The Changing Nature of Faith and Spirituality in the Twentieth Century

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The characters in Tony Kushner's magnum opus, Angels in America, are reflections of the modern, millennial age. Like so many of us, they are on a quest for spirituality , for some kind of inner fulfillment, and their search seems to have taken on a desperate significance in the...

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The characters in Tony Kushner's magnum opus, Angels in America, are reflections of the modern, millennial age. Like so many of us, they are on a quest for spirituality, for some kind of inner fulfillment, and their search seems to have taken on a desperate significance in the closing years of the second millennium.

Philosophically, the twentieth century has been called an "age of uncertainty," of individuals seeking meaning for their lives and order in an increasingly chaotic universe. Traditional beliefs are being altered or ignored, while new faiths and new icons appear daily. Some people continue to enrich their lives with the religious doctrines of their ancestors—Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism— while others explore direct experiences through mysticism or paganism. Some find comfort and meaning in newly created, "cult" religions or abandon the search entirely and call themselves atheists or agnostics. In America, "Materialism," the quest for money and goods, has often been called a new religion of the age. This sense of anxiety and uncertainty, so prevalent in Angels in America, is rooted in the not-so-distant past—the changes in science, philosophy, and technology wrought by the nineteenth century.

The nineteenth century taught the western world uncertainty, and the lesson—as much as any discovery, war, or disaster since—has shaped the identity of the modern age. Charles Darwin published his famous Origin of Species in 1859, presenting the world with revolutionary, troubling ideas. In suggesting that all forms of life evolved from a common ancestry, and that the evolution of species continues through the ‘‘survival of the fittest,’’ the British naturalist pulled the rug out from under many of the world's most cherished faiths. If true, Darwin's theories reduce human beings to the status of natural objects, no more spiritual or glorious than animals, plants, or any other living organism. Origin of Species also suggests that humans are shaped primarily by their heredity and environment. The spiritual concepts of fate and destiny, central to many religious faiths, play no part in the drama of human existence: People have free will, make their own decisions, and are responsible for their own actions.

By the turn of the century, other great thinkers had also widely influenced the way people view the world and their existence in it. The French philosopher Auguste Comte suggested in his Course of Positive Philosophy (translated into English in 1853) that only primitive or partially evolved groups of people base their societies on religions or hopeful political theories, and that the ideal society is one governed by the principles of scientific observation. Renowned psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud reinforced some of Darwin's ideas about the primitive origins of human beings when he suggested that many of our actions are guided by deeply-rooted subconscious thoughts. The nineteenth century scientific and political notions of Darwin, Comte, Freud, and others have had a deep and lasting impact on how we view the world today.

Faith, shaken by the rigors of science and the heartlessness of politics in the twentieth century, fills Angels in America. Kushner's epic drama encompasses a variety of beliefs, including Judaism, Mormonism, and Agnosticism, and incorporates supernatural elements such as visions, ghosts, and angels. The play never claims the superiority of one belief over another, but suggests that all faiths may be important to the progress of humankind at what is perhaps a crucial moment in history: the dawn of a new millennium.

In a 1991 interview with Theatre Week magazine, Kushner suggested, "There are moments in history when the fabric of everyday life unravels, and there is this unstable dynamism that allows for incredible social change in short periods of time. People and the world they're living in can be utterly transformed, either for the good or the bad, or some mixture of the two.... During these periods all sorts of people—even people who are passive under the pressure of everyday life in capitalist society—are touched by the spirit of revolution and behave in extraordinary ways." Kushner's belief in climactic moments in time is echoed by Ethel Rosenberg, a character in Angels in America, who warns: "History is about to crack wide open. Millennium approaches."

Although Kushner didn't intend it, Judaism is one of his play's most important religious motifs. The playwright himself is a third generation Jew, though he claims he is deeply ambivalent toward his faith and is actually a "serious agnostic." In a 1995 interview with a Rabbi at the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, Kushner described his own family, the generations after his grandparents, explaining, "We didn't know Yiddish, we didn't know Hebrew, we didn't know prayers. We went to a very, very Reform—I mean sort of reformed out of existence—Jewish congregation."

Angels in America suggests that Kushner's experience growing up Jewish in the American South is shared by many Americans—the children and grandchildren of immigrants who packed their faiths along with their suitcases for their voyage to America. As younger generations make their own way in this ‘‘melting pot where nothing melted,’’ they may turn their backs on the traditions and beliefs of their ancestors, but the human spirit, like nature, abhors a vacuum. The empty space left behind must be filled with something—the soul requires it.

Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz is the first character who appears in Angels in America. He stands alone onstage, conducting the funeral service for Sarah Ironson. In memorializing Sarah, he appeals to the assembled mourners to remember their Jewish heritage:

She was ... not a person but a whole kind of person, the ones who crossed the ocean, who brought with us to America the villages of Russia and Lithuania—and how we struggled, and how we fought, for the family, for the Jewish home, so that you would not grow up here, in this strange place, in the melting pot where nothing melted. Descendants of this immigrant woman, you do not grow up in America, you and your children and their children with the goyische names. 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—because she carried the old world on her back across the ocean, in a boat, and she put it down on Grand Concourse Avenue, or in Flatbush, and she worked that earth into your bones, and you pass it to your children, this ancient, ancient culture and home.

Yet already Sarah Ironson's own grandson, Louis, present at her funeral, has strayed far from his Jewish roots. Kushner has called Louis the closest thing to an autobiographical character he has ever created. Like his creator, Louis is Jewish, gay, and deeply ambivalent toward the faith of his family. He finds no comfort in a religion that rejects him for his sexuality, and he doesn't hesitate to criticize the shortcomings of Judaism. "Jews don't have any clear textual guide to the afterlife; even that it exists," he tells Prior. "I don't think much about it. I see it as a perpetual rainy Thursday afternoon in March. Dead leaves." Instead of the organized, traditional faith of his family, Louis has embarked on a lifelong quest to develop his own philosophy of life, one that doesn't demand purity or pass judgment and encompasses his unique experiences and allows for all the political and social vagaries of the world in which he lives. He doesn't believe in God and insists, "It should be the questions and shape of a life, its total complexity gathered, arranged, and considered, which matters in the end, not some stamp of salvation or damnation which disperses all the complexity in some unsatisfying little decision—the balancing of the scales."

Traveling a spiritual path alone is difficult, however. Louis is criticized throughout the play for his unorthodox views on relationships, politics, and religion. Furthermore, like Kushner, who has never completely shaken his Jewish roots, Louis keeps returning to the faith of his ancestors subconsciously or against his will. In one of the play's more haunting scenes, Louis visits Roy Cohn's hospital room and, possessed by the spirit of Ethel Rosenberg, chants the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, over Roy's body.

Cohn, while alive, is the play's other prominent Jewish figure, and he, too, has his own unique way of identifying with his faith. For Roy, everything in life is a tool to use to his best advantage. The telephone and the law are equal extensions of his ambitious personality, and he uses and discards people like newspapers. When it comes to his Jewishness, Roy recognizes faith can get in the way of political aspirations. "I'm about to be tried, Joe, by a jury that is not a jury of my peers," he complains. "The disbarment committee: genteel gentlemen Brahmin lawyers, countryclub men. I offend them, to these men ... I'm what, Martin, some sort of filthy little Jewish troll?" Even on his deathbed, salvation and the afterlife are an afterthought. The ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, a restless spirit who has been haunting Roy like a "dybbuk" (from Jewish folklore; a disembodied spirit that possesses the living) materializes to forge some sort of absolution between them, but the cantankerous lawyer chooses a practical joke as his last act on earth. He tricks Ethel into singing him a lullaby, then promptly dies.

The other important faith presented in Angels in America is Mormonism. Appropriately enough for the play, both Judaism and Mormonism have histories of dislocation, of rootlessness seeking a physical and spiritual home. Judaism began with God's command to Abraham to remove himself and his family to a new land, while Mormonism started with a westward movement across America, revealed by an angel to the sect's founding prophet, Joseph Smith. In a 1992 discussion at the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain, Kushner told interviewer Adam Mars Jones, "Mormonism is a theology that I think could only really have come from America. . . . The theology is an American reworking of a western tradition that is uniquely American: the notion of an uninhabited world in which it's possible to reinvent."

Like the founders of their faith, the Mormons in the play are constantly on the move, seeking their destinies. Early on, Joe Pitt tries to convince his wife, Harper, to move to Washington to better his career in politics. Harper, who describes herself as a "Jack Mormon," someone who is flawed in her faith, has already followed Joe from Salt Lake City to New York and is afraid of more geographical dislocation. Instead, she travels the world in her mind, ranging as far as Antarctica in her struggles to escape her troubled life at home. After receiving a phone call in the middle of the night from her son, during which he drunkenly confesses his homosexuality, Hannah Pitt sells her house in Utah, the Mormon homeland, and travels to New York to set him "straight."

Kushner illustrates both the positives and negatives of the faiths represented in the play when he juxtaposes them on top of one another and characters with clashing ideologies meet. For example, when Harper and Prior find each other in a mutual dream, Harper asserts, "In my church we don't believe in homosexuals." Prior, patient and tolerant, even in the face of death, jokingly retorts, "In my church we don't believe in Mormons."

The divisions run deeper, however, among some of the play's more serious-minded characters. When Louis discovers Joe's religion, it signals the beginning of the end of their relationship. "I don't like cults," he tells his Mormon lover. "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is not a cult," Joe insists. Louis becomes unusually conservative and angrily replies, "Any religion that's not at least two thousand years old is a cult."

In spite of all the contrasting views of faith presented, from agnosticism to mysticism to Mormonism to Judaism, one of the most important conflicts in the play occurs on a higher plane, largely unconcerned with categories of belief. The Continental Principalities are one of the play's principal motivating forces. This group of seven angels, representing each of the continents on earth, is a significant spiritual symbol, though they are not allied with any particular faith. Instead, these angels represent history and the unstoppable evolution and progress of human events. Kushner has alluded to the influence of the political theorist and philosopher Walter Benjamin on his work, and it has been noted that a particular passage, from Benjamin's Theses on the Philosophy of History, significantly shaped Angels in America:

A Klee painting named ‘‘Angelus Novus’’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. The angel of history must appear in this way. He has turned his face toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, there he sees one single catastrophe, which incessantly piles ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and join together what has been smashed apart. But a storm blows out from Paradise, which has captured him in his wings and is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. That, which we call progress, is this storm.

Like the angel of history in Benjamin's description, the Continental Principalities feel battered by the course of human events, particularly in the twentieth century as the pace of change has accelerated to a manic rate. They believe that God has abandoned heaven in pursuit of the thrill that change and progress has provided his creation, which is why they have called upon Prior to be their Prophet. The job he has been given is to convince humankind to stop moving, to cease their progress. As the chosen spokesman for creation, however, Prior has other ideas. "We can't just stop," he tells the Angels. "We're not rocks—progress, migration, motion is ... modernity. It's animate, it's what living things do. We desire. Even if all we desire is stillness, it's still desire for. Even if we go faster than we should. We can't wait. And wait for what? God.... He isn't coming back."

If there is an ultimate message within the exploration of twentieth century spirituality in Angels in America, it is the concept of inclusion. While different faiths, ideologies, and political stances are debated throughout the play, there are no clear victors. For every champion of a cause, whether it is Republicanism, Zionism, or free will, there is an opponent, equally armed and, at least in his own experience of the world, justified. The former prophet Prior Walter's final words suggest just such a common bond:

Bye now.
You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.

Source: Lane A. Glenn, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.
Glenn is a Ph.D. specializing in theatre history and literature.

The Fusion of Entertainment with Important Social Issues

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In Angels in America (most recently at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles), a two-part, seven-hour workup of the nation's end-of-millennium health, Tony Kushner has written an enormously entertaining play while at the same time treating important matters seriously. Kushner de-ghettoizes the AIDS play, placing the disease, like the destruction of the ozone layer or Americans' flight from mutual responsibility in the Reagan era, at the heart of a national and planetary collapse. Mixing realism, fevered hallucination and otherworldly theatrical effects, he pulls back from the tight close-up of so much American drama to underscore a connection between public destiny and love and responsibility in personal relationships. Angels in America stands as a kind of lighthouse on the coast of a new era, signaling renewed feelings of hope and longing for community.

The characters—who are both types and not types, and that's the point—include the revenant Ethel Rosenberg (Kathleen Chalfant), a saintly, gay black nurse (K. Todd Freeman) and a Jewish, cappuccino intellectual named Louis (Joe Mantello) who is endlessly opinionated about democracy, revolution and other big topics, but falls apart when illness and death strike close to home. Early in Millennium Approaches, Prior Walter, his lover—so wellborn he can trace his roots to the Bayeux Tapestry—announces he has AIDS, and Louis flees.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the political spectrum, a repressed Reaganite attorney, Joe Pitt, also struggles with responsibility. He wavers between accepting his homosexuality and conforming to his Mormon upbringing by remaining with his wife, Harper (who, suffering Joe's indifference, has turned into a Valium visionary). The play's paradigm of Reaganesque evil is Roy Cohn, who denies he's subject to the same laws of nature and society as everyone else, and who crows, "They say terrible things about me in The Nation. Fuck The Nation." Strangely, considering Kushner's condemnation of Reaganera selfishness, his conservatives are intent only on social order and moral decency. They don't talk about deregulation or keeping more of what they've got.

Cohn, who views responsibility and love as a trap—and is represented here without his real-life, loyal-to-the-end lover, Peter Fraser—attempts to install Pitt in the Justice Department so he can influence Cohn's disbarment hearing. During the course of the play, Cohn also discovers he has AIDS. These events, along with the disintegrating relationships, Joe and Louis's affair and an attempt to check the unraveling of God's grand design by an angel who flies in, Mary Martin-style, are the play's core.

Yet, despite Kushner' s daring theatricality, endlessly fertile imagination and ambitious sense of form, Angels in America has its problems, some of them serious. The "angels" plot itself, for one, isn't as fully imagined or its tone as clear as the earthbound narratives, and the angels' cause—anti-migration, cessation of relentless human movement—isn't compelling. A still more obvious flaw is the way Kushner hits the same points over and over. For a good long stretch in the middle section, you feel he's taken the angels' enjoinder to heart: Nothing moveth. And, in Perestroika, particularly, Kushner generates enough irrelevant material to keep what he's talking about from standing out clearly. The play also conflates different kinds of self-interest. Louis's abandonment of Prior comes from his gut fear of mortality; he can be faulted for spinelessness and betrayal, but not selfishness in the same sense as Reaganite greed. Yet his action comes in for the play's greatest moral heat.

But as Woody Allen movies used to, Angels in America generates so much good will that you don't care about its flaws. When it flies—which is much of the time—it flies. That has a lot to do with the play's attempt to heal divisions and its penetrating description of the gulfs between us. Kushner's dialogue is remarkable in the way it reveals the love the characters are requesting, requiring, giving and withholding, and I found myself hurting for them in a way I don't for characters in other plays. He also supplies them with a flood of laugh lines.

The writing is complemented by fine ensemble acting under the direction of Taper resident director Oskar Eustis and Tony Taccone. To mention just a few of the wonderful performances, there's Jeffrey King's beautifully revealing portrait of the tortured self-hatred behind Joe Pitt's square-jawed strength; Kathleen Chalfant' s dry-as-dust rendering of Joe's constantly surprising Mormon mom; Ron Leibman's ferocious Cohn, a dog who's sunk his teeth into life and won't let go; and, hovering over it all, Stephen Spinella' s Prior Walter, an enormously compelling mixture of feistiness and fragility, bitchiness and childlike wonder. The only weakness is Cynthia Mace, who suffers by comparison with Anne Darragh, who in the original San Francisco production, played Harper's mental problems as though they could be overcome.

That production in the spring of 1991 at the Eureka Theater, where Eustis and Taccone commissioned the play, offered a fully mounted Millennium Approaches and a staged reading of Perestroika (The Taper's was the first full-scale production of both). At that time, with Reagan/Bush still apparently invincible, the play's apocalyptic vibrations were more than a little disquieting, particularly in the scene where Cohn and a crony picture a conservative dominion lasting well into the next century. Whether it's the new context or rewrites that reshaped the play's outlook, Angels in America now seems more optimistic. In front of John Conklin's Federalist facade with its enormous, jagged fault line, Kushner reasserts the interconnectedness of our multicultural, sexually and politically diverse populace. And in an ending that, unfortunately, probably says more about the sweetness of Kushner's heart than about the future, he points to a metaphorical perestroika of our own, a passing away of old enmities (well, sort of) and the disappearance of old divisions, with tolerance not just for gays but for Mormons too. Unlike many playwrights on the left, Kushner does a good job of allowing the characters on the right their humanity—except for Cohn, whom he uses for the most part as a focus of conservative evil. But he needs to address the further prejudice of the left—the one that makes the black nurse saintly and the Jewish intellectual the object of greatest moral heat—if the old divisions are to be dealt with.

Source: Hal Gelb, review of Angels in America in the Nation, Vol. 256, no. 7, February 22, 1993, pp. 246-47.

Beyond Nelly

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2919

High on a hill in downtown Los Angeles, the thirty-six-year-old playwright Tony Kushner stood watching an usher urge the people outside the Mark Taper Forum to take their seats for the opening of "Angels in America," his two-part "gay fantasia on national themes." It was the première of the play's long-awaited second segment, "Perestroika," which was being performed, together with the first part, "Millennium Approaches," in a seven-hour, back-to-back marathon. "I never imagined that this was going to come out of sitting down in 1988 to write what was supposed to be a two-hour play about five gay men, one of whom was Mormon and another was Roy Cohn," Kushner said. "The level of attention that's being paid to the plays is completely terrifying." On the first day the Taper opened its box office for Kushner's twin bill, it took in thirty-two thousand eight hundred and four dollars, far exceeding the previous record in the theatre's distinguished history; and just last week "Millennium Approaches," which ran for a year at the Royal National Theatre in England, won the London Evening Standard's award for best play. Driving to the Taper for his opening, Kushner said, he had thought, If I have a fiery car crash, the play will probably be really well received and no one will dare trash it, and it would be this legendary thing. Now Kushner was experiencing the actual rush of first-night terror: he couldn't feel the pavement under his feet. "I feel like I'm walking on some cushion, like dry sponge," he said. "Unsteady. Giddy."

Every playwright has a ritual for opening night. Some playwrights walk. Some drink. Some tough it out and watch from the back of the theatre, silently coaxing the players over every production obstacle. Kushner takes himself away for a Chinese meal; in the case of this doubleheader, he'd need two meals. He had already taped his opening-night ticket into his journal. He'd fitted himself out with a lucky ceramic lion given him by his mother and with a medal of the Virgin Mary from Majagure, in what was formerly Yugoslavia. He had one more thing to do. "Once the curtain goes up, I sing 'Begin the Beguine'—it's the longest pop song without a chorus," he explained, shouldering a blue backpack. "I have to sing it well from start to finish. If I can get through the whole thing without fucking up the words, it's going to be O.K." I left him to it.

Inside the seven-hundred-and-forty-two-seat auditorium, the Taper's artistic director, Gordon Davidson, shmoozed with the first-nighters like a rabbi with his congregation. Over the twenty-five years of Davidson's stewardship, the Taper has generated a prodigious amount of theatre work, some of which has invigorated Broadway and Off Broadway. Although the local press likes to bite the hand that feeds it, and periodically snaps at Davidson, no other American regional theatre approaches the Taper's creative record. Recently, Davidson and his theatre seem to have had a second lease on creative life, giving George C. Wolfe's innovative musical, "Jelly's Last Jam," its first production and staging Robert Schenkkan's, "The Kentucky Cycle," which was the first play to win a Pulitzer Prize without being put on in New York. With "Angels in America," which Davidson workshopped, and into which he has already sunk a million three hundred thousand dollars of the theatre's budget, the Taper is poised for another scoop. Davidson worked the room, handing out butterscotch candies, as is his opening night custom, and smiling the smile that has launched a few hundred shows but none more brazenly ambitious or better produced than Kushner's. The occasion felt more like a feeding frenzy than like a first night. Robert Altman was there, checking out the play as movie material. A good proportion of the New York theatre's high rollers seemed to be there, too, eager to get a piece of Kushner's action: JoAnne Akalaitis, of the Public Theatre, with whom Davidson will produce the cycle in New York in February; Rocco Landerman, of Jujamcyn; the Broadway producers Margo Lion and Heidi Landesman; and a host of critics, including Frank Rich, of the Times, and Jack Kroll, of Newsweek. As the houselights dimmed, Davidson found his seat and glanced at the copy of Moby Dick that Kushner had given him as an opening night present. "I felt it was appropriate for the occasion," Kushner's inscription read. "It's my favorite book, by my favorite writer, someone who spent years pursuing, as he put it in a letter to Hawthorne, 'a bigger fish.'"

Just how big a fish Kushner was trying to land was apparent as the lights came up on John Conklin's bold backdrop of the facade of a Federal-style building, leached of color and riven from floor to ceiling by enormous cracks. The monumental design announced the scope and elegant daring of the enterprise. It gave a particular sense of excitement to the evening, and bore out one of Kushner's pet theories. "The natural condition of theatre veers toward calamity and absurdity. That's what makes it so powerful when it's powerful," he said before he decamped to Chinatown. "The greater the heights to which the artists involved aspire, the greater the threat of complete fiasco. There's a wonderfully vibrant tension between immense success and complete catastrophe that is one of the guarantors of theatrical power." From its first beat, "Angels in America" exhibited a ravishing command of its characters and of the discourse it wanted to have through them with our society.

Kushner has not written a gay problem play, or agitprop Sturm und Schlong; nor is he pleading for tolerance. "I think that's a terrible thing to be looking for," he told me. Instead, with immense good humor and accessible characters, he honors the gay community by telling a story that sets its concerns in the larger historical context of American political life. "In America, there's a great attempt to divest private life of political meaning," he said. "We have to recognize that our lives are fraught with politics. The oppression and suppression of homosexuality is part of a larger political agenda. The struggle for a cure for AIDS and for governmental recognition of the seriousness of the epidemic connects directly to universal health care, which is connected to a larger issue, which is a social net." Set in 1985, at the height of the Reagan counterrevolution, "Millennium Approaches" maps the trickle-down effect of self-interest as Kushner's characters ruthlessly pursue their sexual and public destinies. Louis, unable to deal with illness, abandons his lover, Prior, who has AIDS; Joe, an ambitious, bisexual Mormon Republican legal clerk, abandons his dippy, pill-popping Mormon wife, Harper ("You, the one part of the real world I wasn't allergic to," she tells him later); and Roy Cohn, in his greed, is faithless to everybody. "There are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there's only the political," Louis says, in one of the idealistic intellectual arabesques meant to disguise his own moral and emotional quandary, which Joe Mantello's droll characterization both teases and makes touching. Louis invokes Alexis de Tocqueville, and it's Tocqueville who put his finger on that force of American democracy whose momentum creates the spiritual vacuum Kushner's characters act out. "Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him," Tocqueville wrote. "It throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart."

This isolation has its awesome apotheosis in the dead heart of Roy Cohn. "Hold," Cohn barks into the phone—his very first word. Turning to Joe (Jeffrey King), whom he's singled out as a potential "Royboy," he says, "I wish I was an octopus, a fucking octopus. Eight loving arms and all those suckers. Know what I mean?" This is a great part, which calls out of Ron Leibman a great performance. Roaring, cursing, bullying, jabbing at the air with his beaky tanned face and at the phone with his cruel fingers, he incarnates all that is raw, vigorous, and reckless in Cohn's manic pursuit of power. "Love; that's a trap. Responsibility; that's a trap, too," he tells Joe, while trying to set him up as his man inside the Justice Department and spell out the deep pessimism behind his rapacity. "Life is full of horror; nobody escapes, nobody; save yourself." With his rasping, nasal voice swooping up and down the vocal register, Leibman makes Cohn's evil incandescent and almost majestic. ("If you want the smoke and puffery, you can listen to Kissinger and Shultz and those guys," he confides to Joe at one point. "But if you want to look at the heart of modern conservatism you look at me.") Cohn is the king of control and the queen of denial. He tells his doctor when he learns he has AIDS, "Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant anti-discrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Does this sound like me, Henry?"

But Cohn's hectoring gusto doesn' t overwhelm the piquancy of the other stories. Kushner's humor gets the audience involved in the characters, and the play works like a kind of soap opera with sensibility, whose triumph is finally one of design rather than depth. Kushner doesn't impose personality on ideas but lets ideas emerge through careful observation of personality. He listens to his characters and, with his percolating imagination, blends the quirky logic of their voices with their hallucinatory visions. Prior (played by Stephen Spinella) dances with Louis in a dream. In her lovelorn grief, Harper (Cynthia Mace) fantasizes herself in the Antarctic, and later Joe comes hilariously alive, stepping out of a pioneer tableau, during Harper's vigil in the Diorama Room of the Mormon Visitors' Center in New York City. Ethel Rosenberg, who owed her execution to Cohn's single-handed, improper intervention with the presiding judge, appears at Cohn's bedside. These hauntings are sometimes dramatized as projections of parts of the self that have been murdered in order to survive. "Are you a ghost?" Prior asks Louis as he sways in the arms of his guilty lover to the tune of "Moon River." "No," Louis says. "Just spectral. Lost to myself." The final, ambiguous image of "Millennium Approaches," which brings the play to a halt, if not to a conclusive end, is the appearance of an angel to Prior while he languishes in his sickbed. "Very Steven Spielberg," Prior says as the set parts and the angel (Ellen McLaughlin) swings down on wires, to proclaim him Prophet and tell him tantalizingly that his great work is about to begin. With the help of jets of smoke, Pat Collins' evocative lighting, and the strong directorial hands of Oskar Eustis and Tony Taccone, the audience is brought bravoing to its feet. The production is far superior in every scenic and performing detail to the celebrated English version.

"Perestroika" is the messier but more interesting of the two plays, skillfully steering its characters from the sins of separation in the eighties to a new sense of community in the embattled nineties. Though "Perestroika" should begin where "Millennium Approaches" breaks off, it opens instead with an excellent but extraneous preamble by the oldest living Bolshevik, bemoaning this "sour little age" and demanding a new ideology: "Show me the words that will reorder the world, or else keep silent." Kushner can't keep silent; but, while his play refuses ideology, it dramatizes, as the title suggests, both the exhilaration and the terror of restructuring perception about gay life and about our national mission. The verbose Angel that appears to Prior now turns out in "Perestroika" to be the Angel of Death or, in this case, Stasis. She takes up a lot of time broadcasting a deadly simple, reactionary message of cosmic collapse. "You must stop moving," she tells Prior. "Hobble yourselves. Abjure the Horizontal, Seek the Vertical." But, once the characters get back on the narrative track of the plot, "Perestroika" finds its feet and its wisdom.

The real drama of "Perestroika" is the fulminating, sometimes funny battle the characters wage in trying to deal with catastrophic loss. Here, as in "Millennium Approaches," Cohn, the fixer, is shrewdly placed at the center of the argument. Cohn will not accept loss, always stacking life's deck to maintain his fantasy of omnipotence. "I can get anyone to do anything I want," he tells his black male nurse, Belize (played with panache by K. Todd Freeman), before picking up the phone to blackmail an acquaintance for the drug AZT. "I'm no good at tests, Martin," he tells the acquaintance. "I'd rather cheat." And later, with his stash of AZT in a locked box in the foreground, he crows at his nurse like a big winner: "From now on, I supply my own pills. I already told'em to push their jujubes to the losers down the hall." All change requires loss, and Cohn's power is a mighty defense against change. His emptiness is colossal. Significantly, Cohn dies mouthing the same words that introduced him in "Millennium Approaches." Kushner shows his other characters growing through an acceptance of loss. "Lost is best," Harper says, refusing to take Joe back after his fling with Louis, and going with the flow of her aimlessness. "Get lost. Joe. Go exploring." Prior, too, has finally wrestled control of his life and what remains of his momentum from the Angel of Stasis. "Motion, progress, is life, it's—modernity," he says, unwilling to be stoical. "We're not rocks, we can't just wait.... And wait for what? God." His task is to make sense of death and, as he says, "to face loss, with grace."

Part of this grace is humor, the often heroic highcamp frivolity that both acknowledges suffering and refuses to suffer. When Cohn brags to his nurse, "Pain's . . . nothing, pain's life," Belize replies, sharpish, "Sing it, baby." Kushner uses laughter carefully, to deflate the maudlin and to build a complex tapestry of ironic emotion. He engineers a hilarious redemption for the politically correct Louis, who is forced by Belize to say Kaddish over Cohn's dead body in order to steal the remaining AZT to prolong Prior's life. Louis prays with Ethel Rosenberg's ghost over the body, and they end the Hebrew prayer with "You son of a bitch." And at another point in his emotional turmoil Prior turns to Louis and accuses him of having taken a Mormon lover. "Ask me how I knew," Prior says. Louis asks, "How?" Prior rounds on him: "Fuck you. I'm a prophet." Even Cohn gets off a cosmic joke, making a last-minute appearance from Purgatory as God's lawyer. "You're guilty as hell," he growls at the Deity. "You have nothing to plead, but not to worry, darling, I will make something up."

"Perestroika" ends by celebrating community, not individualism, auguring with eerie serendipity the spirit of the new Clinton era. Even the monstrous Cohn is acknowledged as a fallen victim by the brotherhood. "The question I'm trying to ask is how broad is a community's embrace," Kushner says. "How wide does it reach? Communities all over the world now are in tremendous crisis over the issue of how you let go of the past without forgetting the crimes that were committed." In the play's epilogue, which jumps to 1990, Kushner confronts the audience with the miraculous. Prior has lived four more years. He sits in Central Park in animated conversation with his friends. Then, turning the conversation up and down at his command (Kushner's homage to the ending of "The Glass Menagerie"), Prior steps out of the play world to talk directly to us. It's an extraordinarily powerful (if haphazardly staged) moment, in which the community of concern is extended by the author to the human family, not just the gay world. "Bye now," Prior says. "You are fabulous, each and every one, and I love you all. And I bless you. More life. And bless us all."

Backstage, Kushner stood dazed and rumpled among a crowd of well-wishers. "I've been working on this play for four and a half years," he said. "Tonight, a whole era in my life comes to an end. It's been an incredibly strange ride." His exhaustion and the happy fatigue of the cast members, who lingered in doorways, seemed to bear out part of Kushner's opening night message, which was pinned to the stagedoor bulletin board. "And how else should an angel land on earth but with the utmost difficulty?" it read. "If we are to be visited by angels we will have to call them down with sweat and strain, we will have to drag them out of the skies, and the efforts we expend to draw the heavens to an earthly place may well leave us too exhausted to appreciate the fruits of our labors: an angel, even with torn robes, and ruffled feathers, is in our midst."

Kushner and the excellent Taper ensemble had made a little piece of American theatre history on that cloudless California night. "Angels in America" was now officially in the world, covered more or less in glory. It was a victory for Kushner, for theatre, for the transforming power of the imagination to turn devastation into beauty.

Source: John Lahr,' 'Beyond Nelly'' in the New Yorker, Vol. LXVIII, no. 40, November 23, 1992 , pp. 126-30.
Lahr is a noted theatre critic and biographer.

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