The second part of Angels in America, titled “Perestroika,” refers to the economic and political changes triggered by decentralization policies incurred by Mikhail Gorbachev. As past conveners have discussed:
This policy introduced free elections in the country and created warmer relationships with the US. Yet the policy brought with it a lot of unintentional effects such as the democratization of other countries in the eastern bloc and ultimately led to the downfall of the Soviet Union.hjc481
It is through this lens that we can view the overarching themes that Kushner employs, specifically in connection to character formation, contemporary politics, and human progress. Similar to “Perestroika,” Kushner’s gay fantasia narrative, Angels in America, tells the consequential unraveling of US society concerning the AIDS epidemic. Thus, deconstruction is played out on both a macro-level and a micro-level: the approach of a new millennium and the disconnection of relationships that the new millennium embodies. “Perestroika” in many ways becomes emblematic for the change that takes place within the United States. It is not so much detailing the necessity for deconstruction to result in change, but rather that change is inevitable and that to move forward, quick adaptation is necessary.
In “Perestroika,” Kushner also embodies his own ideas on human progress. Prior is chosen by the angels as a prophet among humankind to stop migration and the destructive progress that people are making. He turns down his position, arguing that people “…can’t just stop…progress, migration, motion is modernity. It’s animate, it’s what living things do. We desire” (Kushner 275). Kushner argues through Prior that so long as people are alive they desire, and that desire leads to progress, even if it is at the price of destruction in the process:
Yet Prior gradually realizes that moving and progress are inevitable, and even necessary, for humans. Throughout the play, for instance, each character progresses emotionally. Prior and Harper gain strength from being abandoned and are able to reject or leave Louis and Joe. Joe finds the courage to come out as a homosexual to his mother and Roy. After betraying Prior and realizing he has been in a relationship with a man whose acts he abhors, Louis comes back to Prior for his forgiveness. Perhaps we should ask if individual progress represents humanity’s progress in general?hjc481
As these past conveners infer, Kushner suggests that progress is needed for growth. Moreover, the above quote and the content of “Perestroika” in a broader framework raises the question: How is progress achieved? Is it through synthesis or deconstruction? Or perhaps both?
Questions of progress and human nature are also raised in “Millennium Approaches.” Harper goes on a tangent about the ozone layer and describes it as a “pale blue halo, a gentle shimmering aureole encircling the atmosphere energizing the earth” (Kushner 16). That halo was made up of “guardian angels, hands linked [making] a spherical net, a shell of safety for life itself. But everywhere, things are collapsing, lies surfacing, systems of defense giving way” (Kushner 16). We witness this collapse in the relationships between characters such as Prior and Louis. Later, we see that this collapse leads to a series of interconnected events that result in these characters finding solace in each other’s pain and suffering. Moreover, their shared distress strengthens their relationships as seen in “Perestroika”; characters as different as Belize and Roy support each other as Belize provides Roy with companionship — no matter how hostile — and in return, Roy provides Belize with access to rare medication. Harper describes this network of suffering people as “a great net of departed souls” (Kushner 285). This conglomeration of networks, a synthesizing of relationships, evokes the notion that through coming together, not only does change happen but we are healed. At the end of the day, do we need ties to survive through change?
“Perestroika” encompasses the complete downfall of a closed network, presenting us with key implications. Earlier, in “Millennium Approaches,” Louis and Prior are in a codependent relationship; however, when Prior’s illness becomes apparent, Louis is overwhelmed and leaves. This change, like Gorbachev’s relatively minor changes, leads to a host of other effects including new experiences and relationships. Prior not only learns how to survive on his own but homes in on his spiritual connection and becomes a prophet. Prior and Louis reunite at the end of the book; although they are no longer in a romantic relationship, they have a strong bond and spend much time together. Their network, undergoing a phase change, expands to include Hannah and Belize — a network that is stronger and more supportive than it was. Perestroika dissociated the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which eventually formed either fully autonomous (Georgia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) or semi-autonomous regions (Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia). Although they have a shared history and still maintain a connection to each other, they have more agency in deciding their future because of their independence. This political transition is reflected in the character development throughout the play; people depart from their initial relationships and separate into semi-autonomous beings. The characters’ codependent habits evolve into more interactive relationships.
Past ideas of codependency and closeness had been tying down the USSR and the characters in the play; does contagion, in forcing us to leave our comfortable relationships, force us to find independence and autonomy? What degree of destruction/synthesis do we deem necessary for progress?
So there is something that had bothered me throughout the entire discussion and that is the notion of progress. There is no doubt that things are changing – not only in the play but also in the real society it depicts – but to equate change to progress, or even have the notion that the world is always progressing forward, is a mighty hopeful and a deeply biased notion. Why? Because it places change as a dichotomy between a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’, something which this whole play is based on – for those who resist change see past as the good and future as the bad, while those who see it as progress see the past as bad and future as good.
I too subscribe to the latter school of thought and desire to believe that humanity is only progressing forward. And by subscribing to this school of thought I act in hopes of making a better future. But I also need to remind myself that the “good” and the “bad” are labels that I arbitrarily set, hence my actions of making a ‘better’ future is better only from my point of view.
So as an example; perestroika is seen as an example of historical progress as the society became accepting of greater choice for the people. But it did lead to the collapse of an entire governmental structure and led to a U.S. dominated world (which had no downsides whatsoever and was roses and daisies everyday in the oil-nations of the middle east). But what about, say, the establishing the foundations of the Roman Empire by Caesar? This too must be seen as an example of historical progress as it set the stage for a nation to prosper and grow for four centuries (or fourteen centuries depending on how you view history). But it also allowed for infamous tyrants such as Nero and Caligula to torment and destroy the lives of millions. Moreover, from purely current point of view, Caesar was someone who overthrew a democratic system to establish an absolute monarchy.
Essentially what I want to do is slightly rephrase the final lines of the play: Change is not good, nor is it bad. The world ever changes and spins, not necessarily forwards, but necessarily differently from the past. We must still embrace it and welcome change and be ready for it to happen – but we must also be extremely cautious in believing change to always equate to progress.
Your objection of equating to change to progress seems valid. Change may not always be categorized as either good or bad, either by those who resist it, considering it to be bad, or by those who accept it, considering it to be good. The example you gave of perestroika included people accepting greater choice for others but then also the collapse of the government structure. It seems that you are saying one is absolutely good and the other absolutely bad? Is this the case?
Also, at the end when you say that change is not good, neither bad- couldn’t it be both? Perhaps we progress forward in some ways but backwards in others. But there could be an overall forward progression? I do agree with your point that we cannot always equate it to a forward progression though.