Social Critique and Dreams in Kushner’s Angels in America

A clip from Angels in America performed

Hi everyone!

For the next four classes, we will finally be discussing Kushner’s Angels in America, for which the augmenters’ posts about Wojnarowicz may come into our discussion.

In class, we’ve been talking a lot about contagion narratives and how they’re structured. More specifically, we’ve identified that, for example, the disease is never the main issue but rather is the backdrop as the narrative develops, grappling with various issues related to identity, politics, race, and more. And Angels in America is no exception. In a journal article titled “Cold War Science and the Body Politic: An Immuno/Virological Approach to Angels in America,” Daryl Ogden argues that

Kushner makes visible a Cold War political discourse that underlines the ideological similarities between the McCarthyite 1950s and the Reaganite 1980s, calling attention to the parallels between communism and homosexuality as American identities of otherness and disempowerment. (243)

So, in other words, as Kushner tackles issues of identity and politics, namely homosexuality and communism — and although Ogden does not explicitly state it — while the AIDS epidemic serves as a backdrop.

However, what is even more interesting is that some characters in the play conflate homosexuality and AIDS, much like Reaganite politics conflates the two, calling the epidemic the “gay plague.” But through this conflation, AIDS is not only a backdrop; rather, it is brought to the foreground as a key character in play — except even more pervasive, permeating the whole narrative. In this way, AIDS is both in the background and the foreground of the narrative. As a result, we nuance the role that the disease plays here. While it serves as a backdrop and creates an opportunity to bring up Reaganite politics and communism, it also allows for a more direct engagement with the perception of homosexuality and AIDS.

To question our assumptions about contagion narratives: to what extent do you think this narrative is different from others we’ve read? Is the disease as salient in other narratives such as Welcome to Our Hillbrow?

In Angels of America, some of the narration happens through dreams and imaginary conversations. The video embedded earlier depicts an interesting scene in the play where Prior is having an imaginary conversation with his ancestors on the theme of contagion. In what appears to be a nightmare, Prior is woken up by two men dressed in thirteenth and seventeenth century clothing, claiming to both be Prior Walter. They then go on to describe how their own pestilences (the plague) have led to their demise. They detail the curse “The spotty monster” that binds a couple of Walter family descendants to be carried off by the plague. This is done to try to explain why the current Prior is suffering a similar death, one by disease. This idea of mortality combined with inescapable fate makes us question the effect of one’s ancestors has on making up their own identity, and what affect that ultimately has on a person’s life. Thinking of narration in this play, the notion of dreams is a particularly interesting form of narration. In Scene 7, Harper and Prior share a dream. Although these two characters have never met before, in the previous scene, their partners meet each other for the first time. Scene 6, Joe and Louis meet in the men’s room of the Brooklyn Federal Court. The lives of Harper and Prior are connected through the lives of their partners, and their shared dream Prior informes Harper that her husband is homosexual. In the following excerpt, Harper questions imagination and her own dreams as she cannot believe that her dreams reflect reality that she is unaware of. Harper says,

“If I didn’t ever see you before and I don’t think I did, then I don’t think you should be in here, in this hallucination, because in my experience the mind, which is where hallucinations come from, shouldn’t be able to make up anything that wasn’t there to start with, that didn’t enter from experience, from the real world. Imagination cannot create anything new, can it? It only recycles bits and pieces from the world and resembles them into visions … Am I making sense right now?” (Kushner 32–33)

In the Dream of Ding Village, Grandfather’s dreams reflected real-life events and information that he was not consciously aware of. How does narration through the medium of dreams function in each piece? Are there similarities between the two?


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  1. The parallel between imagination and reality plays an important role in both Angels in America and Dream of Ding Village. Just as Harper says, what happens in Grandpa’s dreams, or in Harper’s hallucinations reflects what happens in the real world. Moreover, as the dreams give them information that they do not know yet, the dreams guide their actions in reality. At first, I thought dreams are only ways through which the author drives the narrative forward by feeding the characters information that they otherwise never know. However, as we see dreams being used repeatedly in contagion narratives, dreams are probably used to draw connections and sympathy between certain characters, as in the case of Louis and Harper, or maybe they are used to emphasize that the disease blur the lines between reality and fantasy in people’s minds, not because of medical symptoms but maybe because they are all longing or searching for something.

    • You bring up a very interesting point indeed. For me, dreams are this thing that are “outside of reality,” and so in dreams rules don’t apply. So by formally situating characters in dreams, Kushner frees himself of any constraints, allowing for all these possibilities of intersection between characters who would otherwise never meet, intersections of different time periods, and more. Yet, by employing real-life characters, he frees real life from all these constraints, allowing for these characters to transcend. This allows for a myriad of narrative possibilities. These imagined possibilities, in turn, reveal a lot about characters themselves and how they view the world.

    • What is interesting here is that both characters, Harper and Prior, are vulnerable in their own way. Prior with his illness and Harper with her forbidden valium addiction. They are connected by their disease and are apart of the same community, which is reflected in their rapport and easy, flowing conversation. They are also both experiencing their partners rejecting them. I think that more than their dreams being an aid to find what they are longing for, or realize that they are searching for something, it has allowed them to find answers and make sense of their own situation. It has allowed them to fully realize and accept their life situation, with Prior accepting that he is sick, and Harper finding out that her husband is gay. Though the dreams are inside of their own hallucinations, it very much reflects their real lives and provides both of them with a space to escape.

      • Adding on to what you said — or perhaps clarifying something you imply — the “dreams” that Prior and Harper experience are a result of an extremely gruesome reality. The “dreams” are a product of the ugly truth. When one takes this fact into consideration, it then reframes how the dreams are viewed; and to challenge my comment earlier: are these dreams actually “outside of reality”?

  2. The idea of ancestry and inescapable fate is important to consider, especially having read contagion narratives that focus heavily on plagued lineage and family ties. Even in Ghosts the “sins of the father” are passed down to son, Oswald. I guess, the other question that arises from this is , to what extent are our own fates in our control?. What happens when we try to change it? like Mrs.Alving and Oedipus. Is the tragedy that we can’t change it at all?

    Also, on the topic of dreams, I think ultimately they give the reader/audience access to the the subconscious of the characters and their thinking. In Harper’s dream, Prior is only able to confirm what Harper may already be suspicious about, thus, confirming her theory about dreams. However, what becomes tricky is when characters are able to interact with the real word, such as Ethel Rosenberg being able to call the ambulance for Roy, or perhaps we are just viewing Roy’s hallucination. Either way, I believe dreams are a way to access the innermost psyche of the characters without the narrator actually telling us.

  3. Hello, thank you so much for this post.
    You touch upon questions of identity which do seem to revolve around the entire play. I think that they are so interesting, and to read this book now while keeping in mind that: we have been reading contagion narratives this entire semester, and the conversation around identity politics these days is a little different. For most part, (I find that) academics try to steer away from the conversation surrounding identity politics at this point, because the conversation has been overdone, and it is one of these things that could be seen as extremely subjective. By extremely subjective I mean this whole you can be whatever you want to be / labels do not matter / etc. Which is also interesting because Amal brought this up in our class on Wednesday, but (not to be a traditionalist), there are labels for a reason. This reason, like with AIDs for example, is meant to encompass a thing and its symptoms, and when labels are allowed to be “very malleable” we get someone like Roy Cohn denouncing his disease and saying that he is simply not a homosexual, and what he has is not AIDs because he is not a homosexual. Both of which are factually (and linguistically) incorrect. That’s my mini opinion set on identity politics.
    One more thing that grabbed my attention in this post is when the conveners say “The lives of Harper and Prior are connected through the lives of their partners, and their shared dream Prior informs Harper that her husband is homosexual.” I know that for most of the readings we have done this semester, I often thought about what it means to be an individual in a collective atrocity such as the plague. However, this play addresses the individuality and identity effects on particular characters as opposed to all of society. Yet, there are interconnections between characters that are somewhat surreal. So I wonder what that means for the characters exactly, and society as a whole. Why are connections not in real life? My only thought about this is that the lack of realistic connectivity is because the epidemic at hand is AIDs, which is immediately associated with a marginalized group of people (the homosexuals) which makes real life connection also a means of outing yourself. However, I wonder why Kushner would not show for a larger connection within the gay communities, and I doubt that there completely wasn’t one.
    Thanks for reading my rant. This play is incredible.

    • Lina, I agree with you — talking about identity politics and labels in this play opens up a variety of possibilities (or hinderances). Labels are there for a reason, and they are important. On one hand, you might see Roy’s rejection of the label “homosexual” as an act of liberation (which brings back the subjectivity of identity politics). However, the flip side of that is that Roy adopts another label — a patient suffering from liver cancer, as well as “heterosexual” — which means that, in fact, he is not liberated from labels. Rather, he is avoiding certain labels to survive in society, to maintain his “clout.”

  4. I find Lina’s point about individual identity interesting. The ideas she brought up are insightful and I would like to build upon her comment and complicate the notions of identity and individualism. I think that in some ways, individual identity could have an indirect influence on society or the body politic, and this comes out more in Perestroika. For example, Joe’s and Roy’s rejection of their homosexuality impacts the laws that they endorse. Perhaps, had Joe viewed himself as a homosexual, he would not have argued that homosexuals are “not entitled to equal protection under the law” (248). The work of Joe and Roy creates a political impact that affects society. If their political impact is driven by their identity, then it could be argued that individual identity influences not only the individual but also society.

  5. Thanks everyone for the conversation here. Please, let’s turn to some of these topics tomorrow. I’m esp interested in following up on the question of connections/community through dreams & how individual identity expression or self-determination both seems a human right and something with social implications.

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