate the actions of the past and to reveal what Kushner hopes will be America’s future.
An important element of the epilogue that is necessary to address is the nature of homosexuality within the characters that appear, their relevance to Kushner’s Fantasia, and their relevance to the audience. Prior and Belize are the most un-closeted characters, as they have been throughout the play. It is easy to assume that Louis is still living as an openly gay, yet partially closeted man. Hannah’s orientation is harder to tell, as she is presumably still a Mormon. However, her experiences with Prior as well as her lesbian encounter with the Angel suggest that her views have evolved from what her religion initially told her. Moreover, Hannah seems to be completely comfortable with this fact. What Kushner is suggesting with the homosexuality of the epilogue is that wide acceptance of gay rights is an inevitable thing that will come with time as well as progression. As Prior valiantly proclaims, “…we are not going away…We will be citizens. The time has come” (148). For Kushner, the time has come for the world to accept homosexuals and to achieve peaceful coexistence, because they “are not going away”. Because these lines are said to the audience, Kushner bridges the divide between the stage and the seats, and puts it upon the audience to believe in the progress that is gay civil rights.
In a final analysis the epilogue, the scene itself is not a break, but a shattering of the fourth wall. Kushner is invested so heavily on the concept of progression that he makes sure that the experience of the characters become the experience of the audience, and that when they leave the audience, the action of the play is in their past as well as the pasts of the characters. But what so deeply conveys his understanding of the concept is that he knows that a play about progression should never really end at all. Because of that, Prior blesses the audience with the message of “The world only spins forward…You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More life. The Great Work Begins.” (II, 148). Thus, the end of the play isn’t really the end, at least where the audience is concerned. Just like how Prior was asked by the Angel to give what was ultimately the wrong message to the world, Prior gives the audience the right message to the world: “More life”. And by ending with the same words as the Angel’s in Act I, the audience is thus commissioned to embrace the natural, “painful” progress of the world, including especially the acceptance of gay rights.
The victory over irony combines with the significance of the ending in the play’s epilogue, as the two ideas have paralleled each other through the play up until that final scene. The four characters are analyzed in depth because the audience needs to understand why their triumph over their ironies are crucial to the ending; it is each person’s journey to forgiveness of themselves and of each other that allows for the epilogue to happen. The epilogue itself is Kushner’s mechanism to end the play itself yet bestow its message upon the audience. Those characters have resolved their issues, and that resolution is put on direct display so that the audience can see what Kushner’s ideal society needs ultimately: forgiveness. That is what the audience is left with when they leave the theatre; in order for the world to move forward in the natural way it must, we must forgive each other and ourselves. Our “Great Work” begins when Angels in America ends.
A Nation of Angels: The Development of American Progressivism in Angels in America
A play of epic proportions, Tony Kushner’s magnum opus Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia On National Themes presents a portrait of America that is at first sight devastating, yet ultimately optimistic and profound in its analysis of humanity’s development amidst chaos. The play has two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, and each displays a very different approach to the reality of America in 1985; the former is a world of destruction whereas the latter is a nation of renewal. Throughout both parts, the four main characters struggle to overcome the irony within themselves and each other, the same irony that poses a threat to their spiritual survival. The first section ends with the characters at the height of these inner conflicts, with seemingly little hope for salvation. In Perestroika, the main four overcome these ironies with direct (sometimes unconscious) help from others, leading to an ending filled with optimism not only for the characters, but for the audience and the world as well. Kushner’s epic Angels in America utilizes two distinctly different parts that chronicle the four main characters’ struggles to forgive the ironies not only within themselves but with each other, and these developments lead up to two very different conclusions that eventually build thematic bridges between the stage and the audience, all in presentation of the “fantasia” Kushner envisions for America’s future.
The action of Part I reveals the ironies within the characters of Prior and Harper, whose conflicts come from how they view and treat themselves. We can assume that Prior, as a gay man, had the experience of needing a long time, perhaps years, to come to terms with his sexual identity. His diagnosis launches him backwards into a phase of self-loathing, exemplified after he looks at himself in the mirror during a dream and says, “I don’t think there’s any uninfected part of me…I feel dirty”(I, 34). AIDS, considered the fatally distinguishing mark of a gay man at the time, is setting an uncloseted character back into the position of feeling uncomfortable with his identity. Harper, challenged by the reality of her unhappy marriage, goes against her religion by fostering an addiction to the only thing that really makes her life bearable: Valium. Antarctica, her place of drug-induced refuge, is simply a reflection of the frigid nature of her reality. She, like Prior, is aware of how she comes off to her partner, comparing herself to a “mentally deranged sex-starved pill-popping housewife” (I, 37). It is the necessity of both characters to overcome these ironies and perceptions of themselves that characterize each person’s journey through the play, with their conflicts rising (but not resolving) just enough to lead to the explosive finale to Part I.
Millennium Approaches is also framed by the introductions of two relationships that are ultimately contaminated by one member of each. The most obvious of these betrayals is Louis’ abandonment of Prior after the latter has been diagnosed with AIDS. Louis’ rationale is that he, “has to” and that he can’t “incorporate sickness into his sense of how things are supposed to go” (I, 25). The obvious irony is that the audience, Prior, and Louis himself know that there is no justification for his actions, foreshadowing the immense guilt that will plague his journey. Meanwhile, Joe’s overt betrayal of his relationship with his wife comes from his irrepressible homosexuality. His journey will be trying to reconcile his two true selves: his devotion to religion and desire to be “Correct…in the eyes of God” (I, 40) and his homosexual desires, though both forces oppose each other. Each man is reflected by how he has treated his relationship, with Louis entirely plagued with guilt and Joe finally starting to embrace his sexuality, both in the name of abandonment.
When Millennium Approaches ends, none of the four characters have made any real progress towards positive solutions for each of their conflicts. Prior is still a victim to his disease and is still heartbroken by his abandonment. Harper’s storyline concludes with her in Antarctica, showing that she is still a prisoner to her own delusions. Louis is still plagued by his cowardice and gives into the temptation of an ultimately doomed relationship. Joe is the only character who has seemingly made progress, as he has given into the desires that he has felt all of his life, which would usually signal the development of his character. However, no real progress has actually been made, as he still chides himself for his actions, saying to Louis, “I’m a pretty terrible person, Louis” and “I don’t think I deserve to be loved” (I, 117). The irony of the ending is that all four of these characters, as Americans, should be thriving: it is the 1980s, the “Me Decade”, where all Americans should be succeeding. Instead, everything in the world that Kushner presents is falling apart, and America is destroying itself. Even though Part I ends with the formation of a new couple, it is palpable that there is something truly wrong with their union, as they are two extremely different people coming together despite ultimately destructive differences. There is no hope in the end of Millennium Approaches until the arrival of the character that will (though inadvertently) spark the “perestroika” of America: the Angel.
The entrance of the Angel is highly significant to the conclusion, as well as the overall meaning, of Angels in America. Prior can sense that something is coming, as “the bedside lamp flickers” and there’s “creaking and groaning from the bedroom ceiling” (I, 118). Just when the audience (and Prior) thinks it’s over, there is, “A sound, like a plummeting meteor…we hear a terrifying CRASH as something immense strikes the earth…the whole building shudders and a part of the bedroom ceiling, lots of plaster and lathe and wiring, crashes to the floor…[then] the Angel descends into the room and floats above the bed”(I, 118). The entrance of the Angel is chaotic and destructive, a metaphoric climax of the devastation of Millennium Approaches. However, the pandemonium of the ending ultimately alienates the audience even further from the play. The fate of the characters is ambiguous, and until the audience members see Perestroika, they won’t know what the “Great Work” the Angel speaks of is. The audience can only hope for a more positive second part of the play, yet this kind of unknowing hope is rather alienating in nature, as the future is uncertain. The strength of the conclusion of the first part is wholly diminished by the action and conclusion of the next part, Perestroika.
Leading up to the conclusion of the entire play is a new series of relationships that cause the four main characters be directly influenced by the four supporting characters: the Angel, Hannah, Roy, and Belize. Each supporting character’s interaction with one of the leads will instigate major changes in character for the sake of progress and, ultimately, for the sake of rebuilding America entirely. It is important to note the structural focus of Millennium Approaches; it is the disintegrating of two couples and the building of another (though unstable) union, all centering on those four characters’ relationships with each other. Perestroika does not follow this same format because Millennium Approaches has taught us that there is no hope to rebuild an otherwise failing society with that type of aching, isolating character-based structure. Therefore, it is the relationships the four main characters have with others that force them to make revelations about themselves and each other, ultimately leading up to Kushner’s progressive conclusion to Angels in America.
Prior’s relationship with the Angel and Harper’s relationship with Hannah help each of them make important realizations about themselves and spark a need for both of them to make changes in their lives and overcome the irony they live with. The new irony that the victimized Prior lives with is being condemned to death by his disease while also being “the chosen one” as a prophet for the Angels. His orgasmic encounter with the Angel gives him something he hasn’t felt since he got sick, saying he feels full of “Joy or something. Hope” (II, 24). The irony of the encounter is that while it sparks Prior’s newfound drive to fight for his life, he knows he cannot be the one to speak for the Angels’ naïve and impossible purpose because it goes against his newfound desire to live as a fighter, not as a victim. Prior realizes that all of humanity, and especially he, must fight in order to live because that is the very nature of the human need for progress. And as he explains in heaven, “We can’t just stop. We’re not rocks – progress, migration, motion is…modernity” (II, 132). Prior’s relationship with the Angel gave him the opportunity to live again as well as to learn, not from the Angel, but from his own self. Meanwhile, Joe’s mother Hannah has been hell-bent on helping her daughter-in-law through her abandonment, but similarly the assistance to the character is indirect. Hannah’s taking Harper to the Mormon Visitor’s Center allows Harper to re-examine what movement and progression means, as seen in her conversation with the diorama Mormon Mother (who herself is a symbol for Hannah). When Harper complains that she can’t move because her “heart’s an anchor”, the Mormon Mother says, “Leave it, then. Can’t carry no extra weight”(II, 71). Hannah exemplified this change by dropping everything and moving to New York, and even though she herself couldn’t directly convey her message to Harper, Harper’s story eventually concludes with her embracing progress and moving to San Francisco. These two interactions that Prior and Harper have help them realize the strength they have to fight back against their realities and desire for a better life because, as Kushner will argue, that is the new, progressive America.
Instead of analyzing progress, Joe’s and Louis’ relationships with the supporting characters revolve around the theme of forgiveness, presenting situations of the lack of it and the giving of it. Joe’s relationship with Roy is an example of what happens when forgiveness is absent or revoked. When Joe comes out of the closet to Roy and reveals he is living with another man, Roy says, “I want you home. With your wife. Whatever else you got going cut it dead…Listen to me. Do what I say. Or you will regret it. And don’t ever talk to me about it again”(II, 87). The encounter ultimately starts Joe’s return into the closet, himself rationalizing that he simply cannot be a homosexual in the principal-based nation he and Roy desire to live in. Because his mentor cannot forgive him, Joe cannot forgive himself, and that isolating mindset prevents him from being a part of the “gay fantasia” of progress Kushner envisions for the future. Louis is taught by Belize, who played a confidant of sorts to Louis throughout the play and is perhaps the most principled of all the characters, that forgiveness is how the world will rebuild from chaos and destruction. As Belize says to Louis over the corpse of Roy (who himself was a proponent of destruction), “[Forgiveness] isn’t easy, it doesn’t count if it’s easy, it’s the hardest thing. Forgiveness. Which is maybe where love and justice finally meet. Peace, at least.”(II, 124). Belize’s wisdom ultimately sums up Kushner’s parallel argument: progress can only be made when forgiveness has been made. Louis and Belize must forgive Roy in order to move on and rebuild from the world of hatred that Roy advocated, and Joe must forgive himself for abandoning Prior in order to progress as a human being. Louis is able to overcome his irony, while Joe is heartbreakingly smothered by it. Kushner has thus presented the audience with the two most important elements to the rebuilding the collapsing world: progress and forgiveness in the name of inner and national development.
The epilogue to Angels in America, and the conclusion to Perestroika, are both built up by the characters’ journeys to overcome the world of irony within themselves and each other. Each main character, with the exception of Joe, has accepted the natural order to the world, the “painful progress” Harper speaks of. The conclusion of Millennium Approaches was an embodiment of chaos, whereas the conclusion of Perestroika presents the embodiment of “perestroika”, or “rebuilding”, itself. Kushner gives the audience two of the main characters and two of the supporting characters: Prior, Louis, Hannah, and Belize. Harper can’t be in the finale because it would go against her rebuilding her life and embracing of progress, and Joe cannot be there because he can’t forgive himself and thus does not have a place in the new society. Roy can’t be there because of what he stood for when he was alive (as well as the fact that he is dead), and the character of the Angel cannot physically be there because she represents the motionlessness that can only stifle the new America that the four characters represent.
Once again, the audience is left with ambiguity regarding the fates of the characters. For example, no mention is made of how much longer Prior will live. But while the end of Part I alienated the audience, the end of Part II completely bridges the gap between the stage and the seats through a dramatic shattering of the fourth wall. All four characters directly address the audience from nearly the beginning of the scene, creating a direct and optimistic ending to a production that advocates individual and communal progressivism. By having the fourth wall broken, Kushner strives to universalize the experiences of the characters and allow those lessons the characters learn to become those of the audience as well. With the action now applicable to humanity itself, Kushner has proven the nature of progression and forgiveness, and that it is necessary for everybody in order to rebuild society. The audience leaves the theatre with the same blessing the Angel gave to Prior: “The Great Work Begins”. The blessing now comes from the lips of Prior, an ordinary man and not an otherworldly figure. The real angel, Kushner proves, is the everyday individual. The everyday angel is the person who embodies forgiveness and progress for the sake of creating a better society. To universalize his message, Prior says to the audience, “You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins” (II, 148), leveling the power of his words in order to strike them into the hearts of everyone present. Prior has asked the audience to become the embodiment of a progressive and forgiving future, as it will create a better society, a better America, and a better self for the individual.
The seven-hour long saga of Angels in America is a distinctly American yet radical narrative for a number of reasons. The primary reason, in my opinion, is that it presents Americans with other Americans, taking the sole focus from the development of the self and presenting those who struggle with the exact same human fears and ironies that the other individual faces as well. Kushner argues that it is the preoccupation and the feeding of the concerns of the self that stifle the growth of a progressive and positive nation. This preoccupation is what dragged people apart at a time when it was so desperate for people to come together; the time of the Cold War and the AIDS crisis. Millennium Approaches addresses the preoccupation, and Perestroika addresses the solution. The characters, like the citizens of America, have to overcome the world of incredible irony that they live in, and if they do, they can create a utopian “fantasia” of America’s new potential for growth. Angels in America is framed with two halves that each represent the past and the future, filling the action with characters the audience can identify with and presenting a way to achieve the rebuilt society that is presented in Perestroika. Thus, Tony Kushner leaves his newly educated audience with the hope that they can rebuild themselves, learn to be each other’s Angels in America, and ultimately reform America into a strong, progressive nation.
We Will Be Citizens: Religion and Homosexuality as National Themes in Angels in America
We Will Be Citizens:
Religion and Homosexuality as National Themes in Angels in America
Tony Kushner’s two-part play, Angels in America, claims to be “a gay fantasia on national themes” (Kushner). The intertwining stories center around the emergence of the AIDS virus in the late 1980’s, and manages to give faces and lives to some of the countless people who were victims of what is considered by many to be a plague. But while the AIDS virus is at the center of attention in Angels, Kushner also highlights the theme of religion in America in increasingly subversive ways. Through multi-faceted characters, and their complicated relationships, Kushner tells the story of Judaism and Mormonism individually as national themes in a way that impacts just as forcefully as the more centered gay narrative. Finally, he crosses paths, and the three themes – Mormonism, Judaism, and homosexuality – begin to tell the same narrative of painful otherness, journey, and redemption in the modern American landscape.
Angels has three leading characters that identify as Mormon. Joe is a Mormon man suppressing his sexuality, while his wife Harper deals with the trauma of anxiety and addiction. Finally, Joe’s mother Hannah picks up her life in Salt Lake City, Utah, and moves to New York City to take care of her son. But, strangely enough, the story of Mormonism as an American theme begins with Prior, the non-religious protagonist suffering from AIDS. Prior outwardly has nothing to do with Mormonism, and only seems to know enough about the faith to know that Mormons are stigmatized in mainstream American culture, gawking at his lover Joe and sputtering that he “can’t be a Mormon. You’re a lawyer! A serious lawyer” (Perestroika 67). It’s through two important qualities that Prior connects to Mormonism, the first being his self-identification as a “WASP” (Millenium 20), and the second being his position as a prophet.
Prior’s journey to becoming an unlikely messenger for God mirrors with remarkable similarity that of Joseph Smith Jr., the prophet who received the message from God in the early 1800’s that prompted the start of Mormonism. Joseph Smith Jr. was the descendant of British immigrants to the New World and was what we today would give the WASP title: White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Like Joseph Smith, Prior is a product of Yankee New England (Hutchinson-Jones 7). Both men are subject to the idea that the white community seems to lack a sense of culture, but the text rejects this idea. Instead, Kushner makes Prior a sort of blank slate, able to absorb the teachings from all of the religious people in his life, and from the Angel. With no basis for religious knowledge, Prior is able to roll with the punches when he takes on the role of prophet. If Prior’s story is also Smith’s, Angels can work as an inclusion of Mormonism as an integral part of American culture.
Perhaps a little more obvious is the Angel herself. Those with a fair knowledge of Mormonism can easily recognize that, despite the tidbits of Jewish Old Testament in her actions and speech, the Angel that visits Prior is modeled after the Angel Moroni. The trajectory is almost identical. “Like the Angel Moroni, [this angel] comes to Prior at night in his bed, announces a great work he is to carry out, and tells him of the book to which she will lead him” (Hutchinson-Jones 12). Like the story of Mormonism, this book is buried underground, one under a nearby hill and the other “under the tiles under the sink” (Perestroika 44). Prior also gets ahold of a pair of glasses with rocks for lenses, another nod to Mormonism, as Joseph Smith tended to go treasure hunting using the same “peep stones”, rocks with holes in the middle. It’s Prior’s witty remarks, and Kushner’s dark humor, but the history owes a debt to Mormonism, and it is through imagery from the Mormon holy book that this American story unwinds.
Additionally, the angel’s presence and power, and also that of God, are intrinsically linked with sexuality in a way that ties together Mormonism and the homosexual identity in even more complicated ways. This stems from the way Mormons see their relationship to God. Mormons believe in a state of being called ‘godhood’, which explains that God was once a man, and through living a physical life, was later exalted to a deity-like state. It also indicates that, with the right choices, the Mormon people will eventually embody god-like forms as well. God is the same type of being as man, only older and more powerful. Thus, in a Mormon cosmos, spiritual beings would continue to possess and exert sexuality, like the angels Prior knows “copulate ceaselessly” (Perestroika 49). Thus, starkly unlike the views of Judaism or Christianity, “it has always been a fundamental tenant of Mormonism that the sexual power is divine, eternal and exalting” (Austin 32). The views of Mormonism on corporeality and the lifestyle of the celestial beings in Angels line up. This important parallel, the existence of guiltless, shameless, heaven-sanctioned non-procreative sex, puts Mormonism and the homosexual community eye-to-eye. And, like the early Greco-Roman understanding of homosocial and homoerotic bonds as being those that go on to create empires, nations and laws rather than offspring, Mormonism also embraces non-procreative sex as a part of the journey into something bigger than time and physical bodies. Together, these two otherwise unrelated topics conjoin under the umbrella of the American narrative.
Whereas Mormonism is a religion that is wholly American from start to finish, Judaism fits in with the narrative of the American lifestyle a little less cleanly. Judaism pre-exists America by a millennium, and claims its original home as the Middle East. And of course, the United States, and even more so the theoretical idea of ‘America’ and all it’s connotations, are said to be the land of the free, which is to say secular. And yet, Kushner opens up his entire play with a very Jewish scene during the funeral of Louis’s grandmother, Sarah Ironson. Jyl Lynn Felman, writer for Jewish magazine Tikkun, argues that this opening scene not only establishes Judaism as a critical American narrative in Angels, but also seeks to intertwine the struggles of American Judaism with homosexual community and the AIDS epidemic.
This very first, quintessentially Jewish moment starts with Rabbi Chemelwitz openly admitting he doesn’t know Sarah Ironson personally, and reading from a sheet of family members, commenting on the non-Jewish names. But then he goes into a monologue explaining the journey and continual exodus of the Jewish people, and ends by saying the iconic line “in you that journey is” (Kushner 11), referring to the spiritual obligation to continue the Jewish identity in a form of Diaspora that can translate to the secular American life. It’s this that prompts Louis to say he has lived near to his grandmother for years, but has never visited her. It’s here, in Louis admitting he’s abandoned his family out of fear of re-encountering conflicts he wants to put behind him, where worlds collide. “Louis’s absence from his family must also be read in the context of the historical abandonment of an entire people and the shame that that abandonment produced” (2), Felman writes. “Louis has internalized the family shame and projects this shame onto his grandmother…This singular act of abandonment of an immigrant grandmother, by a self-loathing Jew, forms the controlling metaphor upon which Kushner seeks to negotiate the question of morality in human relations in the age of AIDS” (2). Readers know this moment in Angels is not long before Louis also abandons his partner out of fear of his disease, and Kushner is aware of the parallel of the two. Louis’s sense of failure is twofold as the child of a complex America. As a non-practicing Jew living in a secular world, he is outside the constructs of traditional Judaism, just like he is outside the construct of heteronormativity as openly being homosexual. In both senses, Louis feels inadequate and unable to cope with the demands. He cannot carry the weight of his grandmother’s rich but dying history, and he cannot carry the burden of the visceral physical reality of AIDS.
While this is doubly frightening for Louis, it also illuminates the larger similarities between Judaism and homosexuality, specifically the AIDS epidemic for the reader. Here Diaspora acts like the AIDS virus, creating a diluted community both desperate to retain their culture and hyper-aware of impending death. When the people who carry your culture and your community die off, and the next generation is not ready or willing to reclaim it out of fear, what happens to a community? Enter the play’s fictionalized Ethel Rosenberg, the semi-tangible ghost of the woman put to death for espionage in 1953. She embodies the rejected Jewish elder, just as Sarah Ironson did, betrayed by everyone around her, including in this case Roy Cohn, now also dying of AIDS. But unlike Sarah Ironson, Ethel is able to shift the balance of power. Through keeping Cohn alive long enough to see himself be disbarred, she gains retribution for the abandonment that the modern Jewish community feels (Felman 3) This alone would have made the arc of Roy Cohn and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg solely about exacting vengeance for a history of Jewish abandonment in a modern world.
However, the arc is tied back in to the gay community through the single meeting of Ethel, the betrayed Jewish mother, and Louis, the abandoning Jewish son, during the moment of the Kaddish. In an intensely strange, and moving moment, Ethel Rosenberg stands and leads Louis through the Kaddish over Roy Cohn’s dead body. For something so goofy – Louis has a Kleenex on his head for a yarmulke and Ethel leads him in finishing the prayer with “you sonofabitch” (Perestroika 126) – it is also a moment of forgiveness for everyone involved. Everyone in the hospital room at this moment has cultural baggage, and are both victims and perpetrators of the morality, or lack thereof, which permeates their culture. Roy Cohn, with his whirlwhind of racism, homophobia and total abandonment of his Jewish heritage, has injured Ethel, Louis, and Belize alike, and their respective communities. But even he, in his final moments, is shown to be helpless, pitiful, and worth some semblance of sympathy. Here they are two halves of a whole, with Louis young and unable to find the correct way to absolve and be absolved of guilt and anger and Ethel, dead already for half a century, being the only one who has the vocabulary of forgiveness (Felman 3). Through watching his fall from fame, and then finally leading Louis through the Kaddish, Ethel can represent the Jewish community in forgiving Roy, and the type of person Roy represents. Through demanding prayer, and insisting, “a Queen can forgive her vanquished foe” (Perestroika 124), and by stealing the rest of his AZT, Belize and Louis can find this same catharsis and forgiveness on behalf of the gay community. So, as the first Kaddish, for Sarah Ironson, seeks to mourn the abandonment plaguing the two communities, the second Kaddish seeks to identify the only thing that can repair it: forgiveness.
Clearly Kushner was vigilant when writing Angels in America to link Mormonism to the gay community and Judaism to the gay community in specific, enriching ways that didn’t take away the unique qualities of either religion. But the similarities in culture and history become most unmistakable when the text joins all three communities together as one, hurtling forward into an unknown American future. In the most crucial ways that Mormonism and Judaism connect to each other, they connect as well to the larger theme of gay community in Angels. This narrative begins with the identity of the Other. Otherness as an American theme connects all three solely on the similarity that they are not accepted by those around them, a feeling that produces so much isolation and suffering that it becomes an identity of its own. All three communities, Mormon, Jewish and gay, acquire their Otherness on a basic level from deviation from what is considered the “normal” American person. White, Christian and heterosexual are the attributes applied to the ideal American. Prior has the White Christian part down, but misses the boat on heterosexual, while Joe is missing the Christian bit even if he can fake it until he makes it on the heterosexuality front, and Louis is not Christian or heterosexual, and as a Jewish man his whiteness is disputable. Together, Mormons, Jewish people and homosexuals take on roles of Others that make them immediately targetable for discrimination, slander, judgment, and hatred.
The constant scapegoat, pariahs and untouchables, Others have to constantly grapple for a space and identity in a hostile environment. One startlingly specific way in which all three of these communities experience bias as Others is through a condemnation of sexuality. For the homosexual community, this is explicit and unveiled. In a country so immersed in both Christian values and compulsory heterosexuality, the presence of non-procreative sexual intimacy as the practice of a community practically ensures abuse against that community. As we’ve read in our curriculum this semester, and as we continue to see in our every day lives, this kind of abuse ranges from job discrimination, to rape, to denial of basic legal rights, like the right to marriage, to explosive verbal abuse, like Roy Cohn’s series of expletives at Belize in Perestroika. Historically, murder as a hate crime was and is also a very real possibility for many gay communities. All based on sexuality considered to be “inverted” or “backwards” due to the presence of a “right” way, i.e. heterosexuality. It’s this assumption, that homosexuality is the wrong or opposite way to be conducting intimacy, that helped produce the stereotype that the gay community was one of sexual predation and excess. So, when the AIDS epidemic arrived in the 80’s, the exact time period in which Angels in America is set, the pre-existing stereotype was the perfect excuse for blame. The gay community immediately became the cause, face and reason for AIDS. The gay community was socially shunned and shamed, in addition to also being ravaged simultaneously by a disease that killed one in three at the time. Cures and treatments lagged behind because government officials refused to recognize the existence of a disease that was killing so rapidly and in such great numbers. Because of a sexual preference that was contrary to the American assumption of goodness, the gay community was essentially left for dead. It’s no surprise then, that Roy Cohn’s definition of the homosexual is a man or community that lacks power.
The stories of the Jewish community and Mormon community have not always been so different, despite having been separate temporally. For Mormons, a similar stigma comes largely from polygamy. Though the doctrine of polygamy has been long banished from Mormon teachings, it remains the trait about Mormonism that sticks the best, and to many seems to imply the same sort of illicit penchant for excess, or the inclination to take advantage of others sexually. Propaganda in the early twentieth century portrayed Mormons as laviscious, and anti-Mormon publications “abound with images, both frightening and humorously demeaning, of wicked old Mormon polygamists with captive harems of innocent young women” (Hutchinson-Jones 9). Frequently facing expulsion from the lands where they tried to settle, this sort of sexual slander was one of the points of contention.
The Jewish story of oppression includes these sentiments as well. In arriving in America from oppression and genocide abroad, the Jewish community only faced more discrimination as an Other group in America. Between 1880 and 1920, anti-Semitism entered the American arena on a massive scale, and the Jewish pervert became a trope ubiquitous enough to cause Jewish people to be banned from resorts and hotels (Freedman 93). Ivy League schools began to put quotas on the number of Jewish students they would accept, and mainstream American anti-Semitism was directly responsible for the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, which prevented the movement of the Jewish community and other Eastern European populations (Freedman 93). Publications made it seem as if America’s sexual purity had been violated for the first time by the immorality of the Jewish population, credited to “those certain hideous and abhorrent forms of vice, which have their origin in countries of the East, and which in recent years have sprung into existence in this country, have been taught to the abandoned creatures who practice them, and fostered, elaborated, and encouraged by the lecherous Jew!” (Selzer 49). They were also credited inaccurately with heading white prostitution in America, largely by selling their own daughters (Freedman 93). It appears that a common method of ostracizing a community that doesn’t fit the guidelines of American traits is to accuse them of abnormal lust. Not surprising, since the prudish American culture counts sexuality as one of its biggest taboos.
As an offshoot, or perhaps because they are always ostracized as the Others, all three communities have in common travel as a deeply-held impulse as well. This harkens back again to the first Kaddish of Rabbi Chemelwitz, but also some of the musings of Harper and the Mormon Mother puppet. Mormons, Jewish people, and the gay community have all felt the push, often driven by this aforementioned Otherness, to travel to a chosen location where things will be better. For the Jewish community, exiled for hundreds of years, a spreading and diluting occurred while they traveled the world looking for asylum. This process, according to scholar Ranen Omer-Sherman, “is a conversional one that involves a movement of dis- and relocation” (91). What this means is that, as community breaks and re-forms and transforms with distance, Judaism evolves and mutates with the flexibility that only a people in exile could perform. Rabbi Chemelwitz implies this when he insists, “you do not live in America. No such place exists. Your clay is the clay of some Litvak shtetl, your air the air of the steppes” (Millenium 10). Judaism branches out and evolves, while keeping within them the spirit of their culture. Similarly, the story of Mormonism is relational to travel, despite being a wholly American religion. Rejected from state after state, Mormons dreamed of Deseret, the name of the Mormon holy land, a revival of Zion in Utah before it was a United States territory (Hutchinson-Jones 11). A radical, home-grown religion that began from grassroots, Mormonism was forced to wander across the country to do something as simple as live they life they felt they were being called to lead, a sentiment that is also readily understandable in a Jewish or homosexual context. For the gay community, the desired location was not Zion or Utah, but the urban centers. Ultra-conservative locations in rural America produced a migration of gay individuals that mirrored that of Mormons and Jews to cities, where they desperately searched for sanctity. There was the hope of community, acceptance and understanding. In some cases this was found, but in all three the final destination was not the end of the trials, but rather only another set of difficulties in another location.
But, as Hutchinson-Jones points out, there is a crucial third commonality between the three communities, in the form of hope. “Hope for the future, tinged with millennial expectation, is an important part of America’s national identity” (10) she writes, referring to the infallible hope of all three. Angels is deeply invested in the new millennium, with fear, excitement, and especially for hope. Whether it is the second coming of the Lord, the resolution of the heated Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or just a more accepting world, all three communities are eager with hope for the coming years and the arrival of the second millennium. All three communities are fighting for respect, having “struggled with powers that seemed too great to overcome, and, through the strength of their convictions, received the divine intervention that they sought” (Austin 34). Perhaps this is why Prior, in the end of the play, is shown holding a cane and limping, the disability ostensibly the result of his AIDS. The strategic injury, one injured leg causing a limp, harkens back to both Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and the Jewish prophet Jacob, who both physically wrestled with angels in order to get what they wanted (Austin 34), and came away with both a permanent limp, and the blessing they had desired. Prior too demands his blessing, and, supporting himself with his cane, tells the audience “we will be citizens. The time has come” (Perestroika, 148). In these final moments, Prior speaks for the Mormon community, the Jewish community and the gay community in a final assertion of their brotherhood. Otherness is arbitrary. Acceptance is mandatory; community is life giving, even if the melting pot won’t melt. Jewish, Mormon, or gay, the American story is all these things and more.
Austin, Michael. “Theology for the Approaching Millennium.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 30 (1997): 26-44. Print.
Felman, Jyl Lynn. “Lost Jewish (male) souls: a midrash on ‘Angels in America.’.”
Tikkun 1995: 27. Literature Resource Center. Web. 1 May 2015.
Freedman, Jonathan. “Angels, Monsters, And Jews : Intersections Of Queer And Jewish Identity In Kushner’s ‘Angels In America’.” Pmla 1 (1998): 90. RAMBI. Web. 1 May 2015.
Hutchinson-Jones, Cristine. “Mormons and American Culture in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.” Center and Periphery. Utah State UP, 2010. Print.
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America Part One: Millenium Approaches. New York: Theater Communications Group, 1993. Print.
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America Part Two: Perestroika. New York: Theater Communications Group, 1993. Print.
Omer-Sherman, Ranen. “Jewish/Queer: Thresholds Of Vulnerable Identities In Tony Kushner’s Angels In America.” Shofar 4 (2007): 78. Literature Resource Center. Web. 1 May 2015
Selzer, Michael. Kike! New York: World. 1972
Austin, Michael. “Theology for the Approaching Millennium.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 30 (1997): 26-44. Print.
Felman, Jyl Lynn. “Lost Jewish (male) souls: a midrash on ‘Angels in America.’.” Tikkun 1995: 27. Literature Resource Center. Web. 1 May 2015.
Freedman, Jonathan. “Angels, Monsters, And Jews : Intersections Of Queer And Jewish Identity In Kushner’s ‘Angels In America’.” Pmla 1 (1998): 90. RAMBI. Web. 1 May 2015.
Hutchinson-Jones, Cristine. “Mormons and American Culture in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.” Center and Periphery. Utah State UP, 2010. Print.
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America Part One: Millenium Approaches. New York: Theater Communications Group, 1993. Print.
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America Part Two: Perestroika. New York: Theater Communications Group, 1993. Print.
Omer-Sherman, Ranen. “Jewish/Queer: Thresholds Of Vulnerable Identities In Tony Kushner’s Angels In America.” Shofar 4 (2007): 78. Literature Resource Center. Web. 1 May 2015
Selzer, Michael. Kike! New York: World. 1972
Stout, Daniel A., Joseph D. Straubhaar, and Gayle Newbold. “Through A Glass Darkly: Mormons As Perceived By Critics’ Reviews Of Tony Kushner’s ‘Angels In America.’.” Dialogue: A Journal Of Mormon Thought 32.2 (1999): 133-157. America: History & Life. Web. 1 May 2015.
Those People: A Look at Demonic Othering and Homosexuality in Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Kushner’s Angels in America
Those People: A Look at Demonic Othering and Homosexuality in Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Kushner’s Angels in AmericaThe arts and humanities have served as not only social and political barometers of their representative ages, but also as cautionary voices aimed toward the future. Both Tennessee Williams and Tony Kushner incorporated the voices of the marginalized into their dramaturgy. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Williams animates a southern family’s fractured relationships and its dealings with the truth, craftily alluding to underpinnings of homosexual relationships and ruminating on their place within the South; Kushner examines this same marginalized group in Angels in America, but casts homosexuality into the forefront of culture. Each playwright addresses the subjugated group from a unique perspective: Kushner, directly; Williams, indirectly. Although Williams and Kushner utilize different techniques to present homosexuality and its relationship in contemporary social stratification, both Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Angels in America comment on the depiction of the homosexual as “other” — a creature to be feared and persecuted. How is this “other” initially constructed? Tenets of both egocentric and ethnocentric thought lead to the dismantling of culture and the subjugation of others outside of the mainstream social image. As Ann Dobie notes, the process of othering—by which individuals view and interpret those who are in some way different from the social norm—is critical to the stratification of culture (Dobie 189). It is this stratification that justifies hierarchies and the distribution of wealth and power within a class system. Sometimes the dominant class or culture views another group as evil because of their traditions or practices. This process, according to Dobie, is known as demonic othering (189). Neither Williams nor Kushner practice othering in the portrayal of their respective gay characters; instead they allow their characters to directly reflect American society, so that the othering process is cast in a new light. They also, however, astutely complicate the issue of homosexuality in America by allowing their characters to hide their orientations. Dobie calls this related process mimicry, or an attempt by the marginalized group to disguise themselves to become a more equal and functioning part of the norm (190). For example, Williams gives Brick Pollitt alcoholism to mask his sexual ambiguities. This then allows the other characters to interchange one perceived disease for the other. Similarly, Kushner has Roy Cohn, one of his homosexual characters, denounce his sexuality and infection with AIDS: “AIDS is what homosexuals have. I have liver cancer.” (Kushner 913) With this statement Kushner succinctly sums up the nature of mimicry and attributes the behavior to homosexual stereotypes and the American social climate. Both authors acknowledge that displaying sexual deviance can be a mistake of unforgivable proportions. Both agree that their characters are better suited to disguise themselves behind booze, semantics, and outright lies rather than risk being devalued by family, society, and even America as a whole. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof does not directly affirm a homosexual connection. Williams skates around the topic indirectly, referring to Brick’s relationship with his best friend, Skipper, and their “unnatural” friendship. The audience is introduced to Brick as an alcoholic. Brick’s wife and the rest of the Pollitt family other him under these pretenses throughout Act I. However, as the play evolves, Brick’s relationship with Skipper is brought into the spotlight. Maggie stabs at her husband, eluding to a homosexual relationship in Act I when she brings up Skipper and accuses: “Oh, excuse me, forgive me, but laws of silence don’t work!” (Williams 32). This reference to silence is related to Williams’ use of the indirect inferences to Brick’s ambiguous sexuality: none of the characters want to talk about it. However, it is Skipper’s death that Williams uses as a subtle interface between homosexuality and American society. As Marie Napierkowski notes, a writer often “kills off a character whose actions or presence contradict or threaten society’s most cherished mores” and therefore does not threaten the status quo with a measurement of morality (Napierkowski 198). Instead Brick is left to consider his own worth—homosexuality included—in the world around him. He chooses to hide behind alcohol abuse to not only reconcile his own feelings of inadequacy, but also to fit into the prescribed normalcy of his family and, on a larger scale, America. Brick affirms his perceptions regarding the social strata for gay men when he discusses the original owners of the plantation and states: “Straw? Ochello? A couple of…fucking sissies? Queers?…” (Williams 120). Even Mae chimes in, referring again to the “unnatural” relationship in question. Through these quips and machinations, Williams delivers a strong statement on American culture and the demonization of homosexuals without ever directly attaching the moniker to Brick. The underlying inferences in dialogue alternated with silence allow the audience to have an idea of the truth, while still keeping the moral quandary safely in the closet. In contrast, Kushner opens Angels in America with the pomp and circumstance of a “Gay Fantasia on National Themes”. Such an introduction leaves little to the imagination short of the light in which the characters are to be portrayed. Kushner makes no apologies for the mannerisms of his production; his sets are minimalist, his cast employed in multiple roles, and the dialogue is spoken outside of the confines of space and time. Kushner’s methods enable him to get the maximum from his characters’ interactions while the simultaneous dialogue creates a strong sense of urgency for the moment. It is this urgency that augments the othering among the homosexual cast of characters. For example, in Act I Scene 8 there are multiple dialogues occurring simultaneously: Joe and Harper are at home, while Louis and Prior have a discussion in bed. Harper rhetorically states that she fears her husband is gay, blaming part of her dysfunctions on his latent sexual desires. At the same time, Prior tells Louis the awful symptoms associated with AIDS—a disease very much attached to the gay community in the play. Kushner does not poeticize the disease, and, in fact, commenting on homophobia, equates the new epidemic to a plague for “fags”. He is not one for mincing words; his play comes at you like a bag of bricks, direct, frank, and textually obvious (if subtextually elusive). Aside from the othering associated with AIDS and general fear-mongering and persecution, Kushner uses his characters as foils to perpetuate separatism. As Ross Posnock notes, Kushner’s illustrations of Roy Cohn’s character create a “pathologically conflicted and self-loathing” individual who is representative of so many homosexuals in American culture (Posnock 66). Cohn refuses to allot any allegiance to the gay community, as evidenced in his dialogue with his doctor when he discovers that he too has AIDS. He proclaims his loathing for homosexuals as he states : “Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a puissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council” (Kushner 912). Through Cohn, Kushner directly states that homosexuals have less clout and are decidedly devalued in society. Through AIDS and futility, Kushner posits a distinctly dark image as the face of the homosexual—certainly one that society views as twisted and alien. Both Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Angels in America touch upon homosexual activity. Neither of these plays, nor the playwrights, offer a solution to the problem of marginalization. Furthermore, neither play nor playwright could be considered philanthropic when it comes to a portrayal of the homosexual plight. Instead, Kushner and Williams suggest that society’s moral fabric is an invariable force that cannot be toppled through menial protest. They do, however, imply that marginalization can be avoided through mimicry, or blending into the status quo. Both playwrights seem to acknowledge that the battle over homosexual othering and discrimination is not likely won in their own respective time periods. Kushner closes Angels with the line: “Greetings, Prophet; The Great Work Begins: The Messenger has arrived” — suggesting that the “Great Work” is just getting started and that there is hope for the future (Kushner 935). Neither Kushner nor Williams, however, claim to be the gay messiah.Works CitedDobie, Ann. Theory into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism. London: Thomson, 2002.Napierkowski, Marie Rose. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Themes.” Drama for Students. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 1998. eNotes.com. January 2006. 9 May 2007.
Identitiy Crisis: The Inward Voyage
At the first scene of Tony Kushner’s drama Angels in America (1993), Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz’s eulogy for Sarah Ironson exposes the play’s crucial themes and motifs. The Rabbi, a member of the “Bronx Home for Aged Hebrews” (Millennium, 9), commemorates Sarah’s life and in particular her great voyage to America. However, he continues to express pessimism about the present world by saying, “You can never make that crossing that she made, for such great voyages in this world do not any more exist” (Millennium, 10). However, due to the Rabbi’s age and his clear bias against today’s life in “the melting pot where nothing melted” (Millennium, 10), his speech is juxaposed with one of the play’s re-definition of identity. The Rabbi may be correct in stating that there are no longer physical voyages of mass migration in the world; however, when concerning metaphysical voyages, the play’s primary characters present the antithesis to Rabbi Chemelwitz’s theory. Today’s life journeys no longer pertain to physical expansion, but rather mental expansion, which lead us into discovering our personal identities while at the same time resisting social expectations and standards. Harper, Louis, and Joe best exemplify this inward expansion of identity despite overwhelming social pressures. Harper Pitt travels frequently throughout the play in order to find her true identity and escape her marriage. Subsequently, she cathartically breaks free from Joe in order to pursue her individuality. Upon meeting Harper for the first time, the audience is aware of her strange disposition and fear of solitude. In her first scene, Mr. Lies, her imaginary travel agent, appears to directly reflect her subconscious need to voyage far away from her husband and her current lifestyle. Furthermore, Harper goes on various voyages with the help of her Valium addiction. She travels to Antarctica, and even into Prior’s dream on her trips, which further stresses Harper’s desire to get away from her current lifestyle. The play also portrays her dependence on Valium as more than just an addiction, but also as a desperate method of escape. When Harper finally breaks free from her marriage with Joe, she has reached the turning point in her voyage. She decides to give her entire stash of Valium to Joe because she no longer needs to escape through drugs, and instead will escape on her own, without the help of the pills or Mr. Lies. Harper is next seen on an airborne jumbo jet, which effectively ties Harper’s metaphysical life voyage with a physical one. Louis Ironson’s voyage of identity is both dynamic and contradictive, which results in a journey that is successful in some areas, but still incomplete at the play’s close. While he thinks his inward journey is complete and he has come to terms with the world, he progresses from selfishness to a level of extreme remorse. This supplies his character with contradicting qualities. In Perestroika, Louis criticizes Joe for hiding his sexuality; however, in Millennium, Prior reveals to us that Louis has an overtly “butch” facade at family events in attempt to hide his own sexuality. Louis is an extreme liberal who is somehow attracted to a sexually confused republican. Furthermore, while he was raised as Jewish, he considers himself an agnostic and can’t seem to find a religion that suits him. These contradicting character traits augment the confusion of Louis’s voyage. Louis begins the play in fear of Prior’s disease, showing his weakness and selfishness; however, as the plot progresses, Louis finds himself missing Prior and his guilt growing. Louis finally does realize his mistakes, and attempts to apologize despite Prior’s appropriate harassment, and Louis goes as far as to cover himself in bruises and cuts to match the physical pain that Prior has been feeling. While Louis has made strides in improving himself, he was unable to complete his journey in the course of the play. Louis’s voyage successfully resulted in his self-improvement, but at the conclusion of the play, Louis is still arguing politics and religion with Belize, which reflects the ongoing search for his true identity. Joe Pitt’s identity crisis is perhaps the most interesting and clearly represented voyage in the play, as he progresses from trying to change his identity to ultimately accepting it. Similar to Louis, Joe is a character full of contradictions regarding his lifestyle. Being raised Mormon in Salt Lake City, Utah, it is apparent that Joe’s homosexuality is not an appropriate practice within his cultural context. When Joe comes out to his mother over the phone, she rebukes him by categorizing his identity as “a sin” and she claims she “thought [she] raised [him] better than that” (Millennium, 16). Not only does Joe try to hide his homosexuality from his mother, he tries to deny it by marrying Harper. Furthermore, he is employed through a law firm that denies rights to homosexuals. Upon meeting Louis, Joe becomes infatuated, and they even share a short relationship together despite his marriage to Harper. Joe shares an immensely important moment with Louis on the beach in which they are discussing Joe’s Mormon faith. Louis notes the temple garment that Joe is wearing and Joe refers to it as “Protection” and “A second skin” (Perestroika, 69). In a rush of utter ecstasy, Joe removes the garment saying “No past now. I could give up anything” (Perestroika, 73). This portrays Joe’s sincerity in his voyage, and his willingness to commit to becoming a new person. However, at the play’s conclusion, Joe is unable to reap the benefits of his identity reformation despite his attempts to shed his “skin”. He is ultimately left with two unsuccessful relationships, both homosexual and heterosexual. While the Rabbi argues there are no more great voyages in our generation, he excludes the growing social dissatisfaction toward personal orientations, and inward struggles in the approach of the new millennium. Overcoming societal pressures in order to reach a true personal identity is the true voyage of our time. Joe’s voyage is unsuccessful at the close of the play because Joe knew he needed change, but he did not know what to change. Whereas Harper knew exactly what she wanted, and consequently she achieved it. The concept of change is a powerful theme in the play; however, without knowledge of what lies ahead change is a futile attempt.
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.