Archive for December, 2020

Final Project: The Play-gue Podcast.

Hi everyone,

Here is a link to the podcast Leanne and I did for the final project. It goes over all the plays we’ve encountered this semester in chronological order, and we talked about some nifty stuff you might enjoy.

Cheers, and stay safe!

Podcast – Isolation, Connection and everything in between

Hi everyone! We are making our last post of the semester to present our final podcast. We loved the idea of having a final project that involved us having conversations about the texts we read during the semester. We narrowed down on a theme, and tried to explore it (and a little bit extra) as much as we could.

Hope you enjoy listening to it as much as we did making it. Let us know what you think!

Give it a listen!

Linh, Yaman and Ayan

The Plague & Angels & a note about hope (Smrithi’s very late Augmenter’s Post)

This is a long overdue augmenter’s post! I am sincerely sorry about the delay! I’m hoping super late is better than never. But really, I just wanted to add a couple of thoughts here about Camus’ The Plague, and Kushner’s Angels in America. 

Jacques Othon’s death in The Plague remains to be one of those moments that I still cannot forget. And I keep having this instinct to call that part in the novel a scene because it truly feels like I watched it — and even more so, it feels like I’ve heard it. The sounds of the place, the patients screaming in the hospital, it’s not hard at all to imagine a soundscape of pain vibrating out of the pages. For the first time, through this almost sensory experience, I felt the novel in my body. It became very, very real for that moment. The plague became real, in all its agony, and not just bureaucracy, or community, or isolation – all of which are so valid, it’s just that the physical agony became real for me. This reminds of two moments over the summer when I was reminded of the agony of COVID, these were the moments that the pandemic became physically real to me, in a very tangible sense. 

The first was a video from ScoopWhoop, taken outside one of Delhi’s biggest hospitals. 

It is painful to watch. Because right about this time, there had been so much talk about how COVID, in reality, was not all that deadly/fatal, it was being compared to catching the flu. Then I came across this video in which family members are ‘interviewed’ right outside the hospital, and they talk about how they have no clue about what is happening with their family inside, how they’ve been forced to share beds, how family members had been crammed into the same space as other COVID patients. The mismanagement and lack of resources in a country like India becomes so visible here. It becomes clear that even if COVID may not be “all that fatal”, one doesn’t die of the disease, one dies of the structures around the disease. In class we have previously talked about social and political structures around pandemics, but here I just wanted to highlight how actual hospital, wellness and care structures were never designed to sustain people. What happens to our systems of care after this pandemic? 

The other video is from The Atlantic, and it is people describing their ICU delirium after having been admitted for COVID. The COVID survivors also state how there are such little resources to help with ICU delirium, even though 80% of the people on ventilators have been reported to have experienced it. Both of these videos center the people of the pandemic – it just goes to show, even on an emotional, mental, psychological level, a pandemic is so much more than a biological disease — which is something The Plague captures so well. 

Disease is not ‘objective’, as with everything, it is defined by your relationship to the structures of the world. In that way, disease can be made –  for instance, disability is not inherent, but it is caused by your interactions with the structures of the world. 

Speaking of disability being caused by the structures of the world, I just wanted to bring up another play that’s been compared to Angels in America. The Inheritance, by Matthew Lopez – I got to watch it last fall in New York. In every review/article I read, the play would be compared to Angels because of its similar themes (it also has two parts). The play, in my opinion, centers community. The play (which revolved around a New York apartment) seems to be saying that the gay community of today has lost the community it once so fiercely fought for – that history is being violently forgotten. But at the same time, the play questions that very idea. Has it been forgotten? There is a meeting of the past and the present communities in this play — and the end, oh the end (of part 1, I couldn’t watch part 2). Spoiler alert, the end is when a character named Eric meets the people who died in Walter’s (his old friend) house, that he had set up as a home for AIDS affected people during the AIDS epidemic. And Eric sees these ghosts, this community of ghosts, and just like the ending of Angels, it is just so…hopeful. I had been holding myself back from feeling hope (partly because I have been so used to seeing and having dark, sober, almost-apocalyptic reflections with theater), but the scene really says something about the people of a pandemic, of a community that has been denied any sort of resources. To me, it seems to be saying that – yes, we have inherited diseased structures, but it might just be possible to change it through the people, through us. 

I hope you get a chance to read the play, if not watch it.

Just some thoughts. 

Thank you all for this class, and thank you for reading. I am walking away from this semester with a little bit more hope. 


Angels in America is a period piece. Kushner bridges fact and fiction in a story set in 1980s America. One of the key pillars of that bridge is big gun prosecutor Roy Cohn. He is the only major character in the play explicitly based on a real life person.

“Have you no sense of decency?”

Louis berates Joe for lying to him, and repeatedly asks if he knew who said that. Joe’s oblivion is convincingly shocking for Louis. This was one of the turning points of American politics in the 1950’s.

It’s worth exploring some of the background behind Roy Cohn, who he was, and how he is relevant even today, decades after his death

It all began with the rise of Communism across the world. There was a growing body of communists in the US, who also supported the USSR. Anti-Soviet rhetoric was heralding the Cold War. In order to protect the American ideals of liberty and democracy against the oppressive regime of the Soviets, many Americans created an oppressive regime that attacked the American ideals of liberty and democracy.

The man who would come to lend his name to this period in America’s history was Joseph McCarthy. He was a Republican senator from Wisconsin who made a name for himself by attacking anyone and everyone under the guise of purging the US of communists. This “McCarthyism” manifested itself in the widespread fear of even an accusation of being a communist.

A brief overview of McCarthyism and its consequences

Roy Cohn would be chief counsel to McCarthy in the Army vs. McCarthy hearings. These came at the height of McCarthy’s influence, when he even got into a tussle with the US Army about it’s security. During this trial, this famous sentence was used by the army’s lawyer Joseph Welch. This would be the point which determined McCarthy’s downfall, losing him popularity nearly overnight.

Roy Cohn was also famous for his trial of the Rosenberg case, where he prosecuted suspected Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. He was publicly proud of his role in getting them the death penalty, as is also referenced in the play.

What isn’t referenced in the play though, is who Roy Cohn mentored. It was none other than Donald Trump, back when he was a real estate mogul in New York City. They met at a club in New York City in 1973, and hit it off. Cohn would become Trump’s lawyer through thick and thin. His aggressive approach was what Trump loved, and that is what Trump learnt.

Roy Cohn and Donald Trump
Roy Cohn and Trump giving a news conference declaring a lawsuit on the NFL

According to a Washington Post article,

“Cohn also showed Trump how to exploit power and instill fear through a simple formula: attack, counterattack and never apologize.”

Anyone living today who reads this will agree that that has been Trump’s mantra all along. He comes on aggressive, attacks everyone, and never backs down from his claims. Cohn was also the one who introduced Trump to Roger Stone, who became one of Trump’s campaign advisors in his successful bid for presidency.

Cohn became so important to Trump, that birthed a catchphrase for sticky situations: “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”

In real life, just like in the play, Roy Cohn maintained until the end that he had “liver cancer”. He was disbarred as a lawyer shortly before he died, and maintained his disgust for homosexuality in his political beliefs. As his friend Roger Stone said:

“Roy was not gay. He was a man who liked having sex with men. Gays were weak, effeminate. He always seemed to have these young blond boys around. It just wasn’t discussed. He was interested in power and access.”

Roy Cohn, in his short life of 59 years, left a lasting impact on the legacy of America through Donald Trump. Even in death, he had the power to turn the country upside down.

Angel of the Waters

Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, NYC, image via.

Post originally published May 2008 on

New York seems, to me, to differ from other major world cities in the recyclability (is that even a word?) of its symbols — especially its architecture and public art. To get what I mean, consider the Louvre by contrast. You experience it as an art museum, and yet if you’ve given your tour book even a glance you’ll realize that it was once a royal palace. That history is somehow preserved, Revolution be damned: the new uses attached to the building don’t really aim to erase old meanings.

New York, though, is notoriously forgetful, willfully ahistorical. Its oldest remaining building, St. Paul’s chapel on lower Broadway, barely predates the American Revolution. New York’s history is one of creative destruction — pull down the old to make way for the new — and even the bits that somehow manage to escape the wrecking ball more often than not find old meanings detached and new ones assigned. The somewhat tacky lighthouse that greets tourists flocking to the South Street Seaport was paid for by the citizens of New York, by subscription, to memorialize the Titanic’s dead.

For several years, as we’ve concluded our Writing New York course with Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, I’ve used Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain as an example of public symbols whose meanings transform over time. Preparing to discuss Kushner’s use of the fountain in the play’s epilogue, I show a clip from Ric Burns’s New York: A Documentary Film which discusses the fountain in the context of the Civil War’s aftermath. According to Burns — and to Kushner himself, who appears as a talking head in the sequence and discusses the fountain and its sculpture in moving terms — the Angel of the Waters originally commemorated the Union’s naval dead. Though Kushner doesn’t make the explicit connection to his play, anyone who’s seen Angels realizes why Burns would turn to Kushner for a sound bite at this point. The fountain, these viewers would know, serves as the setting for the play’s final scene, in which Prior, who has now lived with AIDS for five years, turns to the audience and blesses it, invoking the oldest ritual uses of theater — healing and the organization of community — to grant the audience “more life” and new meanings for it. The HBO adaptation captures the scene well (but the clip seems to have gone missing from YouTube).

What Kushner does with the fountain here both draws on its prior meanings and transforms them. Prior, Louis, Hannah, and Belize each tell part of the story, in the process associating this angel (and themselves) with a Biblical story. In the Gospel of St. John, the pool of Bethesda is cited as a place where invalids gathered, waiting for a miracle: “For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.” This note prefaces Jesus’ miraculous healing there of a man who’d been crippled for 38 years. Kushner’s characters believe the story in varying ways and to varying degrees. What matters more is that they organize themselves around the idea of a hope for healing, period. And that they reassure one another that they will seek that healing together.

Kushner’s characters don’t invoke the Civil War association outright, even though the play contains several other references to the conflict, including an entire section named for John Brown’s body. America’s legacy of race problems haunts a play that’s more overtly about the AIDS crisis, and certainly the culture wars that gained momentum during the Reagan Era seem at times to function like a second civil war. But perhaps it’s best that Kushner didn’t write the Civil War referent into the play — considering that he and Burns appear to be the primary culprits for propagating a history for the fountain that may not be accurate. The linked article suggests that the Kushner/Burns story perpetuates a mistake; I haven’t been able to find anything that would support their account about the fountain commemorating the Union dead.

The more verifiable story also lends itself to Kushner’s appropriation of the fountain as a key symbolic presence in his play. This version holds that the sculptor, Emma Stebbins (the first woman to receive a major art commission in New York City and the only Central Park sculptor whose work was actually paid for), who also happened to be a lesbian, chose the Bethesda story for her subject because the fountain was to commemorate the completion of the Croton Aqueduct system, which brought potable water into the Central Park reservoirs from upstate and helped eventually to stem the devastating effects of recurring cholera epidemics on the city. Lives lost during Civil War, the end of an epidemic era: whether or not Kushner gets the details of the statue’s origins correct, in effect he has cemented an association between the fountain and his play that, especially in the wake of the HBO production, will likely last a long while. The fountain now stands for a communal sense of hope and transformation, especially for those afflicted with AIDS under the benighted “leadership” of Ronald Reagan. More broadly it stands for the possibility of gay citizenship in America. It’s hard to imagine Kushner’s version of the angel losing its hold on public imagination any time soon.

In making the statue his own, in giving it a new story in his play, Kushner liberated it from a previous Broadway/Hollywood association — with the 1973 movie musical Godspell, which you probably either love (for its kitsch value as a hippie Jesus story) or hate (for feeling the need to tell a hippie Jesus story in the first place). Here’s the Bethesda fountain as it appeared there, as a site, early in the film, for the ministrations of the movie’s version of John the Baptist:

(The fountain reappears later at the end of one of the film’s more palatable sequences; in fact I find this song downright charming, like an old Coke commercial.)

A progressive reappropriation? I think so. It’s clear that Kushner wanted to keep the religious connotations in place, though as ecumenically as possible, perhaps even letting the theater’s magic replace religion’s. But he also plays on the ways in which Central Park is itself a renewed and magical, even a sacred public space, in terms of America’s civil religion. Between Godspell and Angels, the Park spent almost two decades with a rather rough reputation; its decline was nowhere more apparent than at the Bethesda Terrace, which became one of the major sites of the Park’s renewal beginning in the mid 1980s. The restoration of the fountain — itself a symbol of the restoration of public health — stands for the possibility, at the end of the city’s fiscal crisis of the ’70s and early ’80s, of a renewed civic body as a whole.

We debate, at the end of Writing New York, whether the community that Kushner brings together at Bethesda is as cosmopolitan as it seems on first glance. After all, no one knows — or at least mentions — what’s happened to Hannah’s son Joe, who’s last seen in the play not doing so well after leaving his marriage. But in real life there’s no denying something magical and indeed cosmopolitan happens at a place like Bethesda, realizing over and again the Park planners’ dreams for what this space should be and do and mean. How else can you explain hordes of middle-American tourists falling under the spell of my favorite NYC street performer, Thoth?

A perfect example of how New York can still shelter extremes in human expression, Thoth calls his audiences to meditate on the relationship of the physical body to creative sound and movement, making full use of the gloriously restored arcades at the terrace. (Restoration work on the ceiling tiles, which began in the mid-’80s, was completed just last year.) If you want to see the distance between the sacred space that fosters Kushner’s Utopian dreams and the profane and shallow shell where the rest of American culture is content to curl up and waste away, just try to imagine Thoth — the modern angel of the waters — on an American reality TV show hosted by David Hasselhoff. The footage exists; if you feel the need to watch it, go back and watch the previous link to purify yourself. Some landmarks, apparently, are better off left in their original contexts.

20 years of teaching Angels

I don’t think I have contact with any of my students from Harvard in 1999-2000, which was the first time I taught Angels in America, but these were two of my students in an honors seminar I taught during my first semester at NYU in the fall of 2001. It was amazing to run into them a couple years ago when we had all turned up to see the same showing of Kushner’s plays back-to-back on Broadway.

I ran a few searches on Twitter to find the best tweets from my history of teaching the play. I started Twitter in 2009-10, so they don’t run earlier than that, although there are links to blog content for older courses that take you back at least to the mid-2000s. Some of those old blog formats have become quite run down. I will try to recover one of the more important posts from that run, with relevance to our final discussion of the play, and repost it here in full. Meanwhile, here’s this thread if you’re interested in memory lane.

American Stagnancy in “Angels in America”: What’s next for the U.S.?

When reading Angels in America, there’s no avoiding its overtness when it comes to the political. The era of Reaganism and conservatism in the 1980s is depicted as one seeking stability of power from the status quo; and, the traditional moral values that, for example, have privileged the traditional, white, heterosexual American. Angels in America therefore places emphasis on the notion of progress and of moving forward. When Prior rejects the angels’ prophecy, for instance, and chooses life and all its uncertainties, it is symbolic of how life and living is about change, not stagnancy.

But in Angels in America, the liberal left is not necessarily made to be any better than the seemingly antagonized right-wing Reaganists. Louis, for instance, despite all his “big ideas” about progressivism and American liberalism, remain just that– big ideas. Louis’ own perceptions of liberalism and American freedom, much like the conservatism he hates, also seems to be focused on a select few, and ignores those such as Belize who emphasizes the significance of race in the political sphere. Therefore, while “the left” and “the right” appear to be polar opposites, neither seem to fully take into account the voices of those who are marginalized or at the periphery.

In thinking about Angels in America, one cannot help but think about the present socio-economic and political state of the U.S. The problems of institutional racism, socio-economic inequality, flawed healthcare, and toxic American individualism and exceptionalism have all resurfaced with full force in the wake of the COVID 19 pandemic. And while one can say the Trump administration has exacerbated these problems, they are problems that have always been so deeply rooted in America society, and perpetuated throughout the centuries of even Democrat presidencies. In spite of its more recent signs of progress– such as with the election of the first African-American president, or the legalization of same-sex marriages in all 50 U.S. states– America continues to fall back on a traditional national narrative, and in turn, a broken socio-political system driven by this narrative. Yet if anything, the ending of Angels in America does offer a glimmer of hope, as its final words echo the current state of activism and change-making in the country. “We won’t die secret deaths anymore”– no longer will anyone keep silent.

Power of Labels and Labels of Power

Labels have power, Very recently we saw the 45th US president, Donald trump call the SARS-CoV-2 (the COVID-19 virus) the Chinese virus. this caused an uproar because labeling the virus “The Chinese virus” causes the formation of an exaugurated association between the virus and China. Therefore, indirectly causing an increase in xenophobia towards East Asians in the country.

People can use these labels to build favorable or unfavorable personas, we can find examples of this often in politics. Donald Trump has been problematic in public more than just once or twice. Throughout his presidency and candidacy, he has often made sexist, racist, and Islamophobic remarks in public, and therefore has been labeled as such. Meanwhile, our other candidate this year, Joe Biden, had led his candidacy with a persona of an anti-racist, feminist, and an open person. But looking back we can see that Joe Biden has had his share of problematic issues during his time as a politician. For example, a big issue that many Muslim voters had with Joe Biden was the fact that he voted for the war in Iraq. A war that caused the loss of thousands of lives. Yet as we have seen, many Muslims have still voted for Joe Biden because of his newer, more acceptable persona. Similarly, there was the issue of Biden behaving inappropriately with women or the comments he made on his segregationist colleagues. 

This election we had been fighting to vote Trump out of the white house rather than to get Biden into the white house. Because neither the candidates are fit to be president. But we would much rather have a progressive democrat who makes some racist comments than to have an openly racist republican.

A Closeted Marriage

In Angels in America we are exposed to a very real situation that occured particularly in the late 20th Century. Joe and Harper’s relationship could be reflected in many households often times with families who had already birthed multiple children.

With homosexuality being such a stigma, many members of the LGBTQ+ community kept their sexual orientation hidden. Some, like Joe even chose to get married to a member of the opposite sex. The term Mixed Orientation Marriage is used to describe marriages in which one spouse is heterosexual and the other isn’t.


The AIDs epidemic however forced many men to come out of the closet. Like Roy Cohn, when the disease struck, their actions were reflected physically. It was a complex situation to be in, being homosexual in a heterosexual relationship and to this day still remains a complex situation. This article done a professor of Iowa State University talks of the many reasons that mixed orientation marriages are maintained.

Fortunately more and more people are opening up about their sexual orientation. However mixed orientation relationships still remain. Countless articles and research has been done on the topic. Emily Reese speaks about her experience being the straight spouse. Nevertheless there are always two sides of a story. This TED Talk shows a mixed orientation couple and how they dealt with it from both sides. Another article by Jeff Levy shows the story of a gay man who struggled with coming out years after living with his wife and kids.

There are so many stories and testimonies and research that I could keep linking till Christmas. This is indeed a very complex topic and I cannot begin to discuss the nuances of these relationships. Some couples choose to stay together, some choose to divorce. This post is just meant to draw more awareness to the issue – to show that Harper and Joe are not alone in their struggle.