Tony Kushner

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Edward Norden (essay date January 1995)

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SOURCE: Norden, Edward. “From Schnitzler to Kushner.” Commentary 99, no. 1 (January 1995): 51-8.

[In the following essay, Norden discusses the ideological implications of Jewish gay identity in Angels in America.]

The good-looking young men cruising the aisles were putting on a show of their own. “Questionnaires!” they sang as they handed out pink forms to everybody. “Get your questionnaires!” The curtain of the Walter Kerr theater on Broadway would not be going up on this performance of Millennium Approaches, Part 1 of Angels in America, before everyone in the audience did his or her duty. If the Angels scripts, T-shirts, and baseball caps in the foyer were yours to buy or not, the questionnaire verged on mandatory.

And so the Jewish Long Islanders making up the bulk of the house, plus the corn-fed Midwesterners and Japanese tourists glad to be at this first half of Tony Kushner's seven-hour “Gay Fantasia,” the hottest thing for two seasons running; yielded up the desired information as cheerfully as if they were doing a painless good deed. “Where,” for example, “do you currently reside?” Followed by: “Please indicate which of the following factors or sources of influence you were aware of regarding Angels in America, and then the degree each factor was influential to your decision” to come. Tony Award for Best Play of 1993? Of 1994? Personal recommendation? Advertising?

Only after the mainly straight audience finished complying, and the ushers, at least one of them wearing a yarmulke, gathered the data, would the lights be killed.

One of the few audience members not cooperating, I was musing instead about the life, times, and work of a long-dead playwright as I waited. That playwright was Arthur Schnitzler, who used to be mentioned in the same breath as his fellow turn-of-the-century Jewish Viennese trailblazers: Theodor Herzl, Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler. But today, if Schnitzler's name rings any bell at all in pre-millennial America, it is as the author of Dance in a Circle, and this because a harmless travesty of his play entitled La Ronde was filmed in 1950 by Max Ophuls.

The idea of Dance in a Circle/La Ronde is fairly uncomplicated—The Prostitute meets The Soldier meets The Housemaid meets The Young Gentleman, and so on, the before-and-after dialogues of ten loveless heterosexual couplings up and down the social pyramid until with The Count and The Prostitute we are back again where we started. The copulations are never enacted on stage, needless to say, but only indicated with blackouts. Among the post-copulatory exchanges:

THE Actress:
Count, you have done me a great honor.
THE Count:
I kiss your hand, Fraulein.

Probably few Americans who saw Hello Again, a short-lived musical by Michael John LaChiusa Off-Broadway recently, knew that his daisy chain of gay and lesbian brief encounters was modeled on the same little Schnitzler play which first was banned and then, when put on, caused riots in Vienna and Berlin. Of course, the situation today is different in both those cities. There, unlike here, Schnitzler is well enough known, although it is an open question how much of his popularity is on account of his various works and how much due to nostalgia for a culture and its makers run out of town or exterminated by the grandparents of today's Viennese and Berliners themselves.

Was there anyone bending over a questionnaire in the Walter Kerr who did not know that Angels is the great AIDS play? Hard to imagine, even of the visitors from Osaka. As for Schnitzler and his contemporaries, they had something else to worry about. Public-health statistics a century...

(This entire section contains 6784 words.)

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ago were not what they are today; nevertheless, the overall incidence of syphilis in the capital of the Hapsburg empire in 1895 was probably between 15 and 30 percent.

“He who knows syphilis,” William Osler had declared, “knows medicine.” In other words, because the infection could hide for years before exploding in any organ of the body, and could impersonate diseases from mononucleosis to ringworm, it seemed the disease of diseases, the master disease. The filthy part, for Victorians, was its principal mode of transmission, and the hideous part, for anyone, was that mothers-to-be infected their unborn children.

Fifty years later, Stefan Zweig, a famous Jewish humanist and pacifist in his day, would write in his memoirs of Vienna:

To the fear of infection was added the horror of the disgusting and degrading forms of the erstwhile cures. … For weeks on end the entire body of anyone infected with syphilis was rubbed with mercury, the effect of which was that the teeth fell out and other injuries to health ensued. The unhappy victim of a severe encounter felt himself not only physically but spiritually spotted, and even after so horrible a cure, he could never be certain that the cunning virus might not at any moment awake from its captivity and paralyze the limbs from the spine, or soften the brain.

Never in his many plays on the ways of heterosexuality in a bad society does Schnitzler more than very fleetingly hint at syphilis. Himself a doctor and a doctor's son, a Jew in terrifically anti-Semitic Vienna, the playwright had enough on his hands without breaking the VD taboo, à la Ibsen uniquely in Ghosts. It would have been very unwise for him to lay out how each character in the dance could well have infected the next, as foolish as it would have been to dig into the interconnected subjects of homosexuality, treason, and hatred of Jews in the upper reaches of the army of the emperor.

Schnitzler was brave, not crazy. As it was, he was put down as a decadent Jew for these sex plays, and as a pacifist traitor for his treatment of the near-holy institution of dueling. There was really nothing of the demon about Schnitzler, as there certainly was about his Viennese contemporaries Karl Kraus, the gemlike Jewish anti-Semite, or about the ineffable Otto Weininger, dead at twenty-three by his own hand—or, for that matter, as there was about Strindberg or Wedekind or Ibsen. The feeling about his plays, even when they climax in suicide as they often do, is sadder than it is tragic. A Schnitzler play is nicely-made, deceptively casual, oppressive rather than shattering. His virtues are those of rationality, detachment, humaneness: the perishable virtues of a doctor, with a strong dash of wit and implicit loathing for bourgeois hypocrisy thrown in.

But this did not keep his public or his enemies from misunderstanding him with a vengeance. That public, Schnitzler's core hometown audience flocking to what it liked to think were his amoral sex plays, was mostly Jewish. As Zweig was to remember: “The Jewish bourgeoisie … were the real audience, they filled the theaters.” This audience was not especially interested in treatments of the anti-Semitism it tried to live with, and Schnitzler, having a good enough instinct for self-preservation, brought the topic up on stage only once, in Professor Bernhardi. Since (in contrast to Freud) he loved Vienna more than he hated it, one might say it was a good thing he died in 1931, seven years before a certain syphilophobic ex-tramp rode back into the city to the joy of that majority of its citizens which had always thought Schnitzler and his kind were dirty wreckers.

In Mein Kampf, without naming Schnitzler or any other writer, Hitler had labeled the Viennese theater of his youth “trashy … awful … unclean … obscene.” Summed up the Nazi paper Der Völkischer Beobachter on Schnitzler's death: “Refined Jewish decadence.”

Showtime finally on West 48th Street. The curtain goes up on a white-bearded hasidic rabbi, played by an actress. So intensively has Angels in America been publicized that the only revelations are going to be seemingly minor touches like this one, plus the feel of the production, including the currents passing back and forth between stage and audience.

Projected over the stage is the date of Act 1: October-November 1985. The bearded woman stands next to a coffin draped with a Star of David. In an unconvincing Yiddish accent, she (he?) is eulogizing one Sarah Ironson:

… 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 their 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.

To repeat: the audience to whom Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz addresses himself (herself) as to the family of the deceased is three-fourths suburban-Jewish. But on the whole this audience does not seem to understand how to take him (her) or the speech. As irony? As camp? As given? But this opening note will turn out to have been struck deliberately, for both the veil of ambiguity and the Jewish element are going to figure throughout both parts of the marathon Angels.

The very next scene gives us the excellent F. Murray Abraham as the late Roy Cohn, working the phones while tempting a young blond Mormon law clerk named Joe Pitt to take a job at the Justice Department in order to help block Cohn's disbarment. It is first-class shtick. By ten minutes into Millennium Approaches, several things have been established: a rapid-fire, high-decibel campy wisecracking performance style which the audience usually manages to love; the widest possible terms of reference on the part of the playwright, Tony Kushner; and the aura of some kind of existential affinity between gayness and Jewishness, at least today's native American Jewishness.

On this last point: if the devilish Cohn with his Yiddishisms will provide the most delectable moments of two long evenings out, another chief thread of a very tangled plot is introduced when the lead character, Louis Ironson, after the funeral service for his grandmother, is overwhelmed by the sight of his Wasp lover's first lesion. Will Louis ditch Walter Prior? Or will he be a mentsh and stay? The great play of AIDS is also going to be Jewish, in its way.

So what else is new? Though Kushner is more ambitious than his predecessors, his “fantasia” is but the latest in a tidal wave of homosexual New York plays by Jewish sons, going back almost a quarter-century.

True, not all the gay plays of the past 25 years have been written by Jews. An incomplete list of the nots would include Mart Crowley's pioneering The Boys in the Band; the works of Terrence McNally; David Drake's The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me; T-Shirts by Robert Patrick; Fifth of July by Lanford Wilson; and the late Robert Chesley's raunchy Jerker, or The Helping Hand and his Night Sweat, the first AIDS play.

However, when in the Roaring 70's a new industry of unmasked, self-respecting, innocent, or agitational homosexual plays, based in Greenwich Village but with Shubert Alley in its crosshairs, was founded, this was done mainly by writers of Jewish extraction doing nothing to pass.

There was, for instance, Passing By, a 1972 Off-Broadway work by Martin Sherman. The new innocence and naturalness here are such that when Toby gives Simon hepatitis, they savor being ill together, getting well, and splitting, no hard feelings and close to none of the usual suicidal impulses. Toby is given to exclaiming, “Feh!” Sherman's equally didactic Bent (1979) has Max, a prisoner at Dachau, exchanging his yellow star for a pink triangle before walking into the electrified fence. Bent made it to Broadway, where the Times's Walter Kerr found it “strong.”

Harvey Fierstein also carried the message of gay self-acceptance uptown to the straight audiences, first in his Torch Song Trilogy, then in the smash drag musical for which he wrote the book, La Cage Aux Folles (1983). His Arnold Beckoff in Trilogy is a vulnerable, feisty queen in love with Ed, a bisexual Gentile who is unwilling, at first anyway, to leave his wife.

Among the memorable scenes in Trilogy, which first played downtown in 1978, is one where Arnold is penetrated anally in the orgy room of a bar while keeping up his patter and smoking a cigarette. The scene is played in the dark but is supposed to have nothing grim about it. Even his mother, “the Rita Hayworth of Brighton Beach,” finally has to accept Arnold for what he is, the avatar of an overdue change in our society. Fierstein himself, in the role of Arnold, netted Tonys for both best play and best actor when the show moved to Broadway in 1982. There it joined Falsettos by William Finn and James Lapine, a tale in Sprechstimme of a New York husband and father, Marvin, who leaves his wife and child for the half-Jewish, very athletic Whizzer.

None of these Jewish-homosexual plays, where kvetching is in and self-loathing and menace out, is dramatically in the same league as Crowley's The Boys in the Band, not to mention closeted works like Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire or Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? They are, Bent included, more akin to second-rate cabaret, with or without music, and the Jewish element never goes much beyond the simple matter of fact and a certain domesticated style. But they served a vital function in the rise of the “crossover” play. Broadway producers ascertained that straight audiences would shell out, not to patronize or sneer at but to empathize with uncloseted stage gays who bled a little when pricked a little, and laughed when tickled.

So long, that is, as the “life-style” of gay liberation was not depicted too realistically. The cocaine snorting and no-tomorrow sadomasochistic orgying, down to which liberation was boiling, and which the Jewish writer-activist Larry Kramer fixed with disapproving eye in his in-group novel Faggots (1978), did not travel uptown. What traveled, and began disarming the general culture, was the schmaltzy version which Jewish boys were better at cooking up than goyim.

It therefore was not so astonishing that when the AIDS virus crashed the party, and a different type of crossover play had to be written, it turned out even more “Jewish” than before. The AIDS dramas by Jews which have come out so far, and which Angels epitomizes while aiming to transcend, make a genre topical as the obituary page, stylized as the Passion plays of Oberammergau.

Always the scene is Manhattan. The homosexual couple nearly always consists of a Jew and a Gentile, and conventionally the Gentile is the one who falls ill. (Exceptions: the suicide Reuben in Jean-Claude van Itallie's Ancient Boys; the interfaith lovers in Fierstein's Safe Sex, both frightened but neither yet sick; the yuppies Peter and Drew in Richard Greenberg's Eastern Standard, both of indeterminate ethnicity.) Will the Jewish partner in the conventional scheme obey the golden rule? Or will he run? From this problem springs the genre's dramatic tension, such as it is, beginning with the problematical Larry Kramer's own The Normal Heart (1985).

In that play, the emotional Ned Weeks, Kramer's alter ego, does stick by the dying Felix. In fact, they “marry” in the final scene in the hospital. In As Is by William Hoffman (also 1985), Saul not only tells Rich, “I'll be here for you no matter what happens,” but in the last hospice scene climbs into bed with him, albeit behind a drawn curtain. Likewise in the 1990 sequel to Falsettos entitled Falsettoland, set in a time when “something very bad is happening”; there, Marvin not only comforts the dying Whizzer but is joined by his understanding ex-wife, her new shrink husband, and the lesbian neighbors for the bar mitzvah of the son, performed as a rousing finale around the hospital bed. No second thoughts, no true irony, no bad feelings.

By 1993 and Jeffrey, whose author is the self-described “nice Jewish boy” Paul Rudnick, it was predictable that the talkative, brave, sensitive, HIV-negative hero, fearfully pledged to abstinence and transparently disguised as a Roman Catholic, would see the light and go with buff, HIV-positive Steve. In short, when Felix, Rich, Whizzer, and Steve die, Ned, Saul, Marvin, and Jeffrey are going to have the right, the moral right, to publish their names in the obituary notices as loyal companions.

What about Louis Ironson? This is a question that remains unanswered for most of the combined 420 minutes of Angels.

Louis is a shmendrick. He is given to such talk as

Jeane Kirkpatrick for God's sake will go on and on about freedom, when she talks about it, or human rights; you have Bush talking about human rights … these people don't begin to know what, ontologically, freedom is. … And what I think is that what AIDS shows us is the limits of tolerance.

The question whether Louis will stand by Walter Prior, his Wasp lover, and then whether, having abandoned him, he will be allowed to return, is one of three plots set in motion in Millennium Approaches and clumsily developed into the year 1986 in Part 2, Perestroika. Intersecting this is the story of Joe Pitt, the closeted Mormon Reaganite living in Brooklyn, his psychotically heterosexual wife, and his mother who flies in from Salt Lake City attempting to save the marriage after Louis guesses Joe's true nature. Third and foremost is the story, and presence, of Roy Cohn as quintessential McCarthyite and gay-bashing New York closet homosexual macher.

As biographies by Sidney Zion and Nicholas von Hoffman tell us, the real-life Cohn during his final months was indeed preoccupied with escaping disbarment, and was indeed claiming to be dying of something other than the gay disease. In Angels, when informed by the doctor that he has AIDS, he replies: “Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who … have zero clout.” Hence it is not possible for Cohn to have AIDS. This by-now famous line is one of Kushner's inventions.

Another is the ghost of the atom spy Ethel Rosenberg, who shows up at Cohn's hospital deathbed to taunt him for his role in the prosecution of her and her husband Julius more than 30 years before. Still another is the trademarked angel, descending over Walter Prior's bed with the words: “Greetings Prophet!” to close Part 1.

The sequel has Prior saying, “Maybe I am a prophet. Not just me, all of us who are dying now.” During this evening he is befriended by the mother of Joe Pitt; Joe leaves his wife for Louis and refuses to help Cohn; Joe is left by Louis, who is guilt-ridden over having abandoned Prior. Cohn is ejected from the bar and noisily dies, the very sick Prior wrestles the angel for a blessing, curses God during a visit to heaven for “all the terrible days of this terrible century,” and in an epilogue dated 1990 apparently has permitted Louis to return to keep him company.

Dramatically, Angels is much wind-up, little delivery. The play's champions have touted its grab-bag formlessness as itself definitively American, and it is true that everything including the kitchen sink gets in before the final curtain, giving the impression not only of expansiveness but even of a tolerant ambiguity on religion and unbelief, selfishness and loyalty. Right and Left. Even those puzzled by the seeming chaos get a lot for their money. Both evenings move along, thanks to director George C. Wolfe, to much stage business, and especially to the character of Roy Cohn—a Jewish monster beyond good and evil.

Cohn is the only really interesting figure in Angels, the only nontype. An anti-shmendrick, the opposite of Louis, he runs away with the show. Louis, meanwhile, is Kushner's alter ego, a gay, hyper, Jewish liberal-radical tripped up only occasionally by a hospital nurse, a flaming black queen with a perfect ear and great campy lines.

Although he blathers a great deal, and is sometimes a hypocritical coward, Louis's politics and sexual behaviors are, as far as Kushner is concerned, and we are supposed to concur, right on. The general rule in this play is that Kushner's ambiguities are quite studied—one understands where the playwright stands. A single lapse in the park aside, Louis could not be wiser or more generous sexually, as when he rescues Mormon Joe from the closet and they finally get together on the Lower East Side, the same neighborhood. Louis does not fail to say, where “the Jews lived when they first arrived.” Joe has come to him but still hesitates. Louis is gently implacable. “Sometimes,” he reassures the uptight conservative lawyer, “even if it scares you to death, you have to be willing to break the law.” Kushner's stage directions: “Louis slips his hand down the front of Joe's pants … Louis pulls his hand out, smells and tastes his fingers, and then holds them for Joe to smell.”

Rapt silences from the dark side of the footlights alternate with hurricanes of friendly laughter throughout Angels. Thus, when actor Dan Futterman as Louis elaborately follows the stage directions here, the audience is captivated. And no one has earlier protested, much less rioted, when Louis kneels, spotlighted, pants down, to be taken by a Central Park stranger in leather. “Infect me,” he says not very wisely. “I don't care.”

But that is the weak Louis. The strong Louis is the one who leads Joe with a firm hand out of the wilderness of heterosexual marriage into the promised land of homosexual lovemaking.

I don't believe in God. I think you should know that before we fuck again.

To which Joe, with him in bed, responds, “I love you.”

No one makes a demonstrative exit from the theater during this scene, either. Or any other. A collective intake of breath for the naked, wasted Christ-like body of Prior (Stephen Spinella) with its painted-on sores. Laughter for the punch-line when Louis asks Isidor Chemelwitz: “Rabbi, what does the Holy Writ say about someone who abandons someone he loves at a time of great need?”

… You want to confess, better you should find a priest.
But I'm not a Catholic, I'm a Jew.
Worse luck for you, bubbelah. Catholics believe in forgiveness. Jews believe in guilt.

Or again, when his baffled, earnest, desperate wife is telling Joe about her day: “I heard on the radio how to give a blow job. … It was a little Jewish lady with a German accent.” A tremendous knowing shriek, no one pausing to wonder how Dr. Ruth's size can be inferred from the radio.

And delight for the burning letters of the Hebrew alphabet, part of the stage design. Readers of the Sunday New York Times entertainment section have been instructed by Kushner that

Hebrew is a language of great antiquity and mystery, and of great compression. Each letter, each word encompasses innumerable meanings, good and evil. The physical letters are themselves totems, objects of power. The Torah, the Book, is to be treated with veneration. Here is another Mormon-Jewish connection: both are people of the Book—only very different books.

If anyone in the theater thinks Kushner treats either the Jewish or the Mormon book with less than veneration, and is upset by that, he keeps it to himself. More laughter for a diorama at the Mormon visitors' center, where Joe's mother drags his wife. And the hugest laugh of all, for this:

BELIZE [The Black Queen]:
Guess who just checked in with the troubles? The Killer Queen Herself. New York's number-one closeted queer.

The laughter has a more knowing edge to it than at Millennium Approaches. This is because, although suburban Jews predominate on both evenings, a much larger cohort of with-it Manhattan gays shows up for Perestroika. No doubt all have already seen Part 1, and every bit of camp is picked up instantly. But more ghosts hover during Evening Two than Evening One. These are the spirits of the youngish men, often beautiful to look at, sometimes gifted, who died piteously in the past decade, just as some in the audience who knew, loved, abandoned, were unfaithful or faithful to, and nursed and wept over them know they also will die in the next decade unless a cure is found. The air especially at Evening Two is consequently shot through with grief, dread, and bravely stylish good humor, with sentiments of community, and also of resentment of something out there in America.

The mood, improbably, embraces the dying Roy Cohn as well. Throughout Part 2, anticipation of the next scene with him offsets incipient longueurs.

I don't trust this hospital. For all I know Lillian fucking Hellman is down in the basement switching the pills around.

A thunderclap of laughter. “I pleaded till I wept to put her in the chair,” Cohn tells Joe. “Her” is Ethel Rosenberg again, whose ghost, like the Commendatore's in Don Giovanni, materializes to say, “Be seeing you soon, Roy. Julius sends his regards. … History is about to crack wide open.” Having enjoyed him, the audience relishes Cohn's writhing exit quite as much as does Ethel, whom Kushner has say: “I came to forgive but all I can do is take pleasure in your misery. … And when you die all anyone will say is: better he had never lived at all.”

What follows is probably as definitive a first on Broadway as the mimed sodomy earlier. Asked by the black nurse to do the right thing and say kaddish over the body, Louis is willing but ignorantly unable. Whereupon the shade of Ethel Rosenberg, played by the same actress who did the hasidic rabbi, intones the entire Aramaic prayer, Louis with a Kleenex on his head stumbling behind. You can hear a pin drop.

The epilogue, set at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, with its stone angel, has the ill but surviving Prior, Louis, the black queen, and Joe's mother, all reconciled. “This disease,” Prior says to the audience in an envoi shedding the last veil of ambiguity and reminiscent of Clifford Odets at his agitprop best, “will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away … MORE LIFE … The Great Work Begins.”

Triggering a long stormy ovation and many curtain calls and leaving the dense and the unconverted to figure out what it all means.

Jewish homosexuals, famous and obscure, there have always been, including those who in the bad old days found ways to live unrepressed. The composer Ned Rorem, a non-Jew, tells in his memoirs of going home with one Morris Golde, “a brash, short, swarthy, muscular presence” from the Bronx, in prehistoric 1943. Later Rorem, who estimates having gone to bed with 3,000 men and several women, refers to “unsentimentally” obliging the anarchist poet-philosopher Paul Goodman, who “smelled of his baggy sweater and pipe smoke.”

But this is old stuff. The art, fashion, music, publishing, and theater scenes were known by those who knew anything to be disproportionately Jewish and importantly gay many decades before Tony Kushner. Often enough, as in the Aaron Copland-Leonard Bernstein-Marc Blitzstein set, to which Rorem as a non-Jew won only partial entrée, the attributes of Jewishness and gayness overlapped, and were spiced by political fellow-traveling. The phenomenon is not new. The extent perhaps is.

Has the number of Jewish homosexuals taken a quantum leap, or is the increase simply apparent, the result of the closet having been vacated? Any bitterly unmarried, straight, non-Orthodox Jewish woman in the New York area yearning to marry in the faith and have children probably believes she can answer that one. It is not just that the closet is not what it used to be, she will tell you. No, the gay life has become positively fashionable among her generation of male Jews, and the absolute number of Jewish homosexuals has gone through the roof.

Here we enter uncharted territory. All the experts say that no matter what the group, and regardless of time and place, of repression or liberation, the ratio of men preferring men to those preferring women stays constant, and statistically minuscule. But what, our childless Jewish woman lawyer with a brother in the Village might ask, do they know? If the experts are right, how can it be that on any given Friday night, there may well be more worshippers at Beth Simchat Torah, the gay and lesbian shul downtown, than at any other synagogue or temple in the Diaspora? Go to the West Village after services on Friday night and see all these Jewish men having dinner with each other in candlelit Italian restaurants!

Don't get her wrong, she will add: a basher of homosexuals is the last thing she is. She retains a Jewish heart, she can't help admiring their stylish courage—her brother, thank God, remains HIV-negative. Moreover, her work takes her to other cities, where she has discovered smaller islands of the gay archipelago boasting a high percentage of Jews and has been told how these are raising property values in neighborhoods formerly given over to blight. Nevertheless, she's unhappy. She has the money, but not the time, for Angels.

Behind her and her frustration, and her brother, loom their parents, and one does not want to get her going on them. But there are many like her, you cannot avoid them unless you have nothing to do with Jewish women, and unless you pin everything on genetics; this raises a double question: has the American Jewish family of the last generation, a family more and more often with the father vanished, become a nursery for homosexual sons? And why have the many playwrights among them, with the exception of the intrepid Larry Kramer, shunned the family topic as if it were the real plague?

Kramer's The Destiny of Me (1992) is a sequel to The Normal Heart. In that first play, his nudnik of an alter ego, Ned Weeks, says, “We have simply fucked ourselves silly for years and years, and sometimes we've done it in the filthiest places.” Now his Gentile lover has died, Ned himself is sick, and it is time to remember in a series of flashbacks what the playwright calls his own “journey to acceptance” of gayness. This means unearthing himself as a boy, unearthing his parents, and later the shrinks with names like Schwartz and Grossman who tried to “cure” him.

The Destiny of Me, like The Normal Heart, reveals that Kramer is no dramatist—his primary subject is himself, and he cannot get much distance from it. But at least he rummages openly in the past, agonizing over what he finds—something the ideology frowns on. It turns out Ned Weeks's father was hated by his artistic son, while the smothering mother was adored.

Ideological homosexuals were bound to give The Destiny of Me tepid reviews, despite Kramer's political standing as founder of ACT-UP. This dwelling on childhood and parents, like his earlier sermonizing against promiscuity, is extremely incorrect. It raises doubts whether he has truly told Drs. Schwartz and Grossman to go to hell. Much better for gay playwrights to leave childhood and puberty, mom and especially dad strictly out of their work.

This has so far been done by Tony Kushner, although he has confessed in one of numberless interviews that his own coming-out initiated “a family battle,” and that his father took much longer to adjust than his mother, doing so only when Angels struck gold. In the play, Louis Ironson of course has parents and siblings—they are present in front of Rabbi Chemelwitz at the funeral of the grandmother. Explaining to Prior why he never visited this old lady at her nursing home, Louis says: “She looked too much like my mother.”

And that is all, in seven hours, concerning his family. “Vast, sprawling, inclusive, wordy,” Michael Feingold gushed in his review of Angels in the Village Voice. But while Ma Pitt comes on at length, and her deceased professional soldier husband, Joe's father, is thoroughly dissected, the Ironsons are kept out of sight and mind. Besides sparing Kushner's own family, this makes dramatic and ideological sense. The dramatic interest in Angels is Cohn, and the ideological message is that AIDS is more than a disease and that a homosexual perspective best comprehends reality and history. Bringing in Louis's family would have jeopardized everything.

In fact, in the beginning, Angels was to be a play about Cohn. The attractions for an ideological gay like Kushner are self-evident. What less obviously yet also compellingly makes Cohn's last days almost too good to be true is that he was such an anti-Communist.

Born three years after the Rosenbergs were electrocuted, Kushner is something of a red-diaper baby. Anyone with a nose in these matters can sniff it from Angels, but the playwright has come entirely clean in a credo published recently in—where else?—the Nation. It reads like nothing so much as one of Louis's expostulations. If American “capitalism” were to accommodate homosexuals by giving them equal rights, as it has every capability of doing, and if that were that, this in Kushner's eyes would be a tragedy. What profit from the struggle if gays end up with the same rights as heteros while the “free market” goes on savaging the world?

Poverty, war, alienation, environmental destruction, colonialism, unequal development, boom/bust cycles, private property, individualism, commodity fetishism, the fetishization of the body, the fetishization of violence, guns, drugs, child abuse, underfunded and bad education (itself a form of child abuse)—these things are key to the successful functioning of the free market.

Homosexuals like Andrew Sullivan of the New Republic who are satisfied with tolerance are put down by Kushner as “assimilationists.” This is quite a dirty word in some Jewish lexicons—but Kushner's teacher is neither Herzl nor any rebbe. It is Oscar Wilde, the preceptor of socialism with a gay face, “a socialism of the skin.”

The notion that decadence is in the eye of the beholder, no more than an epithet for anything new in a culture which is feared by reactionaries, is always beguiling. “Decadence,” said the critic Richard Gilman back in the 70's, in much the same words the ordinary professor of communications would use today, “is not a fact but a value judgment”—a judgment passed on the most forward-looking, actually the best, healthiest, most useful artists of the day. As for sex, conservatives always get hung up on this, naively or cynically identifying the sex in “decadent” art with paganism, and paganism with social breakdown.

To this, the straight butch lesbian Camille Paglia has entered a ringing plea of guilty: “Judeo-Christianity never did defeat paganism, which still flourishes in art, eroticism, astrology, and pop culture.” According to Paglia, the eternal hallmark of decadence is the celebration of sexual perversion; and such decadence, long may it wave, continues to be with us because Christianity failed to destroy paganism, including “all theater, which is pagan showiness.”

Paglia exaggerates. Not merely the celebration of perversion but blanket approval of the instincts and the love of death are what you have in truly pagan theater, and what you do not have in Shakespeare, Jonson, Chekhov, Schnitzler, Beckett, etc. Nevertheless, when Paglia vouches for a culture war going back 2,000 or 4,000 years and continuing into the future, attention should be paid. And we might remember, too, that Gore Vidal, saluted by Kushner as his mentor, has identified the great enemy today as homophobic monotheism. If such as Paglia and Vidal not only acknowledge paganism, but affirm the life-enhancing qualities of a pagan consciousness which squares, conservatives, and Bible-thumpers call decadent, where does Kushner's play fit in?

He implies the answer in his interviews—Angels is a play of gay ideology. Professors of that ideology agree that if straights are to be reeducated, their noses are going to have to be rubbed in it. They must be forced to look, not only at males kissing, but at the act itself, sex being the essence of this yet-to-be-fully-accepted way of life. “Sexual desire,” states John Clum, a member of the deconstructionist and neo-Marxian English department at Duke, “is not the only dimension of the homosexual experience, but it is the core.” To assert gay pride, and desensitize the heteros into acceptance, the lineaments of that desire gratifying itself have to be made visible. Among the beauties of Angels for Clum is that here, it happens.

But homosexual agitprop must not only render the gay way nonobjectionable. On this Clum is a more honest ideologue than Kushner. “In the past twenty years,” writes the former, “homosexuality in drama has moved from shame-filled hints to proud assertion. Heterosexism, which used to be upheld as the norm, is now driven offstage.” In other words, in order to accept gayness, the straight has to be led to the realization that his own way is a not-so-good one. Neither a good way of sex, nor a good way of imagining, of seeing and being in the world.

The ideology propagated directly by academics like Clum and indirectly by Kushner avows that imagination and sexuality grow one from the other, and that a distinctively homosexual imagination possesses the future. Gays, when free, see more clearly, powerfully, and inclusively than straights. No crossover play will do the job unless it sends the audience home with this new understanding. Angels is especially fine, says Clum, because it “challenges the heterosexuals … to see with gay eyes.”

What Clum somehow misses is that Kushner goes farther. He does to AIDS what Arthur Schnitzler, M.D. would never have dreamed of doing to any illness, let alone syphilis—he metaphorizes it. AIDS is shown as ghastly, but Prior comes to believe that having it endows him with the faculty of prophecy, is evidence of some kind of grace for “all of us who are dying now.” And nothing believed in by this brave, together Wasp is to be dismissed by us.

It would be nice to know how many of those flocking to Angels, straights and for that matter homosexuals alike, buy the prophecy of a gay millennium. But one does not need an audience poll to feel that, ideological though Angels is, it is not, finally, pagan. A New Yorker profile reports that Kushner keeps a teddy bear among his possessions, and that seems right. Mimed homosexual acts notwithstanding, the fascination with Cohn notwithstanding, this play, like others of the genre, has a basically soft and cuddly, not a hard and Greco-Roman, feel about it.

However, Variety reports that the master director Robert Altman is bringing Angels to the screen. The Kushnerian view of America, sex, and the Jews is thus soon going to be available to the masses, and no doubt with its squishiness taken care of. At every multiplex where Schindler's List played last year, Americans will be offered the adventures of Roy, Louis, Joe, Prior, Ethel & Co., probably excluding the sodomy but including subtitled Yiddish, burning Hebrew letters, the f-word every 30 seconds, lesions, and kaddish, the whole megillah artistically riveting. Will the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have the intestinal fortitude to bestow on the Altman version the Oscars guaranteeing it long, profitable, influential runs? Hard to say.

Uncertain, too, given this country's irritable mood, is the popular reception awaiting the movie when it opens. It is not inconceivable that at some malls the clean-cut will be out picketing what they apprehend is the brilliant glorification of pagan decadence. Should this happen, the ACLU will cite the First Amendment, while Jewish defense organizations, known among other things for their dutiful advocacy of gay rights, abortion-on-demand, and sex education, and for their reasoned opposition to prayer in school, will see no need but to keep mum.

For here is a salient difference between Europe in 1895 and our uniquely forgiving country 100 years later: Godfearing Christians, even the Puritans and the worse-than-uptight among them, those for whom AIDS is retribution from heaven, do not, whatever they mutter among themselves, publicly blame “the Jews” for anything. The ancient hateful conflation of homos, atheists, feminists, abortionists, Communists, and Jews is limited to the remoter gulches of Idaho that harbor the likes of the Aryan Nation. Everywhere else it is, and one hopes it will remain, beyond the American pale.


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Tony Kushner 1956-

American playwright.

The following entry presents an overview of Kushner's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 81.

Kushner established himself as an internationally celebrated playwright with the critical and popular success of his epic two-part Broadway production, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1991, 1992). Angels in America explores issues of gay identity in America, set within the cultural context of the AIDS epidemic, Reagan/Bush administration politics, and the ending of the Cold War. Kushner's interweaving of dramatic interpersonal relationships, harsh political realities, and fantastical flights of imagination won him widespread critical acclaim and many prestigious accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Antoinette Perry (“Tony”) Award for Best Play, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best New Play, all for Part One of Angels in America, subtitled Millennium Approaches, and the Antoinette Perry Award for Best Play for Part Two: Perestroika. Kushner earned the 2004 Emmy Award for best writer in a miniseries for the television adaptation of Angels in America. Kushner's play Homebody/Kabul (2001), set in Afghanistan, received an Obie Award in 2002.

Biographical Information

Of Jewish descent, Kushner was born July 16, 1956, in New York City, and grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Both of his parents were classical musicians. Kushner became aware of his homosexuality at an early age, but attempted to change his sexual preference during his college years with psychotherapy. Eventually, he came to accept his sexuality, which has become a central focus of his theatrical writings. Kushner graduated from Columbia University, earning a B.A. in medieval studies in 1978. While working as a switchboard operator at the United Nations Plaza Hotel, he enrolled in the graduate program in directing at New York University, completing his M.F.A. in 1984. Since 1985, Kushner has maintained a successful career in theater as a playwright, director, and educator. He has served as assistant director of the St. Louis Repertory Theatre from 1985 to 1986, artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop from 1987 to 1988, director of literary services for the Theatre Communication Group in New York from 1990 to 1991, playwright in residence at the Juilliard School of Drama from 1990 to 1992, and as a guest dramaturge in the theater programs of New York University, Yale University, and Princeton University.

Major Works

Angels in America includes over thirty characters and numerous interconnected subplots, totaling seven and a half hours of performance time. Millennium Approaches, Part One of Angels in America, introduces a smorgasbord of characters—fantastical, historical, and fictional—including an African-American drag queen, the oldest living Bolshevik, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, a rabbi played by a gentile actor, and an angel. The five central characters of Angels in America include Roy Cohn, a figure from the era of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who promulgated the “red scare” trials of the 1950s; Prior Walter, a young man with AIDS; Louis Ironson, a Jewish man who is Prior's lover; Joe Pitt, a bisexual Mormon; and Harper Pitt, Joe's wife. Millennium Approaches explores the impact of Prior's diagnosis of AIDS on the interrelationships among these characters. In one subplot, Cohn, a ruthlessly ambitious political player intent on gaining power within the ranks of the Reagan administration, defines homosexuality as a position of powerlessness; because he holds political power, Cohn argues, he himself is not a homosexual but is simply a heterosexual man who has sex with men. Further, although a doctor has just informed him that he is HIV-positive, Cohn argues that, since he is not a homosexual, it is not possible for him to have AIDS. Another set of subplots focuses on the loss experienced by Prior and Harper when each is deserted by his partner, while Louis and Joe develop a new relationship with each other. Kushner makes use of fantastic and hallucinatory elements in Millennium Approaches, such as Harper's fantasy that she is in Antarctica and a scene in which two characters meet and dance in each other's dreams. Millennium Approaches ends with a sense of apocalypse as an angel appears to Prior.

Part Two of Angels in America, titled Perestroika, follows the personal struggles of each of the central characters as they come to terms with the various changes and losses they experienced earlier. While many of the characters transform these crises into positive experiences, Cohn dies of AIDS, steeped in self-hatred, without truly learning anything from his experience. Cohn's ghost later appears as God's attorney. In the final scene of Perestroika, Prior addresses the audience directly with the personal gospel he has developed as a result of his experiences. Perestroika ends on a positive, hopeful note, emphasizing the power of the imagination to transform tragedy into beauty. A made-for-television film adaptation of Angels in America premiered as a miniseries on Home Box Office (HBO) in December 2003, earning Emmy Awards for Kushner, director Mike Nichols, stars Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Jeffrey Wright, and Mary-Louise Parker and an Emmy for Best Miniseries. Slavs! Thinking about the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness (1995), which Kushner considered his coda to Angels in America, is set amid the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. In Slavs! a character named Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, who originally appeared in Angels in America, raises questions about the relationship between individual action and the forces of history. In an epilogue to Slavs! the characters who have died find that even in Heaven there are no conclusive answers to the “longstanding problems of virtue and happiness.”

Kushner's exploration of the relationship between political circumstances and the personal lives of his characters frequently includes fantastical elements such as angels, devils, and other spirits. An early play, Hydriotaphia, or, The Death of Dr. Browne (1987), is an imaginary reconstruction of the last day in the life of the historic figure Sir Thomas Browne, a seventeenth-century scientist and writer. Described as an “epic farce,” Hydriotaphia—a word which means “urn-burial”—takes its title from an essay by Browne in which he concludes that God does not promise an afterlife to human beings. While lying in his deathbed, Dr. Browne is visited by characters such as his Soul, the Devil, a witch, and a grave-digger. In addition to treating gay themes, Kushner's works also address issues of Jewish culture, identity, and history. A Bright Room Called Day (1987) is set in Germany during the early years of Hitler's rise to power. In this play, a group of friends is dispersed under the pressures of the Nazi regime; some flee into exile, others retreat into hiding, and one woman is left alone, vulnerable to persecution. Zillah Katz, a young American woman living in contemporary times, is the narrator of the play. In commenting on the actions of the drama, Zillah draws parallels between the oppressive forces of the Nazi regime and current events. Kushner originally wrote Zillah's perspective with the provision that he would periodically update her commentary in keeping with the national context and current events of the play's production.

Kushner's other works continue to explore interpersonal dramas situated in a larger social, cultural, and political context of national and international events. Homebody/Kabul, written before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, on the United States, was first produced a few months after the attacks. Because the play is set partly in Afghanistan and raises issues of Western powers in relation to Afghan politics and history, Homebody/Kabul was considered to be a prescient work. Set in 1998, Act I of the play introduces the Homebody, an elderly English housewife who recites an hour-long monologue in which she reads from an outdated travel book on Afghanistan and fantasizes about going to Kabul, where she makes love to an Afghan man. Act II takes place in a hotel room in Kabul, after the Homebody has traveled to Afghanistan and possibly been beaten to death for failing to observe the strict cultural codes of the Taliban regime. Caroline, or Change (2003), a musical, is set in the South during the Civil Rights era of the early 1960s, and concerns the relationship between a Jewish family and their African American maid, Caroline. Recent changes within the family structure are examined in the context of changes brewing in the South as a result of the Civil Rights Movement.

Kushner has also written a number of adaptations of plays by other authors. Stella (1987) is an eponymous adaptation of a play by German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The Illusion (1988) is adapted from the work by French playwright Pierre Corneille. Widows (1991), co-written with Ariel Dorfman, is adapted from the novel by Dorfman. The Good Person of Szechuan (1997), adapted from a play by German playwright Bertolt Brecht, emphasizes the relevance of the original story to contemporary American society. Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds (1997), adapted from the Yiddish play by S. Ansky, addresses questions of the impact of history on the notion of individual choice. The story concerns Leah, the daughter of a wealthy man who wishes to marry her off in the most profitable match he can find. In the end, the Dybbuk, a spirit character from Jewish mythology, possesses Leah's body and confronts her father about his moral failings.

Critical Reception

The initial critical response to Angels in America was overwhelmingly positive. Reviewers were impressed with Kushner's ability to address serious, current social and political issues—particularly gay identity politics in the era of the AIDS epidemic—while providing entertaining, humorous material that is accessible to mainstream Broadway audiences. The initial wave of essays on Angels in America from academic critics was equally laudatory. These critics explored the complexities of Kushner's representation of gay identity in the broader context of American domestic and international politics. Kushner was applauded for his representation of the intersections of gay and Jewish identity, as well as his examination of the relationship between individual experience and the collective interests of the broader human community. Critics were also impressed with Kushner's examination of the historical past in relation to current political issues. More recent criticism of Angels in America from the academic sector, however, has pointed out contradictions in its ideological underpinnings. Some have censured what appears to be a subversive political message in Angels in America, asserting that the play ultimately expresses a complacent political attitude that is easy for popular audiences to accept without truly challenging their values. Some feminist critics have argued that Angels in America relegates women to marginal status as opposed to the privileging of gay male identity. Despite these criticisms, however, Kushner is widely recognized as one of the most important playwrights of his generation—an openly gay, Jewish, and political writer unafraid of addressing contentious social issues with ambitious productions that offer a sense of hope for the future of humanity.

David Savran (essay date May 1995)

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SOURCE: Savran, David. “Ambivalence, Utopia, and a Queer Sort of Materialism: How Angels in America Reconstructs the Nation.” Theatre Journal 47, no. 2 (May 1995): 207-27.

[In the following essay, Savran examines the ideological underpinnings of Angels in America in terms of the cultural, historical, and political context in which it was produced.]

Critics, pundits, and producers have placed Tony Kushner's Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes in the unenviable position of having to rescue the American theatre. The latter, by all accounts, is in a sorry state. It has attempted to maintain its elite cultural status despite the fact that the differences between “high” and “low” have become precarious. On Broadway, increasingly expensive productions survive more and more by mimicking mass culture, either in the form of mind-numbing spectacles featuring singing cats, falling chandeliers, and dancing dinner-ware or plays, like The Heidi Chronicles or Prelude to a Kiss, whose style and themes aspire to “quality” television. In regional theatres, meanwhile, subscriptions continue to decline, and with them the adventurousness of artistic directors. Given this dismal situation, Angels in America has almost singlehandedly resuscitated a category of play that has become almost extinct: the serious Broadway drama that is neither a British import nor a revival.

Not within memory has a new American play been canonized by the press as rapidly as Angels in America.1 Indeed, critics have been stumbling over each other in an adulatory stupor. John Lahr hails Perestroika as a “masterpiece” and notes that “[n]ot since Williams has a playwright announced his poetic vision with such authority on the Broadway stage.”2 Jack Kroll judges both parts “the broadest, deepest, most searching American play of our time,” while Robert Brustein deems Millennium Approaches “the authoritative achievement of a radical dramatic artist with a fresh, clear voice.”3 In the gay press, meanwhile, the play is viewed as testifying to the fact that “Broadway now leads the way in the industry with its unapologetic portrayals of gay characters.”4 For both Frank Rich and John Clum, Angels is far more than just a successful play; it is the marker of a decisive historical shift in American theatre. According to Rich, the play's success is in part the result of its ability to conduct “a searching and radical rethinking of the whole esthetic of American political drama.”5 For Clum, the play's appearance on Broadway “marks a turning point in the history of gay drama, the history of American drama, and of American literary culture.”6 In its reception, Angels—so deeply preoccupied with teleological process—is itself positioned as both the culmination of history and as that which rewrites the past.

Despite the enormity of the claims cited above, I am less interested in disputing them than in trying to understand why they are being made—and why now. Why is a play featuring five gay male characters being universalized as a “turning point” in the American theatre, and minoritized as the preeminent gay male artifact of the 1990s? Why is it both popular and “radical?” What is the linkage between the two primary sources for the play's theory of history and utopia—Walter Benjamin and Mormonism? And what does this linkage suggest about the constitution of the nation? Finally, why has queer drama become the theatrical sensation of the 1990s? I hope it's not too perverse of me to attempt to answer these questions by focusing less on the construction of queer subjectivities per se than on the field of cultural production in which Angels in America is situated. After all, how else would one practice a queer materialism?


The opposite of nearly everything you say about Angels in America will also hold true: Angels valorizes identity politics; it offers an anti-foundationalist critique of identity politics. Angels mounts an attack against ideologies of individualism; it problematizes the idea of community. Angels submits liberalism to a trenchant examination; it finally opts for yet another version of American liberal pluralism. Angels launches a critique of the very mechanisms that produce pathologized and acquiescent female bodies; it represents yet another pathologization and silencing of women. A conscientious reader or spectator might well rebuke the play, as Belize does Louis: “you're ambivalent about everything.”7 And so it is. The play's ambivalence, however, is not simply the result of Kushner hedging his bets on the most controversial issues. Rather, it functions, I believe—quite independently of the intent of its author—as the play's political unconscious, playing itself out on many different levels: formal, ideological, characterological, and rhetorical. (Frank Rich refers to this as Kushner's “refusal to adhere to any theatrical or political theory.”8) Yet the fact that ambivalence—or undecidability—is the watchword of this text (which is, after all, two plays) does not mean that all the questions it raises remain unresolved. On the contrary, I will argue that the play's undecidability is, in fact, always already resolved because the questions that appear to be ambivalent in fact already have been decided consciously or unconsciously by the text itself. Moreover, the relentless operation of normalizing reading practices works to reinforce these decisions. If I am correct, the play turns out (pace Frank Rich) to adhere all too well to a particular political theory.

Formally, Angels is a promiscuously complicated play that is very difficult to categorize generically. Clum's characterization of it as being “like a Shakespearean romance” is doubtlessly motivated by the play's rambling and episodic form, its interweaving of multiple plotlines, its mixture of realism and fantasy, its invocation of various theological and mythological narratives, as well as by its success in evoking those characteristics that are usually associated with both comedy and tragedy.9 Moreover, Perestroika's luminous finale is remarkably suggestive of the beatific scenes that end Shakespeare's romances. There is no question, moreover, but that the play deliberately evokes the long history of Western dramatic literature and positions itself as heir to the traditions of Sophocles, Shakespeare, Brecht, and others. Consider, for example, its use of the blindness/insight opposition and the way that Prior Walter is carefully constructed (like the blind Prelapsarianov) as a kind of Tiresias, “going blind, as prophets do.”10 This binarism, the paradigmatic emblem of the tragic subject (and mark of Tiresias, Oedipus, and Gloucester) deftly links cause and effect—because one is blind to truth, one loses one's sight—and is used to claim Prior's priority, his epistemologically privileged position in the text. Or consider the parallels often drawn in the press between Kushner's Roy Cohn and Shakespeare's Richard III.11 Or Kushner's use of a fate motif, reminiscent of Macbeth, whereby Prior insists that Louis not return until the seemingly impossible comes to pass, until he sees Louis “black and blue” (2:89). Or Kushner's rewriting of those momentous moral and political debates that riddle not just classical tragedy (Antigone, Richard II) but also the work of Brecht and his (mainly British) successors (Howard Brenton, David Hare, Caryl Churchill). Or the focus on the presence/absence of God that one finds not just in early modern tragedy but also in so-called Absurdism (Beckett, Ionesco, Stoppard). Moreover, these characteristics tend to be balanced, on the one hand, by the play's insistent tendency to ironize and, on the other, by the familiar ingredients of romantic comedies (ill-matched paramours, repentant lovers, characters suddenly finding themselves in unfamiliar places, plus a lot of good jokes). Despite the ironic/comic tone, however, none of the interlaced couples survives the onslaught of chaos, disease, and revelation. Prior and Louis, Louis and Joe, Joe and Harper have all parted by the end of the play and the romantic dyad (as primary social unit) is replaced in the final scene of Perestroika by a utopian concept of (erotic) affiliation and a new definition of family.

Angels in America's title, its idea of utopia, and its model for a particular kind of ambivalence are derived in part from Benjamin's extraordinary meditation, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” written shortly before his death in 1940. Composed during the first months of World War II, with fascism on its march across Europe, the darkness (and simultaneous luminosity) of Benjamin's “Theses” attest not only to the seeming invincibility of Hitler, but also to the impossible position of the European left, “[s]tranded,” as Terry Eagleton notes, “between social democracy and Stalinism.”12 In this essay, Benjamin sketches a discontinuous theory of history in which “the services of theology” are enlisted in the aid of reconceiving “historical materialism.”13 Opposing the universalizing strategies of bourgeois historicism with historical materialism's project of brushing “history against the grain” (257), he attempts a radical revision of Marxist historiography. Suturing the Jewish notion of Messianic time (in which all history is given meaning retrospectively by the sudden and unexpected coming of the Messiah) to the Marxist concept of revolution, Benjamin reimagines proletariat revolution not as the culmination of a conflict between classes, or between traditional institutions and new forms of production, but as a “blast[ing] open” of “the continuum of history” (262). Unlike traditional Marxist (or idealist) historiographers, he rejects the idea of the present as a moment of “transition” and instead conceives it as Jetztzeit: “time filled by the presence of the now” (261), a moment in which “time stands still and has come to a stop” (262). Facing Jetztzeit, and opposing all forms of gradualism, Benjamin's historical materialist is given the task not of imagining and inciting progressive change (or a movement toward socialism), but of “blast[ing] a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history” (263).

The centerpiece of Benjamin's essay is his explication of a painting by Paul Klee, which becomes a parable of history, of the time of the Now, in the face of catastrophe (which for him means all of human history):

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. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence 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. This storm is what we call progress.


In Benjamin's allegory, with its irresolvable play of contradictions, the doggedly well-intentioned angel of history embodies both the inconceivability of progress and the excruciating condition of the Now. Poised (not unlike Benjamin himself in Europe in 1940) between the past, which is to say “catastrophe,” and an unknown and terrifying future, he is less a heavenly actor than a passive observer, “fixedly contemplating” that disaster which is the history of the world. His “Paradise,” meanwhile, is not the site of a benign utopianism but a “storm” whose “violence” gets caught under his wings and propels him helplessly into an inconceivable future that stymies his gaze.

Benjamin's allegory of history is, in many respects, the primary generative fiction for Angels in America. Not only is its Angel clearly derived from Benjamin's text (although with gender reassignment surgery along the way—Kushner's Angel is “Hermaphroditically Equipped”), but so is its vision of Heaven, which has “a deserted, derelict feel to it,” with “rubble … strewn everywhere” (2:48; 121). And the play's conceptualizations of the past, of catastrophe, and of utopia are clearly inflected by Benjamin's “Theses,” as is its linkage between historical materialism and theology. Moreover, rather than attempt to suppress the contradictions that inform Benjamin's materialist theology, Kushner expands them. As a result, the ideas of history, progress, and paradise that Angels in America invokes are irreducibly contradictory (often without appearing to be so). Just as Benjamin's notion of revolution is related dialectically to catastrophe, so are Angel's concepts of deliverance and abjection, ecstasy and pain, utopia and dystopia, necessarily linked. Kushner's Angel (and her/his heaven) serve as a constant reminder both of catastrophe (AIDS, racism, homophobia, and the pathologization of queer and female bodies, to name only the play's most obvious examples) and of the perpetual possibility of millennium's approach, or in the words of Ethel Rosenberg (unmistakably echoing Benjamin), that “[h]istory is about to crack wide open” (1:112). And the concept of utopia/dystopia to which s/he is linked guarantees that the vehicle of hope and redemption in Angels—the prophet who foresees a new age—will be the character who must endure the most agony: Prior Walter, suffering from AIDS and Louis's desertion.

Within the economy of utopia/dystopia that Angels installs, the greatest promise of the millennium is the possibility of life freed from the shackles of hatred, oppression, and disease. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Roy Cohn is constructed as the embodiment and guarantor of dystopia. Not only is he the paradigm of bourgeois individualism—and Reaganism—at its most murderous, hypocritical, and malignant, but he is the one with the most terrifying vision of the “universe,” which he apprehends “as a kind of sandstorm in outer space with winds of mega-hurricane velocity, but instead of grains of sand it's shards and splinters of glass” (1:13). It is, however, a sign of the play's obsessively dialectical structure that Roy's vision of what sounds like hell should provide an uncanny echo of Benjamin's “storm blowing from Paradise.” Yet even this dialectic, much like the play's ambivalences, is deceptive insofar as its habit of turning one pole of a binarism relentlessly into its opposite (rather than into a synthesis) describes a false dialectic. Prior, on the other hand, refusing the role of victim, becomes the sign of the unimaginable, of “[t]he Great Work” (2:148). Yet, as with Roy, so Prior's privileged position is a figure of contradiction, coupling not just blindness with prophecy, but also history with an impossible future, an ancient lineage (embodied by Prior 1 and Prior 2) with the millennium yet to come, and AIDS with a “most inner part, entirely free of disease” (1:34). Moreover, Prior's very name designates his temporal dislocation, the fact that he is at once too soon and belated, both that which anticipates and that which provides an epilogue (to the Walter family, if nothing else, since he seems to mark the end of the line). Prior Walter also serves as the queer commemoration of the Walter that came before—Walter Benjamin—whose revolutionary principles he both embodies and displaces insofar as he marks both the presence and absence of Walter Benjamin in this text.14

Throughout Angels in America, the utopia/dystopia coupling (wherein disaster becomes simultaneously the marker for and incitement to think Paradise) plays itself out through a host of binary oppositions: heaven/hell, forgiveness/retribution, communitarianism/individualism, spirit/flesh, pleasure/pain, beauty/decay, future/past, homosexuality/heterosexuality, rationalism/indeterminacy, migration/staying put, progress/stasis, life/death. Each of these functions not just as a set of conceptual poles in relation to which characters and themes are worked out and interpreted, but also as an oxymoron, a figure of undecidability whose contradictory being becomes an incitement to think the impossible—revolution. For it is precisely the conjunction of opposites that allows what Benjamin calls “the flow of thoughts” to be given a “shock” and so turned into “the sign of a Messianic cessation of happening” (262-63). The oxymoron, in other words, becomes the privileged figure by which the unimaginable allows itself to be imagined.

In Kushner's reading of Benjamin, the hermaphroditic Angel becomes the most crucial site for the elaboration of contradiction. Because her/his body is the one on which an impossible—and utopian—sexual conjunction is played out, s/he decisively undermines the distinction between the heterosexual and the homosexual. With her/his “eight vaginas” and “Bouquet of Phalli” (2:48), s/he represents an absolute otherness, the impossible Other that fulfills the longing for both the maternal and paternal (or in Lacanian terms, both demand and the Law). On the one hand, as the maternal “Other,” s/he is constituted by “[d]emand … as already possessing the ‘privilege’ of satisfying needs, that is to say, the power of depriving them of that alone by which they are satisfied.”15 On the other hand, “[a]s the law of symbolic functioning,” s/he simultaneously represents the “Other embodied in the figure of the symbolic father,” “not a person but a place, the locus of law, language and the symbolic.”16 The impossible conjunction of the maternal and the paternal, s/he provides Prior with sexual pleasure of celestial quality—and gives a new meaning to safe sex. At the same time, s/he also fills and completes subjectivity, being the embodiment of and receptacle for Prior's “Released Female Essence” (2:48).

Although all of these characteristics suggest that the Angel is constructed as an extratemporal being, untouched by the ravages of passing time, s/he comes (quite literally for Prior) already culturally mediated. When s/he first appears at the end of Millennium, he exclaims, “Very Steven Spielberg” (1:118). Although his campy ejaculation is clearly calculated as a laugh line, defusing and undercutting (with typical postmodern cynicism) the deadly earnestness of the scene, it also betrays the fact that this miraculous apparition is in part the product of a culture industry and that any reading of her/him will be mediated by the success of Steven Spielberg and his ilk (in films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.) in producing a particular vision of the miraculous—with lots of bright white light and music by John Williams. To that extent, the appearance of the Angel signals the degree to which utopia—and revolution!—have now become the product of commodity culture. Unlike earlier periods, when utopia tended to be imagined in terms of production (rather than consumption) and was sited in a preceding phase of capitalism (for example, in a preindustrial or agrarian society), late capitalism envisions utopia through the lens of the commodity and—not unlike Walter Benjamin at his most populist—projects it into a future and an elsewhere lit by that “unearthly white light” (1:118) which represents, among other things, the illimitable allure of the commodity form.17

Although the construction of the Angel represses her/his historicity, the heaven s/he calls home is explicitly the product (and victim) of temporality. Heaven is a simulacrum of San Francisco on 18 April 1906, the day of the Great Earthquake. For it is on this day that God “[a]bandoned” his angels and their heaven “[a]nd did not return” (2:51). Heaven thus appears frozen in time, “deserted and derelict,” with “rubble strewn everywhere” (2:121). The Council Room in Heaven, meanwhile, “dimly lit by candles and a single great bulb” (which periodically fails) is a monument to the past, specifically to the New Science of the seventeenth century and the Enlightenment project to which it is inextricably linked. The table in the Council Room is “covered with antique and broken astronomical, astrological, mathematical and nautical objects of measurement and calculation. …” At its center sits a “bulky radio, a 1940s model in very poor repair” (2:128) on which the Angels are listening to the first reports of the Chernobyl disaster. Conflating different moments of the past and distinct (Western) histories, Heaven is a kind of museum, not the insignia of the Now, but of before, of an antique past, of the obsolete. Its decrepitude is also symptomatic of the Angels' fear that God will never return. More nightmare than utopia, marooned in history, Heaven commemorates disaster, despair, and stasis.

Because of its embeddedness in the past, the geography of Heaven is a key to the complex notion of temporality that governs Angels in America. Although the scheme does not become clear until Perestroika, there are two opposing concepts of time and history running through the play. First, there is the time of the Angels (and of Heaven), the time of dystopian “STASIS” (2:54) as decreed by the absence of a God who, Prior insists, “isn't coming back” (2:133). According to the Angel, this temporal paralysis is the direct result of the hyperactivity of human beings: “YOU HAVE DRIVEN HIM AWAY!,” the Angel enjoins Prior, “YOU MUST STOP MOVING!” (2:52), in the hope that immobility will once again prompt the return of God and the forward movement of time. Yet this concept of time as stasis is also linked to decay. In the Angel's threnody that ends the Council scene, s/he envisions the dissolution of “the Great Design, / The spiraling apart of the Work of Eternity” (2:134). Directly opposed to this concept is human temporality, of which Prior, in contradistinction to the Angel, becomes the spokesperson. This time—which is also apparently the time of God—is the temporality connected with Enlightenment epistemologies; it is the time of “Progress,” “Science,” and “Forward Motion” (2:132; 50). It is the time of “Change” (2:13) so fervently desired by Comrade Prelapsarianov and the “neo-Hegelian positivist sense of constant historical progress towards happiness or perfection” so precious to Louis (1:25). It is the promise fulfilled at the end of Perestroika when Louis, apprehending “the end of the Cold War,” announces, “[t]he whole world is changing!” (2:145). Most important, the time of “progress, migration, motion” and “modernity” is also, in Prior's formulation, the time of “desire,” because it is this last all-too-human characteristic that produces modernity (2:132). Without desire (for change, utopia, the Other), there could be no history.

Despite the fact that this binary opposition generates so much of the play's ideological framework, and that its two poles are at times indistinguishable, it seems to me that this is one question on which Angels in America is not ambivalent at all. Unlike the Benjamin of the “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” for whom any concept of progress seems quite inconceivable, Kushner is devoted to rescuing Enlightenment epistemologies at a time when they are, to say the least, extremely unfashionable. On the one hand, Angels in America counters attacks from the pundits of the right, wallowing in their post-Cold War triumphalism, for whom socialism, or “the coordination of men's activities through central direction,” is the road to “serfdom.”18 For these neoconservatives, “[w]e already live in the millennial new age,” we already stand at “the end of history” and, as a result, in Francis Fukuyama's words, “we cannot picture to ourselves a world that is essentially different from the present one, and at the same time better.”19 Obsessed with “free markets and private property,” and trying desperately to maintain the imperialist status quo, they can only imagine progress as regression.20 On the other hand, Angels also challenges the orthodoxies of those poststructuralists on the left by whom the Marxian concept of history is often dismissed as hopelessly idealist, as “a contemptible attempt” to construct “grand narratives” and “totalizing (totalitarian?) knowledges.”21 In the face of these profound cynicisms, Angels unabashedly champions rationalism and progress. In the last words of Perestroika's last act, Harper suggests that “[i]n this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we've left behind, and dreaming ahead” (2:144). The last words of the epilogue, meanwhile, are given to Prior who envisions a future in which “[w]e” (presumably gay men, lesbians, and persons with AIDS) “will be citizens.” “More Life” (2:148), he demands.

Kushner's differences with Benjamin—and the poststructuralists—over the possibility of progress and his championing of modernity (and the desire that produces it) suggest that the string of binary oppositions that are foundational to the play are perhaps less undecidable than I originally suggested. Meaning is produced, in part, because these oppositions are constructed as interlocking homologies, each an analogy for all the others. And despite the fact that each term of each opposition is strictly dependent on the other and, indeed, is produced by its other, these relations are by no means symmetrical. Binary oppositions are always hierarchical—especially when the fact of hierarchy is repressed. Angels is carefully constructed so that communitarianism, rationalism, progress, and so forth, will be read as being preferable to their alternatives: individualism, indeterminacy, stasis, and so forth (“the playwright has been able to find hope in his chronicle of the poisonous 1980s”22). So at least as far as this string of interlocked binary oppositions is concerned, ambivalence turns out to be not especially ambivalent after all.

At the same time, what is one to make of other binarisms—most notably, the opposition between masculine and feminine—toward which the play seems to cultivate a certain studied ambivalence? On the one hand, it is clear that Kushner is making some effort to counter the long history of the marginalization and silencing of women in American culture generally and in American theatre, in particular. Harper's hallucinations are crucial to the play's articulation of its central themes, including questions of exile and of the utopia/dystopia binarism. They also give her a privileged relationship to Prior, in whose fantasies she sometimes partakes and with whom she visits Heaven. Her unequivocal rejection of Joe and expropriation of his credit card at the end of the play, moreover, signal her repossession of her life and her progress from imaginary to real travel. Hannah, meanwhile, is constructed as an extremely independent and strong-willed woman who becomes part of the new extended family that is consolidated at the end of the play. Most intriguingly, the play's deliberate foregrounding of the silencing of the Mormon Mother and Daughter in the diorama is symptomatic of Kushner's desire to let women speak. On the other hand, Angels seems to replicate many of the structures that historically have produced female subjectivity as Other. Harper may be crucial to the play's structure but she is still pathologized, like so many of her antecedents on the American stage (from Mary Tyrone to Blanche DuBois to Honey in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). With her hallucinations and “emotional problems” (1:27), she functions as a scapegoat for Joe, the displacement of his sexual problems. Moreover, her false confession that she's “going to have a baby” (1:41) not only reinforces the link in the play between femininity and maternity but also literally hystericizes her. And Hannah, despite her strength, is defined almost entirely by her relationship to her real son and to Prior, her surrogate son. Like Belize, she is given the role of caretaker.

Most important, the celestial “sexual politics” (2:49) of the play guarantees that the feminine remains Other. After his visitation by the Angel, Prior explains that “God … is a man. Well, not a man, he's a flaming Hebrew letter, but a male flaming Hebrew letter” (2:49). In comparison with this masculinized, Old Testament-style, “flaming” (!) patriarch, the Angels are decidedly hermaphroditic. Nonetheless, the play's stage directions use the feminine pronoun when designating the Angel and s/he has been played by a woman in all of the play's various American premières. As a result of this clearly delineated gendered difference, femininity is associated (in Heaven at least) with “STASIS” and collapse, while a divine masculinity is coded as being simultaneously deterministic and absent. In the play's pseudo-Platonic—and heterosexualized—metaphysics, the “orgasm” of the Angels produces (a feminized) “protomatter, which fuels the [masculinized] Engine of Creation” (2:49).

Moreover, the play's use of doubling reinforces this sense of the centrality of masculinity. Unlike Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9 (surely the locus classicus of genderfuck), Angels uses cross-gender casting only for minor characters. And the crossing of gender works in one direction only. The actresses playing Hannah, Harper, and the Angel take on a number of male heterosexual characters while the male actors double only in masculine roles. As a result, it seems to me that Angels, unlike the work of Churchill, does not denaturalize gender. Rather, masculinity—which, intriguingly, is always already queered in this text—is produced as a remarkably stable, if contradictory, essence that others can mime but which only a real (i.e., biological) male can embody. Thus, yet another ambivalence turns out to be always already decided.


The nation that Angels in America fantasizes has its roots in the early nineteenth century, the period during which the United States became constituted, to borrow Benedict Anderson's celebrated formulation, as “an imagined political community, … imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.”23 For not until the 1830s and 1840s, with the success of Jacksonian democracy and the development of the ideology of Manifest Destiny, did a sense of an imagined community of Americans begin to solidify, due to a number of factors: the consolidation of industrialization in the Northeast; the proliferation of large newspapers and state banks; and a transportation revolution that linked the urban centers with both agricultural producers and markets abroad.24

It is far more than coincidence that the birth of the modern idea of America coincided with what is often called the Second Great Awakening (the First had culminated in the Revolutionary War). During these years, as Klaus Hansen relates, “the old paternalistic reform impulse directed toward social control yielded to a romantic reform movement impelled by millennialism, immediatism, and individualism.” This movement, in turn, “made possible the creation of the modern American capitalist empire with its fundamental belief in religious, political, and economic pluralism.”25 For those made uneasy (for a variety of reasons) by the new Jacksonian individualism, this pluralism authorized the emergence of alternative social and religious sects, both millennialist evangelical revivals and new communities like the Shakers, the Oneida Perfectionists, and, most prominently and successfully, the Mormons.26 As Hansen emphasizes, “Mormonism was not merely one more variant of American Protestant pluralism but an articulate and sophisticated counterideology that attempted to establish a ‘new heaven and a new earth. …’” Moreover, “both in its origins and doctrines,” Mormonism “insisted on the peculiarly American nature of its fundamental values” and on the identity of America as the promised land.27

Given the number and prominence of Mormon characters in the play, it should come as little surprise that Mormonism, at least as it was originally articulated in the 1820s and 1830s, maintains a very close relationship to the epistemology of Angels in America. Many of the explicitly hieratic qualities of the play—the notion of prophecy, the sacred book, as well as the Angel her/himself—owe as much to Mormonism as to Walter Benjamin. Even more important, the play's conceptualization of history, its millennialism, and its idea of America bring it startlingly close to the tenets of early Mormonism. Indeed, it is impossible to understand the concept of the nation with which Angels is obsessed (and even the idea of queering the nation!) without understanding the constitution of early Mormonism. Providing Calvinism with its most radical challenge during the National Period, it was deeply utopian in its thrust (and it remains so today). Indeed, its concept of time is identical to the temporality for which Angels in America polemicizes. Like Angels, Mormonism understands time as evolution and progress (in that sense, it is more closely linked to Enlightenment epistemologies than Romantic ones) and holds out the possibility of unlimited human growth: “As man is God once was: as God is man may become.”28 Part of a tremendous resurgence of interest in the millennium between 1828 and 1832, Mormonism went far beyond the ideology of progress implicit in Jacksonian democracy (just as Angels's millennialism goes far beyond most contemporary ideologies of progress).29 Understood historically, this utopianism was in part the result of the relatively marginal economic status of Joseph Smith and his followers, subsistence farmers and struggling petits bourgeois. Tending “to be ‘agin the government,’” these early Mormons were a persecuted minority and, in their westward journey to Zion, became the subjects of widespread violence, beginning in 1832 when Smith was tarred and feathered in Ohio.30 Much like twentieth-century lesbians and gay men—although most contemporary Mormons would be appalled by the comparison—Mormons were, throughout the 1830s and 1840s, attacked by mobs, arrested on false charges, imprisoned, and murdered. In 1838, the Governor of Missouri decreed that they must be “exterminated” or expelled from the state. In 1844, Smith and his brother were assassinated by an angry mob.31

The violent antipathy towards early Mormonism was in part the result of the fact that it presented a significant challenge to the principles of individualist social and economic organization. From the beginning, Mormonism was communitarian in nature and proposed a kind of ecclesiastical socialism in which “those entering the order were asked to ‘consecrate’ their property and belongings to the church. …” To each male would then be returned enough to sustain him and his family, while the remainder would be apportioned to “‘every man who has need. …’” As Hansen emphasizes, this organization represents a repudiation of the principles of laissez-faire and an attempt “to restore a more traditional society in which the economy was regulated in behalf of the larger interests of the group. …”32 This nostalgia for an earlier period of capitalism (the agrarianism of the early colonies) is echoed by Mormonism's conceptualization of the continent as the promised land. Believing the Garden of Eden to have been sited in America and assigning all antediluvian history to the western hemisphere, early Mormonism believed that the term “‘New World’ was in fact a misnomer because America was really the cradle of man and civilization.”33 So the privileged character of the nation is linked to its sacred past and—as with Benjamin—history is tied to theology. At the same time, this essentially theological conceptualization of the nation bears witness to the “strong affinity,” noted by Anderson, between “the nationalist imagining” and “religious imaginings.”34 As Timothy Brennan explains it, “nationalism largely extend[s] and modernize[s] (although [does] not replace) ‘religious imaginings,’ taking on religion's concern with death, continuity, and the desire for origins.”35 Like religion, the nation authorizes a reconfiguration of time and mortality, a “secular transformation of fatality into continuity, contingency into meaning.”36 Mormonism's spiritual geography was perfectly suited to this process, constructing America as both origin and meaning of history. Moreover, as Hans Kohn has pointed out, modern nationalism has expropriated three crucial concepts from those same Old Testament mythologies that provide the basis for Mormonism: “the idea of a chosen people, the emphasis on a common stock of memory of the past and of hopes for the future, and finally national messianism.”37

This conceptualization of America as the site of a blessed past and a millennial future represents—simultaneously—the fulfillment of early nineteenth-century ideas of the nation and a repudiation of the ideologies of individualism and acquisitiveness that underwrite the Jacksonian marketplace. Yet, as Sacvan Bercovitch points out, this contradiction was at the heart of the nationalist project. As the economy was being transformed “from agrarian to industrial capitalism,” the primary “source of dissent was an indigenous residual culture,” which, like Mormonism, was “variously identified with agrarianism, libertarian thought, and the tradition of civic humanism.” These ideologies, “by conserving the myths of a bygone age” and dreaming “of human wholeness and social regeneration,” then produced “the notion of an ideal America with a politically transformative potential.” Like the writers of the American Renaissance, Mormonism “adopted the culture's controlling metaphor—‘America’ as synonym for human possibility,” and then turned it against the dominant class. Both producing and fulfilling the nationalist dream, it “portray[ed] the American ideology, as all ideology yearns to be portrayed, in the transcendent colors of utopia.”38 A form of dissent that ultimately (and contradictorily) reinforced hegemonic values, Mormonism reconceived America as the promised land, the land of an already achieved utopia, and simultaneously as the land of promise, the site of the millennium yet to come.

I recapitulate the early history of Mormonism because I believe it is crucial for understanding how Angels in America has been culturally positioned. It seems to me that the play replicates both the situation and project of early Mormonism with an uncanny accuracy and thereby documents the continued validity of both a particular regressive fantasy of America and a particular understanding of oppositional cultural practices. Like the projects of Joseph Smith and his followers, Angels has, from the beginning, on the levels of authorial intention and reception, been constructed as an oppositional, and even “radical” work. Structurally and ideologically, the play challenges the conventions of American realism and the tenets of Reaganism. Indeed, it offers by far the most explicit and trenchant critique of neoconservativism to have been produced on Broadway. It also provides the most thoroughgoing—and unambivalent—deconstruction in memory of a binarism absolutely crucial to liberalism, the opposition between public and private. Angels demonstrates conclusively not only the constructedness of the difference between the political and the sexual, but also the murderous power of this distinction. Yet, at the same time, not despite but because of these endeavors, the play has been accommodated with stunning ease to the hegemonic ideology not just of the theatre-going public, but of the democratic majority—an ideology that has become the new American religion—liberal pluralism.39

The old-style American liberalisms, variously associated (reading from left to right) with trade unionism, reformism, and competitive individualism, tend to value freedom above all other qualities (the root word for liberalism is, after all, the Latin liber, meaning “free”). Taking the “free” individual subject as the fundamental social unit, liberalism has long been associated with the principle of laissez-faire and the “free” market, and is reformist rather than revolutionary in its politics. At the same time, however, because liberalism, particularly in its American versions, has always paid at least lip service to equality, certain irreducible contradictions have been bred in what did, after all, emerge during the seventeenth century as the ideological complement to (and justification for) mercantile capitalism. Historically, American liberalism has permitted dissent and fostered tolerance—within certain limits—and guaranteed that all men in principle are created equal (women were long excluded from the compact, as well as African American slaves). In fact, given the structure of American capitalism, the incommensurability of its commitment both to freedom and equality has proven a disabling contradiction, one that liberalism has tried continually, and with little success, to negotiate. Like the bourgeois subject that is its production and raison d'être, liberalism is hopelessly schizoid.

The new liberalism that has been consolidated in the United States since the decline of the New Left in the mid-1970s (but whose antecedents date back to the first stirrings of the nation) marks the adaptation of traditional liberalism to a post-welfare state economy. Pursuing a policy of regressive taxation, its major constituent is the corporate sector—all others it labels “special interest groups” (despite certain superficial changes, there is no fundamental difference between the economic and foreign policies of Reagan/Bush and Clinton). In spite of its corporatism, however, and its efficiency in redistributing the wealth upward, liberalism speaks the language of tolerance. Unable to support substantive changes in economic policy that might in fact produce a more equitable and less segregated society, it instead promotes a rhetoric of pluralism and moderation. Reformist in method, it endeavors to fine tune the status quo while at the same time acknowledging (and even celebrating) the diversity of American culture. For the liberal pluralist, America is less a melting pot than a smorgasbord. He or she takes pride in the ability to consume cultural difference—now understood as a commodity, a source of boundless pleasure, an expression of an exoticized Other. And yet, for him or her, access to and participation in so-called minority cultures is entirely consumerist. Like the new, passive racist characterized by Hazel Carby, the liberal pluralist uses “texts”—whether literary, musical, theatrical or cinematic—as “a way of gaining knowledge of the ‘other,’ a knowledge that appears to replace the desire to challenge existing frameworks of segregation.”40

Liberal pluralism thus does far more than tolerate dissent. It actively enlists its aid in reaffirming a fundamentally conservative hegemony. In doing so, it reconsolidates a fantasy of America that dates back to the early nineteenth century. Liberal pluralism demonstrates the dogged persistence of a consensus politic that masquerades as dissensus. It proves once again, in Bercovitch's words, that

[t]he American way is to turn potential conflict into a quarrel about fusion or fragmentation. It is a fixed match, a debate with a foregone conclusion: you must have your fusion and feed on fragmentation too. And the formula for doing so has become virtually a cultural reflex: you just alternate between harmony-in-diversity and diversity-in-harmony. It amounts to a hermeneutics of laissez-faire: all problems are obviated by the continual flow of the one into the many, and the many into the one.41

According to Bercovitch, a kind of dissensus (of which liberal pluralism is the contemporary avatar) has been the hallmark of the very idea of America—and American literature—from the very beginning. In this most American of ideologies, an almost incomparably wide range of opinions, beliefs, and cultural positions are finally absorbed into a fantasy of a utopian nation in which anything and everything is possible, in which the millennium is simultaneously at hand and indefinitely deferred. Moreover, the nation is imagined as the geographical representation of that utopia which is both everywhere and nowhere. For as Lauren Berlant explains, “the contradiction between the ‘nowhere’ of utopia and the ‘everywhere’ of the nation [is] dissolved by the American recasting of the ‘political’ into the terms of providential ideality, ‘one nation under God.’”42 Under the sign of the “one,” all contradictions are subsumed, all races and religions united, all politics theologized.


It is my contention that Angels's mobilization of a consensual politic (masquerading as dissensual) is precisely the source not only of the play's ambivalence, but also of its ability to be instantly recognized as part of the canon of American literature. Regardless of Kushner's intentions, Angels sets forth a project wherein the theological is constructed as a transcendent category into which politics and history finally disappear. For all its commitment to a historical materialist method, for all its attention to political struggle and the dynamics of oppression, Angels finally sets forth a liberal pluralist vision of America in which all, not in spite but because of their diversity, will be welcomed into the new Jerusalem (to this extent, it differs sharply from the more exclusionist character of early Mormonism and other, more recent millennialisms). Like other apocalyptic discourses, from Joseph Smith to Jerry Falwell, the millennialism of Angels reassures an “audience that knows it has lost control over events” not by enabling it to “regain … control,” but by letting it know “that history is nevertheless controlled by an underlying order and that it has a purpose that is nearing fulfillment.” It thereby demonstrates that “personal pain,” whether Prior's, or that of the reader or spectator, “is subsumed within the pattern of history.”43 Like Joseph Smith, Tony Kushner has resuscitated a vision of America as both promised land and land of infinite promise. Simultaneously, he has inspired virtually every theatre critic in the U.S. to a host of salvational fantasies about theatre, art, and politics. And he has done all this at a crucial juncture in history, at the end of the Cold War, as the geopolitical order of forty-five years has collapsed.

Despite the success of the 1991 Gulf War in signaling international “terrorism” as the successor to the Soviet empire and justification for the expansion of the national security state, the idea of the nation remains, I believe, in crisis (it seems to me that “terrorism,” being less of a threat to individualism than communism, does not harness paranoia quite as effectively as the idea of an evil empire). If nothing else, Angels in America attests both to the continuing anxiety over national definition and mission and to the importance of an ideological means of assuaging that anxiety. In Angels, a series of political dialectics (which are, yet again, false dialectics) remains the primary means for producing this ideological fix, for producing dissensus, a sense of alternation between “harmony-in-diversity and diversity-in-harmony.” The play is filled with political disputation—all of it between men since women, unless in drag, are excluded from the political realm. Most is centered around Louis, the unmistakably ambivalent, ironic Jew, who invariably sets the level of discussion and determines the tenor of the argument. If with Belize he takes a comparatively rightist (and racist) stance, with Joe he takes an explicitly leftist (and antihomophobic) one. And while the play unquestionably problematizes his several positions, he ends up, with all his contradictions, becoming by default the spokesperson for liberal pluralism, with all its contradictions. Belize, intriguingly, functions unlike the white gay men as an ideological point of reference, a kind of “moral bellwether,” in the words of one critic.44 Because his is the one point of view that is never submitted to a critique, he becomes, as David Román points out, “the political and ethical center of the plays.” The purveyer of truth, “he carries the burden of race” and so seems to issue from what is unmistakably a “white imaginary” (“[t]his fetishization,” Román notes, “of lesbian and gay people of color as a type of political catalyst is ubiquitous among the left”).45 He is also cast in the role of caretaker, a position long reserved for African Americans in “the white imaginary.” Even Belize's name commemorates not the Name of the Father, but his status as a “former drag queen” (1:3), giving him an identity that is both performative and exoticized. He is the play's guarantee of diversity.

The pivotal scene for the enunciation of Louis's politics, meanwhile, is his long discussion with Belize in Millennium which begins with his question, “Why has democracy succeeded in America?” (1:89), a question whose assumption is belied by the unparalleled political and economic power of American corporatism to buy elections and from which Louis, as is his wont, almost immediately backs down. (His rhetorical strategy throughout this scene is to stake out a position from which he immediately draws a guilty retreat, thereby making Belize look like the aggressor.) Invoking “radical democracy” and “freedom” in one breath, and crying “[f]uck assimilation” (1:89-90) in the next, he careens wildly between a liberal discourse of rights and a rhetoric of identity politics. Alternating between universalizing and minoritizing concepts of the subject, he manages at once to dismiss a politics of race (and insult Belize) and to assert its irreducibility. Yet the gist of Louis's argument (if constant vacillation could be said to have a gist) is his disquisition about the nation:

this reaching out for a spiritual past in a country where no indigenous spirits exist—only the Indians, I mean Native American spirits and we killed them off so now, there are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there's only the political.


For Louis, America hardly exists as a community (whether real or imagined). Rather, for this confused liberal, America is defined entirely by its relationship to the “political.” With characteristic irony, Kushner chooses to present this crucial idea (which does, after all, echo the play's title) in the negative, in the form of a statement which the rest of the play aggressively refutes. For if nothing else, Angels in America—like The Book of Mormon—demonstrates that there are angels in America, that America is in essence a utopian and theological construction, a nation with a divine mission. Politics is by no means banished insofar as it provides a crucial way in which the nation is imagined. But it is subordinated to utopian fantasies of harmony in diversity, of one nation under a derelict God.

Moreover, this scene between Louis and Belize reproduces millennialism in miniature, in its very structure, in the pattern whereby the political is finally subsumed by utopian fantasies. After the spirited argument between Louis and Belize (if one can call a discussion in which one person refuses to stake out a coherent position an argument), their conflict is suddenly overrun by an outbreak of lyricism, by the intrusion, after so much talk about culture, of what passes for the natural world:

All day today it's felt like Thanksgiving. Soon, this … ruination will be blanketed white. You can smell it—can you smell it?
Smell what?
Softness, compliance, forgiveness, grace.


Argumentation gives way not to a resolution (nothing has been settled) but to the ostensible forces of nature: snow and smell. According to Belize, snow (an insignia of coldness and purity in the play) is linked to “[s]oftness, compliance, forgiveness, grace,” in short, to the theological virtues. Like the ending of Perestroika, in which another dispute between Louis and Belize fades out behind Prior's benediction, this scene enacts a movement of transcendence whereby the political is not so much resolved as left trailing in the dust. In the American way, contradiction is less disentangled than immobilized. History gives way to a concept of cosmic evolution that is far closer to Joseph Smith than to Walter Benjamin.

In the person of Louis (who is, after all, constructed as the most empathic character in the play), with his unshakable faith in liberalism and the possibility of “radical democracy,” Angels in America assures the (liberal) theatre-going public that a kind of liberal pluralism remains the best hope for change.46 Revolution, in the Marxist sense, is rendered virtually unthinkable, oxymoronic. Amidst all the political disputation, there is no talk of social class. Oppression is understood not in relation to economics but to differences of race, gender and sexual orientation. In short: an identity politic comes to substitute for Marxist analysis. There is no clear sense that the political and social problems with which the characters wrestle might be connected to a particular economic system (comrade Prelapsarianov is, after all, a comic figure). And despite Kushner's avowed commitment to socialism, an alternative to capitalism, except in the form of an indefinitely deferred utopia, remains absent from the play's dialectic.47 Revolution, even in Benjamin's sense of the term, is evacuated of its political content, functioning less as a Marxist hermeneutic tool than a trope, a figure of speech (the oxymoron) that marks the place later to be occupied by a (liberal pluralist?) utopia. Angels thus falls into line behind the utopianisms of Joseph Smith and the American Renaissance and becomes less a subversion of hegemonic culture than its reaffirmation. As Berlant observes, “the temporal and spatial ambiguity of ‘utopia’ has the effect of obscuring the implications of political activity and power relations in American civil life.”48 Like “our classic texts” (as characterized by Bercovitch), Angels has a way of conceptualizing utopia so that it may be adopted by “the dominant culture … for its purposes.” “So molded, ritualized, and controlled,” Bercovitch notes (and, I would like to add, stripped of its impulse for radical economic change), “utopianism has served … to diffuse or deflect dissent, or actually to transmute it into a vehicle of socialization.”49

The ambivalences that are so deeply inscribed in Angels in America, its conflicted relationship to various utopianisms, to the concept of America, to Marxism, Mormonism, and liberalism, function, I believe, to accommodate the play to what I see as a fundamentally conservative and paradigmatically American politic—dissensus, the “hermeneutics of laissez-faire.” Yet it seems to me that the play's ambivalence (its way of being, in Eve Sedgwick's memorable phrase, “kinda subversive, kinda hegemonic”50) is finally, less a question of authorial intention than of the peculiar cultural and economic position of this play (and its writer) in relation to the theatre, theatre artists, and the theatre-going public in the United States. On the one hand, the Broadway and regional theatres remain in a uniquely marginal position in comparison with Hollywood. The subscribers to regional theatres continue to dwindle while more than half of Theatre Communications Group's sample theatres in their annual survey “played to smaller audiences in 1993 than they did five years ago.” Moreover, in a move that bodes particularly ill for the future of new plays, “workshops, staged readings and other developmental activities decreased drastically over the five years studied.”51 On the other hand, serious Broadway drama does not have the same cultural capital as other forms of literature. Enmortgaged to a slew of others who must realize the playwright's text, it has long been regarded as a bastard art. Meanwhile, the relatively small public that today attends professional theatre in America is overwhelmingly middle-class and overwhelmingly liberal in its attitudes. Indeed, theatre audiences are in large part distinguished from the audiences for film and television on account of their tolerance for works that are more challenging both formally and thematically than the vast majority of major studio releases or prime-time miniseries.

Because of its marginal position, both economically and culturally, theatre is a privileged portion of what Pierre Bourdieu designates as the literary and artistic field. As he explains, this field is contained within a larger field of economic and political power, while, at the same time, “possessing a relative autonomy with respect to it. …” It is this relative autonomy that gives the literary and artistic field—and theatre in particular—both its high level of symbolic forms of capital and its low level of economic capital. In other words, despite its artistic cachet, it “occupies a dominated position” with respect to the field of economic and political power as whole.52 And the individual cultural producer (or theatre artist), insofar as he or she is a part of the bourgeoisie, represents a “dominated fraction of the dominant class.”53 The cultural producer is thus placed in an irreducibly contradictory position—and this has become particularly clear since the decline of patronage in the eighteenth century and the increasing dependence of the artist on the vicissitudes of the marketplace. On the one hand, he or she is licensed to challenge hegemonic values insofar as it is a particularly effective way of accruing cultural capital. On the other hand, the more effective his or her challenge, the less economic capital he or she is likely to amass. Because of theatre's marginality in American culture, it seems to be held hostage to this double bind in a particularly unnerving way: the very disposition of the field guarantees that Broadway and regional theatres (unlike mass culture) are constantly in the process of having to negotiate this impossible position.

What is perhaps most remarkable about Angels in America is that it has managed, against all odds, to amass significant levels of both cultural and economic capital. And while it by no means resolves the contradictions that are constitutive of theatre's cultural positioning, its production history has become a measure of the seemingly impossible juncture of these two forms of success. Just as the play's structure copes with argumentation by transcending it, so does the play as cultural phenomenon seemingly transcend the opposition between economic and cultural capital, between the hegemonic and the counterhegemonic. Moreover, it does so, I am arguing, by its skill in both reactivating a sense (derived from the early nineteenth century) of America as the utopian nation and mobilizing the principle of ambivalence—or more exactly, dissensus—to produce a vision of a once and future pluralist culture. And although the text's contradictory positioning is to a large extent defined by the marginal cultural position of Broadway, it is also related specifically to Tony Kushner's own class position. Like Joseph Smith, Kushner represents a dominated—and dissident—fraction of the dominant class. As a white gay men, he is able to amass considerable economic and cultural capital despite the fact that the class of which he is a part remains relatively disempowered politically (according to a 1993 survey, the average household income for gay men is 40٪ higher than that of the average American household).54 As an avowed leftist and intellectual, he is committed (as Angels demonstrates) to mounting a critique of hegemonic ideology. Yet as a member of the bourgeoisie and as the recipient of two Tony awards, he is also committed—if only unconsciously—to the continuation of the system that has granted him no small measure of success.


Although I am tempted to see the celebrity of Angels in America as yet another measure of the power of liberal pluralism to neutralize oppositional practices, the play's success also suggests a willingness to recognize the contributions of gay men to American culture and to American literature, in particular. For as Eve Sedgwick and others have argued, both the American canon and the very principle of canonicity are centrally concerned with questions of male (homo)sexual definition and desire.55 Thus, the issues of homoeroticism, of the anxiety generated by the instability of the homosocial/homosexual boundary, of coding, of secrecy and disclosure, and of the problems around securing a sexual identity, remain pivotal for so many of the writers who hold pride of place in the American canon, from Thoreau, Melville, Whitman, and James to Hart Crane, Tennessee Williams, and James Baldwin—in that sense, the American canon is always already queered. At the same time, however, unlike so much of the canon, and in particular, the canon of American drama, Angels in America foregrounds explicitly gay men. No more need the reader eager to queer the text read subversively between the lines, or transpose genders, as is so often done to the work of Williams, Inge, Albee, and others. Since the 1988 controversies over NEA funding for exhibitions of Mapplethorpe and Serrano and the subsequent attempt by the Endowment to revoke grants to the so-called NEA four (three of whom are queer), theatre, as a liberal form, has been distinguished from mass culture in large part by virtue of its queer content. In the 1990s, a play without a same-sex kiss may be entertainment, but it can hardly be considered a work of art. It appears that the representation of (usually male) homosexual desire has become the privileged emblem of that endangered species, the serious Broadway drama. But I wonder finally how subversive this queering of Broadway is when women, in this play at least, remain firmly in the background. What is one to make of the remarkable ease with which Angels in America has been accommodated to that lineage of American drama (and literature) that focuses on masculine experience and agency and produces women as the premise for history, as the ground on which it is constructed? Are not women sacrificed—yet again—to the male citizenry of a (queer) nation?

If Kushner, following Benjamin's prompting (and echoing his masculinism), attempts to “brush history against the grain” (257), he does so by demonstrating the crucial importance of (closeted) gay men in twentieth-century American politics—including, most prominently, Roy Cohn and two of his surrogate fathers, J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy. By so highlighting the (homo)eroticization of patriarchy, the play demonstrates the always already queer status of American politics, and most provocatively, of those generals of the Cold War (and American imperialism) who were most assiduous in their denunciation of political and sexual dissidence. Moreover, unlike the work of most of Kushner's predecessors on the American stage, Angels does not pathologize gay men. Or more exactly, gay men as a class are not pathologized. Rather, they are revealed to be pathologized circumstantially: first, by their construction (through a singularly horrific stroke of ill luck) as one of the “risk groups” for HIV; and second, by the fact that some remain closeted and repressed (Joe's ulcer is unmistakably the price of disavowal). So, it turns out, it is not homosexuality that is pathological, but its denial. Flagrantly uncloseted, the play provides a devastating critique of the closeted gay man in two medicalized bodies: Roy Cohn and Joe Pitt.

If Angels in America queers historical materialism (at least as Benjamin understands it), it does so by exposing the process by which the political (which ostensibly drives history) intersects with the personal and sexual (which ostensibly are no more than footnotes to history). Reagan's presidency and the neoconservative hegemony of the 1980s provide not just the background to the play's exploration of ostensibly personal (i.e., sexual, marital, medical) problems, but the very ground on which desire is produced. For despite the trenchancy of its critique of neoconservativism, Angels also demonstrates the peculiar sexiness of Reagan's vision of America. Through Louis, it demonstrates the allure of a particular brand of machismo embodied by Joe Pitt: “The more appalling I find your politics the more I want to hump you” (2:36). And if the Angel is indeed “a cosmic reactionary” (2:55), it is in part because her/his position represents an analogue to the same utopian promises and hopes that Reagan so brilliantly and deceptively exploited. Moreover, in this history play, questions of male homosexual identity and desire are carefully juxtaposed against questions of equal protection for lesbians and gay men and debates about their military service. Louis attacks Joe for his participation in “an important bit of legal fag-bashing,” a case that upholds the U.S. government's policy that it's not “unconstitutional to discriminate against homosexuals” (2:110). And while the case that Louis cites may be fictional, the continuing refusal of the courts in the wake of Bowers v. Hardwick to consider lesbians and gay men a suspect class, and thus eligible for protection under the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment, is anything but.56 Unilaterally constructing gay men as a suspect class (with sexual identity substituting for economic positionality), Angels realizes Benjamin's suggestion that it is not “man or men but the struggling, oppressed class itself [that] is the depository of historical knowledge” (260). More decisively than any other recent cultural text, Angels queers the America of Joseph Smith—and Ronald Reagan—by placing this oppressed class at the very center of American history, by showing it to be not just the depository of a special kind of knowledge, but by recognizing the central role that it has had in the construction of a national subject, polity, literature, and theatre. On this issue, the play is not ambivalent at all.


  1. Joseph Roach has suggested to me that the closest analogue to Angels on the American stage is, in fact, Uncle Tom's Cabin, with its tremendous popularity before the Civil War, its epic length, and its skill in addressing the most controversial issues of the time in deeply equivocal ways.

  2. John Lahr, “The Theatre: Earth Angels,” The New Yorker, 13 December 1993, 133.

  3. Jack Kroll, “Heaven and Earth on Broadway,” Newsweek, 6 December 1993, 83; Robert Brustein, “Robert Brustein on Theatre: Angels in America,The New Republic, 24 May 1993, 29.

  4. John E. Harris, “Miracle on 48th Street,” Christopher Street, March 1994, 6.

  5. Frank Rich, “Critic's Notebook: The Reaganite Ethos, With Roy Cohn As a Dark Metaphor,” New York Times, 5 March 1992, C15.

  6. John Clum, Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 324.

  7. Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Part One: Millennium Approaches (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1993), 95. All further references will be noted in the text.

  8. Frank Rich, “Following an Angel For a Healing Vision of Heaven and Earth,” New York Times, 24 November 1993, C11.

  9. Clum, 314.

  10. Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Part Two: Perestroika (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1994), 56. All further references will be noted in the text.

  11. See, for example, Andrea Stevens, “Finding a Devil Within to Portray Roy Cohn,” New York Times, 18 April 1993, section 2, 1-28.

  12. Terry Eagleton, Walter Benjamin, or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (London: Verso, 1981), 177.

  13. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 253. All further references will be noted in the text.

  14. Tony Kushner explains: “I've written about my friend Kimberly [Flynn] who is a profound influence on me. And she and I were talking about this utopian thing that we share—she's the person who introduced me to that side of Walter Benjamin. … She said jokingly that at times she felt such an extraordinary kinship with him that she thought she was Walter Benjamin reincarnated. And so at one point in the conversation, when I was coming up with names for my characters, I said, ‘I had to look up something in Benjamin—not you, but the prior Walter.’ That's where the name came from. I had been looking for one of those WASP names that nobody gets called anymore.” David Savran, “The Theatre of the Fabulous: An Interview with Tony Kushner,” in Speaking on Stage: Interviews with Contemporary American Playwrights, ed. Philip C. Kolin and Colby H. Kullman (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press), forthcoming.

  15. Lacan, “The Signification of the Phallus,” in Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977), 286.

  16. Elizabeth A. Grosz, Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction (London: Routledge, 1990), 74, 67.

  17. Benjamin maintained a far less condemnatory attitude toward the increasing technologization of culture than many other Western Marxists. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” for example, he writes of his qualified approval of the destruction of the aura associated with modern technologies. He explains that because “mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual, … the total function of art” can “be based on another practice—politics,” which for him is clearly preferable. Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, 224.

  18. Although one could cite a myriad of sources, this quotation is extracted from Milton Friedman, “Once Again: Why Socialism Won't Work,” New York Times, 13 August 1994, 21.

  19. Krishan Kumar, “The End of Socialism? The End of Utopia? The End of History?,” in Utopias and the Millennium, ed. Krishan Kumar and Stephen Bann (London: Reaktion Books, 1993), 61; Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, quoted in Kumar, 78.

  20. Friedman, 21.

  21. Aijaz Ahmad, In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (London: Verso, 1992), 69. Ahmad is summarizing this position as part of his critique of poststructuralism.

  22. David Richards, “‘Angels’ Finds a Poignant Note of Hope,” New York Times, 28 November 1993, II, 1.

  23. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991), 6.

  24. See Lawrence Kohl, The Politics of Individualism: Parties and the American Character in the Jacksonian Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

  25. Klaus J. Hansen, Mormonism and the American Experience (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 49-50.

  26. See Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism 1800-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 42-58.

  27. Hansen, 52.

  28. Joseph Smith, quoted in Hansen, 72.

  29. See Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 170.

  30. Hansen, 119.

  31. For a catalogue of this violence, see Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 155-61.

  32. Hansen, 124-26.

  33. Hansen, 27, 66.

  34. Anderson, 10-11.

  35. Timothy Brennan, “The National Longing for Form,” in Nation and Narration, ed. Homi K. Bhabha (London: Routledge, 1990), 50.

  36. Anderson, 10-11.

  37. Hans Kohn, Nationalism: Its Meaning and History (Princeton: Van Nostrand, 1965), 11.

  38. Sacvan Bercovitch, “The Problem of Ideology in American Literary History,” Critical Inquiry 12 (1986): 642-43; 645.

  39. Despite the 1994 Republican House and Senate victories (in which the Republicans received the vote of only 20٪ of the electorate) and the grandstanding of Newt Gingrich, the country remains far less conservative on many social issues than the Republicans would like Americans to believe. See Thomas Ferguson, “G.O.P. $$$ Talked; Did Voters Listen?,” The Nation, 26 December 1994, 792-98.

  40. Hazel Carby, “The Multicultural Wars,” in Black Popular Culture, a project by Michele Wallace, ed. Gina Dent (Seattle: Bay Press, 1992), 197.

  41. Bercovitch, 649.

  42. Lauren Berlant, The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 31.

  43. Barry Brummett, Contemporary Apocalyptic Rhetoric (New York: Praeger, 1991), 37-38.

  44. Lahr, “The Theatre: Earth Angels,” 132.

  45. David Román, “November 1, 1992: AIDS/Angels in America,” from Acts of Intervention: Gay Men, U.S. Performance, AIDS (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, forthcoming).

  46. This is corroborated by Kushner's own statements: “The strain in the American character that I feel the most affection for and that I feel has the most potential for growth is American liberalism, which is incredibly short of what it needs to be and incredibly limited and exclusionary and predicated on all sorts of racist, sexist, homophobic and classist prerogatives. And yet, as Louis asks, why has democracy succeeded in America? And why does it have this potential, as I believe it does? I really believe that there is the potential for radical democracy in this country, one of the few places on earth where I see it as a strong possibility. It doesn't seem to be happening in Russia. There is a tradition of liberalism, of a kind of social justice, fair play and tolerance—and each of these things is problematic and can certainly be played upon in the most horrid ways. Reagan kept the most hair-raising anarchist aspects of his agenda hidden and presented himself as a good old-fashioned liberal who kept invoking FDR. It may just be sentimentalism on my part because I am the child of liberal-pinko parents, but I do believe in it—as much as I often find it despicable. It's sort of like the Democratic National Convention every four years: it's horrendous and you can feel it sucking all the energy from progressive movements in this country, with everybody pinning their hopes on this sleazy bunch of guys. But you do have Jesse Jackson getting up and calling the Virgin Mary a single mother, and on an emotional level, and I hope also on a more practical level, I do believe that these are the people in whom to have hope.” Savran, 24-25.

  47. See Tony Kushner, “A Socialism of the Skin,” The Nation, 4 July 1994, 9-14.

  48. Berlant, 32.

  49. Bercovitch, 644.

  50. Sedgwick used this phrase during the question period that followed a lecture at Brown University, 1 October 1992.

  51. Barbara Janowitz, “Theatre Facts 93,” insert in American Theatre, April 1994, 4-5.

  52. Pierre Bourdieu, “The Field of Cultural Production, or: The Economic World Reversed,” in Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, ed. Randal Johnson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 37-38.

  53. Randal Johnson, Ed. Introd., Bourdieu, 15.

  54. Gay & Lesbian Stats: A Pocket Guide of Facts and Figures, ed. Bennett L. Singer and David Deschamps (New York: The New Press, 1994), 32.

  55. See Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 48-59.

  56. It is not the subjects who comprise a bona fide suspect class (like African Americans) that are suspect, but rather the forces of oppression that produce the class. For an analysis of the legal issues around equal protection, see Janet Halley, “The Politics of the Closet: Towards Equal Protection for Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Identity,” UCLA Law Review (June 1989): 915-76.

My thanks to Rhett Landrum, Loren Noveck, John Rouse, and Ronn Smith for their invaluable contributions to this essay.

Principal Works

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Yes, Yes, No, No (play) 1985

A Bright Room Called Day (play) 1987

Hydriotaphia, or, The Death of Dr. Browne (play) 1987

Stella [adapted from the drama by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe] (play) 1987

The Illusion [adapted from the play L'illusion comique by Pierre Corneille] (play) 1988

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Part One: Millennium Approaches (play) 1991

Widows [co-adaptor with Ariel Dorfman from the book by Dorfman] (play) 1991

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Part Two: Perestroika (play) 1992

Plays by Tony Kushner [comprised of A Bright Room Called Day and The Illusion] (plays) 1992

Slavs! Thinking about the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness (play) 1995

Thinking about the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness: Essays, a Play, Two Poems, and a Prayer (miscellany) 1995

Dybbuk; or, Between Two Worlds [adapted from Joachim Neugroschel's translation of the original play by S. Ansky] (play) 1997

The Good Person of Szechuan [adapted from the play Der gute Mensch von Setzuan by Bertolt Brecht] (play) 1997

Tony Kushner in Conversation [edited by Robert Vorlicky] (interviews) 1997

Henry Box Brown, or the Mirror of Slavery (play) 1998

Plays by Tony Kushner [comprised of A Bright Room Called Day; The Illusion; and Slavs! Thinking about the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness] (plays) 1999

Death and Taxes: Hydriotaphia and Other Plays [comprised of Hydriotaphia; Reverse Transcription; Terminating, or Sonnet LXXV, or, Las meine; Schmerzen nicht verloren sein, or Ambivalence; East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis; and David Schinne in Hell] (plays) 2000

Homebody/Kabul (play) 2001

Caroline, or Change (musical) 2003

Brundibar [illustrated by Maurice Sendak] (children's book) 2003

The Art of Maurice Sendak: 1980 to the Present [with illustrations by Maurice Sendak] (nonfiction) 2003

Jyl Lynn Felman (essay date May/June 1995)

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SOURCE: Felman, Jyl Lynn. “Lost Jewish (Male) Souls: A Midrash on Angels in America.Tikkun 10, no. 3 (May/June 1995): 27-30.

[In the following essay, Felman examines the parallels between Jewish and gay identity as presented in Angels in America. Felman asserts that Kushner's play is ultimately about “Jewish male self-loathing in the twentieth century.”]

Tony Kushner's 1993 Pulitzer-Prize-winning play, Angels in America, is very gay. And Jewish. It's about assimilation, self-loathing, and men with lost souls; the betrayal of the faith and the abandonment of a moral vision. Depending on who the viewer is, there are two versions of the play, playing simultaneously. There's the deeply moving, virus-infected, goyishe-gay-who-divinely-hallucinates; plus Mr. married-Mormon-coming-out-of-the-closet to pill-popping-straight, soon-to-be-happy-ex, Mrs. Mormon—AIDS version. Then there's the culturally lost, wondering-in-secular-exile, ambivalent treyf, quasi-civil-libertarian-melting-pot-mess, full-of-self-deception, painfully revealing Jewish version, located in the extremely bizarre triumvirate of Roy Cohn, Ethel Rosenberg, and the imaginatively invented totally believable (character of) Louis Ironson. Ultimately, one plot informs the other as the characters move in out of their tightly woven, inter-related narratives. But Angels in America will always be my Jewish Fantasia on National Themes. It resounds in my ears like the long, hard, final sound of the shofar calling the People Israel to worship in a postmodern, Hillary Clinton-reconstructed, school-prayer-reinstated, third-wave-neo-Newt-Gingrich era. Where, lying at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, Jewish identity is in fragments while lost Jewish (read male) souls seek solace in the exact same, singular, superclean anus of a closeted, self-righteous, God-fearing married Mormon faggot. Yes, Angels is about Jewish male self-loathing in the twentieth century held tightly within the ever expanding embrace of Miss Liberty's very tired, porous hands.

Angels opens with a quintessential, North American Jewish moment: A very old rabbi with a heavy Eastern European accent, long beard, and stooped shoulders presides over the funeral of a woman who has spent the last ten years of her life at the Bronx Home of Aged Hebrews without a visit from her grandson, who lives minutes away. At the funeral, the rabbi reads out loud the names of the family mourners whose roster by the third generation is generously sprinkled with one Gentile appellation after another. For the Jew who dies alone without family or community, Kushner has written the new “Diaspora Kaddish.” Rabbi Chemolwitz publicly admits that he doesn't know the deceased Sarah Ironson or her family. But he knows Sarah's journey and the meaning of that journey, which in the end is more important than knowing the person herself. For it is in the irreversible departure from Eastern Europe to the climactic, but culturally dislocating arrival at Ellis Island where Jewish continuity is affirmed. Listen to the rabbi:

(He speaks sonorously, with a heavy Eastern European accent, unapologetically consulting a sheet of notes for the family names): … This woman. I did not know this woman. … She was … (He touches the coffin) … 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. …

By using the plural “we” rather than the singular “she,” the rabbi purposefully includes himself in the historic crossing of Ashkenazi Jews from the old country to the “new” country. And with the public insertion of himself into his “eulogy for the unknown,” he affirms Jewish continuity in spite of the fact that he is presiding over the funeral of a Jew he did not know for a family he does not know. Then, through the brilliant use of the second-person “you,” Kushner personalizes the impersonal space of the estranged Diaspora Jew from his/her cultural roots. Alone in the middle of a pitch-black stage with the coffin of our ancestors, the stooped rabbi stands facing the void. At the exact same moment, the audience is dramatically transformed into the future generations—not only of Sarah Ironson's family, but of the Jewish people in general. Then to us, as Jews, the rabbi speaks:

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. (little pause.)

When the audience is secured as the next generation, the rabbi ends his eulogy with a bitter, painful admonition:

You can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not any more exist. But every day of your lives the miles that voyage between that place and this one you cross. Every day. You understand me? In you that journey is. …

In us that Journey is. Even if we want to forget where we came from, we can't. It's impossible. The journey lives in us, in spite of us; not only as cultural, but also as spiritual inheritance.

By opening Angels with this scene, Kushner claims his rightful place in the Jewish lexicon of post-Holocaust writers confronting secular Jewish identity in the Diaspora. Yet the questions Angels ask around sexuality, autonomy, and cultural preservation belong within the ethnic, narrative tradition that began in the old country with Sholem Aleichem's Tevye, asking The Almighty for guidance in raising his Jewish daughters in a secular world. And that particular ethnic tradition continues on today (in the New World) with the “all-American, Jewish everyman” plays of Arthur Miller, Paddy Cheyefsky, Nathanael West, and Neil Simon's Broadway Bound. But Kushner, writing in a post-structuralist age, explodes the boundary of tribal sensitivities. He uses a sexuality clearly constructed outside of procreative, nuclear, heterosexual marriage as the postmodern metaphor for the new, self-loathing Willy Loman. Willy has become “Nelly,” and so very fey at that.

Louis Ironson is the post 'Nam, civil rights redux, contemporary Jewish Nelly. Not a likeable, hardly sympathetic liberal, Jew-boy fella. The son of good Jewish lefties and a failure by his own admission, he's a word processor working in the courthouse basement of the Court of Appeals in Brooklyn. (He never made it to law school.) After his grandmother's funeral, he confides to his shiksa boyfriend Prior Walter that he hasn't visited Bubbe Sarah for ten years; she reminded him too much of his mother. With this confession, Kushner appears to play into the Philip Roth/Norman Mailer, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, hate-your-mother-yiddische-mamma's-boy stereotype.

But 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 abandonment produced. Louis doesn't visit Sarah because he is afraid of his mother's shame; the shame of the little feygelah who leaves home not to marry and make a fortune, but to fuck other little feygelahs, Jew and Gentile alike. Louis has internalized the family shame and projects this shame onto his grandmother. So he cannot visit her out of fear of revisiting his own (Jewish male) self-loathing. 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.

Louis Ironson abandons his virus-infected lover just as he abandoned his grandmother. Ignorant of Jewish tradition and afraid of what he's about to do, Louis checks with the rabbi after Sarah's funeral.

Rabbi, what does the Holy Writ say about someone who abandons someone he loves at a time of great need?
Why would a person do such a thing?
Maybe because this person's sense of the world, that it will change for the better with struggle, maybe a person who has this new-Hegelian positivist sense of constant historical progress towards happiness or perfection or something, who feels very powerful because he feels connected to these forces, moving uphill all the time … maybe that person can't, um, incorporate sickness into his sense of how things are supposed to go. Maybe vomit … and sores and disease … really frighten him, maybe … he isn't so good with death.
The Holy Scriptures have nothing to say about such a person.

For Kushner, speaking rabbinically, abandonment is an act of moral as well as spiritual impotence. For Jews—Israeli and Diaspora—abandonment is not only a twentieth-century (Jewish) leitmotif, but also a historical obsession. And, in the age of AIDS, both public: medical, governmental, and religious, and private: family, friends and colleagues, abandonment has become a controlling metaphor for gay suffering. Appropriately then, Kushner uses a gay Jew as cultural icon, representative of the “desertion dilemma,” so central to both the Jewish and gay communities.

Out of his internalized self-loathing, Louis abandons his grandmother—his roots. Because of his shame, he is unable to comprehend that he is about to abandon his lover, Prior, in the exact same way. With the creation of Louis Ironson—secular Jewish faggot that he is—Kushner locates the question of abandonment outside a religious context. Throughout Angels, Louis seeks to locate moral justification for the immoral abandonment of those he loves.

Enter the character of Roy Cohn, who has built a career on the totally fallacious moral justification of the stupendously grotesque, immoral act. Kushner uses Roy Cohn's assimilated, self-loathing Jew-boy persona to mirror the self-loathing Louis Ironson. Are they identical characters? In the play, Louis abandons his literal family, the-mother-of-his-mother. And he deserts his life-partner, sick with AIDS. Roy abandons his metaphoric mother, Ethel Rosenberg. And he forsakes his homosexual brothers by always fucking in a locked closet. Both men are isolationists, living in Galut—contemporary Jewish exile. Louis lives outside Jewish communal life, whereas Roy is completely acommunal. Thus, the narrative function of Roy Cohn in Angels is to create an alter ego for Louis, a point-counterpoint from which Kushner positions assimilated and estranged, very middle-class, Jewish male identity. In this context, the audience sits as the Bet Din, a Jewish court, judging the morality of Louis Ironson—the newly wandering, perpetually meandering, Diaspora Jew. Next to Roy Cohn, Louis looks good, or so it would appear.

But why make the central characters of your play self-loathing gay Jews? Because Kushner, himself a gay Jew, employs one identity to inform dramatically upon the other. Ultimately he uses the condition or state of Diaspora, male “Jewishness,” as cultural signifier for “gayness.” He draws thematic parallels between assimilation and self-loathing within the Jewish male psyche, and location and dislocation within the gay male psyche. (The only women in the play are dead, angels, or crazy.) And—for the first time in contemporary, mainstream, Broadway theater—Kushner dares to use the homosexual persona to reveal Jewish male neurosis. Thus, there is a certain post-structuralist symmetry being constructed around the social identities of Jewish and Queer. Kushner exposes the vices of one identity with the other, and vice versa.

The challenge, then, lies with the heterosexual audience, both Gentile and Jew. As innocent bystander, the Gentile must resist the desire to distance the self from these characters precisely because of their Jewishness and/or their homosexuality. But for the male, heterosexual Jew to identify himself with either Louis Ironson or Roy Cohn is a far more difficult predicament. To identify with them as Jews is to locate the exiled self in a pattern of familiar, albeit uncomfortable, neurosis about “Hebrew” circumcised maleness and to face the internalized shame of the classic pariah.

The queerness of Roy Cohn and Louis Ironson does not invalidate their Jewishness; on the contrary, it illuminates. For the author, the social (not to mention historical) link between Jew and homosexual is clearly potent. He knows personally that it is in the intersection between assimilation and self-loathing that both Jews and homosexuals are caught.

Kushner then collapses the borders between sexuality and ethnicity: A fragmented id becomes a fluid ego, although often a despised one at that. Finally, as if he is writing responsa to Harvey Fierstein's “mother” in the groundbreaking Torch Song Trilogy, when she forbids her son to mention Jewish and gay in the same Kaddish, Kushner refuses to split off the self. The problem is that what he offers in the characters of Louis and Roy, point-counterpoint, are too easy to reject precisely because they are so full of self-loathing. So Kushner strategically introduces (into the play) the “sacred” secular Jewish mother, Ethel Rosenberg, who was betrayed by all the prodigal Jewish sons: Irving R. Kaufman, Irving Saypol, Roy Cohn, and her own brother David Greenglass. She is the final link between the men, Jewish identity, assimilation and self-loathing. It is the presence of Ethel Rosenberg in Angels in America which calls into question Jewish male morality in the postmodern era.

The first scene when Ethel appears, Roy is very sick—so sick he can barely function and is about to collapse. In a chilling moment that leaves the audience psychically suspended, Ethel Rosenberg calls 911 for an ambulance to take Roy Cohn to the emergency room. Throughout Angels, Cohn reflects on his proudest moment; his greatest singular accomplishment—according to him—the epitome of his power (and the height of his assimilation and self-loathing) was when he persuaded Judge Kaufman to sentence Ethel to death in the electric chair. Kushner successfully exposes Roy's misogyny and internalized anti-Semitism. So when Ethel calls for the ambulance, it becomes apparent that she has come back to haunt her executioner and witness his demise. Kushner has made Roy Cohn, in the last weeks of his life, dependent on Ethel Rosenberg. Face to face, the Jewish son meets the (Jewish) mother he ruthlessly betrayed.

Ethel appears next at Cohn's hospital bedside. She announces that the end is near. Cohn is about to be disbarred, and Ethel has come back for the hearings. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the balance of power shifts between the abandoned mother and the son who abandoned her. Until now, Roy was in charge. But with his impending disbarment, his total collapse, political and physical, is imminent.

At the same time, Louis has taken a lover, left the lover, and (near the end of Part Two) begged Prior to take him back. Tightening the symmetry in the play, Kushner parallels Roy's disbarment with Prior's refusal to take Louis back. Because of their immoral and unethical behavior, both Louis and Roy are thrown out and rejected by their own people. But unlike Louis, Roy has no shame. Thus, by the play's end, the characters of Louis Ironson and Roy Cohn are distinguishable. The audience slowly develops a limited sympathy (but never compassion) for Louis, whose lover will not take him back. But for Cohn, there is nothing. Ethel is there to witness it all. Her appearance at Roy Cohn's hospital bed, in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, is a coup de théâtre. Kushner has brought Ethel back to say Kaddish for Roy—the “infected” Jew for whom there is no prayer.

Framing the “Jewish Play” within the play, Kushner begins and ends Angels with a Kaddish. The first Kaddish was not just for Sarah Ironson, Louis's grandmother, but rather for an entire era, including a lost sense of Jewish peoplehood. The last Prayer For The Dead, coming almost at the end of Part Two in Perestroika, is truly a restructuring of the post-immigrant Jewish experience. The Kaddish has been transformed into a postmodern mourning prayer for lost Jewish souls. And it is in the final act of davening that Louis, Ethel, and Roy become the unholy triumvirate.

At the request of Prior's nurse, Belize (who stole Cohn's personal supply of AZT), Louis has come unwillingly to say Kaddish for Cohn. When he begins, Louis mixes up several Hebrew prayers until, out of nowhere, Ethel appears at the foot of the bed to lead Louis in the Kaddish. In this moment, Kushner exposes the true condition of the exiled Jew. Louis is the post-Holocaust Jew who quotes Hegel, but does not even know the Kaddish. He is truly lost; the product of his own shame and self-loathing, he cannot mourn properly. And Ethel, dead already forty-two years and for whom we still say Kaddish, is the only one who knows the words.

The scene is both emotionally satisfying—Roy Cohn is disbarred and finally dead—and disquieting. The new Diaspora Jew wanders around in Galut, intellectually informed, but culturally ignorant, sexually despised, and profoundly isolated. This, then, is the consequence of Louis's abandonment of those he loves. Having been only for himself—who is he? A combination of Willy Loman redux and Tevye's nightmare of a son-in-law. And who are we, Jews, Gentiles, and heterosexuals who disassociate ourselves from Louis Ironson, as though his dilemma is not ours? In the Diaspora, as Tony Kushner deftly shows with his “Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” the question of abandonment simmers in the melting pot, boiling over whenever the temperature gets too hot, scalding everybody in sight.

Further Reading

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Berstein, Andrea. “Tony Kushner.” Mother Jones 20, no. 4 (July/August 1995): 59, 64.

Presents an interview with Kushner.

Fisher, James. Review of The Good Person of Szechuan, by Bertolt Brecht, adapted by Tony Kushner. Theatre Journal 52, no. 1 (March 2000): 120-01.

A review of The Good Person of Szechuan, asserting that Kushner's adaptation, while emphasizing the play's relevance to contemporary American society, is largely faithful to the original work by Bertolt Brecht.

Geis, Deborah R., and Steven F. Kruger, eds. Approaching the Millennium: Essays on Angels in America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.

A collection of essays by various authors on Angels in America, addressing such topics as sexual, racial, and ethnic identity, national politics, and religion.

Korn, Eric. “Slavs Are Us.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4788 (6 January 1995): 18.

A review of Slavs! that assesses the play as beautifully written and compelling, though poorly constructed and uneven in quality.

Kuharski, Allen J. Review of Hydriotaphia, or, The Death of Dr. Browne, by Tony Kushner. Theatre Journal 50, no. 3 (October 1998): 371-72.

A review of Hydriotaphia, describing the play as a provocative and chilling work that, despite elements of comedy, is ultimately a “deeply disturbing meditation on death.”

Kushner, Tony, and Kim Myers. “Not on Broadway.” In Tony Kushner in Conversation, edited by Robert Vorlicky, pp. 231-44. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.

Presents an interview originally conducted on November 11, 1995 in which Kushner discusses his literary influences, the political nature of his plays, his work in theatrical production, and the role of theater in contemporary society.

Oppenheim, Irene. “Shedding More Light on Bright Room.American Theatre 17, no. 7 (September 2000): 75-7.

A review of A Bright Room Called Day assessing the role of Zillah, the narrator of the play.

Additional coverage of Kushner's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 9; Contemporary American Dramatists; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 144; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 74, 130; Contemporary Dramatists, Ed. 5; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 81; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 228; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists; Drama Criticism, Vol. 10; Drama for Students, Vol. 5; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Gay & Lesbian Literature, Ed. 1; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 5; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; and Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4.

James Fisher (essay date winter 1995-96)

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SOURCE: Fisher, James. “‘The Angels of Fructification’: Tennessee Williams, Tony Kushner, and Images of Homosexuality on the American Stage.” Mississippi Quarterly 49, no. 1 (winter 1995-96): 12-32.

[In the following essay, Fisher compares the representations of homosexuality in Kushner's Angels in America and the plays of Tennessee Williams.]

Who, if I were to cry out, would hear me among the angelic orders?1

—Rainer Maria Rilke

Still obscured by glistening exhaltations, the angels of fructification had now begun to meet the tumescent phallus of the sun. Vastly the wheels of the earth sang Allelulia! And the seven foaming oceans bellowed Oh!2

—Tennessee Williams

For centuries, Angels have been symbols of spiritual significance. Residing in a realm somewhere between the deity and his creations, they watch over humanity as unspeakably beautiful harbingers of hope and of death. Such rich and profoundly unsettling icons are central to Tennessee Williams's poem “The Angels of Fructification,” in which his angels provide a vision of homosexual eroticism comparatively rare in his dramas. Williams was the theatre's angel of sexuality—the dramatist most responsible for forcefully introducing sexual issues, both gay and straight, to the American stage. The fruit of his labor is particularly evident in the subsequent generations of playwrights who present gay characters and situations with increasing frankness, depth, and lyricism. Such works bloom most particularly after the 1960s, and most richly in Tony Kushner's epic Angels in America, which has been described by critics as one of the most important American plays of the past fifty years.3

There are significant parallels to be found in Kushner's two Angels in America plays, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, and the dramas of Williams. Both playwrights feature classically inspired epic passions; both depict dark and poetic images of the wondrous and horrifying aspects of existence; both create a kind of stage language that is at once naturalistic and lyrical; both ponder the distance between illusion and reality; both explore the nature of spirituality from a grounding in modern thought; and both deal centrally and compassionately with complex issues of sexuality from a gay sensibility. Although Alfred Kazin has written of homosexuality that “‘The love that dare not speak its name’ (in the nineteenth century) cannot, in the twentieth, shut up,”4 the emergence of Williams, and those dramatists like Kushner following in his footsteps, says much on a subject about which the stage has been silent for too long.

In reflecting on the history of homosexuals in American theatre, Kushner believes that “there's a natural proclivity for gay people—who historically have often spent their lives hiding—to feel an affinity for the extended make-believe and donning of roles that is part of theater. It's reverberant with some of the central facts of our lives.”5 It is not surprising that, in a society in which homosexuals were firmly closeted before the 1960s, the illusions of the stage provided a safe haven. Williams could not be as open about his sexuality in his era as Kushner can be now, and thus had to work with overtly heterosexual situations and characters. Williams's creative achievements grow out of a guarded self-awareness and desire for self-preservation, as well as the constraints of the prevailing values of his day.

Donald Windham believes that Williams “loved being homosexual. I think he loved it more than he loved anybody, more than he loved any thing except writing,”6 and Edward A. Sklepowich seems to agree when he writes that “Williams treats homosexuality with a reverence that at times approaches chauvinism.”7 In fact, Williams was often ambivalent about homosexuality—either his own or anyone else's—in his writings. Although his sexuality was well known in the theatrical community, it is unclear when Williams first “came out” publicly. His 1970 appearance on David Frost's television program seems the earliest public declaration. When Frost asked him to comment on his sexuality, Williams replied, “I don't want to be involved in some sort of a scandal, but I've covered the waterfront.”8 He also told Frost that “everybody has some elements of homosexuality in him, even the most heterosexual of us” (p. 40), but a few years later he wrote, “I have never found the subject of homosexuality a satisfactory theme for a full-length play, despite the fact that it appears as frequently as it does in my short fiction. Yet never even in my short fiction does the sexual activity of a person provide the story with its true inner substance.”9 A couple of years later, in an interview in the Village Voice, Williams made the point with bluntness: “I've nothing to conceal. Homosexuality isn't the theme of my plays. They're about all human relationships. I've never faked it,”10 and in 1975 he stated, “Sexuality is part of my work, of course, because sexuality is a part of my life and everyone's life. I see no essential difference between the love of two men for each other and the love of a man for a woman; no essential difference, and that's why I've examined both. …”11 In his novel, Moise and the World of Reason (1975), Williams is franker in his depiction of homosexuality than in any of his plays. However, more important than issues of homosexuality, the characters in the novel feel the absence of love and a need for connection—constant themes in all of Williams's work. There is no question that, as a rule, Williams was writing about love and not gender. He criticized sexual promiscuity as “a distortion of the love impulse,”12 and for him, this impulse, in whatever form, was sacred.

In retrospect, Williams's cautious exploration of homosexuality—or at least his unwillingness to be more overt about it in his plays—pales by comparison with the defiant openness of Kushner's work. Williams balked at writing what he called gay plays, but Kushner says, “I feel very proud that Angels is identified as a gay play. I want it to be thought of as being part of gay culture, and I certainly want people to think of me as a gay writer. It does also seem to speak very powerfully to straight people.”13 To understand, in part, why Williams obscured homosexuality in his plays, Gore Vidal explains that Williams “had the most vicious press of almost any American writer I can think of. Fag-baiting was at its peak in the fifties when he was at his peak and it has never given up, actually.”14 Donald Spoto believes that Williams's ambivalence had to do, in part, with the fact that he wanted “to be controversial—the hard-drinking, openly homosexual writer with nothing to hide—and at the same time, a man of his own time, a Southern gentleman from a politer era who would never abandon propriety and privacy.”15 This view might indicate why Williams seemed uncomfortable with public displays of drag or campiness, which, he writes, are

imposed upon homosexuals by our society. The obnoxious forms of it will rapidly disappear as Gay Lib begins to succeed in its serious crusade to assert, for its genuinely misunderstood and persecuted minority, a free position in society which will permit them to respect themselves, at least to the extent that, individually, they deserve respect—and I think that degree is likely to be much higher than commonly supposed.16

And it was in the arena of the arts, Williams believed, that the gay sensibility was most likely to first engender such respect. In his Memoirs he states, “There is no doubt in my mind that there is more sensibility—which is equivalent to more talent—among the ‘gays’ of both sexes than among the ‘norms’ …” (p. 63). At the same time, Williams wished to attract a broader audience than gays for his work and seems to have believed that a so-called gay play would limit his access to universal acceptance.

Williams's concern about acceptance was not without some justice. He did not have to look too far back into the preceding decades of American drama to see that the audience was, at best, uncertain about its willingness to accept homosexual characters and issues. The first American play to deal openly with homosexuality is believed to be Mae West's The Drag, which generated so much controversy that it closed before completing a tumultuous pre-Broadway tour in 1927. A few other curiosities appeared in the subsequent decades, most notably Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour (1934), in which the question of a lesbian relationship is at the center. Of course, secondary homosexual characters appear in a few plays of the 1930s and 1940s, but they are rarely identified as such. Simon Stimson, the alcoholic choir master of Thornton Wilder's Our Town (1938), is a vivid example of such types, typical in that he is comparatively unimportant to the plot and that he is seen mostly as a tragi-comic victim. With the appearance of Robert Anderson's Tea and Sympathy (1953), in which a sensitive young man is viewed by his peers as a homosexual (even though it later becomes clear that he is not), gay issues and characters slowly come out of the shadows.

During the 1950s, other playwrights introduced gay characters and issues, but often not in their most visible work. William Inge, inspired to become a playwright by Williams's example, did not feature openly homosexual characters in any of his major plays, but in a few lesser-known one-acts he does so vividly. Inge's The Tiny Closet (1959), for example, features a man boarding in a rooming house where the nosy landlady has been attempting to break into a padlocked closet in his room. As soon as the man goes out, the landlady and her friend manage to break in and discover an array of elegant women's hats. The landlady's violation—and the presumption that she will cause him public disgrace—leaves the man's ultimate fate in question. Inge's blunt attack on intolerance17 was written in the aftermath of the McCarthy era and was a forerunner of later gay plays, particularly those written after the late 1960s, which argue for greater acceptance for homosexuals.

Mid-twentieth century dramatists employed various techniques to present gay characters and situations. One device often used is “transference,” the act of hiding gay viewpoints and situations behind a mask of heterosexuality. Edward Albee, often accused of using transference in the writing of such plays as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), is a gay dramatist who also emerged in the 1950s. With the homosexual triumvirate of Williams, Inge, and Albee dominating the non-musical Broadway stage—and despite the fact that none of them had publicly acknowledged their own sexuality—New York Times drama critic Stanley Kauffmann “outed” them in 1966. Although he does not give their names, it is clear to whom he is referring in his article “Homosexual Drama and Its Disguises.” Kauffmann implies that homosexual writers have no right to write about anything but gay characters—an attitude which would logically imply that men are unable to write about women and vice versa. Kauffmann's notion, undoubtedly all too prevalent in the mid 1960s, becomes clearer when he writes:

Conventions and puritanisms in the Western world have forced [homosexuals] to wear masks for generations, to hate themselves, and thus to hate those who make them hate themselves. Now that they have a certain relative freedom, they vent their feelings in camouflaged form. … They emphasize manner and style because these elements of art, at which they are often adept, are legal tender in their transactions with the world. These elements are, or can be, esthetically divorced from such other considerations as character and idea.18

Albee firmly refutes the idea that he, or Williams, employs transference in his plays: “Tennessee never did that, and I can't think of any self-respecting worthwhile writer who would do that sort of thing. It's beneath contempt to suggest it, and it's beneath contempt to do it.”19 Gore Vidal's explanation of the centrality of women characters in Williams's plays seems a valid alternative to understanding his work and the reasons critics see transference in his plays. Vidal believes that for Williams, a woman was “always more interesting as she was apt to be the victim of a society.”20 Williams understood, as Strindberg did, that there are many aspects of the female in the male and vice-versa. And, also like Strindberg, Williams's pained, driven, poetic, and passionate characters are unquestionably extensions of his own persona regardless of their gender.

For surviving life's vicissitudes, Williams believed that “romanticism is absolutely essential” (Frost, p. 35) and felt that the “ability to feel tenderness toward another human being, “the ability to love” (Frost, p. 35) was paramount and that people must not let themselves “become brutalized by the brutalizing experiences that we do encounter on the Camino Real” (Frost, p. 35). Romanticism, however, must co-exist with self-awareness and a clear sense of the difference between illusion and reality. The characters who suffer most in Williams's plays do so less because of any deviance from accepted norms than because they are, somehow, self-deluded. There is no doubt that constraints on sexuality in the American society of his time meant that Williams's sexually driven characters were often outlaws who could only be fulfilled through some kind of transgression. His characters were often shocking to audiences and even more so in the world they inhabited. Aggressive in their pursuit of fulfillment, they can destroy and be destroyed as Williams undoubtedly hoped to destroy constraints and mores that prevented the survival of a romantic view and the ability to love. Reflecting on Williams's plays, Edward Albee suggests that the drama itself is “an act of aggression. It's an act of aggression against the status quo, against people's smugness. At his best, Tennessee was not content with leaving people when they left a play of his the way they were when they came in to see a play of his.”21

Williams's first Broadway success, The Glass Menagerie (1944), is rare among his works in that the sexuality of his characters is not a significant factor. However, beginning with his next produced play, Summer and Smoke (1947), the sexual personas of his characters become central and visible—and would remain so for the rest of his career. In Summer and Smoke, Alma Winemiller fears and rejects sexuality, which she equates with bestiality, and she places a high value on spiritual love. However, she is physically drawn to young Dr. John Buchanan, her neighbor, whose view of sexuality is purely biological. “I reject your opinion of where love is,” she tells John, “and the kind of truth you believe the brain to be seeking!—There is something not shown on the chart.”22 However, what is missing from John's biological chart frustrates Alma—a creature of desire. John is similarly trapped behind his awe of Alma's purity. He admits to her that “The night at the casino—I wouldn't have made love to you. … I'm more afraid of your soul than you're afraid of my body. You'd have been as safe as the angel of the fountain—because I wouldn't feel decent enough to touch you …” (p. 222). For much of the play Alma hides behind her propriety and the safety of her weak suitor, Roger Doremus, an unacknowledged gay may who, she instinctively understands, poses no sexual threat to her. Ultimately, Alma's despair leads her to abandon her resistance to sexuality. In the final scene of the play she is discovered near the same angel of the fountain John mentioned, picking up a traveling salesman who refers to her as “angel.” Williams acknowledged that Alma's startling liberation mirrored his own move “from puritanical shackles to, well, complete profligacy.”23 Profligacy, as he describes it, represents “Liberation from taboos” (Gaines, p. 27). To Williams, sex is ultimately a welcome and potentially joyful release, and as a playwright he endeavored not to “make any kind of sex dirty except sadism” (Gaines, p. 27).

Roger Doremus is one of several shadowy gay characters Williams includes in his early plays; in fact, in the next play the gay character would not even appear on the stage. A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) was a seismic event in contemporary theatrical sexuality. Blanche DuBois, raised in a genteel family of the Old South, faces so many burdens of physical and emotional death that she begins to believe that the opposite of death is sexual desire, which she seeks promiscuously. The most harrowing death in Blanche's past is the suicide many years before of her young husband, Allan Grey. Allan's repressed homosexuality can only be read as weakness by the immature and frustrated Blanche. As she recounts it to Mitch,

There was something different about the boy, a nervousness, a softness and tenderness which wasn't like a man's, although he wasn't the least bit effeminate looking—still—that thing was there. … He came to me for help. I didn't know that. I didn't find out anything until after our marriage when we'd run away and come back and all I knew was I'd failed him in some mysterious way and wasn't able to give the help he needed but couldn't speak of! He was in the quicksands and clutching at me—but I wasn't holding him out, I was slipping in with him! I didn't know that. I didn't know anything except I loved him unendurably but without being able to help him or myself. Then I found out. In the worst of all possible ways. By coming suddenly into a room that I thought was empty—which wasn't empty, but had two people in it … the boy I had married and an older man who had been his friend for years. …24

Later in her story, Blanche recounts the events of the same evening at the Moon Lake Casino, after Allan has killed himself: “It was because—on the dance-floor—unable to stop myself—I'd suddenly said—‘I saw! I know! You disgust me …’ And then the searchlight which had been turned on the world was turned off again and never for one moment since has there been any light that's stronger than this—kitchen—candle …” (p. 115). The deep root of Blanche's sexual dysfunction can be found in Allan's homosexuality and her inability to understand or accept it. Despite her desperate dalliances with countless other men, she is tragically unable to reignite the light of love snuffed out by her treatment of Allan.

The issue of transference consistently emerges in critical discussions of A Streetcar Named Desire and Blanche's character. Among others, Robert Emmet Jones describes the play, remaking Blanche as a homosexual male; he finally concludes, however, that it is not the femininity of Blanche but the masculinity of Stanley Kowalski that ultimately provides Streetcar with a “very homoerotic element … in a convincing heterosexual situation.”25 Before Williams, the male body was not depicted in American drama as erotically appealing, but Stanley, particularly as embodied by the young Marlon Brando, is a sexual catalyst for both sexes. Stanley, a character defined by his appetites, ultimately uses his sexual power as a weapon against Blanche, but learns, as Blanche has, that sex for its own sake is inevitably destructive—only when it is mixed with love and compassion can it redeem.

In terms of Williams's homosexual characters, his next important play was Camino Real (1953), a drama that failed to attract an audience in its original production, more because of its startling theatrical innovations than because of its subject matter. Camino Real, a play of fanciful metaphysics pleading for a romantic attitude about life, depicts the crosscurrents of history as described by a particularly literary sensibility. Williams intermingles such characters as Don Quixote, Kilroy, Camille, Casanova, and Lord Byron in a fantastic world drawn from elements of Spanish folklore and traditional Christianity. Although it is relatively unimportant in the action of the play, the character of Baron de Charlus, borrowed from Proust, is an avowed homosexual and pointedly effeminate—a trait Williams himself disliked. When these types appear in his plays they are often objects of ridicule, Williams showing strangely less compassion for effeminate men than for the more masculine homosexuals he often depicted. Such masculine characters of ambiguous sexuality appear more frequently in Williams's plays of the mid-to-late 1950s. In Orpheus Descending (1957) Williams makes use of the myth of Orpheus, who descends into the underworld to rescue his lover Eurydice from the King of the Dead. Williams introduces Val Xavier as his Orpheus, a sensual and poetic hero inarticulately yearning for some vaguely understood form of transcendence, either through art or sex. A rather less poetic version of this type can be found in Chance Wayne, the young male hustler of Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), but it is with Brick Pollitt, the alcoholic ex-athlete of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), that Williams takes another important step in his depiction of homosexuality.

Brick shares Williams's repugnance at what he calls “fairies,” mocking the deceased former owners of the family estate, who were two gay men. Brick's past triumphs in sports are taken by all as a sign of masculinity, but his family, particularly his sexually frustrated wife, Maggie, are distressed by his reckless and relentless drinking. He does not drink, however, because his athletic career is over, as all but Maggie think, but because he fears that his confused feelings for his deceased best friend, Skipper, who he now knows was a homosexual, haunt him. In response to the question, Williams explained that Brick “went no further in physical expression than clasping Skipper's hand across the space between their twin beds in hotel rooms—and yet his sexual nature was not innately ‘normal’.”26 Brick is also disgusted by the “mendacity” he sees around him and finally recognizes in himself. Here character and author meet, for certainly Williams understood as a gay man in 1950s America that mendacity, as Brick explains, is “a system that we live in.”27 Hellbent on destroying himself, Brick drinks to oblivion but learns in the final scenes that the act of love is more important than anything—including the gender of those involved. Maggie becomes an angel of salvation for Brick and, as the play concludes, she succeeds in drawing him back to her bed through her compassionate wish to create an heir—a son of Brick's—to whom a dying Big Daddy can leave his vast fortune and estate.

There are no such saving angels to be found in Suddenly Last Summer (1958), in which Williams sketches a vision of a predatory universe. Following the violent and mysterious death of her son, Sebastian, the imperious Violet Venable tries to convince young Dr. Cukrowicz to perform a lobotomy on her disturbed niece, Catherine, who has witnessed Sebastian's death. Mrs. Venable does not want Catherine's version of Sebastian's death to prevail. However, Cukrowicz encourages Catherine, who painfully recounts the final hours of the voraciously homosexual Sebastian, who died at the hands of a mob of predatory youths he had used sexually. In a sense, Sebastian, who is apparently incapable of real love, is devoured by his own promiscuous appetites in a frightening cosmos where only the most efficient predators survive.

The last stage of Williams's depiction of homosexuality is the most significant in his dramatic canon. At the time of the play's initial New York run, Walter Kerr described Small Craft Warnings (1972), which is set in a down-and-out bar, as a play of “Talkers, drinkers, losers getting ready for one or another kind of death.”28 Frequently considered by critics to be a lesser play in the Williams canon, it is, in fact, the most important work in understanding Williams's dramatic depiction of homosexuality. Critics have generally claimed that Williams offers a dark and embittered view of homosexuality through the character of Quentin, a middle-aged gay screenwriter. The play, which is written in a series of connected confessional arias for the major characters, permits Quentin, in a speech Williams himself considered the best in the play, to reflect on his way of life:

There's a coarseness, a deadening coarseness, in the experience of most homosexuals. The experiences are quick, and hard, and brutal, and the pattern of them is practically unchanging. Their act of love is like the jabbing of a hypodermic needle to which they're addicted but which is more and more empty of real interest and surprise.29

Quentin also expresses his amazement at Bobby, the young hustler from Iowa he has recently picked up. Williams describes Bobby as having “a quality of sexlessness, not effeminacy” (p. 240), and Quentin is moved by his discovery that Bobby has “the capacity for being surprised by what he sees, hears and feels in this kingdom of earth” (p. 261), and painfully notes that he himself has “lost the ability to say: ‘My God!’ instead of just: ‘Oh, well’” (p. 261). Bobby presents an image of youthful wonder and a joy in his sexuality that balances Williams's portrayal of Quentin's dulled sensibilities. Another angle is supplied by Leona, the self-described “faggot's moll,” a drunk and habitué of the bar, who recalls the experiences of her deceased brother to Quentin:

I know the gay scene and I know the language of it and I know how full it is of sickness and sadness; it's so full of sadness and sickness, I could almost be glad that my little brother died before he had time to be infected with all that sadness and sickness in the heart of a gay boy. This kid from Iowa, here, reminds me a little of how my brother was, and you, you remind me of how he might have become if he'd lived.

(p. 254)

At the time Small Craft Warnings was first produced, critics were eager to believe that Williams was condemning homosexuality—or regretting his own—in this play, and that Quentin's bitterness and disillusionment were some sort of final statement on the subject by Williams. In fact, Williams shows several faces of homosexuality in the play and Quentin's and Leona's views, if indeed they are speaking for Williams, may well have more to do with the author's personal unhappinesses and addictions than with a desire to make a universal statement on homosexuality. Williams, who played the role of Doc in the off-Broadway production of Small Craft Warnings for part of its run, believed that Quentin was close to his own persona because he, too, had

quite lost the capacity for astonishment. … I'm not a typical homosexual. I can identify completely with Blanche—we are both hysterics—with Alma and even with Stanley. … If you understand schizophrenia, I am not really a dual creature; but I can understand the tenderness of women and the lust and libido of the male, which are, unfortunately, too seldom combined in women.30

Williams's interest in androgyny and bisexuality also becomes clear in his depiction of Bobby's exuberant love life in Small Craft Warnings. Bobby has lost none of the aforementioned capacity for astonishment, and at one point in the play he describes an experience that literally caught him between the sexes:

On the plains of Nebraska I passed a night with a group of runaway kids my age and it got cold after sunset. A lovely wild young girl invited me under a blanket with just a smile, and then a boy, me between, and both of them kept saying “love,” one of 'em in one ear and one in the other, till I didn't know which was which “love” in which ear or which … touch. … The plain was high and the night air … exhilarating and the touches not heavy.

(p. 264)

In his letters and his Memoirs, which were written at about the same time he was working on Small Craft Warnings, Williams writes with similar eroticism about his own sexual history. Perhaps his ultimate public stance is best expressed by Monk, the owner of the bar in Small Craft Warnings, who opines of gays, “I've got no moral objections to them as a part of humanity, but I don't encourage them in here” (p. 264).

The theatre in general was catching up with Williams's depictions of homosexuality in this same era. With the appearance of Matt Crowley's The Boys in the Band (1968), gay theatre, and the inclusion of homosexual characters and issues in mainstream American drama, increased significantly. Between 1960 and the 1980s, however, gay characters were often reduced to peripheral status in the plays—or were seen most vividly in musicals like La Cage aux Folles (1983), boulevard comedies like Torch Song Trilogy (1981), or in broad stereotypes in straight plays. There were exceptions, including Albee's Everything in the Garden (1967), LeRoi Jones's The Toilet (1964), and the inspired grotesquerie of Charles Ludlam's Theatre of the Ridiculous, but at the outset of the AIDS epidemic an important change occurred in the depiction of gays. Homosexual plays became either scathing indictments of American society's failure to respond adequately to the AIDS crisis, as in the plays of Larry Kramer, or dark depictions of the oppression of gays, as in Martin Sherman's Bent (1978), which dramatizes the brutal oppression of homosexuals during the Holocaust. However, no gay dramatist seems logically to follow Williams, who, as Delma Eugene Presley writes, “made serious efforts to explore the subjects of reconciliation and redemption”31 in their work. Before Williams, only Eugene O'Neill faced such questions; after Williams, only Tony Kushner.

Despite many similarities between Williams and Kushner, there is at least one obvious difference: Kushner is a dramatist with a strongly political perspective. Williams is rarely thought of as political and believed that it was “only in the case of Brecht that a man's politics, if the man is an artist, are of particular importance in his work” (Memoirs, p. 178). In recalling his political awakening, Williams wrote in his Memoirs that he came of voting age while working at Continental Shoemakers and “cast my first and last political vote. It was for Norman Thomas: I had already turned Socialist” (p. 46). Late in life, his political interests became inflamed by “the atrocity of the American involvement in Vietnam, about Nixon's total lack of honesty and of a moral sense, and of the devotion I had to the cause of Senator McGovern” (Memoirs, p. 120), and he continued to long for the emergence of “an enlightened form of socialism” (Memoirs, p. 118). Otherwise, Williams's drama is certainly not overtly political, but Kushner, who also calls for reconsideration of socialism in light of the collapse of the Soviet model, argues that “All theater is political. If you don't declare your politics, your politics are probably right-wing” (Blanchard, p. 42). The AIDS epidemic had, in essence, pushed gay dramatists toward a more politicized view—even more than had been inspired by the Stonewall era. A politicized gay theatre, for Kushner, is a positive direction, and he believes that “America watching the spectacle of itself being able to accept homosexuality is good for America” (Blanchard, p. 42).

Kushner's political awakening began when he was in college. He was inspired, in part, by the writers and artists emerging from the Stonewall generation, by ACT UP and Queer Nation, whose chant, “We're here, we're queer, we're fabulous,” pervades Kushner's plays. He acknowledges some debt to dramatists like Larry Kramer and Harvey Fierstein, but more directly significant to his development as a dramatist is his deep admiration for Williams: “I've always loved Williams. The first time I read Streetcar, I was annihilated. I read as much Williams as I could get my hands on until the late plays started getting embarrassingly bad. … I'm really influenced by Williams.”32 Kushner also admires the plays of John Guare, who “Like Williams, has figured out a way for Americans to do a kind of stage poetry. He's discovered a lyrical voice that doesn't sound horrendously twee and forced and phony” (Savran interview, p. 24). Kushner aims for a similar sort of lyricism in Angels in America, weaving a tapestry of the crushing human and spiritual issues of the Reagan era—and beyond—with poignance (in the Williams sense) and epic stature (in both the O'Neillian and Brechtian senses). John Lahr writes of Kushner, “Not since Williams has a playwright announced his poetic vision with such authority on the Broadway stage. Kushner is the heir apparent to Williams's romantic theatrical heritage: he, too, has tricks in his pocket and things up his sleeve, and he gives the audience ‘truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.’ And, also like Williams, Kushner has forged an original, impressionistic theatrical vocabulary to show us the heart of a new age.”33

At the very least, if Williams's plays dramatized homosexuality from the 1940s through the early 1970s, Kushner's plays clearly provide the next chapter. In technique, particularly in his lyricism, scope, humor, and compassion for his characters, Kushner is clearly in Williams's debt. There are also distinct differences. For example, all of the major male characters in Angels are gay—some are “out” and others are “closeted”—but all must deal with their sexuality centrally in the action Kushner provides. Whereas Williams's gay characters are forced by their times to the periphery of mainstream society, Kushner's characters have broken through to the center—but not without great cost. In Small Craft Warnings, Williams provides Quentin and Bobby equal time to reveal their differing perspectives, and Kushner similarly allows each of his characters ample opportunity to share their private journeys of self-discovery within the complexities, contradictions, and hypocrisies he sees in modern American life.

Drama critics like John Simon, often accused of homophobia, disliked the plays, particularly finding them to plead “not just for homosexuality but also and especially for transgression, a life-style of flouted complaisance and flaunted socially unacceptable excess,”34 but the plays have been highly acclaimed by any standards. One of the great ironies of the success of Angels in America is the enormous mainstream audience that has embraced the play, despite the fact that its politics, moral universe, and sexuality are, at least as measured by whom we elect to public office, the opposite of what American society claims to believe in. It is perhaps in this irony that some of the questions that both Williams and Kushner explore meet. As Kushner wonders, “What is the relationship between sexuality and power? Is sexuality merely an expression of power? Is there even such a thing as ‘sexuality’?” (Savran interview, p. 100).

There is a sense of Greek fatality in Angels in America that can be felt in The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Suddenly Last Summer, but also an Ibsenite element—the idea that humanity is on the wrong road and that the souls of the past and future will demand retribution. Like Ibsen—and certainly Williams—Kushner believes that personal tragedy, both real and fictional, teaches and profoundly changes people. The Angels in America plays are feverish historical dramas about our immediate and current history, but it is the questions Kushner asks that are of greatest significance. What claim can we make to humanity in a nation racially, politically, morally, and sexually divided? Has America chosen an uncompassionate path as part of an inevitable movement toward spiritual decline and death or can this course be changed and renewal be achieved? For Williams, tragically inspired plays “offer us a view of certain moral values in violent juxtaposition” (Where I Live, p. 53), and Kushner provides such conflicts in Angels in America. Despite the political predilections of its author, Angels in America attempts to allow both sides to have their say. Its most lovable character is dying of AIDS, but so is its most detestable; both conservative and liberal characters have admirable moments and reprehensible ones; the strong become weak and the weak become strong. Kushner seems to believe what Williams once said of human experience: “I don't believe in villains or heroes—only right or wrong ways that individuals have taken, not by choice but by necessity or by certain still-uncomprehended influences in themselves, their circumstances, and their antecedents” (Where I Live, pp. 91-92).

It is in this vein that Kushner's “gay fantasia” begins. The first play, Millennium Approaches, opens on a somber scene as an elderly rabbi stands over the coffin of Sarah Ironson, a woman whose difficult life embodies the immigrant experience of her generation. The rabbi ominously warns that “Pretty soon … all the old will be dead.”35 And with them will go the values and certitudes that shaped their lives and our times. Kushner then focuses his gaze on a married couple, Joe and Harper Pitt, and a gay couple, Prior Walter and Louis Ironson, the grandson of the deceased woman. These two relationships are both at points of primal crisis when they intersect with the life of a McCarthy-era hatchet man and shark lawyer Roy Cohn. Joe is a Mormon lawyer whose conservative politics lead him to Cohn, who would like to place Joe in the Justice Department as his man in Washington. Joe, however, is caught up in a personal struggle with his long repressed homosexuality. He has lived according to the rules by which he was raised—to be a family man, to be devoutly religious, and to be a conservative Republican. However, he is also miserable. In an agonized plea to Harper, who demands that Joe tell her whether or not he is in fact a homosexual, Joe says what Williams's Brick Pollitt might have said with a greater sense of self-awareness: “Does it make any difference? That I might be one thing deep within, no matter how wrong or ugly that thing is, so long as I have fought, with everything I have, to kill it” (p. 40). Joe's life-long conflict with himself is most potently illuminated in a later speech to Harper that is reminiscent of Reverend Shannon's struggle with his vision of a predatory god in Night of the Iguana (1959):

I had a book of Bible stories when I was a kid. There was a picture I'd look at twenty times every day: Jacob wrestles with the angel. I don't really remember the story, or why the wrestling—just the picture. Jacob is young and very strong. The angel is … a beautiful man, with golden hair and wings, of course. I still dream about it. Many nights. I'm … It's me. In that struggle. Fierce and unfair. The angel is not human, and it holds nothing back, so how could anyone human win, what kind of a fight is that? It's not just. Losing means your soul thrown down in the dust, your heart torn out from God's. But you can't not lose.

(pp. 49-50)

Later, Joe encounters Louis, who is in a desperate flight of fear from his long-time lover, Prior, who is suffering from the initial stages of AIDS. Racked with guilt at his faithlessness, the liberal Louis reflects on the era, which he sees as a metaphor for his own behavior. He describes himself, and Joe, as “Children of the new morning, criminal minds. Selfish and greedy and loveless and blind. Reagan's children” (p. 74). Louis has a brutal, punishing sexual encounter with a stranger in Central Park in a situation that mirrors Quentin's description of the “coarse” experience of homosexuals in Small Craft Warnings. The stranger asks, “You been a bad boy?” Louis can only sardonically reply, “Very bad. Very bad” (p. 55).

Meanwhile, Joe's wife, Harper, seriously addicted to Valium, and Prior, often delirious as he becomes sicker with AIDS, meet in each other's hallucinations. These scenes have a mystical quality but are also filled with the sort of campiness Williams preferred to avoid. Some critics of Angels similarly found the campiness unfortunately stereotypical, but Kushner believes that there is something empowering for gays in drag and a camp sensibility. Kushner's use of various forms of humor with all of his characters, but most particularly with Prior, is remarkably similar to the ways in which Williams typically broke the unspeakable tension of his most unsettling scenes to expose the absurd and grotesque sides of a character's circumstances. As Williams told Dick Cavett in a television interview: “Much of my pleasure in life comes from the fun, you know, the funny side of people. And if you omit that from them then they don't seem quite real. I don't find people lovable unless they're somewhat funny.”36

Kushner uses a quite different brand of humor with the character of Roy Cohn. Cohn's gleefully bitter corruption is both comic and frightening. One of the most remarkable aspects of Angels—and something that is typical of Williams as well—is the way in which Kushner achieves sympathetic moments for even his most monstrous and transgressing characters. Roy is a rapacious predator, who is first discovered in his command module juggling phone calls and wishing he had eight arms like an octopus. It is Roy's self-loathing that is most unsettling and is most vividly shown in his scathing denial of his homosexuality: “Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout” (p. 45).

Roy represents a kind of trickle-down morality in Angels—Kushner's notion that if there's corruption, greed, and bad faith at the top, it will ultimately seep down to each individual in the society. As Robert Brustein writes, there are “no angels in America, only angles,”37 and Angels depicts a moral combat represented at various points by the opposing poles of conservative and liberal, gay and straight, transgressor and victim. Also, as in many of Williams's best plays, Angels deftly captures a convergence of past, present, and future. The past, as previously indicated, is symbolized by the death of an elderly Jewish woman; the present by the greed of the Reagan era, by Cohn, and by a general loss of faith and loyalty, as demonstrated in the behavior of Joe and Louis. The future is represented by a choice between destruction and change best exemplified at the end of Millennium Approaches by the startling appearance of an angel, who may be bringing news of either salvation or apocalypse.

As a dramatist with a decidedly political bent, Kushner is perhaps closer to a George Bernard Shaw or a Bertolt Brecht than to Williams. However, both Kushner and Williams offer a view of a changing socio-political environment, with their characters caught between two worlds: one that is dying and one that is being born. Although Kushner himself is certainly of the left-wing of the political spectrum, it is in Prior's human and personal politics, more than Roy's or Louis's polemics, that Kushner's sympathies lie. Prior grapples with the politics of existence with a profoundly humane and compassionate viewpoint. Fearful of his future, Prior recounts a story of one of his ancestors who was forced to escape in a lifeboat with seventy other passengers when a ship foundered. Whenever the lifeboat sat too low in the water or seemed about to capsize, crew members aboard would hurl the nearest passenger into the sea. Dying of AIDS, Prior says

I think about that story a lot now. People in a boat, waiting, terrified, while implacable, unsmiling men, irresistably strong, seize … maybe the person next to you, maybe you, and with no warning at all, with time only for a quick intake of air you are pitched into freezing, turbulent water and salt and darkness to drown.

(pp. 41-42)

At the end of Millennium Approaches, an angel appears to a delirious Prior, who is frightened but with moving courage resists his fears: “I can handle pressure, I am a gay man and I am used to pressure, to trouble, I am tough and strong and …” (p. 117). At this point, Prior is overwhelmed by an intense sexual response as the angel crashes through the ceiling of his room. The angel, calling Prior a prophet, announces that “The Great Work begins” (p. 119).

In the second play, Perestroika, the characters continue their individual journeys in a darker and even more intellectually complex drama. Where Millennium Approaches depicts faithlessness and selfishness with compassion while offering a glimpse of the retreating conscience of American society, Perestroika finds Kushner's indomitable characters moving tentatively toward the feared changes. Despite the overall grimness of much of Perestroika, the play finally, and with a moving humanism typical of Kushner's—and Williams's—work, brings several of the characters to some measure of forgiveness and a settling of accounts. Most shattering of all may be the scenes in which Belize reluctantly but compassionately nurses the delirious and dying Cohn, despite hateful taunts and threats. In another moving sequence, Louis, appalled to find himself at the bedside of Cohn, reluctantly gives in to compassion and joins a ghostly Ethel Rosenberg to chant the “Kaddish” over Cohn's corpse. Similarly, Joe's mother, Hannah, cares for the abandoned and increasingly disturbed Harper. While working at her volunteer job at New York's Mormon Welcome Center, Hannah leaves Harper alone with a life-size diorama of a nineteenth-century Mormon pioneer family. Harper thinks she sees her errant spouse in the image of the “Mormon Father,” and she pleads for guidance from the “Mormon Mother.” When the figure comes miraculously to life and grimly leads Harper toward the next stage of her personal journey, Kushner achieves a transcendent meeting of past and present not at all unlike that in Williams's Camino Real, a magical road where the fictions of history and literature converge with reality.

Hannah has lost her son Joe as a result of her rigidity, but visiting Prior in the hospital teaches her acceptance for the “otherness” of homosexuality. She asks Prior if she should come see him again, and Prior, borrowing Williams's most famous—and campiest—line, becomes Blanche DuBois for a moment. “Please do,” he says, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Hannah, unfamiliar with the reference, can only reply, “Well that's a stupid thing to do.”38 Hannah does return and is no longer a stranger, either to Prior or herself, for she too has been visited by Prior's angel and experienced a similarly orgasmic encounter with the angel that has transformed her.

The final scene of Perestroika is set at the Bethesda fountain in Central Park, with a statue of an angel in its center. It is not at all unlike the one where Williams's repressed Alma Winemuller had her sexual awakening. At the fountain a newly created family including Prior, Hannah, Belize, and a repentant Louis meet. A stronger, wiser Hannah asserts Kushner's view of the interconnectedness of all humanity—regardless of race or sexual preference—and the primacy of loyalty and commitment to others. Prior points out the angel of the fountain, Bethesda, a figure commemorating death but suggesting “a world without dying” (p. 147). Prior, the prophet, whose AIDS symptoms have stabilized, notes that the healing waters of Bethesda's fountain are not flowing now, but that he hopes to be around to see the day they flow again. And in a final statement, this indomitable gay character speaks for all those who have come before, from the plays of Williams through Kushner:

This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won't die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.

(p. 148)


  1. Rainer Maria Rilke, “Duino Elegies. The Ninth Elegy,” in Selected Works, Vol. II. Poetry, trans. J. B. Leishman (Norfolk, Connecticut and New York: A New Directions Book, 1960), pp. 244-245.

  2. Tennessee Williams, “The Angels of Fructification,” in In the Winter of Cities. Selected Poems of Tennessee Williams (New York: New Directions, 1956, 1964), p. 34.

  3. Kushner's theatrical output thus far includes the plays Yes, Yes, No, No (1985; children's play). Stella (1987; adapted from a play by Goethe), A Bright Room Called Day (1987), Hydriotaphia (1987), The Illusion (1988; freely adapted from a play by Pierre Corneille), Angels in America. Part One. Millennium Approaches (1990), Angels in America. Part Two. Perestroika (1991), Widows (1991; written with Ariel Dorfman, adapted from Dorfman's novel), Slavs (1994), and The Dybbuk (1995; adapted from S. Ansky's play).

  4. Alfred Kazin, “The Writer as Sexual Show-Off: Making Press Agents Unnecessary,” New York Magazine, June 9, 1975, p. 38.

  5. Bob Blanchard, “Playwright of Pain and Hope,” Progressive Magazine, October 1994, p. 42.

  6. Donald Windham interviewed in “Tennessee Williams. Orpheus of the American Stage,” a film by Merrill Brockway broadcast on “American Masters” (PBS-TV), 1994.

  7. Edward A. Sklepowich, “In Pursuit of the Lyric Quarry: The Image of the Homosexual in Tennessee Williams' Prose Fiction,” in Tennessee Williams: A Tribute, ed. Jac Tharpe (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1977), p. 541.

  8. David Frost, The Americans (New York: Stein and Day, 1970), p. 40.

  9. Tennessee Williams, “Let Me Hang It All Out.” New York Times, March 4, 1975, Section II, p. 1.

  10. Tennessee Williams interviewed by Arthur Bell, Village Voice, February 24, 1972.

  11. Tennessee Williams interviewed by Robert Berkvist, New York Times, December 21, 1975.

  12. Tennessee Williams interviewed on “The Lively Arts” program (BBC-TV), 1976.

  13. Gerard Raymond, “An Interview with Tony Kushner,” Theater Week, December 20, 1993, p. 17.

  14. Gore Vidal interviewed in “Tennessee Williams. Orpheus of the American Stage,” a film by Merrill Brockway for “American Masters” (PBS-TV), 1994.

  15. Donald Spoto, The Kindness of Strangers, The Life of Tennessee Williams (Boston/Toronto: Little, Brown and Co., 1985), p. 292.

  16. Tennessee Williams, Memoirs (New York: Doubleday, 1975), p. 63.

  17. Inge's one-act The Boy in the Basement (1962) makes a similar plea for tolerance.

  18. Stanley Kauffmann, “Homosexual Drama and Its Disguises,” New York Times, January 23, 1966. Section 2, p. 1.

  19. Edward Albee, cited in The Playwright's Art. Conversations with Contemporary American Dramatists, ed. Jackson R. Bryer (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1995), p. 21.

  20. Gore Vidal interviewed in “Tennessee Williams. Orpheus of the American Stage,” a film by Merrill Brockway for “American Masters” (PBS-TV), 1994.

  21. Edward Albee interviewed in “Tennessee Williams. Orpheus of the American Stage,” a film by Merrill Brockway for “American Masters” (PBS-TV), 1994.

  22. Tennessee Williams, The Theatre of Tennessee Williams. Volume 2 (New York: New Directions, 1971), p. 221.

  23. Jim Gaines, “A Talk About Life and Style with Tennessee Williams,” Saturday Review, April 29, 1972, p. 27.

  24. Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire (New York: New Directions, 1980), p. 114.

  25. Robert Emmet Jones, “Sexual Roles in the Works of Tennessee Williams,” in Tennessee Williams: A Tribute, ed. Jac Tharpe (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1977), p. 554.

  26. Tennessee Williams, Where I Live. Selected Essays, ed. Christine R. Day and Bob Woods, with an introduction by Christine R. Day (New York: A New Directions Book, 1978), p. 72.

  27. Tennessee Williams, The Theatre of Tennessee Williams. Volume 3 (New York: New Directions, 1971), p. 127.

  28. Walter Kerr, “Talkers, Drinkers and Losers,” New York Times, April 16, 1972, Section 2, p. 8.

  29. Tennessee Williams, The Theatre of Tennessee Williams. Volume 5 (New York: New Directions, 1976), p. 260.

  30. Tennessee Williams interviewed by C. Robert Jennings, Playboy (20, April 1973).

  31. Delma Eugene Presley, “Little Acts of Grace,” Tennessee Williams: A Tribute, ed. Jac Tharpe (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1977), p. 579.

  32. Tony Kushner Considers the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness. An Interview by David Savran,” American Theatre, October 1994, p. 24.

  33. John Lahr, “Earth Angels,” New Yorker, December 13, 1993, p. 133.

  34. John Simon, “Angelic Geometry,” New Yorker, December 6, 1993, pp. 130-131.

  35. Tony Kushner, Angels in America. Part I. Millennium Approaches (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1992, 1993), p. 11.

  36. Tennessee Williams interviewed on “The Dick Cavett Show,” 1974.

  37. Robert Brustein, “Robert Brustein on Theater: Angles in America,” New Republic, May 24, 1993, p. 30.

  38. Tony Kushner, Angels in America. Part II. Perestroika (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1992, 1994), p. 141.

John R. Quinn (essay date March 1996)

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SOURCE: Quinn, John R. “Corpus Juris Tertium: Redemptive Jurisprudence in Angels in America.Theatre Journal 48, no. 1 (March 1996): 79-90.

[In the following essay, Quinn argues that the concept of law is central to both the national and spiritual themes running through Angels in America. Quinn asserts that, in Kushner's play, the law emerges as a kind of secular religion.]

“In the beginning was the Word; … [then] The Word became flesh.”

—John 1:1,14

Law, at least the contemporary American concept of it, is a nerve running through nearly every organ and extremity of the body of Tony Kushner's Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. The abundance of Angels passages that address or refer to the law demonstrates the subject's ubiquity in the plays. Among other things, two of the plays' central characters, Roy Cohn and Joe Pitt, are not only closeted homosexuals but also attorneys (Cohn is a seasoned practitioner, whereas Joe Pitt researches and drafts opinions for a federal judge). Their presence, as I discuss in greater depth below, saturates the plays' dialogue with the vocabulary and cultural referents of American legalspeak. Legal metaphor and allusion are also part of the everyday discourse of non-lawyers Louis and Prior: for example, Prior renders a “verdict” on Louis's failings in love,1 Louis and Prior debate the merits of the judicial tasks of deliberating and rendering judgment (MA 38-39), and Louis's masturbatory intellectualism includes speculations on the relationship among law, “Justice,” and the Constitution.2 Law enters into countless other lay settings as well; to name a few, Mr. Ties reminds Harper of the “by-laws” (MA 102) of the International Organization of Travel Agents, Belize speaks of the “law” of love (MA 100), Roy urges Joe to find some “law” that he can break (MA 110), and the “Law for real” busts Harper's imagination (P 21). Legal places, such as the ironically named Hall of Justice in Brooklyn and Department of Justice in Washington, loom large in the plays' landscape. Lastly, many of the plays' pivotal dramatic moments are or involve momentous legal events, such as the trial of Ethel Rosenberg, Cohn's disbarment proceedings, and Louis's discovery of the conservative opinions that Joe Pitt ghostwrote for Judge Wilson.

In this essay I argue that law is more than subtext or local color. Instead, law is intricately intertwined among the “national” themes Kushner handles, significantly advancing the urgent and weighty messages about spirituality and apocalypse that Angels so poignantly delivers. Ultimately, law acquires the salient characteristics of a secular religion in the America that Kushner brings to the stage.

Many of the plays' principal characters embody different types or distinctive components of law. We know this by the stark difference between Joe Pitt's and Roy Cohn's legal ethics: they disagree strongly about the “legality” and necessity of Cohn's having accepted a loan from his client (MA 66) and about Cohn's having engaged in private, ex parte conversations with the judge during the Rosenberg case (MA 108). (Cohn and Joe clash equally in lay ethics as well, as evidenced by their argument over Joe's refusal to go to Washington without his wife Harper [MA 106-8]). Roy Cohn's ogreish, grotesque, scene-stealing command of Angels demands that his character be first in an interpretation of law's function in the plays.

Kushner employs Cohn, the “famous lawyer” (MA 112), as a stereotype of the successful lawyer in capitalist, materialist, litigious America. Like many of the other characters in the plays, however, Cohn's stereotypicality is only superficial; in reality, he is a subversion, or more accurately for Cohn, a perversion, of the familiar type. Cohn's lawyering is conspicuous for its mangling of truth, its shoot-from-the-hip, get-away-with-whatever-you-can impudence, and the ensuing lability of the governing rule of law. My focus here, however, is the extent to which Cohn's lawyering differs from the garden-variety, ethically compromised practice of the stereotypical American lawyer. As many readers and theatregoers probably would concur, a skillful attorney, if paid to do so, can argue that black is white or the Pope is Jewish. Increased media coverage of sensationalistic trials has stimulated American appetite to near insatiability and encouraged popular belief that success as a defense lawyer in particular seems to be a function of antics, gamesmanship and manipulation—a kind of legaltheatre. Delineation of the important though subtle difference between Cohn and the American stereotype first requires an accurate measure of the amount of truth-mangling and procedural impudence American jurisprudence regards as healthy, and an appraisal of the extent of ensuing preceptive instability it tolerates.

Truth's status in the epistemology of American jurisprudence is equivocal. On the one hand, fledgling lawyers are taught that truth is the pearl that advocacy and the adversary-based standard of American legal procedure are supposed, at the end of the day, to unearth. Most of the rules of evidence and procedure governing trials are specific applications of the general goal of promoting the reliability and trustworthiness of proof.3 Even an accused's right to have an attorney, and to cross-examine witnesses, both of which are constitutional guarantees, are repeatedly justified by the Supreme Court on the ground that adversariness promotes truth.4 When not abused, the procedural rules maximize the chance, though do not guarantee, that truth will emerge, that the judge or jury will ascertain the correct version of the historical events at issue in a case. On the other hand, even in their unabused application, the legal rules frequently endorse implicit departures from truth. Examples are the notorious legal fictions known as the presumption of innocence and the related distinction between legal guilt and factual guilt. Legal guilt is established by a sufficient quantity and quality (i.e., probativeness) of evidence; qualitative or quantitative deficiency results in acquittal, a concept the law carefully does not equate with factual innocence. Acquittal happens solely by operation of the presumption—not affirmative proof—of innocence and often may occur even when factual but inadequately proven guilt exists. Thus, “legal truth” equals not “factual truth,” but only that which can be proven according to the standards of the law.

Cohn's conduct, however reprehensible, at first appears to be within the letter of this code. For example, we know that Cohn accepted a loan from a client, but in Cohn's words, unless the event can be “proven” (MA 66) it did not occur. On closer inspection, however, Cohn's disregard for truth is more serious, flagrant, and conscious than that committed by the American lawyer's opportunistic capitalization on an adversary's meager proof at trial. For Cohn, the law's presumption of innocence and distinction between legal and factual guilt lose their tolerable fictional nature because he applies them not only to his courtroom practice but to his lay existence. He so consistently professes belief in what are in fact untruths—for example, he denies he is homosexual even though he sleeps with men (MA 45), he tells Joe he has cancer, not AIDS, and then denies he is ill at all (MA 109), and he evades admitting he accepted a loan from a client—that his version of truth seems to be grounded entirely in courtroom epistemology rather than in lay standards. In a word, Cohn lives too literally and exclusively by the letter of the law, a provision of which is the law's tolerance of the fictitious “legal” fact.

By contrast, the stereotype of which Cohn is a corruption exhibits at least some residual regard for the factual truth underlying the evidence and some recollection of the original goals of the system. Even when evading the rules, the ethically compromised stereotype does so with less impudence than Cohn. In short, the stereotype may practice the law's fictions inside the courtroom, but does not live by them outside. Cohn, however, takes the law's fictions and loopholes outside the arena of the courtroom and lives his life by them. The symptom of Cohn's pathological internalization of legal standards of truth is a sense of complete randomness and chaos; he loses any ability even to know when he is indulging legal fictions. Ranting at his doctor over the telephone, Cohn aptly summarizes his evidentiary non-principles: “I don't even know what all I know. Half the time I just make it up, and it still turns out to be true!” (P 31, emphasis in original). Thus Cohn divorces the law (here, the evidentiary law, the way to truth) from its context, its spirit, the place where it has authority, by the consensus of the system and its participants. Disease and putrefaction inevitably ensue.

That Cohn's procedural jurisprudence is a diseased version of the norm is less subtly portrayed in the plays. Prototypically, aggrieved citizens do not have duels in the street but take their disputes to court, where judges and juries resolve them (and even the government prosecuting a criminal must proceed likewise). The same framework exists in Cohn's world, but it is contaminated by abuse. Again, it is fair to say that from even the typical lawyer we nowadays tolerate or even expect some procedural abuse in the name of zealous advocacy (i.e., the resort to last minute motions, undisclosed witnesses or other kinds of scheming mischief or disruptive harassing malpractices) when diligent research, copious documentation or rhetorical acumen fail. Still, Cohn's transgressions are far more substantively egregious. He does not merely file more last minute motions or harbor more undisclosed witnesses, but instead contaminates the entire framework, employing such litigation strategies as “schtupping” (MA 14), securing theatre tickets for judges (MA 12), and improperly conversing ex parte with them (MA 108). In really “big” cases he exploits the assistance of a “well-placed friend” in the Department of Justice (MA 67). Cohn practices not law but a debased, Boss Tweed politics masquerading as law, conduct that even American audiences long exposed to indictments of the conniving antics of the successful American lawyer find appalling. In short, Cohn's abuse of procedure, like his disregard for truth, is a perversion of the original, a mutation of the prototype, a desecration and defilement. To call his victory in any given legal matter a “legal result” would be profoundly ironic by any standard but Cohn's.

Like an incipient cancer, Cohn's corruption, however destructive, is nonetheless insidious. It infiltrates and draws on the body's internal systems to spread, eventually overtaking and destroying the host—Cohn or the law. Importantly, Cohn continues to operate within the framework even as he contaminates it. Although he corrupts the method by which judges decide cases (by sleeping with them and the like), he does not try to have cases decided any other way. He instead seeks to spread his tainted kind of judge: tellingly, Cohn approvingly describes the Reagan appointees on the federal bench as “land mines” (MA 66), lying in wait to destroy affirmative action and other civil and constitutional protections. In short, Cohn is a diseased version of the norm.

The ensuing instability of the rule of law that Cohn's lawyering engenders is, like his ailing regard for truth and sickly abuse of procedure, a diseased amplification of the norm. Delineating the typical lawyer's tolerance for law's instability is best accomplished in terms of the concept of “determinacy.” Determinacy—i.e., susceptibility to a more or less single correct reading—is a concern in legal scholarship because law usually takes the form of a written text, such as the Constitution, a statute, or a regulation, that requires interpretation (the interpretations often taking the form of judicial opinions that, in turn, also become texts to interpret). Like truth, determinacy has both an “official” and an “unofficial” position in the law. On the one hand, determinacy has long been supposed to be a sine qua non of the law: if the citizenry wishes to avoid prison, individuals must be able to know what the rule of law is and what it requires of them. Various doctrines, reliance on precedent, and reason decide individual cases or occasions for interpretation.

On the other hand, sensitive readers of United States law have always known that other factors affect the outcome and the rule of law. Oliver Wendell Holmes is an early spokesperson of legal realism, acknowledging that we are, after all, only human beings, and not machines, deciding legal cases and writing legal rules, so the social, political or other “attitude” of the decision-maker also influences the outcome.5 More recently, a movement in the legal academy known as Critical Legal Studies has made these factors, especially the political attitude of legislators and the original Constitution drafters, rather than doctrine, the focus of legal study.6 Currently, the debate about determinacy has taken on greater intensity as the emerging law and literature movement has gained momentum.7 In that debate, defenders of the distinction between literary and legal interpretation argue that law is unlike literature because literary texts tolerate or even prize plurivocality and multiple meaning, as argued by famous spokespersons of literary ambiguity (Cleanth Brooks), plurivocality (Roland Barthes) and indeterminacy (Derrida).8 In response, it has been argued that law is not as hermeneutically determinate as has been commonly supposed, but instead has determinacy superimposed on it for necessary political ends.9 Relying, moreover, on Robert Crosman's assertion that something that might be regarded as a single correct meaning is “negotiated” by collections of individual readers' interpretations, one might also argue that literature is itself less indeterminate than legal scholars suppose.10

Against even this backdrop, Cohn exhibits a more perverted indeterminacy. The indeterminacy that occupies legal scholars is a by-product of the effort to arrive at a rule of law, of the process that at times may only afford lip service to justice, fairness, consistency and so forth. For Cohn, on the contrary, the indeterminacy of the rule of law is a central tenet of his creed of life. Cohn's directive to Joe Pitt—“[m]ake the law or subject to it” (P 108)—is telling. Cohn sees only two possible relations to the law, and because he seeks to avoid, at all costs, ever subjecting himself to the law, Cohn ceaselessly works to change it. In other words, indeterminacy for him is the governing principle, rather than the unavoidable consequence, of human lawmaking. Indeterminate, alterable rules are the staple of his existence.

Thus, the indeterminacy that Cohn amplifies virtually disables law from continuing to carry out its principal function—i.e., to govern people, to define their rights and obligations, to advise them how to behave. In Cohn's world, the law follows the deed, merely rubber stamps the transpired events. To paraphrase Balzac, Cohn's actions are the author, and law is merely the secretary,11 a relationship that strips law of its ability to prescribe, or describe, what ought to be.

Such a law is absolutely meaningless, form without substance, letter without spirit. If Kushner were Milton, Cohn would be Satan—impudent, conniving, master of words and tongues, insatiable sovereign of Chaos. For Kushner, of course, Cohn is the bad “Angel” battling the forces of good for the soul of America.

Cohn continues pathetically to profess a belief in the very system he has corrupted, frequently using legal vocabulary that he has stripped of meaning. For example, he insists on his “constitutional right” to be attended by a white nurse, describes Belize's attempt to steal his AZT supply as “illegal,” and threatens to “report” him for it (P 60). Cohn himself, though an attorney, lacks any real knowledge of substantive law. In the hospital, a complete reversal occurs and Cohn becomes the client-like recipient of legal advice from Belize, even though the ostensibly omnipotent Cohn at first cannot induce Belize, the “butterfingers spook faggot” black drag queen nurse, even to sit with him (P 30). Belize ultimately brings law to its knees, as Cohn resorts to begging Belize for his company, and it turns out that Belize in fact knows more about the legal aspects of AZT than Cohn and more about its medical aspects than Cohn's “very qualified, very expensive WASP” doctor (P 29).12 In Cohn's world, the Department of Justice in Washington and the Hall of Justice in Brooklyn dispense anything but true justice—there is only corruption in Washington (MA 63), and Judge Wilson's opinions denying homosexuals constitutional protection and narrowly construing federal environmental protection legislation (P 109) exemplify the injustice issued in Brooklyn.13 In what are mere words, collections of letters devoid of meaning and spirit, these designations have the hollow ring of labels adorning the mock-equivalent institutions and monuments in totalitarian regimes.

Cohn's deviation from the jurisprudential norm is indeed like that of a cancer, ravenous in its hunger, growing and operating at a rate independent of the rest of the body of which it is a part, destined to overtake and kill the very body that sustains it. But the corrupt, diseased, tumorous nature of Cohn's lawyering also has important textual and thematic links with the physical infection and ensuing “corruption” of Cohn's flesh and blood with AIDS. In a telling speech in which Cohn again describes the indeterminacy of law, he also reveals an important link between the law and corporeality. Feigning indifference to the disbarment committee charges, Cohn defends his disregard for the “fine points” (MA 63) of the law, explaining: “I don't see the Law as a dead and arbitrary collection of antiquated dictums, thou shall, thou shalt not, because, because I know the Law's a pliable, breathing, sweating … organ” (MA 66; emphasis in original). (This motif is echoed later, when Cohn complains that with only one telephone line in his hospital room he cannot “perform basic bodily functions” [P 31].)

In another context or from another speaker, Cohn's characterization of law as pliable and breathing would be entirely unobjectionable. Popular disapproval of law tends to increase the more the laity perceives law to be a collection of technicalities, antiquated dictums, and “fine points,” so Cohn's declaration has some superficial appeal. For Cohn, however, the speech is another clever, lawyerly elocution to justify his own lawless conduct. The speech is also an important indicator of Cohn's thematic function.

Cohn's corporealization of the law reverberates in his own life and death. Law is Cohn's lifeblood, as vital to his existence as his actual circulatory system. Therefore, it is fitting that he dies as soon as he learns he is disbarred. Counterfeit prophet, Cohn actually foresaw the events; when first receiving the disbarment committee charges, Cohn defiantly insists that he will be a lawyer “till my last bitter day on earth … until the day I die” (MA 69). Cohn's prophecy has the ironic literalness of those voiced by three witches to Macbeth,14 as Cohn's death occurs immediately after, and on the same day as, his disbarment. Indeed, his rejoinder to Ethel Rosenberg's announcement of his disbarment is the query “Am I dead?” (P 113).

The coincidence of Cohn's disbarment and death is important. Both events exemplify the triumph of the true spoils of corruption. Both also signify the death of Cohn's corrupted, hollow, spiritless, unprincipled law. Cohn's brand of law fails as a way to salvation; he and it are both destroyed.

By allusion to biblical conceptions of law, prophecy, and salvation, Kushner uses Cohn's life, law practice and death by HIV infection to illuminate his message about spirituality and apocalypse. The ubiquity of law in the world of Angels in America is roughly akin to law's omnipresence and stature in the everyday life of the Jewish world portrayed in the Old Testament. Like the original law of Moses, Cohn is the old law that became corrupted as people lived by its letter but ignored its spirit. The sacred monuments of his law (the Hall of Justice and the Department of Justice) have become places of injustice, overrun with blasphemers, like the Temple in Jerusalem. And like that Temple and the old law, those monuments and Cohn must be destroyed and rebuilt or supplanted by a new covenant.

At the same time—and this is Kushner's accomplishment in the plays—the corporeality of Cohn and of Cohn's law are also inverted representations of the new law, a sort of Satan resurrected. John's Gospel tells us that “in the beginning was the Word”15—the old law—and then the Word “became flesh”16—Jesus Christ, the new law. Cohn's Satanic fiendishness and spiritual barrenness make him the antithesis of Christian values or the new covenant Christ was supposed to inaugurate, yet Kushner's text shrouds some of Cohn's moments with Christ references. For example, Cohn's heart is a “[t]ough little muscle” that “[n]ever bleeds,” (P 27), the opposite not only of a political liberal's figurative bleeding heart, but also of Christ's; Cohn's hospital stay begins as a kind of crucifixion by IV needle, during which his combative but spare uttering of “I hurt” (P 27; emphasis in original) antithetically echoes Christ's similarly unadorned “I thirst.”17 Like Christ, Cohn believes he is misunderstood by his own people (fellow lawyers) and handed over by them for trial and condemnation by outsiders. Cohn expressly compares the disbarment committee to a foreign sovereign: he describes the committee members as “genteel gentleman Brahmin lawyers, country-club men,” who probably think of him as “some filthy little Jewish troll,” and so complains that he is being tried by a jury that is not comprised of his “peers” (MA 66-67). Cohn is thus a Christlike sacrificial lamb. At the same time, however, he is Satan ousted from Heaven.

Cohn, then, is simultaneously Satanic and Christlike. He is Satanic in so far as he appears like a fallen prophet at the end of the world. He is, however, structurally similar to Christ in that he brings a new, or successor, law that is supposed to supplant a former law. But Cohn-as-Christ is as corrupted as the old law that the scriptural Christ was sent to destroy, and so Cohn too must be destroyed. Before the Angel appears to Prior, a voice echoing John the Baptist's repeatedly urges Prior to “prepare the way” (MA 35), the announcement that prophets will follow, and, like the biblical declarations, an admonition that the prophets may be good or false. Cohn, preacher of blindness, not vision, is a false prophet. In this way Cohn simultaneously signifies both the old and the new law. Through such a doubly endowed figure, Kushner makes the point that the successor—i.e., the current—regime, has features in common with the one it succeeded: the new, like the old, has run its course, has been corrupted, is also at its end.

Lawyering's inherent theatricality, and the fascination of audiences with legal drama, naturally makes law fruitful material for the stage. But law functions thematically, and especially effectively, as Kushner's material because his plays are a fantasia on American themes. In Kushner's America, secular law is a kind of religion, in much the same way scriptural law was religion in the world of Old Testament Judaism. Numerous legal scholars have theorized constitutional law as a kind of civil religion for America.18 Kushner renders this same concept theatrically.

A cornerstone of the law-as-religion argument is the notion that the United States Constitution is, like the Torah, the Koran, and the New Testament, a “sacred text,”19 a document having both rules and great symbolic value for the people it governs and “dispens[ing] not just social order but spiritual identity.”20 Further, like the Torah, the Koran, and the New Testament, the Constitution has spawned a body of secondary texts commenting upon and interpreting the primary text which accrue to and become part of the text. Judicial opinions interpreting the Constitution—including the one Joe Pitt ghostwrote for Judge Wilson denying homosexuals protection under the Equal Protection Clause—are like Talmudic commentary on the Torah, or the apostles' epistles or contemporary priestly sermons interpreting the Gospels. Cohn is absolutely correct when he explains to Belize that: “Lawyers are … the High Priests of America. We alone know the words that made America. Out of thin air. We alone know how to use The Words. The Law …” (P 89). The point is underscored theatrically: onstage, the massive desk that dominates Cohn's office and opening scene functions as a kind of secular temple or altar.21 Continuing the metaphor, Cohn urges Belize to “[h]ire a lawyer, sue somebody” because “it's good for the soul” (P 89), a line through which Kushner seems to mock the sincerity of Cohn's claim that litigation has soul-enhancing properties. The line also conveys the playwright's overt indictment of America's blindness and spiritual death; its law lacks any spiritual dimension. It is hardly “good for the soul.”

By juxtaposing Cohn, the lawyer whose body is infected, with the plays' other lawyer (Joe Pitt) and other infected body (Prior), Kushner poignantly reveals his vision of America. Pitt is loyalty, belief, hard work, idealism, discipline, institutional religion. Not a bad guy if you agree with his politics, but the point is that he fervently believes in “the system.” Pitt is the non-corrupted, non-infected version of Cohn. Pitt's law, like Roy Cohn's, is also “not justice” or “an expression of the ideal” but only “power” (P 110); it is not as corrupt in its process as Cohn's ex parte communications and favors, but it is every but as lacking in real justice because it fails to connect with principles, consequences, real people, or a coherent vision of the common good. The legal opinions Pitt wrote for Judge Wilson (P 109-10) show that the “restored” law (MA 26) in which Pitt believes is, like Cohn's corrupted version, all letter and no spirit, form over substance. It is a jurisprudence that allows him to conclude that the federal Air and Water Protection Act “doesn't protect people, but actually only air and water” (P 109; emphasis in original).22 Pitt's law cannot be literally regarded as “corrupted” for the simple reason that it is altogether devoid of flesh and blood. Pitt's internal deadness emphasizes that his law-religion is no more the path to salvation than Cohn's.

Prior, by contrast, is not institutionally religious, and not a lawyer, but he is the path to salvation. Kushner gives Prior only a handful of lines of overtly legal dialogue, but collectively they are telling: Prior by implication disagrees with Louis's preference for the “shaping of the law” and instead endorses the judgment and “execution” that Louis rejects (MA 38-39), expressly rendering a “verdict” against Louis's deficient heart (MA 78-79). He also complains that Louis's departure was “criminal,” something he had “no right” to do (MA 77). When Prior takes his final leave of the angels, he urges them to “sue God for abandonment” (P 136), echoing Cohn's earlier flippant advice to Belize (P 89).

Collectively, these lines reveal that Prior, like other prophets, is in some ways a product of his culture (namely, the United States, where law is an influential cultural referent), and, like many Americans, he often expresses his thoughts and feelings in legal jargon and metaphor. Individually, the lines reveal the dissimilarities between Prior's law-religion and Cohn's. Unlike Roy's law, Prior's is avowedly determinate. Deliberations must result in verdicts, and must proceed according to principles; Prior's law prizes the justice and truth lacking in Cohn's (and, for that matter, Pitt's). Prior is also a spiritual character, marked from the outset as one with vision, sensitivity and strength, which sets him apart from Cohn. (He is often referred to literally as a “prophet” [e.g., P 85].) A seer, Prior is a Jacob figure who ascends, undergoes transformation, and descends; the true prophet in polar opposition to Cohn's false prophecy. The union of law and religion that Cohn aggressively forges and appropriates is innate to Prior, whose name, after all, denotes judge in both secular and religious settings.

Returning to matters of flesh, Cohn and Prior differ in a subtle but important way. Both have HIV infection, but Cohn's body deteriorates more quickly and substantially than Prior's, which exhibits symptoms, to be sure, but seems to have reached a détente with the virus. Because the disease is AIDS, one cannot state that Prior “has survived,” or “is cured,” but he nonetheless is surviving, and has been “living with” (P 146)—not dying from—the disease for what Kushner wants us to regard as a long time (at least five years, longer than Prior lived with Louis [P 146]). Furthermore, what suffering and deterioration Prior does experience engenders his visionary development, whereas Cohn's persona retains all its manipulative mean-spiritedness in the face of fatal illness, such as when he tricks Ethel Rosenberg into thinking he is dead (P 115). It is no coincidence that Prior affirmatively chooses “more life” (P 136), whereas Cohn welcomes death, glad to be “finally done with this world, at long, long last” (P 113). If the physical corruption of Cohn's body and his corrupt lawyering—or the death of his body and lack of spirituality—go hand in hand, then so do the survival of Prior's infected body and his spiritual growth. Simply put, Prior's physical life continues only because he transcends mere physicality and develops spiritually, whereas Cohn dies seeking only physical remedies and materiality. Flesh follows spirit. (Onstage the inversion is carried further, as Prior and Cohn's appearances contrast with each other and subvert ordinary expectations. Prior, the endorser of life, wears a black, hooded cloak during much of Perestroika, while Cohn, the embodiment of death, wears hospital-patient white.)23

The spiritual nature of Prior's law is underscored further by its dissimilarity from Louis's. Louis, whose Jewishness is featured throughout the plays, is the textbook rabbinic figure; yet he, too, is not the correct law or path to salvation. He exists completely in the rational world, the verbal world, is capable of endless speechifying (MA 89-92). The deliberative process is never-ending; indeed, he declares Justice to be an “immensity” (MA 39), presumably as immense as the body of Talmudic commentary. His preference for the process over the verdict (MA 38), a desire for excessively individualized justice, is his way of avoiding ultimate responsibility as Cohn does, an attitude consistent with his flight from Prior's illness. He does not see the law as indeterminate in theory; in practice, however, he is, as Belize observes, so “ambivalent” (MA 95) about everything that he will never move through the deliberative stage and arrive at a judgment. Louis is overly rational; his “law” is all in the mind, all “Big Ideas” (P 96), a process of words only (living up to his occupation, a word processor).24 His law, like Cohn's, lacks any spiritual dimension. Not only flesh, but also the mind, must follow spirit.

If Prior has any disciple or spiritual comrade in the plays it is Belize. Like Prior, Belize has imaginative capacities (e.g., he does drag) and is emotional; he lacks neither mind (recall that he advises Cohn) nor body, but he exemplifies most the “law of love” (MA 100), exhibiting a kind of unassuming spirituality. In contrast to Louis's assertion that Justice is “immensity,” Belize insists, with the unadorned wisdom of an apparent fool figure, that “Justice is simple” (MA 100). Unlike Louis, he can “smell,” and what he smells is “[s]oftness, compliance, forgiveness, grace” (MA 100).

Prior's religion, if he can be regarded as representing one, is a sort of secular, modern-day American gnosticism. Following Ronald Garet, I use the term in a metaphoric sense, uncapitalized, to refer to ideas about salvation comparable to those of the traditions of Hellenistic culture known as Gnosticism.25 I suggest that Prior exemplifies a gnostic interpretive position toward the law. As Garet has argued, the interpretive feat characteristic of gnosticism is a revisionist approach to creation stories in order “to privilege radical proposals and to relativize the claims of the orthodox.”26 Typically, the “radical proposal” is a “retelling” of the creation story, of man's beginnings (Garet, 102). Substantively, Garet's uncapitalized “gnosticism” is “an account of redemption as a final overthrow of the limits inherent in the creaturely state” (102).

Through Prior, Kushner exemplifies a jurisprudential hermeneutics and substantive theme about salvation that are gnostic. Unquestionably, Prior demonstrates the gnostic triumph of spirituality over corporeality, the “final overthrow” of the “limits inherent in the creaturely state,” the flesh of Cohn's world. Yet Prior does this without in fact forsaking his body.

The spirit of gnosticism is best understood as the Latin anima, as distinguished from animus. Both are soul, or spirit, but anima is soul as the principle of life, whereas animus is soul as a principle of intellection and sensation. Prior exemplifies the triumph of anima over animus. Joe Pitt might be said to exhibit animus, a soul, but his is belief in the mind only. Prior exhibits spiritual knowledge, not the mere belief of Joe Pitt, nor the overrationalized kind of knowledge Louis pursues. Prior's knowledge, by contrast, is intuitive, wisdom based on experience and observation rather than books and deliberation. His intuition is often a kind of clairvoyance; at many moments in the play, he sees beyond mere appearances to the hidden truth. For example, when he sees Harper for the first time, he knows that her husband Joe is homosexual, without her saying anything (MA 33). Finally, Prior's choice to come back down to earth and not remain in that “other” place where angels traditionally reside is kind of gnostic gesture, a belief that salvation comes from within the individual person.27

In Kushner's gnostic jurisprudence, the “radical proposal” is not a retelling of the creation story so much as it is a revision of redemption, a retelling of the orthodoxy's claims about salvation. If in the beginning the law was the word, and the word then became flesh, then in the gospel according to Kushner, the spirit must now transcend as it coexists with the flesh, as the new and final law, the new way, truth and life.


  1. Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Part One: Millennium Approaches (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1993), 78. Subsequent references will be included parenthetically in the text, preceded by the abbreviation MA (for Millennium Approaches).

  2. Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Part Two: Perestroika (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1994), 35, 67. Subsequent references will be included parenthetically in the text, preceded by the abbreviation P (for Perestroika).

  3. For example, the Supreme Court has characterized cross examination as the “greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth.” California v. Green, 399 U.S. 149, 158; 90 Sup. Ct. 1930, 1935 (1970). Addressing procedure more generally, the Court has explained, “the procedural rules which have been fashioned from the generality of due process are our best instruments for the distillation and evaluation of essential facts from the conflicting welter of data that life and our adversary system present. [The rules] enhance the possibility that truth will emerge from the confrontation of opposing versions and conflicting data. ‘Procedure is to law what “scientific method” is to science.’” In Re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 21; 87 Sup. Ct. 1428,1440 (1967) (Fortas, J., quoting Henry Hubbar Foster, “Social Work, the Law and Social Action,” in Social Casework [1964], 386).

  4. The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees a criminal defendant the rights, among others, “to be confronted with the witnesses against him” and “to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” U.S. Constitution, amend. 6. The Supreme Court, in justifying the concept that the right to counsel necessarily includes the right to effective assistance of counsel, has explained that competent advocacy is essential to the truth-finding process of the adversary system. United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648, 656; 104 Sup. Ct. 2039, 2045 (1984) (Stevens, J.). The Confrontation Clause, according to the Supreme Court, guarantees two separate rights: the right to physically face the accuser and witnesses, and the right to cross-examine those witnesses; its “central concern” is to “ensure the reliability of the evidence against a criminal defendant by subjecting it to rigorous testing in the context of an adversary proceeding.” Maryland v. Craig, 497 U.S. 836, 845; 110 Sup. Ct. 3157, 3163 (1990) (O'Connor, J.).

  5. Oliver Wendell Holmes, “The Path of the Law,” Harvard Law Review 10 (1897): 457, 467.

  6. For general reference, see Duncan Kennedy and Karl E. Klare, “A Bibliography of Critical Legal Studies,” Yale Law Journal 94 (1984): 461-90 (1984) and James Boyle, ed., Critical Legal Studies (New York: New York University Press, 1994).

  7. The “law and literature” enterprise has two branches: the reading of literary texts with special attention to their treatment of law, and the effort to import literary theorists' insights about reading into the project of interpreting legal texts. Examples of the former include the collection of legal readings of The Merchant of Venice gathered in Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature 5.1 (1993) and Brook Thomas's Cross-Examinations of Law and Literature: Cooper, Hawthorne, Stowe and Melville (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987). The latter I have discussed in greater depth in my recent article, “The Lost Language of the Irishgaymale: Textualization in Law and Literature,” Columbia Human Rights Law Review 26 (1995): 553-678.

  8. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner is a major opponent of the law and literature movement. He details his position in Law and Literature: A Misunderstood Relation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 247-57.

  9. See Paul Kahn, “Interpretation and Authority in State Constitutionalism,” Harvard Law Review 106 (1993): 1147.

  10. Robert Crosman, “How Readers Make Meaning,” College Literature 9 (1982): 207-15.

  11. Honoré de Balzac, Introduction to The Human Comedy 15 (1842).

  12. Belize is also the name of a South American nation whose laissez-faire regime makes it popular among tax-shelter seekers in the United States.

  13. Just as Roy Cohn was a real person, much of Kushner's legal material is real, or realistic. As most know, there does exist a unit of the executive branch of the federal government known as the Department of Justice, and it is in Washington. There does not exist, however, a “Hall of Justice” in Brooklyn, but we know this is the label for a federal courthouse (P 92). A federal courthouse does exist in Brooklyn but it houses only trial-level judges, not appellate-level federal judges like the one for whom Joe Pitt is a clerk. A much more imposing courthouse, and one that houses both trial-level and appellate-level federal judges, exists in lower Manhattan and likely was Kushner's model.

  14. Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Macbeth, act 4, scene 1, lines 80-81 and 92-94.

  15. John 1:1 New American Bible.

  16. John 1:14.

  17. John 19:28.

  18. See, e.g., Ronald R. Garet, “Comparative Normative Hermeneutics: Scripture, Literature, Constitution,” Southern California Law Review 58 (1985): 35; Thomas C. Grey, “The Constitution as Scripture,” Stanford Law Review 37 (1984): 1; Sanford Levinson, “The Constitution in American Civil Religion,” Supreme Court Review (1979).

  19. E. L. Doctorow, “A Citizen Reads the Constitution,” in Doctorow, Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution: Selected Essays, 1977-1992 (New York: Random House, 1993), 126. The document probably also falls within the category of “Classic Texts” that the world's oldest living Bolshevik complains no one reads anymore (P, 14).

  20. Doctorow, “A Citizen Reads,” 126.

  21. George C. Wolfe, director, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches. By Tony Kushner. With Larry Pine (Cohn) and Daniel Jenkins (Prior). Walter Kerr Theatre, New York. 14 October 1994.

  22. Although it sounds absurd, the theatrical opinion is not hyperbole, but a realistic portrayal of the kind of letter-over-spirit way in which real-life Republican appointees read the Constitution. A flagrant example is Justice Clarence Thomas's reasoning in a case involving the claim of a transsexual inmate who argued that his incarceration with male inmate invited assaults and abuse and was therefore “cruel and unusual punishment.” Justice Thomas concluded that because the “unfortunate attack that befell” the transsexual “was not part of his sentence, it did not constitute ‘punishment’ under the Eighth Amendment.” Farmer v. Brennan, 114 Sup. Ct. 1970 (1994) (emphasis added).

  23. George C. Wolfe, director, Angels in America: Perestroika. By Tony Kushner. With Larry Pine (Cohn) and Daniel Jenkins (Prior). Walter Kerr Theatre, New York. 15 October 1994.

  24. James Haigney first called to my attention the significance of Louis's occupation.

  25. For general background on Gnosticism, see Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979) and Giovanni Filoramo, A History of Gnosticism, trans. Anthony Alcock (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1991).

  26. Ronald R. Garet, “Gnostic Due Process,” Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities 7.1 (1995): 97, 102-3. Garet offers a fascinating reading of Justice Douglas's opinion in Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965) (the important precursor to Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 [1973]) arguing that it is a gnostic text.

  27. Although this essay addresses religious themes in Angels it expressly does not discuss Mormonism because, inter alia, my point of entry is law, not religion; each strand in Kushner's complex thematic tapestry warrants discrete attention; and because Kushner's use of Mormon material has received notable treatment by David Savran in “Ambivalence, Utopia, and A Queer Sort of Materialism: How Angels in America Reconstructs the Nation,” Theatre Journal 47 (1995): 207, 216-21.

My thanks to James Haigney of the Department of Theatre Arts at the State University of Stony Brook for an insightful introduction to Kushner's complex opus and for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay, and to Brian Gempp for continued trustworthy editorial assistance.

Charles McNulty (essay date spring 1996)

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SOURCE: McNulty, Charles. “Angels in America: Tony Kushner's Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Modern Drama 39, no. 1 (spring 1996): 84-96.

[In the following essay, McNulty examines Kushner's representation of the AIDS epidemic in Angels in America in the context of American politics and history. McNulty asserts that while Millennium Approaches offers fresh insight into the workings of history, Perestroika retreats from this radical historical revisioning through the fantastical element of the angel descending from heaven.]

AIDS plays have come to be thought of as a phenomenon of the 1980s, as Happenings were of the 1960s. Though the epidemic still rages, the bravely furious genre that began with William Hoffman's As Is and Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart has for the most part receded into the paragraphs of theater history textbooks. Nicholas de Jongh identifies the central mission of these plays as the fight against “an orthodoxy that regards AIDS as a mere local difficulty, principally affecting a reviled minority.”1 It is not entirely surprising, then, that the category has been said to have drawn to a close. The disease, after all, has been acknowledged, albeit belatedly, to be a widespread calamity; only the morally deaf, dumb, and blind have resisted this assessment, and they most certainly remain beyond the pale of agitprop, no matter how artfully conceived. To make things official, an obituary of the genre appeared in American Theatre in October of 1989:

Recently, AIDS has fallen off as a central subject for new drama. It's no wonder. When, for instance, spectacle and public ritual are so movingly combined in the image and action of the Names Project Quilt, conventional theater seems redundant—at best a pale imitation of the formal, mass expressions that help give shape to real grief and anger. Time and again the spirited protestors of ACT UP have demonstrated that the theater of AIDS is in the streets.2

The cult of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, by far the most celebrated play of the 1990s, would appear, however, to have rendered all this premature. Subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Kushner's two-part epic features a deserted gay man with full-blown AIDS battling both heaven and earth. But Angels represents not so much a revival of the category as a radical rethinking of its boundaries. For the playwright, the question is no longer what is the place of AIDS in history, but what of history itself can be learned through the experience of gay men and AIDS.

Kushner's angels were inspired not from any Biblical ecstasy but from the great twentieth-century German-Jewish critic Walter Benjamin's “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”3 Benjamin, writing in the spring of 1940 in France only a few months before he was to kill himself trying to escape the German occupation, borrows Paul Klee's 1920 painting Angelus Novus to convey his rigorously anti-Hegelian understanding of the movement of history:

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence 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. This storm is what we call progress.4

The movement of history is conceived not in terms of a dialectical narrative intent on progress, but as a steadfast path of destruction. All, however, is not lost. For Benjamin, the present represents a crisis point in which there is the opportunity to take cognizance of the homogeneous course of history, and thereby shift a specific era out of it.5 For Kushner, a gay activist and dramatist enthralled by Benjamin's brooding analysis of history, the present crisis couldn't be more clear. Surveying five years of the first decade of the AIDS epidemic, the playwright casts a backward glance on America's domestic strife, and with it something unexpected flickers into view—the revolutionary chance to blast open the oppressive continuum of history and steer clear into the next millennium.

To realize this Benjamin-inspired vision, Kushner follows the lives of two couples and one political racketeer from the annals of the American closet—all in the throes of traumatic change. Louis, unable to deal with the fact his lover Prior has AIDS, abandons him; Joe, an ambitious Mormon lawyer, wants to abandon the homosexual part of himself, but ends, instead, abandoning his valium-popping wife Harper, and last, but not least, Roy Cohn, sick with AIDS, abandons nothing because he holds onto nothing. In an age in which shirkers of responsibility are encouraged to unite, Louis, the obstructed New York Jewish intellectual, and Joe, the shellacked all-American Mormon protégé of Cohn, spend a month together in bed, while their partners are forced to find ways of coping alone. “Children of the new morning, criminal minds. Selfish and greedy and loveless and blind. Reagan's children,” is how Louis characterizes Joe and himself, in this most troubling trouble-free time. “You're scared. So am I. Everybody is in the land of the free. God help us all,”6 he says to Joe, sincerely, though at the same time still groping for a way to move beyond guilt and self-consciousness into the intoxicating pleasures of sexual betrayal.

Kushner provides a quintessential American framework for the current historical dilemma in the play's opening scene, which features Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz's eulogy for Louis's grandmother. Not knowing the departed too well, the Rabbi speaks of her as “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” (1:10). Referring to the mourners as descendants, Rabbi Chemelwitz admits that great voyages from the old worlds are no longer possible, “[b]ut every day of your lives the miles that voyage between that place and this one you cross. Every day. You understand me? In you that journey is. […] She was the last of the Mohicans, this one was. Pretty soon … all the old will be dead” (1:10-11). For Kushner, the past's intersection with the present is inevitable, a fact of living; what disturbs him is the increasing failure of Americans to recognize this, the willful amnesia that threatens to blank out the nation's memory as it moves into the next millennium.

This fugitive wish to escape the clutches of the past is concentrated most intensely in Louis, who is faced with the heavy burden of having to care for his sick lover. An underemployed, hyper-rationalizing word processing clerk in the court system, he is unable to come to terms with his current life crisis. In a conversation with his Rabbi, he tries to explain why a person might be justified in abandoning a loved one at a time of great need:

Maybe because this person's sense of the world, that it will change for the better with struggle, maybe a person who has this neo-Hegelian positivist sense of constant historical progress towards happiness or perfection or something, who feels very powerful because he feels connected to these forces, moving uphill all the time … maybe that person can't, um, incorporate sickness into his sense of how things are supposed to go. Maybe vomit … and sores and disease … really frighten him, maybe … he isn't so good with death.


Louis is determined to “maybe” himself out of his unfortunate present reality—and he's not beyond invoking the heaviest of nineteenth-century intellectual heavyweights to help him out. This peculiar trait is only magnified after he eventually leaves Prior for Joe. One of the more incendiary moments occurs at a coffee shop with Prior's ex-lover and closest friend, Belize. Wishing to ask about Prior's condition, Louis launches instead into a de Tocqueville-esque diatribe. “[T]here are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there's only the political, and the decoys and the ploys to maneuver around the inescapable battle of politics” (1:92), he explains breathlessly over coffee to Belize, who appears unimpressed by all the academic fireworks. In fact, Belize makes clear that he can see right through Louis's highbrow subterfuge. “[A]re you deliberately transforming yourself into an arrogant, sexual-political Stalinist-slash-racist flag-waving thug for my benefit” (1:94), he asks, knowing all too well from his experience as a gay African American drag queen that history is not simply some dry-as-dust abstraction, but an approximation of the way individuals lead both their public and private lives.

Though Kushner is critical of Louis, he in no way diminishes the gravity of what this character is forced to deal with. Louis has, after all, good reason for wanting to flee. When he confronts his lover on the floor of their bedroom, burning with fever and excreting blood, the full horror of this disease is conveyed in all its mercilessness and squalor. “Oh help. Oh help. Oh God oh God oh God help me I can't I can't I can't” (1:48), he says to himself, mantra-like, over his fainted lover—and who could be so heartless to argue with him? Louis's moral dilemma is compelling precisely because what he has to deal with is so overwhelming. Still, the playwright makes clear that all the talk of justice and politics will not free us from those terrifying yet fundamental responsibilities that accompany human sickness and death. All the Reaganite preaching of a survival-of-the-fittest creed will not exempt us from our most basic obligations to each other. Belize knows this, and he brings the discussion back to the matter at hand, Louis's desertion of his lover at a moment of profound need. “I've thought about it for a very long time, and I still don't understand what love is,” he says before leaving Louis alone outside the coffee shop. “Justice is simple. Democracy is simple. Those things are unambivalent. But love is very hard. And it goes bad for you if you violate the hard law of love” (1:100).

Though stalwartly behind Belize's felt wisdom, Kushner observes an analogy between the ambivalence of love and the working out of democracy and justice, the bedroom and the courtroom not being as far apart as most would assume. Louis and Joe's ravenous infidelity, for example, is seen to be in keeping with the general dog-eat-dog direction of the country. During the warm-up to their affair, Joe tells Louis of a dream he had in which the whole Hall of Justice had gone out of business: “I just wondered what a thing it would be … if overnight everything you owe anything to, justice, or love, had really gone away. Free” (1:72). Louis, whose motto has become “Land of the free. Home of the brave. Call me irresponsible” (1:72), has found the perfect soulless mate for a self-forgetting fling. “Want some company?” he asks. “For whatever?” (1:73). Later, in Part Two of Angels, when the two men get involved, they help each other get over the guilt of leaving their former lovers behind. First Joe:

What you did when you walked out on him was hard to do. The world may not understand it or approve it but it was your choice, what you needed, not some fantasy Louis but you. You did what you needed to do. And I consider you very brave.

And then, somewhat more reluctantly, Louis:

You seem to be able to live with what you've done, leaving your wife, you're not all torn up and guilty, you've … blossomed, but you're not a terrible person, you're a decent, caring man. And I don't know how that's possible, but looking at you it seems to be. You do seem free.7

Joe, giving a new American spin to the phrase the “banality of evil,” admits to being happy and sleeping peacefully. And so all would seem to be well in the couple's new-founded East Village love nest, except that Louis has bad dreams.

“In America, there's a great attempt to divest private life from political meaning,” Kushner has said on the subject of his play's vision. “We have to recognize that our lives are fraught with politics. The oppression and suppression of homosexuality is part of a larger agenda.”8 In fact, nearly everything under the sun, from valium addiction to VD, is considered part of a larger agenda. For Kushner, politics is an intricate spiderweb of power relations. His most singular gift as a dramatist is in depicting this skein, in making visible the normally invisible cords that tether personal conscience to public policy. The playwright does this not by ideological pronouncement, but by tracking the moral and spiritual upheavals of his characters' lives. AIDS is the central fact of Angels, but it is one that implicates other facts, equally catastrophic. Racism, sexism, homophobia, moral erosion, and drug addiction come with the Kushnerian territory, and, as in life, characters are often forced to grapple with several of these at the same time.

Kushner uses split scenes to make more explicit the contrapuntal relationship between these seemingly disconnected narrative worlds. Roy's meeting with Joe, to discuss the junior attorney's future as a “Roy-Boy” in Washington, occurs alongside the scene in which Louis is sodomized in the Central Park Rambles by a leather-clad mama's boy. Louis's mini-symposium at the coffee shop is simultaneous with Prior's medical checkup at an outpatient clinic. Dreams, ghosts, and a flock of dithering, hermaphroditic angels are also used to break through the play's realistic structure, to conjoin seemingly disparate characters, and to reveal the poetic resonances and interconnectedness of everyday life. In a mutual dream, Harper, tranquilized and depressed, travels to Prior's boudoir, where she finds him applying the last touches of his Norma Desmond makeup. In a febrile state known portentously as the “[t]hreshold of revelation” (1:33), the two are endowed with clairvoyant insight, and it is here that Harper learns for sure that her husband is a “homo,” and Prior understands that his illness hasn't touched his “most inner part,” his heart (1:33-34). Even in his characters' most private, most alone moments, the “myth of the Individual,” as Kushner calls it, is shot through with company.9

Nowhere is this merging of social realms more spectacularly revelatory, however, than in the presentation of Cohn. Though much is based on the historical record, Kushner publishes a disclaimer:

Roy M. Cohn, the character, is based on the late Roy M. Cohn (1927-1986), who was all too real; for the most part the acts attributed to the character Roy […] are to be found in the historical record. But this Roy is a work of dramatic fiction; his words are my invention, and liberties have been taken.


Cohn, however, would have nothing to complain about: Kushner does the relentless overreacher proud. All Nietzschean grit and striving, Kushner's Cohn is forever trying to position himself beyond good and evil. “Transgress a little, Joseph,” he tells his Mormon acolyte. “There are so many laws; find one you can break” (1:110). Power alone concerns him. Politics, the game of power, “the game of being alive,” defines every atom of his being—even his sexuality, which refuses to be roped into traditional categories. Identity and other regulatory fictions are decidedly for other people, not for Cohn, who informs his doctor that labels like homosexuality

tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology, or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout. Not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will pick up the phone when I call, who owes me favours. This is what a label refers to.


Cohn's own claim to transcendental fame is that he can get Nancy Reagan on the phone whenever he wants to. How different this is from Prior's relationship to his own sexuality; on his sickbed, he steels himself with the words: “I am a gay man and I am used to pressure, to trouble, I am tough and strong” (1:117).

But it is Louis, as Ross Posnock has noted, who is Cohn's true emotional antithesis.10 Though the two share no scenes together, their approaches to the world represent the thematic struggle at the center of Kushner's play. Yes, Louis transforms himself into a Cohn wannabe, but in the end he proves too conscience-ridden to truly want to succeed. Early on, when he asks his Rabbi what the Holy Writ says about someone who abandons a loved one at a time of great need, it is clear that he will have trouble following Cohn's personal dictum: “Let nothing stand in your way” (1:58). “You want to confess, better you should find a priest,” his Rabbi tells him. On being reminded that this isn't exactly religiously appropriate, his Rabbi adds, “Worse luck for you, bubbulah. Catholics believe in forgiveness. Jews belief in Guilt” (1:25). Louis is a would-be Machiavelli hampered by the misgivings of his own inner-rabbi. “It's no fun picking on you Louis,” Belize tell him; “you're so guilty, it's like throwing darts at a glob of jello, there's no satisfying hits, just quivering, the darts just blop in and vanish” (1:93). An exemplary neurotic, Louis internalizes the play's central conflict: the debt owed to the past vs. the desire for carte blanche in the future. Or as Louis himself puts it, “Nowadays. No connections. No responsibilities. All of us … falling through the cracks that separate what we owe to ourselves and … and what we owe to love” (1:71).

AIDS brings this dilemma to a rapid and painful reckoning. Grief has come into people's lives earlier in the late 1980s, occurring where it normally would have been postponed. Kushner believes this sad fact may very well force Americans to confront the consequences of their blind individualism. The trauma of AIDS holds for him the greatest potential source of social change. Early death, governmental back-turning, and whole populations of enraged mourning have created what Kushner would call a state of emergency. The conditions, in other words, are ripe for revolution. Communal consciousness, provoked by loss, has translated into militancy and activism. What's more, Kushner has convinced himself of Benjamin's prerequisite for radical change—the belief that “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.”11 Haunting Angels in America is the restive ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, the woman Cohn famously prosecuted and had ruthlessly sentenced to death. “History is about to crack wide open” (1:112), she cries out with a vengeful laugh at her ailing enemy, who taunts her with the idea of his immortality. Indeed, “Millennium Approaches” has become the dead's battle-cry as well as that of the living.

To make clear that the forces of light are rallying against the forces of darkness, Kushner entitles the last act of Millennium Approaches “Not-Yet-Conscious, Forward Dawning.” Even level-headed Belize shares this fervent sense that revolutionary change is coming. Outside the coffee shop, he assures Louis that “[s]oon, this … ruination will be blanketed white. You can smell it-can you smell it? […] Softness, compliance, forgiveness, grace” (1:100). It is on this hopeful note that the playwright ends the first part of his epic saga. An angel, crashing through Prior's bedroom ceiling, announces:

Greetings, Prophet;

The Great Work begins:

The Messenger has arrived.


The Great Work, however, begins with a nay-sayer. Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, the world's oldest living Bolshevik, begins Part Two: Perestroika declaring:

The Great Question before us is: Are we doomed? The Great Question before us is: Will the Past release us? The Great Question before us is: Can we change? In Time?

And we all desire that Change will come.

(Little pause)

(With sudden, violent passion) And Theory? How are we to proceed without Theory? What System of Thought have these Reformers to present to this mad swirling planetary disorganization, to the Inevident Welter of fact, event, phenomenon, calamity?


Kushner himself doesn't have a theory to offer before the lights come up on Prior cowering in bed with an Angel hovering over him. What the playwright has instead is an insight into the workings of history. “As Walter Benjamin wrote,” the playwright reminds, “you have to be constantly looking back at the rubble of history. The most dangerous thing is to become set upon some notion of the future that isn't rooted in the bleakest, most terrifying idea of what's piled up behind you.”12 Kushner understands that the future needs to have its roots in the tragedies and calamities of the past in order for history not to repeat itself. The playwright's very difficult assignment, then, in Perestroika is to somehow move the narrative along into the future, while keeping history ever in sight; he must, in other words, find the dramatic equivalent of Klee's Angelus Novus, and bring us either to the threshold of a fresh catastrophe or to a utopia that throws into relief the suffering of the past.

Surprisingly, and in most un-Benjaminian fashion, Kushner rushes headlong into a fairy tale of progress. Tom between the reality of protracted calamity and the blind hope of a kinder, gentler millennium, the playwright opts for the latter, hands down. Kushner says of himself that he “would rather be spared and feel safer encircled protectively by a measure of obliviousness.”13 To that end, Prior not only survives his medical emergencies, but the playwright has him traipsing up a celestial scaffolding to heaven. Louis and Joe's torrid affair ends when Louis finds out the identity of Joe's boss. Calling Cohn “the most evil, twisted, vicious bastard ever to snort coke at Studio 54,” Louis explodes at his month-long bedfellow, “He's got AIDS! Did you even know that? Stupid closeted bigots, you probably never figured out that each other was …” (2:111). After Joe punches him in the nose, Louis goes back to Prior, who lovingly tells him it's too late to return. Cohn, at long last, kicks the bucket, only to have Louis and Belize (with help from the ghost of Rosenberg) say Kaddish over him. “Louis, I'd even pray for you,” Belize admits, before explaining the reason for his unusual benevolence:

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?


Though the two men end up ransacking the undearly departed's stockpile of AZT, it is Cohn who has the last laugh. In a fleeting moment of monstrous irony, Kushner grants Cohn his dream of immortality by letting him serve as God's defense attorney. Harper, tired of traveling through her own drug and-loneliness-induced Antarctica, demands Joe's charge card and leaves for the airport to catch a night flight to San Francisco. “Nothing's lost forever,” she says before making her final exit. “In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we've left behind, and dreaming ahead” (2:144).

The action concludes in a final pastoral scene in Central Park, in which Prior, Louis, Belize, and (somewhat implausibly) Hannah, Joe's Mormon mother and Prior's newest friend and sometimes caretaker, bask in the sun of a cold winter's day. “The Berlin Wall has fallen,” Louis announces. “The Ceausescus are out. He's building democratic socialism. The New Internationalism. Gorbachev is the greatest political thinker since Lenin” (2:145). (Thus the title Perestroika.) The soothing story of the healing angel Bethesda is told, after which Prior sends us all contentedly home:

This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living and we are not going away. We won't die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens.

The time has come.

Bye now.

You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.

And I bless you: More Life.

The Great Work Begins.


We won't die secret deaths anymore? The world only spins forward? Such uncritical faith in Progress would have been anathema to Benjamin, and to the Kushner of the first part, who so cogently applies the German's uncompromising historical materialism to America's current fin-de-siècle strife. The playwright has quite emphatically turned his attention away from the past and present turmoil, to a future that seems garishly optimistic in contrast. What happened?

There is a definite movement in Perestroika away from historical analysis towards a poetics of apocalypse. The pressure of reality seems to have induced an evangelical fervor in Kushner, in which social and political reality has become subordinate to religious fantasy. “The end of the world is at hand,” Harper declares, while standing barefoot in the rain on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. “Nothing like storm clouds over Manhattan to get you in the mood for Judgment Day” (2:101), she adds to the timely accompaniment of a peal of thunder. If that is not enough to convince us, Kushner whisks us around the heavens to hear the angels sing:

We are failing, failing,
The earth and the Angels.
Look up, look up,
It is Not-to-Be Time.
Oh who asks of the Orders Blessing
With Apocalypse Descending?


As Frank Kermode points out in The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction, “[I]t seems to be a condition attaching to the exercise of thinking about the future that one should assume one's own time to stand in an extraordinary relation to it. … We think of our crisis as pre-eminent, more worrying, more interesting than other crises.”14 This is, of course, in large part a way to distract from the urgency of the present. Cultural anxiety is often transmuted into the myth of apocalypse; society, too, has its defense mechanisms for dealing with uncomfortable reality. On this point Savran agrees: “Regardless of Kushner's intentions, Angels sets forth a project wherein the theological is constructed as a transcendent category into which politics and history finally disappear.”15

Ironically, though the play is set in a tragic time (a “murderous time” implies the Stanley Kunitz epigraph to Millennium Approaches), Kushner steers clear of tragic death, preferring instead to finish on a Broadway upnote. What makes this ending particularly hard to accept is that the playwright hasn't provided any convincing evidence to suggest that the state of emergency has let up in the least. Instead, he focuses on the gains in Prior's inner struggle, his will to live and general spiritual outlook. “Bless me anyway,” Prior asks the angels before returning to a more earthbound reality. “I want more life. I can't help myself. I do. I've lived through such terrible times, and there are people who live through much much worse, but. … You see them living anyway. […] If I can find hope anywhere, that's it, that's the best I can do” (2:135-36). New Age self-healing now takes precedence over politics, the spirit of individualism infects AIDS, and anger becomes merely an afterthought directed at God. “And if He returns, take Him to court,” Prior says in a huff before leaving the cloudy heavens behind. “He walked out on us. He ought to pay” (2:136).

The situation parallels almost exactly the course of public response to AIDS in America. In the second decade of the epidemic little has changed, except for the fact that there is a diminishing sense of crisis. Activism has lulled, militancy has subsided into earnest concern, while conservatism, fundamentalism, and Jesse Helms-style homophobia are on the rise. AIDS, though still deadly, has been symbolically tamed. “Nothing has made gay men more visible than AIDS,” Leo Bersani observes in Homos.16 “But we may wonder if AIDS, in addition to transforming gay men into infinitely fascinating taboos, has made it less dangerous to look.”17 Troubled by the enormous success of Angels, Bersani argues that it is yet another sign of “how ready and anxious America is to see and hear about gays—provided we reassure America how familiar, how morally sincere, and particularly in the case of Kushner's work, how innocuously full of significance we can be.”18

Bersani offers these comments as part of a larger critique on the Queer movement's spirited, if often hollow, rhetoric of community building, which has come in response to AIDS, and which he views as dangerously assimilationist. Sharing Louis's belief in “the prospect of some sort of radical democracy spreading outward and growing up” (1:80), Kushner insists on the possibility of this kind of Queer (i.e., communal) redemption. Indeed, the playwright has said (with no trace of self-irony) that he finds Benjamin's sense of utopianism to be in the end profoundly apocalyptic.19 Savran explains that, “[u]nlike the Benjamin of the ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History,’ for whom any concept of progress seems quite inconceivable, Kushner is devoted to rescuing Enlightenment epistemologies.”20 That is to say, “Angels unabashedly champions rationalism and progress.”21

Benjamin's vision, however, seems ultimately far less bleak than either Kushner's or Savran's wishful idealism. Bertolt Brecht's remark on “Theses on the Philosophy of History” seems peculiarly apt: “[I]n short the little treatise is clear and presents complex issues simply (despite its metaphors and its judaisms) and it is frightening to think how few people there are who are prepared even to misunderstand such a piece.”22 Progress was for Benjamin a debased term primarily because it had become a dogmatic expectation, one that left the door open to very real destruction:

One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it is as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are “still” possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge—unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.23

Kushner's brand of progress, in fact, seems dangerously close to that uncritical optimism on which Social Democratic theory, the antagonist of Benjamin's entire vision, relies:

Progress as pictured in the minds of Social Democrats was, first of all, the progress of mankind itself (and not just advances in men's ability and knowledge). Secondly, it was something boundless, in keeping with the infinite perfectibility of mankind Thirdly, progress was regarded as irresistible, something that automatically pursued a straight or spiral course.24

For Benjamin, history is essentially the history of trauma. It is the sequence of violent breaks and sudden or catastrophic events that cannot be fully perceived as they occur, and which have an uncanny (in the rich Freudian sense of the word) tendency to repeat themselves. His essay is above all an inducement to consciousness, a clarion call to the mind to wake from its slumber and apprehend this persistent cycle of oppression and the mountain-high human wreckage left in its wake. Benjamin doesn't so much believe, as Savran suggests, that the present is doomed by the past, as that paradoxically in order for a society to free itself to move in a more utopian direction, the fundamental inescapability of the aggrieved past must be vigilantly acknowledged.

In her essay “Unclaimed Experience: Trauma and the Possibility of History,” Cathy Caruth makes the crucial point that “the traumatic nature of history means that events are only historical to the extent that they implicate others … that history is precisely the way we are implicated in each other's traumas.”25 This insight provides a way to understand not only the sweeping synthesis of Kushner's political vision in Part One, but also what may have gone awry in Part Two. From the vantage point of the traumatic experience of gay men and AIDS, Kushner taps into a much larger pool of American trauma, from the McCarthy witch hunt and Ethel Rosenberg to Reagan and neoconservatism. That Kushner is able to reveal from such an unabashedly gay, indeed flaming, position these indissoluble political bonds may be surprising to those who cannot conceive of sharing anything in common with men who imitate Tallulah Bankhead. But through the intimate concerns of Prior and Louis's relationship, Kushner opens up historical vistas onto generations of America's oppressed. The question is: were the almost unbearable scenes of Prior's illness, the pain of his and Harper's abandonment, and the punishing hypocrisy of Roy Cohn and his kind so overwhelming, so prolific of suffering, that they forced the playwright to seek the cover of angels?

By the end of Perestroika, Kushner stops asking those pinnacle questions of our time, in order to dispense “answers” and bromides—Belize's forgiveness of a rotten corpse; Harper's comforting “[n]othing's lost forever”; Louis's paean to Gorbachev and the fall of the Iron Curtain. By the final scene, Prior learns that “[t]o face loss. With Grace. Is Key …” (2:122). This is no doubt sound knowledge. But to be truly convincing it must be passed through, dramatized, not eclipsed by celestial shenanigans peppered with Wizard of Oz insight. Surrounded by loved ones, Prior sends us off with hearty best wishes. AIDS has become an “issue” and all but vanished from sight. After convincing us brutally, graphically, of the centrality of AIDS in our history, and of the necessity of keeping the traumatic past ever in sight, the playwright abandons the house of his uncommon wisdom. Millennium Approaches may be the most persuasive and expansive AIDS play to date, but, as the silent backtracking of Perestroika suggests, the genre needs continuous reinforcing.


  1. Nicholas de Jongh. Not in Front of the Audience: Homosexuality on Stage (London, 1992), 179.

  2. Alisa Solomon, “AIDS Crusaders Act Up a Storm,” American Theatre (Oct. 1989), 39.

  3. David Savran, “Tony Kushner Considers the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness,” American Theatre (Oct. 1994), 22-23.

  4. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York, 1968), 257-58.

  5. Benjamin, 265.

  6. Tony Kushner, Angels in America; A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Part One: Millennium Approaches (New York, 1993), 74. Subsequent references will be included in the text, preceded by the numeral 1.

  7. Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Part Two: Perestroika (New York, 1994), 38. Subsequent page references will be included in the text, preceded by the numeral 2.

  8. John Lahr, “Beyond Nelly,” New Yorker (23 Nov. 194), 127.

  9. Kushner, “Afterword,” Perestroika, 150.

  10. Ross Posnock, “Roy Cohn in America,” Raritan, 13:3 (Winter 1994), 69.

  11. Benjamin, 257.

  12. Savran, “Tony Kushner,” 25.

  13. Kushner, “Afterword,” 155.

  14. Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (London, 1966), 94.

  15. David Savran, “Ambivalence, Utopia, and a Queer Sort of Materialism: How Angels in America Reconstructs the Nation,” Theatre Journal, 47:2 (1995), 221.

  16. Leo Bersani, Homos (Cambridge, MA, 1995), 19.

  17. Ibid., 21.

  18. Ibid., 69.

  19. Savran, “Tony Kushner,” 26.

  20. Savran, “Ambivalence,” 214.

  21. Ibid., 214.

  22. Bertolt Brecht, Journals 1934-1955, trans. Hugh Rorrison (London, 1993), 159.

  23. Benjamin, 259.

  24. Ibid., 262.

  25. Cathy Caruth, “Unclaimed Experience: Trauma and the Possibility of History,” Yale French Studies, 79 (1991), 192.

Steven F. Kruger (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Kruger, Steven F. “Identity and Conversion in Angels in America.” In Approaching the Millennium: Essays on “Angels in America,” edited by Deborah R. Geis and Steven F. Kruger, pp. 151-69. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Kruger examines the intersection of individual identity and collective history in Angels in America.]

The titles and subtitles of Tony Kushner's Angels in America emphasize its status as political drama, announcing its exploration of “national themes” at a particular moment in global and cosmic history—the moment of “perestroika” as “millennium approaches.” At the same time, these titles and subtitles call attention to the personal and psychological as crucial terms for the play's political analysis. This is a “gay fantasia on national themes,” an intervention in American politics that comes from a specified identity position and that depends somehow upon fantasy. The “angels” of the play's main title condense the political and personal in a particularly efficient manner: evoking at once Walter Benjamin's “angel of history”1 and the guardian angel who watches over a particular individual, Kushner's Angel is both Prior Walter's fantasy creation and “the Continental Principality of America,” one of seven “inconceivably powerful Celestial Apparatchik/Bureaucrat-Angels” who preside over the continents and the ocean.2 Like the “angel of God” whose appearance to Joseph Smith is explained in Perestroika (“He had great need of understanding. Our Prophet. His desire made prayer. His prayer made an angel. The angel was real. I believe that” [2:103]), the Angel in Kushner's play is both evoked by individual desire and somehow “real,” speaking simultaneously to one person's needs (“For behold an angel of the Lord came and stood before me [Joseph Smith]. It was by night and he called me by name and he said the Lord had forgiven me my sins”) and to collective historical circumstances (“He revealed unto me many things concerning the inhabitants of the earth which since have been revealed in commandments and revelations”).3


Written, as Kushner makes explicit, out of a “Left politics informed by liberation struggles … and by socialist and psychoanalytic theory” (2:154), Angels in America is at least in part the product of gay identity politics, and central to its political argument is a consideration of sexual identity. The play explores Harper's troubled marriage to Joe, the ways in which this confines both her and him, and the ways in which Harper's fantasy life recapitulates but also enables a certain escape from the unsatisfactory heterosexual relation. The play depicts the closeted figures of Roy and Joe struggling to disidentify from gayness. And it displays complex, indeed contradictory, definitions of gayness as, for instance, both strength and weakness—in Roy's words: “Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout” (1:45); in Prior's: “I can handle pressure, I am a gay man and I am used to pressure, to trouble, I am tough and strong” (1:117).

Closely wrapped up with the play's analysis of sexuality is a recognition of how AIDS—identified in the popular imagination with a gayness conceived of as always already diseased and weak—becomes not just a category of health or illness but also of identity. Roy's disavowal of gayness is simultaneously a disavowal of identity as a person with AIDS: “AIDS is what homosexuals have. I have liver cancer” (1:46). Prior, unlike Roy, claims despised identities, but his bitter assessment of the world's treatment of “faggots” and people with AIDS echoes Roy's: “We don't [count]; faggots; we're just a bad dream the real world is having” (2:42).

Race, ethnicity, and religion are similarly prominent, and similarly conflicted, categories of analysis in the play. Belize's and Louis's political positions are shown to differ particularly around the question of race, in ways clearly connected to their differing experiences of racial identity (1:89-96). Jewishness and Mormonism figure importantly in constituting a sense of identity for most of the play's characters—Louis and Roy, Hannah, Harper, and Joe. The marginality of each of these religious traditions is shown to contribute to the individual's sense of his or her place (or lack of place) in the structures of power. Even Roy, despite his self-confident assertions, feels Jewishness as an obstacle to maintaining political centrality: “The disbarment committee: genteel gentleman Brahmin lawyers, country-club men. I offend them, to these men … I'm what, Martin, some sort of filthy little Jewish troll?” (1:66-67). Prior Walter's identity as “scion of an ancient line” (1:115) is bodied forth onstage in the figures of the prior Priors who serve as the Angel's heralds; the stability of the Walter family seems a crucial factor in shaping Prior's emerging identity as (reluctant) prophet for the Angel's deeply conservative political project—“YOU MUST STOP MOVING!” (2:52)—a project that Belize suggests is Prior's own fantasy: “This is just you, Prior, afraid of the future, afraid of time. Longing to go backwards so bad you made this angel up, a cosmic reactionary” (2:55).4

While a gender analysis is less prominent in the play than the consideration of sexuality, AIDS, race, religion, and ethnicity,5 it nonetheless remains important for the depiction of Harper, who, especially in her engagement with the fantasy figure of the Mormon Mother, recognizes something about her own silencing and disempowerment: “His mute wife. I'm waiting for her to speak. Bet her story's not so jolly” (2:70). And gender is important in the politics of some of the men's self-identifications—particularly those of Belize and Prior as ex- (or ex-ex-) drag queens; thus, though Belize himself suggests that “All this girl-talk shit is politically incorrect. … We should have dropped it back when we gave up drag” (1:61), he responds with anger to Louis's assessment of drag as “sexist” (1:94).

The play also importantly, if playfully, suggests that the very taking of political positions—Joe's being a Republican, for instance—may be an act of self-identification not unlike the claiming, or disclaiming, of a sexual identity, such as Joe's disavowal of gayness (see 1:29).

As this sketch of some of the play's identity concerns should suggest, Angels in America does not arise from or depict a politics that consists simply in embracing an identity position like gayness as the sufficient basis for a political movement. We might indeed see the play as in part a response to criticism, particularly from within feminism, of an identity politics that fails to recognize the multiple determinants of identity; in the words of Elizabeth Spelman, for instance:

Dominant feminist theory locates a woman's true identity in a metaphysical space where gender is supposed to be able to roam free from race and class. … [T]hough doing this appears to be necessary for feminism, it has the effect of making certain women rather than others paradigmatic examples of “woman”—namely, those women who seem to have a gender identity untainted (I use the word advisedly) by racial or class identity, those women referred to in newspapers, magazines, and feminist journals simply as “women,” without the qualifier “Black” or “Hispanic” or “Asian-American” or “poor.”6

Kushner's interrogation of gayness similarly recognizes the nonunitary nature of such a category, its differential constitution in relation to other determinants of identity. The play presents us with gay men who are white and black, Jewish and Mormon, conservative and liberal, butch and femme, and certainly not easily unified or unifiable under a single political banner. Thus recognizing the differences within identity categories, the play furthermore emphasizes that any individual's identity is potentially contested and riven: sexuality, gender, and race do not come together without conflict and contradiction. Harper must negotiate between being a thoughtfully articulate woman and being a Mormon woman of whom silence is expected. Joe must navigate the rift between homoerotic desire and political and religious beliefs that insist on the repudiation of that desire. Roy, committed to Republican, McCarthyite political positions and to the political “clout” these bring him, denies as strongly as possible the potentially marginalizing force of his Jewishness and homosexuality. And so forth.

The complexity of identity in Angels in America also arises from Kushner's conception of it as social and relational: one is not oneself in isolation but only in contrast to, in solidarity and negotiation with a variety of other selves. This is obviously true among the main characters of the play, in which, for instance, Prior's state of health reveals or even determines much about how Louis thinks of himself or in which Joe's and Harper's decisions are crucially related to their sense of the other's identity. The others who shape the self may also be internalized figures from the past—an Ethel Rosenberg who returns punishingly to urge Roy on to death. They may be powerful historical presences like the Priors of Prior's heritage or like Louis's grandmother. And they may, most “bewilderingly” (1:30), be a complex mixture of the “real” and the fantastic, as when Prior and Harper, who have never met, somehow appear in each other's dreams/hallucinations to reveal crucial information about each other that each has not, at least consciously, realized (1:33-34, 2:68, 2:121-22). In such scenes even a character's fantasies and imaginations are conceived of as not solely his or hers. These gather their full meaning only in relation to, even interpenetration with, one another—just as, in Kushner's stagecraft, the “split scenes” suggest that discrete actions must, if we are to understand them fully, be read together: Harper and Joe's relationship defines Prior and Louis's, and vice versa, as both couples appear simultaneously onstage.

Identities so complexly defined entail certain political possibilities—cross-identifications like Harper's and Prior's and renegotiations of identity and difference that might make certain shifts in power relations possible, might, for instance, allow Joe to move from a simple disavowal of homosexuality to a reconsideration of it that also entails rethinking political and religious alignments. But the play also is careful not to depict identity simply as fluid and thus subject to easy, volitional change; nor does it attach a utopian political fantasy to the belief that identity might be renegotiated. Despite the presentation of identity as complex, as multiply determined, as relational, identity stubbornly remains identity, a marker of something unique to—given and intractable in—the person. Roy evokes “the immutable heart of what we are that bleeds through whatever we might become” (2:82), and, while Roy should by no means be taken as a reliable spokesman, the belief in such a “heart” is not his alone. A similar notion is at work when Harper reassures Prior that, despite his having AIDS, his “most inner part” is “free of disease” (1:34) or when Joe reassures Louis that, despite his having left Prior, he is “in [him]self a good, good man” (2:38) with “a good heart” (2:75). All of these assessments may be erroneous—they are each challenged elsewhere—but they nonetheless express a strong sense of the depth and stability of identity. The first speech of the play, Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz's eulogy for Sarah Ironson, calls attention to a material heritage that is inescapable, “the clay of some Litvak shtetl” worked into her children's bones (1:10). The self may be always on a “voyage” and a “journey” (1:10-11), it may move somewhere new, but it also returns continually to a place of origin in a movement beyond the control of individual will, a function of constraints placed on the self by the history into which it is born.

If the self is not constituted by some simple, unconflicted claiming of identity, if, as well, it is not formed in isolation from others but, rather, responds to a whole variety of (political) pressures, it also is not so easily changed or reshaped. Indeed, having recognized, in Kushner's conception of identity, the potential for political change, we must also recognize that the how of that change is problematic. The “Great Question” with which Perestroika begins is “Are we doomed? … Will the Past release us? … Can we Change? In Time.” Here, as stated by Prelapsarianov, the “World's Oldest Living Bolshevik,” the question is explicitly political, and its “we” is the we of world history, not of identity politics or personal psychology (2:13). But in Kushner's play, with its insistence on the merging of the political and the personal, the question does not only resonate with the grand narratives of international politics. Indeed, the same Great Question reappears later in Perestroika, transposed into the language of the individual: Harper asks her fantasy figure, the Mormon Mother, “How do people change?” (2:79). Whether raised by Harper with personal urgency or by Prelapsarianov as he searches for the next “Beautiful Theory” to “reorder the world” (2:14), this is perhaps the play's central political question.


Angels in America is in many ways a play about conversion. The experience of HIV illness is often conceived as involving a conversion of the self (we speak, e.g., of “seroconversion”), and Prior's discovery that he has AIDS is depicted in part as making him a new person: “I'm a lesionnaire” (1:21). The Angel's visitation to Prior takes the form of a mission of conversion: given a new identity, Prior is, like Joseph Smith, to become Prophet of a new dispensation. Indeed, in the course of the play all its characters undergo startling shifts in identity. Hannah is not only physically transplanted to New York but becomes “noticeably different—she looks like a New Yorker” (2:145). Roy, who clings tenaciously to his professional status as a lawyer, is disbarred just before his death. Harper moves through a period of dysfunction to strike out on her own, choosing “the real San Francisco, on earth,” with its “unspeakable beauty” (2:122), over her unsatisfying life with Joe, a fantasized Antarctica, and a “depressing” Heaven, “full of dead people and all” (2:122). Belize re-embraces a discarded drag identity (1:94) and, in Perestroika, works through his hatred for Roy Cohn toward some kind of “Forgiveness” (2:124). Louis and Joe each move out of “marriages” and into a new relationship with each other, a movement that, for both, entails a radical rethinking of the self. Louis is forced to consider whether he is capable of truly loving; when he decides that he is and tries to return to Prior, he finds that he “can't come back” (2:143), that the relation to Prior is now essentially changed. The couple that Prior and Louis once formed is replaced by the play's final argumentative, but communal, quartet of Prior, Louis, Belize, and Hannah. And Joe, the character whose fate is left least resolved at the end of Perestroika, is also perhaps the character who has undergone the most radical conversions. He admits his at first denied homosexuality. He moves from a heterosexual to a homosexual relationship, from a commitment to Reaganism and Mormonism to a willingness to “give up anything” for Louis (2:74), from “never [having] hit anyone before” to a violent attack on Louis (2:111-12). By the end of the play his relation to Harper has been precisely reversed. She is leaving him, having slapped him as he has just beaten Louis. He, not she, is now the one in need of psychological support that is not forthcoming, and, as she leaves, Harper transfers to Joe the Valium she herself once used in substitution for his missing support (2:143). As (a fantasized) Harper earlier suggests to Joe, “You're turning into me” (2:40).

It is not surprising, given the play's emphasis on such radical changes in self and self-conception, that it focuses so much attention on Mormonism and Judaism, both religions whose originary moment is a conversional one that involves a movement of dis- and relocation.7 This is true in Mormonism not only in the revelation to Joseph Smith and the westward movement that this initiated but also in the opening visions of The Book of Mormon, in which Lehi is “commanded” to separate himself from the corrupt Jews of Jerusalem by “tak[ing] his family and depart[ing] into the wilderness” (1 Nephi 2:2). This founding moment of course echoes the founding of Judaism in God's command to Abraham: “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee” (Genesis 12:1).8 (The echo is intensified in the names of Abraham's and Lehi's wives—Sarai/Sarah and Sariah.) Mormonism is indeed explicitly recognized as a religion of conversion in Angels in America; in the play's only use of the word convert Prior responds to Hannah's unexpected solicitude toward him by saying, “Please, if you're trying to convert me this isn't a good time” (2:100).

But, while both Judaism and Mormonism originate in a radical movement away from a prior religious tradition, both also express a strong resistance to change. We remember, for instance, the words of the Rabbi that open the play and that make the Great Voyage of Jewish migration both an enormous dislocation and a refusal of “this strange place,” a preservation of the “ancient, ancient culture and home” (1:10). Later Louis will recognize, comically, a circular movement enacted by Jewish immigrants and their descendants: “Alphabetland. This is where the Jews lived when they first arrived. And now, a hundred years later, the place to which their more seriously fucked-up grandchildren repair. … This is progress?” (2:15). Mormon social conservatism and traditionalism—“People ought to stay put” (1:82)—stands starkly against the radical break of its originary moment and founding mythos. Such ambivalence is already present in The Book of Mormon. Here the most radical conversions can occur; the black-skinned Lamanites can, with spiritual reform, turn white (see 3 Nephi 2:15-16). At the same time, however, the conception of Lamanite identity as essentially marred remains unchanged. The converting Lamanites become Nephites; the idea of a white Lamanite or of a morally upright black-skinned person is not admitted.9

An ambivalence similar to that present in both Judaism and Mormonism characterizes all the conversionary movements in Angels in America. The Angel's promise to undertake “a marvelous work and a wonder,” to abolish “a great Lie,” to correct “a great error” (1:62), turns out to be a call not for change but for its opposite, a project intended not to transform established identity categories or structures of power but, instead, to secure these with “Deep Roots”: “Neither Mix Nor Intermarry … If you do not mingle you will Cease to Progress” (2:52). In the depiction of Prior it is an active question whether AIDS accomplishes a transformation of the self, with the play giving two contrasting answers: Prior's “I don't think there's any uninfected part of me. My heart is pumping polluted blood. I feel dirty” (1:34) posed against Harper's “deep inside you, there's a part of you, the most inner part, entirely free of disease” (1:34), which Prior later echoes—“my blood is clean, my brain is fine” (1:117). Louis changes position frequently in the play, but his movement is ultimately circular, a return to where he began. With characters like Belize, Hannah, and Harper, one wonders if apparent conversions might not be better understood as assertions of an identity “essential” to the self that has been temporarily suppressed. Belize, like Louis, moves in a circle, giving up drag only to reembrace it; his forgiving Roy Cohn alongside their agonistic relation echoes his simultaneous antagonism and concern for Louis. Hannah is perhaps poised, from her earliest moments in the play, to move away from her Mormon “demographic profile” (2:104): Sister Ella Chapter tells her, “you're the only unfriendly Mormon I ever met” (1:82). Harper's identity as a “Jack Mormon,” her “always doing something wrong, like one step out of step” (1:53), may similarly be seen as conditioning the change she ultimately makes in her life. Roy, though “defeated” (2:114), moves one last time to assert his power, using the pathos of his impending death to reaffirm “clout”: “I fooled you Ethel … I just wanted to see if I could finally, finally make Ethel Rosenberg sing! I WIN!” (2:115). Indeed, the last words he speaks while alive in the play exactly echo his first (cf. 1:11 and 2:115).

At the same time that the play displays each of its characters undergoing major changes, it thus also asks whether these in fact represent real changes in the self or, rather, express or reaffirm a preexisting, stable identity. This double movement is especially evident in the treatment of the changes that Joe undergoes. On the one hand, we may see Joe as radically transformed in the course of the play. On the other, we might legitimately ask whether his behavior, even as he comes out and becomes involved with Louis, really changes. Isn't the concealment of his homosexuality from Harper simply replaced by the concealment, from Louis, of his Mormonism, the meaning of his work as chief clerk in the Federal Court of Appeals, and his connection to Roy Cohn? Just as much of Millennium Approaches is devoted to Harper's uncovering of Joe's homosexuality, so Perestroika traces Louis's discovery of Joe's concealed religious and political identities. Harper and Louis in essence “out” Joe's secrets, but Joe himself continues to behave much as before, returning repeatedly to Roy and, when his relationship with Louis fails, trying to return to Harper.


The problem of identity and its possible conversion is worked out in Angels in America particularly through a dialogue between external and internal self, a thematics of skin and bowels. Skin recurs repeatedly in the play as necessary to the integrity of a self, both macro- and microcosmic. Thus, Harper, in her opening speech, sees the “ozone layer” as “the crowning touch to the creation of the world: guardian angels, hands linked, make a spherical net, a blue-green nesting orb, a shell of safety for life itself” (1:16-17). “Safety from what's outside” is central to her positive vision of the millennium, and the flip side of that vision is the failure of protective covering: “the sky will collapse” (1:18). Harper also makes clear that “people are like planets, you need a thick skin” (1:17), and the decay of the ozone layer is matched at the level of individuals by the loss of bodily integrity attendant upon AIDS, a loss marked in the play (as in the popular imagination) particularly by the skin lesions of Kaposi's sarcoma (1:21). Harper's “systems of defense giving way” (1:17) reappear in Henry's description of the action of HIV, which depends upon both a failure of the skin and damage to the internal “skin” of immunity (see 1:42).

Susceptible to decay and invasion, the skin becomes a complex site—protective, yes, but also the place at which the self is endangered and at which one self may threaten another. Prior self-protectively insists that Louis not touch him, but immediately after, having “shit himself” and bled, he must warn Louis away: “Maybe you shouldn't touch it … me” (1:48). His breached, fragile skin presents pain and danger both for himself and for others. Elsewhere, the vulnerability of skin is recognized in ways not directly connected to physical risk. Louis, feeling guilty for having abandoned Prior, warns Joe not to touch him: “your hand might fall off or something.” And, when Joe in fact touches Louis, he sees himself as violating a certain dangerous boundary: “I'm going to hell for doing this.” As this scene also demonstrates, however, skin and the crossing of its boundaries provide the opportunity not only for wounding but for connection—here, the sexual connection between Joe and Louis: “I … want … to touch you. Can I please just touch you … um, here?” (1:116). Later Joe will also imagine the dissolution of a political boundary between himself and Louis: “Freedom is where we bleed into one another. Right and Left. Freedom is the far horizon where lines converge” (2:37). And the “ragged” skin that Harper imagines precariously protecting the earth, in her most hopeful vision, becomes a place of human interconnectedness:

Souls were rising, from the earth far below, souls of the dead, of people who had perished, from famine, from war, from the plague, and they floated up, like skydivers in reverse, limbs all akimbo, wheeling and spinning. And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles, and formed a web, a great net of souls, and the souls were three-atom oxygen molecules, of the stuff of ozone, and the outer rim absorbed them, and was repaired.


Here Harper sees the merging of human efforts across the barrier of self, the paradoxical coming together of those who have lost bodily integrity, whose own protective skins have been stripped from them, to replenish the skin of the world.

Implied, of course, in the image of a skin that insures integrity but is vulnerable, that guarantees separate identity but allows interconnection, is a depth, the contents that the skin holds together and that are threatened by its potential collapse. The decay of the ozone layer helps make possible a more general “dissolving of the Great Design” (2:134), which the Angel comes to announce and which Prelapsarianov recognizes as “mad swirling planetary disorganization” (2:14; also see 2:45). A cosmic “searing of skin” and “boiling of blood” (2:52), external and internal destruction, occur simultaneously. And, for the individual, the attack on protective skin—most strikingly, the damage to the immune system in AIDS—leads to an emptying out of bodily contents: Roy says, “Now I look like a skeleton” (1:111).

Buried depth, and particularly a depth of internal organs, of heart and blood and bowels, is in the play as constitutive of humanness, of human institutions, and of the world as is the protective skin. Though the skin may be breached, life stubbornly holds on: “When they're more spirit than body, more sores than skin, when they're burned and in agony, when flies lay eggs in the corners of the eyes of their children, they live. Death usually has to take life away. I don't know if that's just the animal” (2:136). The human being is, at least in part, a “DISGUSTING SLURPING FEEDING ANIMAL” (1:104), and the life of that “animal” in the world, including its institutions, involves a messy corporeality. Thus, in Roy's view “the Law” is not “a dead and arbitrary collection of antiquated dictums” but, rather, “a pliable, breathing, sweating … organ” (1:66); “this is gastric juices churning, this is enzymes and acids, this is intestinal is what this is, bowel movement and blood-red meat—this stinks, this is politics, Joe, the game of being alive” (1:68).10 Roy's perspective on the world is the opposite of Harper's, though it too makes the leap from macro- to microcosm; Roy looks at things from their bloody “heart” rather than their celestial skin: “Unafraid to look deep into the miasma at the heart of the world, what a pit, what a nightmare is there—I have looked, I have searched all my life for absolute bottom, and I found it, believe me: Stygian” (2:81).

Though the depths Roy describes mirror his own “brutal” and opportunistic misanthropy (2:81), the play also shows how such depths participate in loving human relations. If connections among people occur through the skin, true attachments depend upon a deeper, more intimate, mingling. Louis describes “smell” and “taste” as the “only two [senses] that go beyond the boundaries … of ourselves” and that thus allow an interpenetration of self and other: “Some part of you, where you meet the air, is airborne. … The nose tells the body—the heart, the mind, the fingers, the cock—what it wants, and then the tongue explores” (2:17-18). Desire is a matter of the whole body, its depths as well as its surfaces. As Harper suggests, “life” is “all a matter of the opposable thumb and forefinger; not of the hand but of the heart; we grab hold like nobody's business and then we don't seem to be able to let go” (2:122). Even when the heart's grasp fails, as Harper also recognizes, the rest of the body continues doggedly to desire: “When your heart breaks, you should die. / But there's still the rest of you. There's your breasts, and your genitals, and they're amazingly stupid, like babies or faithful dogs, they don't get it, they just want him” (2:20).

While transformation of the self, and of the world, is sometimes imaged in the play as operating on the skin's surface—“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” (2:147)—equally crucial to the play's conception of conversion is a penetration of the self's depths. The heart that serves as “an anchor” for Harper must, the Mormon Mother insists, be left behind (2:71). The cosmic repairs that the Angel undertakes represent an attempt to transform the “battered heart, / Bleeding Life in the Universe of Wounds” (2:54), by paralyzing life's messy process, emptying out the self and the world. And the play several times brings internal and external change together. At the same moment that Roy advises Joe to live differently in the world by exposing himself, baring his skin (“don't be afraid to live in the raw wind, naked, alone” [1:58]), Louis self-destructively yearns to be penetrated (“fuck[ed],” “hurt,” “ma[d]e [to] bleed,” [1:54], even “infect[ed]” [1:57]). Roy himself will later ask Belize to “squeeze the bloody life from me” and to “open me up to the end of me” (2:76).

When Louis returns to Prior to “make up” with him (2:83), Prior insists that neither external nor internal change alone is sufficient to demonstrate Louis's conversion. He accuses Louis of presenting a surface that reflects no depth: “You cry, but you endanger nothing in yourself. It's like the idea of crying when you do it. / Or the idea of love” (2:85). But he is also suspicious of claims to internal change that fail to manifest themselves externally. When Louis tells him not to “waste energy beating up on me, OK? I'm already taking care of that,” Prior responds, “Don't see any bruises” (2:83), and, having exacted from Louis the confession that he is “really bruised inside” (2:88), Prior insists on external proof: “Come back to me when they're visible. I want to see black and blue, Louis, I want to see blood. Because I can't believe you even have blood in your veins till you show it to me” (2:89). Louis, having been beat up by Joe (2:111-12), “made … [to] bleed” (2:127), indeed returns to Prior with “visible scars” (2:141), which stand for a change in his way of being in the world. In the economy of the play it is not enough for Louis to leave Joe; he must also confront him, in the scene that leads to violence, with what he has discovered about Joe's decisions for the Court of Appeals, his relation to Roy Cohn, and his consequent entwinement in the history of McCarthyism. Louis's making external of his own internal change here operates through his “outing” of Joe's secrets, and, just as Louis's internality—the fact that he does “have blood in his veins”—is made literally visible, so the violent injustices of Joe's concealed political history are brought out in the violence he visits on Louis, a violence later explicitly approved by Roy: “Everybody could use a good beating” (2:127).

The play of surface and depth in Angels in America is particularly crucial in the depiction of Joe and his problematic conversions. At a moment when he is still fighting against his homoerotic feelings, Joe thinks of these as constituting something “deep within” that might be concealed or even expurgated: “I have fought, with everything I have, to kill it” (1:40). Joe's model of identity, the wished-for perfection of the “saints,” is one in which internal and external selves correspond simply, unconflictedly, to each other: “Those who love God with an open heart unclouded by secrets and struggles are cheerful; God's easy simple love for them shows in how strong and happy they are” (1:54). (This is the flip side, or the positive image, of Roy's identification with “lower” life forms like HIV and “pubic lice,” beings “too simple” to be killed, self-identical and transparent to themselves: “It [HIV] knows itself. It's harder to kill something if it knows what it is” [2:28].)

But, while Joe sometimes imagines that he has conquered his buried secret, made inside and outside concur, this is at the expense of both inside and outside. Joe sees his internal battle, his “secret struggles” (1:54), as leading not to a plenitude encompassing “heart” and worldly behavior, as with the “saints,” but, rather, to an emptying out of the self, a “killing” of internal identity that leaves the external devoid of meaningful content: “For God's sake, there's nothing left, I'm a shell. There's nothing left to kill” (1:40). Joe's disavowal of an unwanted depth, his attempt to hide and kill his secret self, in fact fails. The “heart” has a power that cannot simply be denied or suppressed: “I try to tighten my heart into a knot, a snarl, I try to learn to live dead, just numb, but then I see someone I want, and it's like a nail, like a hot spike right through my chest, and I know I'm losing” (1:77). Joe's disavowed depth makes itself known not just internally but externally; he develops a “bleeding ulcer” (1:106) that forces the messiness hidden inside to appear on the surface, with blood coming from his mouth (1:80).

One kind of attempt to convert the self, through the stifling of an unwanted internality, thus fails, and Joe moves toward a different sort of self-conversion—“I can't be this anymore. I need … a change” (1:73)—another attempt to make external and internal selves concur, but this time through a “coming out” that would bring the heart to the surface. For such a conversion to occur, however, Joe imagines that his skin, the “outside” that “never stood out” (1:53) and that has concealed his disavowed depth, cannot remain: “Very great. To shed your skin, every old skin, one by one and then walk away, unencumbered, into the morning” (1:72-73). But, just as the attempt to disavow his buried homosexuality involves a violence against the internal self, so Joe's coming out, his shedding the skin of his prior life, involves a violence against the self and its history: “I'm flayed. / No past now” (2:75). Here the skin represents the individual's connections and commitments in the world—“everything you owe anything to, justice, or love” (1:72)—and Joe's imagination of shedding his skin is an attempted disavowal of such commitments. In order to stay with Louis, Joe declares himself ready to shed his “fruity underwear,” his “temple garment”—“Protection. A second skin. I can stop wearing it.” When Louis objects—“How can you stop wearing it if it's a skin? Your past, your beliefs” (2:73)—Joe reiterates his willingness to shed not just this “second skin” but “anything. Whatever you want. I can give up anything. My skin” (2:74).

Though stripping off one's skin and strangling one's heart seem diametrically opposed models of conversion, each depends upon a radical denial of part of oneself—whether the depth of uncontrollable desire or a surface of connections and commitments, whether the repressed content of a secret self or the historical sediments of the self's past. Indeed, Joe's first fantasy of shedding his skin follows immediately upon his imagination of a certain emptying out of depth:

It just flashed through my mind: The whole Hall of Justice, it's empty, it's deserted, it's gone out of business. Forever. The people that make it run have up and abandoned it. …

I felt that I was going to scream. Not because it was creepy, but because the emptiness felt so fast.

And … well, good. A … happy scream.

I just wondered what a thing it would be … if overnight everything you owe anything to, justice, or love, had really gone away. Free.

It would be … heartless terror. Yes. Terrible, and …

Very great.


Just as the strangling of the heart leaves a self that is only a “shell,” so the shedding of the skin depends upon an emptying out—a literalized heartlessness—that might leave the self “free” but also leaves it contentless, without past or history. Indeed, the impossibility or monstrousness of such a conversion is voiced not only by Louis but by Joe himself when he (homophobically) imagines, even as he claims “no past now,” that his sexual relation with Louis has given him a new past—“Maybe … in what we've been doing, maybe I'm even infected” (2:75)—and a past that reinvests him with an internality felt (as with his buried homosexuality) to be out of his control. And, just as Joe's disavowed internality reasserted itself through his bleeding ulcer, so his disavowed political and religious connections, supposedly shed as a skin, return in the form of blood. When Joe visits Roy, from whom he never makes a definitive break, to reveal that he is “with a man” (2:86), Roy orders him to return to his prior life: “I want you home. With your wife.” In order to reach Joe, Roy pulls the IV tube from his arm and ends up “smearing [Joe's shirt] with blood.” Whereas Joe, despite his coming out, continues to imagine (not unlike Roy) that the greatest danger to himself comes from his homosexuality (“maybe I'm even infected”), the real danger is shown to be from his continued connection to Roy and his refusal, despite his conversion from closeted Mormon Republican to out gay man, to grapple with the meaning of that connection. Belize warns Joe to “get somewhere you can take off that shirt and throw it out, and don't touch the blood,” an injunction that Joe cannot understand because Roy continues to conceal that he has AIDS, and because Joe himself continues blindly to dedicate himself to Roy (2:87). Though Joe claims that he has jettisoned his past, Roy's blood, and Joe's own political actions and commitments, continue to stain him; they are not so easily shed. One might indeed see Joe's skin as not sloughed off but, rather, pushed inward, replacing the secret of homosexuality with a heart that Roy can celebrate—“His strength is as the strength of ten because his heart is pure! And he's a Royboy, one hundred percent” (1:64)—but that must now be concealed from Louis. Indeed, though the image of the bloodied shirt continues to represent the past as surface, this is also seen as depth, and a depth susceptible to infection; in revealing to Louis the relationship between Joe and Roy, Belize says: “I don't know whether Mr. Cohn has penetrated more than his spiritual sphincter. All I'm saying is you better hope there's no GOP germ, Louis, 'cause if there is, you got it” (2:95).

In the depiction of Joe and the changes he undergoes, then, two seemingly opposed models for conversion—the strangling of the heart in the service of the skin and the shedding of the skin at the demand of the heart—come together, each shown to be inadequate, a killing of vitality, a denial of the past. Joe's strongest statement of the desire for conversion—“I pray for God to crush me, break me up into little pieces and start all over again” (1:49)—indeed denies both internal and external selves, both the depth of feeling that for Joe is identified with his homosexuality and the history of the self's relations in the world. Joe attempts first to deny feeling then to jettison the past, but he makes no real attempt to think how both surface and depth, skin and heart, constitute the self. In his last scene in the play, as he attempts to hold on to Harper, to return to a life he had seemingly left behind, he once again disavows a certain past—“I have done things, I'm ashamed”—but which past, whether his commitment to Roy or to Louis, remains unclear. He claims to “have changed,” but, as he himself says, “I don't know how yet” (2:142). In some sense, for all his searching, Joe never finds a self of which not to be “ashamed”; for all his “changing,” he never grapples with the self or its past history in such a way as to effect real change. Late in the play Harper can describe Joe much as he himself did before his “coming out”: “sweet hollow center, but he's the nothing man” (2:122).


If Joe's changes in the play represent failed rather than successful attempts at conversion, they nonetheless point the way toward a conception of what it would mean truly to undergo conversion.11 This would involve grappling with an internality, a depth, a passionate desire, in such a way as neither to deny its power nor to follow it without consideration for its effects on others. It would also mean shedding one's skin, changing one's way of being in the world, without merely throwing off the “past” and the “beliefs” imbedded in that skin (2:73).

Perhaps the play's most powerful image of a conversion that goes beyond what Joe is able to accomplish comes in the Mormon Mother's response to Harper's question, “How do people change?” (2:79). Her answer suggests that real change is difficult, painful, and violent and that its difficulty arises precisely because it does not follow the easier paths toward conversion that others in the play attempt to pursue. It does not reach for a simple obliteration of the self (“break me up into little pieces and start all over again” [1:49]) or an emptying out of a disturbing depth; nor does it operate through a sloughing off of “everything you owe anything to” (1:72) or an embracing of (angelic) “STASIS” (2:54). Addressing Harper's question, the Mormon Mother suggests that change “has something to do with God so it's not very nice”:

God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge filthy hand in, he grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they slip to evade his grasp but he squeezes hard, he insists, he pulls and pulls till all your innards are yanked out and the pain! We can't even talk about that. And then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled and torn. It's up to you to do the stitching.
And then get up. And walk around.
MORMON Mother:
Just mangled guts pretending.
That's how people change.


Nothing here is simply cast off or emptied out. The skin is breached and remains to be stitched up; the bowels are “mangled” but remain themselves. A prior self is not left behind—commitments remain, desiring continues, the history of the self travels on with it—and yet change somehow occurs through a violent rearrangement over which one may have no control but also through patching one's own wounds, living with what is “dirty, tangled and torn,” “pretending” to go on and thus in fact going on.

Harper herself moves into a new life and not by simply rejecting the past: “Nothing's lost forever. In this world, there's a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we've left behind, and dreaming ahead” (2:144). Torn open by Joe's lack of love, “heartbroken,” she nonetheless “return[s] to the world” (2:121) and without denying her “devastating” experience or her pain:

I feel like shit, but I've never felt more alive. I've finally found the secret of all that Mormon energy. Devastation. That's what makes people migrate, build things. Heartbroken people do it, people who have lost love.


Here, of course, the play again connects one individual's movement to a broader social/political phenomenon, and, as in its treatment of individual conversion, it shows a real ambivalence about whether and how true historical change might occur. If Louis can claim that “both of us are, right now, too much immersed in this history … and there's no real hope of change” (1:91), just a few scenes later Ethel Rosenberg can announce that “history is about to crack wide open. Millennium approaches” (1:112). Again, as with individual conversion, there is deep skepticism about a project of historical transformation that would address either depth or surface alone. The Angel's project is ultimately shown to be bankrupt because it is an emptying out and arresting of the messiness that constitutes life itself. And, as Prelapsarianov warns at the beginning of Perestroika, the simple shedding of the past, without preparation of a new skin, without “the Theory … that will reorder the world,” without the deep, transformative work—“the incredible bloody vegetable struggle up and through into Red Blooming” (2:14)—necessary to prepare the new, will lead to dissolution:

If the snake sheds his skin before a new skin is ready, naked he will be in the world, prey to the forces of chaos. Without his skin he will be dismantled, lose coherence and die. Have you, my little serpents, a new skin? … Then we dare not, we cannot, we MUST NOT move ahead!


Something like the Mormon Mother's prescription for change, something that would slit open the skin of the present, grapple with the world's messy violences, with the deep traumas of its history, without obliterating or denying these, seems to be called for. As the play draws to an end, Louis argues, contra Prelapsarianov, that “you can't wait around for a theory” (2:146), but Hannah corrects him, in a way that brings together his and Prelapsarianov's ideas about how to change the world: “You need an idea of the world to go out into the world. But it's the going into that makes the idea. You can't wait for a theory, but you have to have a theory” (2:147). The new skin cannot precede the world's new demands; it can only develop as those demands—messy, traumatic, life-threatening but also the conditions of any new life—are lived.

One must “mak[e] a leap into the unknown” but a leap informed by theory and by the past (2:146): casting off the skin cannot be a rejection of the history that formed it. Indeed, the “leap into the unknown” with which Angels in America ends evokes Walter Benjamin's “tiger's leap into the past” even as it is a movement into the future.12 As Benjamin suggests, the revolutionary move is to discover in the past those moments that speak to the present, resonate with it, allow the vision of history as an uninterruptible “continuum” to be rent. In some sense this is the work of Angels itself. Asking how to move forward in a world whose present and past are both deeply traumatic, it insists that whatever “painful progress” (2:144) might be possible will be achieved not by moving beyond trauma but by grappling with a traumatic present and by recalling past traumas as a way of being released from these, just as the play itself grapples with the crises of its present moment (AIDS, environmental disaster, Reaganism) and reinvents the vexed, complex, and disturbing elements of the past (McCarthyism, the Mormon experiment, family histories) in order to facilitate a movement beyond these into an uncertain but promising future.


  1. See Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Cohn (1955; reprint, New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968), 259. On Kushner's use of Benjamin, see Scott Tucker, “Our Queer World: A Storm Blowing from Paradise,” Humanist 53 (November-December 1993): 32-35; and the essays by David Savran, Michael Cadden, Art Borreca, and Martin Harries in this volume.

  2. Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Part One: Millennium Approaches (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1993), 3; Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Part Two: Perestroika (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1994), 3, 4. Future references will be given parenthetically in the text.

  3. Joseph Smith, The Essential Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 28. Also see the more elaborate account in The Book of Mormon: An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon upon Plates: Taken from the Plates of Nephi, trans. Joseph Smith Jr. (1830; reprint, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1950), prefatory material: “Origin of the Book of Mormon.” Future references to The Book of Mormon will be given parenthetically in the text.

  4. See Allen J. Frantzen, in this volume, for a reading of the play's depiction of Prior's ethnic identity.

  5. Class identity is less fully interrogated through the depiction of the play's characters than are other identity categories, though the play certainly shows itself aware of the centrality of class in U.S. politics during the Reagan era.

  6. Elizabeth V. Spelman, Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), 186.

  7. See Kushner's comments on the “interesting similarities between Mormonism and Judaism” (101), in David Savran, “Tony Kushner Considers the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness: An Interview,” American Theatre 11:8 (October 1994): 20-27, 100-104, esp. 101-3.

  8. I quote from the King James Version, The Holy Bible (New York and Scarborough, Ont.: New American Library, 1974).

  9. Also see 2 Nephi 5:21 and Alma 3:6 in The Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith's own views on race and slavery seem to have shifted; see Smith, Essential Joseph Smith, 85-90, a letter of 1836 speaking against abolitionism; and 213-25, a statement of 1844 against the abuse of federal power that calls the “goodly inhabitants of the slave states” to “petition … your legislators to abolish slavery by the year 1850, or now” (221).

  10. Roy's language here brings the play's doctrinaire McCarthyite/Reaganite together with its Bolshevik, Prelapsarianov (cf. 2:14).

  11. This section's title is taken from Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 263.

  12. Ibid.

Benilde Montgomery (essay date winter 1998)

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SOURCE: Montgomery, Benilde. “Angels in America as Medieval Mystery.” Modern Drama 41, no. 4 (winter 1998): 596-606.

[In the following essay, Montgomery examines the similarities between Kushner's Angels in America and the tradition of medieval religious mystery plays.]

Although highly praised in the popular press when it first appeared and officially canonized soon thereafter by Harold Bloom,1 Tony Kushner's Angels in America has now come under the scrutiny of critics of a more suspicious gaze. Among these less than enthusiastic critics are the notorious Arlene Croce, who, if only indirectly, includes Angels as an instance of “victim art”; Leo Bersani, who finds the play “muddled and pretentious”; and David Savran, who unravels the play's ambivalences to show not only that it is seriously at odds with its own apparent intentions, but that its immense popularity can be accounted for in the way it supports the “binary oppositions” of the status quo and thereby implicitly supports the Reaganite agenda that it would otherwise subvert.2 More positively, however, Savran also notes that “the play deliberately evokes the long history of Western dramatic literature and positions itself as heir to the traditions of Sophocles, Shakespeare, Brecht, and others.”3 Among these others, I suspect that an important tradition to which Kushner is also the heir is that of the medieval mystery cycles. To read Angels in America in the light of this tradition may help dispel Savran's suspicion that Kushner is as much the victim of Enlightenment categories as are his political enemies.

It should first be noted that although Kushner was a student of medieval culture (he graduated from Columbia with a degree in medieval studies),4 he has little interest in the specific Christian contents of the cycles. Indeed, in an early interview with Savran, Kushner makes his ambivalence about the Middle Ages clear. On the one hand, he dismisses them as “of no relevance to anything” only to praise them later on for the “great richness [that] can come from societies that aren't individuated.”5 Kushner's use of the Corpus Christi plays in Angels in America is consistent with this ambivalence. While he is interested in the cycle plays because of their dramatic structure and internal form, his own agenda demands that he distance himself from their theological contents in favor of what appears to be a highly secularized humanism. To use Thomas M. Greene's language, Kushner “force[s] us to recognize the poetic distance traversed”6 between the hierarchic world of the cycles and our own postmodern experience.

If, as Savran suggests, Walter Benjamin's “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (an essay written in 1940 in an attempt to account for the emergence of Hitler's new order) is “the primary generative fiction for Angels in America,7 we have an important instance of Kushner's abiding interest in the question of redemptive history, an interest first apparent in his A Bright Room Called Day (1985). Kushner himself admits that his protagonist, Prior Walter, is named for Benjamin and that his angel is modeled on Paul Klee's painting Angelus Novus, discussed in Benjamin's essay. Significantly, however, the medieval mystery cycles are also attempts to come to terms with questions similar to those raised by Benjamin and of interest to Kushner. Developed in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, during what Martin Stevens calls “some of the most disruptive upheavals of the social order,” including economic depression and plague, the mystery cycles developed when, not unlike Benjamin four hundred years later, medieval Christians were re-examining the nature and meaning of redemptive history in an effort to redefine their own newly emerging social order. The plays helped, as Stevens suggests, to create “a reinvigorated sense of morality.”8 As such, the cycles would seem to be particularly hospitable to Kushner's postmodern didactic project, written at the end of the millennium and during the age of AIDS.

Moreover, Benjamin's theory of redemptive history is similar to that expressed in the medieval cycles. A student of Jewish mysticism, Benjamin felt that “the moral duty of criticism was to ‘redeem’ the past, to save it from oblivion by revealing its concealed truth.”9 Once revealed, the truth of the past, particularly as it is embodied in the “oppressed,” might then provide some hope for the future. “The past,” Benjamin says, “carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption.” He notes that “for the Jews … every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.” In his scheme, the contemplation of the whole of tradition “teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”10 No doubt selected in a way that would distress Benjamin, the events of the mystery plays show, nonetheless, the world in a similarly constant state of “emergency.” These “emergencies” (the fall, a fratricide, the flood, the murder of children, etc.) are, moreover, presented in a way that links past “emergencies” to present realities. In the mysteries, each past event conceals some sign of Christ's redemptive action: an action made necessary by the initial cosmic “emergency,” the fall of men and angels, with which the cycles begin; made possible by the death of Jesus, the central and ubiquitous emergency of the cycles; and, for those who have heeded the prefigurements, fulfilled in the ultimate emergency of “Doomsday.”

While Kushner's use of multiple locations is obviously consistent with medieval practice, his arrangement of incidents in Angels in America closely imitates the structural outline of the mystery cycles. As the cycles trace an are from Genesis to Doomsday, so, too, does Kushner's play. As the cycles begin with the Creation and Fall, Kushner's play also begins with allusions to a more perfect and, significantly, Jewish past, now fallen from grace. At the funeral of Sarah Ironson, Rabbi Chemelwitz notes that her grandchildren “with the goyische names” have become so assimilated into the modern world, a world fallen from the primal Eden of “the clay of some Litvak shtetl,” that they are no longer capable of embarking on a “Great [Voyage].”11 Moreover, as in the cycles, the individual incidents of Angels in America culminate in an epilogue whose apocalyptic imagery suggests the “doomsday” scenes of traditional mystery cycles. In Kushner's final scene, dominated by a statue of an angel, Hannah and Prior speak of a time “[w]hen the Millennium comes”—“[n]ot the year two thousand, but the Capital M Millennium” (II, 147). The scene focuses on another family, now newly constituted and prepared to do what the old Rabbi despaired of: to begin again, “to go out into the world” (II, 147). Sarah is replaced here by a new matriarch, Hannah, named for the Biblical prophet who praises Yahweh for defeating the powerful and raising up the poor and oppressed.12 This newly constituted family has been gathered and redeemed not, as in the medieval cycles, because they have been chosen by Christ, but rather because its members have loved Prior Walter—the “prophet” of the new postmodern times whose wounded and dying body dominates each part of Angels in America as ubiquitously as the body of Christ dominates “every second of time” of the Corpus Christi cycles.

As in the cycles, all other action takes place within this Biblical are, an are that encompasses all time and understands it as redemptive history. In setting out the genealogy of Louis Ironson (grandson of Sarah, son of Rachel), Kushner positions one of his principal characters within the Biblical narrative of the Ur-family. In fact, Louis, full of self-loathing, later identifies himself with Cain (“now I can't see much and my forehead … it's like the Mark of Cain” [I, 99]), and he is the one character whose name and genealogy are invoked by the Rabbi at the “Fall” in scene one and who reappears throughout the play until the “Doomsday” of the final scene.

Among the other characters are, of course, angels, and also a devil, a devil whose particular traits are rooted in medieval practice. Even in George C. Wolfe's very un-medieval New York production, few critics failed to recognize the devil in Ron Liebman's out-of sync performance as Roy Cohn.13 While in the cycle plays Lucifer's fall generally precedes Adam and Eve's, Kushner's devil appears first in the second scene, but is very much like the Lucifer of the Chester plays. There the devil sits in God's throne exclaiming, “Here will I sitt nowe in this steade, / … / Behoulde my bodye, handes and head— / the might of God is marked in mee.”14 Similarly, Cohn sits in a throne of his own invention wishing he were a formidable monster: “an octopus, a fucking octopus. Eight loving arms and all those suckers” (I, 11). Like the Lucifer of York who gloats in a power that “es passande my peres” (is passing my peers),15 Cohn claims, like God, to “see the universe” (I, 13), curses all with “God-fucking-dammit to hell” (I, 14), blesses chaos (I, 15), and, in a temptation scene (I, 52-58), tries to lure the faithful Christian, Joe, with the promises of similar power: “Let nothing stand in your way” (I, 58). By his own admission, he's “an absolute fucking demon with Family Law” (II, 138).

To counterbalance the devil, Kushner's principal angel, who may owe some inspiration to Benjamin's “Angelus Novus,”16 also bears some additional resemblance, as Rob Baker points out, to the angels of medieval alchemy whose “Great Work” is to transform by fire base lead into pure gold.17 Kushner's text, however, also associates his angels with Biblical angels. Perhaps playing with the frequent use of “Mary” in gay parlance, Kushner writes an “Annunciation” scene in which Prior exclaims, just before a Gabriel-like angel appears, “Something's coming in here, I'm scared, I don't like this at all, something's approaching and I. … OH! […] God almighty …” (I, 118, stage directions omitted). Most frequently, though, Kushner associates his angel with Jacob's angel in Genesis 32. First, Joe, a closeted Mormon homosexual, alludes to Jacob's angel when he defends himself to his wife: “Jacob wrestles with the angel. […] The angel is not human, and it holds nothing back, so how could anyone human win […]?” (I, 49-50). Despairing of spiritual victory, Joe, who, nonetheless, had desired to be “Blessed” (I, 54), then seeks the approval of the angel's opposite. On his deathbed, Roy Cohn blesses Joe:

[…] You don't even have to trick it out of me, like what's-his-name in the Bible.
[…] A ruthless mother fucker, some bald runt, but he laid hold of his birthright with his claws […]

(II, 82-83)

Under the tutelage of Joe's Mormon mother, however, Prior, fully human and living with AIDS, literally “wrestle[s]” with the angel and wins, demanding, “bless me or whatever but I will be let go,” after which he “ascends” to heaven on a “ladder of […] light” (II, 119-20).

More importantly, the correspondence Kushner establishes between Prior Walter and Joe around their relationship to the Jacob story is typical of the kind of “[i]nterconnectedness” (to use Hannah's word [II, 146]) that characterizes the internal structure of the entire play. Specifically, these correspondences might more properly be named “analogies,” and they, like the structuring are of the play, further situate Angels in America within a medieval dramatic tradition, a tradition developed when “resemblance … organized the play of symbols, made possible knowledge of things visible and invisible, and controlled the art of representing them.”18 David Tracy, a modern theorist of “analogy,” defines it as “a language of ordered relationships articulating similarity-in-difference. The order among the relationships is constituted by the distinct but similar relationships of each analogue to some primary focal meaning.”19 Here, Prior and Joe are not simply opposites, as Savran's observations about “binary oppositions” would suggest. At one and the same time, they are both similar (in their homosexuality and their need of a blessing) and different (in that [a] one is closeted and the other is out and [b] one wrestles with the angel, the other spars with the devil). As analogues rather than paired opposites, each relates in a unique way to the story of Jacob's redemption. This pattern of relationships is precisely the kind that V. A. Kolve notes at work in the cycles. Like Erich Auerbach, who notes that medieval “figural interpretation changed the Old Testament from a book of laws and a history of the people of Israel into a series of figures of Christ and the Redemption,”20 Kolve shows how events and characters in the “Old Testament” plays (Noah's flood, the sacrifice of Isaac, for example) prefigure events and characters of the “New Testament” plays (John the Baptist, the crucifixion of Jesus, for example). He notes further that this prefigurement occurs in such a way that “the differences between figure and fulfillment are as important as the similarities.”21 In other words, the ordered relationships among events and characters in the cycles preserve the principle of analogy: their similarity-in-differences is maintained, each achieving significance from a common relationship to some prime analogue. In the cycle plays, the prime analogue is Jesus Christ; in Angels in America it is, of course, Prior Walter.

Although analogy is most clearly evident in the “split scenes” placed strategically throughout the play, Kushner uses analogy most significantly as the metaphoric expression of the profound similarities-in-difference that his meditation on contemporary politics and AIDS has led him to discover abounding in all reality. Like Louis and Joe, Prior (male, gay, worldly) and Harper (female, straight, Mormon) only seem opposites. Meeting around a common table, they recognize each other at “the very threshold of revelation” (I, 33). They soon speak in parallel sentences (“I'm a Mormon”; “I'm a homosexual”; “[Mormons] don't believe in homosexuals”; “[Homosexuals] don't believe in Mormons”). They share not their partners' disembodied and “Enlightened” myth of progress but a more concrete understanding of human finitude and a conviction that imagination is limited because bound to memory. They so clearly comprehend each other that they can reveal truths about the one that the other did not suspect: Prior can tell Harper that Joe is gay; Harper can tell Prior that his “most inner part” is “entirely free of disease” (33-34). Significantly, following these specific revelations and the larger implicit revelation that characters as diverse as Harper and Prior are not simply independent and opposing characters but fully implicated in each other's lives, the angel manifests itself for the first time.

Further, Kushner's analogies create an ordered series of relationships among God, self, and world and thereby give shape to the otherwise disparate elements of the play. If in the Corpus Christi plays the prime analogue is the suffering body of Christ, in Angels in America, the prime analogue is the suffering body of Prior Walter. Both bodies dominate their plays not simply as graphic images of physical pain and suffering but primarily as interpretive paradigms. Positing the wounded body of Christ as an analogue for, among other things, the woundedness of the social body, of the body politic, and of the individual physical body, the cycles teach that the destinies of these separate bodies are in fact interconnected. As each of these bodies (social, political, individual) suffers in its own way, its suffering also participates in Christ's suffering and in that participation achieves a significance inaccessible to the same suffering considered in isolation: as Christ must die to rise again, so too must all else that is. As the analogical design of the medieval plays redefined their own emerging new social order, so the similar design of Angels in America helps to redefine whatever sense of order Kushner sees emerging not only from the AIDS pandemic but also from the collapse of modernism itself. Rather than only exploring AIDS and its metaphors, as Susan Sontag does,22 Kushner offers AIDS as the primary analogue by means of which he seeks to recover meaning not only in the wake of AIDS but also out of the ruins of the entire postmodern collapse.

When Roy Cohn's doctor says that in the “presence” of the HIV virus, “[t]he body's immune system ceases to function” (I, 42), he is describing for a single human body the woundedness that, by analogy, is typical of all the defenseless bodies in what Kushner's Angel calls a “Universe of Wounds” (II, 54). As Prior's body can no longer defend itself against death, Harper notices from the outset that all around her

beautiful systems [are] dying, old fixed orders spiraling apart …

[…] everywhere, things are collapsing, lies surfacing, systems of defense giving way. …

(I, 16-17)

During the wrestling match with Prior at the end of the play, the angel remarks on the same events:

The slow dissolving of the Great Design,
The spiraling apart of the Work of Eternity,
The World and its beautiful particle logic
All collapsed

(II, 134)

The separate elements in Kushner's design of a “Universe of Wounds” are the individual, the nuclear family, the American justice system, international diplomacy, the physical integrity of the planet, and the Judeo-Christian tradition itself.

In Kushner's design, these separate wounds form an ever-widening series of concentric circles radiating from a single wounded center, Prior Walter. In a vision of his own family history (I, 85-89), for example, the prior Priors teach him that “[i]n a family as long-descended as the Walters there are bound to be a few carried off by plague.” While Prior's AIDS remains unique, suffering from plague, pestilence, “[t]he spotty monster,” he learns, has an analogue in the common suffering of all that is human (86-87). Prior understands himself not only as an isolated, purely psychological entity, but as a member of the human family. On the other hand, Roy Cohn, unlike Prior, remains trapped in a thoroughly modern and “monological consciousness.”23 His disease, like Joe's homosexuality, must remain a secret, private, “closeted” business. Like Dante's Satan, he is the ultimate isolationist and last appears “standing waistdeep in a smoldering pit, facing a volcanic, pulsating red light (II, 138). Moreover, the body of the traditional family is also wounded: Sarah Ironson's grandchildren have become assimilated; Joe's father could not love him (I, 76); Joe abandons Harper; Roy's “fathers” are “Walter Winchell, Edgar Hoover. Joe McCarthy most of all” (I, 56); even the Reagans are “not really a family […] there aren't any connections there, no love, they don't ever even speak to each other except through their agents” (I, 71). In addition, like Prior, the body politic is wounded: justice is confused with power; “ipso facto secular humanism” has given way to “a genuinely American political personality. Modeled on Ronald Wilson Reagan” (I, 63); Washington is a “cemetery” (I, 23); “The whole Hall of Justice,” Joe fears “it's empty, it's deserted, it's gone out of business. Forever. The people that make it run have up and abandoned it” (I, 72). After “Perestroika” and the fall of the Berlin Wall, “the World's Oldest Living Bolshevik” decries the present as a “Sour Little Age” and regrets the loss of any “Grand” and “comprehensive [Theory]” to guide a new revolution (II, 13-14). Further, the planet is also wounded: “the Chernobyl Power Plant in Belarus is already by leagues the greatest nuclear catastrophe” (II, 129); Libby fears the radon escaping in Hannah's basement (I, 82); and Harper learns early on about “holes in the ozone layer. Over Antarctica. Skin burns, birds go blind, icebergs melt. The world's coming to an end” (I, 28).

As all these wounded bodies are analogues to the wounded body of Prior Walter, so too is the great wound in the body of the Judeo-Christian tradition: like Louis and Joe, who abandon their lovers, and those others who have abandoned the Halls of Justice, God has also abandoned the universe. The primal covenant is broken, and heaven “has a deserted, derelict feel […] rubble is strewn everywhere” (II, 121). In a scene inspired perhaps by the “Parliament of Heaven” episode in the N-Town plays,24 the angels announce that they have become mere “impotent witness[es]” longing for the return of God (II, 130-31). But while the N-Town Daughters of God prepare for the coming of Christ, Kushner's angels, like mouthpieces for the Religious Right, foresee a future filled with chaos, a chaos that can only be averted by embracing stasis. Here Kushner makes most evident that although the structure of his play is similar to that of the cycles, it is also quite obviously different. Instead of imitating the cycles in a slavish way, thereby producing only similarity, something “of no relevance to anything,” Kushner imitates them so as to announce at the same time his distance from them. Rather than create something absolutely “new,” Kushner keeps faithful to the principle of analogy: quite deliberately, and like Prior Walter, he enters into a conversation with his own usable (prior) past. Unlike his modernist monster, Roy Cohn, whose death is hastened by his uncompromising defense of utter difference (“Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man, Henry, who fucks around with guys” [I, 46]), Kushner shares with Prior and Harper (and, it might be added, with most medieval descriptions of the imagination)25 the belief that because imagination is always in a conversation with memory, it “can't create anything new […] It only recycles bits and pieces from the world and reassembles them into vision” (I, 32).

Distancing himself from the theological assumptions of the medieval cycles to comment on contemporary reality, however, does not necessarily make Kushner the unwitting heir of the Enlightenment, as Savran suggests. To see Angels in America built around “a host of binary oppositions,” as Savran does, ignores the complexity of Kushner's fully analogical imagination and fails to consider what Tracy calls “that dialectical sense within analogy itself.”26 What Savran reads as an “elaboration of contradictions” (“heaven/hell … communitarianism/individualism, spirit/flesh,” etc.)27 Kushner's imagination holds in balance as dialectically aligned pairs. In his last scene, his “Doomsday,” Kushner embodies the concordance of opposites, rather than their contradiction, in the Bethesda Fountain, “Prior's favorite place in the park” (II, 94), whose statuary angel dominates the scene. While Louis identifies the fountain as a monument to the “Naval dead of the Civil War” (II, 94), Belize sees it as a source of healing. Prior, the prophet of the impending age, however, sees it as both: “[it] commemorate[s] death but […] suggest[s] a world without dying. [It is] made of the heaviest things on earth, stone and iron, [it] weigh[s] tons but [it is] winged” (II, 147). Incapable of understanding himself as independent of his body, and joined analogically to the community around him, Prior, unlike Roy Cohn and the ever-closeted Joe, is no representative of the detached, enlightened ego. Rather, more like a medieval holy man, Prior sees death not as the opposite of life, but as its complement and fulfillment. Conceived so, Prior's impending death, like the death of Christ in the mysteries, is not the occasion of despair but rather the springboard of hope.

Moreover, membership in the family which gathers around Prior at the end is dependent on a similar dialectical vision. Although Harper is absent, she is finally no more “pathologized” than is Prior Walter. She is clearly not the heir of Mary Tyrone and Blanche DuBois, as Savran suggests.28 Unlike theirs, her disease and Prior's do not lead to isolation. Just as their diseases can never be understood in isolation from each other, disease itself roots them in a fragile and complex human condition that Joe and Roy, both absent from the final scenes, take great pains to deny. Moreover, for both Harper and Prior, disease can never be understood as independent of vision: her straight, Mormon, female vision always and everywhere the complement of his gay, secularist, male one. As she flies to San Francisco in a plane that also weighs tons and is winged, she has her own vision of apocalypse: “the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles, and formed a web, a great net of souls, and the souls were three-atom oxygen molecules, of the stuff of ozone, and the outer rim absorbed them, and was repaired” (II, 144). If Roy and Joe are ineligible for membership in the new human family, it is precisely because they have failed to transcend Savran's binary oppositions: Joe's homosexual body remains the enemy of his Mormon spirit; Roy dies cursing life, gloating in the triumph of his will over Ethel Rosenberg (II, 115). Yet those who have loved Prior and join him around the Bethesda Fountain share in his analogical vision: while each remains independent of the other, they understand that the future of Prior's body is also their own. White, black; gay, straight; Jewish, Mormon; male, female: they retain their identities but share a common fate. While this final scene is indeed “utopian,” it is not simply an image of an American utopia that “diffuse[s] or deflect[s] dissent,” as Savran suggests.29 It is, rather, an image of the new Jerusalem, which preserves the principle of analogy and where similarity and difference persist in constant and open conversation.

The credibility of this brief exploration of some medieval aspects of Angels in America was, unfortunately, nowhere supported by George C. Wolfe's New York production. Several foreign directors, however, seem to have appreciated the play's relationship to its medieval past. In doing so, they mounted productions that distanced themselves from the misguided attempts at psychological realism that marred Wolfe's production and thereby obscured Kushner's vision. Such a style could hardly convey what Bent Holm suggests is the play's “allegorical nature” or support his view of the play as a “wake-up call to The Theater's ‘reality.’”30 In Neil Armfield's September 1994 Australian production, on the other hand, “all ropes and pulleys were clearly visible and almost every stage object was on wheels enabling the cast members to smoothly and swiftly run them in and out.”31 Most tellingly, at the Avignon theater festival in summer 1994, Brigitte Jacques staged the first part of the play outdoors in the medieval Cloître des Carmes. In a manner consistent with Kushner's original stage directions that the play be “actor-driven” (I, 5), French street kids visibly moved set pieces on and off stage in a production that one critic called “not only minimalist but basic.”32 Such a basic production, it seems to me, embodied the kind of interconnectedness the play longs for.


  1. Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (New York, 1994), 567.

  2. Arlene Croce, “Discussing the Undiscussible,” New Yorker (26 December 1994/2 January 1995), 55; Leo Bersani, Homos (Cambridge, MA, 1995), 69; David Savran, “Ambivalence, Utopia, and a Queer Sort of Materialism: How Angels in America Reconstructs the Nation,” Theatre Journal, 47:2 (1995), 207-27.

  3. Savran, “Ambivalence,” 209. See note 1.

  4. Arthur Lubow, “Tony Kushner's Paradise Lost,” New Yorker (30 November 1992), 61.

  5. Tony Kushner, “The Theatre of the Fabulous: An Interview with Tony Kushner,” interview by David Savran, in Essays on Kushner's Angels, ed. Per Brask (Winnipeg, 1995), 134-35.

  6. Thomas M. Greene, The Light in Troy: Imitation and Discovery in Renaissance Poetry (New Haven, CT, 1982), 40.

  7. Savran, “Ambivalence,” 211. See Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illumination, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (1968; rpt. with omissions, New York, 1969), 253-64.

  8. Martin Stevens, “Medieval Drama: Genres, Misconceptions, and Approaches,” in Approaches to Teaching Medieval English Drama, ed. Richard K. Emmerson (New York, 1990), 45-46.

  9. David Stern, “The Man With Qualities: The Incongruous Achievement of Walter Benjamin,” The New Republic (10 April 1995), 32.

  10. Benjamin, 260, 254, 264, 257. See note 7.

  11. Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Part One, Millennium Approaches (hereafter I) and Part Two, Perestroika (hereafter II) (New York, 1992, 1994), I, 10. Subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text.

  12. I Sam. 2: 1-10.

  13. For example, Andrea Stevens, “Finding a Devil within to Portray Roy Cohn,” interview with Ron Liebman and Ron Vawter, New York Times (18 April 1993), Arts and Leisure sec., 1. See also John R. Quinn, “Corpus Juris Tertium: Redemptive Jurisprudence in Angels in America,Theatre Journal, 48:1 (1996), 85: “the corporeality of Cohn and of Cohn's law are also inverted representations of the new law, a sort of Satan resurrected.”

  14. The Fall of Lucifer (The Tanners), Play I of The Chester Mystery Cycle, ed. R. M. Lumiansky and David Mills, Early English Text Society (London, 1974), II, 186-89.

  15. The Creation and the Fall of Lucifer (The Bartiers), play I of York Plays, ed. Lucy Toulmin Smith (1885; rpt. New York, 1963), 156.

  16. Savran, introduction to “Theatre of the Fabulous,” 131. See note 5.

  17. Rob Baker, The Art of AIDS (New York, 1994), 214.

  18. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York, 1970), 17.

  19. David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theory and the Culture of Pluralism (New York, 1981), 408.

  20. Erich Auerbach, “Figura,” trans. Ralph Manheim, in Scenes from the Drama of European Literature (New York, 1959), 52.

  21. V. A. Kolve, The Play Called Corpus Christi (Stanford, CA, 1966), 67.

  22. See Susan Sontag, AIDS and Its Metaphors (New York, 1989).

  23. Charles Taylor, “The Dialogical Self,” in The Interpretive Turn: Philosophy, Science, Culture, ed. David R. Hiley, James F. Bohman, and Richard Shusterman (Ithaca, 1991), 52.

  24. See The Parliament of Heaven; The Salutation and Conception, play XI of The N-Town Plays: Cotton MS Vespasin D.8, ed. Stephen Spector, vol. I, Introduction and Text, Early English Text Society (Oxford, 1991), II. 1-216.

  25. See, for example, the discussion in Richard Kearney, The Wake of Imagination: Toward a Postmodern Culture (Minneapolis, MN, 1988), 115-138.

  26. Savran, “Ambivalence,” 212-13; Tracy, 413 (see note 19).

  27. Savran, “Ambivalence,” 212.

  28. Ibid., 215.

  29. Savran, “Ambivalence,” 224, quoting Sacvan Bercovitch, “The Problem of Ideology in American Literary History,” Critical Inquiry, 12:4 (1985-86), 644.

  30. Bent Holm, “Flying in Different Directions: American Angels in Denmark,” trans. Per Brask, in Essays on Kushner's Angels, 30-31.

  31. Ian Olorenshaw, “Angels in Australia,” Essays on Kushner's Angels, 73.

  32. Laszlo Szekrenyi, “Angels in Avignon,” TheaterWeek (5-11 September 1994), 37.

Allen J. Frantzen (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Frantzen, Allen J. “Alla, Angli, and Angels.” In Before the Closet: Same-Sex Love from “Beowulf” to “Angels in America,” pp. 264-92. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Frantzen examines the representation of Anglo-Saxon identity in Angels in America in terms of Kushner's sexual identity politics.]

Rome, not Northumbria, is the center of The Man of Law's Tale, and celibacy, not marital bliss, is the Man of Law's preferred mode for Christ's holy ministers. Chaucer's text looks neither to the vernacular tradition of married clergy that the Wycliffites sought nor to the celibate clerical world demanded by Roman canon law and espoused earlier by the Anglo-Saxon church of Ælfric and by Norman reformers. Instead, the Man of Law's heroine is a product of Chaucerian compromise. She practices what might be thought of as serial chastity. Custance marries Alla, but after she becomes pregnant she lives without his company for all but the last year of his life. Clerical ideals dominate The Man of Law's Tale, much of its domestic sentiment notoriously devalued not only by the narrator's self-dramatizing interruptions but by Chaucer's debt to the work of a great reforming cleric, Pope Innocent III, whose “De miseriis humane conditionis” (On the misery of the human condition) is quoted in the prologue to the tale and elsewhere in the text.1

Chaucer makes much of the dependence of the English church on Rome. His reform-minded contemporaries, the Lollards, regarded Rome as a dangerous influence; in the Reformation the city became a symbol used to attack Catholicism. But for the Anglo-Saxons and for orthodox Christians of Chaucer's time, Rome was the center of the Church on earth. Correspondence with the pope and travel to and from Rome were means by which the church of the frontier established its authenticity. In this chapter I examine one small part of this traffic, an episode from Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which describes the sale of angelic English boys in Rome, a story subsequently retold by Wace, Laȝamon, and others, including John Bale, a Reformation historian. I compare the juxtaposition of angels and Angli, meaning “English,” in these texts to angelic powers in Tony Kushner's Angels in America, a play in which the Anglo-Saxons, embodied in the stereotype of the WASP, play a small but significant role. For a moment, however, I return to Chaucer's Alla and a scene in which he too meets a boy in Rome.


Alla registers a dim presence in The Man of Law's Tale. He is heard about after Custance converts Hermengyld and her husband but otherwise, except for letters to his mother, not heard from until a young boy (who proves to be his son) is set before him at a feast. This act is part of Custance's plan. She too has arrived in Rome but has refused to identify herself to the senator who rescued her from the ship on which she was set adrift from Northumbria. Now, in her husband's presence, she speaks through her son. “[A]t his moodres heeste / Biforn Alla, durynge the metes space, / The child stood, lookynge in the kynges face” (1013-15).2 The child does not look like him, however, but “as lyk unto Custance / As possible is a creature to be” (1030-31). Because Alla has kept the faith (he is on a pilgrimage of repentance for killing his wicked mother), he realizes that Christ might have sent Custance to Rome just as he sent her to Northumbria. Shortly thereafter Alla and Custance are reconciled. Only then does she reveal herself to her father, the emperor, explaining for the first time who she is (1105-13).

The story of Custance reminds many readers of a saint's life and recalls some of the dynamics of stories about cross-dressed women saints recounted in chapter 2.3 Like Euphrosyne, Custance is betrothed, in Custance's case to a sultan who becomes a Christian in order to marry her. His mother, outraged, kills him and sends Custance out to sea, a scenario repeated when Custance is expelled from Northumbria. Unlike Euphrosyne, Custance marries and has a child. But in many ways her life as a missionary is similar to the lives of the evangelizing saints commemorated in Anglo-Saxon texts. The moment at which Custance reveals herself to her father recalls the revelation made by both Euphrosyne and Eugenia to theirs. And, like Eugenia, Custance preaches the word of God from within a same-sex community. It is, of course, a tiny one, just Custance and Hermengyld, but their same-sex love, symbolized by the bed they share, is genuine and more warmly demonstrated than such love is in the Anglo-Saxon texts.

Having been reunited in Rome, Custance and Alla return to Northumbria for a year of wedded bliss. After Alla's death, Custance goes back to Rome and takes up a life of virtue and good works, never again parting from her father (1156-57). Chaucer rejoined his roving heroine to patriarchal structures identical to those governing the lives of Eugenia and Euphrosyne. The difference is that Chaucer's holy woman is not just a daughter but also a wife and mother—a married evangelist. To a surprising degree The Man of Law's Tale conforms to what might have been a Lollard vision of evangelism in the true church. Custance's language, for example, recognized as “a maner Latyn corrupt” in Northumbria, is what the Lollards thought Italians spoke—that is, a vernacular, albeit not English. The tale discreetly hints of controversies building in the Church in Chaucer's time by effecting a radical redescription of the origins of the Church in the Anglo-Saxon period. According to the Man of Law, Northumbria was converted by a woman who arrives from Rome by way of Syria, directed only by God's will and the winds. But as Bede's Ecclesiastical History makes clear, the territory was converted by Irish missionaries and by holy men who came at the pope's behest from Rome—Augustine sent by Gregory the Great in 596, Theodore and Hadrian sent by Pope Vitalian over half a century later. Equally bold is the Man of Law's revised account of Alla, Chaucer's version of the Northumbrian king Ælle, the only English character in the text who is known to have been a historical person. Chaucer's Alla is converted to Christianity by Custance and with her has a son, Maurice, who was crowned emperor by the pope (1122). Bede's Ælle was not Christian but rather served as a symbol of pagan kingship awaiting redemption. Ælle's son, Edwin, converted to Christianity because he wished to marry Æthelburh, the daughter of the Christian king Æthelberht.4 Thereafter Edwin “held under his sway the whole realm of Britain, not only English kingdoms but those ruled over by the Britons as well.”5

Ælle's role in Bede is much smaller on the historical level but much greater on the symbolic level. He appears in Bede's text but once, in a description of some boys who, like Maurice, ended up in Rome through circumstances not of their own choosing. They too looked into the face of an important man, Pope Gregory. Or I should say, rather, that he looked into their faces, and what he saw there, depending on whose account we accept, was either the image of a chosen people waiting to be converted (the preferred explanation)—or love.6

It is said that one day, soon after some merchants had arrived in Rome, a quantity of merchandise was exposed for sale in the market place. Crowds came to buy and Gregory too amongst them. As well as other merchandise he saw some boys put up for sale, with fair complexions, handsome faces, and lovely hair. On seeing them he asked, so it is said, from what region or land they had been brought. He was told that they came from the island of Britain, whose inhabitants were like that in appearance. He asked again whether those islanders were Christians or still entangled in the errors of heathenism. He was told that they were heathen. Then with a deep-drawn sigh he said, “Alas that the author of darkness should have men so bright of face in his grip, and that minds devoid of inward grace should bear so graceful an outward form.” Again he asked for the name of the race. He was told that they were called Angli. “Good,” he said, “they have the face of angels, and such men should be fellow-heirs of the angels in heaven.” “What is the name,” he asked, “of the kingdom from which they have been brought?” He was told that the men of the kingdom were called Deiri. “Deiri,” he replied, “De ira! good! snatched from the wrath of Christ and called to his mercy. And what is the name of the king of the land?” He was told that it was Ælle; and playing on the name, he said, “Alleluia! the praise of God the Creator must be sung in those parts.”7

The story of the Anglian boys in Rome is found at the start of book 2 of the Ecclesiastical History, where Bede encloses a summary of Gregory's life within a larger narrative of the origins of the English nation. Like Gildas, Bede portrayed the early British as a Chosen People who violated their covenant with God and were destroyed as a result.8 Bede effected a complete break between the histories of the lapsed early Christian communities of the British—the community that Custance encounters when she lands in Northumbria and reads a “Britoun book”—and the heathen tribes, the Anglo-Saxons, whom Gregory's missionaries would convert. Bede located his own origins in the Anglo-Saxons, the new rather than the old chosen people.

The boys whom Gregory saw in the marketplace were descendants of Anglo-Saxons who, 150 years after coming to Britain, were still pagan. Gregory and Bede call the boys “Angli,” a term that generally means “English.”9 But Bede had a more particular understanding of the term, as his description of the settlements of Germanic tribes makes clear. Bede located the Jutes where the people of Kent live, and the Saxons where the West, East, and South Saxons live. He continued: “Besides this, from the country of the Angles, that is, the land between the kingdoms of the Jutes and the Saxons, which is called Angulus, came the East Angles, the Middle Angles, the Mercians, and all the Northumbrian race (that is those people who dwell north of the river Humber) as well as the other Anglian tribes. Angulus is said to have remained deserted from that day to this.”10 Bede seems to have meant “Anglian” in the more specific sense of “Northumbrian.” He himself was born in the territory of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow, in Northumbria, and so was “Angli” in three senses—Northumbrian, Anglian, and English.11 “Angli” also means “angels,” of course, but Bede carefully understates this meaning, which in the anecdote is better left to Gregory. That the boys' beauty should make Gregory think of angels is significant, for it suggests a purely symbolic meaning for “angli” otherwise rare in Bede's Ecclesiastical History.

Bede affirms a natural affinity between Gregory and the Anglo-Saxons. It might seem curious that Gregory should find the boys attractive, since his admiration suggests that he prefers their unfamiliar appearance (light-complected and light-haired) to that of his own people. The discrepancy strongly suggests that the anecdote originates with an English author whose views Gregory is made to express. The episode is a pretext for witty verbal play that valorizes the boys' race, their nation, and their king. Young, innocent, and beautiful, the boys themselves represent a benign and neglected heathendom. When Gregory recognizes all the signs of a chosen people awaiting God's blessing, Bede is permitted to foresee the new Christian age of the English people that arrived in England with Gregory's missionaries.

For all its piety, the encounter between Gregory and the boys reflects earthly and political concerns. Bede shows us Gregory's interest in establishing the Church in England and in complementing the churches that Rome had already fostered so successfully elsewhere in western Europe. Bede's chief aim was to bolster the success of that Church especially in the land of his birth; he dedicated the work to the Northumbrian king Ceolwulf.12 The reference to angels promotes this aim, symbolically affiliating the Anglo-Saxon church with Rome. When Gregory announced that the people of Anglia, represented by angelic youth, were ready to be changed into “fellow-heirs of the angels in heaven,” a new age—the history of Bede's own beginnings—came into being. But these unhappy boys were not its heralds, any more than they were angels. Other messengers—missionaries brought to England by Augustine at Gregory's command, long after the boys had been forgotten—were charged with bringing the faith to the Anglo-Saxons. That the boys could be compared to angels was not testimony to their proximity to the divine, a role Bede reserved for real angels, but to the angel-like state of their descendants, who would be newly baptized, newly converted, and newly saved.

The boys, Bede notes, were “put up for sale.” Gregory saw them amid stacks of other merchandise. What were they doing there? Peter Hunter Blair warned that readers should not “jump to the romantic conclusion that the boys whose purchase was envisaged by Gregory were English slaves on sale in a market-place.” The boys might also have been held in service, he suggested, as four English boys were held in the service of Jews at Narbonne, or prisoners of war, mercenaries, or “merely young men in some way bound to the soil on Merovingian estates.”13 A letter survives from Gregory to the priest Candidus (written in September 595), asking him to buy “English boys who are seventeen or eighteen years old, that they may be given to God and educated in the monasteries” (“pueros Anglos qui sunt ab annis decem et septem vel decem et octo, ut in Monasteriis dati Deo proficiant comparet”).14 The boys Gregory sees in the marketplace are not destined for education and clerical status, however. Those who have looked closely at the episode, including Bertram Colgrave, R. A. B. Mynors, and David Pelteret, identify the boys as slaves—although Bede does not—and relate the episode to the well-documented practice of slavery by the Anglo-Saxons.15 “The custom of buying or ransoming slaves to turn them into missionaries was known,” according to Colgrave, and both Aidan and Willibrord observed it.16

In the later Anglo-Saxon period opposition to slavery seemed to intensify. In 1014 Wulfstan denounced those who sold their children into foreign servitude.17 But foreign trade in slaves persisted until the Norman Conquest, after which opposition to slavery continued. The Council of London of 1102 criticized the custom, even as servile tenure was becoming a more prevalent form of bondage.18 In almost all cases in Anglo-Saxon sources the slaves in question are penal slaves forced into slavery because they could not pay debts or because they were being punished for some offense. The boys' status depended on their age; if they were seventeen or eighteen, they could have been sold as slave labor. But it is also possible that the boys Gregory saw in Rome were captives who were too young to be penal slaves and who merely represented a benign and neglected heathendom. Bede's narrative exalted their innocence, youth, and beauty, even though its real subject was their race, their nation, and Ælle, their king. What was their value in the market place? Ruth Mazo Karras points out that sexual exploitation was among the many unfortunate facts of life for women slaves. It is possible that boys were also sexually exploited and that their commercial value was directly related to their beauty and fairness, underscored by Gregory's focus on their faces (they are “bright of face,” they have “the face of angels”).19 The boys would have been exploited by men, obviously, a kind of same-sex sex that, as we saw in chapter 4, was of particular concern to the Anglo-Saxons.

Any sexual resonance in the anecdote is, of course, suppressed by Bede and, in turn, by all those who retold the episode after him. In the version found in Laȝamon's Brut, the “angli” are men, not boys, whose response anticipates Gregory's discovery and spoils the drama of his curiosity and his good heart. “We are heathen men,” they say, “and have been brought here, and we were sold in England, and we seek baptism from you if you would only free us” (“We beoð heðene men and hider beoð iladde, / and we weoren ut isalde of Anglene lond; / and fulluht we to þe ȝeorneð ȝef þe us wult ifreoiȝen,” 14707-9). Gregory's reply is obliging. “[O]f all the peoples who live on earth, you English are assuredly most like angels; of all men alive your race is the fairest” (“Iwis ȝe beoð Ænglisce englen ilicchest / of alle þan folke þa wunieð uppen uolde; / eouwer cun is feȝerest of alle quike monnen,” 14713-15).20 Neither Laȝamon's nor other versions subsequent to Bede's include all of the episode's verbal play. Instead these versions overtly state points implied in Bede's account, showing, first, that the Angli desired baptism and requested it of Gregory, and, second, that they were captives who yearned to be free. But an ironic reading is also possible. Laȝamon's version, which makes nothing of Gregory's insight, might suggest that the Anglo-Saxons use the pope to effect a cynical exchange of baptism for freedom; conversion is their idea, not his.

The first modern reader to comment on the sexual subtext of Bede's story was John Boswell, who documented the Church's concern that abandoned children would be sold into slavery and used for sexual purposes. Some writers protested this practice, but not for the reasons we might expect. Their concern was that fathers who abandoned their children might later accidentally buy them as slaves and commit incest by having intercourse with them. Boswell noted that the public sale of slaves continued in Rome long after the empire was Christianized and illustrated the practice with the episode as Bede recounted it.21 In the 1540s, some seven hundred years after Bede's death, Boswell's point was vividly anticipated by a remarkable figure named John Bale, the first reader to see a same-sex shadow in the story that has charmed so many.


Bale (1495-1563) was a Carmelite priest who left the Church of Rome in the 1530s. The author of several large-scale surveys of English authors and the first biographer of Chaucer, Bale was also a collector of early manuscripts, including those in Anglo-Saxon.22 According to John N. King, Bale was “the most influential English Protestant author of his time.”23 He was also a prodigious instrument in the propaganda efforts of Thomas Cromwell.24 Bale recounted the episode of Gregory and the slave boys in a revisionist narrative of English ecclesiastical history called The Actes of Englysh Votaryes.

And as thys Gregorye behelde them fayre skynned and bewtyfullye faced, with heare upon their heades most comelye, anon he axed, of what regyon they were. And answere was made hym, that they were of an yle called Englande. Wele maye they be called Angli (sayth he) for they have verye Angelych vysages. Se how curyose these fathers were, in the wele eyenge of their wares. Here was no cyrcumstaunce unloked to, perteynynge to the sale. Yet have [has] thys Byshopp bene of all writers reckened the best sens hys tyme.25

Bale mockingly urged his readers to “[m]arke thys ghostlye mysterye, for the prelates had than no wyves.” He plainly implied that Gregory had sexual designs on the boys. “[T]hese fathers” were “curyose” in the “wele eyenge” of the boys as “wares,” he wrote, using an expression with strong sexual overtones. In sixteenth-century English, “ware” could mean “piece of goods” (an expression “jocularly applied to women,” according to the OED) and “the privy parts of either sex.”26 Because priests were unmarried, Bale observes, with much sarcasm, “other spirytuall remedyes were sought out for them by their good prouvders and proctours, we maye (yf we wyll) call them apple squyres.” “Apple-squires,” according to the OED, means “pimp” or “panderer,” thus further underscoring Bale's sexual innuendo. Stressing that this sale was not unique, Bale produces another witness, Machutus, who saw a similar event in Rome in ad 500 and bought the boys to protect them (23a). We are meant to conclude that Gregory, deprived of a wife by the Church's demand for clerical celibacy, sought out “other spirytuall remedyes” by purchasing boys for sex.

Bale's rewriting of the story of Gregory and the Anglian boys takes place in the context of an elaborate revision of England's Anglo-Saxon Christian history proposed in The Actes of Englysh Votaryes and The Image of Bothe Churches. In The Actes of Englysh Votaryes Bale boldly revised English history in order to describe the nation's struggles against the corrupt influences of the Church of Rome. The chief instrument of Roman domination, Bale argued, was clerical celibacy, which permitted the clergy to degrade marriage and advocate virginity, all the while using its own religious houses for immoral purposes. Bale vigorously defended the right of the clergy to wed and believed that the Roman clergy who claimed to be celibate had in fact indulged in every form of sexual corruption. In The Image of Bothe Churches, Bale set forth a thesis about the Church in England that, as it was later developed by his better-known contemporary, John Foxe, became a foundational strategy for Reformation anti-Roman polemic.27 Bale argued that the Church had been divided during the reign of Constantine and that the See of Saint Peter stemmed from the corrupt division, while an isolated community of the faithful, who retained belief in the true Church, reestablished the true Church in England. Bale argued that the false Church of Rome had taken on the image of the true Church of antiquity and that from the time of St. Augustine's mission to the English (597) to the rejection of papal authority by Henry VIII (1533) the Church in England had been corrupt. Bale was among the historians who looked back to the Anglo-Saxon period, skipping over an internal period in which they perceived England as dominated by the Church of Rome to a point that they erroneously saw as a free, “native,” English church unencumbered by Roman influence. This was an exercise in self-justification. Having recently thrown off Roman rule itself, the new “English” or “Anglican” church was searching for its origins in the Anglo-Saxon period, which was perceived as another time when England's Christians governed themselves justly and righteously.

For Bede, the mission of Augustine marked the permanent conversion of Britain. Bale reversed the significance of this event. He claimed that the English church had survived pure and uncorrupted until the coming of Roman missionaries. With them they brought pernicious doctrines such as clerical celibacy, and as a result they transformed the once-pure land and its church into a new Sodom. Seeking to open his readers' eyes to the false miracles used by “obstynate hypocrytes” still living under the pope's rules, Bale wrote The Actes of Englysh Votaryes in order to accuse Catholics of portraying “whoremongers, bawdes, brybers, idolaters, hypocrytes, traytors, and most fylthye Gomorreanes as Godlye men and women” (2a). His diatribes are laced with references to Sodom and Gomorrah. Although his definitions of the sins of these unholy places remain vague, they encompass theological error as well as sexual excess, including, at certain points, male homosexual intercourse.

Marriage, Bale wrote in The Actes, was the “first order of religion,” created in order to protect against “beastlye abusyons of the fleshe that shuld after happen” if men and women disobeyed God's command to increase and multiply (7b). The Church sought to dissuade holy men and women from marriage, broke up existing marriages, venerated only unmarried saints, and demonized women as “spretes” (“sprites,” 3a); these were the acts of “the Sodomytycall swarme or brode of Antichrist” (4a). According to Bale's extraordinary revision of the history of Anglo-Saxon holy men and women, clergymen fornicated with cloistered nuns and produced a race of bastards who were then venerated as saints, Cuthbert, Dunstan, Oswald, Anselm, and Becket among them (2b). Some did worse, since they refrained from women but “spared not to worke execrable fylthyness among themselves, and one to pollute the other,” an obvious reference to male homosexual acts (12b). Devout in his praise of Mary, Bale was eager to insist that she was not abused by the clergy and that she was not a professed nun, “as the dottynge papystes have dreamed, to couer their sodometrye with a most precyouse coloure, but an honest mannys wyfe” (13a). Bale attacked “spirituall Sodomytes and knaves” who wrote the lives of these sinful saints (18a): “Come out of Sodome ye whoremongers and hypocrytes, popysh byshoppes and prestes” (18b). Bale used “sodometrie”—an obsolete word for sodomy, first used in 1530, according to the OED—to attack clergy who took the required vows of celibacy but who were unable to remain celibate: either men who had sex with each other because they could not have sex with women, or men who did have sex with cloistered nuns who were virtually the male clergy's sexual slaves. Shortly before he recounts the story about Gregory, Bale tells of a large group of women who joined a pilgrimage only to find that they had been taken from England to be forced to prostitute themselves to the clergy on the Continent (21a).

In leading up to his account of the boys, Bale followed Geoffrey of Monmouth, who embroidered Gildas's account into a claim that sodomy was pervasive among the early Britons, practiced by two of their kings (Malgo and Mempricius) and the cause of their overthrow by the Saxons. Gildas's version contains no hint of sexual slander, as we saw in chapter 5. Bale wrote that Malgo, who was possibly fashioned on William Rufus, was “the most comelye persone of all hys regyon,” someone to whom God had given great victories against the “Saxons, Normeies, and Danes.” But he was a sodomite. He imitated the ways of his predecessor Mempricius, who was “geuen to most abhomynable sodometrye, which he had lerned in hys youthe of the consecrate chastyte of the holie clergye” (21b-22a).28 Thus the British were weak and were easily conquered by the Saxons. Bale believed that Roman Christianity entered England with the Saxons, who renamed the land England. “Then came therein a newe fashyoned christyanyte yet ones agayne from Rome with many more heythnysh yokes than afore.” Bale then immediately introduced Gregory and told the story about the boys (22a-b, a section entitled “The Saxons entre with newe Christyanyte”).

Elsewhere Bale underscored the charges of sodomy among Catholic clergy made in The Image of Both Churches. In his Apology against a Rank Papist (1550), Bale asked, “Whan the kynges grace of England by the autorite of Gods wurd, discharged the monkish sectes of his realme, from their vowed obedience to the byshop of Rome, did he not also discharge them in conscience of the vowe of Sodometry, whyche altogether made them Antichristes creatures?” Catholic clergy had set marriage and virginity “at variance” and replaced them with “two unhappy gestes, called whoredom and buggery.”29 In The Pageant of Popes, published in 1574 (after Bale's death), Bale recounted visitations to monasteries ordered by Henry VIII, which found “such swarmes of whoremongers, ruffians, filthie parsouns, giltye of sinne against nature, Ganimedes, and yet votaries and unmaryed all, so that thou wouldest thincke that there were a newer Gomorrah amonge them.” At Battle Abbey, according to Bale, there were nearly twenty “gilty of sinne against nature” (their crimes included bigamy and adultery); at Canterbury there were eleven.30The Pageant of Popes shows that Bale saw another side to Gregory, casting him as the creator of a policy opposing clerical celibacy (no one could ever accuse Bale of consistency). Gregory was informed that priests “accompanied not only with virgins and wyves, but also even with their owne kindred, with mankind, yea and that whiche is horrible to be sayde, with brute beastes.” (“Accompanied” is an obsolete euphemism for “cohabit with,” according to the OED. Note that Bale regards bestiality as worse than same-sex acts.) Appalled at this conduct, Gregory revoked the canon requiring that priests not marry.31 Gregory was given credit for being “the best man of all these Romaine Patriarkes, for learning and good life,” and Bale praised his humility and his learning.32

Like many polemicists, Bale was an idealist. His attack on the Roman clergy can be explained by his high regard for marriage and his ardent defense of women's position. When he was a Carmelite priest, in the 1520s, Bale carried out extensive research into Carmelite archives and took special interest in the Church's view of women, in part at least because of his interest in Mary, the patron of the Carmelite order.33 His recruitment to the Church of England came in the 1530s, when he lived in London and could see the drastic impact of Henry's marriage and decrees on all monastic orders, including his own. It was also at this time—in 1536—that Bale married, and undoubtedly this change in his life fueled his polemics about the Roman Church's demand for clerical celibacy.34 Bale identified the ideal of marriage for the clergy as an Anglo-Saxon custom that had been brought to an end with the Norman Conquest. “I omit to declare for lengthe of the matter,” he wrote in Apology against a Rank Papist (xiii), “what mischefe and confusion, vowes [vows] brought to this realme by the Danes and Normannes, whan the lyves of the vowers in their monasteries were more beastlye than eyther amonge paganes or Turkes.” Bale, who was unaware that the Danes were not Christian, believed that the monks and clergymen, once forced to give up wives, turned to “bestlye” lives worse than those lived by pagans or Turks. In other words, he thought they had become sodomites.

Sodomy also figured in Bale's plays, his best-known works. In A Comedy concernynge Thre Lawes, of Nature, Moses, & Christ, Corrupted by the Sodomytes, Pharysees, and Papystes (1538), written before the historical studies just sampled, Bale created a character named Sodomismus, an allegorical figure unique in sixteenth-century English drama.35 Sodomismus is one of six vice characters in the play. Attired “lyke a monke of all sectes,” according to Bale,36 Sodomismus repeatedly associates himself with both monks and the pope.

I dwelt amonge the Sodomytes,
The Benjamytes and Madyantes
And now the popish hypocrytes
          Embrace me every where.
I am now become all spyrytuall [i.e., taken over by spiritual leaders],(37)
For the clergye at Rome and over all
For want of wyves, to me doth fall,
          To God they have no feare.


Pederastic unions are listed among the forms of sodomy he promotes.

In Rome to me they fall,
Both byshopp and cardynall,
Monke, fryre, prest and all,
          More ranke they are than antes.
Example in Pope Julye,
Whych sought to have in hys furye
Two laddes, and to use them beastlye,
          From the Cardinall of Nantes.


Had he known about Gregory's letter to Candidus, Bale would have had an even more pertinent example of how a Roman pope allegedly abused innocent boys.

In King Johan, which casts the king as an opponent of clerical corruption, the king speaks for Bale's position. Johan (King John) regrets that the clergy

Shuld thus bynd yowre selfe to the grett captyvyte Of blody Babulon the grownd and mother of whordom—The Romych Churche I meane, more vyle than ever was Sodom.38

For Bale, “sodomites” were not only the unjust and impious but also those who turned from the lawful union of marriage and had illicit intercourse either with the opposite sex or with their own. In A Comedy concernynge Thre Lawes, Sodomismus claims to have inspired all manner of sexual sinners, ranging from the fallen angels who fornicated with the daughters of men (Genesis 6:1-4) to Onan (Genesis 38:9; see A Comedy, 580-610). The offense that seems most closely connected to sodomy in Bale's mind is idolatry, represented in the play as Idolatria, an old woman. Idolatria is the companion of Sodomismus, who speaks to her in terms of endearment, calling her “myne owne swetehart of golde” (481). Sodomismus is sexually profligate, not exclusively or even primarily interested in same-sex intercourse. His accusations against monks and popes, however, conform precisely to those Bale himself made in his nondramatic works.

The inference that Bale had accused Gregory of sodomy was drawn by Bale's Catholic opponent, who recognized the unacknowledged source of Bale's story in Bede's Ecclesiastical History. In 1565, in the first translation of Bede's Ecclesiastical History in modern English, Thomas Stapleton listed “a number of diuersities between the pretended religion of Protestants, and the primitive faith of the english Church” (he counted forty-five points of difference in all). Stapleton contrasted the authority of Bede, who wrote without prejudice, with that of Bale, Foxe, and other “pretended refourmers.” Stapleton discussed the episode involving Gregory and the Anglian boys in his preface. Bede, who was close to this event, had told a story contrasting outer beauty with inner lack of belief. Bale had deliberately misread the event in order to charge Gregory “with a most outrageous vice and not to be named.” Stapleton obviously understood Bale to have accused Gregory of sodomy. Bede was a bee who made honey (beautiful meaning) out of this episode, said Stapleton, but Bale was a “venimous spider being filthy and uncleane himself,” an “olde ribauld,” and “another Nero” who found “poisonned sence and meaning” therein.39

To be fair, Bale's interpretation, admittedly harsh, is somewhat better than Stapleton allowed. Bale forces us to reconsider Bede's treatment of the anecdote and calls our attention to its dark side, its shadow. The episode about Gregory and the boys is animated by the contrast between light and dark, outside and inside. Gregory calls Satan “the author of darkness” who holds “men so bright of face in his grip.” He finds the Anglians “devoid of inward grace” while admiring their “graceful … outward form[s].” Gregory's language clearly recognizes that physical and moral beauty exist in close proximity to the evil and the ugly. Bede did not look beyond Gregory's words for these malignant forces. Instead he saw the brightness of the episode, which marked the “Angli” as a people elevated by their likeness, at least in Gregory's mind, to angels. Bale saw around Gregory's words and, like Gregory himself, recognized how near evil was to the good. But Bale reversed the field of Gregory's vision, casting Gregory into the darkness where Gregory himself saw Satan. What lived in that darkness was same-sex desire, the unholy appetite of Gregory and other reluctant celibates for the sexual favors of young Englishmen. Such shadows, dark places of evil and corruption, are not the only kind of shadows where same-sex relations can be seen. They are not the kinds of shadows I think of when I think of the presence of same-sex love in a heterosexual world. All the same, Bale's vision of the shadow, however distasteful it might seem, is, in context, accurate. The sexual abuse of young boys was a danger to which life in the monastery exposed them, as the penitentials show. Slavery was another danger, not unrelated, that lurked in the episode Bede describes. It is difficult to deny that the shadows seen by Bale are places where “the author of darkness,” as Gregory called him, held sway.

Bale's recasting of Anglo-Saxon history had a prominent sexual aspect, if not a primary sexual character. He saw the Anglo-Saxons as a people who naturally observed God's lawful commandment to be fruitful and multiply. Their Roman oppressors, on the other hand, were those who denied clergy the right to marry and, as a result, spread sexual corruption wherever they were to be found. Gregory's “wele eyenge” of the slave boys' “wares” vividly emblematizes this exploitation and situates it in the heart of Rome. For Bale, Anglo-Saxon identity was continuous with British identity that predated the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons. English identity emerged out of this combined British-Anglo-Saxon identity in a struggle against the enslaving bonds of Roman and then Norman domination. Racial differences are but vaguely registered by Bale, and his chronology, not unexpectedly, is confused. Malgo won victories over “Saxons, Normeies, and Danes,” for example, even though it was the Saxons who subverted the realm (22a). Bale's historical discourse, punctuated with numerous references to Sodom and allegations of homosexual acts among the clergy, is entirely free of allegory (his plays, obviously, are not). Bale did not need a figurative discourse about angels or origins to celebrate what was, for him, the distinguishing feature of his sources. His sense of who was Saxon, Norman, or Dane was imprecise, but Bale unquestionably understood that Gildas, Bede, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chaucer, and others, were not mythical figures but were instead his predecessors, righteous as he was himself.40 He was sure that the history he chronicled was as English as he was. His association of corrupt sexual practices with foreign powers—Roman and Catholic especially—is therefore easily explained, however disagreeable we find it. His polemical use of sodomy strongly resembles that of the Anglo-Norman historians and chroniclers on whose work he drew. But whereas they directed their diatribes against their own princes and rulers, Bale directed his at the princes of the Catholic Church. Among their agents he numbered the Norman conquerors of England, the despoilers of the True Church of the British.


Another polemicist and dramatist with a vague sense of the Anglo-Saxon past and strong views on its significance is Tony Kushner. His celebrated two-part drama, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, approaches the Anglo-Saxons through the stereotype of the WASP. Kushner correlates same-sex relations with racial stereotypes and national heritage and makes revealing use of Anglo-Saxon culture that is seldom noticed by the play's admirers. Kushner's AIDS-infected hero is the play's only WASP, the thirty-second Prior Walter in a line traced to the Norman Conquest so that it can represent the Anglo-Saxon hegemony of the West. But Angels reverses a dynamic that operates in all the other texts I have examined throughout this study. Anglo-Saxon penitentials, histories, poems, and commentaries ultimately side with the angels. And so, for that matter, do Chaucer and Bale, Custance being Chaucer's angel, the English boys being Bede's and Bale's. Angels are pure, either above sex or, if involved with sexual relations, chastely married; they are on the side of order. Sodomites, however they have been defined, are not. They and same-sex relations are stigmatized and repressed because they subvert order, lack shame, and threaten to lead others into sin.

In order to express Kushner's millennial vision, Angels in America rewrites the social history of England (and America) in order to enable a new era in which same-sex relations thrive while heterosexual relations wither. Kushner does not take the side of the angels but rather represents them as weak, lost, and prejudiced. Amid their confusion, paradoxically, their saving grace is that they retain their sexual prowess. The Angel of America, as she will be known, enters the play as a messenger to a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant but exits taking advice because the WASP is also a PWA, a “person with AIDS,” prophet of a new homosocial order and herald of a revolution so sweeping that it offers redemption even for angels.

Rich in references to migratory voyages and the Chosen People, Angels in America advances a broad argument about history and progress. The play is a multicultural juxtaposition of WASP, Jewish, black, and Mormon traditions, among others. David Savran has argued that the “spiritual geography” of Mormonism is central to the play's “conceptualization of America as the site of a blessed past and a millennial future.” Savran demonstrates that Mormonism was among the evangelical, communitarian sects formed in reaction to the individualism fostered by Jacksonian democracy and the ideology of Manifest Destiny.41 A key element in the racial basis of Manifest Destiny, which claimed for the chosen people “a preeminent social worth, a distinctively lofty mission, and consequently unique rights in the application of moral principles,”42 is Anglo-Saxonism. The premise of Anglo-Saxonism (familiar in earlier forms in the works of Gildas, Bede, Chaucer, and Bale, as we have seen, and many others, of course) is that the English are a Chosen People and a superior race.43 Numerous nineteenth-century accounts used the racial purity of the Anglo-Saxons to justify westward expansion and empire building. Anglo-Saxon culture was thought to have been inherently democratic and the Anglo-Saxons egalitarian, self-governing, and free. The descendants of a people who so perfectly embodied the principles of American democracy had, it appeared, natural rights over lesser peoples and their lands. Anglo-Saxonism enters Angels in America through the lineage of Prior Walter. He is a token of the WASP culture—the only white Anglo-Saxon Protestant in the play, according to Kushner44—against which the oppressed peoples of the play, Jews and blacks in particular, strive.

The Anglo-Saxon subtext of Angels emerges in both parts of the drama, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, through the association of Prior Walter with the angel. Kushner locates Prior's origins in the mid-eleventh century, but the Anglo-Saxon characteristics that Prior represents are prior to the Normans, whose conquest of England constitutes a particularly troubled originary moment for the chief Anglo-Saxon of the play. An early scene in each of the three acts of Millennium Approaches reveals something about Prior's Anglo-Saxon identity (act 1, scene 4; act 2, scene 3; and act 3, scene 1). In the first of the scenes about his lineage, Prior jokes with Louis, his Jewish lover, after a funeral service for Louis's grandmother. Prior comments on the difficulties that their relatives present for gay men: “Bloodlines,” he says. “Jewish curses are the worst. I personally would dissolve if anyone ever looked me in the eye and said ‘Feh.’ Fortunately WASPs don't say ‘Feh’” (1:20).45 A few moments later he reveals his first AIDS lesions to Louis, who is horrified both by the lesions and by Prior's mordant jocularity about them. This scene establishes Prior's AIDS status and his WASP identity and introduces the largest of the cultural themes of Angels in America: the resistance that biological descent and inherited tradition, embodied here in the body of the WASP, pose to political change. Bloodlines are curses because they carry the past into the present, creating resistance to the possibilities of change that the present raises. WASP blood resists change because WASPs, as they are presented in this play, exist in a culture of stasis, while other races and creeds, denied that stability and permanence and driven by persecution and need from place to place, have developed migratory and transitional cultures open to, and indeed dependent on, change.

Having inherited a distinguished past, Prior faces an uncharacteristically grim future (for a WASP) because he carries a fatal new element in his bloodline, AIDS. The virus paradoxically reverses the deadening flow of WASP tradition and prepares for a new social order whose values the WASP himself will eventually espouse. The virus he bears is both literal (HIV) and figurative; it is eventually identified as “the virus of time,” the “disease” of change and progress. The angel who appears to Prior at the end of Millennium Approaches, and who punctuates the play with intimations of her arrival, claims to herald a new age. When Prior receives his first intimation of the angelic, a feather drops into his room and an angelic voice (“an incredibly beautiful voice,” the text specifies) commands, “Look up! … Prepare the way!” (1:34-35). But the side of the angels is not what we expect it to be. The angel is not pointing to a new age but instead calling for a return to a previous one. The tradition and stasis that constitute Prior's Anglo-Saxon heritage draw her. She believes that Prior will be a worthy prophet precisely because he is a worthy WASP.

Kushner happened on Prior's name when looking “for one of those WASP names that nobody gets called any more.” Discussing Walter Benjamin with a friend so interested in the philosopher that she sometimes “thought she was Walter Benjamin reincarnated,” Kushner referred to the real Benjamin as the “prior” Walter.46 The significance of Prior's name unfolds in a subsequent dialogue between Louis and Emily, a nurse, after Prior has been hospitalized. “Weird name. Prior Walter,” says Emily. “Like, ‘The Walter before this one.’” Louis replies: “Lots of Walters before this one. Prior is an old old family name is an old old family. The Walters go back to the Mayflower and beyond. Back to the Norman Conquest. He says there's a Prior Walter stitched into the Bayeux tapestry” (1:51). The oldest medieval record mentioned in Angels in America, the tapestry would seem designed to surround Prior's origins with an aura of great antiquity.

The appearance of Prior Walter's name on the tapestry validates Louis's claim that the Walter name is indeed an “old old” one. But the Bayeux tapestry is a record of the political and military events surrounding the Norman Conquest of Anglo-Saxon England in 1066. The tapestry testifies to the subjugation of the Anglo-Saxons and marks the point at which the government and official vernacular language of England were no longer English. Generations of Anglo-Saxonizing historians and writers regarded the arrival of the Normans as the pollution of the pure stock of the race.47 Thus Kushner's announced aim of portraying Walter as a WASP is more than a little complicated by this decision to trace Walter's ancestry to a tapestry long accepted as a lucid statement of Norman claims to the English throne.48 Notoriously ironic throughout Angels in America, Kushner might have chosen the tapestry to register precisely this compromised aspect of Prior's lineage.49 But one's view of that lineage would seem to depend on the uses to which it is put in Angels in America, where it seems intended to represent the Anglo-Saxons as a monolithic, triumphant culture that has reached a symbolic end point in Prior's blood.

Emily (played by the actress who plays the angel) is somewhat baffled by Louis's high regard for Prior's ancient name and for the tapestry itself. Louis believes that the queen, “La Reine Mathilde,” embroidered the tapestry while William was away fighting the English. In the long tradition of French historians and politicians who used the tapestry to arouse public sentiment to support nationalistic causes, including the Napoleonic wars against the English,50 Louis pictures Mathilda waiting at home, “stitch[ing] for years,” waiting for William to return. “And if he had returned mutilated, ugly, full of infection and horror, she would still have loved him,” Louis says (1:52). He is thinking penitently of Prior, who is also “full of infection and horror,” whom Louis will soon abandon for Joe, the married Mormon lawyer with whom Louis has an affair. Louis's view of when and where the tapestry was made is popular, but wrong. The tapestry was made in England, under the patronage of William's half-brother Odo, bishop of Bayeux and vice-regent of England, within a generation of 1066, not during the Conquest itself, and then taken to the Bayeux Cathedral.51

Kushner's mistaken ideas of when, where, and by whom the Bayeux tapestry was made have significant implications for his definition of “WASP.” Kushner invokes the Conquest as if its chief force were to certify the antiquity and authenticity of Prior's Anglo-Saxon credentials and heritage, a point of origin for English identity, although, as I have shown, it traditionally represented the very betrayal of the racial purity that “Anglo-Saxon” came to represent. Louis's assertion that the name of a “Prior Walter” is stitched into the tapestry is also without foundation. Only four minor characters are named in the tapestry, none of them Anglo-Saxons (“Turold,” “Ælfgyva,” “Wadard,” and “Vital”). The rest are important figures (Harold, William, and others), most of them Norman and well-known from contemporary sources.52 If Prior Walter were an Anglo-Saxon, it is highly unlikely that he would be commemorated in the tapestry, although it is possible he could have been an English retainer of Harold (who was defeated by William).

But “Prior Walter” is a singularly inappropriate name for an Anglo-Saxon. It strongly suggests an ecclesiastical, monastic context, as if “Prior Walter” were “Walter, prior of” some abbey, instead of the secular and heroic ethos usually called to mind by “Anglo-Saxon.” Apart from the tapestry, there is no evidence either for or against an argument about Prior's origins. Although it is possible that his ancestors were Anglo-Saxon, it is more likely that they were Normans who, after the Conquest, settled in England and established the line from which the Walters descended. Few Anglo-Saxons would expect to find their ancestors mentioned in the tapestry, while Normans would want to boast of this testimony to a family's distinguished history. The original Prior Walter might have been a Norman who took part in the conquest of the English. His family would have been prosperous. As we saw in the last chapter, the Anglo-Saxons were less well-to-do than their conquerors and resented the superiority of French into the fourteenth century. If so, as the last in a line of thirty-one men of the same name (or, by an alternative count, if bastard sons are included, thirty-three [1:86]), Prior Walter claims Norman rather than Anglo-Saxon ancestry, or, more likely, a heritage in which Norman and Anglo-Saxon blood is mixed—in other words, Anglo-Norman. His long genealogy, to which Louis proudly points, is hybrid at its origins. Kushner's stereotype of the WASP is itself a further hybrid, obviously, since it is a post-Reformation construct in which P (“Protestant”) is a new element. WASP, we can see, is not only a recent vehicle for the representation of “Anglo-Saxon” culture, but an exceedingly shallow one.53

We learn more about Prior's ancestry at the start of the third act, when two prior Priors appear to him in a dream (1:85-89). The first to appear, the “fifth of the name,” is the thirteenth-century squire who is known as “Prior 1.” He tells of the plague that wiped out whole villages, the “spotty monster” that killed him (1:86). (This is another sign of Kushner's shaky historical sense; the first outbreak of the Black Death in England was a century later, in 1348.)54 They are joined by “Prior 2,” described as “an elegant 17th-century Londoner” (1:86), who preceded the current Prior by some seventeen others and also died of the plague, “Black Jack.” Priors 1 and 2 are not merely ancient ancestors, however. They are also the forerunners of the angel whose arrival spectacularly concludes the play. To “distant, glorious music,” they recite the language later used by the angel; her messengers, they are “sent to declare her fabulous incipience.” “They [the angels] chose us,” Prior 2 declares, “because of the mortal affinities. In a family as long-descended as the Walters there are bound to be a few carried off by plague” (1:87). Neither Prior 1 nor Prior 2 understands why Prior is unmarried and has no wife, although the second Prior understands that the plague infecting Prior is “the lamentable consequence of venery” (1:87). Only later, when they see him dancing with Louis, does Prior 1 understand: “Hah, Now I see why he's got no children. He's a sodomite” (1:114). Prior Walter is, therefore, the end of his line. After him the WASP hegemony of the Walters, apparently unbroken from the mid-eleventh century to the present, will cease to exist.

The vague and portentous sense of these genealogical relations is clarified in the next scene (1:89-96), in which Louis engages in a long, confused, and painfully naïve monologue about race and identity politics in America, much to the disgust of his friend Belize, a black nurse and ex-drag queen.55 Louis describes a difference between American and European peoples that encapsulates the tension between Anglo-Saxons and other races. “Ultimately what defines us [in America] isn't race, but politics,” he says. “Not like any European country where there's an insurmountable fact of a kind of racial, or ethnic, monopoly, or monolith, like all Dutchmen, I mean Dutch people, are, well, Dutch, and the Jews of Europe were never Europeans, just a small problem” (1:90). Significantly, Kushner chooses England as site for a scene in which, according to Louis, the “racial destiny,” not the “political destiny,” matters (1:91). A Jew in a gay bar in London, Louis found himself looked down upon by a Jamaican man who still spoke with a “lilt,” even though his family had been in England for more than a century. At first this man, who complained that he was still treated as an outsider, struck Louis as a fellow traveler: “I said yeah, me too, these people are anti-Semites.” But then the man criticized British Jews for keeping blacks out of the clothing business, and Louis realized how pervasive racial stereotypes could be (1:91). In America, Louis believes, there is no racial monopoly; in America the “monolith is missing,” so “reaching out for a spiritual past in a country where no indigenous spirits exist” is futile (1:92). The native peoples have been killed off: “there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there's only the political and the decoys and the ploys to maneuver around the inescapable battle of politics, the shifting downwards and outwards of political power to the people” (1:92). Wiped clean of its indigenous spirits, the nation as Louis sees it would seem to be a blank slate not unlike England before the Anglo-Saxons, ready for migratory peoples (including Jews and Mormons) who bring their past with them as they seek to build a new future. Belize holds Louis's liberal interpretation of American government and culture in utter contempt. Kushner ensures that the naiveté of the Jew's liberalism will be exposed and contained by Belize's furious reply that in America race is more important than anything else.

Louis's speech reveals the meaning of Anglo-Saxon that is encapsulated in Prior's WASP identity. Even though Prior's mixed Norman and Anglo-Saxon genealogy contradicts Louis's point about the monolith of racial purity that the WASP supposedly represents, Prior is singled out as the recipient of the angel's visit because he is made to represent the cultural monolith of WASP America, fixed and unchanging, embodying what Louis calls “an insurmountable fact of a kind of racial, or ethnic, monopoly, or monolith” (1:90). WASP heritage stands conveniently juxtaposed both to Louis's vision and to Louis's own heritage of many small groups, “so many small problems” (1:90). Although Kushner might have wished to represent the Anglo-Saxons only as a hybrid people, and hence introduced evidence that points to the eleventh-century intermingling of Norman blood, it seems evident to me that the racial dynamics of the play require that the Anglo-Saxons represent the “monolith” about which Louis speaks. Only then can other races and groups be set up in opposition to them.

Indeed, even in motion, the Anglo-Saxons of Angels in America are oppressors. One of the most harrowing moments in Millennium Approaches is Prior's account of his ancestor, a ship's captain, who sent whale oil to Europe and brought back immigrants, “Irish mostly, packed in tight, so many dollars per head.” The last ship he captained sank off Nova Scotia in a storm; the crew loaded seventy women and children onto an open boat but found that it was overcrowded and began throwing passengers overboard: “They walked up and down the longboat, eyes to the waterline, and when the boat rode low in the water they'd grab the nearest passenger and throw them into the sea” (1:41). The boat arrived in Halifax carrying nine people. Crewmen are the captain's agents; the captain is at the bottom of the sea, but his “implacable, unsmiling men, irresistibly strong, seize … maybe the person next to you, maybe you” (1:41-42). The agents of the Anglo-Saxons arbitrarily decide the fates of the Irish in their care. The episode is a stark political allegory, a nationally rendered reminder of the rights of one group to survive at the expense of another, a deft miniature that reveals the power of the conquerors over the conquered, the interrelation of commerce and the immigration patterns of impoverished nations, and, most of all, “unique rights in the application of moral principles,” a signature belief of Manifest Destiny.56

The point of the association of stasis with Anglo-Saxon heritage—the grand design of Angels in America—emerges fully in Perestroika, when the Angel of America articulates her ambitions for the WASP and discloses the assumed affiliations between the Anglo-Saxons and the angels. The angel attempts to persuade Prior to take up her prophecy. “IIII / Am the Bird of America,” she proclaims, saying that she has come to expose the fallacy of change and progress (2:44), “the Virus of time” that God released in man (2:49), enabling humans to explore and migrate. Angels do not migrate; instead, they stand firm (2:49). God himself found time irresistible and began to prefer human time to life in heaven. The angel says:

Paradise itself Shivers and Splits
Each day when You awake, as though we are only
          the Dream of YOU.
Progress! Movement!
Shaking HIM.


A few moments later she shouts, “You have driven him away! You must stop moving!” (2:52). God became so bored with the angels that he abandoned them on the day of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. And who could blame him? In the one scene that Kushner gives performers the permission to cut, if only in part (act 5, scene 5; see 2:9), the angels are shown sitting around heaven listening to a malfunctioning 1940s radio over which they hear the broadcast of the meltdown of the Chernobyl reactor. Their real concern, however, is the radio's malfunctioning vacuum tube (2:130). They are a picture of feckless paralysis, obviously unable to respond to the changes forced on them by human or heavenly time. “More nightmare than utopia, marooned in history,” Savran writes, “Heaven commemorates disaster, despair, and stasis.”57 The purpose of the angel's visitation is to recruit Prior as the angels' prophet on earth. Angels, we see, are not messengers from the divine or heralds of change, although that is how we conventionally think of them, and how Kushner and the play's publicity represent them. Angels are instead associated with stasis and with the power of ancient spirits to resist change. Opposed to the flow of power “downward and outward,” as Louis puts it, of “power to the people,” the angels want God to return to his place so that they can return to theirs.

The angel's visit is not intended to save Prior from his disease but to use his disease against him, to try to persuade this “long descended” man (like the angel in this) to stop the phenomenon of human progress, to get him to turn back the clock. The angel says to him that she has written “The End” in his blood. This could mean that the AIDS virus is supposed to ensure his desire to stop time—stop the progress of the disease—and prompt him to proclaim her message (2:53), although what is written in his blood could also be his homosexuality, which writes “The End” in a different sense, since it means that he is the last of his line. Later in the scene in which the angel commands Prior to stand still, symbolically appealing to his Anglo-Saxon love of stability and tradition, Belize dismisses the vision as Prior recounts it: “This is just you, Prior, afraid of the future, afraid of time. Longing to go backwards so bad you made this angel up, a cosmic reactionary” (2:55). Prior and Belize were once lovers; Belize knows him well. Like Prior, three other figures—the angel, Sister Ella Chapter (a friend of Joe's mother in Salt Lake City), and the nurse (all played by the actress who plays the angel)—are fearful of movement. Emily does not want Louis to leave the hospital room (1:52). Before Joe's mother moves to New York to help Joe cope with his schizophrenic wife, Harper, Ella reminds her that Salt Lake City is “the home of the saints” and “the godliest place on earth,” and then cautions, “Every step a Believer takes away from here is a step fraught with peril” (1:83). But Ella's is not a view that the play endorses. Joe's mother leaves anyway. All the chosen people do.

Like her, Prior rejects the advice to stay put. He ignores the angel's command precisely because “The End” is written in his blood. He interprets these words as the angel's wish that he die: “You want me dead” (2:53). No longer the Prior who joked fatalistically about his lesions outside the funeral home in act 1 of Millennium Approaches, he refuses to die. Because he has contracted “the virus of time,” the WASP, who has the most to lose, turns from the past to the future. All the “good” characters in the play are already on the move, already evolving, even Joe's drug-maddened wife, just as all the valorized nations and races in the play have migrated. The prominence of migration and the movement away from racial purity are basic elements of Kushner's thesis about change, which is based on an idea of the Anglo-Saxons, the WASPS, as static, permanent, and fixed. Politics change racial makeup and break down pure races and their racism. Kushner explains:

Prior is the only character in the play with a Yankee WASP background; he can trace his lineage back for centuries, something most Americans can't reliably do. African-American family trees have to start after ancestors were brought over as slaves. Jews emigrated from a world nearly completely destroyed by European genocide. And most immigrant populations have been from poor and oppressed communities among which accurate genealogy was a luxury or an impossibility. … a certain sense of rootlessness is part of the American character.58

Anglo-Saxon history prior to the Normans shows that “a certain sense of rootlessness” is also part of the Anglo-Saxon character. American rootlessness was inherited from the nation's Anglo-Saxon founders; the Anglo-Saxons in America were hardly a people who wanted to stay put. It is because of their restlessness and their desire to move westward that Louis, as Kushner's surrogate, can assert that there are no angels in America.59

Kushner's association of WASPs with stasis is his most interesting—but least accurate—reinterpretation of the historical record. Kushner seems to think that Anglo-Saxons—WASPs at least—are not a migratory people. At this point his play helps us see a truth in Bede's Ecclesiastical History that Bede himself did not acknowledge. Bede reported that after the migration of the Angles to Britain, the land of “Angulus” remained empty “from that day to this.” Are there no angels in America? There are no angels in Angulus, either, because the entire population moved to Britain. Thus the Angles took their ancient spirits with them, just as did blacks, Jews, and other migrant peoples. Already in the eighth century the immigrants to Britain were known as Anglo-Saxons.60

Louis's tendentious view of history is easily discredited, and not only by Belize. The intermarrying of Anglo-Saxon and Norman families ended the pure monolith of “the English” that Prior Walter supposedly represents. What is true of Prior Walter and all WASPS was true for people in England even before the Conquest. “Apartheid is hard enough to maintain,” Susan Reynolds writes, “even when physical differences are obvious, political control is firm, and records of births, deaths, and marriages are kept. After a generation or two of post-Roman Britain not everyone, perhaps comparatively few people, can have been of pure native or invading descent. Who can have known who was descended from whom?” Reynolds draws the inescapable conclusion that “those whom we call Anglo-Saxons were not consistently distinguishable from everyone else.”61 After the Conquest, of course, the Anglo-Saxons became less “Anglo-Saxon” than they had been earlier, but at no time were bloodlines in Anglo-Saxon England pure; like most bloodlines, they were even then more the consequence of politics than they were of race.

This severing of biological descent and culture is a denial of the power of race to unify a people. That is the good news of Angels in America for homosexuals, the new Chosen People of this epic (what epic does not have one?). Like Mormons, Jews, and other racial groups, gay people too are oppressed, without a homeland, and on the move. But unlike those groups, gays are, first of all, a political people, not bound by nation or race. They have no common descent; there is no link between their sexual identity, which the play sees as their central affiliation, and either their biological or their cultural ancestry. So seen, gays serve as a perfect prophetic vehicle for Kushner's newly multicultural America. Prior succeeds in subverting the angels' design and persuading them to become his messenger; he has refused to become theirs. Their message is that the clock should be turned back to old values and stasis, staying put. His message is that change is good. Won over to humanity's view of time and place, the angels sue God, resorting to time-bound human processes (litigation) to redress grievances. The joke apparently is that the angels' heavenly wishes are inferior to the desires of humanity. The new angels of America know better than the Angel of America because Prior, their WASP spokesman, resoundingly refutes the angel's call for stasis. God, however, will probably win; his lawyer is Roy Cohn, the demon in Angels. Discredited at this point, God is a disloyal lover who has abandoned his angels for (the men of?) San Francisco. The angels, in turn, are also discredited, for they have accepted Prior's suggestion that those who abandon their lovers should not be forgiven, just as Prior will not forgive or take back Louis (2:133, 136).

So Prior moves ahead, not in spite of AIDS but rather because of AIDS. The “virus of time” has jolted him out of torpor and self-pity and eventually transforms him into the play's strongest character, a position from which he waves an affectionate goodbye to the audience. This is an AIDS play with a difference—with a happy ending.62 Because he is a WASP the angel singled him out, but because he is a PWA he rejects her. In Angels in America, AIDS retains its deadly force (Cohn and others die of it) without killing the play's central character. Obviously weakened, but strong nonetheless, Prior survives. Having been visited by an angel, Prior all but becomes one. “You are fabulous creatures, each and every one,” he says to the audience. “And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work begins” (2:148). He recapitulates the last lines of Millennium Approaches, in which the Angel declares, “Greetings, Prophet. The Great Work begins. The Messenger has arrived” (1:119). Another messenger has arrived at the end of Perestroika, and his name is Prior Walter. Prior's farewell to the audience, however moving, is a remarkable banality to which I will return.

Savran argues that the play, like The Book of Mormon, “demonstrates that there are angels in America, that America is in essence a utopian and theological construction, a nation with a divine mission.”63 It is possible to suggest that Bede and Kushner share a political purpose, which is to create the idea of a unified people. Bede does this with the term—the concept—“Angli,” which comes to mean “the English,” a people elevated by their likeness to angels. Like Chaucer and Bale, Kushner is also out to unify a people, but more ambitiously and inclusively, and not a people to be compared to angels, but a people to replace them. The threat that unifies the English in Bede's work is the heathen past. The same might be said for Chaucer's ancient British Christians, at least as the Man of Law imagines them. Bale too imagined the British as overwhelmed by Roman Catholicism as brought by the Anglo-Saxons; he saw the British of his own time triumphing over the same evil force. The threat that unifies Kushner's new angels is not AIDS, which only menaces a small percentage of them, but the old regimes of race that divide and weaken people and prevent change, the very forces of conservative national and religious identity that Bede, Chaucer, and Bale advocated so powerfully. Those forces are routed at the end of Angels in America, and the boards are clear for a new age. The promised land of Angels in America is a multicultural, tolerant world in which biological descent counts for little (there are no successful marriages in the play) and cultural inheritance imparts defining characteristics to people without imposing barriers among them.


I began thinking about this study in 1993, when I saw Angels in America for the first time. I was troubled by the conflation of Anglo-Saxon and Norman identities and unclear about how Kushner meant to align his vaguely sketched history of Prior's family with the play's sexual politics. It seemed obvious that he had merely used the WASP as a rhetorical trope and that he had not thought about the Anglo-Saxonism contained in that acronym or how Anglo-Saxonism might be related to his historical thesis about Mormons or, for that matter, angels in America. Kushner ignored the hybrid nature of WASP identity. Likewise, he missed the prominence of same-sex friendships in the nineteenth-century Mormon tradition. D. Michael Quinn has noted that Mormons, although sometimes seen as clannish and isolated, participated fully in what Quinn describes as the “extensive homocultural orientation among Americans generally” a century ago.64 Same-sex relations, sexual and otherwise, figure prominently in the history of early Mormon leaders, male and female alike. Kushner's representation of the Mormons would lead one to believe otherwise, however, since his Mormons seem hardly aware that homosexuality exists.

In not knowing much about the Anglo-Saxons, Kushner shares a great deal with the authors I have examined in part 3 of this book. The Anglo-Norman chroniclers knew next to nothing about the Anglo-Saxons that they did not get from Bede's Ecclesiastical History. A few later writers, including thirteenth-century scholars, struggled to recover the Anglo-Saxons' language, but their efforts mostly reveal how quickly knowledge of the Anglo-Saxons' culture, even their ecclesiastical culture, had faded. Chaucer and his contemporaries knew even less, relying again on French chronicles to conjure images of the Anglo-Saxon past. For all his testy and repetitive declarations, Bale was closer than any of his predecessors to real knowledge of the Anglo-Saxons. Despite his errors and confusion, his knowledge of a continuous historical tradition and its sources shames both earlier and especially later efforts. The “scholarly recovery” of Anglo-Saxon language and texts advanced rapidly after Bale's time but did not, for many years, produce a representation of Anglo-Saxon culture any more accurate than his.

Kushner, unfortunately, did no better than the other authors I have named. I take Angels in America as a reasonable, if regrettable, reflection on popular understanding of Anglo-Saxon culture. Kushner seems to be more respectful of Mormon traditions than of Anglo-Saxon traditions. The play contains a diorama portraying the Mormons' westward journey but nothing about the migration of the Anglo-Saxons (2:62-72). Mormon culture seems alien to him and hence multiculturally significant; its history needs to be recaptured and represented. WASP culture, evidently, is familiar and does not need to be elaborated. But at least in the extended historical sense that Kushner evokes through his use of the Bayeux tapestry, WASP culture too is alien to him. Its multicultural significance is ignored, homogenized into stereotypical patterns and ideas. Absent the oversimplified WASP, would Angels in America have had a culture to demonize and denounce?

Angels in America is unique among the works I have discussed in not taking the side of the angels. More important, it is also unique in its perspective on same-sex love. As I showed in part 1, it is possible to glimpse satisfying moments of same-sex love—if not same-sex sex—in opera and dance, and even in a few Anglo-Saxon narrative texts. Gays and lesbians hoping to find representations of love as they know it can find it in these works, sometimes at a small cost (i.e., closing our eyes at the opera), often at no cost. But when we go to Angels in America, we have no need to deprive our senses in any way. This is a work that, like many others, not only aims to show gays and lesbians what the author assumes we want to see but even blesses its audience for showing up. There are many differences between the power of such a work and that of Dido and Aeneas, as danced by Mark Morris, and the power of Der Rosenkavalier, with its use of the convention of the trouser role. The central difference, it seems to me, conforms to the difference between liberation and legitimation as approaches to gay and lesbian rights. Kushner and Morris liberate a same-sex perspective; they emphasize the sexual—the homosexual—in a transgressive manner. That is one way to see homosexual sensibility in the modern world, demanding its due. But finding same-sex love in works that are not about homosexual desire—for example, in operas using trouser roles—also legitimates same-sex love by pointing out that it can exist, plainly if unobtrusively, as the shadow of heteronormative desire.

The second time I saw Angels in America was New Year's Eve, 1995. My partner and I had bought tickets at a premium because the theater advertised a “party” to follow the performance, which concluded shortly before midnight. The “party” turned out to be glasses of cheap fizzy wine hurriedly passed out by staff members eager to clear the house. The cast reappeared to mock the management's fleecing of the audience and to lead us in “Auld Lang Syne,” gracefully lifting the occasion above the circumstances provided for it. Shortly before midnight, in a light snowfall, we walked down a street filled with people who were rushing into bars and restaurants. It was a relief to board the train. The cars were also full—some couples, some groups, some singles, some straight, some gay—but oddly quiet, a capsule of greater Chicago heading to parties or to bed. Between one stop and another the new year arrived. The car's little communities acknowledged the moment without ceremony. Gay, straight, alone, together, we rode happily along. For me the calm—the indifference—made a welcome change from the excitement and intensity of the play and the hustle of the street. No angels crashed through the roof, no heterosexuals were chastised, no homosexuals turned into saints (or demons), no call to a great work of liberation sounded. This is all right, I thought to myself. This is how the millennium, Kushner's and any other, will come, and go.

That is also how I think same-sex love goes along in the world, how it works best for some of us at least—love that belongs in the picture, always there, an ever-present shadow. Political and social work will always be needed to win equal treatment for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and others who make up sexual minority groups. But there are many ways in which that work can be undertaken. I know that many activists cannot see themselves resting until the difference between heterosexual and homosexual is obliterated and such institutions as marriage and the family are transformed and open partnerships and public sex become the new norms. These people see no reason why the institutions of heterosexual desire should be their institutions. Neither do I. Nor do I see why the institutions of homosexual desire should be mandated for all. My vision of same-sex love might seem tepid and diffuse, devoid of passion and revolutionary fervor, not queer enough. Perhaps it is. But I strongly believe that same-sex love cannot be reduced to genital sex, and I will always believe that life is more interesting, pleasurable, and meaningful if its erotic potential can be realized across a spectrum that includes but is not restricted to the sexual. A world that slowly gets used to that idea would seem a better home to me than any queer planet I have yet to see described.


  1. See Robert P. Miller, ed., Chaucer: Sources and Backgrounds (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 484. On the narrator's many apostrophes, see the explanatory notes by Patricia J. Eberle in Geoffrey Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3d ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), 856-58. Innocent's treatise was addressed to a deposed cardinal; Chaucer reported that he had translated this work himself. See the G Prologue to the Legend of Good Women, lines 414-15, in Benson, Riverside Chaucer, 600.

  2. References to The Man of Law's Tale are given by line number from Riverside Chaucer, 89-103.

  3. For an analysis of hagiographical tropes in The Man of Law's Tale, see Melissa M. Furrow, “The Man of Law's St. Custance: Sex and the Saeculum,” Chaucer Review 24 (1990): 223-35.

  4. Æthelburh was allowed to marry Edwin because he promised to allow her to worship as she wished and agreed to consider accepting her faith as his own. Eventually he did so, but only after letters to him and his wife from Pope Boniface and persuasions of other forms, including victory over his assailants, a vision, and the sage counsel of his wise men. See Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors, eds. and trans., Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), book 2, where the saga of Edwin's conversion occupies chaps. 9-14, pp. 162-89.

  5. Colgrave and Mynors, Bede's Ecclesiastical History, book 2, chap. 9, pp. 162-63.

  6. Some of the Anglo-Saxon evidence discussed in this chapter appears in my essay “Bede and Bawdy Bale: Gregory the Great, Angels, and the ‘Angli,’” in Anglo-Saxonism and the Construction of Social Identity, ed. Allen J. Frantzen and John D. Niles (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1997), 17-39.

  7. Colgrave and Mynors, Bede's Ecclesiastical History, book 2, chap. 1, pp. 132-35. Gregory's puns were not original with Bede; a version of the story is found the anonymous Whitby Life of St. Gregory, probably written between 704 and 714 but unknown to Bede when he finished the Ecclesiastical History in 731. See Bertram Colgrave, ed. and trans., The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 49, 144-45.

  8. Gildas, The Ruin of Britain and Other Documents, ed. and trans. Michael Winter-bottom (London: Phillimore, 1978). See Nicholas Howe, Migration and Myth-Making in Anglo-Saxon England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 33-49, for a discussion of Gildas and the pattern of prophetic history.

  9. Colgrave, Earliest Life, 144-45 note 42. See “Angles” and variants in the index to Colgrave and Mynors, Bede's Ecclesiastical History, 596. Recent studies on the meaning of “angli” in Bede's Ecclesiastical History do not discuss Gregory's role in choosing the name, presumably because it is seen as merely symbolic. See D. P. Kirby, The Earliest English Kings (London: Unwin Hyman, 1991), 13-15; and H. E. J. Cowdrey, “Bede and the ‘English People,’” Journal of Religious History 11 (1981): 501-23. See also Patrick Wormald, “Bede, the Bretwaldas, and the Origins of the Gens Anglorum,” in Ideal and Reality in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Society, ed. Patrick Wormald with Donald Bullough and Roger Collins (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983), 121-24.

  10. Colgrave and Mynors, Bede's Ecclesiastical History, book 1, chap. 15, p. 51. For an analysis of the ethnography operating in Bede's analysis, see John Hines, “The Becoming of the English: Identity, Material Culture, and Language in Early Anglo-Saxon England,” Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 7 (1994): 49-59.

  11. Colgrave and Mynors, Bede's Ecclesiastical History, book 5, chap. 24, pp. 566-67. Although Bede clearly wished to present the Angles (the angels) as the primary group in the migration, there was never a consensus about which group, the Angles or the Saxons, was primary, or even about where in England they settled. D. P. Kirby notes that Gregory believed that the Saxons settled in the north and the Angles in the south, reversing the usual assumptions about the pattern of distribution and pointing to its arbitrary nature. The Life of Wilfrid, who came from York, describes him as a Saxon bishop. See Kirby, Earliest English Kings, 12-13.

  12. Colgrave and Mynors, Bede's Ecclesiastical History, preface, 2-3.

  13. Peter Hunter Blair, The World of Bede (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 45. See also Hunter Blair, An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956), 116-17.

  14. Colgrave and Mynors, Bede's Ecclesiastical History, 72 note 1; the letter is found in Arthur West Haddan and William Stubbs, eds., Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents Relating to Great Britain and Ireland, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1871), 3:5 (quoted here), and is translated in Dorothy Whitelock, ed., English Historical Documents, c. 500-1042 (London: Eyre Methuen, 1979), no. 161, p. 790.

  15. David Pelteret, “Slave Raiding and Slave Trading in Early England,” Anglo-Saxon England 9 (1981): 104. See also Pelteret, Slavery in Early Mediaeval England: From the Reign of Alfred until the Twelfth Century (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 1995).

  16. Colgrave, Earliest Life, 145 note 43.

  17. Dorothy Whitelock, The Beginnings of English Society (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1952), 111. The church allowed penitents to free or manumit slaves as a form of penance or as an act of mercy.

  18. On the Council of London of 1102, dominated by Anselm, see the discussion in chapter 6. On the question of selling women who were wives of the clergy into slavery, see A. L. Poole, From Domesday Book to Magna Carta, 1087-1216, 2d ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955), 40. The Normans' decrees did not affect the status of those who were already slaves, and it continued to be possible for individuals to voluntarily surrender their freedom when compelled by necessity to do so; see Marjorie Chibnall, Anglo-Norman England, 1066-1166 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 188.

  19. Ruth Mazo Karras comments on prostitution and female slaves in “Desire, Descendants, and Dominance: Slavery, the Exchange of Women, and Masculine Power,” in The Work of Work: Servitude, Slavery, and Labor in Medieval England, ed. Allen J. Frantzen and Douglas Moffat (Glasgow: Cruithne, 1994), 16-29. See also Elizabeth Stevens Girsch, “Metaphorical Usage, Sexual Exploitation, and Divergence in the Old English Terminology for Male and Female Slaves,” in Work of Work, 30-54. I raise the possibility that the Anglian boys were intended for sexual purposes in Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990), 47.

  20. G. L. Brook and R. F. Leslie, eds., Laȝamon: “Brut,” 2 vols., EETS, OS, 250, 277 (London: Oxford University Press, 1963, 1978), 2:770. For commentary on versions of the anecdote by Wace and Geoffrey of Monmouth, see Lawman, Brut, trans. Rosamond Allen (London: Dent, 1992), 463, notes to lines 14695-923.

  21. John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 144.

  22. For an informative survey of Bale's achievement, see Leslie P. Fairfield, John Bale: Mythmaker for the English Reformation (West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1976). See also Hugh A. MacDougall, Racial Myth in English History: Trojans, Teutons, and Anglo-Saxon (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1982), 33-37. On Bale's Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, see David Dumville, “John Bale, Owner of St. Dunstan's Benedictional,” Notes and Queries 41 (1994): 291-95.

  23. John N. King, English Reformation Literature: The Tudor Origins of the Protestant Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), 56. For recent commentary on Bale in the context of Renaissance humanism, see Alan Stewart, Close Readers: Humanism and Sodomy in Early Modern England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 38-83.

  24. See Fairfield, John Bale, 55-56, 121.

  25. John Bale, The Actes of Englysh Votaryes (London, 1548), 22a-22b. Stewart comments briefly on this episode, Close Readers, 42.

  26. Contemporary sources invite wordplay on “Angles” and “Ingles.” In the sixteenth century “Ingles” meant both “English” and “a boy-favourite (in bad sense): a catamite” (OED), and was used to pun both on “angle” and on “angel.” “Ingle” was also a term of abuse for boys who played women on the stage. See Patricia Parker, Shakespeare from the Margins: Language, Culture, Context (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 143-46.

  27. John Bale, The Image of Bothe Churches (Antwerp, 1545 or 1546). For Foxe's views, see William Haller, The Elect Nation: The Meaning and Relevance of Foxe's “Book of Martyrs” (New York: Harper and Row, 1963).

  28. Ultimately these stories derive from Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, trans. Sebastian Evans, revised by Charles W. Dunn (New York: Dutton, 1958), book 11, chap. 7, p. 238, for Malgo. Bale indicates a variety of sources, ranging from Gildas to Geoffrey of Monmouth, “Florence” (John) of Worcester, and others, including William Tyndale (22a). Bale's immediate source is probably the Nova legenda Angliae of John Capgrave, whose narratives of saints' lives he grossly distorted. See Fairfield, John Bale, 114, 121-22.

  29. John Bale, Apology against a Rank Papist (London, 1550), xxvii, xii (v).

  30. John Bale, The Pageant of Popes (London, 1574), 36.

  31. Bale cites Gregory's “Epistle to Nicolas” (Pageant of Popes, 34v-35r).

  32. Bale, Pageant of Popes, 32.

  33. Fairfield, John Bale, 17-18, 42-43.

  34. This summary is based on Fairfield's analysis, John Bale, 31-49.

  35. Donald N. Mager, “John Bale and Early Tudor Sodomy Discourse,” in Queering the Renaissance, ed. Jonathan Goldberg (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994), 141-61. See also Stewart, Close Readers, 52-62.

  36. John Bale, A Comedy concernynge Thre Lawes, of Nature, Moses, & Christ, Corrupted by the Sodomytes, Pharysees, and Papystes, ed. Peter Happé, in The Complete Plays of John Bale, 2 vols. (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1986), 2:65-121. References to act and line number are for quotations from this text. On the attire for Sodomismus, see 121.

  37. See Happé, Complete Plays of John Bale, 165, note to line 575.

  38. Bale, King Johan, lines 368-70, in Happé, Complete Plays of John Bale, 1:39.

  39. Thomas Stapleton, The History of the Church of England Compiled by Venerable Bede, Englishman (1565; reprint, Menston, England: Scolar, 1973), 3b. Stapleton's translation is used in the Loeb Classical Library, Baedae opera historica, ed. J. E. King (New York: Putnam, 1930).

  40. John Bale, Scriptorum illustrium Maioris Brytanniae (“Ipswich,” but really Wesel, 1548). For a list of Bede's works, including an English translation of the Gospel of John (“in patriam transtulit linguam”), see 50v-52r; for Chaucer's, see 198, unhelpfully alphabetized under G for “Galfridus Chaucer”).

  41. David Savran, “Ambivalence, Utopia, and a Queer Sort of Materialism: How Angels in America Reconstructs the Nation,” Theatre Journal 47 (1995): 218. Some of the following material appears in my essay “Prior to the Normans: The Anglo-Saxons in Angels in America,” in Approaching the Millennium: Essays on Tony Kushner's Angels in America, ed. Deborah A. Geis and Steven F. Kruger (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 134-50.

  42. Manifest Destiny had its roots in a theory of natural rights for a particular race that translates into nationalism and then imperialism. See Albert K. Weinberg, Manifest Destiny (1935; reprint, Chicago: Quadrangle, 1963), 8 (for the quote), 41.

  43. Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981); the phrase “Manifest Destiny” was not coined until 1845; see 219. On Anglo-Saxonism, see Frantzen, Desire for Origins, 15-18, and 27-61, where I comment on the phenomenon as a force in Anglo-Saxon studies from the Renaissance to the present.

  44. Tony Kushner, “The Secrets of ‘Angels,’” New York Times, 27 March 1994, H5.

  45. Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, part 1, Millennium Approaches (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1993); part 2, Perestroika (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1994). References to volume and page number are given in the text (vol. 1 for Millennium Approaches and vol. 2 for Perestroika).

  46. Savran, “Ambivalence,” 212 note 14.

  47. For an excellent summary of this issue, see Clare A. Simmons, Reversing the Conquest: History and Myth in Nineteenth-Century British Literature (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990), 13-41.

  48. The earl Harold was elected king of England at the death of Edward the Confessor in 1066; he was said to have given an oath of allegiance to William, duke of Normandy, and betrayed that oath when he claimed the throne of England. Harold was defeated at the Battle of Hastings by William the Conqueror. See Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 3d ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), 576-80.

  49. According to Savran, “The opposite of nearly everything you say about Angels in America will also hold true” (“Ambivalence,” 208; see also 222).

  50. David J. Bernstein, The Mystery of the Bayeux Tapestry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), reports that Hitler, like Napoleon, studied the tapestry when he contemplated an invasion of England, 28-30.

  51. Bernstein, Mystery of the Bayeux Tapestry, 8, 14.

  52. Bernstein, Mystery of the Bayeux Tapestry, 30.

  53. The term was originally used to describe American Protestantism. See E. Digby Baltzell, The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964). Kushner's elaborate genealogy for Prior Walter attaches a far more ambitious historical and international sense to the term.

  54. May McKisack, The Fourteenth Century, 1307-1399 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), 219.

  55. See Savran, “Ambivalence,” 223-24, for an analysis of Kushner's treatment of identity politics and race in this scene.

  56. Weinberg, Manifest Destiny, 8.

  57. Savran, “Ambivalence,” 213.

  58. Kushner, “Secrets of ‘Angels,’” H5.

  59. Several reviewers have commented on the identification of Louis with Kushner's own views. See, for example, John Simon, “Angelic Geometry,” New York, 6 December 1993, 130. Savran says that Louis is “constructed as the most empathetic character in the play” (“Ambivalence,” 223).

  60. Susan Reynolds, “What Do We Mean by ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and Anglo-Saxons'?” Journal of British Studies 24 (1985): 397-98.

  61. Reynolds, “What Do We Mean by ‘Anglo-Saxon’?” 402-3.

  62. On the need for narratives that reverse the usual trajectory of the experience of AIDS, see Steven F. Kruger, AIDS Narratives: Gender and Sexuality, Fiction and Science (New York: Garland, 1996), 73-81.

  63. Savran, “Ambivalence,” 222-23.

  64. D. Michael Quinn, Same-Sex Dynamics among Nineteenth-Century Americans: A Mormon Example (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996), 2.

Matthew Wilson Smith (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Smith, Matthew Wilson. “Angels in America: A Progressive Apocalypse.” Theater 29, no. 3 (1999): 152-65.

[In the following essay, Smith examines the conflict between apocalyptic and progressive impulses in Angels in America.]


Outside of Chekhov, I can think of no playwright whose characters philosophize so much about history as Tony Kushner's do; Kushner's characters are forever musing upon, arguing about, engaging with history. But while in Chekhov's plays such philosophizing talk is generally just that—talk, mere talk—in Kushner's it is urgent, of the essence. Which is to say that, for Kushner, talking about history functions not as a screen behind which the real but unstated (largely private, domestic) drama takes place, but rather is the “real drama,” in surface and subtext. When Kushner's characters wonder, as they often do, whether the world is coming to an end, whether humanity has ceased to progress, whether a new age is just around the corner, we may psychologize their questions, but we may not psychologize them away. To do so would be to reduce them to mere interiorities, and thereby strip them of the political concerns that, as Kushner writes in the preface to A Bright Room Called Day, “are true passions for these people, not pretexts for private feelings.”1 At the risk of oversimplification: in Kushner's plays the political is the historical is the drama itself; we witness, in these plays, individuals and groups thrown into the midst of history, arguing the direction of the tide even as it pulls them under or along.

There are many visions of history in Angels in America, but none is so memorable, so shocking, as the apocalyptic. Harper tells us that “the world's coming to an end,” and warns of an imminent “Judgment Day”; the Angels refer to “the grim Unfolding of these Latter Days,” prophesy a catastrophe in which “millions” will die, and speak of “Apocalypse Descending”; Prior and Hannah look forward to the return of the waters of Bethesda fountain, “when the Millennium comes. … Not the year two thousand, but the Capital M Millennium.”2 Indeed, the whole play may be said to unfold like a landscape of ruins, of “beautiful systems dying, old fixed orders flying apart” (22). Sarah Ironson's burial at the outset of Millennium Approaches marks the disintegration of Jewish immigrant culture just as the Oldest Living Bolshevik's speech at the outset of Perestroika marks the end of Marxist Leninism. The AIDS crisis, though never permitted to serve as mere metaphor, takes on a decidedly apocalyptic tenor in the play, and becomes one of a larger web of catastrophes that reads like signs of the Endtime: the destruction of the environment, the ascendancy of the Reagan Right, the abandonment of Creation by God.

The apocalypticism of the work lies, too, in the significance of vision in the play. The poetics of apocalypse has always privileged vision over the other senses; the term apokalypsis means, literally, “to unveil,” and originally connoted the marital stripping of a veiled virgin. Even as the word changed its dimensions and came to signify a divine revelation of the end of history, the poetics of apocalypse continued to emphasize sight and a certain erotics of disclosure.3 In Angels, too, sight is privileged: Harper and Prior receive visions of the other world, whether in the form of angels, rising souls, or impossible dreamscapes. Harper is so thoroughly immersed in her eschatological visions (not to mention her depressants) that by the end of the play she is virtually defined by her “astonishing ability to see things.” An even fuller sense of apocalypse is explored in Prior's visions, which are so erotically charged that his penis becomes a barometer of heavenly presence and orgasm a sign of revelation (a sensus dei he shares, incidentally, with Hannah). The explicit eroticism of Prior's visionary scenes recalls the erotic roots of apocalypticism and testifies to the sharp, and potentially dangerous, attraction of the apocalyptic blend: vision, violence, radical transformation, sublimity, sex.

Angels confronts us, as well, with two great modern millenarian faiths, one religious, one secular. Mormonism, a religion with its roots in the millenarian enthusiasms of nineteenth-century America, “lives on a threshold between this world and Millennium … and holds on hard to this world and the next.”4 Mormonism helps shape the apocalyptic discourse of the play through its influence on Harper, Joe, and Hannah, characters who retain a certain millennial fervor even as the influence of the Latter-day Saints over their lives slips away. While less prophetically inclined than his wife, Joe still brings to his admiration of the Reagan Right something of Harper's millennial mood: “America has rediscovered itself,” he says of the 1980 election. “Its sacred position among nations. This is a great thing. The truth restored. Law restored” (32). Joe's admiration for Reaganism recalls the nativist impulses behind Mormon millenarianism, the emphasis in Mormon theology on America as the chosen nation, site of the New Jerusalem. Finally, Joe's mother Hannah takes the existence of angels for granted, exhibits an uncanny ability to recognize them, and by the end of the play (though now a New Yorker in dress and spirit) anticipates the coming of the angel of Bethesda and a New Jerusalem.

Mormonism shapes the play in other ways as well, most notably in the revelation of the apocalyptic tablets to Prior. The entire scenario of the angelic visitation, the command to unearth the sacred book, and the donning of magical glasses in order to read it are influenced by Joseph Smith's account of the discovery of the Book of Mormon. Smith's discovery was itself marked by apocalyptic overtones. One of the most frequently cited series of verses of the Book of Mormon is 3 Nephi 21:1-7, in which Jesus promises the Nephites “a sign that ye may know the time when these things shall be about to take place—that I shall gather in from their long dispersion, my people, O house of Israel.” That sign, Jesus goes on to explain, is the discovery of the Book of Mormon itself, which shall serve as a millennial milestone. But just as Harper is no Joseph Smith, so Prior's apartment is no Palmyra, New York: the Book is located underneath the kitchen tiles, and Prior refuses to unearth it because he worries about losing his security deposit. This is a slip-shod revelation, one in which even the prophetic dreams that were supposed to prepare Prior for the event are lost in the heavenly bureaucracy. The signs of millennium are still there, but the religious myths that once supported them have declined into semiparody.

The same might be said of the other great modern millenarian faith of Angels, Bolshevism. This decaying system is chiefly presented through Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, the Oldest Living Bolshevik. It is a parodic personification, but, as with the Angel's visitation, it is touched with melancholy and a sense of shattered hope. The Bolshevik's evocation of the once-great promise of Soviet socialism is at the same time stirring and anachronistic: “You can't imagine,” he tells us,

when we first read the Classic Texts, when in the dark vexed night of our ignorance and terror the seed-words sprouted and shoved incomprehension aside, when the incredible bloody vegetable struggle up and through into Red Blooming gave us Praxis, True Praxis, True Theory married to Actual Life.


The “Classic Texts” the Bolshevik speaks of can no more be a source of redemption than can the Angel's sacred Book. But there is a poignancy at their loss, and a sense that the historical questions they pose are still before us. The millennial structures, secular and religious, may have broken down, but the millennial longings remain.

At the outset of Perestroika, it is the Oldest Living Bolshevik who poses these questions most pointedly: “The Great Question before us is: Are we doomed? The Great Question before us is: Will the Past release us? The Great Question before us is: Can we Change? In Time?” (165). The Bolshevik admits of the possibility of apocalypse (“Are we doomed?”) at the same time that he contrasts it to another historical possibility, one in which we are released from the past and able to “Change … In Time.” We might be able to avoid collapse, he suggests, if we are able to reinvent ourselves, to evolve.


This second view of history is an optimistic, evolutionary one, one typified not by fate and doom but by human agency, the possibility of self-salvation. It is a view of history that we might term progressive, if we mean by that a sense of history as a gradual motion toward greater happiness, equality, and freedom. Progressive in this sense includes both liberalism and moderate forms of socialism. Broadly speaking, the socialist sense of history as a series of developmental stages toward ever greater emancipation may be termed progressive, while the occasional belief in the inevitable, history-ending nature of the revolution and the utopian nature of the state to follow is closer to the apocalyptic model. This often-uneasy combination of progressive and apocalyptic views of history has been at the heart of socialist theory since its inception, and is mirrored here in the musings of the Oldest Living Bolshevik—as well as those of Kushner himself.

On the face of it, the apocalyptic and the progressive are radically different visions of history. In the apocalyptic worldview, transformation is generally sudden and total: complete destruction and complete rebirth, eternal separation of the damned from the saved. At the same time, both the destruction and the rebirth of the world are unstoppable and externally motivated; mortals do not, ultimately, shape their own history. In the apocalyptic, it is only when history comes to an end that liberation is truly possible; the Kingdom of God lies outside of history, not within it. The progressive worldview might almost be defined as the precise opposite of such beliefs: instead of sudden, radical transformation, progressives tend to see the world evolving slowly, see history as a gradual, painful growth toward liberation. Humanity is a powerful agent in this upward drive, if not the only agent; self-liberation, self-salvation, in difficult stages, is the hope of the progressive. The progressive worldview, then, tends to embrace the fruits of human inventiveness, whether scientific, scholastic, technological, or industrial, as means toward the improvement of our collective condition.

The apocalypticism of Angels must be seen in the light of a contradictory impulse toward progressivism in the work. This rift inheres in the titles of the parts themselves: Millennium Approaches evokes an image of impending, mystical transformation, the ticking of an other-worldly clock, whereas Perestroika recalls a historical event, Gorbachev's attempt to liberalize the Soviet Union peaceably from within. Compare, too, the apocalyptic warnings of the Angels with, for example, the quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that Kushner chooses to open “Perestroika”: “Because the soul is progressive, it never quite repeats itself, but in every act attempts the production of a new and fairer whole” (163). The sentence might serve as a summation of the kind of trust in a process of gradual, intuitive awakening that is the very opposite of the apocalyptic. In John's Revelation, all was to be uprooted, suddenly, either transplanted into new ground or tossed into the everlasting fire; Emerson, on the other hand, imagined the soul opening like a rosebud, by degrees. If the Angels tend to take John's view, then Emerson's is also present in the play. We see it in somewhat parodic form in Louis's (self-described) “neo-Hegelian positivist sense of constant historical progress toward happiness or perfection or something,” and, of course, in the cautious optimism of Prior, who insists on “More Life,” and assures us, at the end of the play, that “the world only spins forward” (31; 298).

Often Angels gains its apocalyptic force from a sharp indictment of progress. Consider, for example, Harper's visions of the destruction of the ozone layer. Early on in the play, Harper speaks of the ozone layer as a spiritual realm, as “a kind of Gift, from God, the crowning touch to the creation of the world” (22). Its destruction is for Harper an eschatological sign, a signal that “everywhere, things are collapsing, lies surfacing, systems of defense giving way” (23). There is an implicit attack here on modern progress—the decay of the ozone layer, as we all know, is linked to the rising tide of industrial pollutants—and a spiritualization of that attack, a rendering of it in terms of Revelation. Harper returns to this image of the ozone layer at the end of the play, seeing its restoration in terms of the apocalyptic vision of the rising dead, so that the dead themselves are the stuff of ozone, healing the sacred skin by their ascension.

It would be wrong, though, to associate Harper too closely with any single position: her metier is closer to bewilderment than conviction, and her views change over time. The play's more consistent and unambiguous agents of antiprogressive apocalypticism are the Angels. When we first see them as a group, a radio is broadcasting a report of the Chernobyl disaster and the resulting environmental fallout (“radioactive debris contaminating over three hundred thousand hectares of topsoil for a minimum of thirty years” [279]). The Angels, listening with disgust to this report, find in it yet more evidence of “Apocalypse Descending,” calling the modern age “the threnody chant of a Poet, / A dark-devising Poet whose only theme is Death,” and predicting that “uncountable multitudes will die” (279). The Angels are the representatives of an antiprogressive, indeed antimodern, impulse taken to its furthest extent: “Surely you see towards what We are Progressing,” says the Angel of America to Prior,

The fabric of the sky unravels:
Angels hover, anxious fingers worry
The tattered edge.
Before the boiling blood and the searing of skin
Comes the Secret catastrophe.


It is an indictment and a warning which recalls other modern apocalyptic dramas. There are echoes here of Georg Kaiser's Gas trilogy, in which prophetic characters warn that a world-ending explosion will result from the continued production of gas; there are echoes of Karl Kraus's The Last Days of Mankind, in which the author rails against the forces of “modern progress” that led to World War I and concludes that he has “written a tragedy whose doomed hero is mankind”;5 and there are echoes, too, of Rachel Rosenthal's L.O.W. in Gaia, in which an angry Mother Earth warns humanity that it is doomed to “crash.”

The Angels' solution to this suicide-by-progress, however, goes beyond anything suggested by these earlier apocalyptic dramas. According to the Angels, humanity must reject intermingling, progression, migration, understanding:

Forsake the Open Road:
Neither Mix Nor Intermarry: Let Deep Roots Grow:
If you do not MINGLE you will Cease to Progress:
Seek Not to Fathom the World and its Delicate Particle Logic.


In passages like this, the Angels are sublime, poetic reactionaries, a combination that forces us to question the status of sublimity, and poetry, in Kushner's world. Consumed by a terror of progress and the modern world, hurling versified warnings of the End from on high, the Angels come across as virtual parodies of modernist prophets of apocalypse, winged grotesques of Heidegger, Eliot, Pound. For the sake of humanity, they urge humanity to cease being human.

There is another irony as well to the apocalypticism of Kushner's Angels. Heaven, the site of the Angels' attack on human progress, is itself a ramshackle storehouse of the instruments of such progress. The table around which the Angels sit is covered with “an ancient map of the world” on which lie

archaic and broken astronomical, astrological, mathematical and nautical objects of measurement and calculation; heaps and heaps and heaps of books and files and bundles of yellowing newspapers; inkpots, clay tablets, styli and quill pens. The great chamber is dimly lit by candles and a single great bulb overhead, the light of which pulses to the audible rhythmic surgings and waverings of a great unseen generator.

At the center of the table is a single bulky radio, a 1940s model in very poor repair. It is switched on and glowing, and the Angels are gathered about it, intent upon its dim, crackly signal.


This space at once presents a schema of the history of human knowledge (cartography, exploration, literacy, electricity, the radio) and recalls a dilapidated Eastern-bloc stateroom just before the collapse of the Wall. The Angels, then, appear to be complicit in the very systems of progress they condemn, an irony accentuated by the fact that the Angels receive their information about the Chernobyl disaster not through divine inspiration but through the bulky, crackling radio at the center of the table. Despite their aspiration to timelessness, the Angels are as dependent upon the instruments of progress as the mortals are.

Oddly enough, Prior's reply to the Angels may be unique in the literature of modern apocalyptic drama: while not denying the future horrors that the Angels predict, Prior refuses to relinquish his belief in progress. Returning the prophetic Book to the Angels, Prior explains,

We can't just stop. 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 …


God …


He isn't coming back.


Even Prior's insistence that God “isn't coming back” is rendered here in progressive rather than apocalyptic terms. Compare the loss of God in Prior's account to that in Samuel Beckett. In Beckett, God's disappearance is final and irrevocable—Godot will never arrive, we know this, and there will be no miracles in Hamm's sunken bunker—and this total loss marks his play worlds as postapocalyptic. In Prior's account, on the other hand, God is not dead but off wandering, “sail[ing] off on Voyages, no knowing where” (195). Though Kushner places the date of God's departure at the beginning of the twentieth century (in 1906, the year of the San Francisco earthquake), it seems that Kushner's God is not so much swept away by modernity as swept up in it: divinity wanders now “in Mortifying imitation of … his least creation” (195) and faces, it seems, all-too-human confusions in the face of the rapid transformation of our age. There is at least the suggestion in Angels that God, like so many of Kushner's characters, must wander off now in order to grow. Taking after his “least creation,” God himself may need to progress in order to live.

But perhaps I am making too much of this dichotomy of progressive and apocalyptic—there is a sense, after all, in which Angels is profoundly confused. Almost every critic who has written on Angels has pointed to its “postmodern ambiguity,” and it may well be that Angels is a work that, taken as a whole, reflects Harper's desperate millennial confusion at the outset of Millennium Approaches. “I'm undecided,” she says,

I feel … that something's going to give. It's 1985. Fifteen years till the third millennium. Maybe Christ will come again. Maybe seeds will be planted, maybe there'll be harvests then, maybe early figs to eat, maybe new life, maybe fresh blood, maybe companionship and love and protection, safety from what's outside, maybe the door will hold, or maybe … maybe the troubles will come, and the end will come, and the sky will collapse and there will be terrible rains and showers of poison and light, or maybe my life is really fine, maybe Joe loves me and I'm only crazy thinking otherwise, or maybe not, maybe it's even worse than I know, maybe … I want to know, maybe I don't. The suspense, Mr. Lies, it's killing me.
I suggest a vacation.


“Maybe. … maybe … maybe …”: Harper's millennial dreaming here is a distinctly contemporary fantasia: a stream of references half-digested, at turns apocalyptic, progressive, pop psychological, paranoiac, utopian. To add to the confusion, Mr. Lies's response to the speech puts the lie to any reading of the play as a simple celebration of change against the reactionary forces of stasis. For though Mr. Lies is an agent of migration (indeed, he is a travel agent) the “vacation” he offers is mere escape without progression. In this sense he is the twin of the Angel, whose exhortations of stasis threaten life as much as Mr. Lies's seductions of motion. In Harper's early monologue, then, a complex of themes we have seen to be central (millennium, apocalypse, motion, progress) are rendered as “undecided” and, maybe, undecidable. Maybe, then, this is the mood of Kushner's work as a whole; maybe Harold Bloom is correct when he says about Prior that this “gallant, ill gay prophet simply has no prophecy to give us.” It is, Bloom writes, “the ultimate aesthetic weakness” of the work.6


Bloom's reading would seem to fit with Kushner's skepticism toward any totalizing vision of history—progressive, apocalyptic, or otherwise. Kushner ultimately languishes in his own indecision, the argument would go, and his skepticism of universal historical claims makes genuine prophecy impossible. But behind this skepticism I wonder whether there doesn't lie a certain complex conviction, one that elevates the play above mere ambiguity. Indeed, pace Bloom, I would suggest that Prior does have a sort of prophecy, as does Harper, one that attempts to combine progressive and apocalyptic narratives into a single, overarching framework. In this respect, the visions of Prior and Harper at the end of the play echo a central theme of American religious history: postmillennialism. The term refers to the place assigned to the return of Christ, which was to occur after, rather than before, the coming of the millennium (hence post- rather than premillennial). In an article entitled “Between Progress and Apocalypse,” historian James H. Moorhead describes postmillennialism as “a compromise between a progressive, evolutionary view of history and the apocalyptic outlook of the Book of Revelation.” According to Moorhead, the doctrine of postmillennialism was the dominant theological outlook of nineteenth-century America.7 Though it would be too much of an imposition to call Angels a “postmillennial” drama, since the Christian theological debates that inform postmillennialism are simply not in evidence here, the play nevertheless exhibits a spirit of progressive apocalypticism that is reminiscent of this distinctly American theology.

We can begin to understand this composite vision by noting Harper's growth over the course of the play. Her early confusion gives way to the unambiguously millennial vision of her final speech, referred to earlier:

But I saw something only I could see, because of my astonishing ability to see such things:

Souls were rising, from the earth far below, souls of the dead, of people who had perished, from famine, from war, from the plague, and they floated up, like skydivers in reverse, limbs all akimbo, wheeling and spinning. And the souls of those departed joined hands, clasped ankles and formed a web, a great net of souls, and the souls were three-atom molecules, of the stuff of ozone, and the outer rim absorbed them, and was repaired.


Harper's use of apocalyptic rhetoric here is far more assured than in her first speech. While her emphasis on the ozone layer, as discussed earlier, suggests a certain skepticism toward progress (a skepticism she shares with Prior), this skepticism is ultimately subsumed in a broader faith in the evolutionary nature of human history. Thus she follows this, her final revelation, with a sentiment reminiscent of the lines from Emerson that open Perestroika: “Nothing's lost forever,” she says. “In this world there is a kind of painful progress” (294). It is a vision that exhibits both apocalyptic and progressive views of history.

Harper shares this outlook with Prior, whose final speech also combines the apocalyptic and the progressive. First Prior looks forward to the season when the Fountain of Bethesda will flow again, an event that has already been imbued with eschatological significance. After this millennial image, Prior turns to the AIDS crisis and the struggle for gay rights, subjects that could easily be charged with apocalyptic intensity, but Prior renders them, instead, in a progressive mode:

This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won't die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.


Prior's painful progressivism at the end of Angels (reminiscent, like Harper's speech, of Emerson) is combined with an optimistic sort of apocalypticism that anticipates an age when Bethesda will flow again. Indeed, Prior “want[s] to be around to see” this new age (298). Prior does indeed have something to prophesy: he is the prophet, with Harper, of history as a slow, painful progress inspired by the promise of a New Jerusalem. This vision partakes of both apocalyptic and progressive elements; if they are not quite brought into synthesis, then neither are they totally opposed. Confronted with a seeming contradiction, Prior and Harper refuse to divest themselves of either the apocalyptic or the progressive; the composite visions they describe, however, are too uncertain, too fluid, to qualify as the new theory the Bolshevik searches for. We are left with only the instinctive (necessary?) belief in human progress, against so much historical evidence, and the hopeful (desperate?) revelation of an eventual utopia that is a genuine alternative to death: a society of change, of migration, of plurality, of “more life,” whatever the cost.

It is this utopian society toward which the drama tends, not only in the visions of its prophetic characters, but in the structure of the work itself. For if Angels unfolds like a series of breakdowns, then these breakdowns lead not to chaos and utter fragmentation (as Rabbi Chemelwitz and the Oldest Living Bolshevik fear and—more frightening—Roy Cohn gleefully accepts) but to surprising reintegrations. “Imagination can't create anything new, can it?” asks Harper when she and Prior encounter each other in their respective dream states (38). The experience is the first of many such encounters, both surreal and unexpected: Prior and the Angel, Joe and Louis, Belize and Roy Cohn, Harper and the Mormon Mother, Prior and Hannah (“This is my ex-lover's lover's Mormon mother,” says Prior [253]). Meanwhile, characters move in and out of communities in surprising ways: Hannah, for instance, begins her journey as a staunch Mormon matron; by the time the play is finished, she “is noticeably different—she looks like a New Yorker, and she is reading the New York Times” (295). If the world of Angels is coming undone, then it is just as rapidly being knit together again, being reconnected at the oddest points. The reknitting of Angels exposes the lie of Harper's early statement that “[imagination] only recycles bits and pieces from the worlds and reassembles them into visions” and Prior's claim that “it's All Been Done Before” (38-39); the visions that Prior and Harper experience together, and the “threshold of revelation” that they share, are signposts of an emergent, previously unimaginable, web of connections. It is a vision that is given expression, as we have seen, in Harper's closing image of a net of souls, and Kushner's own comments on the play that “Marx was right: The smallest human unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction. From such nets of souls societies, the social world, human life springs” (307). The millennialism of Angels is one that embraces “the weird interconnectedness” of us all, that accepts the knitting and tearing apart and reknitting of individuals and communities and envisions a net of souls, in motion, kaleidoscopic. Ironically, the emergence of such connections, visions, and prophecies amidst the collapse of older explanatory structures echoes the emergence of Mormonism itself. Historian Gordon Wood, for instance, explains the early growth of Mormonism by noting that “the disintegration of older structures of authority released torrents of popular religiosity into public life. Visions, dreams, prophesyings, and new emotion-soaked seekings acquired a validity they had not earlier possessed.”8

It is this final, utopian vision that at once embraces apocalypticism and subverts the sort of totalizing, overarching Theory that the Oldest Living Bolshevik longs for. For what Theory, what Dogma, can incorporate the surprise of the radically Other, the unpredictability of “weird interconnectedness”? Insofar as apocalypticism has generally been associated with relentlessly totalizing schemes of human history, Kushner's apocalypse here is precisely an apocalypse of apocalypses, his “Capital M Millennium” an end to such all-encompassing units of time. A decentered apocalypse, a progressive millenarianism: it is the paradoxicality of such a vision that makes it so enticingly utopian in both the literal and the popular sense, at once a no-place and a paradise. And so Kushner's play leaves us with a quixotic sort of prophecy: that the millennium will continue to approach, and humanity to progress, long after Theory has passed away.


  1. Tony Kushner, A Bright Room Called Day (New York: Theatre Communications Group; 1994), x.

  2. Tony Kushner, Angels in America (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1995), 34, 251, 283, 279, 283, 297.

  3. Catherine Keller, Apocalypse Now and Then (Boston: Beacon, 1996), 1.

  4. Harold Bloom, Omens of Millennium (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), 225.

  5. Karl Kraus, The Last Days of Mankind, trans. Max Knight and Joseph Fabry, in In These Great Times: A Karl Kraus Reader, ed. Harry Zohn (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 255.

  6. Bloom, Omens of Millennium, 225.

  7. James H. Moorhead, “Between Progress and Apocalypse: A Reassessment of Millennialism in American Religious Thought, 1800-1880,” Journal of American History 41 (1984): 524-42.

  8. Gordon Wood, “Evangelical America and Early Mormonism,” New York History 61 (1980): 368.

Daryl Ogden (essay date fall 2000)

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SOURCE: Ogden, Daryl. “Cold War Science and the Body Politic: An Immuno/Virological Approach to Angels in America.Literature and Medicine 19, no. 2 (fall 2000): 241-61.

[In the following essay, Ogden examines Kushner's representation of sexual identity in Angels in America in terms of the intersection of medical and political discourse around the AIDS epidemic.]

Early on in Millennium Approaches, Part One of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, Roy Cohn's physician informs his patient that he's suffering from AIDS. Roy, the former assistant United States prosecuting attorney in the Rosenberg spy case and the right hand of Joseph McCarthy during the Senate Red Scare trials, feigns puzzlement with the diagnosis and outrage over his doctor's inference that he must be a homosexual:

Your problem, Henry, is that you are hung up on words, on labels, that you believe they mean what they seem to mean. AIDS. Homosexual. Gay. Lesbian. You think these are names that tell you who someone sleeps with, but they don't tell you that. … Like all labels they tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology, or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout. Not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will pick up the phone when I call, who owes me favors. This is what a label refers to. Now to someone who does not understand this, homosexual is what I am because I have sex with men. But really this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout. Does this sound like me, Henry?1

Despite his voracious sexual appetite for men, as a patron saint of right-wing politics Roy simply cannot occupy the ontological status of a homosexual. Roy recognizes that to be diagnosed with AIDS, a disease conflated with homosexuality, would signify the end of his powerbrokering ability in the high-Reagan era of the mid-eighties. It would also call ironic attention to his own closeted, socially subversive sexual identity from the 1940s forward, when his public life began in earnest. This identity is closely parallel to the politically and militarily subversive identity of the so-called communist infiltrators and homosexual federal employees whom he and his colleagues worked so hard to expose in that same era.

As far as Roy is concerned, AIDS is a homosexual disease. Therefore, to have contracted AIDS is an impossibility because he is a political insider who can “punch fifteen numbers” (Millennium, 45) and have Nancy Reagan on the other end of the telephone, because he is socially interpreted not as a homosexual but as “a heterosexual man … who fucks around with guys” (Millennium, 46). Homosexuality for Roy is incommensurate with clout. It is tantamount to being saddled with the leftist identity of Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the United States of the 1940s and 1950s, three Americans who betrayed a decided lack of clout as far as the federal legal system was concerned. In fact, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg herself haunts Roy in Angels in America, appearing to him at increasingly regular intervals as the play proceeds. Along with communists, homosexuals in the federal government were the other principal target of McCarthyism. This was the case, first, because their sexual preferences purportedly made them vulnerable to blackmail by foreign powers and, second, they were demonized as “perverts” neither morally worthy nor psychologically capable of holding government positions.2 As one of the men tapped in the 1950s to hound both homosexuals and communists into oblivion, the actual Roy understood it is better to remain in the closet. In the mid-1980s, Kushner's fictional Roy recognizes it is even more important to cloak your sexual identity if you happen to be a homosexual with AIDS.

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is a play in two parts whose titles, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, suggest Kushner's grandiose themes. Set in New York City at the beginning of Ronald Reagan's second presidential term, the play explores the sexual, ethnic, political, and religious identities of five homosexual men, including Roy Cohn and Louis Ironson, a conservative and liberal Jew; Joe Pitt, a married Mormon still very much in the closet; Prior Walter, a WASP who can trace his lineage back to the Norman invasion of England; and Belize, an African American drag queen. These men are all afflicted to varying degrees by AIDS, ranging from the HIV infections of Roy and Prior to the responses of their friends and lovers, Louis, Joe, and Belize. Over the course of the play, Kushner masterfully weaves together realism, fantasy, and the supernatural and speculates on the nature of God, heaven, and the universe in the midst of a gay holocaust. More specifically for the purposes of this essay, Kushner elaborates on the political and historical meanings of AIDS, medical science, and the Cold War persecution of marginalized Americans identified as sympathetic to the political left, including communists and homosexuals.

In all of Roy's appearances in Angels in America, Kushner makes visible a Cold War political discourse that underlines the ideological similarities between the McCarthyite 1950s and the Reaganite 1980s, calling attention to the parallels between communism and homosexuality as American identities of otherness and disempowerment.3 Louis, Roy's liberal foil, understands this parallel well. He accuses Joe, his conservative lover (and Roy's protégé), of developing a legal argument for the Federal Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, to deny a gay army veteran benefits on the basis of his sexual identity. Despite his own gay identity, homosexuals, in Joe's view, are not entitled to Civil Rights protections. To make his case against Joe, Louis draws upon the famous words of Joseph Welch, special counsel to the Army during the McCarthy hearings: “Have you no decency, at long last, sir, have you no decency at all?”4 In pursuing an argument that Louis calls “an important bit of legal fag-bashing” (Perestroika, 110), Joe reveals himself not only to be filled with self-loathing but also to be Roy's intellectual and ideological heir, continuing the McCarthy-era legal persecution of homosexuals.

Kushner portrays Reaganism polemically, as a version of neo-McCarthyism. It is surprising, then, that no critical attention has been given to the fact that the nascent Cold War decades of Roy's early professional history also proved crucial for the formation of the medical sciences of immunology and virology, sciences that would wield inordinate power during the 1980s in the race to inscribe culturally dominant metaphors on AIDS and homosexual sexual practices.5 On one hand, reading Kushner's play within the context of the history of medicine highlights the central importance of immuno-virological metaphor to the political, social, and sexual identities of Kushner's characters and to the discourses of disease and identity generated by AIDS; on the other hand, reading Angels in America with an eye on the history of immunology and virology and their ideological relationship to American politics in the 1950s helps us to see the saturated Cold War consciousness of those two medical disciplines.

Immunology traces its early modern origins to the eighteenth-century Englishman Edward Jenner, whose successful experiments on cowpox eventually led to a smallpox innoculation that signaled a revolution in the ways that communicable diseases could be prevented.6 Most medical historians, however, locate modern immunology's “birth” either in Claude Bernard's An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine of 1865 or to Louis Pasteur's groundbreaking series of papers on the Germ Theory of Disease published in the 1880s.7 Even though Pasteur's theory that germs were the principal causal factors in disease proved to be a medical dead end, his research cleared the ground for some of the early advances in immunological theory. The subsequent scientific internationalism in Europe that characterized the fin de siècle and early twentieth century made substantial theoretical gains in immunology possible, and science particularly benefited from promising developments shared between researchers in France, Germany, and Austria.8 With the tragic advent of World War I, the significance of new discoveries in continental immunology were diminished as researchers of rival powers were cut off from one another and government resources were diverted to other areas of scientific research that might more directly benefit the war effort. While pre-war immunology generated first-time interest in autoantibodies and autoimmune diseases, for three decades following the conclusion of World War I theoretical and experimental advances in immunology advanced at a snail's pace.9 For a variety of reasons, when they finally did advance, they predominantly did so during the Cold War.

Like immunology, virology also looks back to the experimental research of Jenner and Pasteur and their development of inoculations for two prominent viruses, smallpox and rabies.10 Jenner's and Pasteur's discoveries amounted to two successful shots in the dark, however, because at the time of their research viruses remained quite misunderstood, principally because even the largest viruses could still not definitively be seen, even with the best optical microscopes that the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had to offer. In the century between Jenner's and Pasteur's research, virus retained its generalized classical meaning of any poisonous substance that caused sickness. Finally, in the 1890s, one of the signature discoveries in modern virology was made by the Dutch scientist Martinus Beijerinck, who isolated tobacco mosaic virus (TMV). Beijerinck theorized the existence of cell-free filtrate—later known as a filterable virus—as a frequent cause of disease in tobacco plants. Beijerinck's accomplishment was made possible by his findings that TMV could be transmitted even after infected tobacco juice was absorbed by agar up to one tenth of an inch. Beijerinck reasoned that if infectious juice could be transmitted through solid jelly then the infectious agent must have the structure of a protein and not of a cell. Over the next decade other important viruses were isolated using modified versions of Beijerinck's technique, including foot-and-mouth disease in cattle by Friedrich Loeffler and Paul Frosch in 1898, and yellow-fever virus by Walter Reed and James Carroll in 1901. In the years following these discoveries bacteria-proof filters were developed that allowed scientists to produce much less virulent versions of various viruses. These weakened viruses were in turn used to produce vaccines for a variety of plant, animal, and human diseases.

As a consequence of these theoretical and technological advances, the first third of the twentieth century proved to be a golden age for virology. Fueled by the research of Wendell Stanley, who became the first scientist to crystallize a virus, and Ernest Goodpasture, who inaugurated the technique of growing viruses in hen's eggs, virology enjoyed unprecedented success in determining the structure, size, and composition of viruses. These successes led to the production of vaccines for some of the deadliest diseases known to humanity, including yellow fever, influenza, measles, and, most famously in the research of Jonas Salk, polio.

Not until 1949, with the publication of Frank Fenner and Frank McFarlane Burnet's important The Production of Antibodies, did immunology achieve a theoretical breakthrough commensurate with those already realized by virology.11 In their groundbreaking research, Fenner and Burnet proposed a theory as to how the body's immunological apparatus distinguished “self” from “nonself.” Employing a hypothesis that eventually became known as the Clonal Selection Theory of Acquired Immunity, they argued that so-called normal or healthy cells possessed something called a self-marker, a distinguishing characteristic signaling to antibodies that the healthy cell in question was in fact part of the body, a non-threatening part of the self and should therefore be ignored and preserved. The Clonal Selection Theory proved to be one of the cornerstones upon which later research on immunologic tolerance relied, opening the door to developing drugs and protocols that made organ transplants, for instance, a realizable goal.12

Summing up their theoretical findings at the conclusion of The Production of Antibodies, Burnet and Fenner adopted a rhetoric that nearly jumps off the page if read within the terms of anti-communist, anti-homosexual political discourses of the post-World War II era:

  1. The basis of our account is the recognition that the same system of cells is concerned both in the disposal of effete body cells (without antibody response) and of foreign organic material (with antibody response).
  2. In order to allow this differentiation of function expendable body cells carry “self-marker” components which allow “recognition” of their “self” character.
  3. (p. 126)

What Burnet and Fenner describe here is a nearly perfect metaphor of how the American body politic, particularly in the McCarthy era, operated as a kind of large-scale human immune system, placing under surveillance and effectively eliminating citizens suspected of foreign sympathies that might weaken internal American resolve to fend off the debilitating disease of communism. Either consciously or not, Burnet, an Australian who would be knighted by Queen Elizabeth II after receiving the Nobel Prize in 1960 for his immunological research, continued to employ politicized medical rhetoric that complemented Cold War anxieties and responses. In 1970, for example, he published Immunological Surveillance, a book intended for a more popular audience than his earlier studies.13 It goes without saying that Burnet's title, which resonates with the clandestine techniques employed against American citizens by the FBI of J. Edgar Hoover, couldn't provide a more powerful illustration of modern immunology's Cold War consciousness.14

Burnet and Fenner's reference in the passage cited above to the elimination of “effete” body cells appears to have been prescient, because it evokes cultural meanings important to the way that AIDS was pervasively interpreted in the early and mid-1980s as a “gay” disease. “Effete” is a value laden word, conjuring up images of decadence, physical depletion, and effeminacy, words with connotations stereotypically associated among American heterosexuals with homosexual men. When AIDS was first diagnosed, homosexual men were widely accused of excessive promiscuity, drug abuse, and unnatural sexual practices that had overloaded their immune systems to the point of exhaustion. This created an implicit double meaning in the way that AIDS could be read at the personal and cultural levels: their immune systems under assault by a deadly virus, the homosexual men afflicted with HIV and AIDS might just as well have been the useless effete cells expunged by the body's immune system. And those men diagnosed as HIV-positive in the early 1980s, many of whom held responsible the indifferent response of the Reagan administration for the accelerating crisis, must have felt exactly like expendable cells within what was widely perceived as an otherwise healthy body politic.

One need only recall Reagan's famous 1984 re-election slogan “It's Morning in America Again” and consider the fact that he went on to win the electoral votes of forty-nine states to agree that the majority of the country's citizens believed Reagan had the United States heading in the right direction, back to an America of the past, when homosexuality was a taboo word and homosexuals were safely hidden in the closet. In true conservative fashion, the 1984 Republican campaign hearkened back to a mythical golden age in American history. For Republicans, one of those golden ages was certainly the 1950s, a decade in which the grandfatherly Eisenhower twice defeated Adlai Stevenson in a landslide and thereby preserved American conservative values against an unreliable congress and the liberal Warren Supreme Court.

But the first years of the 1950s was also a dark period for Republicans, particularly those Republicans later identified with Joseph McCarthy's Senate investigations against Americans accused of an allegiance to communism and, more damning, of harboring sympathies for the Soviet Union. For example, in his infamous speech delivered at Wheeling, West Virginia, on 9 February 1950, Joseph McCarthy used the following language to describe the communist threat within U.S. borders: “The reason why we find ourselves in a position of impotency is not because our only powerful potential enemy has sent men to invade our shores, but rather because of the traitorous actions of those who have been treated so well by this Nation.”15 For the United States of the first half of the 1950s in particular, the “self-marker” of politics was equated with expressing in the strongest possible terms anti-communist sentiment. For Cold Warriors like Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, and Roy Cohn, immunology's nascent language of the body's civil defenses and of identifiable markers of selfhood or loyal citizenship would have paralleled language they themselves would employ to root out whom they often imagined to be American spies and communist sympathizers in the service of the Soviets.16

For sociologists, theorists, and historians of science alike, it should come as no surprise that Fenner and Burnet's concept of the self-marker, which has proven to be among modern immunology's most powerful metaphors, occurred just as the Cold War was gaining the undivided attention of Americans from every political persuasion. While virology and its medical ancestor, microbiology, have long employed tropes of hot warfare to describe how enemy viruses invade or infiltrate the human host, immunology posited an entirely different set of metaphors and assumptions that paralleled if not parroted many post-World War II fears of communist traitors within the body politic.17 Far from attributing disease to the power of an invading virus, immunology contended that sickness was primarily the fault of an individual's own failed immune system. At the risk of mixing political and biological metaphors, immunologists claimed that for the body to succeed against disease it had to do two things: 1) extirpate “effete” self-marked cells that weakened the body's own civil and border defenses and 2) eliminate non-self biological agents. As Burnet wrote in his 1962 book, The Integrity of the Body: “Antibody production or any other type of immunological reaction is against foreign material—against something that is not self.”18 Virology and immunology therefore emerged as explanatory models of sickness and disease that drew in large measure on two distinct yet complementary Cold War horrors. Virologists postulated the existence of powerful viruses, dangerous enemies beyond the body's borders, capable of violating those borders under favorable circumstances. Quite differently, immunologists warned healthy and sick Americans alike of formidable enemies within the body that appeared—like communist sympathizers and homosexuals—to constitute the Self but were, in fact, the Other. Understood in political terms, virology capitalized on fears of a hot war with America's communist adversaries whereas immunology was predicated on fear of disloyalty and subversion within the body (politic) itself.

As the preceding narrative suggests, an implicit competition, at least partly fueled by historical phenomena and what once seemed to be fundamental and irresolvable theoretical differences, exists between the sciences of immunology and virology and their respective understandings of bodily health and disease. Not until the early 1980s and the introduction of AIDS into the national consciousness were immunology and virology compelled to form a reluctant détente. Ironically, AIDS proved to be the perfect vehicle for a truce, however uneasy, to be called between the competing sciences. For example, when Henry, Roy's doctor, explains the nature of his patient's illness, he speaks fluently in a hybrid medical language of virology and immunology:

The best theory is that we blame a retrovirus, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. Its presence is made known to us by the useless antibodies which appear in reaction to its entrance into the blood-stream through a cut, or an orifice. The antibodies are powerless to protect the body against it. Why, we don't know. The body's immune system ceases to function. Sometimes the body even attacks itself. At any rate it's left open to a whole horror house of infections from microbes which it usually defends against.

(Millennium, 42)

The extent of the truce between virology and immunology represented by Henry's speech should not be overstated, of course. When the AIDS crisis first began, immunologists and virologists clashed bitterly, with immunologists advocating that the new disease be named GRID for Gay Related Immune Deficiency and virologists arguing in favor of calling the same diagnosis HIV-Disease. An obvious tension between immunology and virology still exists in terms of the ways AIDS is read as sickness. For immunologists, to be HIV-positive is not necessarily to be sick until the body's immune system, finally diminished to dangerous levels, can no longer protect the host from disease and illness; by contrast, virologists argue that the disease begins with the infiltration of the virus into the body, not with what the American media dubbed for a while as “full-blown AIDS.”

Yet the apparent “facts” of HIV compelled scientists from each discipline to work together to develop an adequate explanatory model because neither immunology nor virology alone could account for how HIV works to produce AIDS. Though important etiological differences still existed between the two sciences, for the first time in their histories, immunology and virology had to depend more or less equally on one another to account for what was going on when it came to AIDS. For all intents and purposes, only when they finally did rely on one another to explain the basic causal factors of AIDS did the syndrome become, to employ the language of Bruno Latour, “black boxed” as scientific fact.19 For Latour, once a scientific concept or technique is black boxed, researchers and lay persons alike need no longer concern themselves with how or why that concept or technique works specifically. It is simply a given that a particular input will result in a particular output.

In spite of the fact that a great deal of controversy still remained over the causes and consequences of HIV and AIDS, by the mid-eighties the “input” and “output” of HIV were more or less agreed upon: HIV was a virus passed from one host to another through bodily fluids. Once HIV was present in the human body, T-cell counts crucial to the success of the immunological system began to decline, eventually dropping to such a low figure that the body became increasingly vulnerable to opportunistic diseases such as Pneumocystis carinii, an unusual form of pneumonia, or Kaposi's sarcoma, a rare type of cancer that manifests itself in the form of painful skin lesions that, in the absence of sufficient T-cells, eventually leads to the death of the host.

Within this drastically simplified black-box picture of HIV and AIDS existed a large quantity of questions and uncertainties still too complex to be resolved definitively, but the picture represented what most in the scientific community accepted as certainties.20 The black boxing of the syndrome explains why Prior, announcing to his lover Louis that he has AIDS, declares his life effectively to be over because there is “[n]o wall like the wall of hard scientific fact” (Millennium, 22). Prior, diagnosed with AIDS in the fall of 1985, draws his conclusions largely on the basis of mainstream findings at a relatively early stage in medical science's understanding of the syndrome. These findings unspokenly represented the initial compromise that immunology and virology had struck, a compromise that, as far as Prior is concerned, sentenced AIDS sufferers to an early death without any hope of a reprieve.

Angels in America uses the physical phenomenon of HIV, a virus that attacks the immune system, as a trope to investigate the degree to which homosexuals qualify as the Self or the Other in the United States. That is, Kushner asks a medical question that may just as usefully be paraphrased in the register of politics: do homosexuals strengthen or weaken the body politic? To recast the question more directly in terms of U.S. history: are homosexuals of the 1980s, particularly HIV-positive homosexuals, analogous to the communist sympathizers (and homosexual federal employees) of the 1950s, as Roy Cohn and his protégé, Joe Pitt (closeted homosexuals both), suggest they are? Are homosexuals themselves effete cells in an otherwise vigorous body politic, expendable for the health of the nation or are they, quite differently, a powerful national antibody capable of regenerating and making whole the body politic? More generally, is Kushner seeking to depathologize homosexuality to such a degree that gay identity is seen as inextricably linked to a healthy national identity? These questions form the political foundations of the complementary immuno-virological discourses of Angels in America.

Tony Kushner is a master of conflating a literal language of the diseased body and a metaphoric language of the body politic. In most cases these languages are spoken by, or associated with, the two characters directly afflicted with AIDS in the play, Roy and Prior. In Prior's case, his physical symptoms, particularly repeated references to blood and bleeding (fluid vehicles of transmission and infection) are intended to function as a metonymy of the devastation wreaked upon the entire American homosexual community by AIDS. Over and over, Prior is forced to face his blood. He informs Louis that he has “shat blood” (Millennium, 34). He later loses control of his bowels, whereupon Louis discovers an enormous quantity of blood in his stool (Millennium, 48). On another occasion, reflecting on his diagnosis, Prior observes, “My heart is pumping polluted blood” (Millennium, 34). Contrast this with Roy, the farthest thing possible from a bleeding-heart liberal, who informs us that his heart is a “[t]ough little muscle. Never bleeds” (Perestroika, 27).

Over the course of the play, a reluctant Prior is contacted by angels who invest him with the powers of a prophet of homosexuality and AIDS. Prior gradually acquires the status of a visionary who makes transparent the facades of the play's characters, particularly Joe Pitt, whom Prior rightly identifies to Harper Pitt, Joe's wife, as a closeted homosexual. In his prophetic relationship to the angels and in his eventual ascent to heaven and return to earth, Prior emerges as the play's figure of Christian redemption. The constant references to blood in fact associate him with Christ's bleeding wounds and the suffering that accompanies them.21

Important as blood is to Kushner's representation of Prior, the most emblematic signifier of AIDS found on the young man's body is a Kaposi's sarcoma (K.S.) lesion, what he calls “the wine-dark kiss of the angel of death” (Millennium, 21). In the early days of AIDS diagnosis, the frequent identification of K.S. among homosexual men was among the most puzzling symptoms for physicians to explicate. Well into the 1980s K.S. was still considered a rare and rather exotic form of skin cancer that afflicted mostly men with a Mediterranean heritage, particularly Jews. According to Louis, Prior can trace his WASP heritage back to 1066 and the Battle of Hastings in which the Norman invaders led by William the Conqueror defeated the Anglo-Saxon warriors of Prior's kin who fought under King Harold's banner.22 As far as we know, nothing close to Mediterranean blood flows through Prior's veins. When Prior calls Louis's attention to the K.S., he playfully observes that the cancer is a “Foreign Lesion. An American Lesion. Lesionnaire's disease” (Millennium, 21).

But in Prior's joke there is also an important truth for the question of ethnic identity, otherness, and immunological metaphor in Angels in America. Normally alien to non-Jewish bodies, but now an all too frequent part of the bodies of American homosexual men, K.S. is paradoxically at once the most American and foreign of entities, Self and Other at the same time. In his lighthearted call for Louis to see the horrific lesion as intrinsically American, Prior strives to disrupt the otherness of K.S. and he does so, appropriately, with a Jew, someone who in a previous era would have had a much better chance of being afflicted with the cancer than Prior.

In many respects, Kushner gives Prior K.S.—which formerly marked those afflicted with the disease as Jewish, and in 1985 marked most sufferers as gay—in order to call attention to how the disease, informed consciously or not by immunological metaphors, impinges differently upon its victims' identity in the age of AIDS. Interestingly, Prior reveals the K.S. lesion to Louis immediately following the Orthodox Jewish funeral of Louis's grandmother, Sarah Ironson, a woman who migrated to the United States from Russia. This connection symbolically associates Prior, identified alone among the play's principal characters as a genuine WASP, as an eastern European Jew. The ethnic provenance of K.S. therefore links Louis and Prior, but it also links Prior with Louis's grandmother and with Ethel Rosenberg, another Jewish woman who would have been approximately the age of Sarah Ironson had she not been executed in 1953. By giving the gay and Jewish Roy K.S., Kushner drives home the double cultural association K.S. shares among physicians in a post-AIDS medical environment in which the cancer is most frequently diagnosed among HIV-infected homosexuals and Jewish men. Among homosexual men of WASP descent in general, and in Prior's case in particular, K.S. creates a tangible connection between WASP and Jewish identities.

Joe Pitt's Mormon identity bears a close relation to the connection between WASP and Jewish identities in the play. Ethnically a WASP, Joe's membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints makes him in some ways more like a Jew because Mormons and Jews each share a long history of persecution and prejudice. The Mormon faithful were originally hounded out of both Illinois and Missouri before embarking on an epic trek across the continent to Utah, their New Zion. Before their arrival in Utah, Mormons were widely regarded as pariahs by local and state governments and federal authorities, in large part because of the practice of polygamy pursued by the Church's male elders, most notoriously by Joseph Smith and the church's second leader, Brigham Young. Members of the Mormon faith—arguably the only important world religion that can boast an American origin—explicitly identified themselves as Mormons first, Americans second, and formally bracketed themselves off from American society by creating a closed, highly ceremonial, alternative society. Until 1890, Mormons flirted with Otherness in American culture before acceding to federal demands and stamping themselves with the self-marker of monogamy.

As a conservative Republican, Joe Pitt's political ideology is consonant with most of his Mormon brethren, but as a homosexual Joe reluctantly repudiates the enormous value that Mormons place on heterosexuality. Mormonism no doubt appealed to Kushner because it is a genuinely American religion that has, through much of its history, been marginalized as Other. Unafflicted with AIDS, Joe Pitt nonetheless suffers from a bleeding ulcer, which implicitly links him with Prior's bleeding and once again emphasizes Kushner's recurrence to medical metaphors to describe the degraded status of homosexuals in the American body politic.

Quite different from Prior and Joe—who both emphasize the shedding of their blood to drive home the situation of homosexuals in the 1980s—Roy employs metaphors of body to describe the law and politics. Roy ironically calls attention to the deteriorating status of his own body as well as to the utter corruptibility of the U.S. legal and political institutions he has manipulated from the beginning of his career:

The whole Establishment. Their little rules. Because I know no rules. Because I don't see the Law as a dead and arbitrary collection of antiquated dictums, thou shall, thou shalt not, because, because I know the Law's a pliable, breathing, sweating … organ, because, because …

(Millennium, 66, [Kushner's ellipses])

Disgusted with Joe's equivocation over whether to accept a job at the Department of Justice and help him to avoid disbarment after years of skirting legal ethics and protocol, Roy launches into a speech peppered with metaphors of body: “This is … this is gastric juices churning, this is enzymes and acids, this is intestinal is what this is, bowel movement and blood-red meat—this stinks, this is politics, Joe, the game of being alive” (Millennium, 68, [Kushner's ellipsis]).

In a quasi-Nietzschean will to diagnosis, Roy insists that he be identified as a liver cancer patient so as not to have the indelible mark of homosexuality placed on him by a medical chart that reads “AIDS.” By having the character whom Louis calls “the polestar of human evil” (Perestroika, 95) diagnose himself with liver cancer, Kushner cleverly recalls our introduction to Roy in Act I, Scene II of Millennium Approaches, where he devours a number of liver sandwiches, wildly punches the hold buttons on his office telephone, and wishes out loud to Joe that he were an octopus, “[e]ight loving arms and all those suckers. Know what I mean?” (p. 11). As Roy bites into one of the sandwiches and pleasurably responds, “Mmmmm, liver or some. …” (p. 12, [Kushner's ellipsis]), it anticipates his later intentionally erroneous self-diagnosis. In terms of immunological metaphors and their relation to a conservative body politic desirous of eradicating the other, liver cancer is, like AIDS, an ironically appropriate illness for Roy because the liver is responsible for purifying the blood against foreign elements and sending cleansed blood back into the body. When the liver ceases to function effectively the body is poisoned by toxins.

For Roy, the two elements of otherness that he tries to purify from American culture are homosexuality and communism, first by keeping his own and others' homosexuality in the closet, and second by pursuing and punishing those Americans ideologically identified with communism and marked as homosexual. In both cases Kushner shows Roy to have failed. First, with the exception of Joe, all of the other gay men in the play—and presumably also most New Yorkers who care—know definitively that Roy is gay, political clout or not. Furthermore, when Joe reveals to Roy, who is in rapid physical decline, that he is living with a man, his mentor demands that Joe return to his wife. Joe half-heartedly attempts to comply but cannot carry through because Roy's paternal admonishment is not strong enough to overcome Joe's desire for men. Second, although Roy successfully achieved Ethel Rosenberg's execution for her limited participation in relaying sensitive atomic bomb technology to the Soviets (Roy accomplished this, we learn, as a consequence of illegal ex-parte communication), Ethel's ghost haunts Roy throughout Angels in America, revealing to him just before he expires that he has been disbarred, thereby stripping him of the one identity that mattered most to his self-conception.

The cancer-ridden liver that Roy claims is his, which he symbolically cannibalizes in his first scene, is a double metaphor that highlights his growing incapacity to cleanse America of what he considers to be the undesirable political elements that have infiltrated it and of the cannibalization of the law (“because I know the Law's a pliable, breathing, sweating … organ,”) that he has engaged in since the inception of his career. By drawing a connection between the Law as a metaphorical organ and attempting to make a cancer-ridden liver the bogus centerpiece of his illness, Roy ironically calls attention to the fact that the Law as he practices it is diseased and no longer able to expunge from the U.S. body politic genuine forces of corruption. As represented by Kushner, Roy embodies legal corruption.

Roy's growing physical and political weakness is well illustrated in his contentious bedside relationship with Belize, Roy's nurse and Prior's close friend, a man whom Roy identifies as “the Negro night nurse, my negation” (Perestroika, 76). Roy initially demands medical attention from a white nurse, but, soon attracted to the force of Belize's personality, lies back and accepts the IV needle that Belize menacingly wields with the threat that he can make it feel as if “I just hooked you up to a bag of Liquid Drano” (Perestroika, 27). Belize's victory with the needle is a harbinger of more victories to come. The former drag queen's medical knowledge, it turns out, exceeds that of Roy's “very expensive WASP doctor” (Perestroika, 29). Scheduled for radiation therapy to treat the telltale K.S. lesions, Roy is informed by Belize not to accept the therapy, under penalty of death. Belize, apparently well schooled in the discipline of AIDS immunology, tells Roy that “radiation will kill the T-cells and you don't have any you can afford to lose” (Perestroika, 29).

Belize's lines, indebted to immunological theory, are important precisely because of who speaks them and what they mean to the history of Cold War political metaphor in immunology. In the 1950s immunological metaphors relied largely on a Cold War discourse of Self and Other that targeted the Other—figured as leftists, communists, and homosexuals in American political terminology—for exclusion from the body politic. By contrast, the Other is here embodied by the gay, African-American Belize, who speaks in the language of immunological resistance to the ultimate conservative Cold Warrior and persecutor of American political Otherness. In giving Belize these lines, Kushner appropriates immunological tropes for leftists and homosexuals alike by showing that in this play those groups are not Other, but Selves crucial to the constitution of the healthy American body politic.

Roy's political conception of medical knowledge and power is conventional—he simply can't believe that a gay black nurse's knowledge can surpass a white doctor's—but, true to form, he omits an important variable in his calculations: the possibility that homosexuality could actually be a politically powerful identity, especially when it comes to circulating knowledge about AIDS that can be translated into effective treatment. Although New York City's gay population might not have been able, in Roy's words, to pass a “pissant antidiscrimination bill in the city council,” several branches of the U.S. homosexual community in the 1980s, determined to overcome what they regarded as governmental institutions, medical communities, and pharmaceutical companies unresponsive to the catastrophe befalling gay men, pursued alternative medical treatments, including foreign (especially French) treatments and in many cases generated their own therapeutic discourses by publishing in local newspapers targeted at gay audiences. These treatments and discourses both typically challenged conventional American medical wisdom on AIDS.23 Among the most important challenges to mainstream AIDS research were passionate and politically effective attacks against double-blind drug testing of control groups that received nothing more than placebos.

Belize taps into this critique when he instructs Roy, on the heels of admonishing the ailing attorney not to accept radiation therapy, to demand actual AZT, the first effective drug to slow the advance of HIV, rather than risk the possibility of being treated with placebos that will “get the kind of statistics they can publish in the New England Journal of Medicine” (Perestroika, 30). Belize goes on to force upon Roy the sexual identity of homosexuality that he earlier rejected from his WASP physician. At the close of their first conversation Roy asks Belize what could possibly motivate him to divulge valuable information to a man who is his ideological adversary. Belize replies in a double-voiced language of leftist labor politics and gay appropriation of the vocabulary of oppression, “Consider it solidarity. One faggot to another” (Perestroika, 30), to which Roy responds with toothless threats. In his relationship with Belize, Roy isn't a heterosexual who fucks around with guys, he isn't even a homosexual—he's a “faggot,” someone who may be able to telephone Nancy Reagan but without nearly enough clout to resist an African American drag queen.

But Roy still certainly has clout in Washington and, more specifically, in Bethesda, Maryland, where the National Institutes of Health is located and where AZT is administered. Later in Perestroika, Belize is astonished to discover that Roy is the beneficiary of his medical advice and, partly as a consequence of that advice, personally controls a huge private stash of AZT like “the dragon atop the golden horde” (p. 60). Belize manages, however, to turn this material illustration of Roy's political power into his own gain. Through Roy, Belize has access to the drugs that represent the last best chance for prolonging the lives of his friends afflicted with HIV/AIDS, most notably Prior. At first Roy flatly refuses Belize's request for the AZT, even though Belize assures him that “[i]f you live fifty more years you won't swallow all of those pills” (Perestroika, 60).

Both men turn belligerent, hurling racial, ethnic, and sexual epithets at one another. Significantly, Belize's utterance of “kike,” an insult that forges linguistic and ethnic ties of solidarity between Roy, the Rosenbergs, the Ironsons, and all the rest of the “loser Jews” who in Roy's estimation “went Communist” (Perestroika, 27), turns out to be the key to the arch-conservative dragon's treasure. Roy subsequently ceases to resist Belize's entreaties and gives the nurse permission to take a single bottle, whereupon Belize removes three. Belize takes several more bottles in the short time that is left to Roy and, when the disbarred attorney dies, takes the remaining bottles. By giving Belize this important role of resistance to Roy, Kushner allows him to tap into governmental resources reserved for the vast minority of HIV/AIDS sufferers and to circumvent the experimental logic of double-blind testing.

Kushner wants us to read the overlapping medical and political discourses in Angels in America in terms of what it means to be a homosexual in contemporary America. Almost all of the homosexual characters in the play occupy an implied racial, ethnic, or religious position of marginality, if not of being a “nonself” in the American body politic at least of being a “less than full Self.” These include the right-wing Roy and left-wing Louis, both Jews; Belize, an African American; and Joe, a Mormon.24 Indeed, the only gay man who descends from the ethnic “mainstream” is Prior, a WASP of eminent bloodlines whose K.S. implicitly unites him to Jewish culture. Obviously, just as two Jews, one African American, one Mormon, and one ethnically identified WASP can't speak for everyone within their specific identity group, neither can one homosexual speak for all homosexuals. Nowhere is this more true than in a play where the so-called homosexual community is racially and ideologically divided along fault lines that can scarcely be negotiated. No character in Angels in America emerges as a mouthpiece for “all homosexuals.”

Tony Kushner has long been an activist for the equal treatment of homosexuals. Yet to answer the question of whether or not in Angels in America he represents homosexuality as a healthy or diseased feature of American life, whether he sees homosexuals as Selves or Nonselves in the body politic, we must turn to the final pages of Perestroika, the parting words of his Gay Fantasia on National Themes. In those pages the work's right-wingers who deny their own homosexuality, Joe Pitt and Roy Cohn, are absent, Roy because he's dead and Joe because he has elected to cut off his personal and political ties and forge out on his own in what Louis calls “the ego-anarchist-cowboys-shrilling-for-no-government part” of conservatism (p. 35). In their place are Hannah Pitt, Joe's mother, and Louis, Belize, and Prior, all seated at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. This fountain is an appropriate destination because in ancient Jerusalem Bethesda was a pool or public bath where miraculous cures were performed. Manhattan's version of the pool is appropriately dominated by a sculpture of the angel Bethesda, and it is surely no accident that the AZT procured by Roy, which has made its circuitous way into Prior's system, thus prolonging his life, originally comes from Bethesda, Maryland. While Louis and Belize debate the merits and deficiencies of liberal politics, Prior, still stricken with AIDS but having been granted a stay of execution never made available to the Rosenbergs, reserves his remarks for the status of HIV-positive homosexuals in national life: “This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won't die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come” (Perestroika, 148).

Prior's concluding statement of gay citizenship, a medico-political discourse of full selfhood within the American body politic, deploys and revises the language of immunology that Burnet and Fenner proposed half a century ago. Perestroika is therefore less a title intended to remind us of the reform-minded Soviet Union of the Gorbachev era and more a manifesto calling for the kind of radical restructuring of U.S. society that would make Americans reflect seriously on their McCarthyite past as well as politically “naturalize” and medically depathologize gay Americans and other marginalized groups into full citizens. For Kushner, the American body politic may only be diagnosed as healthy when it finally embraces all of its citizens, all of its selves, not simply those endowed with the kind of de facto immunity achieved by circulating themselves within a straight and narrow political and sexual economy.


  1. Tony Kushner, Millennium Approaches, Part One of Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1992), 45. All subsequent citations to Millennium Approaches will appear parenthetically in the text by page number.

  2. Homosexuals and communists shared common representational and discursive terrain in the 1950s. See, for instance, Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay American History: Lesbians & Gay Men in the U.S.A., A Documentary History (New York: Meridian, 1992); Robert J. Corber, In the Name of National Security: Hitchcock, Homophobia, and the Political Construction of Gender in Postwar America (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1993); and John D'Emilo, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970 (Chicago, Ill.: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1983). Communists and homosexuals alike were regarded as groups uniquely equipped to subvert U.S. security because they could “pass” as heterosexual and patriotic despite underlying identities regarded as subversive by the social and political mainstream. For more on the cultural, social, and medical history of homosexuality in the twentieth century, see David F. Greenberg, The Construction of Homosexuality (Chicago, Ill.: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988); Domna C. Stanton, ed., Discourses of Sexuality From Aristotle to AIDS (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1992); and Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, and David Halperin, eds., The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 1993).

  3. The parallels between communism in the 1950s and homosexuality in the 1980s are discussed in Michael Cadden, “Strange Angel: The Pinklisting of Roy Cohn,” in Approaching the Millennium: Essays on Angels in America, ed. Deborah R. Geis and Steven F. Kruger (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1997), 78-89. Cadden writes, “Kushner's play reflects a new gay self-recognition about the ways in which the oppression of gay men and lesbians, like the oppression of other minority groups, has been integral to majoritarian self-recognition, especially during the Reaganite 1980s, when antihomosexuality served many of the same purposes that anticommunism did in the 1950s” (pp. 83-84).

  4. Tony Kushner, Perestroika, Part Two of Angels in America (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1992), 110. All subsequent citations to Perestroika will appear parenthetically in the text by page number.

  5. I am indebted to Cindy Patton, Inventing AIDS (New York: Routledge, 1990), for bringing my attention to the Cold War histories of immunology and virology. Patton, however, focuses on the immunological breakthroughs of the 1960s when, she observes, “[t]he idea of a delicately balanced internal ecology nicely mirrored the growing perception of the human being precariously perched in a world ecology. Immunology met the cultural needs of an ‘America’ fascinated by a return to homeopathic ideas, but unwilling to abandon the miracles of modern medical technology” (p. 59). While Patton is right to underline the cultural importance of immunology for Americans in the sixties, reading immunological metaphor in terms of Angels in America only makes sense when we focus our historical gaze on the immunological breakthroughs following World War II and during the McCarthy years when Roy Cohn was a key figure in the drive to identify communists within the U.S. body politic.

  6. Edward Jenner, An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, a Disease Discovered in Some of the Western Counties of England, Particularly Gloucestershire, and Known by the Name of the Cow Pox (London: Sampson Low, 1798).

  7. See Claude Bernard, An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (1865), trans. Henry Copley (New York: Dover, 1957); and Louis Pasteur, “De l'atténuation du virus du choléra des poules,” Comptes Rendus. Academie des Sciences 91 (1880):673-80, and “Méthode pour prevenir la rage après morsure,” Comptes Rendus. Academie des Sciences 101 (1885):765-73.

  8. Important immunological discoveries before World War I included, for example, Richard Pfeiffer's research on bacteriolysis, “Weitere Untersuchungen uber das Wesen der Choleraimmunitat und uber specifische baktericide Prozesse,” Zeitschrift fuer Hygiene und Infektionskrankheiten 18 (1894):1-16; Max von Gruber and Herbert E. Durham's findings regarding specific agglutination, “Eine neue Methode zu raschen Erkennugn des Choleravibrio und des Typhusbacillus,” Deutsche Medizinal Zeitung Wochenschr 43 (1896):285-86; Georges F. I. Widal and Arthur Sicard's test for the diagnosis of typhoid (the Widal test) on the basis of the Gruber-Durham reaction, “Recherches de la réaction agglutinate dans le sang et le sérum desséchés des typhiques et dans la sérosité des vésicatoires,” Bulletin et Memoires Société de Médecine de Paris 13 (1896):681-82; and Paul Ehrlich's theory of antibody production, “On Immunity with Special Reference to Cell Life,” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 66 (1900):424-28.

  9. To learn more about the history of immunology, see Arthur Silverstein, A History of Immunology (San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace, 1989); and Emily Martin, Flexible Bodies: Tracking Immunity in American Culture from the Days of Polio to the Age of AIDS (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1994).

  10. For more on the history of virology, see Greer Williams, Virus Hunters (New York: Knopf, 1959); A. P. Waterson and Lisa Wilkinson, An Introduction to the History of Virology (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1978); Peter Radetsky, The Invisible Invaders: The Story of the Emerging Age of Viruses (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown, 1991); and Michael B. A. Oldstone, Viruses, Plagues, and History (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998).

  11. Frank Macfarlane Burnet and Frank Fenner, The Production of Antibodies (Melbourne: MacMillan, 1949). Burnet and Fenner's book was a revision of Burnet's single-authored The Production of Antibodies from 1941. All citations of the later edition will appear parenthetically in the text by page number.

  12. The extent to which Burnet and Fenner's discovery shaped the rhetoric of immunology can be seen in the title of Jan Klein's textbook, Immunology: The Science of Self-Nonself Discrimination (New York: Wiley, 1982).

  13. Burnet was named a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1942 and later the President of the Australian Academy of Science. He shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine with the British researcher Peter L. Medawar. Among the most highly decorated scientists in his lifetime, Burnet's other major honors included the two highest awards for research available to a British scientist, the Order of Merit, an award directly given by the Queen and which is limited to twenty-five living recipients at any one time, and the Copley Medal of the Royal Society. Only being elected to the Presidency is considered a higher honor within the Royal Society (see Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet, Immunological Surveillance [London: Pergamon, 1970]).

  14. Immunology and anti-communism's shared discursive preoccupation with surveillance also underlines a cultural disposition of western modernity, most comprehensively explored by Michel Foucault, to construct elaborate apparati of surveillance at both the molecular and molar levels. For the history of technologies and techniques of western cultural surveillance as understood by Foucault see, for instance, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Vintage, 1975); Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1979); History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1980); and Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews & Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Harvester, 1980).

  15. Ellen Schrecker, ed., The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents (New York: St. Martin's, 1994), 211.

  16. In recalling the Alger Hiss case, Richard Nixon in Six Crises (New York: Doubleday, 1962) described Hiss—and the apparent unlikelihood that he could have been a communist—as follows: “Hiss … had come from a fine family, had made an outstanding record at Johns Hopkins and Harvard Law, had been honored by being selected for the staff of a great justice of the Supreme Court, had served as Executive Secretary to the big international monetary conference at Dumbarton Oaks in 1944, had accompanied President Roosevelt to Yalta, and had held a key post at the conference establishing the United Nations at San Francisco. Was it possible that a man with this background could have been a Communist whose allegiance was to the Soviet Union?” (p. 18). And finally, in The Autobiography of Roy Cohn (Secaucus, N.J.: Lyle Stuart, 1988), written in collaboration with Sidney Zion, Cohn describes William Walter Remington, a defendant in a perjury case that Cohn prosecuted, with the political language of American Self and communist Other to emphasize Remington's guilt as a Soviet operative: “A handsome, brilliant WASP with everything going for him. Born in New York City in 1917, he was raised in Ridgewood, N.J., a picture postcard of a town that could have been the home of Judge Hardy. At 16, Remington enrolled in Dartmouth and made Phi Beta Kappa. Later he got a masters in economics at Columbia. In 1939, he married his college sweetheart, Ann Moos, and moved into her banker father's home in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. Then to Washington with the Commerce Department, the War Productions Board, the Navy, and after the war back to Commerce. Behind this All-American facade was a dedicated Communist who ultimately became a spy for the Kremlin” (p. 53). Nixon and Cohn both depend on a representational opposition between the “All-American” official biographies and seditious unofficial biographies of their nemeses. Cohn implicitly juxtaposes his own Jewish identity against Remington's markers of WASP respectability.

  17. See Laura Otis, Membranes: Metaphors of Invasion in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Science, and Politics (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1999).

  18. Frank Macfarlane Burnet, The Integrity of the Body (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1962), 68.

  19. For a more complete explanation of the ways that science is black boxed, see Bruno Latour, Science in Action: How to Follow Engineers and Scientists through Society (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1987), 1-21.

  20. Notwithstanding the objections of figures like Peter Duesberg, a research scientist on the faculty at the University of California at Berkeley in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology (see Peter Duesberg, Inventing the AIDS Virus [Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1996]). Duesberg utterly rejected the correlation between AIDS and HIV and was so confident of his position that he even offered to inject himself with HIV to prove that it was not the cause of AIDS. For more on Duesberg, his allies, and the controversy they stirred, see Steven Epstein, Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge (Berkeley: Univ. of California, 1996). Epstein calls Duesberg the “premier ‘HIV dissenter’” (p. 105).

  21. In “Angels, Monsters, and Jews: Intersections of Queer and Jewish Identity in Kushner's Angels in America,PMLA 113 (1998):90-102, Jonathan Freedman argues that Kushner, a Jew himself, actually engages in anti-Semitism in his metonymic portrayal of sexual deviance and Jewishness. Kushner, Freedman contends, eventually falls back on Christian imagery and teleology that assimilates the Jewish identity of the play.

  22. Allen J. Frantzen, in his essay “Prior to the Normans: The Anglo-Saxons in Angels in America,” in Approaching the Millennium: Essays on Angels in America, 134-50, informs us that Louis gets his history wrong. Louis bases his understanding of Prior's WASP genealogy on the fact that there is a Prior Walter depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, presumably as an Anglo-Saxon defender. Frantzen writes, “Louis's view of when and where the tapestry was made is popular but wrong. The tapestry was made in England, under the patronage of William's half-brother Odo, bishop of Bayeux and vice-regent of England, within a generation of 1066, not during the conquest itself, and then taken to the Bayeux Cathedral. … The original Prior Walter might [therefore] … have been a Norman who took part in the conquest of the English. If so, in a line of thirty-one men of the same name … Prior Walter claims Anglo-Norman rather than Anglo-Saxon ancestry. His long genealogy, to which Louis proudly points, is hybrid in its origins” (pp. 140-41).

  23. For more on the activism of AIDS treatment, see Epstein, 235-65.

  24. Exploration of the play's Mormon themes can be found in David Savran, “Ambivalence, Utopia and a Queer Sort of Materialism: How Angels in America Reconstructs the Nation,” in Approaching the Millennium: Essays on Angels in America, 13-39.

Roger Bechtel (essay date fall 2001)

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SOURCE: Bechtel, Roger. “‘A Kind of Painful Progress’: The Benjaminian Dialectics of Angels in America.Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 16, no. 1 (fall 2001): 99-121.

[In the following essay, Bechtel examines the underlying political ideology of Angels in America in terms of the leftist cultural theories of Walter Benjamin. Bechtel asserts that Kushner's play ultimately achieves a “historical disruption” of status quo politics.]

Broadway is, without a doubt, that which critics love to hate. Even without leveling sardonic broadsides at overproduced mega-musicals or overweening star turns, we can always count on Broadway to be our easiest target. Of course, historically speaking, we seem to have good cause: where once we could count on Broadway to nourish new plays and playwrights, we can now bemoan the economies that preclude most new American drama from ever making it north of 14th Street or east of 8th Avenue. These days, after all, our Pulitzer Prize winners are culled almost exclusively from the ranks of Off-Broadway, where they've often transferred after starting life in one or more of the regional theatres. The 90's did, however, witness one outstanding exception to this rule: the play that everyone loved to love, Angels in America.

There is bound to be something dubious, however, about a serious, ostensibly politically radical play, produced on Broadway, receiving uniform and unabashed adulation.1 If at first the academic response was as sanguine as that in the popular press, with virtually every critic finding something different to admire, a kind of backlash has developed since. The turning point was conspicuously marked by David Savran's influential essay, “Ambivalence, Utopia, and a Queer Sort of Materialism: How Angels in America Reconstructs the Nation.”2 The unremitting accolades received by Angels is the very thing that, for Savran, makes the play itself suspect. “Why,” he asks, “is [Angels] both popular and ‘radical’?”3 His answer is that the play isn't radical; despite its purported politics, ideologically Angels amounts to nothing more than a thinly veiled American liberal pluralism. Gone from the play, Savran argues, is any real sense of revolution, any trace of Kushner's avowed commitment to socialism. Formidable in its own right, Savran's argument was soon echoed or adopted by other scholars, creating a critical bandwagon which trumpeted the play's supposedly faulty politics.

Yet if Angels seems to fall short politically, it is important to examine the political bar it is so vehemently expected to clear. My goal in this essay is to perform this examination, primarily by looking at the play in the context of American realpolitik, and comparing it to the idealized leftist agenda marshaled against it by these critics. Primarily, however, I want to address their corresponding argument that Angels also fails to live up to its political and aesthetic inspiration, Walter Benjamin. Claims that Angels is insufficiently dialectical or opposed to Benjamin's derisory notion of progress prove false upon a closer reading of Benjamin and the play, which, I argue, exhibits a historical sensibility very much akin to Benjamin's.


As Savran rightly points out, not only is the play's title and central conceit drawn from Walter Benjamin's famous “angel of history,” but Kushner attempts to imbue his work with Benjamin's unique notion of historical dialectics (which I will examine shortly).4 Kushner's failure, Savran claims, is that the play isn't actually dialectical at all. Instead, the political oppositions Kushner dramatizes either inevitably stand as ambivalent and/or “irreducibly contradictory,” or collapse under the structural or rhetorical weight of one of the pair's terms.5 What is missing is sublation, the essence of dialectical synthesis. As Savran argues, “Angels is carefully constructed so that communitarianism, rationalism, progress, etc., will be read as being preferable to their alternatives: individualism, indeterminacy, stasis, etc.”6 Of course, the real problem here is neither theoretical nor aesthetic but political; the terms into which these ostensible oppositions collapse coalesce into a liberal pluralist agenda.

The ultimate difference between Benjamin and Kushner, however, is the antithetical positions they take with regard to the notion of progress. According to Savran, “Unlike the Benjamin of the Theses on the Philosophy of History, for whom any concept of progress seems quite inconceivable, Kushner is devoted to rescuing Enlightenment epistemologies at a time when they are, to say the least, extremely unfashionable.”7 The problem, for Savran, in reasserting the concept of a progressive history is its subversion of the imperative for praxis. Averting the apocalypse in Angels amounts to the tacit implication that, in time, the “new Jerusalem” awaits all, regardless of class, race, ethnicity, or sexual preference. This is where Angels' seeming ambivalence comes into play. Although the binary terms of the play (communitarianism / individualism, progress / stasis, etc.) ultimately resolve one-sidedly, their appearance as functional oppositions serves to create the feeling and the vision of America as a potentially pluralist utopia. Ambivalence functions here in the same way dissensus functions in American culture: as the putative guard against conservative hegemony, and, at the same time, its most effective mask. In other words, both the play's ambivalence and the American culture's celebration of dissent that it mirrors promise a utopian future that obviates the need for revolutionary action, thus perpetuating the conservative status quo. What's left is a politics of identity that is reformist at best:

Angels in America assures the (liberal) theatergoing public that a kind of liberal pluralism remains the best hope for change. Revolution, in the Marxist sense, is rendered virtually unthinkable, oxymoronic. … In short: an identity politics comes to substitute for Marxist analysis. There is no clear sense that the political and social problems with which the characters wrestle might be connected to a particular economic system. … an alternative to capitalism, except in the form of an indefinitely deferred utopia, remains absent from the play's dialectic. Revolution, even in Benjamin's sense of the term, is evacuated of its political content, functioning less as a Marxist hermeneutic tool than a trope, a figure of speech (the oxymoron) that marks the place later to be occupied by a (liberal pluralist?) utopia.8

The problem with Angels on Broadway, Savran concludes, is that it generated not only “cultural capital” but “economic capital,” which commits Kushner, even if only subconsciously, to perpetuating the system that rewarded him.9

Savran's views have begun to find support from other critics. In her essay “Notes on Angels in America as American Epic Theater,” Janelle Reinelt echoes his argument in somewhat different terms:

Rather than focusing on the reiteration of liberal themes, I regret Kushner's drift away from socialist themes. The replacement of class analysis by other identity categories, while useful and strategic in terms of contemporary exigencies, leaves the play with no other foundation for social change than the individual subject, dependent on atomized agency. Since this subjectivity is contradictory and collapsed, the only horizon of hope must be transcendent.10

This last point is repeated by Charles McNulty in his essay, “Angels in America: Tony Kushner's Theses on the Philosophy of History.”11 Also citing Savran, McNulty makes much the same argument: that despite the historical materialist analysis of Millennium Approaches,Perestroika retreats into a “fairy tale of progress” and “religious fantasy.”12 McNulty, however, ends on a far harsher note:

By the end of Perestroika, Kushner stops asking those pinnacle questions of our time, in order to dispense “answers” and bromides. … to be truly convincing, [they] must be passed through, dramatized, not eclipsed by celestial shenanigans peppered with Wizard of Oz insight.13

Needless to say, “Wizard of Oz insight” is a far cry from what Newsweek critic Jack Kroll called “the broadest, deepest, most searching American play of our time.”14

What Savran, Reinelt, and McNulty all seem to be looking for in Angels is a statement of theory and praxis based on a revolutionary, or at least class, ideal that, discerning from their critical rejoinders, is best located in received modernist notions of “revolution.” Savran's critique, however insightful it is in some respects, emits a positive air of nostalgia when it decries the absence of a revolutionary ethos in Angels. Yet what Kushner grapples with in his play is the very problem of effecting political praxis in the absence of theory; in a world where Marxism is struggling against its widely-perceived death-blow, realpolitik requires rethinking traditional approaches to “revolution,” its theory, and its praxis. In our postmodern, poststructural, post Wall world, Kushner confronts the reality that, at least at the present moment, we are decidedly post-revolutionary, at least in the classical sense. Instead of recapitulating a revolutionary discourse that may not be presently useful, Kushner explores other options for a leftist politics at the millennium.


Kushner has openly recognized the influence of Walter Benjamin on his thinking and writing, but it would be a mistake to see the Angels in Kushner's play as a simple theatrical translation of Benjamin's angel of history. In fact, the two representations can be read as dialectical opposites.15 To examine the differences, the oft-cited passage from Benjamin's “Theses” is worth quoting again here:

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. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence 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. This storm is what we call progress.16

What Benjamin so arrestingly captures here is the forward thrust of progress without corresponding historical movement. The Enlightenment belief in progress has produced enormous destruction over time, but it has failed to produce “history,” i.e., a substantial shift away from the ever-mounting catastrophe that has become the empirical constitutive of Enlightenment's reign. Benjamin's angel faces backwards, and although the vector of progress and time hurtle him forward, his fate is to be fixated on the historical past. Yet of history, he perceives only a single moment, unmarked by time, in which a single calamity piles its wreckage ever higher. The angel might perhaps be able to cease the carnage, to redeem this history, but he is ceaselessly propelled by the misguided notion that history is moving forward along the path of progress, that society is charting the course toward its own perfection. Thus Benjamin's angel longs to cease the “storm” of progress not so that he can settle into a comfortable stasis, but so that history can be wrested from the cycle of destruction that makes it synchronic and monolithic, and set on a new course. Only then will the angel be liberated from his forced retrospection, and with this new freedom of movement presumably be able to face, at his will and at any given moment, either the past or the future, gaining for the first time a perspective that is truly dialectical.

Kushner's Angels, on the other hand, is decidedly reactionary. Despite the Angel's dramatic entrance at the end of Millennium Approaches, it is only in Perestroika that her mission is made manifest when she explains to Prior the cosmic order. In his design of the human animal, God has incorporated the “virus of time” and thus the potential for change. However, the human compulsion for movement and progress has sent shock waves through Heaven, driving God away and leaving it resembling the ruins of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. In order to lure God back and to prevent earthly apocalypse, the Angel has anointed Prior as a prophet, entrusting him with the message that humankind must halt its movement and forbear all progress, mingling, and intermarriage. AIDS, presumably, is a form of reactionary angelic intervention, as the Angel announces to Prior, “On you in you in your blood we write have written STASIS! The END.”17 Ultimately, however, Prior refuses the prophecy, announcing to the congregation of Angels, “We can't just stop. 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” (2.132).

Given Kushner's many affirming references to “progress” and “forward motion,” it is easy to see how critics could read Angels as ideologically antithetical to Benjamin's critique of historicism. What these critics fail to do, however, is to historicize both Benjamin and Kushner. Placed in their proper historical contexts, the concepts of progress elicited by these two writers take on significantly different valences. For Benjamin, progress was the dangerous ideological foundation of social democracy, which, as embodied in the German SPD, had capitulated to fascism in the years leading to the Third Reich. He makes his argument against social democracy specific in the “Theses”:

Social Democratic theory, and even more its practice, have been formed by a conception of progress which did not adhere to reality but made dogmatic claims. Progress as pictured in the minds of Social Democrats was, first of all, the progress of mankind itself (and not just advances in men's ability and knowledge). Secondly, it was something boundless, in keeping with the infinite perfectibility of mankind. Thirdly, progress was regarded as irresistible, something that automatically pursued a straight or spiral course. Each of these predicates is controversial and open to criticism.18

Viewing progress as “irresistible” allowed the social democrats to tolerate fascism, however egregious its manifestation, as a historical phase destined ultimately to fall under the boots of history's forward march. Yet despite his attack on social democracy, Benjamin was denied the vantage of any real political position from which to launch his critique; as Terry Eagleton puts it, Benjamin was “stranded between social democracy and Stalinism.”19 Unable to embrace a communism mired in the abuses of Stalin, and at the same time philosophically opposed to the teleological certainties of social democracy, Benjamin was left to develop his own uniquely theological materialism.

As Savran implies, there is a Benjaminian concept of revolution that differs greatly from the classical Marxist formulation. In a sense, because history for Benjamin has no telos, it can exist in a more profoundly dialectical relationship with the present. Again in the “Theses” Benjamin writes, “History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now [Jetztzeit]. Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history.”20 It is here we find both Benjamin's concept of revolution and its theological inflection. If history is not evolution, revolution can only be accomplished through an act of historical agency; the shock necessary to disrupt the catastrophic eternal recurrence that is history must come at the hands of one ready to make the “tiger's leap” into the past. Such a move, straining as it does against the closed history of the ruling class, requires not only historical consciousness but fortitude: “The historical materialist leaves it to others to be drained by the whore called ‘Once upon a time’ in historicism's bordello. He remains in control of his powers, man enough to blast open the continuum of history.”21

Despite the “überman” sensibility of this last passage, couching historical agency in pointedly human (and masculine) terms allows Benjamin to prevent the key component of agency from being subsumed into his messianism. In other words, it reinforces the theory as materialism inflected by messianism rather than the converse. Indeed, what the revolutionary agent achieves in the act of exploding history is precisely a “weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim.”22 For, unlike the Messiah, the historical materialist cannot through her mere appearance redeem all of history in a single stroke. Instead, the power she wields comes directly from the past, in the form of a discrete image or memory, by the rescue of which the rest of history might follow. As Terry Eagleton describes it:

We repeat, as Freud taught us, what we cannot recollect; and we cannot recollect it because it is unpleasant. If we were able to recollect our ancestors, then in a moment of shock we might trigger the unpalatable memory trace at a ripe time, blast through the continuum of history and create the empty space in which the forces of tradition might congregate to shatter the present. That moment of shock is socialist revolution.23

This last sentence, however, somewhat overstates the case in that it might be read as reinserting the teleological moment into Benjamin's theory. It is perhaps a truer reading of Benjamin not to claim that the moment of shock is socialist revolution, but that socialist revolution “might” be able to congregate in the space voided by the shock. Indeed, earlier in Eagleton's essay, he explicitly argues against foreclosing the “‘text’ of revolutionary history” in the “symmetrical shape of narrative,” and instead characterizes Marxism as a “transformative practice” of “ceaseless ‘beginning.’”24

What should be apparent at this point is that Benjamin's theory of revolution posits only its moment of possibility and not its political form. Benjamin charges us to blast history open, but refuses to speculate as to how the revolution is to proceed through the breach. Indeed, the rhetoric of this particular charge implies a grand revolutionary gesture, but elsewhere Benjamin implies that the battle for control of history will not be won with a single blow but through the sustained efforts of generational struggle: If the history ripe for exploding is the monolithic construction of bourgeois historicism, the explosion will detonate in a counterhistory constructed for just such a purpose. The past, for Benjamin, consists in flashes of memory that must be seized or risk being lost forever: “The same threat hangs over both [the content of the tradition and its receivers]: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it … even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.”25 The dialectical working of agency and history becomes clearer here: man's weak messianic power is insufficient to break open history without the power of history itself working as his dialectical superior—this is the debt owed to the past. In other words, as a political practice, the received narrative of history must have wrested from it historical countermemories (to borrow from Foucault), which gain a kind of critical mass in accumulation. This critical mass is the power of counterhistory awaiting to be used to sunder its hegemonic opposite. What begins to reassert itself here is the concept of progress, but in a radically different form from the evolutionary Marxism of social democracy. For progress in this conceptual instance operates without teleology or preconceived narrative; it provides only a theory of praxis which aspires to write into history the “strait gate” through which revolution might enter. Benjamin's revolution now begins to come into focus as one of “ceaseless beginnings”; while the question of the precise political form of revolution remains unanswered, the “Theses” appear not quite as mute on the subject as first supposed. What emerges is a praxis of preparation ready to account for a prolonged series of discrete and local actions. Given the historical contingencies faced by Benjamin in 1940, such a praxis seems perhaps the only feasible alternative, a point elucidated by Eagleton:

… [T]he Jetztzeit ceases to figure simply as a symbolic element within historical materialism and comes to stand in for the rigours of revolutionary practice. Between the coming of the masses and the coming of the Messiah, no third term is able to crystallize. The revolutionary prophet substitutes himself for the revolutionary party, able to fulfill its mnemonic but not its theoretical and organizational tasks, rich in wisdom partly because poor in practice. If Trotsky has the Transitional Programme, Benjamin is left with the “time of the now”. No revolutionary movement can afford to ignore steady signs of progress, rhythms of gradual development, or (in a non-metaphysical sense of the term) questions of teleology. …26

If Benjamin was a revolutionary prophet, his foretelling of the Messiah's coming did not forestall his understanding of the real work needed to prepare for the arrival.

It would seem absurd to compare Benjamin's fascist Germany with Kushner's postmodern America, and yet, at least for Kushner, there are parallels. In his earlier play, A Bright Room Called Day, Kushner doesn't hesitate to compare Ronald Reagan to Adolf Hitler, although he hopes his audience will read into the comparison appropriate historical context: “I never indulged in fantasies of some archaic form of fascism goose-stepping down the streets of America. Reagan and the forces gathered about him seemed to me, in the flush of their demoralizing victory in 1984, the advance guard of a new and more dangerous and destructive form of barbarism.” Citing Marcuse's admonishment that history would only repeat itself in a more highly-developed form, he goes on to say, “Postmodern, cybernetic, microwave, microchip fascism may not look anything like its modernist forbear.”27

Whether the comparison between Nazi Germany and Reaganite America is apt is beside the point; what is relevant is that Kushner, like Benjamin, perceives the profound absence of any real platform for a meaningful politics of the left. If Benjamin's attack on the evolutionary ethos of social democracy was unremitting, it was because he perceived that ethos as standing in the way of what could have been a formidable revolutionary movement. That fascism was the enemy was clear; the existence of substantial popular support for the left was also clear. The challenge was to turn that support into substantive opposition, to ignite leftist sentiment into revolutionary fervor. To this end, and on the eve of Hitler's final ascent, all rhetoric of progress per se had to be abjured. Millennial America, however, poses an altogether different dilemma. Where Benjamin apprehended the misdirection of leftist political energy, Kushner perceives America's profound lack of any cohesive left whatsoever. Although we may strain to compare Reagan with Hitler, what remains strikingly similar between their historical moments is the political quietus engendered in response. It is the nature of that quietus, however, that differentiates the two eras. For Kushner, the battle is not against a quiescent left as it was for Benjamin, but to prompt a nascent leftist response by exposing the tyranny of the right. What both perhaps share is the fear that the left will soon disappear altogether. Kushner's response, as I will argue more fully later, is to urge counterhegemonic formations, beginning with identity politics, that have the potential to cohere into an organized left. Such a response can only be measured in terms of progress; to wish for a revolutionary realpolitik in America is to fantasize, or worse, to think of history in a nostalgic and undialectical way. Yet Kushner's concept of progress is not the progress of social democracy. If Kushner shuns a rhetoric of revolution, he also avoids backsliding into teleology and grand historical narrative. Although he may wear the idea of progress on his sleeve, his approach is much more Benjaminian than any of his critics have realized.


As previously discussed, Benjamin's method seems not to strain toward the untenable rescue of history in all its moments as if by the entrance of the Messiah, but to work toward the accumulation of counter-historical moments so that a revolutionary tradition may survive. Paradoxically, however, this is precisely the way to redeem the totality of history; from a dialectical perspective each moment of history sublates all others:

A historical materialist approaches a historical subject only where he encounters it as a monad. … He takes cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogenous course of history—blasting a specific life out of the era or a specific work out of the lifework. As a result of this method the lifework is preserved in this work and at the same time canceled; in the lifework, the era; and in the era, the entire course of history. The nourishing fruit of the historically understood contains time as a precious but tasteless seed.28

If this captures the dialectical essence of history's redemption, what remains is to elaborate on the nature of the historical subject.

Memory is the realm of the past, of history apprehended, and its medium is the image. “The past,” Benjamin writes, “can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.”29 The importance of the image for Benjamin should not be underestimated; as he noted, “Only images in the mind vitalize the will. The mere word, by contrast, at most inflames it, to leave it smoldering, blasted. There is not intact will without exact pictorial imagination. No imagination without innervation.”30 These memory flashes, however, are not random but the product of the image's particular Jetztzeit, its embodiment of the presence of the now which reciprocally galvanizes both it and its present-time counterpart. Thus, to use Benjamin's example, Rome is redeemed by Robespierre and France ignited by Rome. It is not the historical image alone which embodies the charge, but the juxtaposition of past image and present moment, or of images and moments arrayed in constellation, which embodies a particular dialectical dynamic.

If Benjamin doesn't offer a term or phrase in his “Theses” to encompass this concept, his Passegenwerk suggests such configurations should be called “dialectical images.” But, as Susan Buck-Morss points out, the dialectical image is “overdetermined in Benjamin's thought.”31 The most obvious difference between its conception in the “Theses” and in the Passegenwerk is that the latter locates these images in specific historical objects like the 19th century Parisian arcades. These objects still burst from the now-time of their historical milieu in dialectical tension with the present, but they also carry an inherent dialectical charge between their phenomenal presence as commodity fetishes and their embodiment of the collective desire for utopia. The shock or “illumination” gained from the dialectical image serves to awaken the viewer from the dreamscape of commodity capitalism, and thus has ontological as well as epistemological impact. While in the “Theses” the same operation obtains, the illumination does not necessarily issue from a “profane” object, but can be found in, for example, an entire era.

The concept of the dialectical image is bound up with another Benjaminian concept: “dialectics at a standstill.” Benjamin's angel had the storm of progress caught in its wings, and we do as well. If there is any possibility of revolutionary change, we must be able to see history not as an irrepressible force which carries us helplessly along in its wake, but as a force open to our own use in shaping its future course. In this sense, the dialectics of history must be brought to a standstill to allow us that insight. Benjamin first alludes to this phenomenon in One Way Street:

Again and again, in Shakespeare, in Calderon, battles fill the last act, and kings, princes, attendants and followers “enter fleeing.” The moment in which they become visible to spectators brings them to a standstill. The flight of the dramatis personae is arrested by the stage. Their entry into the visual field of nonparticipating and truly impartial persons allows the harassed to draw breath, bathes them in new air. The appearance on stage of those who enter “fleeing” takes from this its hidden meaning. Our reading of this formula is imbued with expectation of a place, a light, a footlight glare, in which our flight through life may be likewise sheltered in the presence of onlooking strangers.

(emphasis added)32

The theatre, appropriately enough, operates here as a metaphor for the alienation effect that Benjamin describes: by stopping both movement and time (or perhaps it is better to say the dialectical exchange between movement and time), and placing the object “on stage,” we may observe and come to understand it in a way that is normally foreclosed to us. It is not simply the object, however, that becomes estranged, but the processes of movement and time that otherwise obscure both the object and themselves. In other words, history itself, both as a construction and a process of constructing, is dramatically displayed. Benjamin most clearly describes this moment in his “Theses”:

A historical materialist cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time stands still and has come to a stop. For this notion defines the present in which he himself is writing history. … Materialist historiography, on the other hand, is based on the constructive principle. Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystallizes into a monad. … In this structure, he recognizes the sign of a Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past.33

The monad Benjamin alludes to is the dialectical image; as Rolf Tiedemann points out, the content of the dialectical image is a dialectic at a standstill.34

It is precisely in its use of dialectical images that Angels embodies Benjamin's notion of history. Perestroika provides two scenes which are particularly good examples of how this concept is incorporated into Kushner's dramaturgy. The first of these scenes is set in the Diorama Room of the Mormon Visitor's Center, where Hannah has been working since her arrival in New York. At this point in the play, Joe has left Harper for Louis, and Harper has begun to spend her days with Hannah at the Center. Kushner describes the Diorama Room as “a little proscenium theatre” in which mannequins depicting a family of Mormons in 1847 are shown in tableau trekking across the desert in their covered wagon (2.62). A taped voice narrates the story of the great journey from Missouri to Salt Lake, and although only the father's face moves, taped dialogue is given to him and his sons, each being illuminated by a small spotlight when he speaks. The women in the tableau, it is important to note, the mother and daughter, neither move nor utter a word. On this particular day, Prior has come to the Center where he meets Harper—an uncanny encounter after their mutually hallucinatory interaction earlier in the play. When the mechanical theatre actually begins, the Mormon father is incarnated by Joe, and from nowhere Louis suddenly appears in the scene to question him about Mormonism and politics. Finally, the two of them leave the diorama to talk through their crisis, and Harper draws the curtain.

Kushner's Diorama Room is very much like the Parisian panoramas which figured prominently for Benjamin in the Passegen-Werk. According to Buck-Morss, panoramas were “artificially constructed, lifelike replicas of scenes from history and nature—everything from battlefields to alpine vistas—that were favorite attractions in the nineteenth century” (2.67). Like movie theatres at a contemporary shopping mall, the panoramas of Paris were often found in the arcades, where denizens would sit around a large, circular wall and look into individual viewing slots, watching history being literally unrolled before them. Not only was the content of this history ideologically charged, but the form of the panorama reflected the progressive idea of history so anathema to Benjamin: the panorama rolled inexorably forward, the spectators caught up in its irresistible acceleration.

This same dynamic is at play in Angels' Mormon diorama, which functions as a little theatre of history. The story it tells is Joseph Smith's leading the Mormons on the journey from New York across America to an unknown destination, the promised land. The rhetoric that bolstered the pilgrims on the way was, of course, one of religious faith, an ideology challenged by Harper as she comments on the staged conversation between the mannequin Father and his two sons, Orrin and Caleb:

When will we arrive in Zion, Father? When will our great exodus finally be done? All this wandering …
Never. You'll die of snake bite and your brother looks like scorpion food to me.
Soon boys, soon, just like the Prophet promised. The Lord leads the way.
Will there be lots to eat there, Father?
No, just sand.
Will the desert flow with milk and honey? Will there be water there?
Oh, there's a big lake but it's salt, that's the joke …
The Lord will provide for us, son, he always has.
Well, not always …
… they drag you on your knees through hell and when you get there the water of course is undrinkable. Salt. It's a Promised Land, but what a disappointing promise!


Harper here is literally talking back to history, questioning the received narrative that still rules the Mormon Church. The scene becomes truly dialectical, however, when Louis enters the historical scenario to question Joe, still embedded in this narrative, about the theocratic nature of Mormonism, which conflicts with Louis's oft-espoused belief in pluralist democracy. The symbolism here is clear: Louis wants to pull Joe out of history, to free him from what Louis perceives as 150-year-old totalitarian religious dogma. Despite the fact that his Mormonism has long constrained him from exploring his sexual identity, Joe protests and defends his faith; yet Louis prevails, at least in this scene, and the two exit the little proscenium stage. Even though Joe finally addresses his sexuality through Louis, at the end of the play he remains deeply divided, mired in the reactionary Reaganism that exists in tandem with the conservative strictures of his religious convictions. One of the central ironies here, indicative of his internal contradictions, is that Joe has reversed the pilgrimage of his probable namesake Joseph Smith: his repressed desire has fueled a migration away from the “promised land” of Utah, a dystopia of rigidity and conformity for a gay Mormon, to a relative utopia of freedom, New York. Yet while New York City allows Joe a sexual expression he could not enjoy in Salt Lake City, he cannot reconcile his new-found freedom with his Mormon past—like Joseph Smith's, his promised land is also a desert.

The dialectical tensions of the scene multiply when history begins to talk back to Harper in the figure of the Mormon Mother. If Joe mediated history in the form of the Mormon Father, allowing history to speak only indirectly in the guise of contemporary authority, Harper and the Mormon Mother participate in a direct historical exchange. After Prior leaves, Harper conjures the Mother, saying, “Bitter lady of the Plains, talk to me. Tell me what to do” (2.71). The Mother comes to life, steps out of the diorama, and gestures for Harper to follow her. Instead, Harper takes the Mother's place on the covered wagon. But when the Mother says simply, “Come on,” Harper, too, steps out of this frozen historical model and follows her to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Without saying so directly, the Mormon Mother is telling Harper to leave Joe, just as she abandons her place alongside the doctrinaire Mormon Father in the Diorama Room. Harper's days in the Visitors' Center have been spent waiting for Joe to appear in the likeness of the diorama dummy, while, like the mounting debris faced by Benjamin's Angel of History, her discarded soda cans, candy wrappers, and potato chip bags pile up around her.35 The moment is filled with the presence of the now, as Benjamin would say: both women, despite their historical separation of 150 years, are locked into a similar cycle of stasis and subjugation. Yet through their mutual interaction, the dialectical interpenetration of these two historical moments, history is cracked open—the dialectic is brought to a momentary standstill, and both women escape their historical inertia. Harper must call forth the Mormon Mother from her enforced silence and bid her to speak, but it is the voice of the Mother that beckons Harper away from her own historical entrapment. Together they leave the Mormon Center and all that it symbolizes.

The dialectic at a standstill is also evident in Perestroika's epilogue. Until this final scene, Kushner's crisp dialogue and use of split and overlapping scenes give the play an unrelenting forward drive. But in the epilogue this forward motion wanes, and Kushner creates a moment that seems to be suspended both in time and space. The setting of the scene is the Bethesda fountain in Central Park, and as Prior describes it, it is a “sunny winter's day, warm and cold at once. The sky's a little hazy, so the sunlight has a physical presence, a character” (2.146). This contrasting matrix of attributes—warm and cold, bright and hazy—seems to arrest a moment and place it in perfect equipoise between seasons, temperatures, even conditions of light. The scene takes place in February, 1990, some four years after the previous scene, yet Prior himself seems to have stopped time, his AIDS having been in remission throughout this period. As he says, “I've been living with AIDS for five years. That's six whole months longer than I lived with Louis” (2.146). Finally, in this scene Kushner allows the characters to break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience, a device he has not used at any previous moment in the play. By implicating the audience in the dramatic action, this use of direct address creates another level of suspension: the space becomes not just Central Park, but the theatre; the time not just February, 1990, but the present. In Prior's final monologue, the feeling of history standing still evoked by the dynamics of the scene finds its metaphor in the fountain: “The fountain's not flowing now, they turn it off in the winter, ice in the pipes. But in the summer it's a sight to see. I want to be around to see it. I plan to be. I hope to be” (2.148).

This “frozen” moment is the time-space in which history can be written, when the continuum of history can be disrupted and set on a new course. This scene, perhaps more than any other, embodies Kushner's description of his play as a “gay fantasia on national themes,” for it allows and urges us to fantasize America as the “vehicle,” to use Ron Scapp's term,36 which might take us to a more genuinely democratic state (an argument which I will elaborate shortly). It allows us a glimpse of a realizable utopia. As Scapp urges, “Angels in America is an attempt to extend the political imagination of Americans through fantasy, that is to say, to broaden the fantasy of democracy. …” This fantasy, however, this new vision (it is significant that Prior appears in this scene for the first time wearing “thick glasses”) can be gained only when the welter of history is momentarily halted and we can see, or foresee, as Prior does, beyond the present moment. Only then can we direct our action meaningfully; Prior's three declarative statements about “seeing” the fountain indicate the desire, the will, and the hope that inform his final assertion, “The Great Work Begins” (2.148).


In addition to the diorama scene and the epilogue, the play is filled with countless other dialectical images. The ghost of Ethel Rosenberg wanders the hospital where Roy Cohn is dying; the World's Oldest Bolshevik addresses the Kremlin; and prior Priors, ancestors from the 13th and 17th centuries, visit the bedside of their ailing namesake. While all of these elements, among others, create dialectical/historical tension, it is in the aforementioned scenes that we most clearly see history emerge as praxis. The exhortation to work that ends the play brings us back to the crucial place that agency occupies both in Kushner's play and in Benjamin's theory of history. In fact, Perestroika begins by framing the theory-praxis problematic.

Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, the World's Oldest Living Bolshevik, in a kind of prologue to the action proper, confronts what he considers to be the dire state of the world with a cry for theory:

How are we to proceed without Theory? Do [these reformers] have, as we did, a beautiful Theory, as bold, as Grand, as comprehensive a construct. … ? You can't imagine, when we first read the Classic Texts, when in the dark vexed night of our ignorance and terror the seed-words sprouted and shoved incomprehension aside, when the incredible bloody vegetable struggle up and through into Red Blooming gave us Praxis, True Praxis, True Theory married to Actual Life … Have you, my little serpents, a new skin? Then we dare not, we cannot, we MUST NOT move ahead!


The answer to Prelapsarianov's question is, of course, no—there is no grand new Theory, and if there were, it would certainly be suspect as the kind of metanarrative toward which Jean François Lyotard advises us to be incredulous.37 Kushner's attitude toward the Oldest Living Bolshevik is anything but nostalgic, just as his Angels are anything but sentimental kitsch; both Prelapsarianov and the Angel suffer from the same defect: the urge toward stasis and inactivity, the surrender of agency vis-à-vis history. Kushner's Bolshevik and Angel are subversive, but only as dialectical images which undermine our preconceived nostalgia for a sturm und drang revolutionary left or a spiritually redemptive cultural icon. This nostalgic attitude is precisely the trap that Savran et al fall into: to critique Angels for lacking classical Marxist analysis is to be out of touch with the contemporary political zeitgeist. Instead, Kushner offers us a theory and praxis for a millennial America. Rather than a resigned paralysis in the absence of theory, or at least a conviction that praxis must follow theory, Kushner suggests a truly dialectical relationship between the two. As Hannah says in the epilogue, “You need an idea of the world to go out into the world. But it's the going into that makes the idea. You can't wait for a theory, but you have to have a theory” (2.147). Moreover, Kushner makes it clear that theory must have a use value, that it must translate into realpolitik, and that it can outlive its usefulness. Here again, Hannah is the voice of reason: “An angel is just a belief, with wings and arms that can carry you. It's naught to be afraid of. If it lets you down, reject it. Seek for something new” (2.105).

Seeking something new is precisely what Benjamin did when historical imperatives made classical Marxism seem untenable. Although often criticized in his own time for being inadequately materialist and insufficiently dialectical, Benjamin nevertheless attempted to negotiate a critical relationship with materialism throughout his last writings. It would be inappropriate to compare the nature of Benjamin's work with that of Kushner's, but apt to claim that Kushner, like Benjamin, is engaged in a negotiation with his own time. What Kushner finds in Benjamin is a theory of history that can also be used aesthetically, a means of reinvigorating our experience of history in an aesthetic mode. What has been leveled as a criticism of Benjamin can be turned to advantage in just this way. As Jürgen Habermas points out, “Benjamin also conceived the philosophy of history as a theory of experience.”38 While Habermas claims that Benjamin ultimately fails “to make his messianic theory of experience serviceable to historical materialism,” nonetheless Benjamin becomes enormously useful in theorizing an experience of history that functions as if by messianic redemption.39 History, as previously noted, exists for Benjamin in images, in flashes of memory, and must be liberated from the hegemonic narrative that we receive as history. We therefore experience history imagistically, which makes our relationship to history not just conceptual but ontological. This is the thrust of Benjamin's messianism, that the word of history can be made flesh through the image, that history can be redeemed in the presence of the now and not just re-presented in the past tense. This is the power of the dialectical image. It is through the accumulation of such images, wrested from a history that wants to level all countermemories before it, that a counterhistory can be written and gain critical mass. That Benjamin's theory rests on the image makes it symbiotic with the aesthetic, fulfilling the belief held by both him and Adorno that critique itself could only be “rescued” through the dialectical relationship of art and philosophy. Aesthetically, then, Benjamin's theory of the dialectical image becomes invaluable to the politicized artist, and certainly indispensable to the critical perspective of Angels. A silent Mormon Mother speaking after 150 years and Ethel Rosenberg returning to expose the crimes against her are both examples of counterhistorical images that crack open the continuum of history in Benjaminian fashion.

Realizing Benjamin's theory of history through dialectical stage images itself engenders the “idea of the world” needed to “go out into the world”; or, in other words, it constitutes not just theory but a kind of aesthetic praxis insofar as it stimulates our historical sensibility, a sensibility which operates as a kind of prerequisite to political action. Yet, for Kushner, this is not enough, the nature of that political action must be addressed as well. This is the arena in which he comes under attack, for it is here that ideas of progress and pluralism emerge. Progress and pluralism, however, need not be read as a liberal cop-out of leftist ideals. Instead of viewing these terms as irreconcilable with Marxist discourse, in an age and nation that lack a cohesive left it is better, in the words of Ernesto Laclau, to use them to establish a “living dialogue” with Marxism.40 Like Kushner, Laclau recognizes the need to maintain a historical perspective, and to this end he advocates “creatively appropriat(ing) the past,” reconstructing a radical tradition in which Marxism is but one part of the genealogy:

It is clear that Marxism cannot be its only point of reference. The plurality of current social struggles, emerging in a radically different and more complex world than could have been conceived in the nineteenth century, entails the necessity of breaking with the provincial myth of the ‘universal class.’ The struggles of the working class, of women, gays, marginal populations, Third world masses, must result in the construction of their own reappropriations of tradition. …41

The “plurality of current social struggles” is readily apparent again in the epilogue to Perestroika, where we see, in just four characters, representations of men, women, the working class, whites, African-Americans, Jews, Wasps, Mormons, homosexuals, heterosexuals, youth, and maturity. Yet even drawing these categorical distinctions is problematic, since they combine and play off one another in their own dialectical constellation, making the location of “identity” a much more complex operation than such categories can accommodate. And from this complex plurality of identities arise the numerous social struggles the play encompasses. Gay politics, of course, predominate, but we shouldn't forget that Louis, Prior, and Belize are all working class—a point the play makes abundantly clear by portraying them at work. Joe and Louis first meet in the men's room at the Hall of Justice, where Louis has come to cry in private. Responding to Joe's confession that he doesn't know his name, Louis says, “Don't bother. Word processor. The lowest of the low” (1.28). Later he remarks that Joe was not the first to find him there, but was the first to show concern: “Three of your colleagues have preceded you to this baleful sight and you're the first one to ask. The others just opened the door, saw me, and fled. I hope they had to pee real bad” (1.29). We see this employer/employee (master/slave) hierarchy assert itself again between Belize, a nurse, and Roy's doctor. The doctor admonishes Belize for not wearing white, then later attempts to pull rank by asking Belize his name. Finally, when Belize correctly attempts to direct him toward the oncology ward (Roy insists he be listed as suffering from liver cancer), the doctor barks, “I don't give a fuck what it says. I said this is the right floor. Got it?” (2.25). Of course, this abuse is nothing compared to what Roy himself dishes out: “Find the vein, you moron, don't start jabbing that goddamned spigot in my arm till you find the fucking vein or I'll sue you so bad they'll repossess your teeth you dim black motherf …” (2:26).

As Roy's tirade demonstrates, however, the source of his prejudice isn't just class, but a broader menu of biases including, at the very least, class and race, and most likely sexuality.42 What class allows here is Roy's perceived license to exercise his pandemic hatred with impunity—although Belize will soon assert his own subversive power. Likewise, Joe's three colleagues might have avoided Louis for any number of reasons: his sexuality, his Jewishness, or his class. Issues, too, of racism and anti-Semitism arise in the several debates between Belize and Louis, and in Harper we see a woman struggle to free herself from a traditional gender role. The point is that Kushner represents the social struggles in the play as necessarily pluralistic, but not discrete, and not atomized. The boundaries that comprise the categories of class, race, gender, sexuality, etc. function here dialectically; they exist as important social and historical realities and markers, and at the same time are fluid enough to allow them to, in Kushner's words, mix, mingle, and intermarry.

What Laclau hopes for from just this kind of plurality is the galvanization of a new left, that these struggles born of identity politics will cohere into a counterhegemonic force. In Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, written with Chantal Mouffe, liberal pluralism is viewed as the first step in a possible progression toward radical democracy:

The task of the Left therefore cannot be to renounce liberal-democratic ideology, but on the contrary, to deepen and expand it in the direction of a radical and plural democracy … The very fact that it is possible arises out of the fact that the meaning of liberal discourse on individual rights is not definitively fixed; and just as this unfixity permits their articulation with elements of conservative discourse, it also permits different forms of articulation and redefinition which accentuate the democratic moment.43

Inherent in this formulation is the idea of a progressive transformation, and they are explicit in their desire to “redimension the revolutionary act itself.”44 Citing Gramsci's notion of a “war of position,” they insist that every radical transformation is processual, and that “the revolutionary act is, simply, an internal moment of this process.”45 Thus any success in a liberatory struggle, whether anti-capitalist, anti-sexist, anti-racist, etc., is a victory in the war of position. However, anti-capitalism does not have necessary links to, for example, anti-sexism; they exist in separate spheres of the social. For these struggles to coalesce into a unified left, a hegemony must be articulated between them.

Kushner, too, understands the need for this articulation. Again in the epilogue to Perestroika we see not just pluralism, but a unified plurality of concerns. The scene begins with Louis and Belize debating politics, their talk ranging from Russia and the Balkans to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Gradually, however, as the scene progresses, a kind of harmony and consensus begin to form, until all the characters are working together to relate the story of the Bethesda Fountain and the Angel Bethesda to the audience. This cooperative effort emerges from an exchange about, of all things, theory:

[Y]ou can't wait around for a theory. The sprawl of life, the weird …
Interconnectedness …
Maybe the sheer size of the terrain.
It's all too much to be encompassed by a single theory now.
The world is faster than the mind.
That's what politics is. The world moving ahead. And only in politics does the miraculous occur.
But that's a theory.


Rather than “rescuing Enlightenment epistemologies,” Kushner here offers a theory that is also a non-theory: interconnectedness.46 What he avoids are the grand narratives, the unified theories that have come under such harsh scrutiny, in favor of a praxis of plurality that will, in dialectical fashion, generate its own theory. Of course, precisely because progress is an ongoing dialectic, shortly after this moment, Louis and Belize return to their wrangling over politics, to the necessary and generative process of dissensus. But in this instant in which the dialectic freezes, this momentary picture of coalition, we can imagine an articulated counterhegemony of the left.

Finally, Laclau and Mouffe argue that recent decades have produced a dramatic interpenetration of the public and private spheres in terms of political space. As they put it:

Thus what has been exploded is the idea and the reality itself of a unique space of constitution of the political. What we are witnessing is a politicization far more radical than any we have known in the past, because it tends to dissolve the distinction between the public and the private, not in terms of the encroachment on the private by a unified public space, but in terms of a proliferation of radically new and different political spaces.47

If the private was historically considered apolitical, not only do we now understand its political valences, but it is increasingly becoming a political arena as highly charged as that of the public. Perhaps a better way to put it would be to say that the once rigid political barrier between the public and private is becoming more and more labile. The importance of this dynamic is that it multiplies the opportunity for a variety of divergent subjects to become politicized, increasing the impetus toward radical democratic pluralism.

The dissolution of public and private boundaries is integral as well to the dramaturgy of Angels—as Savran notes, Angels demonstrates throughout the “deconstruction” of the “opposition between public and private.”48 There are countless instances in Angels where we see the public/private boundary collapse—from the collision between Joe's politics and his sexual relationship with Louis, to Belize and Louis's debates about drag—but one particularly important example is the politics of AIDS evidenced in the play. Roy, wielding his political power like an axe, manages to acquire a considerable supply of AZT. This same treatment is unavailable to the politically impotent Prior. In 1986, the year in which the play is set, there was a two-year waiting list for AZT, and in this early experimental phase of the drug, patients were often administered placebos. The public/private distinction erodes in any number of ways in this scenario. Roy has public political power only by denying his private life; as he says, “Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. … Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout” (1.45). Conversely, Prior's private affliction is subject to the politics of public funding for research and governmental restrictions on treatment distribution. Implicit in the play are several nagging questions: Why, in the face of a deadly epidemic, would there be a two-year waiting list for any potential treatment? Why would placebos be administered to patients in immediate danger of dying? If the population stricken with AIDS were not largely gay, would the public response be different? There is, however, a subversive irony at work here: Roy only knows about AZT and the placebo tests through Belize, who attributes his own knowledge to being “queer.” Moreover, Belize steals several vials of AZT from the incapacitated Roy and gives them to Prior, who outlives Roy by years.

What we see in scenes like the one above is that the politics of the play range from pressing current issues to the larger questions of theory and praxis—indeed, as previously discussed, it is precisely the interconnectedness of the two that is the foundation of the play's politics. Similarly, on the spectrum of revolutionary theory, the messianic materialism of Walter Benjamin might seem to be far distant from the radical democracy of Laclau and Mouffe. Yet there is a commonality that binds them: assembly as a constitutive part of praxis. For Benjamin, it is the assembly of historical fragments into a present constellation rife with revolutionary potential. For Laclau and Mouffe, it is the assembly of local and fragmented struggles into a counterhegemonic force. That Kushner attempts to make bedfellows of these two theories is perhaps not so strange, for what both strive for is historical and political discontinuity, or political discontinuity as historical disruption. As Benjamin states in the notes to his “Theses”: “[T]he classless society is not the final goal of progress in history, but its so frequently unsuccessful, yet ultimately accomplished interruption.”49 What Kushner understands, and what escapes his critics, is that progress can be a form of interruption, and democratic pluralism a form of progress. On this point the play is not ambivalent—even if the point is made on Broadway.


  1. The response to Angels in the popular press was nothing short of ecstatic. In the New York Times, Frank Rich called Angels “miraculous … provocative, witty and deeply upsetting … a searching and radical rethinking of American political drama” (24 Nov. 1993: C11). Jack Kroll labeled it a “masterpiece” in Newsweek, and deemed it “the broadest, deepest, most searching American play of our time” (6 Dec. 1993: 83). John Lahr echoed this assessment in the New Yorker: “Not since Tennessee Williams has a playwright announced his vision with such authority on the Broadway stage. … Perestroika is a masterpiece” (13 Dec. 1993: 129-133).

  2. David Savran, “Ambivalence, Utopia, and a Queer Sort of Materialism: How Angels in America Reconstructs the Nation,” in Approaching the Millennium: Essays on Angels in America, eds. Deborah R. Geis and Steven F. Kruger (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1997), 13-39. Savran's article first appeared in Theatre Journal 47 (May 1995) 207-27.

  3. Savran 14.

  4. 16-17.

  5. 17.

  6. 22.

  7. 21.

  8. 32.

  9. 34.

  10. Janelle Reinelt, “Notes on Angels in America as American Epic Theatre,” in Geis and Kruger 242.

  11. Charles McNulty, “Angels in America: Tony Kushner's Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Modern Drama 39 (1996) 84-96.

  12. McNulty 92-93.

  13. 95.

  14. Kroll 83.

  15. A similar point is made by Art Borreca in his essay “‘Dramaturging’ the Dialectic: Brecht, Benjamin, and Declan Donnellan's Production of Angels in America” (249). However, like Savran, Borreca reads Angels, contrary to Benjamin, as resorting to a “faith in enlightened historical progress” (249). Where Borreca differs from some other critics, however, is in viewing the non-realistic dramaturgical elements as creating a dialectic with the play's epic realism which ultimately “unmasks as false the possibility of redemption outside history” (251). Borreca, in Geis and Kruger 245-260.

  16. Benjamin, “Theses” 257-58.

  17. Tony Kushner, Angels in America: Part Two: Perestroika (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1994) 54. All quotations from the play are from this edition, and from Angels in America: Part One: Millennium Approaches. Hereafter, page numbers will be cited in the text; those from Millennium Approaches will be preceded by the number one, and those from Perestroika by the number two.

  18. Benjamin, “Theses” 260.

  19. Terry Eagleton, Walter Benjamin, or Toward a Revolutionary Criticism (New York: Verso, 1981) 177.

  20. Benjamin, “Theses” 261.

  21. 262.

  22. 254.

  23. Eagleton 78.

  24. 69.

  25. Benjamin, “Theses” 255.

  26. Eagleton 177.

  27. Tony Kushner, A Bright Room Called Day (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1994) 174-75.

  28. Benjamin, “Theses” 263.

  29. 255.

  30. Qtd. in Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989) 290.

  31. Buck-Morss 67. Rolf Tiedemann remarks, “Dialectical images and dialectic at a standstill are, without a doubt, the central categories of the Passegen-Werk; their meaning, however, remained iridescent, it never achieved any terminological consistency.” See “Dialectics at a Standstill: Approaches to the Passegen-Werk,” in On Walter Benjamin, ed. Gary Smith (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991) 284.

  32. Walter Benjamin, “One Way Street,” in Reflections, ed. Peter Demetz, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Schocken, 1978) 91.

  33. Benjamin, “Theses” 262-63.

  34. Tiedemann describes dialectical images as “configurations of the Now and the Then; [Benjamin] defined their content as a ‘dialectic at a standstill.’” See Tiedemann 284.

  35. Juxtaposing the barren existence of the Mormon pioneers with contemporary urban culture serves to estrange this refuse. Like Benjamin's profane objects, they contain a dialectical charge: not only are they the detritus of commodity fetishism, but as the remains of consumption they refer back to the unfulfilled utopian desire that drives consumption.

  36. Ron Scapp, “The Vehicle of Democracy: Fantasies toward a (Queer) Nation,” in Geis and Kruger 90-100. Scapp also notes the dialectical nature of the scene: “This is one of the play's more Hegelian moments (Aufheben), for it compels us to face the negation of the state of things along with the preservation of the very ‘spirit’ of the state of things themselves, while the world continues to spin only forward, toward the future, toward a state that has yet to come” (92).

  37. See Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984) xxiv.

  38. Jürgen Habermas, “Walter Benjamin: Consciousness-Raising or Rescuing Critique,” in Smith 113.

  39. 113.

  40. Ernesto Laclau, “Politics and the Limits of Modernity,” in Postmodernism: A Reader, ed. Thomas Docherty (New York: Columbia UP, 1993) 340.

  41. Laclau 340.

  42. For an excellent discussion of this issue see Framji Minwalla, “When Girls Collide: Considering Race in Angels in America,” in Geis and Kruger 103-117.

  43. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (New York: Verso, 1985) 176.

  44. 178.

  45. 178.

  46. Una Chaudhuri makes a similar point: “The characters gathered together—a miraculous social grouping in themselves—continue their dialogues with each other and with the audience. The new historiography that flows from this place is dialogic and site-specific—a matter of different voices, with no single or dominating voice, no source of a master narrative—not even Prior, who speaks from a specific place.” Staging Place: The Geography of Modern Drama (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1995) 261.

  47. 181.

  48. Savran 26.

  49. Qtd. in Buck-Morss 290.

Mark Steyn (review date February 2002)

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SOURCE: Steyn, Mark. “Goin' to Afghanistan.” New Criterion 20, no. 6 (February 2002): 35.

[In the following review of Homebody/Kabul, Steyn comments that the characters are not well developed, the plot is unfocused, and the play lacks a clear sense of purpose.]

There was an extraordinary picture in Newsweek the other day of some ferocious bearded warriors. They turned out to be Green Berets dropped in Afghanistan early in the war to liaise with anti-Taliban forces. All thirty-something, trained as soldiers, emergency workers, horsemen, and linguists, they speak at least four languages and on the ground muddled through with Arabic for the first few days until they picked up a working knowledge of Dari and Pashto. Some of them were seen in, I think, Kandahar shortly after liberation, enjoying a game of buzkashi with the natives. Buzkashi is the local equestrian sport played with a headless calf that the rider has to scoop off the ground and tuck under his arm. American special forces playing buzkashi: that's what I call multiculturalism in action.

It's easy to patronize soldiers, and our “artists” do it more easily than most, which is why those Green Berets are so startling: if a special forces commando turns up in an American play, chances are he won't be a multilingual sophisticate but a psychopath with a buzz cut. It is a given that in our society the artist holds a special status by virtue of his unique insight: that's why channel surfing in almost any western nation in the last four months you can stumble across a panel of novelists, poets, choreographers, and playwrights discussing the slaughter of September 11th and the war in Afghanistan. No one would think of convening a panel of soldiers to discuss the current off-Broadway season. But maybe that wouldn't be a bad idea. While Green Berets speak Dari and play buzkashi, America's playwrights have mostly retreated from the world, to a short checklist of familiar obsessions—growing up black in America, growing up gay in America, growing up gay in black America, etc.

This is where Tony Kushner comes in. Whatever else may be said, he's not parochial. Lots of guys were writing AIDS plays, but he decided to write the AIDS epic, and so, whatever one feels about it, Angels in America is the AIDS play, the play of the AIDS era. One reason for its success is that, in contrast to the authors of most AIDS plays, Kushner, though gay and a playwright, is not “a gay playwright” In these pages a few years ago, I compared him to David Belasco. Like Belasco with Madam Butterfly, he has an eye for the big subject, the broader canvas. The first Kushner play I saw, even before Angels in America, was Slavs!, a vaudeville peopled by gnarled old babushkas and the like rifting on the fall of Russian Communism. Put aside for a moment his views on the great issues of our time and give him credit for being engaged with the world in a way few other American dramatists are.

And now he and his remarkable sense of timing have pulled off their most ingenious coup de theatre yet. Homebody/Kabul (produced at the New York Theatre Workshop) was written well before September 11th and so has been credited for its almost eerie prescience, especially one line which seems like pure prophecy. An educated Afghan woman, blaming America for her country's oppressors, says, “You love the Taliban so much, bring them to New York. Well, don't worry, they're coming to New York. America!,” she snorts. I reckon Kushner got lucky here, but, on the strength of that line, he's now being hailed as even more of a genius than he was previously. He's not, and he doesn't have to be. Three years ago, Kika Markham (the wife of Corin Redgrave and sister-in-law of Vanessa—please, no groans) asked Kushner to write her a monologue. He mulls it over, puts the map up in the operations room, and sticks a little pin in the Khyber Pass. Amazing. The biggest change across the century is that where once the ambitious writer thrust outward to the distant horizon now he looks inward, sunk in introspection. Not Kushner. He didn't foresee the scale of September nth, but then neither did the CIA or FBI. What he did do, as he worked and reworked his play from 1998 onwards, was identify the principal tributaries leading up to that dam burst: his script is woolly, wordy, and circuitous, but within its pages you'll find an awful lot about Afghan history, a little about Islamic culture, and a soupcon about the West's relationship to both. And, if you don't care for his take on these subjects (as some conservative critics don't), why blame Kushner? It's not his fault that there's no alternative view available on the New York stage: the fact is that, in the years since the Soviet retreat and the Taliban's rise and Osama's opening forays, no other working playwright thought any of these themes were worth writing about. What a place the New York theater would be if more writers could raise their eyes from their navels to the world, to embrace the big sweep of history. A decade or so back, in odd moments at London dinner parties, you could catch the various socialist colossi of Britain's subsidized theatrical establishment marveling at how they'd managed to miss completely the biggest story of the age—the fall of Communism. But in New York the irrelevance—the absence of anything to say—appears not even to have been felt, never mind acknowledged. Only Tony Kushner was curious enough to want to write a play about Afghanistan.

So take it as read that the motivation for that coming-to-New-York speech is a tiresome leftie's generic critique of his own country. Be aware, too, that this play is also very long-winded. Staged by Declan Donellan, the director of Angels's London production, Homebody/Kabul is a sprawling, languorous four hours, including passages in Pashto, French, Esperanto, and maybe a couple of languages I missed. Kushner never justifies the length for what is, narrative-wise, an underplotted and unresolved Agatha Christie on the North-West Frontier. But I see that even in disparaging it I've made it sound quite appealing, which it is.

Homebody/Kabul is divided into two sections: Homebody is an hour-long monologue delivered by the eponymous heroine in Britain; Kabul is a three-act play set in the eponymous capital after the Homebody has disappeared and her family has begun looking for her. Linda Emond's opening lines are riveting. “Our story begins at the very dawn of history, circa 3000 B.C.,” she starts, and then explains: “I am reading from an outdated guidebook about the city of Kabul. In Afghanistan. In the valleys of the Hindu Kush mountains. A guidebook to a city which we all know, has … undergone change.” The Homebody is at home in London, a garrulous English matron in pearls and cardigan, gushing over a travel guide from 1965, the last good time in Afghanistan, the final decade of King Zahir's reign. She speaks for the most part in long formal ornate meandering tapeworms of sentences, a cross between Mrs. Moore in A Passage to India and one of those rococo-erudite Afghan or Pakistani cabinet ministers who pop up on CNN to confound the anchors. When she lapses into the giddier sentiments of her own place and time, she sounds less convincing: “Oh, I love the world!,” she trills. “I love love love love the world!” You'll have guessed she's on antidepressants, her own and her husband's.

Homebody is a piece of one-act exhibitionism by Kushner: he does it because he can, and he's been rewarded by glowing reviews in which even critics who dislike the ensuing three hours coo over the depth of character and command of language and “dreamlike quality” of this opening section. By this, they mean you have a tendency to nod off, as odd fragments from Afghanistan's Fascinating Fact File emerge and retreat and circle around each other and Linda Emond at times audibly struggles, not so much with the British accent as with the dilemma of being someone with a British accent speaking with an Afghan voice. As she reads, her stream of consciousness flows off into digressions, about hats, ten pacooli hats made by a fingered Afghan whom she meets in a London store. Kushner's maimed milliner captures very well both the cadences of Asian English and the almost genetic Afghan ambivalence to everything:

It was hard work to get into the UK. I am happy here in the UK. I am terrified I will be made to leave the UK. I cannot wait to leave the UK. I despise the UK. I voted for John Major. I voted for Tony Blair. I did not, I cannot vote, I do not believe in voting, the people who ruined my hand were right to do so, they were wrong to do so, my hand is most certainly ruined, you will never understand, why are you buying so many hats?

Suddenly the English lady finds she can speak fluent Pashto, and, in her medication-fueled imagination, is whisked away by the hatseller to Kabul, where he makes love to her under a Chinar tree. The lovemaking over, she pays for her hats and leaves. The monologue ends with her singing along to Frank Sinatra's “It's Nice to go Trav'ling,” a typical bit of Fifties pop exotica that sounds slightly dotty today:

It's very nice to just wander
The camel route to Iraq
It's oh so nice to just wander
But it's so much nicer
Yes it's oh so nice to wander back.

I'll say. But not the Homebody. No sooner has she finished her singalong, then she gives us Sammy Cahn's sentiments through Persian eyes, a seventeenth-century poem on the raptures of the Afghan capital: “I sing to the gardens of Kabul./ Even Paradise is jealous of their greenery.”

On the same album as “It's Nice to go Trav'ling,” Come Fly with Me, Sinatra also recorded that great staple of British Empire concert parties “On the Road to Mandalay,” but in a swinging Billy May arrangement flail of interpolated Frankisms:

Ship me somewhere east of Suez
Where the best is like the worst
And there ain't no Ten Commandments
And a cat can raise a thirst.

Kipling's daughter so disliked this take she managed to get it banned throughout the Commonwealth. But, whether serendipitously or otherwise, Kushner has hit upon a kind of Sinatrafied Kipling. East is East and West is West and the twain do meet in all manner of odd ways. Under the Taliban, all tunes Eastern or Western were banned, and so the potency of cheap music is all the more potent. The hat man longs to hear his English customer's Sinatra CD:

Ah, beautiful song that will not die, stardust of yesterday, music of years gone by. Who may solve its mystery? Why shall it make a fool of me? Some few of these LPs my parents—may they have the perfect happiness of Paradise—have leave to me when they are dead, some I have myself to buy at souks in Egypt, Ashkabad, Tashkent, Alma-Ata, airplane tickets to romantic places, yes? They go to extremes with impossible dreams, yes? And so my record player is smashed and all each of the LPs of me, Popular Frank Sinatra Sings For Moderns. … Slips through a door a door marked nevermore that was not there before. It is hard you will find to be narrow of mind.

Very nice. An Afghan speech constructed from American song lyrics—“Stardust” “What Is This Thing Called Love?” “These Foolish Things.” Even the album title is well-chosen—Frank Sinatra Sings For Moderns—for what could be more provocative to a regime at war with modernity? And once shattered, the past is impossible to rebuild: “A door marked nevermore/That wasn't there before.”

That's Johnny Mercer from “Days of Wine and Roses.” “It is hard you will find / To be narrow of mind” is Carolyn Leigh from “Young at Heart.” Of course, if you're a Talib, it's not in the least bit hard to be narrow of mind. There's something very touching about a Sinatra-spouting Afghan retaining so many casual baubles of Tin Pan Alley whose easy rhymes encapsulate for him a whole world of lost promise.

For Kushner, the man represents a global pidgin culture, a world in which the great civilizations have not fused their glories but degraded each other. “All must be touched” says the Homebody. “All touch corrupts. All must be corrupted.” Afghanistan is Kushner's case study: a put-upon land designated as a playing field for great-power rivalry, from the Moguls to the Russians to the British to the Soviets to the “American-backed” Taliban. There is a fevered summary of recent millennia. The British “seize” India. Hardly. Though the SAS commandos currently scouring Tora Bora are engaged in what's technically Britain's Fourth Afghan War, the previous three were comparatively short and, for the civilian population, relatively non-disruptive. If you'd been born in Afghanistan in 1887 and died there in 1973, you would have passed a long life in one of the most undisturbed corners of the planet—at least when compared to Germany or China, Russia or Japan, Ethiopia or Serbia.

But Kushner is not primarily interested in the world's impact on Afghanistan. A Pashtun with a pash on tunes by Sinatra is a jest, a conceit unlikely to be found anywhere between Bost and Kandahar. Kushner is more preoccupied by the Orient's impact on his Occidentals. By making his Westerners British, he's concocted a contemporary Kipling rematch: West and East, English and Pashtun, out on the North-West Frontier locked in a sordid reductio of the Great Game. The cosy English domestic setting (well conjured by the designer Nick Ormerod) is replaced by a shattered-brick set. We are in a Kabul hotel room, where the Homebody's husband and daughter are holed up trying to find out what's happened to her. It seems that, after her Afghan fantasy of Act One, she decided to go to Kabul for real. She went out for a stroll forgetting her burqa and accompanied only by forbidden Frank on her CD Walkman. What has happened to her? According to one version, she's been murdered by an anti-Western mob. This is 1998, just after Bill Clinton's diversionary raid on an empty al-Qaeda camp, when as Mr. Bush drolly put it he fired a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt. It seems unlikely this would generate much “anti-Westernism” As the liberation of Kabul demonstrated, the Afghans didn't invest a lot of national pride in what was essentially a regime of colonial oppression, funded by Saudis and staffed by impressionable Pakistanis, Scots, and Californians. The other theory is that the Homebody has renounced her British identity and gone native, as the spouse of a good Muslim.

There's a vague familiarity to everything the minute we're in the hotel room. This is Graham Greene territory—expats, ethics, intrigue—and, either as in-joke or hommage, Kushner even gives one of the locals the same former occupation as Our Man In Havana: he was a salesman of vacuum cleaner parts. The Westerners are the Homebody's hubby Milton Ceiling (Dylan Baker), their adult daughter Priscilla (Kelly Hutchinson), and, since the British severed diplomatic relations, a kind of honorary consul-cum-aid-worker called Quango Twistleton (Bill Camp). “Twistleton” is one of those slightly twitty English names, being one third of the triple-barrel of the British explorer Sir Ranulph Twistleton-Wyckham-Fiennes. “Quango” sounds like P. G. Wodehouse but is in fact a British acronym, standing for Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organization. As an aid worker with various ancillary activities, Quango is literally his own QUANGO. He is the stereotypical seedy expat, even his opium addiction heady with the whiff of nostalgia. True, he puts Priscilla's knickers on his head and masturbates, which Somerset Maugham might have balked at. Milton is something in computers and loathes Priscilla. Priscilla, who got knocked up at eighteen and tried to kill herself, is a foul-mouthed harridan.

If Osama bin Laden met these three specimens in Kabul, mired as they are in a swamp of booze, drugs, and joyless sex, they would no doubt confirm all his fiercely held views on Western decadence. If there's any point to the exhaustive repulsiveness of the British half of the dramatis personae, it would seem to be that Kushner is inverting the perspective of traditional Imperial drama: the English are the primitive exotics, the Afghans are cultured, educated, artistic, urbane, articulate, poets, and librarians, masters of all the virtues the metropolitan power once claimed for itself. I found this argument, if such it is, somewhat undermined by the casting. The natives are mostly played by Asian-Americans—an odd distinction as Afghans are Caucasian, and Asian-Americans are mostly from Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, etc. The only one who struck me as plausibly Afghan was the lady who gives that warning to New York, and she's played by a Briton—Rita Wolf, a British-Asian actress born in India who was in the film My Beautiful Laundrette fifteen years ago and has struggled to find prominent roles since. Miss Wolf's is the performance that stays with you—frenzied, gripping and disturbing, a Muslim librarian unhinged by life under the Taliban. “I have nothing to read!” she wails.

But this is thin reward for a four-hour investment. Kushner lacks Greene's interest in moral crisis, and no one seems to care very much about what happened to the Homebody, so it's hardly surprising we don't. Though we spend a long evening with these people, Miss Wolf's librarian is the only one who truly lives. The rest seem unformed, sketches for a play yet to be written.

So you come away feeling oddly cheated. Unlike Kim or John Buchan's Greenmantle or any other standard piece of Imp Lit, the world of Homebody/Kabul never seems to exist on its own terms. The characterizations and plot are full of holes: one lengthy subplot concerns a Muslim husband trying to figure out a way to get rid of his first wife. Say what you like about the Taliban, but that's one thing that's not a problem over there. And, even as emblems of all that is most sordid and pitiful about the West, Kushner's Brits are unsatisfactory: nobody here is as ghastly or “culturally insensitive” as Yvonne Ridley, the real-life Fleet Street hackette arrested by the Taliban, who kept moaning to her captors that she'd kill for a chilled Chardonnay. Back in London, she spent a fortnight cranking out a book about her experiences that reads like Bridget Jones's Afghan Diary. Modern Britons may indeed be as awful as Kushner says, but not usually so dull.

As for the history, the context, the big questions, the “root causes,” they're all in there somewhere or other, alluded to on this page, back-referenced on that, but not in a way that invites us to re-think our preconceptions. At one level, it's puzzling: One of the reasons why the left's “peace movement” got nowhere after September nth was because they were obvious know-nothings, the lame generalities of their demo placards untroubled by anything so tiresome as a verifiable fact about the region. Here, in contrast, is a left-wing playwright who's taken the trouble to unearth ten-thousand facts and yet in the end has as little to say as the ignoramuses. Homebody/Kabul has a handful of piercing vignettes in search of a drama. As a playwright, Tony Kushner knows where to go but not what to do when he gets there.

James Reston Jr. (review date March 2002)

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SOURCE: Reston, James, Jr. “A Prophet in His Time.” American Theatre 19, no. 3 (March 2002): 28-30, 50-3.

[In the following review, Reston offers praise for Homebody/Kabul, calling it a brilliant play and a major accomplishment.]

Early in the second act of Homebody/Kabul Tony Kushner's brilliant play about Afghanistan, I gave up on my quest for a purely artistic evening. Foolishly, I had tried to imagine what this theatrical experience might have been if Sept. 11 had never happened; if America had not gone to Afghanistan—in truth and in its mind—through the fall of 2001; if I personally had not been so transfixed and paralyzed and fascinated by the faraway events, so that nothing else from September to January had seemed so important as to read every story about “the war,” every profile about the innocent, vaporized victims, every new attempt to explain the mind of Osama bin Laden and the wrath of Islamic radicals against the West.

But it was no use. The connection of this play to the Recent Past (to borrow one of its early lines), was too intense, too immediate. Neither Kushner nor his audience could escape reality. There was no way to move back into the mind-set of just another evening out at the theatre. Much more than mere art was in play here.

“The Present is always an awful place to be,” the loquacious British woman of a certain age known as the Homebody says at the play's beginning. And so it was: In early January, as Homebody/Kabul had just opened, Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar were still at large. The flag-draped caskets of the first American casualties of war were coming home. The warlords and the thieves had taken over again, and the poppy fields were back in business, foreshadowing a flood of cheap Afghan heroin on the American streets next year. The calls for more American troops to engage in more dangerous operations, over a longer period of time, were growing more persistent, and the White House was talking about building permanent bases in central Asia.

No exit from this dreadful place is in sight.

The barren landscape of that tortured land had begun to look more and more like the quagmire that I had expected it would become from the beginning. Afghanistan was, had been, is and would always be in the future, “a populated disaster.” But we were there, and it was here, everywhere. We could not avoid it.

“We shudder to recall the times through which we have lived,” the wonderful, frumpy Homebody says as she sits next to her frilly lampshade, “the Recent Past, about which no one wants to think.” We did not want to think about it, but we could think of nothing else. The blow had sucked all the wind out of us, and we were still gasping for breath months later. It had been hard to reach out for entertainment. Escapist distractions had seemed too trivial, and until this play, there had been few connections, few insights to this benighted, corrupt place halfway round the world with which suddenly our immediate destiny seemed intertwined.

To write so many prescient lines completely out of one's imagination, and then for colossal, unforeseen world events to impart such resonance to them … what an accomplishment! My admiration for the playwright soars. I am envious.

The day before my night at the theatre, I had contributed further to undermining my artistic evening. I thought it would be good preparation to see Mohsen Makhmalbaf's film Kandahar. There on the big screen was the real Afghanistan of sand dunes and jagged, desolate mountains, of chaos and thievery, of bird-like women behind their blue pleated bird-cage costumes, of primitive mullahs and hate-filled madrassases, of transportation by horse cart and bare feet, of bewildering, unfathomable, warring tribes—Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Pashtunes—of ever-shifting loyalties, of mines and Mujahadeen, of bombed-out towns whose mud brick ruins are only suggested by the set of Homebody/Kabul

So I bring the baggage of reality to the theatre on West 4th Street; but who in this theatre can leave that baggage at home? Toward the end of the play when the corrupted diplomat Quango says, “Have you noticed, nearly every other man you meet here is missing pieces?”, the vision of the stumps of mine-shattered legs and arms that I had seen in Khandahar flashed into my mind.

And it is this populated disaster, this mutilated hand of a country that America has committed itself to embrace and to civilize and (could it really be?) to democratize. The Homebody uses the wonderful phrase “Universal Drift.” But this is more about the American Drift. And our open-ended commitment as a nation to this terrible place is made by a president who had been elected on the platform that we could not go everywhere in the world as its policeman.

“I hold on tight to his ruined right hand,” the Homebody says in her fantasy, “and he leads me on a guided tour through his city.” And then a few lines later, once you understand the metaphor of the grossly dismembered hand, she says, “Would you make love to a stranger with a mutilated hand if the opportunity was offered to you?” And then, as if it were Bush or Rumsfeld answering: “Might do.”

Kushner and I share an unusual bond. As he had written his play about an obscure place of medieval attitudes and barbaric practices that suddenly and unexpectedly became germane to a new American “war on terrorism,” so I had written a book about an obscure 800-year-old story of a medieval crusade that had reportedly become required reading in the Bush White House. For, in his diatribes from the caves of Tora Bora, Osama bin Laden had railed against the “Jewish-Christian crusade” against Islam and all Arab peoples. In his construction, this was a struggle of believers versus infidels, East versus West, Christianity versus Islam, Godless secularism versus spiritualism, the United States versus al Qaeda. In his megalomania and narcissism, bin Laden had succeeded in personalizing the struggle. And President Bush had helped the villain mightily on Sept. 16 by declaring that America's struggle was a “crusade” against terrorism. Bush would use the word only once, but once was enough. It was a gift to bin Laden. Now it was bin Laden versus Bush.

And so people have been saying to me that, after reading about the 12th-century conflict in the Third Crusade between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in Warriors of God, they understand the situation in the Middle East much better.

As I left the theatre after Homebody/Kabul, I overheard people saying the same thing. But what did they understand better? What insights did they glean after 3 hours and 45 minutes in the theatre? What could a stage play convey that we didn't already know from the newspapers and the television?

It begins with the power of romance. In her dusty and musty London flat, the Homebody sits alone in the absence of her waspish, uptight, priggish scientist-husband Milton and her screwed-up daughter Priscilla (in whose adolescent horrors the mother acknowledges responsibility and guilt).

“But guilt? Personal guilt?” she muses. “No more useful or impressive than adult nappy rash, and nearly as unsightly, and ought to be kept as private, ought guilt, as any other useless unimpressive unsightly inflammation. Not suitable for public exchange.”

To divert herself from these unpleasant thoughts, the Homebody turns to her outdated guidebook. She reads with fascination and zest about great, virile men in long-forgotten wars, about the hill tribes of the Kabul Valley in the times before Christ, about the Great Bactrian Confusion, whatever that was. (The mere words, falling off her limber tongue, excite her.)

Her boring life revolves around her safe kitchen and her comfy living-room table with its frilly shaded lamp. And then by chance, as she searches for funny hats to enliven a party she will give (and dreads) for her husband's dull friends—where the revelers are to celebrate some incomprehensible minor technical achievement—she has a chance encounter with an Afghan merchant who sells her 10 exotic hats. As he prepares her bill, she notices that three fingers of his hand have been evenly sliced off.

Back home, she spins an elaborate fantasy of how, beyond morbid fascination, she might have reacted. Magically, she acquires the facility to speak fluent Pashtu and musters up unthinkable courage to ask what happened to his fingers. His imaginary answer gives us one of the great moments of the Homebody's monologue. But the lines have resonance largely because of what we witnessed in our newspapers and on television last fall, as one warlord after another switched loyalties and told outrageous lies, and we gained the distinct impression that in this land where fundamental Islam was practiced, and where the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice held sway, no one believed in anything, much less the truth.

The Homebody's Confrontation with the terrible emptiness of her life leads to her disappearance. The playwright has her act on her romance, even if it means going to an unimaginably awful place, where she can take on the burqua, submit to a husband as his second or third wife, devote herself, unthinking like a teenager in a madrassa, to committing the entire Koran to memory. She acts on her romance, and she sticks to it. She has rejected the values of her home, of her life, of her society, of the West. In her act is the whiff of meta-physical treason.

The extraordinary act of the Homebody prefigures a similar act this past fall by a real-life romantic, who no doubt is every bit as screwed up as Priscilla. That is the American Taliban, John Walker. He also rejected the pleasures of his California culture of hot tubs and mood music, converted to Islam, joined the Taliban, fought at Masar-i-Sharif, was captured … and, perhaps most surprisingly, was uncontrite and unrepentant. He too sticks to his romance, however misguided and incomprehensible it may be to most of us. And the price of Walker's phantasmagoria has been a potential charge of treason.

The family agony of Milton and Priscilla in searching for the missing Homebody makes good theatre, especially Milton's descent into drugs under the tutelage of the dissipated diplomat-junkie, Quango. Quango reminded me of characters in the colonial novels of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, and he is meant to represent the corruption of the colonial. Afghanistan, he claims, has broken his heart, as well as blown his mind to bits. “It's like a disease, this place,” he tells Milton. If Milton does not really care whether he finds his estranged wife, Priscilla's search for her mother is real and powerful.

Indeed, family agony drives the entire second act, and it has about it the air of Greek tragedy. No doubt, a few years ago, when Kushner conceived of this play, he put his emphasis on the characterization of the family, never dreaming that the ambience around them could drive the play just as powerfully. In 1999, who really cared about the Taliban or the Pashtun?

The most original and telling characters of Homebody/Kabul, at least as the play is seen in the wake of Sept. 11, are two Afghan characters, the Taliban Mullah and the woman Mahala. Both the Mullah and Mahala would seem to be secondary roles, but they speak most pointedly to the situation America now faces in central Asia.

It is the monsters, of course, who always fascinate us. Who are these barbarians anyway who force women into cloth cages and deny them work, who chop off hands and arms for petty crime, who bake their victims in locked metal containers in the desert, who blow up 2,000-year-old statues, who have a special stadium for public executions? … and who for all that, purport to be holy men?

The Mullah Al Aftar Durranni makes his brief appearances on stage count. As Act 2 opens, we see him as the impresario of what seems to be an outrageous lie: that the Homebody is not only dead, but she literally has been torn limb from limb by the “rough boys” of Kabul, who have caught her improperly dressed without a burqua and in possession of debauched Western music. Frank Sinatra corrupts. Frank Sinatra is to be feared and suppressed. With wonderful menace, the Mullah says, “Impious music, which is an affront to Islam, to dress like so and then the music, these are regrettable.”

Presenting the unfeeling face of the religious fanatic, his manner is cold, official, patronizing. “Kabul is not a city for Western tourist women,” he says. Indeed, it is no place for a Western woman of any sort, as we saw countless times on our televisions this past fall, as intrepid women reporters braved the humiliations, the hardships and the real dangers to get the inside story. “We do not want them. No thing may be made or unmade unless Allah wills it. He fills our hearts with griefs, to see if we shall be strong. You are kaafer, you do not understand, but this is Allah's way.” With such a credo, we see how atrocity is possible, everywhere, by anyone, for any reason. It is sanctioned, and even sanctified by God, just to see if the holy warrior is strong. As counterpoint to the Homebody's early reveling in history, the Mullah says blandly: “In Kabul now there is no history. There is only God.”

Toward the end of the second act, the Mullah reappears in a dramatic and violent scene, and in it he delivers the rationale for the Taliban regime. When I read it in the script, the speech seemed simplistic and ignorant. But when played on the stage, his apologia has power and poignancy … and even a kind of truth to it.

“Afghanistan is Taliban and we shall save it,” the Mullah says in his stylized patois. “No one else shall, no one else care. England betray us. United States betray us, bomb us, starve us to … distract [the world from the] adulterous debauch Clinton and his young whore. This is good for woman? U.S. and Russia destroy us as destroy Vietnam, Palestine, Chechnya, Bosnia. … As U.N. deny Taliban to be recognize. All plot against Islam. Iran plot against Islam. For four thousand years, no one shall save Afghan people. No one else but Allah may save it. We are servants of Allah.”

In other words, the excuse for collective religious terror boils down to cruel order. The alternative, going back no doubt to the Great Bactrian Confusion, is chaos and exploitation.

My differing responses to the script and the performance suggest one way that the theatre trumps television and newsprint in making us understand. All fall, the newspapers and newsmagazines had been confounded by Arab wrath. Why do they hate us so? The question echoed from the building tops.

What the theatre can display, better than any other medium, is passion. This includes the passion of the Arab religious fanatic and the passion of his most immediate victims. That passion is something the West desperately needs to understand … in its own best interest. For this struggle has not been about ideas or religious tenets. In Arab psychology, everything is mixed together in an emotional stew: the oppression of history, the hatred of Israel and all European invaders going back to the 11th century, the ire against Israel's supporters, the envy of American wealth, self-loathing at the inability to master science and technology, the contempt for weak leadership of the Arab world itself, horror at the disparity between the princes and the paupers, and the sheer grinding poverty and backwardness of the entire region. All that is left is passion and religion … and in its worst despairing form, martyrdom.

It is from the mouth of the character Mahala in Homebody/Kabul that the counter-argument to the Taliban is forcefully delivered. She is a fascinating theatrical invention: the intelligent, bitter librarian, forced away from work, watching her library closed, losing her mind from disuse and her wits from the oppression both of her society and her household, the spurned wife of the doctor who has driven her from her house and (she is convinced) replaced her summarily with this docile, sentimental Westerner, the Homebody. Mahala is the most sympathetic of victims.

At Milton and Priscilla, the English travelers, she flies into a rage about the Taliban. They are occupiers, drug dealers, child murderers, torturers, Pashtun from the camps of Khandahar and Jalalabad who oppress all non-Pashtun. And then she turns her wrath on her Afghan translator. “And you call yourselves men. You suffer? We suffer more. You permit this? These criminals and savages to enslave and oppress your women? … I say women are braver than you men of Kabul.”

Her rant is riveting, and as she turns her wrath on them all, Kushner can even squeeze a laugh from the scene.

“Usually she is cheerier,” her Afghan companion whispers.

And when another witness suggests that she may be going mad, Priscilla interjects, “She isn't mad, she's fucking furious. It isn't at all the same.”

For this audience in the East Village of New York, the city that is the ultimate Western victim of Afghanistan-bred terror, the tension is highest when Mahala turns on America for its role in the horror of Afghanistan. In the wake of Sept. 11, these thoughts are seldom expressed—especially since, as victims, we Americans like to think we occupy the high moral ground. Unlike the Homebody, Mahala has no qualms about assigning guilt. In the face of Taliban atrocity, where is America? she asks. And then the charges fly. Afghanistan was used as an instrument to topple the Soviet Union and end the Cold War, and then the instrument was discarded. The CIA funded the Taliban secretly through Pakistan, exploiting her land as a buffer for Iran, against whom the U.S. was still trying to settle a 20-year-old score. Always the frontline surrogate. Always someone else's tool. In the editorial pages and news magazines, these are familiar charges. And yet from the mouth of the female victim, they carry greater weight.

Of the Taliban, Mahala says, “They'll turn on their masters sooner or later.”

And so they did, and for their complicity in the horrendous crime of Sept. 11, they have been destroyed as a result. But the conditions that led to their rise remain. The gangster bin Laden is mentioned only once in Homebody/Kabul; George Bush, the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, al Qaeda, Tora Bora, not at all. We see no American flags fluttering on this stage, hear no macho one-liners from a Wild West American president. This is a play for those who are interested in the root causes that preceded Sept. 11, for those who can see through the fog of patriotism to the finer distinctions, who are finally ready to ask how on earth do we get out of this godforsaken place, who can bear to contemplate the thought that we have participated to some extent in our own tragedy.

The most shocking line of the play is left to Mahala.

“You love the Taliban so much. … Well, don't worry, they're coming to New York! Americans!”

Robert Brustein (review date 18 March 2002)

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SOURCE: Brustein, Robert. “Angels in Afghanistan.” New Republic 226, no. 10 (18 March 2002): 27-8.

[In the following review, Brustein criticizes Homebody/Kabul, commenting that the events of the play seem inconsequential in light of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, and asserts the play is lacking in focus, direction, and unity of theme.]

Tony Kushner may be the luckiest and the unluckiest dramatist in town. Having had the foresight to write a play about Afghanistan before the September 11 attacks, he opened it last December, with America's presence in the area still dominating the front pages. That was the lucky part. It was also the unlucky part. The destruction of the World Trade Center and America's subsequent pursuit of the Taliban and Al Qaeda has radically altered our consciousness about that country in a way that no prophet could have possibly foreseen.

As a result, Homebody/Kabul, which recently completed a run at the New York Theatre Workshop, is a schizophrenic entity, at the same time relevant to the point of prescience and woefully out-of-date. Most of the play takes place in Kabul in 1998, and includes references to “another U.S. bombing” (of the terrorist camp at Khost) and how it missed Osama bin Laden and killed a number of innocents. But Kushner's account of a British father and daughter searching for a family member who disappeared after a tourist trip to Kabul seems particularly inconsequential against the background of the cataclysmic political events that have since transpired.

I saw the play twice, having attended a preview too early in the run to be allowed to review it. When I returned a few weeks later, after it had been exposed to the public and the critics, I could detect no major changes, aside from the deepening of some performances. The problem is that the play was virtually crying out for revision after September 11. Although the action takes place three years earlier, it is now impossible to imagine these Western characters circulating among the Taliban without thinking of abductions, corpses, bomb craters, detention camps, and the recent terrorist attacks.

On second thought, instead of trying to update his play, Kushner might better have employed his energies trying to find some unity for it, or at least settling on what it was supposed to be about in the first place. I say this with profound respect for Kushner's talents. He is one of the very few dramatists now writing whose works are contributions to literature as well as to theater. (Stoppard is only a pretender to that crown.) What he lacks at present is not substance, eloquence, intelligence, or emotional power—he has those qualities in abundance, along with the Orwellian gift of being able to take the spiritual temperature of a people with a political thermometer.

Where Kushner falls short is in his formal control. Distracted by too many subjects at once, he often suffers from a divided focus. Beginning with the epic Angels in America, Kushner's plays have tended to be sprawling extravaganzas that suffer not so much from a deficit of sensibility as from a surplus of it. They display the literary equivalent of overacting: overwriting. (Homebody/Kabul is almost four hours long.) Kushner is one of the few playwrights who publicly acknowledge and even seem to advertise a need for a dramaturg—the current production boasts two.

Yet his material is still sorely in need of dramaturgical attention. As its odd title suggests, this is a bifurcated work in which the second part bears only a tangential relation to the first. What links them is a character, the Homebody, though by the time we get to Kabul she is just a hovering memory, having disappeared into the city after being brutally murdered and dismembered between the acts. (That is one explanation of how she vanished—Kushner provides some others.) Fully realized in the monologue that begins the play, she evaporates into a subject for regret and remorse in the longer section that ends it, which is far more preoccupied with a disintegrating family (widowed father and raging daughter) in an exotic country, losing their innocence among con men, junkies, fanatics, poets, and brutal despots.

This makes the opening monologue a bit of a tease—rather like the killing of Janet Leigh twenty minutes into Psycho. Finishing off the Homebody takes somewhat longer (her monologue lasts about an hour). But for the time that she is with us, she is an entirely winning presence. I suspect that this inveterate tourist was largely inspired by Mrs. Moore in A Passage to India, though there are echoes of the ruminating matrons of Virginia Woolf and perhaps the loquacious Violet Venable of Tennessee Williams's Suddenly Last Summer. A bit dotty, as infatuated with travel as she is intoxicated with language, the Homebody addresses us directly from a chair in her London home, using her guidebook to Afghanistan (based on Nancy Hatch Dupree's An Historical Guide to Kabul) as the basis for an investigation into the history, mores, and geography of this blighted land.

The Homebody's fascination with Afghanistan allows Kushner not only to turn his scholarly research into a theatrical metaphor, but also to make her compulsive nattering (“unregenerate chatterer that I am”) into a medium for his own logorrhea. It is exhilarating to be engaged with this character's appetite for adventure, her embrace of life (“Oh, I love the world! I love love love love the world!”), though she has lost all feeling for a husband who is repelled by the very things about her that attract us most: “My husband cannot bear my—the sound of me and has threatened to leave on this account and so I rarely speak to him anymore.” It is not surprising to learn that both are on anti-depressants. One way she fights her depression at this point is with her trip to Kabul.

What is most engaging about the Homebody is her intellectual curiosity. Her wandering mind has the capacity to go from the abstract and eternal to the specific and quotidian. A discourse on Third World hats (“abbreviated fez-like pillboxy attenuated yarmulkite millinarisms, um, hats”) turns into a discourse on human history, on guilt and causality. And just as swiftly it becomes the occasion for an account of a real or imagined affair with a Muslim hatmaker in London after she bought one of his sartorial products. Her diction is pitch perfect, and so is her self-understanding: “Where stands the Homebody, safe in her kitchen, on her culpable shore, suffering uselessly watching others perishing in the sea, wringing her plump little maternal hands, oh, oh.” (That self-denigrating “oh, oh” is particularly good.) This monologue, a major feat of memory and persistence, is delivered with force and grace by Linda Emond. It is the most nuanced writing and acting of the season.

The bridge to the second, less effective part of the play is a Frank Sinatra tune, “It's Nice to Go Trav'ling.” The Homebody's passion for Sinatra (“such an awful man, such perfect perfect music”), combined with her love of travel, has proved to be fatal. Her headphones are now one of the few remaining relics of her existence (in addition to three hats and her guidebook). She was presumably murdered because of “this impious music which is an affront to Islam” and because she was not wearing a burqa while walking in the streets of Kabul listening to it.

The next three hours of the play are taken up with the consequences of this clash of cultures. Gathered in a hotel room in Kabul as if at a wake are the Homebody's husband, Milton; her daughter, Priscilla; a British aid worker named Quango Twistleton; a mullah; and a Muslim doctor. They are discussing the fate of the Homebody in gruesome detail, before Priscilla, like Isis preparing to piece together the remains of her mutilated brother Osiris, goes off on a quest for her mother's missing body (she ends up finding the putative grave of Cain). The suspense of the play lies in the question of whether the Homebody is dead or whether she has eloped with a Muslim. This question is never fully resolved, though the people who press for the second option are obviously conning the family. But it is not plot that absorbs the playwright's attention. Kushner seems more interested in examining the impact of Afghanistan's competing customs on the innocent Western consciousness.

His other interest is the impact of the Afghan atmosphere on the mental health of his central characters. Milton, an electronics engineer, comes increasingly under the influence of Quango, whose mind has been blown by the country and by the extremely cheap drugs he can acquire there. (“Why else would I be here? Afghanistan supplies the world.”) He and Milton will share an opium pipe and a heroin needle before the evening is over. The obscene, angry, vaguely suicidal Priscilla—“a virago dedicated to punishing everyone she's indebted to”—falls under the influence of an Esperanto poet named Khwaja, who is probably using her to smuggle anti-Taliban codes out of the country.

Much incident follows without ever adding up to a coherent story, climaxed by the most dramatic scene in the play—Priscilla is apprehended by Taliban police for carrying military information (the poems in Esperanto) out of the country for the Northern Alliance, and the Kabuli woman whom she has agreed to take with her is almost shot. The final scene takes place back in London, with the Afghan woman living in the family's home, sleeping with Milton, and tending to the garden that the Homebody neglected, having replaced her in every possible way.

With the exception of the Homebody, all of the Western characters are singularly unappealing, and the occasional anti-Western sentiments that we overhear suggest that this is deliberate. Milton (Dylan Baker) is a sour drudge; Priscilla (Kelly Hutchinson) is a whining bore; and Quango (Bill Camp) is a self-hating drugged-out sexual opportunist out of Graham Greene. Under the pinpoint direction of Declan Donnellan, though, almost all the parts are filled by very good actors, not only those mentioned but also Joseph Kamal, Yusef Bulos, and Rita Wolf. (The exception is Hutchinson, who, unable to find any variety for her role—not surprisingly, given its one-dimensional character—settles for undifferentiated screeching.) Nick Ormerod's set, a decaying pile of bricks and rubble, makes excellent use of the New York Theatre Workshop stage in handling the multiple locations. Indeed, the entire production seems to have been fashioned by first-rate professionals.

But Homebody/Kabul, alas, is an errant and wandering play. I can think of no other writer who could have handled this difficult subject in such an intelligent manner. And it is encouraging to see that Kushner has other subjects on his mind than homoerotic relationships. But it is maddening to find Kushner's large talents dissipated in a work that never quite seems to know where it is going. Thanks to the Homebody, we leave the theater having learned a lot more about Afghanistan than we knew when we came. But it is knowledge that has not been sufficiently rooted in either the human events of the play or the events of recent history.

Richard Coles (review date 7 June 2002)

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SOURCE: Coles, Richard. “Unveiling NW5.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5175 (7 June 2002): 18.

[In the following review, Coles comments that Homebody/Kabul is an insightful and thought-provoking play.]

Imagine a vast but indeterminate place, an artifice cobbled out of contending cultures and histories, at once civilized and barbarian, timely and timeless, impenetrably strange and startlingly familiar. Homebody/Kabul is itself a kind of theatrical Afghanistan; it is a demanding evening, although during the week in which another American import, Madonna, made her London stage debut, it was good to be reminded that a night in the theatre can be demanding in more than one way.

Tony Kushner's play, in Cheek By Jowl's production, is about how we, in the West, engage—or fail to engage—with the Great Other. It begins with a woman sitting at a table—a simple urban tableau, designed by Nick Ormerod, which could be anywhere in Tufnell Park. She is reading from an old guide to Kabul; we hear of the city's origins, the successive waves of invaders from north, south, east and west; we learn about the Graeco-Bactrian confusion. At frequent intervals she abandons the text to make fretful digressions into hermeneutics, her marriage, her medication, deploying a vocabulary that sounds like the clues from a gnostic crossword. She is Homebody, played indefatigably by Kika Markham, who somehow manages to be compellingly boring and engagingly irritating for an entire hour, supported only by a bag of Afghan hats. These she has bought from a refugee. Afghanistan connects to the West, and as the first act ends, the stage cloth disappears down a tiny trapdoor, like water down a plughole, revealing a plain unvarnished wooden stage within a peeling stockade. Tufnell Park becomes Kabul.

It is only the first unveiling in a play full of guises, adopted and discarded, from the burkha that Homebody's daughter Priscilla is obliged to wear when she and her father Milton arrive in Kabul to look for his vanished spouse, to the unveiling of an Afghan woman who escapes to London in Act Three, only to be veiled again, differently, in a hair-do and cardigan. And Homebody's infuriating, footnoted monologue is just one example of how language itself conceals as it reveals. When we meet Milton at the beginning of Act Two, he is being addressed by an Afghan doctor, who describes with terrible, impersonal precision the state of Homebody's absent corpse; a little later, Priscilla encounters an Afghan poet, who writes in Esperanto so that “all people might be one”. But if you are unfamiliar with Esperanto or the ghazal-form, how do you know what you're listening to, or reading? What use is a post-mortem on a person who might not be dead?

Kushner, with a typical flourish, uses the same device in reverse, to make the unintelligible intelligible. We encounter a character we recognize from news footage; an Afghan woman in a paroxysm of hair-tearing, breast-beating anguish—Mahala, played by Souad Faress—but it is she who makes sense. In another scene which recalls the news, Mahala trembles on the ground in her burkha while a Talib stands over her, aiming his Kalashnikov at her head. All is confusion, illuminated by moments of terrible clarity. Some of these moments take place off stage. September 11, which occurred after the play was written, is prefigured when Mahala rages: “You love the Taliban so much then bring them to New York! Well, don't worry. They're coming to New York!” Five hundred pairs of feet shifted uncomfortably.

Kushner has always had an extraordinary feel for the moment. His Pulitzer prize-winning two-part play Angels in America succeeded, like no other drama of the 1980s, in dramatizing the catastrophe of AIDS even as it was happening, connecting the progress of a virus to American domestic policy, to homosexuality and the Republican Party, to angelology in a secular age. In that play and in this, he sometimes fails to pay full price for his effects, beguiling us into an exchange of sympathies about which we may later feel uncomfortable. An idea (or an angel) appears and we are charmed, surprised, delighted, reassured; then, just as the temperature begins to drop, Kushner cleverly makes a joke, or points to its opposite. Priscilla makes a confession to her father and we feel the energies of that confession at work in the scene and in the audience; but her father, it turns out, is stoned beyond comprehension. We're let off the hook (we've had our fun anyway).

These strategies take time to unfold, which makes for a difficult and involved evening, although the director, Declan Donnellan, whose Avignon production of Le Cid was a miracle of freedom and organization, knows when to hold and when to release. It is worth turning out just for that; but to come away from a long evening in a London theatre thinking differently (thinking at all) about Tufnell Park and Kabul is a lot more than merely worthwhile.

Richard Hornby (review date summer 2002)

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SOURCE: Hornby, Richard. “Free Association.” Hudson Review 55, no. 2 (summer 2002): 286-92.

[In the following review, Hornby asserts that, while Homebody/Kabul is written in a formless style, it is a major play by an important playwright.]

George Bernard Shaw once said that when he wrote his plays, he never thought about plot. Instead, he just created some characters and “let 'em rip.” This reaction against the well-made plays that dominated the late nineteenth-century stage continues in our own day, with playwrights spewing out dialog at random. Some, like Samuel Beckett, have consciously applied the free association technique of psychoanalysis, letting the talk go where it will, ad-lib, never censoring or revising. This risky method can of course result in pompous drivel when the writer lacks Beckett's discipline, intelligence, vast reading, and strong sense of characterization, but it can also yield a strange poetic intensity. Plot is all but dead in today's theatre; imagery, both visual and verbal, reigns supreme.

The plays of Tony Kushner exemplify the formless style. It is hard to say what Angels in America was about, much less describe its plot. At the beginning, Prior is diagnosed as having AIDS; after six hours of playing time, and several years of his life, he is still struggling along, the playwright unable to bring the obvious closure to his story. Diverse characters, including Roy Cohn, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, several of Prior's ancestors, and the Mormon angel Moroni, wander through. Even Shaw or Beckett would provide more focus. What makes the play work is the incredible drive the characters have. The speeches may ramble, but they are not mere reverie; the characters are obsessed with reaching an understanding, which they then drive home to their listeners. Narrative in drama works only when it is motivated for the speaker, and when it has a strong effect on the listeners. (Even with Beckett, we feel that the monologs are character-driven, rather than simply being eruptions from his unconscious mind.) When Roy Cohn rambles on that “homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout,” he is not just making a philosophical observation, but creating a whole raison d'être, a rationalization for his own homosexuality, with which he overwhelms his listener. “Does that sound like me, Henry?” Roy sneers. He has sex with men, but by his definition he is categorically not homosexual, not a wimp.

Kushner's long-awaited new play, his first new full-length play in over a decade (unless you count his translation/adaptation of Corneille's The Illusion), awkwardly titled Homebody/Kabul, begins with a thirty-minute monolog by an Englishwoman, the homebody, in her London sitting room. “I speak elliptically, discursively,” she admits, babbling about an obsolete guidebook to Kabul, Afghanistan, which she holds on her lap. The book is thirty-three years old, “long enough for Christ to have been born and died on the cross,” a remark that is, typically, superfluous and soon forgotten. Heavily dosed with antidepressants (like Harper with her tranquilizers in Angels), she imagines her brain floating in a salt bath.

As usual with Kushner, this spontaneous gobbledygook is spellbinding. It is delivered directly to the audience, a departure for Kushner, whose previous monologs were never soliloquies. Yet in a sense this monolog is not a soliloquy either; we the audience become partners in the scene, like the silent Henry with the Roy Cohn monolog. At one point during the performance I witnessed, an audience member even gave out an audible, knowing “Ah!”, as the homebody read from another book on the history of Afghanistan. She is obsessed with that exotic, sad country, and desperate to share her obsession with us. Of course, the scene was all the more poignant because of the September 11 atrocities and the subsequent, ongoing war, but that result was serendipitous. The play was written well before Afghanistan was in the news; in fact, I first saw the monolog, presented alone, three years ago in London, where it worked just as well as in the full-scale production.

The monolog ends with the homebody displaying ten Afghan caps she has bought. The shopkeeper who sold them to her appears, takes her hand, and leads her along a road; we have moved seamlessly to Kabul. This appears to be a drug-induced fantasy, but after an intermission we get a medical report with hard facts. The woman was dragged through the streets of Kabul, beaten by ten persons, and torn apart, all for not wearing a burka.

The remainder of the play, which goes on for several more hours, consists of the homebody's neurotic daughter in a quest to find her mother, or her dead body. As with Dorothy on the road to Oz, however, the goal of her journey is not so important as the weird individuals and dangerous adventures she encounters en route. She is nearly killed for taking off her burka in the street and lighting up a cigarette, but is saved by an elderly Afghan who turns out to be an Esperanto poet. She meets her father, who is more interested in boozing and shooting up heroin (readily available in Afghanistan) with a diplomat friend than in his wife or daughter. There is a “madwoman” who is actually an Afghan feminist escaping to London, and the hat seller again, who quotes Sinatra lyrics like poems (“You can go to extremes with impossible dreams!”), while insisting that the homebody is alive and well, a happy convert to Islam, living the sequestered life of an Afghan woman under the Taliban.

Nothing, then, is ever what it seems in Homebody/Kabul. We never see the homebody again, though whether it is because she is dead, or because she has become an enthusiast for poverty and enslavement (Afghanistan is ranked only the fifth worst country in the world for women, “because they do not practice genital mutilation”), remains obscure. The madwoman escapes to London, but the Esperanto poet is killed, because the Taliban believed his poems were coded messages to the West.

Where Angels was subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,Homebody/Kabul might be subtitled “An American Fantasia on Orientalist Themes.” We never learn much about Afghanistan, which remains exotic and ambiguous, but we learn a lot about American attitudes toward that benighted country, with its dysfunctional government and its obdurate religion. As in Angels, there are underlying motifs of drugs and dreams (e.g., the Sinatra song lyric), which are really what the play is about. We are thus never sure what we see is really happening, nor what we hear is true. Yet there is also a hard core of miscommunication, repression, and suffering. Our dreams about Islamic fundamentalism ultimately matter, as they did on September 11, when we all woke up with a series of bangs.

Homebody/Kabul is a major new play by one of our best playwrights. Despite the horrors of September, it did not get the attention it deserved, nor a particularly long run off-Broadway, where it ran for a few months last winter. This may be because the production, at the New York Theatre Workshop, was lackluster. Directing and designs were by Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, two talented Englishmen with outstanding records in their native land, but whose talents did not weather the cross-Atlantic trip. Donnellan could not get much out of the American cast. None of the English accents was convincing, for example, while several of the performances were wooden. Bill Camp camped his way through the role of the diplomat, for example, though the character is supposedly heterosexual, hot for the daughter; even worse, he played the entire role with a grimace frozen on his face. Linda Edmond did a nice job with the homebody's monolog, finding ample depths and contrasts in it, but she disappeared, as noted, after the first half-hour. In the role of her daughter, which becomes central, Kelly Hutchinson was weepy and monotonous, avoiding the considerable wit and strength in the role as it is written. None of the actors came anywhere near the depth and intensity of Joe Mantello and Stephen Spinella as the gay lovers in Angels, for instance, nor the astonishing swagger of Ron Leibman as Cohn.

The greatest weakness of the production, however, was in its designs. Ormerod showed resourcefulness and imagination in depicting the bleak landscape of Afghanistan, counterpointed by the sterile interiors of the tourist hotels, but succeeded only in making the play drably realistic. As in Angels, the true location of the play is in the dreams of its characters, who are typically on drugs or alcohol, or are neurotic, or are outright insane. Thus Angels, in its three separate productions in London, Los Angeles, and on Broadway in New York, had multi-million-dollar settings capable of extravagant, magical transformations. Kushner is not a playwright for low-budget, understated, off-Broadway renditions. Surely the granting agencies could have come up with some serious money, as they did in the past, for this important young American playwright! Homebody/Kabul is not a PBS documentary, but an Arabian Nights for our time.

James Fisher (essay date 2002)

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SOURCE: Fisher, James. “Introduction: The Feathers and the Mirrors and the Smoke.” In The Theater of Tony Kushner: Living Past Hope, pp. 1-20. New York: Routledge, 2002.

[In the following essay, Fisher explains the significance of Kushner's work to American theater of the late twentieth century and turn of the millennium.]

Art is necessary in order that man should be able to recognize and challenge the world. But art is also necessary by virtue of the magic inherent in it.

—Ernst Fischer (14)

Tony Kushner's sudden and conspicuous arrival on the international stage in the early 1990s was as surprising and jolting as the abrupt celestial appearance at the end of Millennium Approaches, the first of Kushner's two Angels in America plays. Together, these plays comprise a theatrical epic that critics compared favorably to the greatest plays of the twentieth century. In an era of increasing devaluation of the arts—and of the theater in particular—Kushner's self-described “gay fantasia on national themes” moved international audiences, generated controversy, and inspired activists and artists.

Kushner's apparently sudden prominence was not so sudden. He was established in regional theaters as a director, adaptor, and dramatist throughout the United States and England since the mid-1980s. Angels represented a remarkable culmination for a playwright laboring to develop a way of presenting political drama on American stages in the late twentieth century. Kushner writes that “since it's true that everything is political (though not exclusively so) it becomes meaningless to talk about political and nonpolitical theatre, and more useful to speak of a theatre that presents the world as it is, an interwoven web of the public and the private” (“Notes about Political Theatre” 22). Imagining a political theater is difficult, Kushner believes, because the theater is “a world that's many things but has always been tainted, tawdry, and superfluous. It's very important not to devalue the tainted, the tawdry, and the superfluous and indeed, the essential tackiness and falseness of the theatre is its greatest aesthetic asset and political strength” (“Notes about Political Theatre” 25). The theater, he believes, presents the sole realm in contemporary life where it is possible to explore the fact

that things are not always what they seem to be; that the unpredictability and vibrancy of actual human presence contains an inimitable power and a subversive potential; that there is an impurity, a fluidity at the core of existence—these secrets speak to the liberationist, revolutionary agenda of our day. I continue to believe in this usefulness, and the effectiveness, of this increasingly marginalized profession and art. But I believe that for theatre, as for anything in life, its hope for survival rests in its ability to take a reading of the times, and change.

(“Notes about Political Theatre” 34)

Angels in America examined these intangible but essential aspects of existence and, as a result, emerged as that rarest of theatrical ventures—a must-see event capturing many of the central issues of its time. It introduced a bold new theatricality to the American stage, as well as demonstrating a bracing intellectualism, lyricism, seriousness (tempered with the outrageously hilarious), and political activism. The tensions between popular mainstream theater and a drama of high purpose (a division that Kushner calls “invidious” [Vorlicky 64]) blends together in Angels, as well as in the rest of Kushner's dramatic work, in unique ways, and he recognizes the importance of the blending of art and the wonderment of the stage:

The theater always has to function as popular entertainment. Or at least the theater that I do, because I don't have the talent for doing anything else, I think … it has to have the jokes and it has to have the feathers and the mirrors and the smoke.

(Vorlicky 63)

The feathers and the mirrors and the smoke, as well as the dynamic seriousness of Angels, thrust Kushner into the theatrical forefront, inviting comparison with earlier titans of American drama from Eugene O'Neill, Clifford Odets, and Thornton Wilder to Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, while also making him a highly visible political and social activist both within the theater and outside its usual borders.

Comprised of two long plays, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika,Angels encompasses a complex and emotionally charged portrait of life in the United States in the midst of Ronald Reagan's presidency. Kushner presents this America as a place where present, past, and future intersect in a blur of reality, fantasy, and guardedly hopeful imagination. Written by Kushner during a time in which he despaired about America's sharp swing to the political right and its homophobic response to the mounting devastations of the AIDS crisis, Angels presents the mid-1980s as a critical transitional period in the history of the nation in which complicated questions about the future of American society are raised.

In Angels, as in most of his other plays, Kushner raises hard questions about morality in a diverse nation increasingly conflicted over moral, political, sexual, and spiritual views and values. Can we reckon with the past and constructively embrace the inevitability of change as we move into the future? Is America rushing headlong toward apocalypse or, despite failures and betrayals of its ideals, is it bound for a bright tomorrow? Kushner asks these questions through what has become his trademark mix of the hilarious and the tragic; his view is frequently dark, even frightening, but there is always a redeeming—and hard won—sense of hope. He is a cautious and questioning optimist, aware that there are no easy answers or completely happy endings, but always noting the possibility for change and progress. Examining individuals at moments of significant personal crisis (influenced, to a great extent, by societal conditions and the specters of the past and the future), Kushner probes the national conscience in ways that not only show him to be the equal of his dramatic predecessors and peers on the American stage, but also demonstrate his singularity in creating profoundly emotional and intellectually charged encounters with history, politics, and the personal.

In Angels—and in Kushner's lesser-known but equally challenging dramas—disparate, frequently self-contradictory characters are caught up in tragic personal situations that coincide with periods of significant social change. Their self-contradictions and the conflicts among the characters who, in Kushner's plays, always represent a mixed bag of classes, races, cultural backgrounds, and ideological principles, are explored in the plays. Kushner closely examines the contrasts and parallels between the characters and vividly establishes issues to debate on both the personal and universal levels. Like George Bernard Shaw and Bertolt Brecht, Kushner uses the stage as a platform for social, political, and religious argument, but in ways that neither Shaw nor Brecht, nor any other American dramatist, has. In Kushner's plays ideological debate emerges from a composite of rhetorical rationality, literary and cultural imagery drawn from the dogmas of the past, and wildly imaginative fantasy to unfold the complex cross-currents of history. Of history, Kushner acknowledges having “a kind of dangerously romantic reading of American history. I do think there is an advantage to not being burdened by history the way Europe is. This country has been, in a way, an improvisation of hastily assembled groups that certainly have never been together before and certainly have a lot of trouble being together” (Szentgyorgyi 19). It is, he believes, a “mongrel” nation made up of “the garbage, the human garbage that capitalism created: the prisoners and criminals and religiously persecuted and the oppressed and the slaves that were generated by the ravages of early capital” (Szentgyorgyi 19). Within the tensions inherent in these relationships, Kushner finds the pressure points of his drama:

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 for the bad, or some mixture of the two. I think that Russia in 1917 was one of the times, Chile under Allende was one of those times. It's a moment when the ground and the sky sort of split apart, and there's a space, a revolutionary space. During these sorts of 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.

(Szentgyorgyi 16)

Kushner found such a moment for Angels in the rise of the “new conservatism” of the late twentieth century. Kushner seeks out similar historical moments in all of his plays, finding them in the premodern rise of capitalism in the late seventeenth century in Hydriotaphia, or The Death of Dr. Browne, in the collision of the old world shtetls of Eastern Europe and the new technologies of the modern world in his adaptation of the Yiddish theater classic A Dybbuk, in the Nazi Party's seizure of power in 1930s Germany in A Bright Room Called Day, in the American Deep South of the 1960s in Caroline, or Change, in the collapse of the Soviet Union in Slavs!, and in the struggles for survival in the decaying American infrastructures of the late twentieth century in Grim(m).

Kushner's seemingly inexhaustible imagination, informed and fueled by a breathtakingly wide range of literary, cultural, historical, and religious sources, establishes his uniqueness within the traditions of U.S. drama. He is perhaps more successful than any of his predecessors or contemporaries in melding together an aesthetic drawn from aspects of postnaturalistic European theater, with elements of the traditions of America's lyrical dramatic realism. Influences from literature, art, and thought of the ancient world on through to the Renaissance blend together in Kushner's work, along with socialist politics inspired by Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky. In literary and dramatic terms, these political influences derive from Kushner's reading of Walter Benjamin and Brecht, his most important dramatic inspiration. Kushner's study of the great religions, from Christianity and Judaism (his own faith) to a variety of eastern religions, mingles with his love of a broad range of modern and postmodern literary influences including writers from the classical realm to nineteenth-century German classicism: poets ranging from Rilke to Stanley Kunitz; French Renaissance to Yiddish theater; modern dramatists from Brecht, O'Neill, and Williams to such contemporaries as John Guare, Richard Foreman, Maria Irene Fornes, Charles Ludlam, Robert Patrick, Harvey Fierstein, Larry Kramer, Terrence McNally, Suzan-Lori Parks, Paula Vogel, Connie Congdon, Mac Wellman, Ellen McLaughlin, Holly Hughes, David Greenspan, and their British counterparts like Edward Bond, Caryl Churchill, David Edgar, Howard Brenton, and David Hare, among others—all of whom Kushner refers to as part of “a kind of a weird little sort of tarnished golden age” (Vorlicky 210) of late-twentieth-century drama. From Williams to Hare, modern playwrights have attempted to find expressive ways to bring the fantasies and images of the historical past together with the real or imagined earlier lives of their characters, but few have done it with the dramatic potency, humor, and scope Kushner brings to the task.

An understanding of Kushner's political beliefs is essential to fully understanding his drama, as his socialist politics are never far from the surface. Although most critics and audiences think of Kushner almost solely as a “gay dramatist,” it is truly the case that he is a “political dramatist” who happens to be gay. Kushner calls for a new brand of socialism that might better be labeled progressivism, a politics that he has called a “socialism of the skin,” and one that honors the values and traditions of the past without a slavish adherence to belief systems whose traditions have excluded or oppressed diversity in culture, sexual orientation, and politics. For Kushner, socialism is

about beginning to struggle in a really, really powerful way with why economic justice and equality are so incredibly uncomfortable for us, and why we still define our worth by how much money we individually can make at the expense of other people, and why we find sharing and collective enterprise and motivations that are not competitive so phenomenally difficult. It's a tremendously difficult struggle that one has to undertake. It has to do with unlearning privilege; it has to do with examining what sort of events and activities make you feel worthwhile as a human being. But I really believe that the world is doomed unless we can re-create ourselves as social beings as opposed to little ego-anarchists.

(Vorlicky 70)

Kushner insists that unshakable dogmas of any variety are dangerous and that viewing the world solely in rational ways is potentially catastrophic. Rather, he believes it is through the unspoken, the unseen, and a faith in the hard progress built of compassion and humanism that society can proceed most effectively into the unknowable future. Imagination is the true source of revelation for Kushner, particularly an imagination informed by an exposure to the workings of history, and the ways in which history has been understood, distorted, and manipulated over the centuries. Kushner engages with history, reevaluates its evidence and its ruins, its theories and its dictums, and its human toll, with the aim of illuminating those overlooked and misunderstood elements which might offer a valuable lesson for moving forward. Kushner is convinced that

the only politics that can survive an encounter with this world, and still speak convincingly of freedom and justice and democracy, is a politics that can encompass both the harmonics and the dissonance. The frazzle, the rubbed raw, the unresolved, the fragile and the fiery and the dangerous.

(Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness 10-11)

As an American playwright, Kushner's overt political voice makes him a nearly unique figure. Few contemporary dramatists in the United States, whatever their personal politics, examine political issues, theories, and historical figures as Kushner does, although collectives like the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Bread and Puppet Theater offer interesting parallels to Kushner (whose own early experiences as a director and writer were in collective-style theater groups).

Contemporary British writers Caryl Churchill and David Hare attempt, in their different ways, to mount a similar assault on the collisions of history and politics with the personal and, as such, are obvious contemporaries of Kushner, although both British writers work on a smaller dramatic canvas. And despite the fact that there is little similarity in the theatrical styles employed, the work of Nobel Prize-winning playwright and commedia dell'arte-inspired actor Dario Fo is connected to Kushner in that both draw their themes from left-wing politics and both have chosen, in their highly individual ways, to provide a voice for the oppressed and marginalized. Like Fo, Kushner tends toward inclusiveness in both his personal politics and in his art, and this extends even into the ways in which he makes plays. Kushner's plays borrow aspects of expressionism, Brechtian epic theater, realism/naturalism, fantasy, poetic drama, a rich brand of popular culture theatricalism, and a historical, linguistic, and universal thematic scope belonging more to classical and Renaissance dramatic traditions than to much of the theater of the twentieth century.

Much has been written about the importance of Brecht to Kushner's work: Kushner himself has frequently acknowledged the significance of Brecht to his evolution as a writer and theater artist. Reading Brecht's theories and plays “was a kind of revelation to me” (Weber 68), he recalls, and offered the first evidence that led him to believe

that people who are seriously committed political intellectuals could have a home in the theater, the first time I believed that theater, really good theater, had the potential for radical intervention, for effectual analysis. The things that were exciting me about Marx, specifically dialectics, I discovered in Brecht, in a wonderful witty and provocative form. I became very, very excited about doing theater as a result of reading Brecht.

(Weber 68)

As he began to write plays himself in the early 1980s, Kushner was profoundly influenced by Brecht's techniques, as well as the content of his plays. It might reasonably be expected that Kushner would be viewed as a logical heir to those few American dramatists with a political identity (Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller), but Kushner seems instead to descend directly from Ibsen, Shaw, and especially Brecht, believing deeply that “all theater is political” (Blanchard 42).

Kushner's political awakening had begun during his college days after reading Ernst Fischer's The Necessity of Art. A Marxist Approach, as well as the writings of Walter Benjamin, especially Understanding Brecht. From these writings, and from Brecht's plays themselves, Kushner gained a sense of the social responsibility of the artist. However, Kushner's initial response to Fischer was “incredibly angry, because I thought it was Stalinist and dangerous” (Vorlicky 247). Fischer, an Austrian who joined the Communist Party in 1934, was once described by Kenneth Tynan as the Aristotle of Marxism, and in The Necessity of Art he explores not only the nature of art, but the reasons it is needed by society. Fischer seems to be describing the impact of Angels while setting out Kushner's raison d'être when he writes:

In the alienated world in which we live, social reality must be presented in an arresting way, in a new light, through the “alienation” of the subject and the characters. The work of art must grip the audience not through passive identification but through an appeal to reason which demands action and decision.

(Fischer 10)

Fischer points out that even “a great didactic artist like Brecht does not act purely through reason and argument, but also through feeling and suggestion,” with the goal of “enlightening and stimulating action” (Fischer 14). Kushner has obviously drawn on Fischer's concept of art and its purposes, and on Benjamin's conception of history. Kushner explains that his initial anger in response to Fischer's ideas led him to look at other works about art and Marxism, a choice that led him directly to Brecht and Benjamin. Widely regarded as the outstanding German literary critic of the twentieth century, Benjamin was described by Hannah Arendt as “the most peculiar Marxist” of his time, “whose spiritual existence had been formed and informed by Goethe,” but who found in Brecht “a poet of rare intellectual powers and, almost as important for him at the time, someone on the Left who, despite all talk about dialectics, was no more of a dialectical thinker than he was, but whose intelligence was uncommonly close to reality” (Benjamin 11-15). Kushner shares these characteristics with Benjamin, and in Benjamin's essay, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Kushner finds some grounding for his approach to historical drama. As Benjamin writes:

There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another. A historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from it as far as possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.


This brushing against the grain of history is a guiding notion in those instances in which Kushner dramatizes actual events and characters, from the life and death of seventeenth-century writer and physician Sir Thomas Browne in Hydriotaphia to mid-twentieth-century political operative and ultraconservative lawyer Roy Cohn in Angels. It is perhaps too simple to suggest that Kushner's drama provides an alternative history—certainly with Cohn, his depiction seems not to depart very far from the realities of Cohn's life even as he fictionalizes specific events. Instead, Kushner probes into the unexplored corners of the historical figure and situation. He skews the angle of the life to crisis moments (the day of Browne's death or the moment at which Cohn learns that he has AIDS) and from this tilt, fresh visions of the history spill out.

Kushner—who for a time considered a career as a teacher of the literature and history of the Middle Ages—shares Benjamin's belief that history (social, political, and personal) teaches profound lessons and he understands that the concepts of apocalypse and the afterlife are fraught with the same struggles, confusions, and pain encountered in real life. Kushner is inspired by Benjamin's assertion that, as he describes it, one is “constantly looking back at the rubble of history. The most dangerous thing is to become set upon some notion of the future that isn't rooted in the bleakest, most terrifying idea of what's piled up behind you” (Savran 300). While Kushner looks to the past to help frame eternal questions about existence, he does not propose to simply recommit to old values. For Kushner, American society is in an age of intellectual stagnation and profound political and social crisis, but he views the greatest threats as internal—a moral emptiness stemming from what he views as a fundamental abandonment of commitment to justice, compassion, love, and mercy that is a requirement for moral survival in his universe.

There is little doubt that ideas from Benjamin's Understanding Brecht and other essays on art, theater and film, and literature permeate Kushner's work as a dramatist. “Theses on the Philosophy of History” not only provides central imagery for Angels, but it, along with Brecht's writings, illuminates all of Kushner's plays thus far. Kushner has also spoken of feeling intimidated by Brecht's dramatic achievement, that if he could not write a play equal to Mother Courage and Her Children, he did not want to write at all. However, while reading Shakespeare and Brecht at the same time, he found a dialectical method in the structure of the historical plays of these two vastly different dramatists and strove, at the beginning of his playwriting career, to emulate the lyricism and scope of Shakespeare while, at the same time, drawing on the epic qualities of Brecht. Even as a graduate student, Kushner wrote a couple of things that were heavily influenced by Brecht. Seeking an image of a politicized artist who successfully merged art and politics, Kushner found that Brecht offered “a really brilliant marriage of Marxist theory as theater practice” (Vorlicky 248). Brecht, who believed that “if we want a truly popular literature [and here, in regard to Kushner, one might interject theater], alive and fighting, completely gripped by reality and completely gripping reality, then we must keep pace with reality's headlong development” (Brecht 112), seems to imagine a Kushner carrying a Marx-inspired battle against oppression into the future.

Kushner's Brechtian style took fuller shape in his first two important plays, A Bright Room Called Day and Hydriotaphia, and flowered fully in Angels and in his own adaptation of Brecht's The Good Person of Setzuan. Kushner, however, has adapted Brecht's methods to suit his own particular voice, embellishing the method with his own devices. Kushner's major plays adopt a structure that is at once both cinematic (he has said that Robert Altman's 1974 epic film Nashville provided structural ideas for Angels) and Brechtian, but he couples the alienation techniques of Brecht with a fully realized emotional and personal strain drawn more from American lyrical realism than from Brecht (whose character's emotional struggles are often downplayed in his effort to keep the audience focused on the issues). These techniques combine with an often outrageous sense of humor (again, far bolder than the typical dry Brechtian ironies, owing much to Kushner's queering of his subjects), and a phantasmagoric theatricality (extending well beyond anything Brecht contemplated) to offer a completely original brand of American political theater. Much of this originality is already evident in Kushner's earliest plays, but it comes to full fruition between the writing of his first important play, the overtly Brechtian A Bright Room Called Day, and his masterfully original Angels.

As previously noted, the political dramatist is a comparative rarity in the American theater. Kushner's predecessors with political aims, including Odets and Miller, seem to have had little direct influence on Kushner, although he directed a production of Odets's Golden Boy at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in 1986. The profound influence of European politics, literature, and theater on Kushner is important, but he is, despite this, a quintessentially American figure. The stunning ambition (and length) of Kushner's plays calls to mind Eugene O'Neill, a dramatist whose life and work “excited and impressed” him, and, to a lesser extent, Wilder, but Kushner is closer in spirit to Tennessee Williams, “all-in-all my favorite playwright and probably all-in-all our greatest playwright” (Vorlicky 235).

Kushner also acknowledges some debt to contemporary gay dramatists like Larry Kramer and Harvey Fierstein, but they are less significant to Kushner's development as a dramatist than Williams. There are obvious similarities between Williams and Kushner in the lyricism of both writers and in the sexual identities that inform their work. Perhaps more significantly, Kushner and Williams present views of a changing sociopolitical environment—their characters are generally caught between two worlds: one that is dying and one that is being born. The friction of such transitions—and the attempt to survive in the confusing netherworld created by them—amplifies the emotions and struggles of their characters.

Of his predecessor, Kushner has said, “I've always loved Williams. The first time I read Streetcar, I was annihilated. I read as much Williams as I could get my hands on until the late plays started getting embarrassingly bad. … I'm really influenced by Williams” (Savran 297). Kushner is also drawn to the seriocomic plays of John Guare, who, like Williams, “has figured out a way for Americans to do a kind of stage poetry. He's discovered a lyrical voice that doesn't sound horrendously twee and forced and phony” (Savran 297). Kushner aims for a similar sort of lyricism in Angels, both in language and in theme, weaving a tapestry of the crushing human and spiritual issues of the Reagan era—and beyond—with poignance (in the Williams and Guare senses) and epic stature (in both the differing O'Neillian and Brechtian senses). Kushner's less familiar but no less effective other plays, both full-length and one-act, are similar to Angels in this regard. Williams's passion for illusion, in his appreciation of the fragility of beauty and in the profound heartbreak of his most memorable characters, is certainly evident in Kushner's work. Prior Walter (who gets his name from Walter Benjamin) of Angels is a logical heir to Williams's delicate souls and Kushner, who gives Prior a famous Williams line to repeat in Perestroika, the second of the Angels plays, makes certain that the connection will not be missed—even if Prior turns out, despite his gentleness, to be a survivor, while Williams's Blanche DuBois cannot cope. The influence of Williams on Kushner could hardly be overlooked in the illusory and lyrical aspects of Kushner's work, as critic John Lahr writes:

Not since Williams has a playwright announced his poetic vision with such authority on the Broadway stage. Kushner is the heir apparent to Williams' romantic theatrical heritage: he, too, has tricks in his pocket and things up his sleeve, and he gives the audience “truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” And, also like Williams, Kushner has forged an original, impressionistic theatrical vocabulary to show us the heart of a new age.

(“Earth Angels” 133)

An important connection between Kushner and Williams also lies in their homosexuality. Williams, who was guardedly open about his sexuality from the 1960s until his death, and featured gay characters in his drama from nearly the beginning of his playwriting career, could not be as “out” as Kushner can be. Still, a gay sensibility fuels the work of both writers. One of the great ironies of the success of Angels (and, for that matter, the plays of Williams) has been the enormous mainstream audience that has embraced it despite the fact that its politics, moral universe, and sexuality are, at least as measured by many of those elected to public office in the United States, incompatible with the beliefs of American society. It is perhaps in this irony that some of the questions that both Williams and Kushner explore meet: “What is the relationship between sexuality and power? Is sexuality merely an expression of power? Is there even such a thing as ‘sexuality’?” (Savran 308).

As is true for Williams, not all—or even most—of Kushner's plays are about homosexuality. Even Angels, a play widely regarded as a milestone in gay drama—and in the movement for gay rights and the war against AIDS—is not simply a gay play. It is about many facets of American life, of which sexuality and homophobia are traditionally, and certainly currently, divisive issues. Gay characters are usually present in Kushner's other plays, but often in secondary roles. However, regardless of the significance of a given character, sexuality informs Kushner's work, much as it does Williams's. If Williams can be said to sexualize American drama, Kushner queers it and the historical events he examines.

Kushner came of age in an era of dizzying changes in the American cultural landscape. Following some abortive efforts to find a “cure” for his sexual orientation, Kushner came to terms with his homosexuality and was inspired by gay activist writers and artists like Williams, and, even more so by those emerging from the Stonewall generation and after. Kushner's identity as a gay man not only led to the dramatic work for which he is most known, but has permeated all of his dramatic work and an increasing commitment to social activism, from a variety of leftist political issues to gay rights and AIDS to the role of controversial art in a society. Kushner was especially inspired by such gay rights organizations as ACT UP and Queer Nation, whose chant “We're here, we're queer, we're fabulous” pervades his drama, especially Angels. The social and political battles of the last four decades of the twentieth century are as important to understanding Kushner as are his literary and theatrical influences.

Kushner's reverence for great dramatic works of the past, many of which examine questions of religious faith in conflict with social reality, the complexities of politics, and the meeting of past and present, is important. As a gay man, Kushner also acknowledges some debt to pioneering gay dramatists Robert Patrick, Kramer, and Fierstein, as well as their logical predecessor, Williams, who dealt more frankly with this topic in later dramas—Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), Suddenly Last Summer (1958), Small Craft Warnings (1972), Something Cloudy, Something Clear (1981), and The Notebook of Trigorin (1981). Williams paved the way for other gay dramatists to delve into gender matters with greater purpose, as with the outrageous camp sensibilities of Charles Ludlam and Charles Busch or in the politicized dramas of Kramer—and, ultimately, Kushner's plays. Kushner recognizes that Williams, with lyricism and compassion, brought sexuality out of the American theatrical closet.

Kushner's political activism is of central importance to an understanding of his work. It is also important to appreciate that he is both unmistakably American and strongly connected to his Eastern European roots and its cultural masterworks. As a Jew, Kushner is part of an ethnic heritage that has experienced harrowing losses—and has survived. He identifies parallels between the Jewish experience and what gays have contended with in American society. Kushner struggles with an ambivalence toward Judaism due to homophobic traditions within his faith. However, for him, the connections between Jews and homosexuals are most important in that he believes both groups have a shared a history of “oppression and persecution” that offers “a sort of false possibility of a kind of an assimilation” (Vorlicky 278). Kushner insists that “as Hannah Arendt says, it's better to be a pariah than a parvenu. If you're hated by a social order, don't try and make friends with it. Identify yourself as other, and identify your determining characteristics as those characteristics which make you other and unliked and despised” (Vorlicky 218).

Kushner began his dramatic career in earnest as the terrifying devastation of AIDS became all too clear, and it is against this background that Kushner emerged as a playwright and director. However, to see Kushner solely as a gay dramatist—either in Angels or Kushner's “queering” of history in other works—is far too limiting for a writer whose work is diverse in its subjects and characters. Other influences on him are at least as significant. Some of these can be seen in Angels, but they come into sharper relief in his lesser-known works written and produced both before and after the Angels phenomenon.

There is a sense of classical fatality in Kushner's plays, but there is also an unmistakable Ibsenite element—the idea that humanity may be proceeding on the wrong moral road and that the souls of the past and future will exact retribution. Kushner believes that tragedy—both real and fictional—teaches and changes people, a sentiment he shares with many modern dramatists and, in America, especially with the generation of post-World War II playwrights. American dramatists also supplied Kushner with a strong sense of the personal in drama. In bringing his own autobiography on to the stage, Kushner emphasizes that life is loss: “You can't conquer loss. You lose. To suggest otherwise would be to suggest a fantasy. … Life is about losing. Things are taken from you. People are taken from you. You just have to face it” (Pacheco 17). As a gay man, a Jew, and a political leftist, Kushner strives to express a capacity for forgiveness in the human spirit, but adds that the losses suffered by the groups of which he is a part make a forgiving spirit difficult. As he says, “Loss and forgiveness go hand in hand, and it's tricky” (Vorlicky 63).

If Williams provides Kushner with a powerful model of a dramatist struggling with issues of loss and forgiveness, other American dramatists offer different sorts of inspiration. Miller's plays share the Ibsenite moral quandaries, but Kushner professes not to admire much of Miller's drama except, grudgingly, the raw force of Death of a Salesman, despite his feeling that it is “melodramatic, and it has that awful, fifties kind of Herman Wouk-ish sexual morality that's disgusting and irritating” (Savran 296). However, at least on one level Kushner shares some thematic turf with Miller in questioning America's embracing of commerce—the relentless selling of a product, an image, or an idea as the measure of success—and that, for better or worse, this has been, and will likely continue to be, the driving aspect of the American national persona.

Like Death of a Salesman and its contemporary counterparts in David Mamet's American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross,Angels sees the selling of America more in terms of a selling out—of the abandonment of principle, of the loss of compassion for the less fortunate, of a failure to believe in the fundamental connectedness of all members of humanity, despite the vast racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity. Miller and Mamet both focus on the white heterosexual male as the center of society, while Kushner reflects the ever-changing American demographic, expanding it to include the full spectrum of American society. Miller's drama was born out of the crucible of the social struggles of the turbulent 1930s, an era in which America came closest to a socialist society and, as such, an era of significance to Kushner. However, Kushner's own formative era coincided with the turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s. The internalized moral battles of Miller's age, which exploded in the early 1950s during the witch hunts of the House Un-American Activities Committee, surely seem too constricting—even too narrow—for Kushner, an artist inspired to examine diverse issues on a broader and bolder level.

Angels, of course, provided Kushner with numerous awards and a fame usually unavailable to working American dramatists during the last half of the twentieth century. It also made him a leading spokesperson for gay rights and leftist politics in a contentious era for both. Angels, which has elicited both enthusiasm and controversy in productions around the world, is, at the very least, a defiant indictment of the hypocrisy of the American moral compass. Regarding politics, it is ironic that Kushner is perhaps the best-known dramatist of his generation in the United States as the result of representing viewpoints seemingly incompatible with a post-Reagan neoconservative age. Understanding Kushner's dramatic output, his conceptions of stage technique, his views of politics, religion, sexuality, and much else, may offer some insights into not only the drama of the past century, but also into the complex contradictions of American life at the dawn of a new millennium.

Much about Kushner's theatrical achievement, as well as his social and political beliefs, can be found in Angels. However, despite its remarkable impact, Angels is only a part of the rich and impressively diverse dramatic output of a still youthful playwright. The twentieth-century American theater has produced only a few plays equal to Angels: Long Day's Journey into Night, Our Town, A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, A Raisin in the Sun, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It is perhaps too soon to imagine Kushner's ultimate influence on American drama—and society—for at least a couple of reasons. Certainly, there is much more to come from his pen. More significantly, American theater at the dawn of the twenty-first century seems to be moving in several different directions at once. While it is obvious that Kushner provides a boldly epic, highly theatrical, politically engaged, and richly emotive model as a true alternative to the minimalist, densely constructed, and small-scale plays of such other leading contemporary dramatists as Albee, Mamet, McNally, and Sam Shepard, there is little doubt that Kushner has been a revitalizing force in American drama during the last decade of the twentieth century. His influence on the development of the American theater may ultimately equal that of O'Neill or Williams. His drama daringly mixes fantasy and reality—as well as tragedy and comedy—to blend together elements of the past, present, and future of the world of his play, the lives of his characters, and the society in which he lives.

The Theater of Tony Kushner: Living Past Hope is the first study to examine Kushner's entire dramatic output thus far. The phenomenon of Angels, while catapulting Kushner to prominence, has, at times, somewhat obscured the rest of his work as a dramatist (in both the full-length and one-act forms), adaptor, screenwriter, and librettist. His plays, produced and unproduced, offer a more staggering range of themes and characters than even the titanic Angels can encompass. In his own plays and his free adaptations, Kushner examines the nature of love as understood through the prisms of diverse cultures from seventeenth-century France to the shtetls of Eastern Europe, the rise of capitalism at the dawn of the industrial age, issues of spirituality and religion, the moral dilemmas of the Holocaust, the collapse of the Soviet Union, environmental catastrophe, psychoanalysis, grassroots tax revolt, the experience of immigrants coming to the United States, the struggles of gays within a homophobic society, the nature of art, and the meanings of death and the afterlife.

This book will examine all of these plays in an attempt to shed some light on the techniques and themes of Kushner's work and his place in millennial American and international drama. In exploring the profound moral, social, religious, and political questions that will shape the future of the United States in the world community, Kushner's ambitious output extends well beyond the impressive Angels. Single chapters are devoted to each of his produced full-length plays (A Bright Room Called Day,Hydriotaphia, or The Death of Dr. Browne,Angels in America, and Slavs! Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness). Other chapters will examine a number of his one-act plays and his numerous adaptations including The Illusion (from Pierre Corneille's L'Illusion comique), Stella (from Goethe's play), St. Cecilia, or The Power of Music (adapted from a story by Heinrich von Kleist), A Dybbuk (from S. Ansky's Yiddish theater classic, The Dybbuk), Brecht's The Good Person of Setzuan, and Widows, adapted in collaboration with Chilean novelist and political activist Ariel Dorfman. Kushner has also completed a number of unpublished and/or unproduced works that will be examined in this study, including the opera libretto Caroline, or Change, the screenplay Grim(m), and a number of works-in-progress, including a three-play cycle on economic history, the first play of which, Henry Box Brown, or The Mirror of Slavery, is expected to debut at the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain. Attention will also be paid to Kushner's essays, poetry, and political activism.

The Theater of Tony Kushner: Living Past Hope draws its subtitle from part of a speech spoken by Prior Walter in Perestroika, the second of the Angels plays: “We live past hope” (136). This line, more than any other in Kushner's oeuvre, captures the intent of his drama: a belief that despite centuries of historical and personal tragedy, we must progressively face the inevitabilities of a future we cannot know while, at the same time, learning from an often tragic and destructive past we know only too well. Belief in progress, in compassion, in the transformative power of love, in true community is the religion Kushner offers for the new millennium.


Tony Kushner is drunk on ideas, on language, on the possibility of changing the world. His talent and his heart are incendiary, combustible, explosive, heartbreakingly vital and on-target.

—Larry Kramer (Roca 32)

Tony Kushner was born in New York City on July 16, 1956, the second of three children of William and Sylvia (Deutscher) Kushner, both classically trained musicians who encouraged their son's interests in art and literature (they even named him after popular singer Tony Bennett as an added encouragement). From his parents, “New York-New Deal liberals transplanted to the Deep South,” he inherited “a healthy appetite for politics, for history, for political theory,” a hunger they, in turn, inherited from their parents, “all of us indebted to the insatiable curiosity, skepticism, pessimistic optimism, ethical engagement, and ardent pursuit of the millennium that is, for me, the most valuable heritage of nearly two thousand years of Diasporan Judaic culture” (“Notes about Political Theatre” 20).

Kushner spent most of his childhood in Lake Charles, Louisiana (“No one asked me if I wanted to go,” Kushner jokes [Szentgyorgyi 18]), where his mother, a professional bassoonist, “one of the first American women to hold a principal chair in a major orchestra (the New York City Opera orchestra at the age of eighteen)” (“Notes about Political Theatre” 19), and an amateur actress, frequently performed in local plays, including Death of a Salesman, The Diary of Anne Frank, and A Far Country. It was in Louisiana, in “the culture of ‘genteel’ post-integration bayou-county racism” (Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness 50), that Kushner became entranced by the emotional power of the theater and the arts in general—he would return to this setting for a semiautobiographical libretto, Caroline, or Change, and other of his works include similarly autobiographical strains most touchingly demonstrated in the sad bassoon music he employs in some in honor of his mother's memory. The stage, a place of “hysterical and historical conversion” (“Notes About Political Theatre” 20), provided an appealing world for a child who knew, even at an early age, that he was different: “I grew up very, very closeted, and I'm sure that the disguise of theater, the doubleness, and all that slightly tawdry stuff interested me” (Savran 293). As a child, he also acted occasionally in plays himself, but resisted the off-stage gay life of the theater which frightened him, becoming instead a high school debater because, “I had decided at a very early age that I would become heterosexual” (Savran 293). This painful struggle with his true self continued into Kushner's twenties.

Kushner moved to New York in 1974 to begin his college education at Columbia University, where he completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature in 1978. During his time at Columbia, he immersed himself in the New York theater scene, taking in as many Broadway shows as possible, as well as more experimental works by Spalding Gray, Lee Breuer, JoAnne Akalaitis, and especially Richard Schechner's production of Mother Courage and Her Children (“which I still think is the greatest play ever written”) and Richard Foreman's staging of The Threepenny Opera (“which I saw about ninety-five times and which is one of my great theater experiences” [Savran 294]). Kushner's taste in theater began to mature, as did his “fairly standard liberal politics” (Savran 294) influenced by faculty and fellow students at Columbia, but more importantly through his growing interest in Brecht. He read Brecht's dramatic works, as well as his seminal essay, “A Short Organum for the Theater,” along with Marx, Arnold Hauser, and Benjamin's Understanding Brecht. He was also drawn into study of medieval literature, including Beowulf, finding the “magic and the darkness of it very appealing” to his “fantastical, spiritual side” (Savran 295). His study of the classics included the Greeks and he found himself moved to realize that ancient plays by Aeschylus or Euripides did not seem at all primitive. Although he claims not to believe in fundamental universal truths, he discovered in reading ancient and medieval works that “there are certain human concerns” (Savran 295) that have always been part of the human experience.

In this period, Kushner grappled intensely with his sexual orientation, seeking therapy to find a so-called cure for his homosexuality, before facing it in various ways. One involved calling his mother from a New York City phone booth in September 1981 to tell her that he was gay, a scene he would powerfully recreate in Angels. In experiences recognized by many homosexuals, Kushner found himself struggling with his father's initial disapproval, though their battles eventually subsided as the senior Kushner accepted his son's orientation. Kushner himself came to embrace his sexuality and, as a dramatist, especially in the wake of Angels, became a prominent activist in the movement for gay and lesbian rights.

Following the completion of his degree at Columbia, Kushner worked as a switchboard operator at the United Nations Plaza Hotel beginning in 1979. During this period, he also directed small-scale theater productions of very big plays, ranging from stagings of Shakespeare's The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream to Brecht's The Baden-Baden Play for Learning. Accepted to New York University's Tisch School of the Arts to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree in directing, Kushner staged a short Brecht play as his audition for entrance into the program. At Tisch, he was trained under the guidance of Brecht specialist Carl Weber and aspired to follow the paths of such forerunning theatrical artists as Richard Foreman, Joanne Akalaitis, and Liz LeCompte, whose productions he found exceptional.

Kushner continued to work the switchboard to pay the rent, but in the summers he also worked at a school for gifted children in Louisiana, writing plays for them to perform and others which he produced with his fellow students at Tisch prior to completing his degree in directing in 1984. Some of these plays were also staged by the Imaginary Theatre Company at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and elsewhere. Kushner's plays from this period, beginning around 1982, demonstrate the breadth and virtuosity of his later playwriting, including a range of genres and styles, including an opera (La Fin de la Baleine: An Opera for the Apocalypse [1982]), some childrens' theater plays (Historiomax [1985], Yes Yes No No [1985], The Protozoa Review [1985], The Heavenly Theatre: Hymns for Martyred Actors [1985], In Great Eliza's Golden Time [1986]), one-act and full-length plays (The Age of Assassins [1986], Last Gasp at the Cataract [1986], and Hydriotaphia, or The Death of Dr. Browne [1987]), and an adaptation (Goethe's Stella [1987]). They also demonstrate elements of his later works in their lyricism, thematic sweep, and bold theatricality. For example, one of his earliest works, the 1982 La Fin de la Baleine: An Opera for the Apocalypse (translated from the French, the title means The End of the Whale), a theater-dance piece, features a scene in which a woman with a tuba dances on point while spouting water from her mouth. Imagination, ambition, and political commitment were Kushner's most evident traits as a beginning dramatist.


It might be argued that, perhaps,
Civilization would collapse
Without us feeling that we had
Collectively done something bad.

—Actor 1, Yes Yes No No (5.19)

An especially illuminating example of Kushner's early works is his children's play, Yes Yes No No (subtitled The Solace of Solstice Apogee/Perigee Bestial/Celestial Holiday Show), which demonstrates that even within the often debased form of children's theater, and even at the beginning of his work as a dramatist, Kushner's imaginative poetic gifts and thematic ambition are present and, to a great extent, fully formed. Directed and designed by Kushner for the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis's Imaginary Theatre Company, and performed in shopping malls and hospitals from December 2-21, 1985 (with a brief December 23-27, 1985 run on the Rep's main stage), Yes Yes No No features a cast of four women, played in the original production by Kari Eli, Maggie Lerian, Lisa Raziq, and Jeanne Trevor. The roles can also be played by an all-male cast merely by changing a few pronouns in the text, but in either case cast members each play numerous roles.

Set during the winter solstice (at “various places around the universe” [stage directions]), Yes Yes No No announces that it is no ordinary children's play as its prologue establishes a seriocomic tone, an actor-centered technique, and explores themes no less significant than the creation of the universe and the meaning of good and evil. Beginning with a typically Kushnerian question, a tape-recorded voice (God?) asks, “Is it not wonder?” (Prologue. 1), as actors, playing shepherds and angels, ruminate on the beauty of the winter environment and remark that they are looking on

The Face
Of God, the Face
Of Heaven, miracle face
Of angels announcing in a language of Awe
To a cold frightened hilltop
Open vowels of …

(Prologue. 1)

At which point they are interrupted by a chorus of sheep “ooh-ooh”-ing “The First Noel.” This abrupt mixture of the portentous and the comic is a Kushner trademark that, along with his characteristically poetic language, is in ample evidence in this imaginative trip through religious myth and science. In the play's first part, God and Space converse about the creation of the first atom, and God has an idea:

It will be VERY small.
It will be VERY light.
It will be HARD TO SEE
It will not be much but
It will be Something.


Space thanks God for the atom's creation, noting that

This could be the start
Of Something b-b-b-


In part 2, the actors reflect on the multiplication of atoms and gases fusing to create the universe, with Kushner implanting a little political theory, as when all four actors proclaim

From grains of sand to giant stars all things share one condition. The world we see would never be except for OPPOSITION.


The complications of the making of the universe—and the existence of the human lives created (“Life is confusing” [3.8])—reveal, to some extent, Kushner's own childhood confusions and struggles, as in some counterpoint speeches in part 3:

Sometimes, when I am
sad, I can't remember what
it's like to be happy, and I
think I'll never be happy


Sometimes when I am
happy, I can't remember what
it's like to be sad, and I
think I'll never be sad again.


Part 4 explores the “contrariness” inherent in existence, as the angels, who are “very very nice,” share a feast at the Table of Elements with the devils, who “live in Hell” (4.13). When a devil and an angel get into a fight, the angel's wings are broken off. God intervenes with a way of reinventing this damaged angelic being:

Have an idea.
I will name it
Something new.
I will call it


The devil, feeling guilty, wants to know how he might atone for his sin, but begs the Human not to take his “badness” which “is all I have” (4.15), so the Human instead takes his guilt:

While the angel, who was now
A human being, was left
Feeling guilty,
And so became more human
Than before.


In part 5, Kushner examines the nature of guilt and its relation to human affairs (“Even the President feels guilty” [5.17]), which allows his young audience to experience the ways they feel when mistakes and their differences cause disturbance. Responses to guilt, apologizing, praying, talking to an analyst, singing, and eating are tested and found wanting, so Kushner proposes that it is possible that civilization might end without a collective human feeling of guilt. Even Santa Claus, it is revealed, feels guilty sometimes. One of the actors tells a tale in which a group of Santas give up their joyful dancing in the snow because they are too fat. Feeling greatly depressed:

They all ate like little piggies
Faster than they could digest.
Ate the puddings, pears and figgies;
Then they didn't feel depressed!


At least not for the moment, until they are overwhelmed by feelings of despair much worse than what they felt before: “Why won't it ever let me be?” (5.21). Part 6 explores the meaning of despair, as Devil-Tempters play on human guilt, with the result that their souls are “slamming shut” (6.22) and

Grief pushes outward
And down to
A dreamless deep slumber,
Heavy and hollow
And endlessly sad.


For the final scene, the actors play “a BUSH, a PERSON, and two RAVENS” (6.23) crying at the coming of the sad, cold, and lonely winter. Person pricks his finger on a thorn from the Bush, leading all to marvel at the beauty of the “drop of red” (7.25) blood that, they imagine, is like the berries that come with springtime. They all feel better that “winter doesn't last forever” (7.25) and understand, as one of the actors explains in a final speech, that the spring is impossible without the winter:

Because this is a world that depends on FRICTION,
The Yes and the No and the CONTRADICTION.
The seed and the plant and the plant and the seed,
And is it not a wonder


Yes Yes No No was described by Don Shewey, who served on a panel selecting plays for an anthology of children's plays, as “the maddest piece of kid-lit I'd read since Ionesco's story for toddlers in which all the characters are named Jacqueline” (Shewey 32). Certainly few children's plays would attempt to deal, however lightheartedly and lyrically, with the issues in Yes Yes No No. Kushner typically takes his audience—even the young one this play is aimed at—into the depths of despair and pain from which he finds, through a belief in the wonder of existence, the essential spinning forward of progress and a hope earned through suffering and difficulty.

Yes Yes No No and Kushner's other early works explore themes and dramatic techniques that would remain evident, if more masterfully employed, in his plays through the end of the twentieth century. Beginning in the mid-1980s, Kushner's work, both as a director and a playwright, and as the artistic director of the Heat & Light Company, a political theater group, brought him awards and the support of several prestigious grants, including the Seidman Award in Directing from the New York University Tisch School of the Arts in 1983-84, a Directing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1985, the Princess Grace Award in 1986, a Playwriting Fellowship from the New York State Council for the Arts in 1987, and a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1988.

Kushner became assistant director of the St. Louis Repertory Theatre in 1985-86, and in 1987-88 he became artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop. For NYTW he staged early versions of A Bright Room Called Day and his Goethe adaptation, Stella, and, that same year, directed the first version of his play, Hydriotaphia, or The Death of Dr. Browne, for the Home for Contemporary Theatre and Art in New York. Kushner also worked as Director of Literary Services for the Theatre Communications Group during 1989 and regularly taught at an array of universities, ultimately joining the permanent faculty of the Tisch School in 1996. However, Kushner's efforts as a director and teacher were superseded by his writing, adapting, and political activism in the late 1980s. Along with his own plays and adaptations, Kushner exercised his writing skills in a variety of ways, including contributing a narration to replace Paul Green's original text of Johnny Johnson to accompany Kurt Weill's music in a concert performance of the piece performed by Larry Kert on a program called Voices of Change. American Music of Protest, Politics and Persuasion in September 1989. This breadth of activity suggests that in all aspects of his work—even from its beginnings—Kushner merged politics, literature, and music, as would be amply evident in all of his dramatic work.

In this period, Kushner lost his mother to cancer and he completed and produced his first important plays. It is at this point that The Theater of Tony Kushner: Living Past Hope begins, with the goal of serving as an introduction to Kushner's complete dramatic works to date and placing them beside the extraordinarily acclaimed Angels. Some of these works feature themes Kushner explored in Angels, while others move in different directions, both thematically and dramaturgically. Setting Angels within the context of Kushner's entire output as a working dramatic artist during an era of new energy, broader ethnic and gender diversity, and conspicuous theatricality on American stages will hopefully deepen understanding and appreciation of his dramatic journey to, as critic John Lahr describes it, “that most beautiful, divided, and unexplored country—the human heart” (“Angels on Broadway” 137).


  1. Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Essays and Reflections. Edited and with an introduction by Hannah Arendt. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.

    Blanchard, Bob. “Playwright of Pain and Hope,” Progressive, vol. 58, October 1994, pp. 42-44.

    Fischer, Ernst. The Necessity of Art. A Marxist Approach. Translated by Anna Bostock. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.

    Kushner, Tony. Angels in America. A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Part Two: Perestroika. New York: Theatre Communications Group, Inc., 1992, 1994.

    ———. “Notes about Political Theatre,” Kenyon Review, vol. XIX, nos. 3/4, summer/fall 1997, pp. 19-34.

    ———. Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness, Essays, A Play, Two Poems and A Prayer. New York: Theatre Communications Group, Inc., 1995.

    ———. “Yes Yes No No. The Solace of Solstice Apogee/Perigee Bestial/Celestial Holiday Show,” in Plays in Process. Three Plays for Young Audiences. Vol. 7, no. 11. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1987.

    Lahr, John. “Angels on Broadway,” New Yorker, May 23, 1993, p. 137.

    ———. “Earth Angels,” New Yorker, December 13, 1993, pp. 129-33.

    Pacheco, Patrick. “AIDS, Angels, Activism, and Sex in the Nineties,” Body Positive, September 1993, pp. 17-28.

    Roca, Octavio. “Kushner's Next Stage,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 6, 1998, p. 32.

    Savran, David. “Tony Kushner,” in Speaking on Stage. Interviews with Contemporary American Playwrights, edited by Philip C. Kolin and Colby H. Kullman. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996, pp. 291-313.

    Shewey, Don. “Tony Kushner's Sexy Ethics,” Village Voice, April 20, 1993, pp. 29-32, 36.

    Szentgyorgyi, Tom. “Look Back—And Forward—In Anger,” Theater Week, January 14-20, 1991, pp. 15-19.

    Vorlicky, Robert, ed. Tony Kushner in Conversation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.

    Weber, Carl. “I Always Go Back to Brecht,” Brecht Yearbook/Das Brecht-Jahrbuch, vol. 25, 1995, pp. 67-88.

Peggy Phelan (review date March 2003)

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SOURCE: Phelan, Peggy. Review of Homebody/Kabul, by Tony Kushner. Theatre Journal 55, no. 1 (March 2003): 166-68.

[In the following review, Phelan compares productions of Homebody/Kabul staged in New York and in Berkeley, California. Phelan asserts that the first act of the play is stronger than the second act.]

Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul was the winner of the Dramatists Guild Hull-Warriner award for best play of 2001. Kushner began writing Homebody/Kabul about three years before “Taliban,” “Northern Alliance,” “burqa,” and “Afghanistan” became the lingua franca of denizens of the United States. Indelibly linked now with the events of 9/11/01, Kushner's play has been widely declared “eerily prescient.” To his credit, Kushner dismisses this hype: “I'm not psychic. If you choose to write about current events there's a good chance you will find the events you've written about to be … well, current” (Homebody/Kabul. TCG 2002: 146). Kushner recognizes that plays must have something to say that exceeds the pressing tension of the present tense. I had the opportunity to see Kushner's play twice on opposite coasts in the space of eight months and this experience confirmed, once more, how accelerated the present tense is in an era of postmodernism.

In the New York Theatre Workshop production, directed by Declan Donnellan, the sheer length of the play—it was over four hours on opening night—led to a certain frustrated impatience on the audience's part. Even more dismaying was the fall in quality between the mesmerizing Homebody and the meandering plot of Kabul. In the production at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Kabul had been cut substantially, and Tony Taccone's direction was more aggressive and faster paced than Donnellan's. Moreover, in the eight months between the opening of the play and its Berkeley run, the situation in Kabul had been radically altered, making the political urgency of some of Kushner's comments about the Taliban's hold on the city seem already dated, rather than “eerily prescient.” Finally, the psychological terrain between downtown New York twelve weeks after the destruction of the World Trade Center and Berkeley forty weeks later was also dramatically different. In New York, the play was seen primarily in terms of the attack on the city—there's a line in the play about the Taliban coming to New York—while in Berkeley, the reception of the play concerned Kushner's love affair with language.

The first hour and ten minutes of the play, the Homebody monologue, demonstrates Kushner's considerable gifts: his writing is fluent, evocative, and emotionally and intellectually expansive. Joining the aesthetics of theatrical minimalism—a woman sitting on a chair for seventy minutes talking—with language of such baroque intensity that the slightest physical gesture seems unbearably distracting, the monologue is completely captivating. The Homebody, an English woman who has an unhappy marriage, takes anti-depressants, worries about her daughter, “for whom alas nothing seems to go well,” and reads and speaks obsessively. She begins the monologue quoting from Nancy Hatch Dupree's tour guide, An Historical Guide to Kabul, published in 1965 and thus completely out of date: “Our story begins at the very dawn of history, circa 3,000 BC. …” This sense of historical time-lag is crucial to Kushner's political polemic. To understand anything about the rise of the Taliban, Kushner insists, one needs to think through the extraordinarily brutal history of Afghanistan. The monologue places Kabul, a city now so newly near for US audiences, in a vast historical setting that continually displaces and defers the possibility of dramatic or political resolution. The sometimes maddeningly long sentences of the Homebody bespeak the difficulty of finding a way to reach closure about Kabul.

In New York, Linda Edmond was brilliant as Homebody. She performed the long monologue with verve and wit, and more impressively, she conveyed a profound sadness and despair about her loneliness even in—perhaps especially in—her most comic moments. In Berkeley, Michelle Moran emphasized the Homebody's frailty in physical terms. She had a cane placed in front of her chair, and when she moved at all, it seemed to require all of her attention. This approach also worked but it sometimes suggested that the Homebody's suffering was largely external. Edmond was so good she managed to make Kushner's beautiful, but perhaps somewhat naive, conceits seem plausible: that if we learn how to surrender without violence to the mystery of the unknown in the same way we surrender to the ineffable mystery of words, we might one day be—if not exactly saved—at least capable of finding and offering love, still a hugely transformative force in the world. The Homebody longs for love at least as much as she craves the right words. She, her husband, and daughter “all loved one another, once, but today it simply isn't so or isn't what it used to be, it's … well, love.” The disappointment in that last “love” structures her indefatigable rhetorical aspirations; she knows that her husband and daughter resent her love for books, her way of speaking, and her interest in mystery. But because she loves the world, and the words that make up the world, she is unable to stop attempting to experience the world as precisely as language allows.

The Homebody's husband is a scientist, and her daughter is unemployed. All three are anxious. She and her husband both take “powerful antidepressants.” She says, “his pills have one name and mine another. I frequently take his pills instead of mine so I can know what he's feeling. … [A]s far as I know he never takes my pills but ingests only his own, which are yellow and red, while mine are green and creamy-white; and I find his refusal to sample dull. A little dull” (13). Dullness is a vice to be avoided for the Homebody. She decides to have a party, even though her history as a successful party host has not been great. In the spirit of Virginia Woolf's Clarissa Dalloway, Homebody decides to buy, not the flowers, but the party hats, herself. She goes to a shop run by Afghan refugees and selects ten festive hats. As she pays for them she realizes that the shopkeeper has a mutilated hand: “Three fingers on his right hand have been hacked off, following the line of a perfect clean diagonal from middle to ring to little finger. …” She entertains many different possible causes, all contradictory—“my name is in the files if they haven't been destroyed, the names I gave are in the files, there are no more files”—until all the explanations seem both excessive and impoverished. Before long, the Homebody, suddenly fluent in Pushto, finds herself under a tree in Kabul where, she says, “the hat merchant and I make love beneath a chinair tree. … We kiss, his breath is very bitter; he places his hand inside me, it seems to me his whole hand inside me, it seems to me a whole hand.” Then, just as suddenly, she is back in the London hat shop. The shift in time and space is startlingly and slightly unnerving, but it helps prepare us for the larger shift between the confined world of the Homebody's English living room and the war-torn city of Kabul, where the rest of the play takes place. But while the Homebody's (imaginative) journey to Kabul is motivated by some combination of love, lust, curiosity, boredom, and hopefulness, her family's journey there is motivated by her apparent murder.

Act 2 begins in Kabul with a doctor explaining to the Homebody's husband and daughter that her body has been found. The doctor goes on at excruciating length explaining the nature of her injuries, which are brutal. The doctor's report is arranged by Quango Twistleton, an opium addict living in Kabul for the drugs who also works for a British NGO. Played with especial cunning by Bill Camp in the New York production, Quango is a fascinating character. He befriends the Homebody's husband, Milton Ceiling, and falls for Priscilla, their daughter. Milton, comically eager to get out of Kabul as fast as possible, readily accepts the doctor's explanations about his wife's death, but Priscilla finds everything about her mother's trip to Kabul incomprehensible and cannot believe anything the doctor says. She determines to investigate on her own. After a very complicated series of events, the Ceilings find themselves traveling back to England with neither the Homebody nor her corpse, but with the equally talkative Mahala, an Afghani librarian with no books to order. As Milton and Mahala begin to communicate tentatively, one sees Kushner's overall point more clearly. An exploration of the allure and impossibility of a universal language, Homebody/Kabul surveys the wreckage produced by faith-based wars, and the ruins produced by the hunger for power that we call colonialism and imperialism in the public sphere and call the family in the private sphere. But without these systems, Kushner is also honest enough to ask, what might save us from total brutality?

The Dewey decimal system, a universal language Kushner is willing to employ, tries to organize human knowledge coherently. It gives his play a rhizomic structure. Dewey's 000s are reserved for “facts and books about books.” Hence, the bibliophile Homebody and the Librarian stand as bookends, quite literally, for the rest of the play's relationship to knowledge. The 100s are dedicated to materials “about great ideas and thinking”: thus the Esperanto poet-philosopher and the Sufi mystic guide Priscilla thought great ideas. The 200s catalog books about God and religion: Kushner, in some of the best writing in the second part of the play, speculates about the relationship between Kabul and Cain—if Cain was buried there, as some evidence suggests, does the ghost of the first murderer curse the city? The 300s include materials about tourism, folklore, anthropology, and crime: Kabul concerns a crime allegedly committed against an English woman in Afghanistan, and the investigation, such as it is, is overseen by a British junkie. The 400s are devoted to languages; Kushner's play employs French, Russian, English, Pushto, and Dari. The 500s cover ideas about nature and physics: Kushner indexes them via Milton Ceiling's scientific discourse and Quango's analysis of the geo-economics of oil and heroin. The 600s catalog works about medicine, and the Doctor's almost endless description of the Homebody's wounds represents that aspect of knowledge. The 700s concern material about art, and in addition to Kushner's own achievement as a playwright, the character Khwaja, the Esperanto poet who volunteers to be Priscilla's tour guide, the songs of Frank Sinatra, the poetry of anonymous seventh-century Persians, and the novels of P. G. Wodehouse are just some of the references to art in Kushner's play. The 800s are devoted to storytellers and their stories, and all of Kushner's characters are extraordinary storytellers, especially Quango and the Homebody. Finally in the 900s, one will find tour guides, and this is Kushner's point of departure.

Both productions did a better job staging Homebody than staging Kabul. The failure to sustain a coherent plot in a city overrun with plots is no sin. But Kushner is too valuable a voice in US theatre to forget, even momentarily, the difference between encounters with the ineffable and stories of imperialist and economic plunder. Kushner's habit of mind alerts him to the hideous violence the United States has done in the world, and while he continually reminds us of the vast complexity and long duration of the history of Afghanistan, all too often he wants to make the United States the “cause” of the disaster. But to place the United States as prime-mover everywhere and forever is to fall into the trap of considering it as it prefers to be considered: as only and forever the super-power. This falsifies the history of the world. Therefore, despite Kushner's best intentions, the agonizing drama of Afghanistan is not yet staged in Homebody/Kabul.

Natalie Meisner (essay date spring 2003)

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SOURCE: Meisner, Natalie. “Messing with the Idyllic: The Performance of Femininity in Kushner's Angels in America.Yale Journal of Criticism 16, no. 1 (spring 2003): 177-89.

[In the following essay, Meisner examines Kushner's representations of women and femininity in Angels in America.]

We pay a high price for the maintenance of the myth of the individual.

—Tony Kushner1

It may seem an odd project to focus on the female characters in Tony Kushner's two-part modern epic Angels in America since the plays' action revolves around Prior, Louis, Joe, and the other male characters. Kushner himself notes his plays' specificity by lightheartedly calling them “Jewish fag plays.”2 This is not the whole story, however, as the plays do rely upon complex representations of femininity, femaleness, and biologically female-coded bodies for their coherence. The extent to which these plays have been used as source texts for queer theory throughout the 1990s makes them a rich site for investigation of the interstices between feminism and queer theory. If any texts could be termed venerable in a field as fledgling as queer theory Millennium Approaches and Perestroika would certainly be accorded this status. The plays, temporally and historically marked as they are, often serve as a kind of intimate shorthand for queer, performance, and theatre theorists.3

One of the most fascinating aspects of the plays is their ability to engage with and disrupt the bigoted rhetoric of blame that was aimed at gay men during the advent of the AIDS crisis in North America. The visible markings left by the disease on the very bodies that had transgressed the limits of compulsory heterosexuality provided all too convenient “proof” for those wishing to pathologize open, promiscuous, and indeed all gay sex. Angels in America dissolves this symbolic relationship, as David Savran has pointed out, by “turning one pole of a binarism relentlessly upon another.”4 The protagonist Prior, a gay man who in other circumstances might be condemned by the Christian right for his sexual choices, becomes a prophet; Roy Cohn, a rabidly antigay crusader, is himself suddenly thrust out of the closet. At the end of Perestroika the system of compulsory heterosexual marriage is abandoned, in favor of an idyllic new world of gay erotic affiliation. One binary that is not “turned relentlessly” is the one that polices the physical border between male and female bodies. Despite the ability of the plays, as Sue Ellen Case points out in Queer Frontiers, to stage “the convergence of so many different types of politics” the body politics of the border between man and woman, male and female remains remarkably stable.5

In works given the hopeful subtitle “Gay Fantasia,” one might expect to find gender roles denaturalized; male and female detached performatively from the biological bodies to which they are compelled to adhere in everyday life. While a spectrum of gender becomes available to most of the male characters through the performance of power and/or drag, the same is not available for the biologically female characters. It is somehow very important to the integrity of the plays' vision that The Angel of History, who is described as a “cosmic reactionary,” be constructed as emphatically female despite being “Hermaphroditically Equipped … with a Bouquet of Phalli.”6

The male characters in the plays gain power through the performance of a homoerotic, homo-social, and homo-political engagement. In the case of Joe this is underlined by his much-anticipated emergence from the closet. When he leaves his wife, Harper (“harp,” of course, being a synonym for “nag”), she retreats further and further from the social, sexual, and political spheres. Harper's appearance as a sexually thwarted and politically detached female figure constructs Joe's emergence, by contrast, as all the more reasonable, brave, and lively. The character of Harper could be simply a foil and yet she represents a certain troubling female corporeal presence: A “messy” reminder/remainder that problematizes the plays for audiences, critics, and even for the playwright himself.

Although Angels in America trades in female iconicity, nearly all of the female characters are constructed as ghostly and/or disembodied. In their extra-terrestrial states, The Angel of History, Hannah, Ethel, and Louis's grandmother all rest comfortably as icons within the ideological framework of the plays. However, this is not the case with Harper, whose troublesome body—insofar as it appears biologically coded female—is subjected to a clinical and exhaustive set of restraints and strategies for containment. After her husband's departure, Harper escapes the disappointing circumstances of her failed marriage by retreating to her own absurd fantasy life. Her new prospect is a virtual travel agent appropriately named Mr. Lies. Harper's desires for travel, adventure, and sexual contact are thus titillated systematically and then thwarted by the smug figure of the travel agent. Not only is Mr. Lies an imaginary companion, he is also a failure of the imagination: incapable of providing even an engaging soporific. As such Mr. Lies provides a kind of asbestos insulation between Harper's desiring female body and the socio-political heart of the plays to which it seems to pose a menace.

No matter how many regimes of restraint the body is subjected to (this is particularly true of the female body with its sexualized and bloodied history on the stage), it resists being fully contained and inscribed by these regimes. Even as Harper is wrapped in layer after layer of dramatic barriers; as each scene in which she appears turns out to be yet another exit, she still makes demands upon the structure of the plays that threaten to disturb their so called natural order.7 This is most evident in the warning issued to her by Mr. Lies, who tells her: “You keep messing with the idyllic, you're gonna wind up to your knees in slush” (2:19). The menace of this “slush” within the frame of Kushner's theatre of the fabulous—and within the masculine/liberal/humanist subject to which the plays default—is called forth by Harper, not only messing with the idyllic but imperiling the angelic binaries in these two most influential queer plays.


It comes as no surprise that Angels in America should provide fertile ground for the exploration of queer visibility, since the plays were written with the Queer Nation chant blasting in the background: “[w]e're here, we're queer. We're fabulous. Get used to it.”8 In an interview with David Savran, Kushner acknowledges that he advocates a shift for gay theatre from a theatre of the ridiculous to a theatre of the fabulous. He defines fabulous “in the sense of an evolutionary advance over the notion of being ridiculous” as well as “in the sense of being fabled, having a history.”9 A transition from the ridiculous to the fabulous in Angels creates gay male subjects with integrity. This integrity includes dignity and the shoring up of the porous borders of the self in favor of a sovereign subject. Harper, on the other hand, may tell us that people are like planets who need a thick skin, while her own “skin” is perpetually punctured and the borders of her self blurred as the first play commences; by the end of the second play there seems to be an eclipsing of her character's ability to think and act. Harper's permeability is emphasized by her decrepitude and dissolution when Joe leaves her. Even the slightest material demands of her life such as her personal hygiene seem an impossible task. Her discussion of her own body and the body of other female animals is encoded with loathing. Harper appears only to disappear. She fantasizes only to have her fantasies corrupted to the point that they appear even less satisfying than her life. As the only non-iconic female, she expresses embodied sexual desire solely to castigate herself from it. As such she presents a logjam in terms of what “female” means within Kushner's theatre of the fabulous that raises the question of the erasure of the biological female body within queer theory.

True to the binary logic of the plays, Joe, Louis, and Prior are located in the theatre of the fabulous while Harper remains marked by the “transference of disgust into humor [that] is the province of the grotesque and characteristic of the theatre of the ridiculous.”10 Similarly, the type of humor generated by Harper's dialogue is more consistent with a theatre of the ridiculous since on a textual level, audiences are encouraged to laugh at, not with her.

The association between being fabulous (being fabled, having a story, belonging to history) and “being citizens” (2:148) is such a profound one that it is very difficult to consider the un-fabulous characters as sentient beings or subjects. Harper speaks of “a kind of painful progress” (2:144) from which she is excluded since such an evolution is constructed as a departure from the ridiculous in favor of the fabulous. The exclusion of Harper from the sphere of the fabulous is related to the fact that fabulousness in Angels finds its highest expression in drag, which the plays showcase in the “girl-talk,” ironic distancing, and pastiching of Belize and Prior. As Richard Cante points out, pleasure derived from female impersonation often depends upon “the conspicuous absence of, ejection, … and possibly even hatred of real female bodies.”11 Drag's celebratory and parodic explosion of femininity is potentially subversive of hegemonic representations of gender. However, one wonders why it is so often accompanied by an erasure and/or an aversion for female bodies. In other words why must a celebration of artifice be accompanied by denigration of a so-called original? Isn't this sacrificial model of identify much less “queer”—if we understand queer to mean a radicalized form of coalitional politics that questions identity-based activism—than a spectrum of bodies upon which masculine/feminine and male/female refuse to resolve themselves?


David Savran points out that in Angels the “utopia/dystopia coupling … plays itself out through a host of binary oppositions: heaven/hell, forgiveness/retribution, communitarianism/individualism, spirit/flesh, pleasure/pain, beauty/decay, future/past, homosexuality/heterosexuality, rationalism/indeterminacy, migration/staying put, progress/stasis, life/death.”12 There is, however, one pairing that Savran leaves out which, from the point of view of queer theory, could stand to be a little more paradoxical and a little more ambivalent: male/female. Theatrical convention calls for jokes to be set up by what is called a “straight man.” In Angels in America, however, the jokes are consistently set up by super-straight women. Neither Harper nor Hannah, The Angel of History nor Emily, seem aware of the humor that surrounds them. Furthermore, when The Woman From the South Bronx cracks a joke it is accompanied by the flat declaration: “That was a joke” (1:104). If a kind of “painful progress” is possible for the citizens of the queer nation that Angels foretells it is only achievable through fabulous ironic distancing and savvy humor. The utter lack of these qualities in the female characters coupled with their persistent association to decay, stasis, death, and indeterminacy constructs them as threatening to the very principle of sociality. Progress has always been attainable for liberal humanism's highest subject—Man. Now this Man is “allowed” to be gay.

The binaries that haunt Angels are mirrored structurally by sets of symbolically paired characters. Roy (based on the infamous Roy Cohn) and Prior are both HIV positive. Roy refuses to claim his HIV status or any kind of homosexual identity, while Prior is not only out of the closet but performatively discloses his diagnosis. Roy is also paired with Ethel (based on Ethel Rosenberg) who haunts him for having campaigned tirelessly to send her to the electric chair. The plays expose the links between racism and homophobia by suggesting that Roy persecuted Ethel not because of her alleged spy activity but to expiate his own Jewishness. Just as Roy uses Ethel as a scapegoat he also “saves” himself from accusations of homosexuality by championing regressive right-wing family values and attacking homosexuals in the public sphere. Prior and The Angel of History make another ghostly pair until Prior is visited by two earlier versions of himself, priors to Prior who situate him historically. Harper is, of course, visited by Mr. Lies who does not perform a similar function for her. Finally, to add the icing on the binary cake, Prior and Harper cross over into one another's dreams, acting as an ambassador for West Village gay culture on the one hand and Salt Lake City Mormonism on the other.

Savran maintains that “these pairings function not just as a set of conceptual poles but also as an oxymoron—a figure of indecidability whose contradictory being becomes an incitement to think the impossible—revolution!”13 Yet some binaries are decidedly less oxymoronic than others. What seems to be Joe's journey from a dysfunctional heterosexual marriage to a homosexual awakening is elevated to his journey from stasis to movement; from living death to a life of desire. The sex scene between Joe and Louis blends politics, movement, risk, and subtext, creating opportunities for specular pleasure. This scene happens simultaneously with the one in which Harper sits “slumped in her chair” in an almost vegetable state declaring angrily that she misses “Joe's Penis” (2:37). This declaration is not contextualized by the conversation she is having with Hannah, but serves only to emphasize the point that she is demonstrably cut off from the social world around her and mystically absented of any life force by the removal of the penis/phallus.

There is an incitement to revolution in Prior's prediction at the end of Perestroika. He turns to the audience and says gravely and with great felicity that “[w]e will be citizens. The time has come.” In the next breath he declares: “You are fabulous creatures, each and every one” (2:148). How should spectators relate to the separation of the female characters from every kind of community within the plays? Even Hannah, who is included in the final group, does not take part in the political discussion but only parrots unsolicited citations from the Bible. One wonders if there are any women who can play their parts sufficiently to become fabulous and hence to become citizens.

In the instances where the female characters are called upon to “hold down the fort” and provide ridiculous contrasts to their fabulous male counterparts, Angels in America relies upon what Alison Weir calls a “sacrificial logic that designates femininity as ‘otherness,’ non-identity, and negativity.”14 Can Harper function as a critique of the liberal, humanist paradigm of an all-male theatre of the fabulous while she is ensconced in the same play under the mantle of the theatre of the ridiculous? Is Angels more easily absorbed by mainstream audiences (as well as by the traditions of epic and canonical literature with their male homosocial underpinnings) due to the fact that it does not challenge the relationship between the primacy of masculinity and capitalism? Its staging of women as socially and erotically thwarted and/or detached would seem to suggest so. When Harper insists on pursuing any erotic prospect she is warned that her actions will “tear a big old hole in the sky” and that she'll find herself “up to her knees in slush” (2:21). When her traditional “femininity” misfires, Harper is not fitted queerly into a complex grid of interlocking social and political relationships but rather spirals into a state of utter abjection. The question must then be asked why an embodied and untraditionally feminine woman in pursuit of sexual fulfillment must automatically pose a threat to the so-called natural order in contemporary queer plays in much the same way she did in those of Shakespeare.

By virtue of its sprawling and complex plot structure and its attempt to tackle Reagan-era nationalism, Angels in America strives to position itself as a candidate for canonicity as well as an heir to a tradition of epic theatre. The plays achieved the elusive feat of crossover in an incredible balancing act between commercial viability and sub-cultural subversion. Angels does not participate straightforwardly in post-WWII American literature's “war between style and content; between a feminized body in the text and a masculinized voice of authority that ceaselessly attempts to subjugate and master the body.”15 The plays do, however, perform a series of sorting mechanisms upon their female characters that serve to entrench hegemonic gender norms. Involvement in the sphere of politics, the pursuit of erotic fulfillment, the display of agency, and the negotiation between personal and political conflicts—traditionally the stage territory of men—remain emphatically so in Angels in America. Careful attention to the theatrical voice of Harper reveals the way that speech functions differently for men and women in these plays.

Harper speaks copiously and frequently but with far less felicity than Prior, Louis, Joe, or any other character. Stage directions are perhaps the most liminal and the least stable parts of a theatrical text; as such they provide a valuable “hot point” of interface between writer/director/actor/audience. It would not overstate the case to say that the theatrical text's precarious journey toward embodiment is mediated by these italicized asides. Stage directions never appear before audiences and may even be blacked out by a director at the beginning of a rehearsal process to avoid reductive choices by the actors. These texts nonetheless provide physical cues to which theatrical artists must assume a position. For this reason it is useful to look at the stage directions that introduce Harper. When we meet her, we are told she is “talking to herself, as she often does” (1:16). Immediately after that we are told that Harper “speaks to the audience.” Speaking directly to the audience can be a privileged position in drama. A character performing in the aside mode is afforded an extra layer of meaning and her words given added weight.16 After a character breaks through any theatrical convention—especially the fourth wall—audiences expect her to “mean double” when she returns to a regular performance mode and resumes interaction with other characters. Harper frustrates this expectation since her subsequent interactions with other characters and her enunciatory positions elude multiplicity entirely. The performance style encouraged by Kushner's stage directions acts to inhibit any complicity the actor playing Harper might create with the audience. The effect of novelty and repetition in live performance cannot be overestimated. Unless directed otherwise, a theatre audience tends to give more attention to the uncommon utterance and overlooks the quotidian. Harper's delivery is noted to be “dull” and “flat” (2:33), pointing to a certain lifelessness and separating Harper from the theatre of the fabulous aesthetic. Other stage directions tell us that she is “sitting at home, all alone, with no lights on” and that “we can barely see her” (1:49). Harper's stylized speech, her tendency to numbly repeat snatches of television advertisement, her pill-popping, her agoraphobia, and her stereotyped hysterical fear of a “man with a knife” (1:24) increase throughout the plays in obsessive attempts to fix and/or freeze her. These factors coupled with her avoidance of conflict and tendency to contradict her own statements, such as, “maybe my life is really fine, maybe Joe loves me and I'm only crazy thinking otherwise, or maybe not, maybe it's even worse than I know, maybe … I want to know, maybe I don't” (1:18), tend to exile Harper even further from the nexus of the play. This very nexus is graphically defined by Roy in all its problematic intensity: “this is gastric juices churning, this is enzymes and acids, this is intestinal is what this is, bowel movement and blood-red meat—this stinks, this is politics, Joe, the game of being alive” (1:68).

Harper is certainly aware of the processes of history and politics when she notes that “everywhere things are collapsing, lies surfacing, systems of defense giving way” (1:17), and yet her most astute comments are invariably made when she is talking to herself. Her lack of awareness of her own performative potential generates laughter that is markedly different from the kind of comedic drive achieved by Belize or Prior or Louis. There are various facets to the male performance of power, ranging from the coercive, dangerous, and deranged figure of Roy Cohn to Belize and Prior's “girl-talk” (1:61). Not being included under the rubric of fabulousness leaves Harper in a strange place; a queer place, one might like to think. But time and again she is exhaustively proven to be deadly normal, empty of originality, and unworthy of our attention. This forced blandness may be what prompts Bruce McLeod to point out that Harper “appears to be rather asexual in a very sexy play.”17 Given that in Angels politics is sex and sex is being alive, the effect of cordoning off female bodies from any and all sexual pleasure is disastrous.

Angels not only moves its female characters away from erotic affiliation, it also systematically isolates each woman from any ties she may exploit through friendship. Friendship between women is treated as an anomaly in comments such as the one Sister Ella Chapter makes to Hannah: “I decided to like you ‘cause you're the only unfriendly Mormon I ever met” (1:82). Friendship between men may not be perfect but it is necessary, like politics and oxygen. Friendship between women, on the other hand, is a matter of obscure taste and a perverse desire to go against the grain. The disavowal is complete in the passionless goodbye between the two women where Hannah limply agrees that she herself “wasn't ever much of a friend” (1:82).

Contrary to most popular representations of gay sexuality, the sex in Angels is not air-brushed to avoid offending a mainstream audience. Further, gay eroticism and gay sex are not demonized, but celebrated. The stiffening of Prior's penis and his subsequent ejaculation are greeted with a chorus from heaven. The staging of Prior's celestial orgasm, as it links gay male sexual pleasure with the angelic in a specifically Christian context, is a serious challenge to mind/body dualism, which has been one of the crucial factors in the history of sexual oppression. The repetition of gendered notions in philosophical discourse, however, means that Harper's dreams of fulfillment must transport her at the end of Millennium Approaches to the polar opposite of the celestial; literally to Antarctica “the Kingdom of ice, the bottommost part of the world” (1:101).

The constrained subjectivity offered to the female characters in Angels mirrors their status at the conjuncture of liberal humanism and late capitalism. Invoking discourses of male-dominated religion and nationalism, the Rabbi at the opening of Millennium Approaches pronounces: “I did not know this woman. I cannot accurately describe her attributes, nor do justice to her dimensions. She was … not a person, but a whole kind of person” (1:10).

Harper's refusal to abide as this “whole kind of person” may threaten the natural order established by the plays, creating trouble for the female spectator, for critics, and even the playwright himself. In interviews Kushner is ever willing to discuss the finer points of his character choices and even the compromises made to the demands of identity politics. When asked by Bruce McLeod to discuss his treatment of Harper, however, he forecloses upon the subject immediately:

No. I reject all criticisms of Harper …
So there have been other criticisms?
I don't think there—perhaps I shouldn't say this in print, but I don't think the part has been played properly yet.(18)

Dissatisfaction with the way the part has been played may not be due to a lack of skill on the part of the actresses, but to Harper's contested status as an embodied female within a corporeal economy seemingly more comfortable with iconic, elemental, or mythic female presence. In the moments where Harper has the chance to interact with people, to partake of social contact, she is deprived of self-awareness. When she talks to herself her speech invokes the timeworn literary device of women's intuition. The force of Harper's speech acts is diminished considerably given her propensity to parrot television or radio discourse that frames her as insane. Insanity, however, is far from a simple matter in Angels in America given the variety of conditions the word is used to connote.


In Angels we are asked to simultaneously place a premium value on reason and to perceive the instability of the boundary between reason and insanity in American society. Insanity becomes both a lurking menace and a reason for hope. Many types of departures from reason are catalogued: schizophrenia, religious visitations, genealogical reincarnations, and chemically-induced hallucinations. Yet this plethora of madness adheres to some very strict gender lines. When insanity appears in Harper or in The Woman From The South Bronx it is framed as neurotic rather than visionary due to its lack of support by the events of the play. Harper repeatedly questions her own sanity with statements such as “I'm only crazy” (1:18). Louis says casually of his grandmother that “she was pretty crazy. She was up there in that home for ten years, talking to herself” (1:19). When Prior is menaced with unreason it is denaturalized. As he says, “the whole world is [crazy], why not me? It's 1986 and there's a plague, half my friends are dead and I'm only thirty-one” (1:55). Belize warns him immediately by saying; “You better not fucking flip out. This is not dementia. And this is not real. This is just you, Prior, afraid of the future, afraid of time” (1:55). When Prior and Harper meet at the Mormon visitors center and discuss their experiences of supernatural visions, Harper tells him “that sort of stuff” always happens to her. Prior, on the other hand, is afforded a logical explanation for his hallucinations: he has “a fever … and should be in bed” (1:64). Of the two, Prior alone gains self-knowledge from his visions. Not only is his madness justifiable, it is proven productive when his status as a prophet is confirmed. His visions situate him as the center of the plays as he waves dominant culture's favorite sign—perhaps the only one that refuses to become detached from its signifier in pomo homo culture—the tumescent penis. Harper, on the other hand, may be “a witch” (2:43) whose visions are a waste of time since, as Deborah Geis claims, “each of the supposedly apocalyptic things she mentions has already (more or less) occurred within the narrative of the play.”19

Given the forthright representation of sex and autoeroticism, the reticence that surrounds the female body is puzzling. It is interesting that the supposedly hermaphroditic Angel of History is still designated as “she” and that the didascalic cough that Kushner identifies as best for the Angel is “a variation on a cat hacking up a furball … sharp, simple and effectively nonhuman” (2:9). This non-humanity contributes to the notion that all the women in the plays sit at the “border of animal and machine.”20 These links between women, Harper particularly, and the animal world are pernicious. When Harper finally overcomes her agoraphobia and takes some action in the “real” world it amounts to her “imagining herself a beaver” (2:32) and chewing down a tree in a public park. The image of chewing echoes many other feminized images that invoke tearing holes in or puncturing the orderly world of the symbolic. Her connection to animals and animalistic connotations of female genitalia are reinforced when Harper appears later holding Prior's missing cat, whom he refers to as “le chat” (1:21). The choice of animals is telling since beaver is slang for vagina and “chat” has the same connotations in French that “pussy” does in English. A kind of essentialism is aimed at Harper as her body becomes de-humanized, de-sexualized and made ridiculous all in the same stroke. These terms double and redouble causing the essentialism to misfire in a hyperbolic frenzy of euphemism for female genitalia (beaver, chat, cooter, etc.). In tandem with the breakdown of the borders between female/human/animal this frenzy triggers a crisis of meaning around the term female and its currency in these plays. Border wars between the animal and human occur repeatedly at the site of Harper's body. She recounts a television program where “men in snowsuits videotaped … polar bears running to escape … and their tongues lolled and their eyes rolled in their stupid tiny heads and the men stabbed them in their huge butts with hypodermic needles, knocked them out. And then they shoved frozen polar bear sperm pencils up their cooters” (2:34). As Harper recounts the program the stage directions tell us she “makes the deep wheezy hooting of a panicky animal.” The loathing expressed by Harper for female animals is mimetically extended to her own body when she vocalizes along with the polar bears. In another passage she expresses disdain: “there's your breasts, and your genitals, and they're amazingly stupid, like babies or faithful dogs” (2:20). This loathing is overshadowed by the bodily-inflected lateral violence aimed at Hannah by the Woman From the South Bronx who calls her a “loathsome whore” and screams “Slurp slurp slurp will you STOP that disgusting slurping! YOU DISGUSTING SLURPING FEEDING ANIMAL! Feeding yourself, just feeding yourself, what would it matter, to you or to ANYONE, if you just stopped. Feeding. And DIED?”21 This imagined death echoes the breakdown of social ties and intersubjectivity between women. Furthermore the ensuing state of stillness mirrors Prior's comment about the angels when he declares that he “like(s) them best when they're statuary … 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” (2:147). The angels he invokes are at once animated and dead—female, but disembodied. In most instances the departure of women from traditional femininity in Angels in America represents an “attack against Language and the Sign so totalizing as to be self destructive.”22

In the end, the plays accession to the status of the fabulous relies upon the figure of the female to provide obstacles and impediments to the pursuit of male desire. This is what prompts David Savran to note that Angels “seems to replicate many of the structures that historically have produced female subjectivity as Other.”23


Angels at its most fabulous in the everyday “drag” of Prior and Belize that allows them to harness ironic self knowledge in order to perform their gender identities. This playfulness is constitutive of the theatre of the fabulous, whose elucidation of gay male subjectivity unfortunately is erected on the vestiges of the ridiculed and essentialized female body. None of the female characters in the play ever attain the status of a full speaking subject, but Harper at least (in her troublesome embodiment) offers a marker of sacrificial logics that are often operational in the production of male subjectivity.

In the plays, erotic desire and its free expression are not only the test for subjectivity but also for mental and physical health. This is highlighted by the fact that Joe gets a bleeding stomach ulcer when he tries to remain in the closet. The ghosting of Hannah, Ethel, The Angel, and The Woman From the South Bronx, condemns them to a realm devoid of desire. In pursuit of her own satisfaction, Harper succeeds against all odds in “messing with the idyllic.” In a supposedly gender-bending play, one wonders why it is important that the double-sexed angel be played by a female actor as Kushner specified in his notes to the text. The whole, healthy, alive, conflicted, active, male subjects are created by their separation (under the logic of conflict and sacrifice), from the fragmented, pathological, passive female objects.

Does the exclusion of all the women from the political and sexual realms serve to construct a fabulous new world that either uses them as iconic presences or eclipses them entirely? Joseph Boone, in his introduction to Queer Frontiers, addresses exactly this kind of exclusion in another queer source text (the music video for the Pet Shop Boys “Go West”) that also creates a brave new world of multicultural and erotic affiliation. Boone notes that the “visual omission in this panoply of queer difference, of course, is women, in the plural. What the video offers us, instead, is a single woman, the iconic representation of the Statue of Liberty … an exoticized diva who, in contrast to the moving men, remains frozen in place.”24

Perhaps for Angels in America there is no “right” woman to play the part of Harper, an embodied female character who pursues her erotic desires. Whereas the other female characters in Angels dovetail easily with the ghostly, the disembodied, and the iconic “Woman,” Harper remains stubbornly an inhabitant of her body. By remaining thus, she serves as a reminder that the price we pay “for the maintenance of the myth of the individual” (2:150) is, in some cases, far too high.


  1. Tony Kushner, Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1992), 2:150. Hereafter cited parenthetically.

  2. Bruce McLeod, “The Oddest Phenomena in Modern History,” Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 14.1 (1995): 143-153.

  3. This is evidenced by the density of citation from and familiar reference to these plays in collectively authored books that deal with developments in queer theory such as the one edited by Joseph A. Boone et al., Queer Frontiers: Millennial Geographies, Genders, and Generations (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000).

  4. David Savran, “Ambivalence, Utopia and a Queer Sort of Materialism: How Angels In America Reconstructs the Nation,” Theatre Journal 47.2 (1995): 211.

  5. Sue-Ellen Case, “Toward a Butch-Feminist Retro-Future,” in Queer Frontiers, 330.

  6. David Morgan, “You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine,” in Body Matters: Essays on the Sociology of the Body, ed. Sue Scott and David Morgan (London: Falmer Press, 1993), 73.

  7. For an excellent discussion of the way the term “nature” has been rhetorically employed as a containment strategy in response to different waves of the women's rights movement see Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference (New York: Routledge, 1989).

  8. David Savran, “The Theatre of the Fabulous: An Interview with Tony Kushner,” in Essays on Kushner's Angels, ed. Per Brask (Winnipeg: Blizzard Publishing, 1995), 139.

  9. Ibid., 140.

  10. Jane Arthurs, “Revolting Women: The Body in Comic Performance,” in Women's Bodies: Discipline and Transgression, ed. Jane Arthurs and Jean Grimshaw, (London: Cassell, 1999), 137.

  11. Richard Cante, “Pouring On the Past: Video Bars and the Emplacement of Gay Male Desire,” in Queer Frontiers, 150. Original emphasis.

  12. Savran, “Ambivalence,” 212.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Alison Weir, Sacrificial Logics: Feminist Theory and the Critique of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1996), 138-39.

  15. David Savran, Taking it Like A Man: White Masculinity, Masochism, and Contemporary American Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 8.

  16. Characters speaking in the aside mode may not always be reliable—think of the trickster—but are usually accorded a special status and often provide a conduit between the audience and the other characters or the characters and supernatural forces.

  17. McLeod, “The Oddest Phenomena,” 81.

  18. Ibid., 140.

  19. Deborah R. Geis, “The Delicate Ecology of your Delusions: Insanity, Theatricality, and the Thresholds of Revelation in Kushner's Angels in America,” in Approaching the Millennium: Essays on Angels in America, ed. Deborah R. Geis and Steven F. Kruger (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 200.

  20. Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London: Free Association Books, 1991), 150.

  21. Kushner, Angels, 1:104. Capitals are in the original.

  22. Weir, Sacrificial, 147.

  23. Savran, “Ambivalence,” 215.

  24. Boone, Queer Frontiers, 7.

Stephen Aiello (essay date October 2003)

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SOURCE: Aiello, Stephen. “Aristotle and Angels: Tragedy in the Age of Anomie.” Florida English (October 2003): 6-16.

[In the following essay, Aiello compares Angels in America with Aristotle's Poetics, claiming that Kushner's play vitiates the form of tragedy.]

It seems to be a contentious position throughout drama criticism that although there may be a tragic sense felt collectively in contemporary life that somehow such an experience when dramatized must be weighed against the classical tradition of tragedy. Thus, any reading of a modern drama as a tragedy dares to confront the same essentialist views as Arthur Miller did when he claimed a tragic dimension for his protagonist, Willy Loman, in Death of a Salesman. The playwright responded to critics who viewed Death of a Salesman in Aristotelian terms as a “pseudo-tragedy,” (108) by distancing his play and a sense of modern tragedy from Aristotle and his Poetics and reminding these critics that “even a genius is limited by his time and the nature of society” (108).

Certainly at first glance an exegesis based on Aristotle's Poetics of another acclaimed drama written over four decades later than Death of a Salesman that also confronts a social issue commonly regarded as tragic—the AIDS epidemic—would appear to create an even worse collision between the classical theory and a modern dramatic work: Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize winning Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. What is apparent when the dust settles from a confrontation between Aristotle and Angels in America is that although Kushner's play retains elements of tragedy delineated in Poetics, it also vitiates the form, which Aristotle describes as so essential to the nature and purpose of Greek tragedy. Much of what distances the two works from each other, however, exists ironically in a common assumption—the correlation each presents between literary form and the view of the world expressed in a dramatic work. Thus, an examination of this interdependence between artistic form and culture in the two works may yield insight into how both classical theory and modern practice perceive and render tragedy.

Clearly, the connection between the homogeneous cultural experience of the ancient Greeks and its artistic representation in tragedy determines Aristotle's concept of mimesis. Aristotle emphatically posits each tenet of Poetics as a mode of achieving an imitation of an action both so experientially and emotionally credible that audiences would be completely absorbed into the tragedy. Therefore, what emerges as the salient characteristics of mimesis in Poetics is the necessity for the tragic form to be unified, consistent and ultimately plausible for audiences. Aristotle's argument contends that without such unity and plausibility, audiences would distance themselves intellectually and emotionally from the work, thus prohibiting the “cathartic” reaction so essential in making tragedy a pleasurable and edifying theatrical experience.

Moreover, although there exists enough ambiguity and flexibility in Poetics to allow for interpretation or “distortion” by the playwright, a point to which this essay will return, the delimitations of what was to become the neoclassical “unities” centuries later are evidently a consequence of the classical poets' desire to produce a literary form that necessarily reflects the perception of order within the Greek society. Indeed from a modern perspective it is very difficult to understand such a sense of social and aesthetic equipoise. As Raymond Williams explains in his Modern Tragedy, the ordered form of classical tragedy, “embodies not an isolable metaphysical stance, rooted in individual experience, but a shared and indeed collective experience, at once and indistinguishably metaphysical and social” (18). Tom Driver argues that this harmony of literary form and culture is most apparent in Sophocles' Oedipus the King in that “the play itself is such a masterpiece of orderly construction that its very form mirrors the cosmic order it wishes to disclose” (248). What this attention to strict literary form creates (although in the case of Poetics and Oedipus the King the expected chronological relationship between theory and practice is reversed: theory followed practice) is an understanding of the universal through an examination of the particular, a quality, according to Aristotle, that distinguishes poetry from history and philosophy (45; ch. 9). Oedipus the King is unified in its focus upon one incident in the life of a hero that has tragic implications for Oedipus but universal ones for Sophocles' audience.

Based on a story well-known to its audiences, Oedipus the King presents a conditional state of the world, a “what would happen if” situation, in which a “famous” but ordinary man, “someone like us,” (Aristotle 49; ch. 13) who because of the mutability of Fate, his crimes of parricide and incest, and the predisposition of his own character, his hamartia, disrupts the “social and metaphysical order” (Williams 18). For this disruption a plague is cast upon Thebes by the gods. By recognizing the truth, Oedipus reverses the action of the play through his self-blinding and self-imposed exile from the social world. Even though audiences experience pity for the sufferings of a hero who in his attempt to save his nation and to seek the truth unwittingly causes his own downfall, they accept that such actions must be “redressed” by the gods, for “if it were not so, moral chaos would result; […] in a world maintained by a balance of forces among the ‘theoi,’ [gods] chaos is unthinkable” (Driver 48).

Moreover, the tragedy of Oedipus evokes the fear that all are subject to the whims of Fate. As the play ends, order is restored, and the salutary effects of Oedipus' exile are felt throughout Thebes. The final chorus of the play helps to signify the “learning and inference” (Golden 44) in Sophocles' Oedipus the King—the vulnerability of the individual to Fate, a universal truth that neither society nor the gods are able to meliorate:

Remember that death alone can end all sufferings;
Go towards death, and ask for no greater
Happiness than a life
In which there has been no anger and no pain.


Again, what Poetics effects in tragedy is a grounding of the dramatic action to the particular to reflect the universal. The “imitation” of one “object,” (Aristotle 45; ch. 8) an incident that occurs within “one revolution of the sun” (Aristotle 42; ch. 6) is juxtaposed against the eternal, just as the chaotic and tragic actions of the isolated hero stand in contrast to the harmony of social and religious order symbolized by the chorus. What lingers from the tragedy after all have left the orchestra is “fixed, given, and unchangeable […]” (Eagleton 64) existing beyond the grasp of history. It was through the aesthetics of classical tragedy that “the Greeks fought against time and won. They did it strangely by shutting out the future […] the enemy of timelessness, as the past which is fixed, and the present, which is ineffable, are not” (Driver 250).

What exists in the penumbra created by the superimposition of Poetics upon Angels in America is this use of the particular as a means to reveal a universal vision; however, the contextual form in which the hero's search occurs shifts the focus of the tragedy away from the hero to the world in which he exists. Prior Walter, the central protagonist of Angels in America, in fact, possesses several Aristotelian and Oedipal dimensions. He is at once, like Oedipus, a descendant from a noble family (depicted on the Bayeux tapestry) and simply a “man whom we know” (Aristotle 39; ch. 4), “neither outstanding in virtue and righteousness […]” [who] “falls into misfortune” (49; ch. 13). Furthermore, Prior, like Oedipus, suffers from a plague, the AIDS epidemic; and in the process of ridding himself of the effects of the plague, seeks both truth and meaning for his fate. Unlike Oedipus, however, Prior's search does not turn inward, resulting in a self-imposed blindness and isolation from the world. Although similarly blinded in his heroic transformation into a “prophet” for all those who have been abandoned by the “gods”—“I believe I've seen the end of things”1 (II: 56) - Prior's journey is an expansive one, venturing into what Aristotle would most likely consider the realm of the “impossible” and “inexplicable” (58; ch. 24). In his search, Prior moves across time and space: from a discussion with his ancestors of centuries past to an interaction with the subconscious worlds of others; from wrestling with an angel in his hospital room to confronting the angels in heaven.

Prior's journey, therefore, is coterminous with the literary form of Angels in America that is so explicitly stated by Tony Kushner in the sub-title of the play: “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” If we return to this essay's thesis that a “common assumption” of the intimate relationship between form and culture underscores an analysis of the tragic form described in Aristotle's Poetics and Kushner's Angels in America, then several questions emerge in regard to a “fantasia”: What is the relationship between form and culture in Angels in America? Is Angels in America a tragic work? And lastly, does the form of a fantasia necessarily clash with the form and function of tragedy as Aristotle describes them?

First, of all, an Aristotelian disclaimer: in regard to the use of the supernatural and the previously stated “impossible and inexplicable,” (58; ch. 24) Aristotle appears to subordinate considerations of form and content to the pleasurable, cathartic effect of “learning and inference” (Golden 44) through poetry: “Generally speaking, we must judge the impossible in relation to its poetic effect” (Aristotle 60; ch. 25). Thus, even though Aristotle states that “the plot should not consist of inexplicable incidents,” (58; ch. 24) and that “the solution of the story itself … should not require the use of the supernatural,” (52; ch. 15), Aristotle does seem to focus the objective of tragic poetry to the casual relationship between mimesis and the catharsis. Therefore, “what is impossible but can be believed should be preferred to what is plausible but unconvincing” (Aristotle 58; ch. 24). As previously stated in this essay, for the ancient Greeks the ordered aesthetic of classical tragedy almost perfectly reflects a harmonious view of the universe (Driver 48). Even though modern audiences may still realize universal truths from classical tragedy, its form and cathartic effects belong only to a specific culture and moment in history that produced them. Thus, as Raymond Williams explains, the development of Greek society had a deleterious effect on classical form:

It is no accident that as this unique culture changed, the chorus was the crucial element of dramatic form which was weakened and eventually discarded. The structure of feeling which, in the great period, had developed and sustained it as the dramatized tension and resolution of collective and individual experience, weakened and was lost, and with it a unique meaning of tragedy.


Consequently, what is considered as an “imitation, not of men, but of action and life, of happiness and misfortune” (42; ch. 6) and what is the literary “impossible” for each epoch would necessarily change in constancy with its social and ideological development.

Taken in this light, the form of a fantasia in Angels in America with its referencing of the “impossible and inexplicable” as its cultural context signifies a condition of the modern world that is in many ways the reverse of the ancient one Aristotle's Poetics reflects. As the Angel of America explains to Prior Walter, the epoch of the play is the “Age of Anomie,” (II: 56) in which the plastic form of the fantasia so well accommodates the chaotic and vertiginous 1980's. This sense of a fragmented and almost surreal America is echoed in Harper Pitt's description of a disordered modern life as “beautiful systems dying, fixed orders falling apart … everywhere things are collapsing, lies surfacing, systems of defense are giving way […]” (I: 16). A breaking apart of social and ideological rationality is visible as well as in the play's presentation of what can be described as a cinematic reality consisting of split scenes, simultaneous action scenes [an Aristotelian “no-no”: “tragedy cannot represent different parts of the action at the same time” (58; ch. 24)], dream sequences, sub-plots and even a bifurcation into two distinct dramas: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. The two plays in one, which are sometimes performed separately or jointly, express an almost schizophrenic confusion as to what is real or illusory in the modern world. It may not seem possible but it doesn't seem totally inappropriate or unconvincing that the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg explains to a smug Roy Cohn that “history is about to crack wide open,” (I: 112) or that Prior Walter and Harper Pitt for a moment share the same consciousness. Thus, as a “structure of feeling,” (Williams 18) the fantasia makes the “impossible” seem plausible; whether the fantasia achieves enough of a mimetic description of life to create an Aristotelian cathartic reaction is doubtful.

However, what the form of a fantasia does allow in Angels in America is enough range and scope to explore fully its “national themes.” Jointly stretching Poetics to the seams, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, in their multiple sub-plots and cross-cultural and historical references to Mormons, Jewish immigrants, and Bolsheviks, as well as their conflation of angels and apparitions, gays and straights, and the powerless and the powerful, encompass many perspectives: historical, sexual, political, psychological, and spiritual. What results is a shift of the focus away from the particular, as in classical tragedy, to a general condition. Disorder is seen to originate not from the effect of fate on the individual but rather from society itself. If “revolution as such is in a common sense, tragedy, a time of chaos and suffering,” (Williams 65) then a relationship between social upheaval and tragic form is a valid one. Possibly George Bernard Shaw realized the same connection in similarly sub-titling Heartbreak House a “fantasia,” for the play concludes with the resonance of Great War bombers raining destruction on England. As the millennium approaches in Angels in America, society itself acquires a tragic dimension.

In an Oedipal fashion, the social world, as Prior Walter learns, has been abandoned by what seems to be a conservative, anti-progressive God who blames humankind for creating history, the “virus of time,” (II: 48) as his bureaucratic angels describe it. Cast out alone in the universe, society similarly suffers from blindness in its search for meaning, a condition of modern life cited by such political antipodes as the World's Oldest Living Bolshevik, whose speech at the Kremlin in “Perestroika” recounts the failure of past ideologies—“I promise the blind eyes will see again […] show me the words that will reorder the world” (II: 14)—and the generation of the 80's, “Reagan's children,” who are described by Louis Ironson as “selfish and greedy and loveless and blind” (I: 74). In the “Age of Anomie” blindness manifests itself as a world lost in its illusions in which truth, power, stability and community have become indeterminate. For Joe Pitt, the Reagan era “[…] is a great thing. The truth restored. Law restored. That's what President Reagan has done […]. He says, ‘Truth exists and can be spoken’” (I: 26). Pace Harper Pitt: “So when we think we have escaped the unbearable ordinariness and, well, untruthfulness of our lives, it's really the same old ordinariness and falseness rearranged into the appearance of novelty and truth” (I: 32).

Lies and illusions as a condition of a social tragedy also arise within the context of AIDS in Angels in America. AIDS as a metaphor for social tragedy exists not only in the pity and fear felt for the physical suffering of two characters, Prior Walter and Roy Cohn, and by implication, for all those stricken with the disease, but also for a group of protagonists who are specifically connected to them. In the unity formed around their suffering from a common lack of identity, these protagonists are reminiscent of the Greek chorus in their representation of an expression of a “shared and […] collective experience” (Williams 18). What is essentially tragic about them—Joe Pitt, Harper Pitt, and Louis Ironson—is that each struggles with a state of false consciousness about him or herself, a group hamartia: for Joe, it exists in his conservative Mormon image as a straight man and husband belied by his true sexual identity; for Harper, it is in her role as a fulfilled wife and mother that is in truth a dream; and for Louis it is in his commitment as a lover to Prior Walter that is undermined by his inability to face life. For each of the group protagonists “to shed your skin, every old skin, one by one and then walk away unencumbered” (I: 72,73) requires the same kind of “moral choice” (52; ch. 15), which Aristotle felt necessary for the sole tragic figure. That moral choice, presented for each in a moment of Aristotelian recognition and reversal (Joe punches Louis and Harper slaps Joe), determines their “happiness and misfortune” (42; ch. 6). In Joe's situation, his choice leads him, like Oedipus, into isolation; while for Prior and Harper their decisions lead them to a greater sense of community.

Conversely, AIDS in Angels in America also lends itself as a metaphor for a tragic society that has lost its sense of community. Reagan-era individualism as a political force is personified in the play by the “power broker,” Roy Cohn, who excoriates his own fate as an AIDS victim, not only because it labels him as a gay man and therefore relegates him to a lower, minority status as a “nobody […] in the pecking order” (I: 45) of the power structure in Washington, but also because those in Cohn's view in the Reagan 80's who are considered the weak and therefore vulnerable are “booted out of the parade” (II: 62). Prior Walter, too, experiences feelings of isolation as a victim of the disease but with a different perspective. His reminiscence of a sea captain ancestor's shipwreck evokes a fearful image of a callous America as a lifeboat on a stormy sea in which those who lack authority because of disease are “pitched into freezing, turbulent water and salt and darkness to drown […] by implacable, unsmiling men” (I: 42).

Despite the considerable pathos that both AIDS victims Prior Walter and Roy Cohn arouse, the juxtaposition of these two almost Manichean characters serves to inhibit any cathartic reaction. Placed within the form of the fantasia, Prior and Cohn's stories create the double-plot of the tragicomedy, which mitigates the emotional extremities of pity and fear. Prior's recognition of himself as a prophet reverses his action in the play, transforming his previous moribund feelings to those of transcendence in his wrestling from the angels his blessing for “more life” (II: 48). Cohn's experience of AIDS, however, directs him otherwise. As prophecies of “modern conservatism,” (II: 81) Cohn's revelations to his young disciple, Joe Pitt, are those of existential terror. For Cohn AIDS avails him of no such recognition and reversal; instead what remains is that “life is full of horror; [and] nobody escapes, nobody, save yourself” (I: 58). Countering the movement of Prior Walter's “death” which brings him back to earth and community, Cohn dies alone, and any sense of pity for him is negated by the final hoax he plays on the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, whom he entreats for comfort as his mother. However, the fantasia's last image of Cohn in heaven as God's lawyer is a humorous one (Cohn revels in insult comedy throughout both plays), exemplifying the Aristotelian rubric that tragedy, in Prior's case, imitates “the noble deeds of noble men” and comedy “the actions of meaner men” (39; ch. 4). The tragicomic fantasia mediates these forms, and in doing so enables Angels in America to achieve a harmonious conclusion with Cohn somewhat punished and Walter somewhat rewarded.

Again, working from our common assumption of the correlation between literary form and culture, we can see by distancing our two works from each other that diachronic movement underscores one and clashes with the other. For the Greeks, the mimetic form of tragedy prescribed in Aristotle's Poetics reveals universal truths that seem “incapable of being influenced by human initiative” (Esslin 134). Kushner's fantasia, on the other hand, brings the whole universe onto the stage to be wrestled with or altered however the playwright's imagination dictates. Whereas the more static form of Poetics uses history to achieve a credible connection to contemporary life, Angels in America extols an epic vision as a way to access and alter the future. Themes of the necessity of change and accepting responsibility for our actions are redolent in both Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. Moreover, they are expressed from equally divergent sources as well: the Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz plays cards in heaven to continue the human experience of the “the Unknown, the Future,” (II: 137) and Louis Ironson, who relishes a bloody lip gained from his confrontation with Joe Pitt, acknowledges that if he didn't suffer for abandoning Prior, “the universe would become unbalanced” (II: 33). Thus, what separates classical theory and modern practice in Poetics and Angels in America is that there is more to draw from the tragic in the contemporary world than an emotional catharsis and acceptance of the way things are; instead we must, too, wrestle with our angels.


  1. All references are to the following edition: Tony Kushner, Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika. New York: Theatre Communications Group, Inc., 1992, 1993, 1994).

Works Cited

Aristotle. The “Poetics.” Sources of Dramatic Theory. Ed. Michael J. Sidnell. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. 32-61.

Driver, Tom F. “Oedipus the King.” Classical Tragedy: Greek and Roman. Ed. Robert W. Corrigan. New York: Applause, 1990. 246-251.

Eagleton, Terry. Marxism and Literary Criticism. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1976.

Esslin, Martin. Brecht: The Man and His Work. New York: Anchor Books, 1971.

Golden, Leon. “Aristotle.” The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Ed. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. 41-44.

Kushner, Tony. Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches.Part Two: Perestroika. New York: Theatre Communications Group, Inc., 1992, 1993, 1994.

Miller, Arthur. “Death of a Salesman: A Modern Tragedy?” Modern Theories of Drama. Ed. George W. Brandt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998. 106-112.

Williams, Raymond. Modern Tragedy. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.

Publishers Weekly (review date 3 November 2003)

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SOURCE: Review of Brundibar, by Tony Kushner. Publishers Weekly 250, no. 44 (3 November 2003): 72.

[In the following review, the critic comments that the main story in Brundibar is ultimately one of hope, although it includes a darker subtext.]

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Kushner adapts this allegorical tale from a Czech opera created by Hans Krása and Adolf Hoffmeister in 1938. [In Brundibar,] a doctor wearing the Star of David on his jacket dispatches siblings Aninku and Pepicek to town to find milk for their sick mother. Sendak, in a mix of fantasy and reality elements reminiscent of his In the Night Kitchen (especially the cameo appearance of a baker), thrusts the siblings—and readers—into an exotic backdrop of stone buildings topped by spires and turrets, but with familiar details such as a horse grazing behind a picket fence and a field of flowers. The two try to earn money to buy the milk, but their voices are drowned out by the noise of the “bellowing Brundibar”; Brundibar's refrain (“Little children, how I hate 'em/How I wish the bedbugs ate 'em”) exemplifies Kushner's skill at tempering the potentially frightening with the comic. The dialogue and comments featured in balloons above the characters also inject an appealing spontaneity and levity to the proceedings. A trio of talking animals and 300 children come to the duo's aid. Working in colored pencils, crayons and brush pens, Sendak conjures bustling Slavic city streets and effectively juxtaposes innocence and evil in the cherubic visages of the children and Brundibar's ominously hyperbolic facial features (the villain's manicured mustache calls to mind the reigning tyrant of the time). Despite a final threat from Brundibar, the story is ultimately one of hope, as the children and their allies band together to defeat the evil foe. The collaborators wisely allow readers to appreciate the story on one level, yet those familiar with the opera's origins (a note in the flap copy tells of Krása's death at Auschwitz) will find a haunting subtext here. …


Tony Kushner Drama Analysis


Kushner, Tony (Drama Criticism)