Archive for October, 2014

Witch Hunt

Some have already mentioned who Ethel Rosenberg was: a traitor executed along with her husband for sharing American nuclear secrets with the Russians at the beginning of the Cold War. Here’s a short video on the subject, and a web page with more information.

Roy says the following line before passing away on page 247: “I just wanted to see if I could finally, finally make Ethel Rosenberg sing!” Making Ethel sing could be an euphemism for making her confess for treason, a crime that according to other sources she may have not committed but was only accused for being the traitor’s wife. Roy had become so consumed by the idea of persecution and punishment that his sense of justice was completely destroyed.

Can Roy’s attitude be compared to the way homosexuals were associated with this modern plague during the late 1980s? Should we consider this as evidence of how society splits up during times of disease, as we also observed in Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year

No doctors, all business

This is our first text where we encounter HIV/AIDS as the subject of contagion in our course. Event though I am sure we all know what HIV/AIDS is and what the distinction between the two terms are, here is a short video reminder nonetheless.

What can we say about the symbolic role of the disease in Angels in America? How can we relate the fact that the main symptom of AIDS is our body’s inability to protect itself from external threats, just like some of the characters were unable to protect themselves from the harm caused by loved ones (think Harper) or the society?

Interestingly, AIDS has been casually called the ‘gay plague’ during the initial outbreak. When we have been discussing devastating diseases thus far, part of the horror was their indiscriminate nature. Yet the HIV/AIDS epidemic at the beginning of the ’80s has demonstrated just how ugly society’s response can be when only a subset of the population is at risk, especially minorities that are already discriminated against. Here is a short video of the early AIDS news coverage, or the “GRID,” gay-related immune deficiency, as it was first called.

What happens when ‘the plague’ suddenly started choosing it’s victims? When it seemingly starts targeting what could perhaps be called the most hated minority of the time? When the disease comes alive with a taste for certain humans? 

Finally, what happens when the doctors refuse to test the blood that they know may be infected with a deadly virus for which there is no cure, simply because it might damage revenue and give the blood to haemophiliacs? To quote And the Band Played On, a great book on the epidemic: “when the doctors start acting like businessmen, who do the people turn to for doctors?” In all the books we read so far, the doctors were mostly portrayed as positive characters. What happens when we can’t rely even on the ones that are supposed to save us? Who were the respective characters in Angels in America relying on in the play? 


Ghosts and hallucinations are a recurring feature of the play. We see that Harper becomes slightly deranged (most probably as a result of her excessive pill-taking), developing an imaginary friend named “Mr. Lies” and becoming convinced that there are men with knives lurking in the shadows. Her hallucinations progress to the point where she is convinced she has travelled to Antarctica via her fridge.
Prior Walter is also subject to various apparitions (most likely due to his sickly state and the consequent medication he is placed on). Prior is visited by two Prior Walters of the past. Furthermore, he begins hearing a certain the voice of an angel and witnesses the gradual breakdown of reality around him. One should note that the “hallucinations” he has are often linked to heaven and the impending descent of the angel.
Roy is the third character that goes through a hallucination of sorts. Similar to Prior Walter, Roy sees a ghost. In his case he encounters the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg; an American citizen who, along with her husband Julius, was sentenced to death in 1953 for committing espionage by attempting to leak information regarding the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. It is made apparent that Roy had a decisive role in convicting Ethel and sentencing her to death.

In examining the role of apparition in Angels of America it is important to note the one commonality between those that are subject to the appearances of ghosts or members of the “International Order of Travel Agents”. The one factor that ties these characters together is sickness and, perhaps more importantly, the consequent medication they are prescribed. Realising that each of these characters are fairly sick, one is inclined to attribute their tendency to encounter “ghosts” to their general delirium (as a result of their illness or medication).
However, could we be too hasty and unimaginative in tying the hallucinations to sickness? The apparitions obviously hold significance. Could the world of Mr. Lies, the Angel, the prior Prior Walters, and Ethel Rosenberg symbolise a single, alternate universe? Are these ghosts “real” in the sense that they aren’t merely the product of sickness and heavy medication? The scene with Ethel Rosenberg and Roy is oddly similar to scenes in A Christmas Carol where Ebenezer Scrooge is forced to confront his past. In depicting the appearance of these ghosts, Kushner is effectively blurring the line between the real and the not.


Kushner resources

I’m repeating a post from Contagion 2012 about resources for thinking about Kushner. You can also look at the conveners’ post from 2012 and one from last spring. And here’s a clip I plan to discuss on Wednesday.

In the several years Cyrus Patell and I taught our Writing New York course on the Square, we amassed a pretty substantial number of blog posts about Kushner and Angels. They may prove useful as you continue to wrap your heads around the play in a short amount of time this week. Here are a few of the highlights:

I typically deliver two lectures on the play, one situating it in a discussion of time/history/imagination (and thoughts on the play as a period piece set in the Reagan era) and one that highlights some of the cultural building blocks Kushner recycles in the play (Mormonism, Judaism, Marxism) by way of a discussion of the play’s several angels and angelic precedents. We’ll get into some of that as we go. On the WNY course site, I’ve offered my thoughts about the play’s conclusion, in which Prior breaks the fourth wall and blesses his audience, and earlier I’d written about the ways in which the play recycles a number of stories and symbols, Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain among them. (Because that post has some links that are now dead, I had to post again on the prior use of Bethesda in Godspell.) Several years ago, a highlight of our course was a guided tour of Central Park at sunset (or a tour of the sunset with Central Park as a backdrop) with our favorite ex-NYC tour guide, Speed Levitch. I provided a more detailed account of that afternoon elsewhere. It’s only indirectly related to Kushner’s play, but still important if you want to think about the ways in which Central Park has long been contested public space, something Kushner’s certainly aware of when he selects Bethesda as the setting for his final scene. Here are a few links re: his use of Roy Cohn as a character. And here are some thoughts on the play’s place in the history of Broadway theater.

Cyrus has also offered thoughts on the play, which he has taught at NYUAD in his Cosmopolitan Imagination course. One year he supplemented my lectures with a few additional thoughts on Kushner’s use of New York City as a setting. But he’s written most extensively on the play’s engagement with cosmopolitanism (see this one, too, and this one).

Whew! That should keep even the most ardent Kushner fan busy for a while. See you soon.

Cold War, Cheeseburgers, Religion, Hallucinogen

Perestroika was a political movement for reformation within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union during 1980s, which brought on the ascendancy of Western liberal democracy through the democratization of the Kremlin under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, thus marking the end of the Cold War and a solving to the conflict between capitalism and communism. These major political changes coincided, in America, with the emergence of the AIDS epidemic, which killed over one hundred thousand people during the same decade creating among the population of the USA a strong revulsion against homosexuals, who were considered to be carriers of the disease.

In the second part of his play, Tony Kushner wants to create an image of the political, historical and ideological consequences that this AIDS contagion had and the way the promised USA democracy (which should have shown its power after the falling of the Berlin’s wall) wasn’t able to stand against it. Perestroika begins with Aleksii Antedilluvanovich’s speech, who asks a series of questions which could be read as a prelude for the action of the play, anticipating the major ideologically problems USA will confront with (even if they are spoken by a Russian, they are meaningful for America as the disappearance of USSR could be viewed as a menace for USA that any “empire” could fall):

The Great Question before us is: Are we doomed? The Great Question before us is: Will the Past release us? The Great Question before us is: Can we Change? In time? And we all desire that Change will come.” [147]


Aleksii writes out a significant portion of the convener’s post for us at the very start of the play where he begins with these wide arching questions. His ruminations next land upon cheeseburgers and market incentives which he claims have replaced theory in the world. However, as understood by him, cheeseburgers and market incentives fail at replacing the purpose of theory which was (arguably) to make better sense of the world we live in. Later in the story this can be compared to placebos as replacements for medicine.

The replacement can be identified as a change and to overcome this change, requires more change. Returning to the previous conveners’ analogy, the cure for motion sickness is more motion. Thus we as readers (and perhaps even the other characters of the play) are asked,

 “Have you, my little serpents, a new skin?”

How aware are the different characters about the issues presented at the start at different occasions in the play?


The context contained in the title of Part II ‘Perestroika’ (as explained above) itself is a wide arching exposition to situate the events in the play. The train of thought that starts after reading the title ‘Perestroika’ is interrupted by reading the title of the first act ‘Spooj’. In a similar way, the serious and moderately urgent questions of Aleksii are followed by Harper ejaculating her ideas. In a sense, the play is giving us a behind-the-scenes thumbs-up on the effect of big concepts on little people’s lives, playing with the theme that perhaps the seriousness of issues have more quirks when lived at a personal level than when navigated as an overarching whole. It may not necessarily mean that the issue becomes less serious but its manifestations emerge differently.

How can this be compared to our understanding of heroism and Camus’ attempt at correcting it?


At least two people have outstanding imagination in the play – Harper and Prior. Prior’s imagination materializes in the form of an angel. Harper meanwhile can find Antartica in her backyard and metamorphose as a beaver to pull trees down.

Remembering that they were previously husband and wife, can the hallucinations be a way for them to continue to remain in sink? How do hallucinations affect them differently?


Prior: I’m not … distracted, I’m doing research.

Harper: On Mormons?

Prior: On Angels, (insert the rest of America saying “same thing!”)… I’m an angelologist.

Mormon religion began when its founder saw an angel in his dream who directed him to the Book of Mormons.  If religion is also there to make sense of things, how do plot conflicts insinuated by religious differences affect that process?

Camilla, Simrat, Silviu, Sudikchya

Harper, Harper, Harper

The distant, quirky, pitiable character of Harper Pitt is an agoraphobe and a Valium addict. She represents the negative harm that can be inflicted on those surrounding an individual in denial of their sexual identity.Troubled by the unescapable truth that is her given reality, Harper cannot leave the house and resorts to drug-induced hallucinations.

Here is some additional information on agoraphobia and Valium to better understand her condition: 


“Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder involving anxiety and intense fear of any situation where escape may be difficult, or where help may not be available. It often involves a fear of crowds, bridges or of being outside alone.” Symptoms include not only fear of being in crowded places, but also a fear of spending time alone. (Perhaps this can explain the frequent presence of Mr.Lies.) Agoraphobics tend to be overly dependent on others (Joe), or stay at home all the time. Some feelings that people with this disorder encounter include feeling as though their body and environment are not real. (Sound like a hallucination?) 


Valium is a drug used to treat anxiety disorders, muscle spasms, and alcohol withdrawal symptoms. It contains chemicals that can cause anxiety. It is highly addictive and individuals are strongly advised not to take the drug if one has a history of mental illness, depression, suicidal thoughts, or a history of drug or alcohol addiction. Interestingly enough, it is strongly advised to be only used for short-term treatments, and to flush any unused pills down the toilet. Side effects include hallucinations, confusion, depression, and memory problems. Overdose can be fatal.

Here’s an additional link to an organization called the Straight Spouse Network, offering free support to heterosexuals with gay spouses:

Perhaps Harper would have found this helpful.



Reagan and Reaganomics

As the subtitle of this play suggests, Angels in America portrays several themes that were prevalent in the American society during the 80s and 90s. One of the conspicuous themes is politics, which is well represented in the dialogue between Louis and Belize:

Louis: But I mean in spite of all this the thing about America, I think, is that ultimately we’re different from every other nation on earth, in that, with people here of every race, we cant–Ultimately what defines us isn’t race, but politics. (Act 3 Scene 2)

The politics in this play mostly revolves around Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the US (1981-1989), famous for his distinctive economic policy. The play shows characters that are either for or against Reagan: wealthy Republicans and those like Louis who shows clear antipathy against Reagan. Understanding his economic policy, a.k.a. Reaganomics, will help elucidate this political dichotomy.

Sex and Drugs and… Religion as an Affective Influence?

Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, self-labeled as a ‘gay fantasia’ aims to provoke from the title onwards, describing itself as being a play based ‘on national themes,’ thus truly horrifying every Republican and ‘Nationalist’ that encounters the text. Kushner feels that the issues presented in the plays are representative of the themes in America at the time of writing, the late 1980s to the early 1990s. These themes will be described in this conveners post as change, religion and politics. None are unique, but few could argue that Kushner’s work is not. 

The theme of change within the play is continuous during Millennium Approaches, the part of the play duo we are considering in this post. The development of morals is something we can accept, but the ‘depressing… limitations of… imagination’ is what prevents change from occurring fully, it allows the characters to remould the world: but the world is made from the same dough, just pressed into a brand new shape. Same beast, different form.

‘When we think we’ve escaped the unbearable ordinariness… it’s really only the same old ordinariness and falseness rearranged into the appearance of novelty and truth.’– Act One, Scene Seven

The escapism in the play seems possible only with death or social acceleration, like the presentation of Roy’s career threatening freefall at any moment due to its crumbling foundations of hypocrisy. Perhaps a moralistic plot twist, but a satisfying collapse all the same.

The ways in which Kushner’s work assesses the topic of change is especially important for the reader’s of today who must live in a fast-paced, globalized world, the first signs of which were recognized by the characters of the play in the 1990s. This acknowledgment of the ‘sickness’ of modern man, is presented in this contradictory passage, where the cure to constant movement is supposed to be to continue this movement. After all ‘the only cure for motion sickness…’ is ‘to keep moving.’

 Does the play suggest feasible methods to the modern man for how to deal with this rootlessness? Does it provide a judgment on globalization or cosmopolitanism? Does the play suggest that the way America should respond to the ‘call’ of modern times is to embrace change and recognize diversity?

The theme of religion is evident, from the discussion of the neurotic Mormon, Harper, to the hardened Roy Cohn of Judaism. The distinction between the religious divides of characters is clear, two religions with clear intersections. Both religions follow commandments that clearly define their moral code: every character with a defined religion in Millennium Approaches defies a commandment, whether it be through homosexual intercourse, lies, drug addiction or hatred.

The commonality between the characters is not coincidental, Kushner masterfully creates an atmosphere in which everything lies at a point of conflict, situations which seem impossible even to the most gifted of Game Theorists. The emerging political philosophy championed by Kushner, and thus by Louis, is that of democratic optimism. Something that is not affiliated with the ‘evils’ of Republicans demonstrated throughout, and certainly could not be projected at the beginning of Millennium Approaches before one has information symmetry. The characters are unpredictable, which makes the game they play so much more dangerous: their political philosophy of democracy makes them even more so, because the decisions they make are liable to have impact on not only their lives, but the lives of the people they love. A prime example of this being the separation and the impact it has on Harper.

‘When we think we’ve escaped the unbearable ordinariness… it’s really only the same old ordinariness and falseness rearranged into the appearance of novelty and truth.’– Act Three, Scene Two 

John Sexton would be proud of Kushner’s ability to derive political statement from religious background: Mormons and Jews generally vote on opposite ends of the political spectrum, with Jews favouring the more Conservative parties, and Mormon’s either abstaining from political contest or voting for social democracy. The idea of religion as an affective influence on voting behaviour is strong in the play, not only due to the issues surrounding sexuality and religion: something acceptable within Judaism, not so within Mormonism. It is near enough a battle of wills, between religion and sexuality – the result feeding the ‘X’ on the ballot in the game of chance they are embroiled in. The lies and the conflict between their love for God, and their love for each other seem ordinary, and as disease twists the world they live in, the escape becomes a trap once more. A trap that no ‘democratic idealism’ will free them of.

‘Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a puissant antidiscrimination bill through the City Council… who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout.’– Act One, Scene Nine

The idea of sexuality as something that hinders the progression of the characters is embodied primarily through Roy, and his desperation to hide his sexual preferences even when it will be AIDS that kills him: not bigotry. His refusal to become one of the unknown, lost souls is seen as a bad thing by the other characters as he is painted as a cold, almost evil character by Kushner. Yet his success within his field is admirable, and one cannot help but like Roy. His imperfections are vivid and clear, but they make him all the more human and workable.

The conflict he faces is excruciating: his career or his life. To seek full treatment would require his honesty, not something he is willing or able to provide.   

If we consider the conflict faced by the characters in Camus, how do we define what the more difficult choices are? Who acts more rationally in the face of danger and disease?

Sex is ever-present in the play, if not in lengthy scenes, in the shadows with AIDS, HIV, separation, love… there is not a moment when the looming figure of sex is not present. It is a blight on the characters, influencing their actions: from the victimisation and infestation of Prior, the social prejudice Roy projects on his ‘peers’, the liver ‘cancer’, and Harper’s descent into addiction. 

Yet the characters do not cease their participation, much like in Pushkin’s ‘A Feast during Plague’, where despite the risk of congregation, or in the case of Angels in America, the risk of sex – the characters continue their dangerous exploits. The idea of risk is all-consuming: the cards are dealt, the poker faces are on. They play the high stakes: unprotected sex, politics, law, love. All are set to lose, but the draw of the game is too strong to avoid. The plotting referred to in the quote above is not a coincidence with the theme of risk, the reference to the inescapable battle of politics is a form of addiction, something every character experiences, whether it be an unhealthy lust or the pill popping that both preserves and destroys.

In light of Prior’s and Louis’ separation it is important to ask, whether in the play AIDS is a force that pulls people apart (as opposed to the influence of the plague in Camus’ novel) or that brings people together into a strange, almost absurd community (think of Harper’s and Prior’s shared feverish vision)? Does AIDS have a different effect on human behaviour as the previously studied disease, due to its capability of ‘permeating’ the most intimate part of human relationships? What other manifestations of disease can we find in this play, apart from the sickness of modern man, corruption and guilty conscience?

Azmyra, Laura, Maisie and Sharon

St. James Infirmary Blues

Two of many versions of “St. James Infirmary Blues,” mentioned on pp. 118 & 123 of Camus’ The Plague (Penguin Classics). The former, 1928, could have been on that gramophone. The latter, 1959, was released after “194-,” so technically it didn’t exist yet.

I went down to St. James Infirmary,
Saw my baby there,
Stretched out on a long white table,
So cold, so sweet, so bare.
Let her go, let her go, God bless her,
Wherever she may be,
She can look this wide world over,
But she’ll never find a sweet man like me.

More here.


Grand spent the entire time of the plague writing the first sentence to his novel. This project gave him purpose and distraction at a time when it was very easy to fall prey to ruminating about his wife who ran away. Interestingly his first attempt at the sentence read “On a fine morning in the month of May, an elegant woman was riding a magnificent sorrel mare through the flowered avenues of Bois de Boulogne”. Near death, he asked for his words to be burnt. But since he ended up living, he had a chance to “start again” because strangely enough, he could “remember everything” about that one sentence.

In the case that he did start over, an alternate path for his obsession with the imagery contained in that first sentence could be to attempt to convey it in six words. It would be an interesting exercise to see which words he chose to keep and which words he chose to let go off (and which new words he chose to add), bringing us closer or farther in our speculation on whether the woman in the story is his wife trotting away from his life.

The six word story is usually traced back to Ernest Hemingway although some speculate it has more ancient origins. Ernest Hemingway accepted a challenge to convey a story in six words and a success at it won him many bucks from his friends around the table. His six word story read


For Sale

Baby Shoes

Never Worn