Archive for April, 2014

Whitman in Angels in America

When reading Angels in America, an important intertext to consider is Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself; Kushner himself writes in the Afterword: “We are all children of ‘Song of Myself'” (284). Published in the collection Leaves of Grass, this far-reaching poem of and for everyone and everything, regardless of the size or social worth or any other criteria, is a distinctly American epic poem written in free verse. In long, flowing lines Whitman constructs an extensive catalogue of everything around him with “words simple as grass” – just one of the many uses of the symbol of grass. In Song of Myself, grass is an epitome of equality for it does not discriminate where it grows: it is “a uniform hieroglyphic,” “sprouting alike in broad zone and narrow zones, / growing among black folks as among white.” It is the cycle of life: both death, growing from the buried bodies (“grass of graves”), and rebirth, always giving rise to new life; it is the transcending nature, an image of divinity on earth; it is the world’s playground, our all-seeing and all-knowing surrounding, the God of the modern age; this is Whitman’s grand poetic vision of (American) democracy, equality, unity.

Resonances of this vision can be found throughout the play in Louis’s extravagant speeches (almost soliloquies) on the nature of democracy, but even more interestingly, they can be found in the Angel’s speech. The Angel, seemingly a distinctly conservative and reactionary character turns out to be a much more dialectical figure: she appears female but is revealed to be a hermaphrodite with eight vaginas and “a Bouquet of Phalli” (175). She is both male and female, both hetero- and homosexual, and radiates mystical sexual energy. All of these and a lot of indiscriminate sex in the play are very reminiscent of Whitman’s all-inclusive logic and extremely sensual poetics (also full of homoerotic images). Furthermore, the Angel’s warning to Prior: “Hiding from Me one place you will find me in another. / I I I I stop down the road, waiting for you” (179) echoes the final lines of Song of Myself: “Missing me one place search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you,” and the numerous “I’s” the Angel employs are echoes of a strong “I” narrator persona in Whitman’s poem. He writes:

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,

The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,

The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue

. . .

I am not the poet of goodness only, I do not decline to be the poet of wickedness also.

Like Whitman, who embraces all binaries and incorporates them into himself, the Angel turns out to not be so monolithic either. If we re-think the Angel (and the social and cultural forces she seems to represent) and look at her through the prism of the literary legacy she is coming from, the character suddenly becomes much more dialectical and subversive, and the messages and commands she issues much more shaky.

Perestroika: Blurred Lines

Perestroika is to restructure. The title alludes to the 1986 Law aimed to reform the Soviet government and the Communist Party brought about due to the end of the Cold War. The title foreshadows change throughout Act 2 of the play. It could suggest the blurring of lines and the breaking of borders, a step towards this so-called “cosmopolitanism” – and could also be hinting at the core irony of US’ “success” in the Cold War, as despite its political triumph, America was turmoiled with an internal revolution: a social and ideological revolution led by those excluded by the white, protestant, and heterosexual America. In Perestroika, the blurring of lines becomes startlingly apparent through the genderlessness of angels, sexual fluidity amongst characters, the distinguishment (or non-distinguishment) of dreams/hallucinations and reality. Social structures are also prone to restructurization, as seen through the pervasiveness of HIV across social structures, essentially minimizing the differences among people. Roy is wealthy, but dies. Prior, who comes from an affluent family, but owns little assets himself, survives for at least another five years. The contagion can cause a little revolution in society…

Through many identities portrayed in Perestroika, Kushner captures the polarized, yet functional cultural landscape of American society. There are many identities shown in the second part of Kushner’s book. Black and white, straight and gay, rich and poor, Jewish, Mormons, politically-connected people, and normal citizens.  When Louis finds out that Joe is a Mormon, which he describes as “some bizarre religious sect” (186), Joe becomes instantly defined by this label. Even when Joe talks about the US as the “Best place on earth. Best place to be” (203), which may appeal to Joe and Luis’s common identity as Americans, Luis cuts Joe short by saying “OY. A Mormon” (203). Kushner emphasizes the labels by capitalizing phrases, such as Prior’s description of Joe, “A Gay Mormon Republic Lawyer” (220). Belize faces constant derision from Roy for his race, and says “I am trapped in a world of white people. That’s my problem” (225). This is another instance of a character’s life deeply affected by their identity, without their ability to be able to affect it. So why is this relevant? The US is often regarded as the melting pot of nations. However, the play shows American society – as represented by NYC society – as quite polarized. Racism, anti-semitism and homophobia are very present, even in the liberal atmosphere of NYC. This can be viewed as a criticism of the American culture. On the other hand, Kushner shows an interesting paradox: even though the characters have distinct identities, they manage to get along at their gathering at Bethesda.

An interesting take on American society is depicted by the Angel who tells Prior about the detrimental effect human progress has brought to Heaven and encourages him to become a reactionary prophet. They want humanity to go back and settle down, because society’s movement has caused God to leave paradise. He changed the Angels for Men.

“Forsake the Open Road:
Neither Mix Nor Intermarry: Let Deep Roots Grow:
if you do not MINGLE you will Cease to Progress”

For centuries, America has supported its expansion policy at home (emigration to the West) and their intervention abroad to spearhead lead the road to freedom and democracy.  However, according to the Angels (and think of this in terms of the Mormon elements in the play) such progress is rather undesirable. This makes sense insofar as, for many of the characters of the play, progress has brought about great disappointment.  Harper, Joe, Prior and Belize are not all that happy in America.

“It’s a Promised land, but
what a disappointing
promise!” (196)

“I hate America, Lous. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high nobody can reach it” (228)

So the question stands: is perestroika – is change – desirable? Are the angels – the divine – stating the greater truth? Could it be that change brings about more drawbacks than benefits in society? Is freedom achievable in any society?

Reagan’s America

We’ll watch about 10 minutes from these in class today, but I wanted to embed them here in case anyone wanted to see the whole thing. It’s the PBS American Experience documentary on Ronald Reagan, and yes, this is what I was showing in lecture one year when the vice president of the college’s Young Republicans stormed out of class. I think I was able to reassure her later that I wasn’t necessarily trying to malign Reagan — nor was the film. Rather, I was hoping to explain why Kushner’s play takes such an ominous view of the 40th American president.


AIDS in Teen Subculture

In looking at the theme of Contagion in Angels in America, perhaps we can be aided by also looking at this same theme in pop culture. The first movie that came to mind for me when I thought about the AIDS epidemic was Kids by Larry Clark (1995). In its day, this movie rose to infamy due to its graphic nature and the age of its cast/subjects, most of whom were young skaters hanging around Washington Square Park. The movie was also Harmony Korine’s screenwriting debut, an opportunity created after Clark asked Korine, a 19-year-old skater, to capture the crazy haphazard modern life of teens in New York City.

The story of the movie revolves a few 16 and 17-year-old characters, namely Telly, Caspar, Jennie, and Ruby. Telly, obsessed with having sex with virginal girls sometimes as young as 12 and 13, is infected with HIV but doesn’t know it. The summer before, he had sex with Jennie, and Jennie finds out she is also infected (by Telly) after she goes into the clinic for STD testing. Throughout the movie, Jennie tries to stop Telly from infecting his next victim, who is, in this case, Darcy, a 13- year-old virgin and younger sister of a friend.


Darcy and Telly at the swimming pool.

(points to lesion) “What’s that?”

“That’s my triple nipple.”

They giggle.

Earlier in the movie, the attitude towards the disease can be seen in a speech from a boy in Telly’s gang. In this scene, they’re all sitting around, getting high, and bragging about their sexual conquests and proving their superior knowledge about women. When they get onto the topic of condoms, the boy starts ranting,

“That’s the whole thing though, you know what I’m saying?  All you hear about is disease this and disease that. Fucking everyone’s dying and shit. Yo, fucking, that shit is made up. I don’t know no kids with AIDS. Y’no what I’m saying. Ain’t no one I know that died from that shit. It’s like some weird make-believe story that the whole world believes.

Very ironic. He’s going to have a lot of dead friends soon. After the speech, the boys at the roundtable yell out in delight that they don’t care about condoms, they just want to “fuck.” The attitude towards AIDS is drastically different from Angels in America in one aspect. No human in AIA dares to laugh in the face of the disease. Some deny it, some run away from it, some fight it with all their might, but no one tries to provoke it.

This film is placed and was shot in the 90s, a decade or so after Angels in America. America is far gone from Reagan and at this time under President Bill Clinton from the Democratic Party. In New York City, a group of teenagers are unruly and ruling this turf, where we may have, a decade ago, seen Joe and Louis talking together on a bench and Harper camping out with her insanity as company. Kids, like Angels in America, also brings under scrutiny the moral situation and degradation of the United States, the theme of contagion and how one deals with death, and the life and struggles of a subculture. When it comes down to how they all deal with the disease, the film does not give much insight into their lives. Throughout the entire movie, Telly never realizes he has AIDS and continues to have sex with other people.  Jennie’s identity as a HIV-infected individual is never really shared with many people other than the audience and the doctor. Caspar unknowingly infects himself. Perhaps the entire film can be encapsulated in the last four words of the film.

“Jesus Christ, what happened?”