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Escapism In Times of A Plague

“Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality

Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see …”

Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen

And see there is a deadly plague in town.

Feasts, songs, staycations at Italian villas, stories, Netflix, and even pornography*. These are all things people have used to escape from the reality of a pandemic – the first two in Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague, the second two in Boccacio’s Decameron, and the last two in our world during Covid-19. These things divert people’s attention and help them catch a breath amid the overwhelming pandemic that’s in every nook and cranny of their lives.  

The theme of escapism is especially prominent in Pushkin’s play A Feast During the Plague. The play begins with the chairman Mr. Walsingham urging everyone to celebrate the living instead of grieving for the dead. Together, they feast, toast to their dead friend, and sing songs describing the plague in action. It’s not that they are unaware of the deadliness of the plague. As we can see (or hear) from Mary’s song, they are aware that “the dead are carried out / To burials that never cease, / The living pray in fear and trembling.” Also, unlike the young men and women in Decameron who are almost unaffected by the plague and go on their trip to the villa as if it’s a spring outing, the people at Pushkin’s feasting table have suffered personal losses to various extents: they lost their friend Jackson; Mr. Walsingham lost his wife and his mother; Mary seems to have lost her parents, … 

All these pitiful people gather at the feasting table for an escape from the horrid reality of the plague and the grave consequences that have befallen them, as Mr. Walsingham tells us: “I am bound here / By despair, by terrible remembrance, by the knowledge of my lawlessness, and by horror of that dead emptiness which greets me now in my own house.” Notice the word “bound.” He seems to suggest that he is not feasting by choice but rather compelled to be there because there is nothing else he can do without directly confronting the tragedy in his house. 

Reading about their gathering, we wonder if they are afraid of contracting the plague themselves. One answer to this question is that they are afraid of the contagion, but they have moved beyond the state of fear to a state of irrationality. This reminds us of the Covid-19 parties in Alabama when organizers purposefully invited guests that have tested positive. Granted, our feasters in the play may be slightly more rational (and perhaps more intelligent) than these party-goers in Alabama. But a similar form of irrational escapism is found in both: when there’s too much plague-ness in their life, people do irrational things like these under the slogan “youth loves gaiety” to shun the scary or saddening thoughts they are tired of having.  

Coupled with irrationality, there’s also a sense of fatalism in their escape from reality. In Mr. Walsingham’s song, he sings “All, all that threatens to destroy / Fills mortal hearts with secret joy / Beyond our power to explain – / Perhaps it bodes eternal life! And blest is he who can attain / That ecstasy in storm and strife!” It almost seems like he desires to contract the plague and die, but at the same time he is calling the plague “a queen of dread” (We will come back to this personification later). 

With all of these said about escapism, we would like to invite you to think about the following questions:

Should we attempt to escape from reality when it’s too much for us to handle? If so, for how long? The duration of a feast? Or perhaps a few weeks of staying at Boccacio’s Italian villa?

Aside from the theme of escapism, we would also like to bring your attention to a few other questions that intrigued us:

First, how does each character depict and react to the plague? Does how we think of and react to the plague have any consequences?

The dialogues in this play, especially Mary’s and Mr. Walsingham’s songs, are filled with imagery, analogy, and personification of the plague that reflected people’s reactions to the plague. 

One interesting point is how Mr. Walsingham personifies the plague to be “the queen of dread.” This use of female personification to describe something as horrible as the plague is very different from how we tend to use female personification today: we mainly use female personification to describe things that are beautiful or bountiful, such as the earth. Related to this use of personification, is the overall contrast between males and females in this play. Men, such as the chairman, have leadership positions and the song they sing are “bold and lively;” on the other hand, women are quarreling or having fainting fits, and the song they sing is “sad and haunting.” 

A variety of responses to the plague are displayed in this play. Mary’s song is a melancholic reminiscence of the past in the face of the vivid cruelty of the present. Louisa’s personification of the plague as the “hideous demon, black all over, with white eyes” shows her fear of death during the feast. In striking contrast, the chairman’s song is a declaration of war against their enemy, the plague, that confronts and celebrates death (A great conveners’ post from last year’s class that also touches upon this analogy to war can be found here.). These descriptions, although different, all evoke powerful emotions that repeatedly shift the mood of the feast. The chairman’s speech at the end even prompted the crowd to drive out the priest because of his attempt to dismiss the feast. 

The spread of emotional responses to the plague is also present in A Journal of the Plague Year by Defoe. The city of London was filled with fear, panic, and hysteria. People are in no way capable of controlling their emotions and responses in these situations, but stabilizing public reaction plays a crucial factor in minimizing the damage of a pandemic. What’s worse in today’s society is that the usage of social media in our daily life polarizes the information we receive about the pandemic, even more so during quarantine when the internet is our only source of news, and this adds a further challenge (or opportunity?) to controlling public reaction during pandemics.

So how should we treat and respond to detrimental shocks like the plague? Is there a proper timeline or principle to moderate this shock to prevent mass hysteria and misinformation? A Feast During the Plague, especially through the emotional conflicts of the chairman and the priest, raises questions of much weight do our words, with the use of literary devices, truly hold in affecting the public?

(Interesting side note: today, climate activists treat climate change as “the war of humankind”. The idea of fighting against a phenomenon parallels the chairman’s speech in the reading. Would you say it is an effective way of appealing to emotions and motivating people with a sense of urgency? Or is it creating an opposite effect?)

Second, is it really morally shameful to pursue selfish personal enjoyment during a pandemic, or can it be justified as a redemption of the human spirit in the face of darkness? 

Contagious diseases like Covid and the plague create a challenging dilemma for all of us, humans, to reevaluate our relationships with each other. Humans are like hedgehogs, it is inescapable that we stay together for warmth, but if we are too close, too connected, we hurt each other. We are all involved in a community, but we also survive as individuals. Pandemics pose a challenge for us to reconstruct the interdependent relationship between ourselves and our community. Our safety and happiness can no longer be obtained in a group setting, what should we do? 

In both A Journal of the Plague Year and A Feast During the Plague, society very quickly created a new moral construct to regulate people’s actions in order to maintain the fulfillment of a common goal – combating the plague. People are then bound – morally and sometimes legally – by this new social construct. Even nowadays on our campus, we shame those who host parties and prioritize their personal enjoyment over our community’s safety. These new moral constructs ask us to downplay our personal interests, quarantine, struggle with mental health, and be responsible for the interest of a larger community. But to what extent can we sacrifice ourselves? Moreover, How do we balance our personal interest with heroism and responsibility to the world?  A Feast During the Plague presents us with this challenge through the conflict between Mr. Walsingham and the priest. Is it really shameful, like the priest says, to pursue selfish personal enjoyment during a pandemic, or is it justified during the days of darkness?

With that, we leave you here. Hope you enjoyed Pushkin’s play and our blog post.

– Amna, Chi-Ting, Sophia, Vivi

*See here for an interesting study done on pornography consumption during Covid-19.

Public Compliance and the formation of a New Norm

  I keep thinking about the policies imposed by the officials and how people responded to it during the pandemic – Londoners were initially supportive of the measures taken, but many began circumventing them as the plague dragged on. This strikes me as painfully relevant to the situations in many states where the governments struggled to contain a second, third, or forth wave. Three factors, I have concluded from the book, are at play here:

  • Seriousness of the pandemic
  • Intensity of the response
  • Public awareness

  Below, I have plotted the relations between these three factors:

  We can logically take it a priori that the intensity of the response will positively correlate with the seriousness of the plague (in Defoe’s case, the roster). Public awareness, as Londoners in his book demonstrated, dwindled as the pandemic continued throughout the year – and as such people began finding loopholes in the rules to not confine themselves to their houses. People began to doubt: are we over-reacting to this? Below is a Twitter screenshot of a relevant sentiment observed during our very own COVID-19:

Twitter @PaulEWalsh

  The notion of a “new normal” particularly interests me. In studying how societal norms form in response to external monitoring (i.e., government policies to tackle the plague), Ostrom (2000) conducted group experiments where she compared the evolution of societal norms under different conditions of 1) organic (i.e., no rules), 2) weak external monitoring (i.e., rules exist but aren’t really enforced), and 3) strong external monitoring (i.e., rules exist and are enforced stringently). I have summarized a chart of her findings below:

  For me, Defoe’s account of Londoner’s sentiment seems to correspond to the “weak external monitoring/sanctioning” mechanism in the experiment. In Ostrom’s research, she found that this scenario contains the worst outcome of all: norms of compliance don’t develop, and nor does cooperation between members of the group mature. In addition to this model of (lack of) norms, the public awareness of following measures and aversion towards the plague fatigued as the story progressed, towards the end when rumors of plague dying down inspired people to almost celebrate. This, to me, is especially relevant to the current situation and the sense of “limbo” as most states in the world move towards the near-total-control of the COVID-19 pandemic. Should the next wave arise, will people have the capacity to go into lockdown again and fight the next wave as we did the first wave?

Ostrom, E. (2000). Collective Action and the Evolution of Social Norms. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 14(3), 137–158.

Faith. Public or Private?

A journey of the plague year revolves around the experiences that the author had in plague ridden London. The Author copes with the plague and understands it thru his Christian faith. Which stemmed from reading the bible verse “Thou shall not be afraid for the terror by night” (22). It is this faith that allowed him not only the ability to survive the plague but to also give reason to its existence. Similarly in the current pandemic many people have dove back into their faith. In Ramadan, the holy month for Muslims, the crown prince of the UAE Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed hosted a virtual show titled ” Mohammed bin Zayed Majlis” in which he talked to many of the people who have had a tough job during the pandemic.

In his first episode he met with Dr. Omar al Derei, the executive director of Islamic affairs. In their conversation the idea of the countering the plague thru faith was the main topic of discussion. What I want to bring up is how faith is inherently different from an individualistic perspective and one from the perspective of a group. H.F wrote about his own ideas and his own perspective this is different for each person. While in the talk show the discussion was used to inform a big amount of people on the role of faith in the pandemic and its importance.

Each piece might have had a different era and very different cultures, but they have the same core. The interesting comparison between an induvials own faith and when faith is brought to the people from someone like the crown prince in order for it to be talked about and acknowledged by the public is very different. Will a person be more tempted to go into faith? Will a person feel less tempted since it can be viewed as a privet topic? These questions striked me when thinking of the two pieces in conjunction.

Defoe augmentor – Taman

I would like to add two sources to aid our discussion regarding Defoe’s “Journal of The Plague”. First source is a news article about how pandemic changes behavior of people to (don’t be too surprised) being nice! I know right, unbelievable. With all of the anti-vax, anti-masks, anti-common sense movements, it can be easy to feel as if the community is failing everyone, especially the most vulnerable (those who can’t vaccinate themselves, elderly, pregnant women and etc.) Despite all these negativity this article shows how “during these unprecedented times”, there still a little bit of humanity left through examples from the piece we are reading. I feel like this raises an important theme of community vs individuals. How “during these unprecedented times”, people have to think of themselves not as one, but as a whole, interconnected web, where actions of one directly affect everyone.

Other source is, honestly, much more complex and can be (actually is) hard to read, since its an academic one. It is titled “Telling Figures and Telling Feelings: The Geography of Emotions in the London of Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and Due Preparations for the Plague (1722)” and trust me, it is worth to at least scim through. Here is a little quote that I feel like can help me to push you to check it out:

“What really matters for Defoe is the human impact and suffering, and it is not so much the geography of the plague that he is writing, but the geography of the emotions of the London people.”

So, while reading this text, one would understand how Defoe is not just describing history of the plague, but is actually documenting an emotional part of the history. When he is talking about infants being born to dead mothers, trying to feed on the milk of a corpse, lying motionless on the cold ground. How the infected people are treated in inhumane ways, being locked up with no food and blamed by everyone even if they had no other options left. These atrocities and horrible incidents happening (all in detailed description) are analyzed and showcased in this text, so highly recommend to read/skim through 🙂

Astrology in 1665 and 2021

From a Guardian article on psychics sharing their 2021 predictions (

Pandemics come and go but clearly we have seen a number of parallels between what Defoe documents in London and how our societies have responded to the current pandemic. “Prophecies, astrological conjugations, dreams, and old wives’ tales” are clearly not just relics of London’s bubonic plague but very much something that people are once again turning to in the midst of COVID 19.

“Nearly 70 percent of French youth between the ages of 18-24 believe in parasciences (including astrology, numerology, palm reading, clairvoyance and cartomancy)”, a trend that has grown in recent months according to France 24.

Tiktok has also helped popularize many of these practices during the pandemic, through communities known as WitchTok.

Recently, these trends and their ties to mental health were epitomized by famous musician Lorde’s ironic song “Mood Ring”

Sympathy for the Plague

A Journal of the Plague Year eBook by Daniel Defoe - 9780486115238 |  Rakuten Kobo Greece
Cover of A Journal of the Plague Year

Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) is narrated from the perspective of an unidentified male who relays the events that took place in London during the spread of the bubonic plague. In this post, we observe the role of the plague, the effect of socioeconomic circumstances, religion and its response to plague, as well as the motif of hope becoming desperation in Defoe’s work. 

What is the role of a plague in a story?

In A Journal of the Plague Year, we see people turning to “prophecies, astrological conjugations, dreams, and old wives’ tales” to seek guidance in times of crisis, while many switched their occupations to “fortune-tellers, cunning-men, and astrologers” to take advantage of the situation (p. 33). In the three works we have read so far (Oedipus, Severance, Defoe), the plague provided a backdrop that reveals some kind of truth about our society that would have been difficult to realize if not for the plague.

Illustration from a 17th century pamphlet on the effects of the plague on London.
Illustration from a 17th century pamphlet on the effects of the plague on London. Photograph: Science History Images

The disaster that descended upon Thebes forces its king, Oedipus, to find a solution, directing him onto a path that pushes him to discover his true identity. Shen Fever prompts Candace and her companions to reflect on their past lives, wondering if they are actually not unlike the fevered, who are simply mindless creatures who do things in habit. H.F., the narrator in A Journal of the Plague Year, noted that “these terrors and apprehensions of the people led them into a thousand weak, foolish, and wicked things” (p. 33). In all three circumstances, a deadly plague reveals an ugly truth about our norms, forcing us to rethink our old ways and pushing us to adapt. Thus, if we think of paradigm shifts as a chemistry experiment, then the plague is the catalyst which speeds up the reaction process so that the changes could take place within a few decades, when it should have otherwise taken centuries.

Another valuable factor to consider from A Journal of the Plague Year is the role of socioeconomic background in the response to the plague. We refer to a previous blog-post titled Defoe: Deplague by aah610, in which the author asks “how do physical and socio-economic barriers play a role in how people perceive the plague as a threat?” We propose that the rich were more hopeful because they had the means to escape town (believing they were escaping the plague) while the poor were desperate as they were forced to stay behind. The rich are able to close their residences and flee early on during the plague, while the poor are stuck in their homes. The poor’s lack of education is taken advantage of by people selling fake remedies and superstitions. Those with a higher social status are seen to have the privilege of escape throughout various fictional and nonfictional examples of contagion. In the Decameron, the members of the brigata came from a more privileged social class. They had the luxury to escape from the death and destruction of the plague and relax at a palace in the countryside. That fact becomes clearer with their treatment of the servants, many of whom are sent back into the plague-ridden city to collect supplies for the brigata. The same concept appears within Severance—Candace, a first generation Chinese-American, cannot justify the “escape the city” mentality Jonathan, a white man, has.

In a more relevant example, during the Coronavirus pandemic, it became obvious how more privileged individuals were enjoying the “break” lockdown provided. Simultaneously, low-income families were thinking about whether they would be able to survive the month or not with their sources of income so significantly limited.

Reading the Journal, it was interesting to see the issues that were discussed by Professor Stearns in his paper: How did different religions and sects understand and interpret the plague? What kind of measures were taken by these groups? How can we qualitatively compare the efficiencies of different religious views on the pandemics? In the Journal, we see a direct example of the complexity of such questions. The narrator decides his future based on his religious beliefs, signs, and interpretations. Is he fatalistic in such actions? Or, to put it more conflictingly, is the Christian attitude fatalistic? 

Some books are of extreme importance not only because they have a high artistic value, but also, they give scientists a depiction of our long forgotten past. For example, one reason some 19th-century novels are valuable is that they zoom in on the socio-economic reality of the households of that period. And, here, we have a main hero of the story, some proto-Will-Smith in I am Legend. He then decides his future, based on his religious beliefs, signs, and interpretations. Doesn’t that tell something about people back then? Doesn’t that tell something about people today? 

Additionally, a cycle of hope turning into desperation (then sometimes back into hope) is observed in Defoe’s work. The narrator of Journal of the Plague Year captures the transitions between fear/desperation to hope on page 10; “the next week there seemed to be hope again… but the following week it returned again”, “it” being the plague.

What gives people hope during a pandemic?

In Defoe, the narrator finds hope through his belief in God, which was strengthened when he read a line from the Bible that states “…Thou shall not be afraid for the terror by night…” (22). Ironically however, the narrator is quite critical of a woman who claims she had seen an white angel in the sky, while this message gave her and others around her hope, the narrator resigns himself to say that she was delusional, a word he uses to criticize those who have found hope in unconventional ways

A scanning electron micrograph depicting a mass of Yersinia pestis bacteria, which is the cause of the Bubonic Plague.
The bacteria that took the lives of thousands of people and is responsible for the bubonic plague.

Once the horrifying reality of the plague set in and citizens lose hope, the narrator recalls that “death was before their eyes, and everybody began to think of their graves, not of mirth and diversion” (45). The transition to desperation is illustrated in the way sick people were forced into mandatory lockdowns with their houses marked, the imagining of comets and ghosts, etc…

Ultimately we would like to end with this question:

Why do we hope during a pandemic? And how are we able to hope again even after desperation?


Afraah, Adi, Jennifer, Meera

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!

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. 

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.