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.

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