In 2017 I spent the summer in New York as part of the RealAD. During this time, I got the chance to witness my first pride parade. We stood for around 6 hours, pacing fifth avenue to try to get better glimpses of the extravagant floats and the celebrities on them. Stakeholders of all forms had floats; politicians, TV shows, make-up companies: you name it, they probably had a float.
Back then I didn’t really understand the full scope of the “hype” around pride. I had assumed, as a girl from the Philippines, liberation and freedom was just a given in the U.S.. I mean, land of the free, right? But living in New York that summer gave me a greater depth of understanding as to why New Yorkers felt so much emotion towards pride month, towards celebrating their truth and identity. Not everyone was always “free”, after all.
I came back to New York during my junior spring study away. In 2019, New York celebrates Stonewall 50 – the 50th anniversary since the Stonewall Uprisings in the West Village. I felt the gravity of this celebration; Gay St. decked with an all-inclusive set of street signs: “Lesbian St, Bi St, Queer St.” and more succeeded the famous “Gay St.” sign. The months leading up to pride showed me how important it was for the Queer community to fight for their rights; to see how far they’ve come since 1969, and how much further they have to go for all identities to feel safe and free.
Reading Angels of America gives an insight into this even more, too. Roy Cohn’s homosexual self-hatred sheds a lot of light into the lack of acceptance in a societal and personal scale. How do you accept yourself when the people around you don’t? Roy Cohn is reflective of the force that the Stonewall Uprisings continually fought against, and the self-liberation that Stonewall seeks to encourage amongst all LGBTQ individuals.
I think Angels of America being set in New York is profound and can generate a lot of discussion about the relationship of space with identity and political landscapes. My time there shed a lot of light on the zeitgeist of desire for freedom, acceptance, and equality.
Angels opens with a funeral. The service for Louis’ grandmother has just passed and we see Louis and Prior sitting on a bench, their conversation starting from Louis’ acting “closeted” at family functions to the disappearance of their cat, ending with Prior’s great reveal of his sickness.
As an opening scene, there seems to be a hint of what lies ahead in the play when Prior says of Louis naming their cat Little Sheba, “Names are important!” Even later in this scene, when Prior reveals his “kiss of death”, the implications of it – the AIDS that lurks just faintly beneath the dark mark – is never named. When we avoid calling illness by its name, when we skirt around the issue and hide behind metaphors, what gets lost? What social stigma breeds under this cover of darkness?
Another point of interest is when Louis mentions the act of putting dirt in the grave. Everyone participates in the burial, making it a communal act. And just as Angels opens with Louis and Prior sitting on a bench in conversation, it ends with them, with the addition of Belize and Hannah, on a bench in Central Park. The Louis and the Prior at the beginning of the book are very different from the ones at the end – they have changed immensely. But the conversation has never ended. It’s even expanded with Belize and Hannah’s voices in the mix. Even if Prior doesn’t survive the winter, the community, the conversation, lives on.
For a decade before we both moved to Abu Dhabi, Cyrus Patell and I taught a course on the Square called Writing New York, for which we generated a pretty substantial amount of online content about Kushner and Angels. I’ve written a little about it elsewhere too. There are a lot of things I wish we’d had time to discuss more fully. Here are a few of the highlights.
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, too, and this). As a sidenote: in 2011 Cyrus first invited me to NYUAD to help him teach Angels; by the end of that week I had requested a teaching assignment here for the following year. We’ve never gone back.
Remember that you can always search “Angels in America” on this site and see what past Contagion students have come up with: there’s a lot of great material from conveners and augmenters. And If you really want to get hardcore, an older version of this post includes a live-tweet from the last time I lectured on this play at NYUNY in spring 2011.
As I mentioned in an earlier post about Welcome to Our Hillbrow, one way to think about contagion is to view it as a potential interpersonal connection. In many ways you can think of it as materializing our interpersonal connections. Tony Sampson, in our earliest readings of the semester, pointed to a “too much connectivity” thesis in contemporary discourse about contagion, network society, and globalization:
The proliferation of global transport networks makes this model of society susceptible to the spreading of biological diseases. Digital networks become volatile under the destructive potential of computer viruses and worms. Enhanced by the rapidity and extensity of technological networks, the spread of social conformity, political rumor, fads, fashions, gossip, and hype threatens to destabilize established political order. Likewise, financial contagions cascade through the capitalist economy, inspiring speculative bubbles, crashes, and aperiodic recessions. (Virality, 1)
Sampson resists this fear-based notion of “too much connectivity,” choosing to focus instead on the political operations of the affect (fear) that travels alongside the meme that connection places us in peril. His effort reminds me of Anthony Appiah’s work Cosmopolitanism, which tends to make the rounds at NYUAD, but it especially brings to mind a more concise version of his argument from the New York Times Magazine in 2006. Appiah offers his version of cosmopolitanism as akin to “contamination,” but without the negative meanings we typically assign that word. When it comes to culture, Appiah writes, the real problem is the reflex to “preserve” or police something like “cultural purity.” Culture just doesn’t work like that, he says:
Living cultures do not, in any case, evolve from purity into contamination; change is more a gradual transformation from one mixture to a new mixture, a process that usually takes place at some distance from rules and rulers, in the conversations that occur across cultural boundaries. Such conversations are not so much about arguments and values as about the exchange of perspectives. I don’t say that we can’t change minds, but the reasons we offer in our conversation will seldom do much to persuade others who do not share our fundamental evaluative judgments already. When we make judgments, after all, it’s rarely because we have applied well-thought-out principles to a set of facts and deduced an answer. Our efforts to justify what we have done — or what we plan to do — are typically made up after the event, rationalizations of what we have decided intuitively to do. And a good deal of what we intuitively take to be right, we take to be right just because it is what we are used to. That does not mean, however, that we cannot become accustomed to doing things differently.
He brings the term up again in conclusion:
The ideal of contamination has few exponents more eloquent than Salman Rushdie, who has insisted that the novel that occasioned his fatwa “celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelisation and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotch-potch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world.” No doubt there can be an easy and spurious utopianism of “mixture,” as there is of “purity” or “authenticity.” And yet the larger human truth is on the side of contamination — that endless process of imitation and revision.
A tenable global ethics has to temper a respect for difference with a respect for the freedom of actual human beings to make their own choices. That’s why cosmopolitans don’t insist that everyone become cosmopolitan. They know they don’t have all the answers. They’re humble enough to think that they might learn from strangers; not too humble to think that strangers can’t learn from them. Few remember what Chremes says after his “I am human” line, but it is equally suggestive: “If you’re right, I’ll do what you do. If you’re wrong, I’ll set you straight.”
Note how closely the quotation from Rushdie resembles Belize’s imagined heaven in Angels:
Belize: Hell or heaven?
[Roy indicates “Heaven” through a glance]
Belize: Like San Francisco.
Roy Cohn: A city. Good. I was worried… it’d be a garden. I hate that shit.
Belize: Mmmm. Big city. Overgrown with weeds, but flowering weeds. On every corner a wrecking crew and something new and crooked going up catty corner to that. Windows missing in every edifice like broken teeth, fierce gusts of gritty wind, and a gray high sky full of ravens.
Roy Cohn: Isaiah.
Belize: Prophet birds, Roy. Piles of trash, but lapidary like rubies and obsidian, and diamond-colored cowspit streamers in the wind. And voting booths.
Roy Cohn: And a dragon atop a golden horde.
Belize: And everyone in Balencia gowns with red corsages, and big dance palaces full of music and lights and racial impurity and gender confusion. And all the deities are creole, mulatto, brown as the mouths of rivers. Race, taste and history finally overcome. And you ain’t there.
Roy Cohn: And Heaven?
Belize: That was Heaven, Roy.
Does it make sense to think of Belize’s description as another example of the kind of cosmopolitanism Appiah describes? Does Belize’s emphasis on impurity, confusion, and mixing relate in some way to other elements of the play we’ve talked about — the decision to cast actors in multiple roles, for instance? My colleague Cyrus Patell thinks so. In a post he wrote for a course we used to teach together in New York, he offered this take on Kushner’s resonance with Appiah’s thought:
What stymies cosmopolitanism? Fundamentalism of any kind, because the fundamentalist believes that he or she has all the answers and isn’t interested in conversation. The cosmopolitan believes in the necessity of talking and being willing to have your mind changed: what is the cosmopolitan to do then when faced with someone who won’t talk and whose mind is completely made up?
But cosmopolitans need to come clean: they tend to despise the provincials as much as the provincials despite them.
The test of the true cosmopolitan is the willingness to learn from everyone: even from the fundamentalist and even from the provincial.
For me that’s the significance of Kushner’s use of Mormonism in Angels in America: they’re both fundamentalists and provincial. Kushner’s Roy Cohn insults his erstwhile protege Joe Pitt by calling him “Dumb Utah Mormon Hick Shit,” but as anti-liberal is Cohn is, I’m sure it’s a sentiment that many good liberals share despite themselves.
Joe remains a provincial at the end of the play, but his mother, Hannah, who enters the play as the archetypal out-of-towner, dragging two suitcases and lost in an outer borough — she changes. She becomes a New Yorker, a process that the film version dramatizes effectively. (Check out Meryl Streep’s fashionable hairdo above.)
But the longtime New Yorkers learn something from her as well: it’s Hannah who tells Prior about the significance of the angel of Bethesda, and Prior invokes this knowledge in the closing moments of the play — in yet another affirmation of the play’s commitment to cosmopolitanism.
I think Kushner does a good job of presenting many of his characters as human, that is to say complex and sometimes contradictory. In a play that is predicated in many ways on the clash between conservatism and progressiveness, we see a lot of compromise between the characters. For example, Hannah is a devout Mormon who is uncomfortable with homosexuality but helps and cares for Prior as a human being and begins to critically assess her own beliefs which prevents her from being easily categorized in a neat little box. Much to Prior’s frustration who exclaims ‘ I wish you would be more like your demographic profile’ (p.240).
A large part of modern political discourse can be characterized by a refusal to view people of the other side of the spectrum as complex which leads to greater polarization. There is a tendency to categorize ideas into an absolute right or absolute wrong and when we view the people who espouse those beliefs as simple manifestation of the most basic elements of these principles, we begin to categorize individuals in absolutes: people who are innately evil and those who are innately good.
Kushner challenges that notion with characters like Roy Cohn who is often repulsive but also sympathetic. Thus, even Cohn, with his lack of regard for other human beings, motivated by his greed and personal ambition at the expense of everyone else, evades a simple good and bad categorization. However, where do we draw the line? Can we and should we really disassociate individuals from their beliefs and principles, especially when we find those beliefs to be harmful and abhorrent?
In the video above, Hank Green (one half of the vlogbrothers) explains how maybe we can learn from the example of the sitcom Parks and Rec. Ron Swanson and Leslie Knope are two characters who agree on little about politics, government and pretty much everything else, but manage to cultivate a meaningful friendship. I haven’t actually seen the show but if it can offer some insight into how to navigate an increasingly politically polarized world in the age of Twitter, maybe it’s worth a shot.
The second part of Angels in America, titled “Perestroika,” refers to the economic and political changes triggered by decentralization policies incurred by Mikhail Gorbachev. As past conveners have discussed:
This policy introduced free elections in the country and created warmer relationships with the US. Yet the policy brought with it a lot of unintentional effects such as the democratization of other countries in the eastern bloc and ultimately led to the downfall of the Soviet Union.
It is through this lens that we can view the overarching themes that Kushner employs, specifically in connection to character formation, contemporary politics, and human progress. Similar to “Perestroika,” Kushner’s gay fantasia narrative, Angels in America, tells the consequential unraveling of US society concerning the AIDS epidemic. Thus, deconstruction is played out on both a macro-level and a micro-level: the approach of a new millennium and the disconnection of relationships that the new millennium embodies. “Perestroika” in many ways becomes emblematic for the change that takes place within the United States. It is not so much detailing the necessity for deconstruction to result in change, but rather that change is inevitable and that to move forward, quick adaptation is necessary.
In “Perestroika,”Kushner also embodies his own ideas on human progress. Prior is chosen by the angels as a prophet among humankind to stop migration and the destructive progress that people are making. He turns down his position, arguing that people “…can’t just stop…progress, migration, motion is modernity. It’s animate, it’s what living things do. We desire” (Kushner 275). Kushner argues through Prior that so long as people are alive they desire, and that desire leads to progress, even if it is at the price of destruction in the process:
Yet Prior gradually realizes that moving and progress are inevitable, and even necessary, for humans. Throughout the play, for instance, each character progresses emotionally. Prior and Harper gain strength from being abandoned and are able to reject or leave Louis and Joe. Joe finds the courage to come out as a homosexual to his mother and Roy. After betraying Prior and realizing he has been in a relationship with a man whose acts he abhors, Louis comes back to Prior for his forgiveness. Perhaps we should ask if individual progress represents humanity’s progress in general?
As these past conveners infer, Kushner suggests that progress is needed for growth. Moreover, the above quote and the content of “Perestroika” in a broader framework raises the question: How is progress achieved? Is it through synthesis or deconstruction? Or perhaps both?
Questions of progress and human nature are also raised in “Millennium Approaches.” Harper goes on a tangent about the ozone layer and describes it as a “pale blue halo, a gentle shimmering aureole encircling the atmosphere energizing the earth” (Kushner 16). That halo was made up of “guardian angels, hands linked [making] a spherical net, a shell of safety for life itself. But everywhere, things are collapsing, lies surfacing, systems of defense giving way” (Kushner 16). We witness this collapse in the relationships between characters such as Prior and Louis. Later, we see that this collapse leads to a series of interconnected events that result in these characters finding solace in each other’s pain and suffering. Moreover, their shared distress strengthens their relationships as seen in “Perestroika”; characters as different as Belize and Roy support each other as Belize provides Roy with companionship — no matter how hostile — and in return, Roy provides Belize with access to rare medication. Harper describes this network of suffering people as “a great net of departed souls” (Kushner 285). This conglomeration of networks, a synthesizing of relationships, evokes the notion that through coming together, not only does change happen but we are healed. At the end of the day, do we need ties to survive through change?
“Perestroika” encompasses the complete downfall of a closed network, presenting us with key implications. Earlier, in “Millennium Approaches,” Louis and Prior are in a codependent relationship; however, when Prior’s illness becomes apparent, Louis is overwhelmed and leaves. This change, like Gorbachev’s relatively minor changes, leads to a host of other effects including new experiences and relationships. Prior not only learns how to survive on his own but homes in on his spiritual connection and becomes a prophet. Prior and Louis reunite at the end of the book; although they are no longer in a romantic relationship, they have a strong bond and spend much time together. Their network, undergoing a phase change, expands to include Hannah and Belize — a network that is stronger and more supportive than it was. Perestroika dissociated the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which eventually formed either fully autonomous (Georgia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) or semi-autonomous regions (Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia). Although they have a shared history and still maintain a connection to each other, they have more agency in deciding their future because of their independence. This political transition is reflected in the character development throughout the play; people depart from their initial relationships and separate into semi-autonomous beings. The characters’ codependent habits evolve into more interactive relationships.
Past ideas of codependency and closeness had been tying down the USSR and the characters in the play; does contagion, in forcing us to leave our comfortable relationships, force us to find independence and autonomy? What degree of destruction/synthesis do we deem necessary for progress?
A painting has re-emerged, from the opening pages of Johnson’s The Ghost Map into Kushner’s Angels. Klee’s “Angelus Novus”, which Walter Benjamin described in “Theses on the Philosophy of History” as:
A Klee painting [showing] an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
The link between Angels and “Angelus” is listed in this October 2016 post by Bryan, covering Kushner’s many sources.
In The Theater of Tony Kushner, James Fisher writes, “Kushner
turned to … Benjamin’s image of the Angel of History as the guiding metaphor for
his ambitious, sweeping epic…” (54). But he also sees hope emerge from the
turbulent waters of the past and present in the play.
I find what Fisher calls “Benjamin’s conception of the ruins of history as the price of progress” (54), especially interesting because this is the second time it has come up in our readings. Why is history thought of in this way in multiple readings we have encountered on contagion? Is this a model we can apply to other texts discussed in over the semester? What theoretical tools does it offer us as a means to examine the passage of time? Are these useful? Is the image adequate?
(Here’s an essay that sounds interesting, in this regard.)
For many, especially younger generations, Roy Cohn is famous for both appearing in Kushner’s Angels in America and being one of the mentors of who would become the current US president. However, in his time and for historians, Roy Cohn is most famous for being Senator Joseph Mccarthy’s right-hand man in the investigation of suspected communists in the 50s and 60s. In the clip above, which is a trailer to a documentary released in 2019 called “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”, gives insight into this infamous individual and the things that made him who he was. For many, he was the epitome of evil and a highly enigmatic man, and for Kushner, a victim of his own prejudices. The side most people didn’t know about him but came to light after his death and takes to Kushner’s play was his apparent homosexuality. Dying of AIDS in the 80s, Roy Cohn’s secret life became a topic of interest. In the play, Cohn hides his true diagnosis, revealing to everyone he was dying of lung cancer instead, to not reveal his sexual orientation. Moreover, in the play, the ghost that constantly haunts him, Ethel Rosenberg, was, in reality, one of the apparent spies he sends to death and the most famous one due to being executed without any physical evidence of her involvement with the soviets. This appearance kind of highlights this character’s apparent guilt to this execution but in real life, there’s no evidence proving that the real Cohn felt this way. In modern times, due to his close relationship with Trump, interest in him has grown again as proved by this documentary. Yet, the same questions remain about this enigmatic individual, questions still asked over 30 years after his death.
Taking a break from the conversations of theme and politics in Angels in America, let’s talk about the complexities of the mechanics and manpower which goes into the actual execution of such a play as Angels in America. Plays need entire crews to make sure everything goes correctly, and especially in modern theater, where technical feats are more and more common, and in a play such as Angels in America where scenes are various and complex, actors play multiple characters, and people are strung up on harnesses to fly, it takes a whole village to create this seven-hour illusion. This video from the National Theater shows the people behind the scenes who prepare the set, costumes, sound, and everything else needed for the play, they not only prepare the stage before the play begins, but they also completely alter it during the two-hour turn around time between Parts 1 and 2, Millennium and Perestroika. “One tip I would say is preparation, you need to plan whilst the other show is ending what you need to do in order for the second show to be up and running.” Tess Dacre a sound manager says in the video, highlighting the need to intense preparation and planning before, and during the the performance. This video gives just some insight into the work that the large and skilled crew do to create the long and incredible production.