Category: Contexts

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.

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.

Bowing to the Greeks: “the Dead are killing the Living”

During our discussion in class we have briefly touched upon some of the apparent parallels that can be found between Ibsen’s Ghosts and Oedipus Rex. Pursuing this line of thought, I delved into the bowels of the internet and found some fascinating articles about Ibsen here.

 In Sophokles’ Oedipus Tyrannos, Oedipus defies the warning of his priest, Tiresias, and embarks on a quest for truth that ends in the devastating knowledge that he is the criminal he seeks, the unintentionally guilty destroyer of his own family.

In Ghosts Helene Alving defies her priest, Pastor Manders and embarks on a journey towards the truth that ends in the devastating knowledge that she is the unintentionally guilty destroyer of her family.

Another interesting issue brought by these essays is the temporal sequence of the play: how can it be that the play begins in the morning, is only interrupted by lunch, and yet somehow ends morning next day? This is

…a passage of at least sixteen hours. Yet the action of the play…is just two hours.  Even in the most laid-back Norwegian households, lunches don’t go on for fourteen hours.

How can this inform our reading of the play? What is Ibsen trying to convey with this impossibility? How is this similar to Oedipus’s journey of discovery that unfolds in a matter of a few hours? What are some of the deterministic elements present in Oedipus Rex and how do these translate to 19th century Norway?

On a different note, perhaps one of the most intriguing metamorphoses that a text can undergo is its adaptation through the movements of the human body, i.e. dance. Here is a trailer for Cathy Marston’s dance adaptation, filmed at the Royal Opera House, London.

Finally, here you can find a beautifully haunting interpretation of ghosts by a contemporary Italian sculptor, Livio Scapella.

Ps.: The quote of the title is from Aeschylus’ The Libation Bearers.


Ibsen round-up

Well, today may have been the first time I was ever tempted in class to link Ibsen to Suicidal Tendencies, but the passage we focused on from Ghostsall kinds of old defunct theories, all sorts of old defunct beliefs, and things like that. It’s not that they actually live on in us; they are simply lodged there, and we cannot get rid of them — made me think of the above song, which was released in 1983. They key connection comes when the singer asks how he could be considered crazy if he’s simply a product of his parents’ various institutions. As noted in discussion, Ibsen’s take on cultural inheritance is pretty bleak. Might we even say it’s punk?

Here are some links to past discussions of Ibsen on this site. Last year someone posted a clip from a recent theater production in London. Here’s a post that reads syphilis itself as the play’s creepiest ghost and another on 19th-century Norwegian beliefs about ghosts and haunting — with a surprising dip into the history of photography. Here’s one on Romanian takes on the undead.

I think I mentioned in class that Edvard Munch, the Norwegian painter, was a big Ibsen fan. Ibsen was 30-odd years older than Munch and they only met a few times. But Munch was pretty taken with him. Here’s a brief essay on the relationship between their work, including comments on Munch’s 1906 set designs for Ghosts (see above, Oswald sitting in the chair in the final scene, the sun rising outside as visible through the big picture window). I like this observation in particular:

To see was the most important thing for both Ibsen and Munch – but certainly not in an external, photographically recording sense. The artist’s ability and task is to see inwards – so that external motifs and inner, mental agitation are “lived through” (to use one of Ibsen’s favourite expressions) and melted together into valid expression. I do not paint what I see, but what I have seen, Munch once said – and Ibsen could have said the same about his “poetic visions”.

And here are a couple links to even earlier posts: the first conveners’ post from 2012; one on humor (how much of this play should we read as comedy?); and one on fatherhood — especially bad fathers — as one of Ibsen’s particular obsessions. Enjoy!

Jane Austen, meet Arthur Mervyn

If anyone here is a Jane Austen fan, you may want to think about the fact that Brown’s Arthur Mervyn and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice are separated by roughly a dozen years. I’ve written here before about ties between these two novels — and on the special consideration novels in general give to questions of love, marriage, and property — though coming soon, we may also have to consider additional connections between Austen and our course material

Markets of Mervyn

Yellow Fever is evidently a vital component of the novel, as it provides a framing for the events within the narrative. Today, we discussed the recurring theme of ‘stomachs’ in the book, and the link provided may go some way to solve this puzzle. The symtoms of Yellow Fever include nausea, much like the so often invoked feeling – both physical and metaphorical – in the book. The fever, perhaps, best represents the way the characters act: impulsively, heatedly, dangerously. Also available through some close reading, is the idea that it all stems from one event. The tales in the book begin at the fragile home revealed to Mervyn when he finds his father to have married Betty: rumours infect their relationship, and he feels compelled to leave. Yellow Fever originates from a single infected mosquito, perhaps represented by Betty when considering the fever as a state of mind as well as a physical ailment. Reading the introductory pages again with this in mind opens up another layer of analysis we can use, due to the addition of context.

Attached is also a visual representation of the market forces acting in Arthur Mervyn, which we considered towards the end of today’s class. As we progress through the second volume in particular, you may see how the ‘market’ or ‘novel’ gets resolved back to a sustainable market clearing point.

Market in Action – this is the graphical market explanation. I have an A3 Poster version available if this is too small for you to see properly, just let me know and I can bring you one to the next class.

The Martyrdom of Animal’s People

Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People (re)presents an interplay of a variety of religions in the fictional city of Khaufpur. Tape Fourteen (pages 205-222) coincides with the ritualistic mourning of Musharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, and on the tenth day, the Day of Ashurra, the night of the fire walk happens.

Historically, it refers to “Zibh-e-Azeem,” the Great Sacrifice. The tragedy of the oft-mentioned Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was a brutal massacre on the plain of Karbala (about 60 miles soth/southwest of modern day Baghdad) in the year 680 C.E., year 61 of the Muslim calendar. It was a direct result of a struggle between the Sunni and Shia Muslims for the claim to power. After the Prophet’s death, two factions emerged from the schism that occurred regarding a dispute over succession to Muhammad as the leader of the Islamic community – the Sunnites advocated the customary tribal tradition of election while the Shiites believed the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law Ali had a divine right of succession as the first Imam. After a series of assassinations, Hussein became the head of the Shiites and had to flee Medina for Mecca because he refused to swear allegiance to Yazid, the Sunnite caliph in Damascus. His army caught up with Hussein’s company in Kufa in southern Iraq, where they were given an ultimatum to pledge loyalty to Yazid or face water deprivation amid the scorching desert. Nine days later, on Ashura, a brutal massacre took place: the men were all killed (except for Hussein’s ill son) and their heads taken as trophies to Damascus, while the women were taken hostage.

Shiites consider the battle as the ultimate example of sacrifice and dramatically reenact it every year during Musharram in a ritual performance called ta’ziyeh (the word ta’ziyeh literally means “to mourn” or “to console”). Ta’ziyeh belongs to a genre of passion play, most often associated with Christian theatrical tradition, and is the only serious drama in the Islamic world. It is performed in theatres-in-the-round where spectators are surrounded by and even participants in the plot; main drama is staged on the central platform and subplots and battles take place in a surrounding sand-covered ring. The stage and props are stark, echoing the barenness of the desert plain at Karbala. An interesting and important distinction between protagonists and antagonists is that the former sing their parts in a classical manner while the latter recite or shriek theirs. There is also a strong musical presence (the accompaniment of drums and trumpets in intervals sets a mood or advances the action) and the most complete ta’ziyeh performances even involve horseback riding. You can see a few short excerpts below.

Although originally performed by Shiite Muslims in Iran, it has spread to other Arab countries and even places in France and Italy. There, the specific religious themes resonate more with the Christian sensibility and ideas of rebellion against tyranny. A cathartic experience is one of the common denominators everywhere. How does Hussein’s martyrdom function within the contexts of Animal’s People? What effects are produced when the narrative becomes interwoven with marsiyas, elegiac poems? What do religious motifs contribute to the discussion of the novel and its characters?

Source: Peter Chelkowski’s Time Out of Memory: Ta’ziyeh, the Total Drama. You can also read one of the versions of the play, The Ta’ziyeh of the Martyrdom of Hussein.

Abused By Progress

Image from

After our reading of Dream of Ding Village, it would seem only appropriate to change the “Tibet” and “Darfur” tags in the picture for “Ding Village” or “Henan Province”.  As we’ve discussed in class, the novel alludes to the ethics of China’s rapid economic growth, posing questions about the urban-rural divide, the competence of state officials and the greed of local (and national) elites.  However, we have also come to realize that Dream of Ding Village is also trying to spark a larger conversation about the consequences the commodification of life as a consequence of the new economic forces at play in the post-Cold War era.

In light of this new conversation, I thought it was relevant to post a set of questions that might inform our reading of the novel as well as enhance future discussions.

The first one speaks to the theme of community.  David Graeber is an American anthropologist who has written extensively about direct-action and the myths surrounding capitalism.  In one of his books, Debt, he explores (among many other things) the different moral rationales behind economic activity and proposes that all societies are communist at the core because communism relies on the assumption that, in eternity, accounts will even out and therefore it is only natural that we help those in need when we are able.  This contradicts the logic of humans being self-interested and profit-seeking individuals.  However, we have constantly seen how, in many contagion narratives, communities fall apart at the face of death.  It would be interesting to think about how human beings are portrayed under pressure, do the assumptions of classical economics hold true? or does Graeber’s analysis makes more sense?

Another issue worth considering is the link existing between life, bodies and money.  Dream of Ding Village maps this interaction through the idea of the Ding Dynasty, the village’s blood-boom and the different manifestations of consumerism.  In a broader sense, it is forcing us to think about the tension between reproduction and accumulation.  From one end, there is the idea of sharing one’s resources with the community be it through feasts, employment or gifts.  On the other hand, there is the notion that one must save and try to lift oneself out of poverty.  How does one reconcile this in a world where one’s culture may favor caring for other but the economic rationale prompts us to think only of ourselves? 

Whitman in Angels in America

When reading Angels in America, an important intertext to consider is Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself; Kushner himself writes in the Afterword: “We are all children of ‘Song of Myself'” (284). Published in the collection Leaves of Grass, this far-reaching poem of and for everyone and everything, regardless of the size or social worth or any other criteria, is a distinctly American epic poem written in free verse. In long, flowing lines Whitman constructs an extensive catalogue of everything around him with “words simple as grass” – just one of the many uses of the symbol of grass. In Song of Myself, grass is an epitome of equality for it does not discriminate where it grows: it is “a uniform hieroglyphic,” “sprouting alike in broad zone and narrow zones, / growing among black folks as among white.” It is the cycle of life: both death, growing from the buried bodies (“grass of graves”), and rebirth, always giving rise to new life; it is the transcending nature, an image of divinity on earth; it is the world’s playground, our all-seeing and all-knowing surrounding, the God of the modern age; this is Whitman’s grand poetic vision of (American) democracy, equality, unity.

Resonances of this vision can be found throughout the play in Louis’s extravagant speeches (almost soliloquies) on the nature of democracy, but even more interestingly, they can be found in the Angel’s speech. The Angel, seemingly a distinctly conservative and reactionary character turns out to be a much more dialectical figure: she appears female but is revealed to be a hermaphrodite with eight vaginas and “a Bouquet of Phalli” (175). She is both male and female, both hetero- and homosexual, and radiates mystical sexual energy. All of these and a lot of indiscriminate sex in the play are very reminiscent of Whitman’s all-inclusive logic and extremely sensual poetics (also full of homoerotic images). Furthermore, the Angel’s warning to Prior: “Hiding from Me one place you will find me in another. / I I I I stop down the road, waiting for you” (179) echoes the final lines of Song of Myself: “Missing me one place search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you,” and the numerous “I’s” the Angel employs are echoes of a strong “I” narrator persona in Whitman’s poem. He writes:

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,

The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,

The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue

. . .

I am not the poet of goodness only, I do not decline to be the poet of wickedness also.

Like Whitman, who embraces all binaries and incorporates them into himself, the Angel turns out to not be so monolithic either. If we re-think the Angel (and the social and cultural forces she seems to represent) and look at her through the prism of the literary legacy she is coming from, the character suddenly becomes much more dialectical and subversive, and the messages and commands she issues much more shaky.

Reagan’s America

We’ll watch about 10 minutes from these in class today, but I wanted to embed them here in case anyone wanted to see the whole thing. It’s the PBS American Experience documentary on Ronald Reagan, and yes, this is what I was showing in lecture one year when the vice president of the college’s Young Republicans stormed out of class. I think I was able to reassure her later that I wasn’t necessarily trying to malign Reagan — nor was the film. Rather, I was hoping to explain why Kushner’s play takes such an ominous view of the 40th American president.