Cold War, Cheeseburgers, Religion, Hallucinogen

Perestroika was a political movement for reformation within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union during 1980s, which brought on the ascendancy of Western liberal democracy through the democratization of the Kremlin under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, thus marking the end of the Cold War and a solving to the conflict between capitalism and communism. These major political changes coincided, in America, with the emergence of the AIDS epidemic, which killed over one hundred thousand people during the same decade creating among the population of the USA a strong revulsion against homosexuals, who were considered to be carriers of the disease.

In the second part of his play, Tony Kushner wants to create an image of the political, historical and ideological consequences that this AIDS contagion had and the way the promised USA democracy (which should have shown its power after the falling of the Berlin’s wall) wasn’t able to stand against it. Perestroika begins with Aleksii Antedilluvanovich’s speech, who asks a series of questions which could be read as a prelude for the action of the play, anticipating the major ideologically problems USA will confront with (even if they are spoken by a Russian, they are meaningful for America as the disappearance of USSR could be viewed as a menace for USA that any “empire” could fall):

The Great Question before us is: Are we doomed? The Great Question before us is: Will the Past release us? The Great Question before us is: Can we Change? In time? And we all desire that Change will come.” [147]


Aleksii writes out a significant portion of the convener’s post for us at the very start of the play where he begins with these wide arching questions. His ruminations next land upon cheeseburgers and market incentives which he claims have replaced theory in the world. However, as understood by him, cheeseburgers and market incentives fail at replacing the purpose of theory which was (arguably) to make better sense of the world we live in. Later in the story this can be compared to placebos as replacements for medicine.

The replacement can be identified as a change and to overcome this change, requires more change. Returning to the previous conveners’ analogy, the cure for motion sickness is more motion. Thus we as readers (and perhaps even the other characters of the play) are asked,

 “Have you, my little serpents, a new skin?”

How aware are the different characters about the issues presented at the start at different occasions in the play?


The context contained in the title of Part II ‘Perestroika’ (as explained above) itself is a wide arching exposition to situate the events in the play. The train of thought that starts after reading the title ‘Perestroika’ is interrupted by reading the title of the first act ‘Spooj’. In a similar way, the serious and moderately urgent questions of Aleksii are followed by Harper ejaculating her ideas. In a sense, the play is giving us a behind-the-scenes thumbs-up on the effect of big concepts on little people’s lives, playing with the theme that perhaps the seriousness of issues have more quirks when lived at a personal level than when navigated as an overarching whole. It may not necessarily mean that the issue becomes less serious but its manifestations emerge differently.

How can this be compared to our understanding of heroism and Camus’ attempt at correcting it?


At least two people have outstanding imagination in the play – Harper and Prior. Prior’s imagination materializes in the form of an angel. Harper meanwhile can find Antartica in her backyard and metamorphose as a beaver to pull trees down.

Remembering that they were previously husband and wife, can the hallucinations be a way for them to continue to remain in sink? How do hallucinations affect them differently?


Prior: I’m not … distracted, I’m doing research.

Harper: On Mormons?

Prior: On Angels, (insert the rest of America saying “same thing!”)… I’m an angelologist.

Mormon religion began when its founder saw an angel in his dream who directed him to the Book of Mormons.  If religion is also there to make sense of things, how do plot conflicts insinuated by religious differences affect that process?

Camilla, Simrat, Silviu, Sudikchya


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  1. Here are some quotes I found to be interesting and essential to some of the main messages of the play (that hopefully answer/provide insight into some of the questions raised in this convener’s post).

    The entire play seems to revolve around the conflict between truth and acceptance of it- ideals and contradiction:

    “Louis and his Big Ideas. Big Ideas are all you love. “America” is what Louis loves. […] Well I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you.” (Act 3, Scene 5)

    However ideals are often dangerous and must be broken. Hallucinations seem to play that role of guiding the characters to the truth (threshold of revelation). The characters must then take off their old skin and change:

    “God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly […] he grabs hold of your bloody tubes […] and then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled, and torn. It’s up to you to do the stitching.
    And then get up. And walk around. […] That’s how people change.” (Act 3, Scene 4)

    In the end, most of the characters make it through the change and come to acceptance with reality. At the ending scene, Harper sums this up very well:

    “Nothing’s lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of painful progress.Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead.” (Act 5, Scene 8)

  2. I’d like to add some thoughts and observations on Aleksii Antedilluvianovich’s speech you brought up and related passages in this play. I found his speech quite significant in that it brought to the surface one of the central themes in this play: change in society and how people react to it. As you mentioned, the title of this second part, Perestroika, itself implies a rapid social change. Aleksii clearly notices that the society is changing, but argues that there is no overarching “theory” that can guide the change–thus the world is left in chaos.

    Other characters in this play have expressed their thoughts on change as well. At the beginning of Part 1, the rabbi says:

    “You can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not any more exist.” (Part 1, Act 1, Scene 1)

    The rabbi seems to share opinion with Aleksii, as he also believes that changes nowadays cannot lead to greater progress. He also mentions that America is a “melting pot where nothing melted,” again in parallel with Aleksii’s opinion that there is no overarching thesis but distinctive ideas that can be chaotic.

    In the phase of rapid social change, there are also forces who fear the change and warn people against it, represented by the angel in this play. The angel urges that we neither migrate nor intermingle, and “undo” the changes (Part 2, Act 2, Scene 2). Unlike angels who cannot imagine or invent (Act 2, Scene 2), human beings have the capacity to make changes.

    Through these characters, what does Kushner suggest about the changes in our society? And how can we relate it to America, a society built upon migration and intermarriage?

  3. Mina — thanks for all the great passages you’ve brought up here and in class discussion today. I think the “painful progress” phrase you brought up today provides one set of ideals the play enshrines. Ultimately Louis’s liberalism needs to be checked — and his friends continue to point out his blind spots all the way up to the final pages — but the play is reluctant to abandon liberalism entirely and seems to want, or at least hope, that movement, migration, and mixing all point toward change, at least some of which can be understood as positive. It may, even so, be painful. In fact it probably will be. But that doesn’t make it less desirable.

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