Archive for March, 2014

Ghosts in America

Ghosts, from what we learned in the play of the same name by Ibsen, are figures for public opinion. We also know that by adhering to public opinion characters often feel trapped by society and unable to find a way out. However, interestingly, this idea of ghosts also exist in the play Angels in America. More specifically characters are often restricted in many ways due to established public opinions or traditions, such as love, religion, and HIV.

In the first part of Tony Kushner’s play, Millennium Approaches, Prior’s boyfriend, Louis, abandons him when he discovers that Prior has AIDS. Prior has held off telling Louis about his illness for fear that Louis would leave him – and his fears turn out to be justified. So can we regard Louis as a heartless villain? His actions make us wonder, “What would I do in his situation”? Ghosts would rebuke Prior’s decision; they would insist that it is not right to leave the loved one in a hardship. But here, in the play, the audience does not strongly judge Louis for his choice. His character still manages to be sympathetic: the traits are drawn with such care and detail that we at least understand why he does what he does. Louis feels terribly guilty and wrestles with the decision a lot before leaving Prior: he consults a rabbi, cries in a bathroom, and, after he has left Prior, we see him constantly condemning himself. He fully realizes what a horrible thing he is doing. But still… he leaves.

One of the most trapped characters in the play is perhaps Joseph Porter Pitt. Being a Mormon and a homosexual, an almost oxymoronic relationship, Joe was torn between the choice of being a good Mormon or being liberated sexually. His struggle is deep, even more so than the characters in Ibsen’s play, as he cannot be liberated even by telling the truth. Take for example the phone call he had with Hannah, his mother, a Mormon. In the phone call he confessed plainly that he was a homosexual to his mother. However, what he met with was not acceptance, not even an acknowledgement, but rather a flat denial: “you’re being ridiculous”.  This is not the only time Joe’s sexual orientation was trying to be covered up or denied by Mormons. The morning after the phone call Joe also indirectly told Harper, his wife, that he is homosexual by expressing his lack of sexual interest in her. Again, instead of acceptance, Joe received nothing but a wife living in denial.

Just as in Ibsen’s Ghosts, there is obviously an infection that haunts the people of Angels in America: HIV. The stigma that comes with HIV was strong during the 1980s and is still prevalent today. Roy explicitly shows us what some of those stigmas are when during his doctor’s visit he says, “It afflicts mostly homosexuals and drug addicts” (49). Suddenly, being infected with a disease such as HIV becomes a societal blame game, a public pointing of fingers. Roy begins to taunt Dr. Henry, trying to get him to call him a homosexual. Roy’s obsession over the word, as well as his final self-diagnosis being liver cancer, emphasizes the strong ghost of HIV.

With some of these challenges of self-identity being faced by the characters of the play, the question of choices comes into play. How much “say” do they have upon their lives? These characters are given truths about themselves or those around them, truths that seems almost unspeakable in a societal context; and maybe in effect become unspeakable on the individual level. These attitudes will inevitably affect the actions and reactions of these characters, leaving us to wonder how much power the individual has over such situations.

Kushner resources

Hi, all. Welcome back from spring break. I’m repeating a post from Contagion 2012 about resources for thinking about Kushner. You can also look at the conveners’ post from 2012. First let me give you a clip I plan to discuss during our first session on Angels.


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), very similar to the one we had in class today, 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 teaches 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).

If you’re really interested, here’s the archive of a live-tweet one of our TAs ran as I lectured in 2011, the last time we taught this course together.

Part 1:

  • Getting ready for today’s #wny11 part I of Kushner’s ANGELS IN AMERICA. Thinking abt community, identity, history, legacies of immigration. #
  • A guide to some of the Kushner-related material from our blog: #wny11 #
  • @_waterman lecturing on Angels in America today #wny11 #
  • @lwarr because @cpatell is in Abu Dhabi today; @pwhny in good hands. #wny11 #
  • Transitioning from 70s to the 80s via Patti Smith–>Grace Jones for our lecture prelude #wny11 #
  • Prior: Not a conventional woman. Belize: Grace Jones? #angels #wny11 #
  • This a pretty good history of gays in New York for anyone who’s interested #wny11 #
  • Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On is also a pretty good history of AIDS in New York and SF #wny11 #
  • Theatricality of everyday life: How do we understand performance? #wny11 #
  • Performance is also interesting when you think about tension between out and closeted gay characters. What is Roy Cohn performing? #wny11 #
  • AIDS epidemic is perfect dystopian moment for Kushner’s play. Confluence of personal and political choices and consequences #wny11 #
  • Play is also conscious of the rise political correctness and its relationship to identity #wny11 #
  • Ginsberg as a prophet figure for “Angels.” He needs to be the crazy poet yet wants to participate #wny11 #
  • What is the role of theater in mediating themes like history, identity, and community? #wny11 #
  • Watching HBO ‘Angels’ “Drag is a drag” dream sequence #wny11 #
  • Pay attention to the way Prior is always “performing:” drag, prophet, lines from movies. #wny11 #
  • “Imagination can’t create anything new, can it?” Can it? #wny11 #
  • Think about how “contamination” works in ‘Angels’ as something toxic, inexorable, and revelatory #wny11 #
  • @ultramaricon True #wny11 #
  • Feather floating represents possibility in writing for creation of new stories #wny11 #
  • New York pre-dates San Francisco as a “gay city.” See previous tweet about “Gay Metropolis” #wny11 #
  • Appiah on Contamination: “conversations that occur across cultural boundaries” #wny11 #
  • ‘Angels’ as an Early 90s period piece that reflects a post-Reagan-Bush I anxiety #wny11 #
  • Reagan’s silence on AIDS lead to people referring to the epidemic as “Reagan’s Disease” in some circles #wny11 #
  • What would Olmsted have thought of Central Park as a site for anti-nuclear bomb activism? #wny11 #
  • Reagan’s “Star Wars” looks like the cheesiest video game ever #wny11 #
  • It’s easy to laugh at Reagan’s conflation of fantasy and reality, but Kushner does some interesting things by blurring that line #wny11 #
  • Reagan as performing masculinity in ‘Angels’ in the eyes of Joe and Roy Cohn #wny11 #
  • Relationship between gay activism and gay theater in the 1960s-1970s #wny11 #
  • Think about ‘Angels’ and the history of political theater (O’Neill) and meta-theatricality (Tyler and Doctorow) #wny11 #
  • RT @lwarr: @pwhny Mondale won my kindergarten class’s mock election in 1984. I cried when Reagan won the real election #wny11 #babynerd #
  • From the Reagan doc I used in #wny11 today: NYC as a set of symbols to be mobilized by all sides: #
  • @ultramaricon Which is one reason I found the @NYTOpinionator piece on “Am Fam” to be puzzling. cc @epicharmus #wny11 #
  • RT @lwarr: @pwhny Part 1 of this Frontline series on AIDS documents the 80s and Reagan’s role in the disease #wny11 #
  • @FlyingHubcap We certainly still live with its effects. #
  • @ThirteenNY @PBS Weds 10 pm RT @cityroom Documentary Celebrates Olmsted, a Creator of Central Park #wny11 #
  • #wny07 #wny11 RT @CitySnapshots ANGELS IN AMERICA. SEE IT. #
  • Just a NY conversation rattling round my head. RT @cire_e New York Style #
  • The full American Experience doc on Reagan: #wny11 #

Part 2:

  • Wrapping up ANGELS IN AMERICA in #wny11 today. #
  • @_waterman on Kushner’s ANGELS IN AMERICA: PERESTROIKA today. #wny11 #
  • Opening music: Talking Heads, 1978-79 “Thank you for Sending Me an Angel,” “Cities,” and “Heaven.” #wny11 #
  • @_waterman starting off with Linda Hutcheon’s idea of “historiographic metafiction.” #wny11 #
  • Kushner’s play asking: “Do we make history or are we made by it”? How are we conditioned by the stories we tell about the past? #wny11 #
  • Hutcheon’s book: A POETICS OF POSTMODERNISM #wny11 #
  • Showing clip from Mike Nichols’s adaptation: Roy, Joe, and Ethel. MILLENNIUM APPROACHES, Act 3, Scene 5. #wny11 #
  • @_waterman on pre- (building Zion) and post-millennialism (apocalypse). Play’s Harper is caught between the two. #wny11 #
  • Interesting account of post-millennialism by Stephanie Hendricks: #wny11 #
  • @waterman on 4 differrent angels invoked by play. 1st: Angel of History from Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” #wny11 #
  • See W. Benjamin, ILLUMINATIONS. Kushner has acknowledged his indebtedness to Benjamin. #wny11 #
  • 2nd Angel: Paul Klee, “Angelus Novus” – #wny11 #
  • Benjamin on Klee: “The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned …. ” #wny11 #
  • “… while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” Benjamin’s idea of “messianic time.” #wny11 #
  • @_waterman Stonewall and AIDS in light of Benjamin: catastrophic moments, one liberating, the other …? #wny11 #
  • Kushner’s play struggles with Marxist teleology, because it wants (like its character Belize) liberal progress. #wny11 #
  • Actually Benjamin and Klee’s angels are counting as 1. Second is angel who wrestles with Jacob, who then receives new name. #wny11 #
  • Jacob’s wrestling: renaming, rebirth. For Joe, also a sign of painful progress, plus he finds it erotic. #wny11 #
  • @_waterman showing this version of the picture: #wny11 #
  • Motif of shedding skin throughout ANGELS. #wny11 #
  • Question of Joe’s fate. Why is he excluded from cosmopolitan redemption at end? Has he committed some kind of “sin”? #wny11 #
  • NY Mag interview with Kushner from 2008: #wny11 #
  • Play’s Third Angel: Kushner stitching together bits and pieces form America’s past – Angel Moroni from Mormonism. #wny11 #
  • @_waterman show this image of Angel Moroni appearing to Joseph Smith : #wny11 #
  • Mormon story as a rewriting of Christianity and also Judaism: a new Exodus. #wny11 #
  • @_waterman showing clip from HBO Angels of Harper in Mormon Center with diorama coming alive. Harper: “The magic of theater.” #wny11 #
  • Kushner and fallibilism: in what ways is ANGELS trying to learn from American traditions with which it disagrees? #wny11 #
  • 4th Angel: Bethesda Fountain. #wny11 #
  • @_waterman showing the final scene from the HBO version. Lucky, the film exists, because now he doesn’t have to read the scene … #wny11 #
  • @_waterman Because the last time he read it in class, he broke into tears, remembering his reaction to seeing the scene on stage. #wny11 #
  • @_waterman Exit Music: Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, “Cheek to Cheek.” Over and out. #wny11 #

Our Plague…

Everybody is a bit like Sisyphus…

As the first half of the semester advanced, we were more and more anxious about Spring Break.  The suffocating deadlines, papers and readings seemed to progressively drive the whole student body into a study quarantine, as suggested by an earlier convener’s post.  A couple of days ago, I thought about why people cross out calendars; what are they waiting for so anxiously?

This made me think of none other than Albert Camus and his Myth of Sisyphus, which I have alluded a lot in class.  In this essay, Camus explains his philosophy of the absurd, which Moonie hinted at in her post.  Briefly explained, for Camus, there is no meaning to the world, and a man’s life is absurd insofar as he is trying to put together a puzzle of which there are no pieces.  Does this mean that we should then kill ourselves? No, the answer is to embrace the struggle, to rebel against the absurd.  He then invokes the myth of Sisyphus, who has condemned to carry a boulder over a hill only to see it roll down again and again.  His life is the ultimate realization of absurdity.  Camus argue that the only way Sisyphus can defeat his circumstance is by enjoying the task he was set to do, that is his rebellion.

It is true that one way of looking at The Plague is to read is as knowledge about things to do in the event of another outbreak.  It can also be read as an exercise in memory for those who parted.  However, I think there is more to Camus’s novel, and in that effort, the Myth of Sisyphus helps me to illustrate that point.  Oran’s experience of disease is an allegory of our experience of the absurdity in our lives: no one can scape death, and faced with this fate, we have only one option.  We must experience time in its full length.  We must allow “inklings” to infiltrate our routines.  We must try to play saints.  Only then we might conquer the absurd.

Who is Albert Camus? What’s his Philosophy?

We know his play is based on the events of WWII and the German occupation of France during the time of the World War. But how much do we really know about Camus?

Due to tuberculosis, Camus had to quit playing football in university, but was still successful at attaining a degree in Philosophy. Camus was highly involved with politics, having been a member of the Communist party and the Algerian People’s party during his student years. Later, alike his colleague Jean-Paul Sartre (fellow philosopher) Camus published a political commentary regarding the World War 2. Camus directed Combat, the French Resistance journal against WWII and resigned from it once it became commercial.

In 1949, when Camus experienced a relapse with his illness, tuberculosis, he lived in seclusion for 2 years, writing The Rebel, expressing his rejection of communism; but why? Wasn’t he a part of the Communist party? Camus had later been expelled from the Communist party due to his affiliation with the Algerian People’s Party and moved on to be part of the anarchist movement.

What does this suggest about Camus’ philosophy, and more specifically, his political philosophy? Many of Camus’ ideas are in line with existentialist thought, but there are significant differences in his personal philosophy such as a “benign indifference” as discussed in his work, The Stranger.

What is clear is that Camus seems to be an odd egg; he acts against the existing regime, as shown with his opposition against the German opposition, but what’s more interesting is that even amongst his fellow rebels, Camus doesn’t seem to belong. Perhaps this is why scholars often refer to him as an “absurdist.” Perhaps this reflects the level of complexity and unorthodox disposition with which we are to interpret The Plague.

Watch this quirky video analyzing Camus’ philosophy with evidence form Camus’ work previous to The Plague,The Stranger. 


ORPHÉE ET EURYDICE: Act III Duet and Camus, The Plague, part IV

Early in Part IV of Camus’s The Plague, Cottard and Tarrou head to the Municipal Opera House to see a performance of Gluck’s Orpheus. Here’s the duet mentioned in that scene, which we’ll read and discuss in class today. Here’s a little more about Gluck’s opera — a variation on “the underground rescue-mission [plot] in which the hero must control, or conceal, his emotions” — as well as some additional info about the story it tells. What can this set piece — and the additional stories it invokes — tell us about Camus’ larger narrative?

Is Miranda a representation of Anne Porter?

From the very first sentences of reading the Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939) the author, Anne Porter, grabs our attention by getting insight of the novel’s protagonist, Miranda. If I didn’t know that the novel was a fiction, I would assume that we are reading a real person’s notebook: the emotions, feelings, experiences of being sick are described so vividly that it is impossible that the author of the book did not experience it personally.

An American writer Katherine Anne Porter is the first female writer that we read so far in our class who wrote about the disease, and its aftermath. It is an amazing contrast to the male writers of her generation who I tend to associate more with “war writing” and all of the noble ideas attached to war. The horror of the World War I is not at all the same here – I suppose I had believed all people who lived through the Great War felt noble and destroyed about it, but Porter presents a much more cynical attitude. The author keeps a restrained tone in her writing most of the time, but there are moments of pathos and power, especially when we get into the mind of the protagonist.

Miranda is a young woman, who works for a newspaper during the last year of the WWI when the tragic flu epidemic killed millions. She is alive, but not living. She dines and dances with a soldier she loves, but knows that the relationship is pointless as he is being shipped overseas in a few days. Then Miranda herself catches the illness, and her suffering is narrated through several bizarre and horrific dreams: “…She floated into the darkness, holding his hand, in sleep that was not sleep…and angry dangerous wood full of inhuman concealed voices singing sharply like the whine of arrows…” (191, Porter). Although on the verge of death, Miranda has a “beatific vision” that alienates her from life itself. If we look at the biography of the author, we may assume that Porter describes her own near-death experience with the virulent flu virus:

“In 1915, Anne Porter was diagnosed with tuberculosis and spent the following two years in sanatoria, where she decided to become a writer… Katherine almost died in Denver during the 1918 flu pandemic. When she was discharged from the hospital months later, she was frail and completely bald. When her hair finally grew back, it was white, and remained that color for the rest of her life. Her experiences during treatment provided the background for her long story Pale Horse, Pale Rider.”


Based on the quote above, we can conclude that Anne Porter conveyed her own inner feelings during the disease through her fictional character –Miranda.



♪~~Pale Horse, Pale Rider~~♫

Song and music played a peculiar role in the novel Pale Horse, Pale Rider.  In fact the title of the book was first mentioned as the lyric of a song, “pale horse, pale rider done taken my lover away.” This brought my attention to the two songs presented in the novel, “Pale Horse, pale rider” and “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”

The song “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” was arguably the most significant song in the novel as it was directly linked to the title of the book. This idea was reinforced by that the song was the extreme compact version of the book, with the lyrics detailing and foreshadowing the essential plot of the novel. Take for example the death of Adam, which is foreshadowed by the lyric “[death] done taken my lover away”, and the survival of Miranda, “Death always leaves one singer to mourn”. However, the irony about this song is that it does even not exist in real life.

Fortunately the other song do exist in real life. At my first reading of the book I was profoundly confused by the author’s choice of song, My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, to be sung for the celebration of the armistice and her dismissal of the current national anthem. Shouldn’t the more appropriate song be The Star-Spangled Banner, the national Anthem of United States of America? However a brief internet search yielded that before 1931 My Country, ‘Tis of Thee was actually the de-facto national anthem of USA and was modeled after the British national anthem, God Save the Queen. Since the setting of the book was in 1918, it made sense to use the old anthem. However the current national anthem, though not mentioned explicitly, was expressed indirectly in the phrase “oh, say, can you see?” that came right after the singing of “My Country, Tis of thee”.

Here is the video of the old American anthem:

In the novel the lyrics of the de-facto national anthem was contrasted with Miranda’s view of United States of America. The lyric “sweet land” was directly contrasted with Miranda’s view, “terrible land of this bitter world”. This direct contrast could mark the alienation of Miranda as it expressed her contrasting view against the whole country. In addition this contrast could also be seen as a criticism towards the government and the society in general. The contrast could demonstrate that government didn’t fulfill its job and that society was living in deception.

Plagued with Midterms

What happens periodically and causes panic, pain, suffering, and alienation?

Of course, the answer is — Midterms!

Much as midterms or exams in general have us, students, panicking about the upcoming testing, feeling the pain and suffering from the social pressure and holing up in our rooms in hopes to survive the dreadful epidemic, the quarantine in Camus’ The Plague plays a similar role.

The novel takes places in Oran, Algeria, where the bubonic plague has stricken the populace. At first, the people ignore the imminent danger of the plague, but not long after they realize its destructive force which ultimately results in putting the city under quarantine.

Oran, Algeria in the 1940s

In Ibsen’s Ghosts,  Mrs. Alving’s unfortunate predicament was the result of her fear of society’s judgement and public opinion. In her struggle to fit herself and her family into the existing societal norms, she sacrificed her mental and physical well-being and with that ended up completely alienated.

Similarly, alienation manifested itself in The Plague with the influence of societal norms. The norms in Oran seemed to be the “habits [that were encouraged] by our town” (Camus 3), a standard of behavior for everyone. (While reading the book we came to a mutual agreement that the notions of standardizing behavior was reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984.) When the plague first hit, its impact was suppressed and denied in the minds of Oran’s citizens. Those in power consciously tried to downplay the effects of the bubonic plague in order to keep population under control, and they complied without hesitation:

“People in town are getting nervous, that’s a fact,” Dr. Richard admitted. “And of course all sorts of wild rumors are going round. The Prefect said to me, ‘Take prompt action if you like, but don’t attract attention.’ He personally is convinced that it’s a false alarm.” (Camus 46)

This town, even before the plague struck, was described as a place where it was “difficult to die”. According to the narrator, a dying person would be faced with a lack of support and acknowledgement of their suffering and imminent death:

“Think what it must be for a dying man, trapped behind hundreds of walls all sizzling with heat, while the whole population, sitting in cafes or hanging on the telephone, is discussing shipments, bills of lading, discounts! It will then be obvious what discomfort attends death, even modern death, when it waylays you under such conditions in a dry place.” (Camus 3)

Unfortunately for the townsfolk of Oran, however, the alienation doesn’t stop there. The situation in town worsens when the actual quarantine is put into effect by Dr. Rieux. The alienation brought about by the societal norms and habits of that community was of a moral, less tangible nature. In fact, the people of Oran were virtually unaware of the alienation they experienced in this respect. With the quarantine, however, the more physical and concrete boundary served to amplify their dormant feelings of loneliness and estrangement. The town is sealed off from the outside world, with many unable to reach their loved ones, as in the cases of both Dr. Rieux and Raymond Rambert.

Quarantine in Sydney, 1900

The dynamics of these types of alienation are cardinal in defining not only the main characters of the novel, but also the many citizens of Oran, and consequently the town as a whole. The novel ends on a hopeful note: In struggling to overcome the plague and their crushing alienation, they gave themselves purpose. The citizens of Oran, illuminated by the recent plight, come to see themselves as a community, rather than as self-interested individuals.

How else might these notions of loneliness and alienation help us understand the complex characters of Camus’ novel? And how, if at all, do they help us understand the connection between survival and memory?

On a slightly different but interesting note, we would like to raise a question about narration: In The Plague, the narrator claims to be objectively describing the situation that took place in Oran while keeping his own identity hidden from the readers. He promises to reveal who he is at some point in the novel. This raises some questions about the credibility of the narrator himself. With our experıence of readıng Arthur Mervyn, that is, being faced by a questıonable narrator, we can draw the conclusion that we cannot fully trust the narrator to give the reader a fully objective account of what has happened. Does this lack of confidence in the credibility of the narrator change or influence our reading of The Plague by Camus, the way it did in Arthur Mervyn?
We hope you don’t put yourself under a “study quarantine” in the wake of the upcoming midterms.

Stay healthy,

Batu, Sarah, Victoria

Checking in: plague and social contract

I had hoped to share a quote this morning from a book I read when I first began plotting the syllabus for this course: Barbara Fass Leavy’s To Blight with Plague. Here she contrasts Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider and Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year on the subject of social contract. I think this discussion is useful also as we turn the corner to our consideration of Camus. Leavy writes:

In theory, the [social] contract is an antithesis to chaos and a reference point for civic duty, which is itself a possible antidote to a person’s alienating fear of others in the world. In times of plague … the tensions in the social contract emerge to disclose the separateness of human beings, fear of contagion … literalizing an essential antipathy toward others, or, at best, a drive toward self-preservation that under stress alienates even well-meaning individuals. But whereas works such as Defoe’s Journal affirm the viability of the social contract, Pale Horse, Pale Rider looks at it from the opposite point of view. The collective itself becomes a macroparasite against which the individual needs protection.

How and where can we see these issues playing out in Porter’s novella? And what do you make of the macroparasite analogy?