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.
Carpenter, Dale. “Reagan and Gays: A Reassessment.” IGF Culture Watch, 10 June 2004, igfculturewatch.com/2004/06/10/reagan-and-gays-a-reassessment/. Accessed 10 Jan. 2017. Chambers-Letson, Joshua Takano. “The Principle of Hope: Reflections on a Revival of Angels in America.” Drama Criticism, edited by Lawrence J. Trudeau, vol. 50, Gale, 2014. Drama Criticism Online, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LCO&sw=w&u=s1180&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CNEDCUE933987058&it=r. Accessed 12 Jan. 2017. Originally published in Drama Review, vol. 56, no. 1, 2012, pp. 143-149.Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.La Ganga, Maria L. “The First Lady Who Looked Away: Nancy and the Reagans’ Troubling AIDS Legacy.” The Gaurdian, Guardian News and Media, 11 Mar. 2016, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/mar/11/nancy-ronald-reagan-aids-crisis-first-lady-legacy. Accessed 10 Jan. 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. McNulty, Charles. “Angels in America: Tony Kushner’s Theses on the Philosophy of History.”Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Jeffrey W. Hunter, vol. 203, Gale, 2005.Contemporary Literary Criticism Online, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LCO&sw=w&u=s1180&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CTWKMPE659748898&it=r. Accessed 12 Jan. 2017. Originally published in Modern Drama, vol. 39, no. 1, Spring 1996, pp. 84-96. Norden, Edward. “From Schnitzler to Kushner.” Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Jeffrey W. Hunter, vol. 203, Gale, 2005. Contemporary Literary Criticism Online, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LCO&sw=w&u=s1180&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CIEVZHC623285376&it=r. Accessed 12 Jan. 2017. Originally published in Commentary, vol. 99, no. 1, Jan. 1995, pp. 51-58.
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.
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