We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there. . . . Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality for another world.
José Esteban Muñoz
Two decades have passed since Tony Kushner’s opus, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1993), premiered on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre, yet the questions raised by the play are no less a part of the current zeitgeist than they were when the play debuted. Through its protagonist, Prior Walter, Angels in America poses audiences with provocative and poignant questions including: Does a queer engagement with the future exist? If so, what does queer futurity entail? What are the terms and conditions of the “citizenship” Prior demands for himself and his fellow queers? These questions evoke two of the play’s major themes, history and futurity, and initiate conversations about queer lives.
In the twenty years since Angels in America debuted, these themes and conversations have become increasingly integrated into American public discourse. The Defense of Marriage Act has been repealed, the United States Supreme Court defeated Proposition 8, and marriage equality measures have passed in nineteen states. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell legislation was dismantled by President Obama, and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act has been presented to nearly every Congress since 1994. To borrow from John M. Clum, “the place lesbians and gay men are allowed to hold in contemporary American society,” is a concern that prevails in post-Millennium America. We see this concern in Kushner’s play-world as well.
Prior’s forward-thinking and resilient spirit is very much still alive; in addition to political initiatives, New York’s Signature Theatre staged a critically-acclaimed revival of Angels in America in their 2010-2011 Season. Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company staged productions of parts one and two (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, respectively) in 2013. In view of the play’s longevity and its thematic relevance to the current historical moment, the time is ripe for scholarship that continues to critically examine the play. This study explores the interplay between history and future that seems inherent in the work, and attempts to reveal potential answers to the major questions the play poses. A large portion of this study investigates the ways that Kushner’s play functions metadramatically to work against past representations of gay lives and create openings for future, decidedly queer representations. By placing Angels in America in conversation with earlier plays from the gay and lesbian repertoire, I aim to cultivate deeper insight to the history that Kushner’s drama addresses, challenges, and ultimately subverts. In turn, the queer future imagined and demanded by Prior is contextualized and more fully illuminated.
The conceptual framework of this study is motivated by recent works from Theatre and Performance Studies scholars Dustin Bradley Goltz and Sara Warner. Goltz’s Queer Temporalities in Gay Male Representation: Tragedy, Normativity, and Futurity (2010), analyzes over one hundred films and twenty-five television programs to argue that queer futurity does not yet exist because the heterosexist monolith holds a monopoly on the future. Integral to Goltz’s discussion of queer estrangement from the future is literary theorist Kenneth Burke’s concept of the tragic frame. To summarize, the tragic frame is a symbolic structure that uses victimage to purify or impose order upon embodied experiences. Drawing from Burke, Goltz contends that, both on and off the screen, homosexuals are cast as the sacrificial scapegoats whose narratives are routinely and systematically censored, if not altogether purged. The singular alternative to the tragic frame is assimilation through heteronormativity. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) characters avoid condemnation to the tragic frame, and subsequent victimage, if—and only if—they perform a “normalized” representation of homosexuality. As Nikki Sullivan notes, the assimilationist ambition is that homosexuals will be “accepted into, and [will] become one with, mainstream culture.” Only through the adoption of heteronormative semiotics and participation in heteronormative institutions do LGBT characters escape punishment and receive the endowment of life, or futurity.
Assimilation, however, does not secure queer characters—nor, by proxy, their real-life counterparts—a future unto themselves, but merely a corner in which they can exist within the future of heteronormativity. At the crux of Goltz’s work, then, is the liberationist cry for gay narratives (and, more broadly, gay futures) existing “beyond the tragic cycle,” and its stark binary of assimilation or punishment. Sara Warner offers a similar thesis in Acts of Gaiety: LGBT Performance and the Politics of Pleasure (2012), which critiques homoliberalism, the “conservative program for social assimilation… the economic, political, and social enfranchisement of certain normative-leaning, straight-acting homosexuals.” Warner asserts that queer theories, the equality movement championed by organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, and myriad performance traditions share a preoccupation with tragic narratives that center upon a history of victimage. Too often, she notes, homoliberalism is identified as the idyllic rejoinder to a painful history. Like Goltz, Warner calls for decidedly queer narratives—for,
comical and cunning interventions that make a mockery of discrimination and the experience of social exclusion. These antics provide a creative outlet for the outrage, alienation, and sorrow that attend queer lives in the form of dramatic displays of revelry and rebellion.
The work of scholars like Goltz and Warner is representative of the vibrant and complex conversations circulating in the Academy and society at large about queer histories and futures, and—as relating to Theatre and Performance Studies—representations of queer lives and futurity. Goltz’s and Warner’s theses echo and bolster the claims made by Kushner’s Prior two decades earlier, as the character grappled with the dichotomies of death/life and history/futurity, and envisioned (and demanded access to) queer citizenship. Like Goltz and Warner, Prior imagined alternatives to the tragic queer history.
Kushner said in an interview with Mother Jones’s Andrea Bernstein, “The fundamental question is: Are we made by history or do we make history—and the answer is yes.” This philosophy of history is epitomized in Prior, who recognizes the impact history has had on him and other queers and, in turn, fights to re-appropriate space for reimagined lives and futures (or new histories). To that end, Angels in America can be read as an example of the kind of narrative called for by Goltz and Warner. Certainly, Prior Walter was not remarkable for surviving to the play’s final curtain; countless openly gay male characters had already done so. As early as 1958, Joe Cino (an openly gay, retired dancer) founded the Caffe Cino, a performance venue in Greenwich Village that gave rise to now-celebrated, gay playwrights like Doric Wilson and Lanford Wilson. At the Caffe Cino, dramatists not only allowed their openly gay characters to live, but created these characters as complex human beings, and showed them in a positive light (examples include, Doric Wilson’s And Now She Dances!  and Lanford Wilson’s The Madness of Lady Bright ). Although Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band (1968) aroused criticism for what some perceived as depicting internalized homophobia, it remains a highly regarded play in the gay repertoire. Among defenders of the play is John M. Clum, who praises the work for its daring: “For the first time, mainstream audiences [saw] gay men talk openly about their sexual predilections, dance together, kiss, and retire upstairs for sex.” Moreover, Clum celebrates the play as one that, “more than any other single play, publicized homosexuals as a minority group,” in need of liberation and empowerment. Kushner has noted that The Boys in the Band “was really [his] first intimation that there was a world beyond Lake Charles, [Louisiana],” his hometown. Perhaps The Boys in the Band was the play that made Kushner realize that “more life” was possible for himself—if not a life under a different set of circumstances, perhaps on a different set of terms?
The 1970s and 1980s gave rise to various other gay characters who survive to the play’s end; exemplars include Ken Talley from Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July (1978), Georges and Albin from Harvey Fierstein’s La Cage Aux Folles (1983), Ned Weeks from Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart (1984), and Stephen from Terrence McNally’s The Lisbon Traviata (1989). The critical qualifier, however, is that relationships dominate these characters’ lives, for better or for worse, and they exist within plots that center on “traditional” values like family and monogamy. Despite the ways in which the plays queer “normative” themes and engage their complexities, the heteronormative paradigm is present and the characters are therefore saved from ultimate condemnation.
Angels in America departs from the trajectory of its progenitors in that Prior does not become a victim of the tragic frame, but neither does he submit to hegemonic ideals and practices. Prior not only lives, but he lives on his own terms. In this sense, the play not only reimagines queer lives in America, but functions metadramatically to redirect historical representations of queer characters in the American drama. When Angels in America is analyzed within the context of earlier plays from the gay and lesbian repertoire, we gain deeper insight to the history that Angels subverts; by reading the play intertexually, Prior’s rejection of history and visualization and demand for a queer future are more fully revealed. In what follows, I trace the origins of the gay anti-hero character in American drama and locate the ways Prior is inscribed within a similar narrative, thus establishing the tragic frame that operates around Kushner’s play. I provide a detailed character analysis in order to support my assertion that Prior is a revolutionary character for his resistance of that tragic frame, and for his subsequent demand for a future incumbent of a decidedly queer citizenship.
In analyzing Angels in America and the earlier plays that established and perpetuated the anti-hero, tragic narrative, I employ the terms “gay,” “lesbian,” “homosexual,” and “queer.” As these terms have been used both interchangeably and distinctively, it is prudent to explicate the way in which they are used in this study. I use “gay” to reference male homosexuals/ity; conversely, I use “lesbian” to reference female homosexuals/ity. “Homosexual” is used to discuss homoerotic/homocentric attraction, relationships, or identity without regard to gender, thus encompassing both male, female, and genderqueer experience. My use of “queer” draws upon Alexander Doty’s Making Things Perfectly Queer, which suggests that the term “attempts to account for the existence and expression of a wide range of positions within culture that are… non-, anti-, or contra-straight.” Correspondingly, Nikki Sullivan’s A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory cites prominent queer theorist David Halperin to advance an understanding of queer identity, positionality, and/or ideology as “whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant.” As I argue in this essay, Prior Walter’s ability to resist tragedy and victimage without reliance upon a “normalized” representation of his homosexuality makes the character radical and important (particularly, as Warner would argue, in these homoliberal times). Bearing this in mind, my use of the word “queer” carries the sense of difference articulated by Doty and Halperin.
Gay Lives and Gay Futures on American Stages
To see Burke’s tragic frame epitomized by the gay anti-hero stock character, one must only consider the history of written and performed queer lives. Nicholas de Jongh describes the gay anti-hero stock character in Not in Front of the Audience: Homosexuality on Stage as “the [character] with no future, sure to be punished by the play’s end, with sexual orthodoxy and the secure straight and narrow thoroughly approved.” Plays that include queer characters have, throughout history, been constructed using what Donileen Loeske calls formula stories: “recognizable and predictable plots, characters, and morals.” Gay anti-hero narratives, in which homosexual characters become sacrifices to, or reflections of, hegemony are abundant in twentieth-century dramatic literature. Prior Walter exists within the tragic frame, as did the gay characters who preceded him. However, through a study of the exemplar plays from the gay and lesbian genre—the preeminent formula stories and stock characters—it becomes clear that the central character of Kushner’s Gay Fantasia ultimately diverges from the anti-hero narrative.
When Angels in America is studied in conversation with the long lineage of tragic heroes from which Prior descends, it becomes clear that he has unprecedented agency. The fact that Prior asks for, begs for, fights for “more life” (266), is subversive. The fact that, unlike the characters who appeared on stages before him, Prior lives outside the harsh victimage/assimilation binary is daring. The fact that, with Prior, Kushner’s drama offers a revolutionary voice that rejects the scripts enacted throughout history, in favor of a script that engages with the future—and, more precisely, a future contingent upon citizenship (“the time has come, we will be citizens” )—is extraordinary.
Anti-Heroes in the America Drama
The gay anti-hero’s debut on the American stage may not have been a literal and/or physical debut. The title character and absent protagonist in Susan Glaspell’s 1919 play, Bernice, has died in the play’s previous action. In 2001, J. Ellen Gainor analyzed Bernice as a character who may have been read by the Provincetown Players’ predominantly feminist and lesbian audiences as potentially queer; in which case, the character’s absence—her lack of life and any possible futurity—carries special meaning. In her article “‘Making Queer New Things’: Queer Identities in the Life and Dramaturgy of Susan Glaspell,” Cheryl Black identifies the dramaturgical elements in the play that would have afforded a queer reading; she notes that scholars have “thus far, underestimated the subversive potential of Susan Glaspell’s dramaturgy to critique not only sexism, but also heterosexism.” It is for this reason that Black expounds upon Gainor’s initial queer reading of Bernice and offers additional, persuasive evidence pertaining to the relationship between the title character and her long-time friend, Margaret.
Black’s argument draws upon the play’s expository dialogue, which provides insight into the life led by the title character and, specifically, the relationships that colored her life. Most relevant to this study is that the marriage between Bernice and her husband, Craig, is presented as contrary to the proverbial marital bliss. For instance, Craig avows that he “never had Bernice.” More indicative of the marriage’s queerness is that the husband and wife did not share a bedroom, and that Bernice did not want to do the things that “a wife should want to do.” It is not difficult to determine the things that go unnamed in Glaspell’s play, and so it is no surprise that Craig engaged in extra-marital affairs nor that Bernice calls for Margaret while on her deathbed.
The queer readings offered by Black and Gainor illustrate that Bernice’s death can be viewed as typifying the tragic frame; the character’s death is her punishment. Similar to Goltz’s critique of the ways in which gay narratives are restricted to “the margins of dominant narratives,” and de Lauretis’s notion of the space-off, Black notes that Glaspell’s protagonist is located in “the most marginalized position conceivable—offstage.” In instances of an absent queer character, the tragic frame is reinforced because the character is not afforded an opportunity to re-write, or even challenge, her life-script. The anti-hero narrative prevails, futurity is withheld; full stop.
The absent queer character is a notable feature of pre-Stonewall gay and lesbian dramatic literature—most notably in the plays of Tennessee Williams. Allan Grey in A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) has committed suicide after being discovered in a homosexual affair; Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) is tormented over the death of Skipper, the man with whom he may have had a romantic relationship; and Catharine in Suddenly Last Summer (1958) is lobotomized because of her knowledge of her cousin Sebastian’s homosexual orientation and the specifics of his death. Arguably, Williams’s dramaturgy made the absent queer character a mainstay within American drama, yet it is entirely possible to view Bernice as the prototype (even if only surreptitiously) of this gay anti-hero model. So what of Prior, who is not an absent character?
Through an examination of gay characters whose narratives are played out upon the stage, we see the ways in which Prior is inscribed with—and, ultimately, fights against—an anti-hero script. Queer lives presented on stage frequently fall victim to the tragic frame in three major ways: murder, suicide, or disease. The essential point is that when a queer character does not assimilate, plot points ensure that death disavows futurity. Another early example is Mae West’s 1927 play, The Drag, in which the queer protagonist is victimized through murder. The play’s action centers upon Rolly Kingsbury, a married man who—with few exceptions—keeps secret his homosexual penchant, for fear of mortification and ostracism. The character is “out” to a select group of queer friends and engages in clandestine affairs with men, but is married to Clair in order to preserve his family ties (he is the son of a prominent judge), and his reputation as a successful architect. Early in Act One, David (one of the men with whom Rolly had a liaison) appears on the scene.
Although a secondary character, David’s presence in the drama is critical for two reasons: 1) David’s dialogue demonstrates the tragic frame: “I am one of those damned creatures who are called degenerates and moral lepers for a thing they cannot help—a thing that has made me suffer,” and 2) David is the catalyst, whose actions ensure that Rolly is condemned to an anti-hero narrative. In the play’s third and final act, the queer protagonist abandons heteronormative conventions and hosts a drag ball while his wife attends the opera. Rolly forsakes, even if only for an evening, his assimilationist script and, quite literally, stops “wearing the privilege of straight culture.” In doing so, Rolly secures his position within the tragic frame and becomes a quintessential gay anti-hero—he is murdered by David, due to unrequited love.
George O’Neil’s American Dream (1933) features a gay anti-hero who is destroyed as a result of suicide. The three-act play centers upon three generations of men in the Pingree family, of which the third generation is most relevant to this study. The play’s third act centers upon the twentieth-century Daniel Pingree, who has returned to his family’s home, where he and his wife Gail entertain several queer friends. Cheryl Black notes in her essay “‘Three Variations on a National Theme’: George O’Neil’s American Dream, 1933” that the dialogue suggests a homoerotic attraction between Daniel and one of the friends, Jake:
Gail: You’re both so sensitive and shy. It’s just lovely to watch. An ideal couple. If you ask me, it’s rather excessive, isn’t it—this attachment between you two?
Daniel: That makes me a homo-sexual hero-worshipper I guess. Yes, I’m a fairy then! I’m a pansy! In your stinking mind, I’m in love with Jake Schwartz.
By the end of the emotionally-charged third act, Daniel retreats to the hallway and shoots himself. Black’s essay argues that O’Neil’s play is radical for queering the American Dream and for challenging a beloved American trope. While Black presents persuasive textual evidence to support her thesis, I offer an alternative reading. When American Dream is analyzed using Kenneth Burke’s tragic frame, its conventional dramatic structure (which confines the queer character within the tragic frame via suicide) reveals the play as less radical.
Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour (1934) followed the suicide model of the gay anti-hero the following year. The Pulitzer Prize-nominated play tells the story of two school teachers who are accused of being lesbians by a deceitful and vengeful student. One of the teachers, Martha, experiences a sexual awakening and admits that she does, in fact, possess homoerotic love for Karen. Realizing the impossibilities of a productive, happy future, Martha confesses to Karen, “In some way I’ve ruined your life. I have ruined my own.” Convinced that a queer future does not exist, Martha resigns herself to the tragic frame and a gunshot sounds from off stage.
Throughout the mid-twentieth century, the anti-hero narratives originated in earlier decades were reified. Homosexual characters remained limited to tragic scripts with predetermined endings, the ultimatum always being death or assimilation. It was not until the riot at Stonewall Inn in 1969 that the American Gay Liberation Movement began and afforded a degree of freedom to homosexuals, and offered newfound artistic liberties to theatre practitioners. Doric Wilson’s The West Street Gang played at Spike Bar for six months in 1977 and offered a “Daringly theatrical and hilariously funny … polemical satire [concerning] the attempts of the Village gay community to defend itself.” Wilson’s The Other Side of Silence was the first professional gay theatre company, and its five-year tenure demonstrates its relative success. However, it should not be overlooked that these progressive, affirmative depictions of queerness were presented alongside tragic scripts like Martin Sherman’s Bent, which was imported from London to New York’s Apollo Theatre in 1979. By the mid-1980s, anti-hero narratives once again monopolized stages as catastrophe ushered in yet another model of the gay anti-hero narrative: disease.
AIDS, first known as GRID (gay-related immune deficiency) quickly made scapegoats of thousands. In response, American stages became sites of activism, awareness, and emotional purgation. The narratives in AIDS plays integrated seamlessly into the long-established tragic frame. Consider Felix in Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart (1985); the character is given death, not life. Death is the penalty for not having conformed to the stark binary: heterosexuality vs. everything else. The binary that places heterosexuals outside and homosexuals inside of the tragic frame is exemplified in the dialogue of Ned, Felix’s lover:
We’re all going to go crazy, living this epidemic every minute, while the rest of the world goes on out there, all around us, as if nothing is happening, going on with their own lives and not knowing what it’s like, what we’re going through. We’re living through war, but where they’re living it’s peacetime, and we’re all in the same country.
In Kramer’s play-world, divisiveness prevails. Heterosexuals are proffered access to life and the ability to ignore the crisis affecting the gay community, while the homosexual characters—representative of their counterparts beyond the theatre doors—have no such opportunity. Within the same country, some are citizens with access to life and liberty, and some are not.
Another example is Rich in William Hoffman’s As Is (1985). While it seems a triumph that the character does not die in the staged action, the dialogue continually references his placement in the tragic frame: “My lover leaves me; my family won’t let me near them; I lose my business; I can’t pay my rent.” Essential to this study is that Hoffman’s dialogue references the inevitable outcome: “I’ve been wondering what happens after I die … Do you think things go on and on? I don’t know. Is this all the time I have? I hope not ….” In spite of dissatisfaction with the thought of an impending death, Rich decides only to make the most of what time he has left. In other words, the character does not do as Prior does and demand futurity nor a different quality of life, one that entails enfranchisement or citizenship. The character does not boldly delineate his own terms and conditions, as does Prior in his explicit call for citizenship. In the 1980s, AIDS meant death, and so the nation was confronted with tragedy, and characters like Felix and Rich existed within the tragic frame.
It is crucial to note that it is not my intention to criticize plays that center upon AIDS narratives. Without question, the plays born out of the epidemic were invaluable, as they raised public consciousness and provided emotional healing. However, performances do not exist in a vacuum. From as early as 1919, anti-hero narratives had been the queer narratives, and anti-heroes restricted to the tragic frame had been the queer figure. Until Angels in America, that is. In Kushner’s masterpiece, narratives of death coexist with Prior’s epic journey toward futurity, and this makes the play remarkable and gives it additional magnitude. Kushner’s play is metatheatrical in that its critique of American history also functions as a critique of the theatre’s historicized relationship to queerness, one (as illustrated above) characterized by tragedy and lack of queer futurity.
Angels in America: The Writing of a New History
In part one, Millennium Approaches, it seems unlikely that Prior will escape the anti-hero narrative, for assimilation is inconceivable. Prior is openly gay with a partner, whom he teases for acting “closety” and “butch” (19) when around his family. In Prior’s world, there is no place for masquerading as a “He Man,” as did Rolly for the first two acts of The Drag. As a consequence of his liberationist ideals, Prior exists within the tragic frame, wherein he has endured pejorative treatment: “I can handle pressure, I am a gay man and I am used to pressure, to trouble” (117). The fact that Prior has been diagnosed with a terminal illness further secures his anti-hero narrative. Despite having two proverbial strikes against him, Prior is alive, emboldened, and strong (of will) at the play’s end.
Prior’s transition from inside to outside of the tragic frame is fascinating because, in Millennium Approaches, he resigns himself early in Act One to the idea that his death is quickly approaching: “K.S., baby. Lesion number one. Lookit. The wine-dark kiss of the angel death” (21). Angered about having been “fucked over” (30), Prior refers to himself as a “corpsette” at “rock-bottom” (30). Prior resigns to the idea of his imminent death and refutes Harper’s revelation that his “most inner part, [is] entirely free of disease” (34). By Act Two, Prior—wracked with pain—actually wishes he were dead.
In Act Three, fear emerges as an important motif, one that alters Prior’s orientation to death. Prior admits to his ancestors that he is afraid to die, and he confesses to Emily that fear kept him from attending a friend’s funeral. When, in the final scene, the sound of angel wings fills the room, Prior is “consumed by [an] ice-cold, razor blade terror that just shouts and shouts ‘Keep moving!’ Run!’” (235). Certain that the Angel heralds his death, Prior pleads for her to leave him, but to no avail.
At this point, Prior’s narrative could have quite easily conformed to the suicide model. Tormented by illness and haunted by visions, a suicidal plot point would have been entirely conceivable, particularly given the fact that Prior has been abandoned by his lover, Louis. Instead of regurgitating a decades-old plotline, however, Kushner created Hannah, who tells Prior that he need only refuse the vision and seek an alternative:
Hannah: 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 … You … you … wrestle her.
Prior: SAY WHAT?
Hannah: It’s an angel, you … just … grab hold and say … oh what was it, wait, wait, umm … OH! Grab her and say “I will not let thee go except thou bless me!” Then wrestle with her til she gives in. (237 and 250)
If the vision is death, the alternative is life, which means that it is possible for Prior to resist the gay anti-hero narrative. If only he wrestles with the angel and demands more life, Prior will escape the tragic frame that claimed Bernice, Rolly, Daniel, Martha, Felix ….
Undeniably, Prior will die, someday, and perhaps even soon. By the end of Perestroika, Prior’s eyes have begun to fail and he is frail, but he rejects death in the current moment; he rejects dying a “secret death” (280), a death that fulfills a tragic frame. He is gay. He is sick. But he will not be written off by God, by Angel, nor by Playwright. Whether the future procured is five days, five months, or five years is superfluous; the essential point is that “The time has come” (280), for homosexual characters and homosexual Americans to demand and secure futures. For Prior, futurity operates in tandem with a queer citizenship that abandons the historical models of disempowerment or the singular recourse of assimilatory enfranchisement.
David Román has suggested that Angels in America “calls into question the concept of an official history.” Indeed, history emerges as a prominent theme as early as the play’s opening scene, in which an elderly rabbi aware of his own mortality (“pretty soon …all the old will be dead” ) presides over the funeral of a Jewish woman. The rabbi delivers a eulogy entrenched in the religious and cultural history shared by himself and the deceased, and thus his remarks offer a contextualized reading of her life—her history. The drama’s subsequent scenes depict various other characters confronting their personal histories. The most notable examples are Roy Cohn and Prior Walter. Roy is desperate to protect his identity and secure his legacy as a prominent lawyer. Repulsed by the notion that he would be remembered as a homosexual, an AIDS victim, and failed attorney, his sexuality is never admitted, his medical records are amended to state that his illness is liver cancer, and he attempts to circumvent disbarment. In Act Two of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, Roy says to his protégé:
I’m gonna be a goddamn motherfucking legally licensed member of the bar lawyer, just like my daddy was, till my last bitter day on earth, Joseph, until the day I die. (68- 69)
Roy Cohn is a character who relentlessly manipulates the facts and works desperately to preserve his image to ensure that his history is written as he desires.
Prior Walter directly confronts his history as he interacts with his ancestors (his biological history) while in delusional states induced by his illness. Prior’s ancestors have gone before him, and he is sure to join them, bringing to a close his living history. Compelled by the fear of his impending death, Prior avoids interaction with the historical figures/figments: “Look. Garlic. A mirror. Holy water. A crucifix. FUCK OFF! Get the fuck out of my room! GO!” (113). Prior’s fear motivates him to dispel the historical narrative of death-by-plague that claimed Prior I and Prior II in favor of a new narrative that is future-oriented. Together, Sarah Ironson, Roy Cohn, and Prior Walter are exemplary characters in Kushner’s script who negotiate their own histories and, in doing so, dispel the very notion of an official history. For Prior, to contest an official queer history and reimagine life and queer futurity is to petition for citizenship.
The Terms and Conditions of Citizenship
Throughout the two decades that have passed since the premiere of Angels in America, the movement for LGBT equality has evolved from its grassroots into a formalized national campaign that endeavors to uphold the constitutional rights of homosexuals and enable them to be full citizens. In America, as in the plays produced on American stages, homosexuals have routinely been—and, in most cases, remain—restricted to the margins of society. James Fisher understands Angels in America as a play that reroutes this dramaturgical trajectory by asking “no less a question than can a nation—its society and its people—be considered moral if it oppresses any portion of its citizenry.” When Kushner’s text is viewed within this queer theoretical framework, it becomes clear that Prior is not a citizen, but rather longs to be.
The marginalization and Othering of homosexuals within Kushner’s play-world is perhaps best illustrated by this monologue delivered by Roy Cohn in Millennium Approaches:
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….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. (45)
Roy’s monologue deserves to be quoted at length due the exemplary manner in which it defines the parameters of citizenship. Roy, Louis, Belize and, of course, Prior are no strangers to the fact that “concrete institutional forms of sexuality. . . are imbued with conflicts of interest and political maneuvering, both deliberate and incidental. In that sense, sex is always political.” The inherently political nature of sex directly implicates Kushner’s queer characters. To elaborate, Roy has “clout. A lot” (45), and he is aware that personal identification as a homosexual would jeopardize his prestige. In view of the intersection between the personal and the political, Roy remains in the closet and maintains a heterosexual identification.
A sharp contrast to Roy is Louis, who affirms his liberationist sexual-political position: “fuck assimilation … [with] the monolith of White America. White Straight Male America” (90). Although Louis recognizes that he is endowed with a degree of white privilege, he also acknowledges that he has limited access to power, and so he routinely critiques American democracy and the lines of oppression that exist therein. Belize, an African American and former drag queen, asserts that he has “a rather intimate knowledge of the complexity of the lines of [oppression]” (94). And then there is Prior, whose final monologue challenges the American tradition that equates affiliation with minority groups (specifically, the queer community, and the AIDS community), with Otherness:
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. (280)
In view of the historically institutionalized practice of Othering sexual minorities, Prior’s demand for forward momentum, future-orientation, and citizenship is significant and necessary; but what, precisely, is the citizenship that Prior envisions? Is Prior’s brand of citizenry one that amalgamates with the assimilationist trajectory? Kushner is less than explicit:
Prior: Bless me anyway. I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do. . . . Death usually has to take life away. I don’t know if that’s just the animal. I don’t know if it’s not braver to die. But I recognize the habit. The addiction to being alive. We live past hope. If I can find hope anywhere, that’s it, that’s the best I can do. It’s so much not enough, so inadequate but. . . Bless me anyway. I want more life. (267)
The logical—and pressing—question remains: What is the life that Prior seeks? Does it center upon the coalescence of gay and straight cultures? Is a citizenship accrued through participation in heteronormative institutions and practices the citizenship Prior desires? Or does he call for a decidedly queer citizenship—and, similarly, a decidedly queer future? Although prophetic and revolutionary for the ways in which he rejects the tragic frame and an anti-hero narrative, Prior is ambiguous regarding the specific kind of life and citizenship he wants. I presume that if Dustin Bradley Goltz or Sarah Warner were to envision a Part Three of Angels in America, it would not depict Prior as having conformed to the very institutions that had disenfranchised him. Instead, Prior’s future would be well-spent in a liberationist, “flamboyant and flagrant flaunting of [his] sexuality.” He would not have to forfeit his queerness in order to accrue citizenship.
To decipher what Kushner may have envisioned, I turn to textual evidence that appears to offer some specific insight to Prior’s conception of futurity. The dialogue comes from Prior’s first encounter with his ancestors:
Prior: I’m not alone.
Prior I: You have no wife, no children.
Prior: I’m gay. (86)
This dialogue does not indicate that Prior associates queerness with heteronormative paradigms of futurity: “a story of happily ever after: love conquering all, the blessed gift of children, and a guaranteed slice of the American Dream.” Contrarily, the passage can be read as a forerunner to the claims made by Lee Edelman who, in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, argues against reproductive futurity in favor of a queer future that rejects the established social-political order.
Prior’s longing for queer citizenship is also a forerunner to the convincing arguments made by José Esteban Muñoz in Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. Muñoz insists that “queerness is not yet here.” Understanding queerness as an ideality and an aesthetic protocol that works to reject “objective” reality and its monolithic hierarchies and, instead, fashion non-conforming selves, Muñoz asks us to “dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds.” Prior not only dreams of, but begs for and demands and the opportunity to live in—to enact—other ways, vis-à-vis citizenry. Certainly, Muñoz’s emphasis on “collective, political becoming” is reminiscent of, and fortifies, Prior’s revolutionary, future-oriented, utopic spirit.
Perhaps Prior’s call is for a citizenship without parameters, without qualifiers, caveats, and binaries; a citizenship without a prescribed way to experience being alive. If the prophet demands such a future, the assertion that “the great work begins” (119) carries additional meaning for those of us living in the current historical moment, which seems preoccupied with nearly exclusively assimilationist ambitions. Indeed, it will require great work to amend America’s history. But, as Prior says, “the time has come” (280).
With the opening of Angels in America, the time had come to subvert the history that had long since been written of queer lives. As Jean E. Howard has articulated, “In Angels in America, Kushner … create[s] a tentative theatrical intimation of a different, less injurious future.” The time had come for a queer character to live beyond the tragic frame. The time had come for a queer character to demand futurity. The time had come for a queer character to challenge existing terms and conditions of obtaining citizenship. The time had come for a queer character to receive not merely access to life, but to a life lived on his own terms. And so, Prior boldly rejects death. He rebukes the tragic frame that says to queers, “conform or be written off.” I believe Prior asks us to do the same, and in ever-progressive ways. In the final analysis, Prior is not an anti-hero; he is a prophet.
Vanessa Campagna is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Monmouth College, where she teaches Theatre History and Dramatic Literature courses. She has worked professionally as a director, actor, choreographer, and dramaturg in theatres throughout the Midwest region. Vanessa is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Theatre at the University of Missouri; her research interests include LGBT representations in American drama, queer theory, actor training, and autobiographical performance.
 José Esteban Muñoz. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of a Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 1.
 Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1993), 280. All subsequent references are indicated in parentheses.
 Statute 2419 was enacted on 21 September 1996, under President Bill Clinton; the law endowed states with the power to deny same-sex marriages. The law was ruled unconstitutional on 26 June 2013.
 A 2008 ballot proposition and state constitutional amendment that opposed same-sex marriage, which had been legalized in the state of California earlier that year. The legislation was officially repealed by the United States Supreme Court on 26 June 2013.
 Official legislation enacted on 28 February 1994 under President Bill Clinton; the law preserved the illegality of military service by openly homosexual persons, but prohibited harassment and discrimination against closeted homosexuals. The law was repealed by President Barack Obama on 20 September 2011.
Legislation that would include sexual orientation and gender identity in the non-discrimination policies related to hiring and employment.
 John M. Clum, The Drama of Marriage: Gay Playwrights/Straight Unions from Oscar Wilde to the Present (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 2.
 Examples include Brokeback Mountain, Queer As Folk, and The Hours.
 Nikki Sullivan, A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory (New York: New York University Press, 2003), 23.
 Dustin Bradley Goltz, Queer Temporalities in Gay Male Representation: Tragedy, Normativity, and Futurity (New York: Routledge, 2010), 46.
 Sara Warner, Acts of Gaiety: LGBT Performance and the Politics of Pleasure (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012), xi.
 Andrea Bernstein, “Tony Kushner: The award-winning author of Angels in America advises your to trust neither art nor artists,” Mother Jones, July/August 1995, accessed on 5 August 2014, http://www.motherjones.com/media/1995/07/tony-kushner.
 John M. Clum, Acting Gay (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 255.
 Ibid., 254.
 Partick Healy, “‘The Band’ Helped Writers Find Their Beat,” The New York Times, 2 March 2010, accessed on 29 July 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/07/theater/07influence.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.
 Alexander Doty, Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 3.
 Sullivan, 43.
 Nicholas DeJongh, Not in Front of the Audience (New York: Routledge, 1992), 14-15.
 Donileen Loeske, “The Empirical Analysis of Formula Stories,” in Varieties of Narrative Analysis, eds. Jaber Gubrium and James A. Holstein (New York: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2012), 253.
 It is prudent to note that Glaspell had also penned an absent, dead character three years earlier in her seminal one-act Trifles. Like Bernice, John Wright has died in previous action.
 Cheryl Black, “‘Making Queer New Things’: Queer Identities in the Life and Dramaturgy of Susan Glaspell,” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 20, no. 1 (2005): 50.
 Susan Glaspell, Bernice (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2006), 98.
 Ibid., 101.
 Dustin Bradley Goltz, Queer Temporalities in Gay Male Representation: Tragedy, Normativity, and Futurity (New York: Routledge, 2010), 115.
 Cheryl Black, “‘Making Queer New Things’: Queer Identities in the Life and Dramaturgy of Susan Glaspell,” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 20, no. 1 (2005): 56.
 Mae West, “The Drag,” in Three Plays By Mae West, ed. Lillian Schlissel (New York: Routledge, 1997), 101. Italics mine.
 Danae Clark, “Commodity Lesbianism,” in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, et. al. (New York: Routledge, 1993), 197.
 George O’Neil, American Dream (New York: Samuel French, 1993), 155-156. (Subsequent citations in text.)
 Lillian Hellman, The Children’s Hour (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1934), 104.
 Doric Wilson, “The West Street Gang,” On the Purple Circuit, 1 June 2007, accessed on 5 August 2014, http://www.buddybuddy.com/pc-f-39.html.
 Larry Kramer, The Normal Heart (New York: Nal Books, 1985), 104.
 William Hoffman, As Is, in Forbidden Acts, ed. Ben Hodges (New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2003), 617.
 Ibid., 649.
 David Román, Acts of Intervention (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 204.
 A character depiction of the famous American lawyer Roy Marcus Cohn, who garnered fame during the McCarthy era and who later died of AIDS.
 The drama’s protagonist; an openly gay man who has been diagnosed with AIDS.
 James Fisher, ed. “We Will Be Citizens”: New Essays on Gay and Lesbian Theatre (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2008), 26.
 Gayle S. Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, et. al. (New York: Routledge, 1993), 4.
 Warner, xii.
 Goltz, 83.
Lee Edelman. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).
 Muñoz, 1.
 Ibid., 189.
 Jean E. Howard, “Tony Kushner’s Angel Archive and the Re-Visioning of American History,” The Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, accessed on 9 July 2014. http://hemisphericinstitute.org/hemi/en/about-this-website.
Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Histories, Futures, and Queer Lives by Vanessa Campagna
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 26, Number 3 (Fall 2014)
©2014 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
Co-Editors: Naomi J. Stubbs and James F. Wilson
Advisory Editor: David Savran
Founding Editors: Vera Mowry Roberts and Walter Meserve
Managing Editor: Phoebe Rumsey
Editorial Assistant: Fabian Escalona
Amy E. Hughes
Esther Kim Lee
Esther Kim Lee
Table of Contents:
- Ida Wells-Barnett and Chicago’s Pekin Theatre by Karen Bowdre
- History is Distance: Metaphor, Meaning, and Performance in Serenade/The Proposition by Ariel Nereson
- Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Histories, Futures, and Queer Lives by Vanessa Campagna
- “Persian Like The Cat”: Crossing Borders with “The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour” by Tamara L. Smith
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center:
Frank Hentschker, Executive Director
Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications
Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director
©2014 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
The Graduate Center CUNY Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue
New York NY 10016
Tony Kushner’s Angel Archive and the Re-visioning of American History
Jean E. Howard | Columbia University
Abstract: Jean Howard argues that one way to understand Angels in America’s deep engagement with history is through the angel archive the play creates and the new configuration of knowledge produced through it. Some critics such as David Savron have claimed that in Angels in America Kushner has bought into a specific myth of American history, i.e., the myth of American exceptionalism and destined progress toward perfectibility. Howard argues that Kushner has done so only by radically queering and transforming that myth, not simply by showing the centrality of gays in American history, whether in the persons of Roy Cohn or gay Mormons like Joe Pitt; rather, his play queers history by rewriting, interrupting, and co-mingling received narratives as a way of moving beyond their limitations, including narratives of national exceptionalism, special election, and progress. In Angels in America Kushner summons, fragments, and re-arranges pieces of national history in order to create a tentative theatrical intimation of a different, less injurious future. The best way to understand Kushner’s vision of American possibility is, however, to explore the particular archive of angels his play assembles and creates, for it is through that luminous and difficult archive that secular national history is probed and opened to the winds of change.
In Tony Kushner’s Angels in America a gay man, Louis Ironson, the estranged lover of Prior Walter, one of the play’s several protagonists and a person with AIDS, declares that “there are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America” (Millennium Approaches III.ii, 98).1 The play shows that Louis is wrong. In Angels in America, angels can take the form of statues, like the angel of the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park; they can be embodied on stage, as when an angel crashes through Prior’s bedroom ceiling and later accompanies him on a journey to heaven; and they can be referred to by their effects, as when Prior calls his first K.S. lesion “the wine-dark kiss of the angel of death” (Millennium Approaches, IV.ii, 27). Angels also play a role in the characters’ erotic lives. Both Prior and the Mormon mother, Hannah Pitt, have a sexual encounter with the angel who appears to Prior, and Hannah’s homosexual Mormon son, Joe Pitt, recounts his recurring erotic dream of a picture showing the Old Testament Jacob wrestling with an angel and “the angel is a beautiful man, with golden hair and wings” (Millenium Approaches II.ii, 55). Angels figure directly in American history as well. Hannah Pitt tells how “an angel of God [the angel Moroni] appeared to Joseph Smith in upstate New York, not far from here. People have visions” (Perestroika II.i.p, 235). Angels feature in Christmas carols when Belize, the black nurse, sings “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” over the phone to comfort Prior; and they hover like presences over the text even when not explicitly mentioned. Walter Benjamin wrote famously of the angel of history based on his experience of Paul Klee’s painting, Angelus Novus, and traces of Benjamin’s angel haunt Kushner’s play.
It is fair to say, then, that Kushner’s America has many angels in it and that they are integral to his claims to be writing, as the subtitle of Angels in America suggests, A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. While Angels in America was first received as a play about the devastating impact of AIDS before the widespread availability of AZT or other anti-viral drugs, it never was solely an AIDS play, but aspired to use the period of crisis in the late 80s and early 90s to engage national themes, in part through an unusual and far-reaching evocation of American history. Among the people and events from America’s collective past that figure in Angels in America are the visionary prophet Joseph Smith and the story of the Mormon trek from New York west to the new Zion in Utah; Ethel Rosenberg, executed for her alleged part in un-American activities during the McCarthy era; Roy Cohn, a closeted homosexual and a member of Joseph McCarthy’s staff who went on to be a notorious figure in the New York real estate and legal worlds; and Joe Welch, the Army lawyer who played a significant part in bringing McCarthy down.2 This national history is also related to extra-national events such as the lifting of the so-called Iron Curtain and the European pogroms and persecutions that sent waves of Jewish immigrants to America in the first half of the 20th century.
I will argue that one way to understand Angels in America’s deep engagement with history is through the angel archive the play creates and the new configuration of knowledge produced through it.3 There is nothing random about the play’s angels. Most open a door to a discrete history—Mormon history, Jewish history, the history of the European left—though in the play these co-mingle and overlap, creating a force field of juxtapositions that unsettle all received stories. Some critics such as David Savran have claimed that in Angels in America Kushner has bought into a specific myth of American history, i.e., the myth of American exceptionalism and destined progress toward perfectibility.4 I want to argue that Kushner has done so only by radically queering and transforming that myth. By this I do not simply mean that he has shown the centrality of gays in American history, whether in the persons of Roy Cohn or gay Mormons like Joe Pitt; rather, I will argue that his play queers history by rewriting, interrupting, and co-mingling received narratives as a way of moving beyond their limitations, including narratives of national exceptionalism, special election, and progress. In Angels in America Kushner summons, fragments, and re-arranges pieces of national history in order to create a tentative theatrical intimation of a different, less injurious future. The best way to understand Kushner’s vision of American possibility is, however, to explore the particular archive of angels his play assembles and creates, for it is through that luminous and difficult archive that secular national history is probed and opened to the winds of change.
I. The Angel Moroni
Angels in America exists in two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, and follows a young man, Prior Walter, who as he discovers he has AIDS, is abandoned by his lover, Louis, and struggles to find a way to endure and to live. Along the way, Prior becomes entangled with Mormonism: Louis takes a Mormon lover, Joe Pitt; Joe’s mother, Hannah, becomes Prior’s friend; Prior is visited by an angel who resembles the angel Moroni, who brought the Mormon scriptures to Joseph Smith. It is worth, then, thinking more about Moroni, and the religious traditions brought into the play by his citation. As a religion, Mormonism is a product of American soil, and Kushner is clearly fascinated by it, perhaps in part for the queer family forms, including polygamy, associated with it. In interviews, he has said that The Book of Mormon is a work of nineteenth-century American fiction on the same scale as Moby-Dick and Huckleberry Finn and that its “theology is an American reworking of a western tradition that is uniquely American: the notion of an uninhabited world in which it’s possible to reinvent.”5 Aware of the conservative dimensions of Mormonism, Kushner also has described Mormons as “decent, hardworking, serious, intelligent people” (Vorlicki 1998, 25), a characterization that would at least partly capture the essence of Joe Pitt, the Mormon Republican and closeted gay man who is a friend of Roy Cohn and who––horrible paradox––writes legal briefs arguing for the limitation of homosexuals’ civil rights.
The angel Moroni delivering the plates of the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith (1886). Library of Congress, source
The most interesting use of Mormon traditions in Angels in America, however, lies in Prior Walter’s unconscious imitation of the visionary tradition exemplified by Joseph Smith. In 1823 in Palmyra, New York, the angel Moroni came to the young Smith, saying that the last days were at hand, that Smith was to have a special mission to all nations, and that he was to dig up golden plates on which were written the revelations, supposedly in Egyptian, that, translated by Smith, would become The Book of Mormon.6 To aid him, Smith received the Urim and Thummim, devices like spectacles, which helped with the work of translation.
In Kushner’s play, Prior receives a revelation from an angel and is told to dig, not in the earth near Palmyra, but under his kitchen floor, to find the sacred Scriptures. He receives, as well, a set of special spectacles, peep-stones, to promote his visionary seeing. As with Smith, Prior’s angelic revelations are preceded by a shaft of light entering his room, and like Smith, his vision eventually includes a ladder or conduit leading up to heaven. These echoes of Mormon traditions are unmistakable even though in interviews Kushner has rightly insisted that the angel is not Smith’s angel, but Prior’s, emphasizing the way in which various histories, narratives, and cultural templates inform Kushner’s text but are altered by it.7 Prior, as I will discuss more fully below, does not follow in Smith’s footsteps and obey his angel. In fact, he ultimately refuses her commands, returns the sacred tablets to heaven, and insists on a mission not fueled by a divine imperative.
Something Hannah Pitt, the mother of Joe, tells Prior when he is hospitalized provides an unusual and interesting perspective on the play’s insistent angelology as well as on Prior’s actions. Hannah connects angels to human desire. As she says, “Our prophet. His desire made prayer. His prayer made an angel. The angel was real. I believe that” (Perestroika IV. vi, 235), but Hannah’s genealogy of angels undoes their sacred status. “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” (Perestroika IV.vi, 237). That is exactly, I will argue, what Prior does in turning his back on the angel of his revelation.
The citation of Mormon history and of its place in a larger American history is explored most explicitly, however, in the key scene in Perestroika in which Harper Pitt, Joe Pitt’s wife, talks with Prior while they are seated in front of the diorama at the Mormon Visitors’ Center on Broadway in New York City. The diorama represents the last stage of the great Mormon trek from Missouri west to Salt Lake City, and as such is a rendition of perhaps the most storied event in Mormon history. A voiceover intones, “In 1847, across fifteen hundred miles of frontier wilderness, braving mountain blizzards, desert storms, and renegade Indians, the first Mormon wagon trains made their difficult way toward the Kingdom of God” (Perestroika III.iii, 194). The diorama shows a father, his wife, their daughter and two sons perched on a wagon against a backdrop of the desert. Eerily, the Mormon father is personated by the actor playing Joe Pitt, collapsing the present into the past, interpolating Joe (and by extension his wife) into a vision of Mormon propriety and godly purpose.
But the story of the Mormon trek to the new Zion does not unfold as it should. In part, the machinery in the diorama malfunctions, speeding up and slowing down unpredictably; more importantly, whatever the mannequins say is undermined by the cynical commentary of Harper, Joe’s wife’s, creating a counter-narrative, voicing what the “official” archive excludes. She notes, for example, that the mother and the sister have no lines, only the father and his sons, and she repeatedly suggests that the idealizations of the story are just that. When a son asks: “Will there be lots to eat there, Father? Will the desert flow with milk and honey?” Harper interjects: “No. Just sand.” When the son asks, “Will there be water there?” she says, “Oh, there’s a big lake but it’s salt, that’s the joke, 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!” (Perestroika III.iii.p, 196). A key myth of Mormon historical self-representation is corroded by Harper’s debunking of its premises. And yet, for the month that Joe is living with Louis, the Mormon Visitors’ Center remains Harper’s virtual home. Not believing any longer in the telos and promise of Mormon history, she nonetheless stares doggedly at the diorama as it plays and replays its narrative, while the detritus of Dorito bags and soda cans piles up at her feet.
How to be free of the grip of a history that paralyzes and hurts you but keeps you deeply in its thrall? That seems in part to be the problem Kushner is thinking through in his citation and queering of the story of the Mormon trek westward, and in the diorama scene Harper finally gets help from the silenced part of Mormon history, the story of the Mormon mother who gets no lines in the diorama, but is addressed directly by Harper: “Bitter lady of the Plains, talk to me. Tell me what to do.” The Mother in the diorama stands and leaves the stage, beckoning for Harper to follow. But Harper says: “I’m stuck. My heart’s an anchor.” To which the Mother replies: “Leave it, then. Can’t carry no extra weight” (Perestroika III.iii, 201). Harper goes to sit on the wagon the Mormon Mother has abandoned, as if to try on the position that seat implies, only then rising to follow the Mother who leads her to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and reads her a lesson on the possibility of change, a process so painful that the Mormon mother says it is as if your innards get yanked out and then stuffed back into your split skin (Perestroika III.vi.p. 211). Getting off the wagon train of history—in this case the view of history encoded in Mormon belief—in order to forge a new history is a process both violent and painful. We may call this progress, or perhaps only call it change, but there’s nothing either beautiful or inevitable about it.
In Angels in America, both of the Mormon women, Harper and Hannah Pitt, enact this painful process of change. Hannah leaves the safety of Salt Lake City, reversing the Mormon trek, to help her homosexual son, Joe, and then, when he rejects her help, she creates a new family among those not of her blood or her religion: Prior, Louis, and Belize, a black male nurse. Harper finally walks out of the script of the Mormon wife, leaving Joe, and heading west, not on a wagon train headed for Salt Lake City, but on an airplane headed for San Francisco. Each woman has lived through a rupture, a great break with the histories they have known and inhabited, and while this rupture is dramatized as part of a personal narrative, it is also emblematic of the queer and querying relationship to history that the play repeatedly enacts. The women, perhaps because they are not the heroines of the diorama, have the courage to swerve away from the sectarian histories in which their destinies are inscribed and to insert themselves into new histories. Painfully, each woman finds her way away from Salt Lake City and away from the teleological vision of an Elect nation planting a new Zion in the American wilderness. Geography emblematizes the new histories of which each would be a part. They end up single and uncoupled in the great coastal, cosmopolitan and gay cities of San Francisco and New York.
By contrast, Joe Pitt, the central figure in the diorama’s vision of Mormon history, never entirely frees himself from the Mormon narrative that has repressed his sexuality and caused him to embrace a self-wounding Republican rectitude that, we infer, has caused his bleeding ulcer. Made sick by a history he internalizes, he nonetheless remains true to his Mormon heritage, innocently susceptible to the political ideas of his second father, Roy Cohn, and closed to the alternative possibilities evoked by Louis, briefly his gay lover. Joe can’t change. The Mormon narrative of a people apart, progressing through adversity to the New Zion, straightjackets him. Despite his obvious respect for his Mormon characters, Kushner’s treatment of Joe Pitt is the play’s most powerful indictment of a peculiarly American understanding of history, one given powerful and dangerous affirmation in the years of Ronald Reagan’s Presidency when Kushner was writing this play, years in which Reagan renewed the rhetoric of America as an Elect nation, a city on a hill, a beacon and moral example to the world.
II. Jacob’s Angel
Gustav Doré, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1855)
One of the amazing and difficult things about Kushner’s play, however, is how it layers one history on top of another to create something new. The angel that crashes through Prior’s ceiling is not only a memory trace of the angel Moroni; it’s also, simultaneously, the angel (in the Bible called a man, but most often in commentary called an angel) with whom Jacob wrestled as he left the land of his father-in-law, Laban, and returned to the land of his father, Isaac, and his brother, Esau, in the book of Genesis. On this journey, an angel came to Jacob at night, and Jacob wrestled with him, as Prior wrestles with his angel, and Jacob would not let go of the angel, even though he received a wound in his thigh, until he received the angel’s blessing (Genesis 32: 25-26). The angel finally concedes that Jacob has prevailed, and he blesses him and gives him a new name: Israel. Again, Kushner plants details in his play that deliberately cue the audience to the relevance of the Genesis story to Prior’s situation. Prior is told by Hannah Pitt to wrestle with the angel, and he does, crying, “I will not let thee go except thou bless me” (Perestroika v.i., 251). In the struggle, the Angel pulls a muscle in her thigh, while Prior, whose leg has been hurting for months, walks with a cane throughout the later part of the play.
In interviews, Kushner has said that his meditations on the Jacob story were influenced by Harold Bloom’s account of this figure in his commentary on The Book of J. There, Bloom speaks of Jacob as a figure of struggle, suffering, and trickery. Jacob fought with his brother Esau in the womb, defrauded Esau of his father’s blessing, through sharp practice won the better part of his father-in-law, Laban’s, sheep, and wrung from the angel a second blessing on the eve of his reunion with his brother after twenty years of living in the land of Laban. As Bloom suggests, “His lifelong agony to receive and secure the Blessing is the source of his fascination.”8 But what is this blessing? Literally it translates as “more life,” the words which Prior himself speaks to the theater audience at the end of Perestroika as he stands by the Bethesda Fountain. In Jewish tradition, this is sometimes taken to mean more progeny. Jacob, after all, had many sons, and he gave his name to a people: the Israelites. Prior has no progeny; in this he is very unlike Jacob. But Bloom discusses what else “more life” can mean in the particular context of Jacob’s story. For Bloom, the Blessing is extracted from a very particular angel, the angel of death, on the night when Jacob fears he will be killed by his brother’s forces the next day. What Jacob wins from the angel, by his persistence, is the right to cross over the river Jabbok into the land of his fathers and to survive there, though lame in his hip and weighed down by the loss of his wife Rachel. As Bloom says, “what matters is that this lifelong struggler indeed held out,” (Bloom 1990, 219) which is what Prior, the AIDS survivor, does, though not as the progenitor of a race or nation, but as someone who persists, though wounded, and who makes something new from the shards of his old life.
Prior, then, who is neither Mormon nor Jewish, is the figure where two histories meet: the Mormon story of the angel Moroni’s revelation to Joseph Smith of the destiny of the Mormon people to found a new Zion in Utah; and the Jewish story of the blessing bestowed on the Old Testament patriarch, Jacob, which promises that he will survive and be the progenitor of a chosen people. While the stories of Mormon and Jew are hardly the same story, Kushner’s play shows a moment of convergence in the belief in special revelation, in chosen-ness. Prior reconfigures both histories. Prophet without progeny, the founder of no race or religion, but, indeed, their confounder, he is used to critique histories of election and exclusion.
Kushner, himself both Jewish and homosexual, makes the treatment of Jewish history in Angels in America especially complex. Millennium Approaches opens with the funeral of the Jewish immigrant, Sarah Ironson, grandmother of Louis, who, in the aged rabbi’s account, was a survivor like Jacob; Perestroika ends with a debate at the Bethesda fountain in Central Park about the present actions of the modern-day state of Israel. Angels in America, then, is literally bookended by episodes that recall the histories of victimhood, wandering, and modern nation building of the children of Israel. Of Sarah Ironson, the rabbi says that Jews like her “crossed the ocean...[and] brought with us to America the villages of Russia and Lithuania…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” (Millennium Approaches, I.i, 16). This is one version of the story of Jews in America, a story of perpetual difference and refusal of assimilation.
Scene II of Millennium, by contrast, takes us to the law offices of Roy Cohn, a different kind of Jew, at home in the wheeling-dealing world of Washington’s Reaganite politics, a world to which he would like to introduce his young Mormon protégé. Much has been written about Kushner’s treatment of Roy Cohn, and about the ambivalence with which the play presents his corruption and his charisma. It has been argued that his horrible death from AIDS perpetuates stereotypes about the link between Jews and sexual perversion, and it has been argued that his drive for power and for life counter other stereotypes of the Jew as ineffectual and effeminate.9 In my view Kushner’s ambivalence about Cohn, though real, is firmly resolved in the play by Kushner’s refusal to make Cohn into a monster, but instead to make him a human being of enormous vulgar energy whose political positions must be firmly repudiated.
The juxtaposition of Sarah Ironson and Roy Cohn suggests several things about Jews in America: first, that they are not all the same and that their histories in America are not one indivisible history; moreover, running down the spine of both of Kushner’s plays is a semi-comic and also deadly serious haunting of the dying Roy Cohn by the ghost of another Jew, Ethel Rosenberg. If Roy has something of Jacob’s persistence, struggling and fighting to stay alive and determined to conceal from the world the fact that he has AIDS, Ethel has a different kind of persistence. Roy saw her to the electric chair, but she sees him both to his death and to his disbarment. Slipping from his hospital room, she takes the train up to Yonkers to see how the hearings are going and is the first to bring Roy the news that he will die disbarred. The bonds of a shared cultural and religious heritage cannot erase the differences between these characters. When Roy finally dies, Louis, urged on by Belize, says Kaddish over Roy’s body, the words fed to him by the invisible presence of Ethel by his side. It’s a potentially sentimental moment, the three main Jews of the narrative—Louis, Ethel, and Roy––are united by a religious ritual, but the sentimentality is immediately countered. Ethel and then Louis end the ceremony by intoning, “You sonofabitch” (Perestroika V.iii, 257).
Ethel Rosenberg, of course, as an earnest supporter of the Communist party, had tried to shape an America quite different from Cohn’s, and her presence at Roy’s deathbed fills her with a strange sort of excitement and intensity that hint at more than the settling of a private score. In her view, Roy’s death will coincide with an historical cataclysm. When Roy says he has “forced [his] way into history” and “ain’t never gonna die,” Ethel replies that “History is about to crack wide open. Millennium approaches” (The Millenium Approaches, 118), implying that what counts as history is about to be changed, the past blown up, a new age installed, one in which Cohn’s role in history will be obliterated or discredited. The play constantly teases the viewer with the possibility that Ethel might be right: that the politics embodied in Roy Cohn can be absolutely defeated; that perestroika will change the history of the world; that reviled peoples will find acceptance and a way to live in peace with their neighbors; that virtue will triumph over evil. This possibility of a radical and utopian cracking open of history is constantly insinuated, yet it is also the vision of history most insistently and skeptically queried over the two-part course of Kushner’s epic drama.
III. Benjamin’s Angel of History
Paul Klee, Angelus Novus (1920)
To consider the millennial possibility critically, it is necessary now to turn to Walter Benjamin and his famous discussion of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus.Benjamin is not named in Kushner’s play, but his ideas are a force in it, as is his famous account of Klee’s angel portrait. Benjamin was, of course, both a Jew and a Marxist, and he wrote works of philosophy and aesthetic theory in the terrible time that was Nazi Germany. In 1940, he committed suicide while trying to escape to America from occupied France. His thoughts on history are given their most concise expression in his late work, “On the Concept of History,” written in part as a protest against the ineffectuality of the Social Democrats in combating Fascism. In this difficult and elliptical work he lays out his view of history, including his critique of the idea of progress and his dissatisfaction with normative history since, in his view, such history always sympathizes with the victors and benefits those who currently rule.10 But in the middle of the essay Benjamin also claims that every generation has “a weak Messianic power,” that is, an ability to connect with the past differently, outside the normative continuum of victors’ history (Benjamin 2001, 390). That connection occurs in moments when the past flashes up imagistically, allowing some to make what Benjamin calls “the tiger’s leap into the past” (395), a leap that allows the future to be imagined differently and the present defamiliarized so that it loses its aura of inevitability. In such moments, when the continuum of history explodes, revolution is possible. As many commentators have noted, Benjamin’s mystical Messianism substitutes a revolutionary prophet for a revolutionary party, and while evoking class struggle, does so in terms of image, memory, and experience, not political forms.11 This is important, I think, for understanding the limits of Benjamin’s politics, and also bears on the question of what art can do, including a play such as Angels in America, in moments of political and social emergency.
A key passage from “On the Concept of History,” and one of particular importance for Kushner’s play, involves a picture of Paul Klee’s described by Benjamin in the following way:
There is a picture by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at 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 and has got caught in its wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm (392).
The clearest thing about this passage is the writer’s critique of the idea of progress and of the carnage (including the atrocities of the Nazis) created by a mindless dedication to this ideology. The angel of history here is helpless: staring with horrified eyes at the carnage of the past, the angel can not control its own fate, turn its face to the future, repair past damage. Its desire is “to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed,” but this desire is rendered impossible. Whether the angel’s desire to restore a past wholeness is admirable, of course, remains an open question.
To the extent that Kushner in Angels engages with Benjamin, the play takes a complicated stance toward Benjamin’s theses and particularly toward his description of the angel of history. The representation of several characters in Angels deliberately recalls aspects of “On the Concept of History.” Ethel Rosenberg, true to her revolutionary heritage, does so most directly, in her prophecy that “History is about to crack wide open.” And Harper, sitting among the detritus of Dorito bags and Coke cans, the flotsam of human progress, staring hypnotically at a certain image of the past, the Mormon trek, registers the pained shock of Benjamin’s angel, facing backward and impaled by a force he can’t control. Importantly, of course, Harper does not stay impaled, but, as I have suggested, makes her own break with the continuum of history and painfully faces toward a different future. She enacts in miniature and in personal terms something like a revolutionary break with the past. But of Klee’s angel itself, the one who cannot turn, Kushner has said in interviews that that angel is a reactionary force, and she, I believe, is one of his models for Prior’s angel. According to Kushner, swept along by progress, “The Angel of History wants to go back and restore what has been destroyed. But the winds of time are inevitably blowing her forward.”12 The playwright seems to feel that neither stasis nor a politics of restoration is a viable political option, but neither is being blown about wildly by unregulated forces of change. So firmly, however, does Kushner’s play repudiate nostalgia and restoration that Kushner has been himself accused of embracing ideologies of progress and liberal reform and of repudiating Benjamin’s revolutionary idealism.13 I think this is too simple, and to discuss this problem further and to come to some conclusions about the relationship of Kushner’s angels to his vision of America’s history and its future, it is time, finally, to turn to Prior’s angel.
IV. Prior’s Angel
In Prior, as we have seen, several of the play’s historical vectors converge and comment on one another. His name evokes the prior or former Walter, Walter Benjamin; his experience evokes both the Mormon and Jewish origin stories: Joseph Smith and Jacobs' pivotal encounters with their angels. But Prior himself is neither Jew nor Mormon nor Marxist, but a Christian with an extremely long British/American pedigree stretching back to at least the 13th century. Among the spirits who haunt him are two of his ancestors, a 13th century farmer from Yorkshire and a 17th century Londoner. With this lineage, he should be the unmarked American insider, the one who belongs, the one not marked by ethnicity, race, or religion as marginal or eccentric. But marked he is, both by his sexuality which, we infer, means that the unbroken succession of Walters will cease with him, and marked by his disease, the wine-dark lesions that spread across his body. The disease links Prior to Roy Cohn and to all the other persons with AIDS, forging new paths of non-familial interconnection, but it is the disease, the play suggests, that also makes Prior the object of angelic visitation.
When, in The Millennium Approaches, Prior first has intimations of an impending supernatural event, he is both terrified and erotically aroused, and the theater audience is as unsure as he about what the event presages. Is the disease affecting his brain? Is he about to die? Is he the unlikely conduit for a divine revelation? Part I does not answer these questions. It ends with the Angel’s words:
The Great Work beings:
The Messenger has arrived.
Sitting in the audience at one of the first New York performances of the play, neither I nor a great many others really knew if Prior had died, whether like one of Walter Benjamin’s revolutionary souls, he was seeing history explode before him, or whether, like Jacob or Joseph Smith, he was about to become the leader of a new nation or religion. Terrifying and exhilarating, the theatrical moment ambiguously gestured toward a world extinguished or a world transformed.
The second play, Perestroika, reveals the disappointing reality that often emerges in the wake of millennial hopes. It is a post-millenial play, but not, I would argue, a dystopic one, though it quite firmly seems to put paid to the idea of political revolution, at least in 1990s America. Prior is still sick; the world has not been transformed; and Prior has still fully to understand just what his particular angel wants from him. Eventually she instructs him; his mission as a prophet to the nations is to command a halt to mixing, mingling, traveling, and questing. He is to preach the doctrine of stasis and immobility. In explaining this mission, the angel says that God has abandoned his angels and abandoned heaven because God has become enthralled with his own creation, Protean humanity, and its restless drive toward change. In what I consider to be a key moment in the text, Prior refuses to accept the angel’s mission, and, by implication, her negative view of change. In so doing, he repudiates, first, the idea that all calls to election must be answered; some must and should be refused. He also repudiates a historical vision that is mainly restorative in nature, that looks backward to a lost moment of plenitude rather than forward to an indeterminate but living future; and he repudiates the consolations of Christian transcendence. Prior refuses to die and to be at peace. Instead, he demands to return to earth and to receive “the Blessing” for this choice.
Alisa Solomon has convincingly argued that in making this decision, Prior here manifests values often associated with a Jewish tradition of thought in that he chooses ethical human conduct on earth as the ultimate test and goal, turning from the redemptive, other-worldly ideologies of Christianity.14 I agree with Solomon, seeing Prior’s choice as another example within the play of traditions and histories being queried, queered, and transformed by other traditions and histories. Simply put, Christian transcendence is queried and transformed by Jewish embodiment and worldliness. Prior ends the play as something other than the blue-blooded, 34th descendent of the Walter lineage. In turning his face toward the world, Prior embraces a different family, a hybrid community composed of those linked not primarily by lineage or religion but by values, politics, and historical contingency. At its heart, Angels in America is a profoundly anti-genealogical play. It repudiates the narratives of privilege that come from being born into a particular race or lineage. This is as true for the Anglo-Saxons whose ancestors were stitched into the Bayeux Tapestry as for the Jews or the Mormons. As I have indicated, Kushner’s present America is haunted by images from the past: Ethel Rosenberg’s execution, the Mormon trek and Joseph Smith’s revelation, Sarah Ironside’s immigration journey, Ray Cohn’s homophobia, the English origins and New England sea-faring past of Prior’s ancestors. These iconic moments crosscut, critique, and interrogate one another, especially as they put Mormon and Jewish ideologies of “chosenness” in conversation, and as they use homosexuality to query the histories that privilege biological, racial, or religious lineage.
The play’s repudiation of nostalgia, however, extends beyond its refusal to embrace the angels’ dream of stasis and restoration to its treatment of a certain kind of entrenched, inflexible Marxism. If the angels want to go back to a time before God abandoned heaven, some Marxists want to go back to the theoretical purity of a pre-Perestroika world. In a short scene frequently left out of stage productions of Perestroika, but which in the script actually begins that play,an ancient Marxist, described as “unimaginably old and totally blind” (Perestroika I.i., 147), rages against the reformers who work for social change without having a “Beautiful Theory” (148) to justify their actions. Without a theory, he asserts, “we dare not, we cannot, we MUST NOT move ahead” (p. 149). This ridiculous figure with his satiric name, Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, is a satiric send-up of the nostalgic revolutionary.
But while the play repudiates nostalgic politics, it does embrace a visionary orientation toward the future, but one incredibly chastened and stripped of ideologies of election and choice. With its insistence that there are angels in America, Kushner affirms visionary seeing as part of American radical histories. Within the fiction of the play, Prior’s angelic visitations are real––as real as the angel Moroni that came to Joseph Smith and, in another land, as an angel came to Jacob. Kushner seems to affirm, as well, the possibility that change can arise from such seeing. Just as Harper, the other figure uncannily attuned to the spirit world, chooses to repudiate her place in Mormon history after conversation with the Mormon mother in the historical diorama, so Prior embraces a new life. Crucially, he does not return to his old history with Louis, the man who left him when his wine-dark lesions came. He forges new bonds, as, for example, with Hannah Pitt, the Mormon mother of Joe Pitt, and he affirms, in the play’s closing lines, that there will be a future time in America in which all people marked by AIDS and marked by other histories of marginalization will be citizens. This is part of the Great Work to come, and it is a goal disdained as merely “liberal politics” primarily by those whose citizenship has never been in question.
Embracing, then, the possibility of historical and personal change that are part of Benjamin and Rosenberg’s legacy, Angels in America remains modest in its intimations about the form such change will take or how it will come about. Part of the play’s historical genealogy in the moment of AIDS and of perestroika, is a hesitancy, for example, about the adequacy of traditional Marxism to offer a blueprint for the future.15 Does this mean that, as some have argued, Kushner turns away from a praxis and an ideology of Marxist revolution only to go back to what Benjamin found so pernicious, that is, an Enlightenment narrative of progress? I think it is important to recognize that like all the other historical narratives entertained in Angels, the narrative of progress is queried and transformed in the play under the dialectical pressure of other narratives. Angels insists on the necessity for change and movement, for taking political account of new realities like AIDS and social oppressions not directly linked to class, but it is tentative about the shape of––or the inevitability of––more progressive political and social structures. While the legacies of Benjamin and Rosenberg are present in the play and fuel its chastened activist vision, neither fully provides the blueprint for contemporary political action. At best, as Harper, one of the play’s visionaries put it, “In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead. At least I think that’s so” (V.x, 275). A painful kind of progress, tentative and uncertain, taking shape between memory and hope: that is one of the play’s most optimistic and yet modest articulations of future possibility.
V. The Bethesda Angel
Another such moment occurs in the epilogue in which Prior and his friends, four years after the events of the play proper, gather in winter at the fountain of the Bethesda Angel in Central Park. As many have noted, these friends represent the new non-biological, cross-racial American family and polity. There is a Jew, a Black, a Mormon, an Anglo-Saxon, a female, and three males––three homosexuals and at least one formerly married person. They stand in front of the fountain, its water shut off for the season, above which towers the beautiful features of the Bethseda angel. We are told earlier in the play that the statue was erected to commemorate the navel dead in the Civil War, making it a part of America’s complicated history of slavery and racism (Perestroika IV.iii. 226). But the angel is inscribed in many histories. It is linked also to the history of the Jews. As Louis says: “she was this angel, she landed in the Temple square in Jerusalem, in the days of the Second Temple, right in the middle of a working day she descended and just her foot touched the earth. And where it did, a foundation shot up from the ground. When the Romans destroyed the Temple, the fountain of Bethesda ran dry” (279). The fountain had special healing properties, and at the Millennium, not the year 2000, but, as Prior says, “the Capital M Millennium,” the fountain will flow again, and Hannah and Prior will go there together to bathe and be healed.
The Bethesda Angel is a symbol of hope and the creation of many people’s desire. As Hannah said earlier, “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” (Perestroika IV.vi, 237). This angel represents a dream of healing to persons with AIDS. The angel also represents a dream of restored community to many Jews. In the epilogue, simply titled “Bethesda,” Louis, however, queries whether at the Millennium the restored fountain will literally spring up in the actual Jerusalem, focus, as it is, of contested political claims. As the play draws to its close, behind Prior one hears the voices of Belize and Louis and Hannah debating the propriety of Israeli statehood and the rights of the Palestinians.
It is perhaps fitting, therefore, that the play’s final image of the Bethesda Angel is firmly rooted in Central Park, in New York City. This Bethesda angel is a New York reality, a landmark, a gathering spot, a thing of beauty (Image 4). It represents a place where new communities can form, communities of difference, not of sameness, communities whose members are often far from their imagined “home.” This angel becomes a symbol within Angels in America of the reality and the promise of diaspora, of the promise of “more life” that comes to those––often those most deeply wounded by history––who give up the dream of election, who step down from the wagon train of a certain historical narrative and live freely with others not of their own kind. It is here, I think, that what has been termed Kushner’s liberal vision of a multi-cultural America emerges as a powerful and important alternative to death-dealing narratives of election and of racial, national, and religious purity. It is with this Bethesda Angel as a backdrop that Prior steps out of the frame of the play, like Prospero at the end of The Tempest, to speak to the audience.
You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.
And I bless you: More Life.
The Great Work Begins.
No more than at the end of Millennium Approaches does the audience know exactly what the Great Work is or how it is to be enacted. It has something, surely, to do with the creation of a more just society, which is, in the end, part of the American dream, but a dream often married by racism, homophobia, and ideologies of election. How to realize the dream more perfectly, and not just for America, and how to change it into an inclusive dream, is the burden Kushner here passes, in a self-consciously Shakespearean moment, from his characters to the audience. With Prior’s final line, “the Great Work begins,” Kushner challenges his audiences to renewed and refashioned political engagement. In that regard, as he himself has often said, in writing Angels he was self-consciously attempting to revive Brechtian epic theater for a contemporary moment.16 Partly this meant a serious engagement with history as a way of disrupting a sense of historical inevitability and opening audiences to the possibility of change.
I want to end, however, by stressing that, above all, Prior’s angel is a theatrical angel, a creature of flesh and blood dressed up in a costume. Not a supernatural force, the angel embodies the earthly hopes of the human imagination using art to create new histories and new possibilities. Part of the audacity of Angels in America lies in the very fact that it features an angel on the stage, an angel that has to crash through ceilings, that has to fly, that has to wrestle, convincingly, with another human actor. To make the angel “work” is one of the hardest parts of staging the play, and Kushner has spoken often of the way the angel’s presence must rekindle the magic of theater, even while revealing the wires and the technology that create that magic. In Ellen McLaughlin, his first stage angel, and in Emma Thompson, the angel of the television version, Kushner had two memorable enactments of this astonishing stage character, a figure that at once invites amazement and detachment, conjures up the magic of the theater and the supernatural and simultaneously puts pressure on a naïve belief in either. Kushner’s theatrical angels are now part of a new archive of angels in America. They are central to Kushner’s “gay fantasia on national themes” and central to his belief in the power of theater to recall us to the great earthly work of re-imagining our political life, in America and in the world, now.
Jean Howard’s books include Shakespeare's Art of Orchestration (1984); Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, edited with Marion O'Connor (1987); The Stage and Struggle in Early Modern England (1994); with Phyllis Rackin, Engendering a Nation: A Feminist Account of Shakespeare's English Histories (1997); Marxist Shakespeares, edited with Scott Shershow (2000); and four generically organized Companions to Shakespeare, edited with Richard Dutton (2001). She is a co-editor of The Norton Shakespeare (2nd ed. 2007) and General Editor of the Bedford Contextual Editions of Shakespeare. Her most recent book, entitled Theater of a City: The Places of London Comedy 1598-1642 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007) won the Barnard Hewitt Award for Outstanding Work in Theater History for 2008. She is currently working on a book on the contemporary feminist dramatist Caryl Churchill and another book on the development of Renaissance tragedy. She is a member of the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, a Senator of Phi Beta Kappa, and co-coordinator of a forthcoming issue of PMLA on tragedy.
1 All references to both part of Kushner, Tony. 1995. Angels in America, Millenium Approaches and Perestroika, are taken from Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. New York: Theatre Communications Group.
2 In Kushner, Tony and Robert Vorlicky. 1998. Tony Kushner in Conversation, ed. Robert Vorlicky, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, pp. 18-19, Kushner says that he wanted his play to bring the words “gay” and “national’ into conjunction as a way of moving beyond the gay liberation themes and relationship issues of plays from the 60s and 70s and to focus on more explicitly political matters.
3 An archive is not just a repository of objects, but, more importantly, the process of selecting them-- bringing some things to light, obscuring others, establishing connections through juxtaposition or rules of order. See Foucault, Michel. 1972. The Archeology of Knowledge and the Discourse of Language. New York: Pantheon; Derrida, Jacques. 1998. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Okwui Enwezor. 2008. Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art. Gettingen, Germany: Steidl Publishers. I argue that Kushner uses his play to collect angel lore into a new archival assemblage that queries the discrete histories to which the angels have been attached, providing openings to a refigured future.
4 See, in particular, the excellent and provocative essay by Savran, David. 1997. “Ambivalence, Utopia, and A Queer Sort of Materialism: How Angels in America Reconstructs the Nation,” in Approaching the Millennium: Essays on Angels in America. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, pp. 13-39. Savran claims that Kushner is committed to a liberal politics that uses the same rhetoric of American exceptionalism employed by Ronald Reagan.
5 Vorlicky, Ed., Tony Kushner in Conversation, pp. 24-25.
6 Bushman, Richard. 1984. Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism. Urbana: University of Chicago Press, pp. 61-64.
7 Vorlicky, Ed., Tony Kushner in Conversation, p. 26.
8 Bloom, Harold. 1990. The Book of J, trans. David Rosenberg. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, p. 210.
9 David Roman, for example, in “November 1, 1992:AIDS/Angels in America” in Approaching the Millenium, Eds. Geis and Krugers, p. 40-55 at 53, argues that Cohn’s death thematizes “the expulsion of evil;” while Michael Caddon, “Strange Angel: The Pinklisting of Roy Cohn,” in the same volume, pp. 78-89, also points up the outpouring of homophobia that followed Cohn’s death. Freedman, Jonathan. 1998. “Angels, Monsters, and Jews: Intersections of Queer and Jewish Identity in Kushner’s Angels in America,” PMLA 113 (January): 90-102, argues that Kushner finally affirms a Christian-centered culture and abandons Jewish difference in his struggle to eliminate Cohn from both the narrative of Angels in America and from the queer national community Kushner fashions at the end of the play. This last is a view I wish to challenge.
10 Benjamin, Walter. 2003. “On the Concept of History,” Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 4. trans. Edmund Jephcott. Ed. Howard Eiland and Michale W. Jennings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 391.
11 Eagleton, Terry. 1981. Walter Benjamin or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism. London: Verso, pp. 176-77.
12 Tony Kushner, Tony Kushner in Conversation, Ed. Robert Vorlicky. p. 57.
13 See Savron, David. 1995. “Ambivalence, Utopia, and A Queer Sort of Materialism: How Angels in America Constructs the Nation,” Theatre Journal , Vol. 47, No. 2, Gay and Lesbian Queeries (May) for the most incisive critique along these lines. For the most cogent answer to Savron, see Betchel, Roger. 2001. “’A Kind of Painful Progress’: The Benjaminian Dialectics of Angels in America.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism (Fall): 99-121.
14 Solomon, Alisa. 1997. “Wrestling with Angels: A Jewish Fantasia,” Approaching the Millenium, pp. 118-33.
15 On this point see especially, Roger Betchel, “A Painful Progress,” p. 107.
16 See Kushner’s comments on the Brechtian inspiration for his play in Tony Kushner in Conversation, Ed. Robert Vorlicky, pp. 106-23.
Benjamin, Walter. 2003. “On the Concept of History,” Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 4. trans. Edmund Jephcott. Ed. Howard Eiland and Michale W. Jennings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
Betchel, Roger. 2001. “’A Kind of Painful Progress’: The Benjaminian Dialectics of Angels in America.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism (Fall):
Bloom, Harold. 1990. The Book of J, trans. David Rosenberg. New York: Grove Weidenfeld
Bushman, Richard. 1984. Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism. Urbana: University of Chicago Press
Derrida, Jacques. 1998. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Eagleton, Terry. 1981. Walter Benjamin or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism. London: Verso
Foucault, Michel. 1972. The Archeology of Knowledge and the Discourse of Language. New York: Pantheon.
Freedman, Jonathan. 1998. “Angels, Monsters, and Jews: Intersections of Queer and Jewish Identity in Kushner’s Angels in America,” PMLA 113 (January)
Kushner, Tony. 1995. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. New York: Theatre Communications Group.
Kushner Tony, and Robert Vorlicky. 1998. Tony Kushner in Conversation, ed. Robert Vorlicky, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
Okwui Enwezor. 2008. Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art. Gettingen, Germany: Steidl Publishers.
Roman, David. 1997. “November 1, 1992:AIDS/Angels in America” in Approaching the Millenium, Eds. Geis and Krugers. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
Savran, David. 1997. “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. Geis and Krugers. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
Solomon, Alisa. 1997. “Wrestling with Angels: A Jewish Fantasia,” Approaching the Millenium: Essays on Angels in America. Eds. Geis and Krugers. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.