Angels in America revolves around the story of two struggling couples: Louis Ironson and his lover Prior Walter, and lawyer Joe Pitt and his wife Harper. Louis Ironson comes from a very stereotypically confounding background: he is a jewish gay man in mid 1980’s Brooklyn. A product of his circumstances, Louis is found in a constant state of guilt, yet to factor out his conflicts he is remorseless. Prior informs Louis that has AIDS, but only after they have been together, which sets the tone of what opinions the reader can form about Louis, as he leaves Prior lying alone in a hospital room soon afterwards. Prior finds himself in the midst of a prophetic experience while he lays sick in the hospital bed, as he is visited by an “Angel of God.” The Angel offers Prior the status of a prophet, but Prior asks for the gift of surviving instead.
Meanwhile, Joe Pitt, although married to a woman, is a closeted gay man. Pitt eventually leaves his wife Harper, to pursue Louis. The infamously hated Roy Cohn takes Pitt under his mentoring, which exacerbates his conservative and seemingly intolerant reputation. Pitt’s relationship with Cohn leads to Louis abandoning his attraction to Pitt, as Cohn displays disturbing, hateful qualities of homophobia, although he is himself a closeted gay man. Harper Pitt, who was previously struggling with a valium addiction, ends up making the biggest character leap in the novel, moving from a weak, broken woman to enjoying her newfound confidence and lust for life. Each character in the story has an important role in the play’s development, as they rise or fall, and each of their stories represents a moral perspective for the audience to acknowledge.
A character in Kushner’s play who allows us to explore this further is Roy Cohn, based on the real-life controversial New York lawyer known to have worked for Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy led the vociferous campaign against alleged communists in the US government whereby targeted people (including those he wanted out of the way) were blacklisted and lost their jobs, although most were innocent.
The act of accusing others of treason without proper evidence, later known as McCarthyism, plays into the political themes Kushner develops in Angels in America. His reference to the anti-communism movement of the 1950s connects well with the portrayal of the 1980s AIDS epidemic as both explore the idea of confinement and a sense of “quarantine.” In 1980s U.S, when the story is set, some residual anti-semitism still exists and homophobia runs rampant, especially as the AIDS epidemic begins to unfold. The U.S. government targeted the gay community in particular as it associated AIDS with homosexuality and deemed it the “gay plague.”
Kushner goes beyond simply portraying Cohn as an evil character and explores his conflicted nature as an anti-semitic Jew and a gay homophobe.
As a villain, yet also a victim of his own bias, what role does Cohn play in Kushner’s overall representation of the society and politics of the time?
“Now to someone who does not understand this, homosexual is what I am because I have sex with men. But really this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through the City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout.”
(Roy Cohen, page 51)
Roy, a power-hungry politician, refuses to acknowledge his disease, which at that time would have meant acknowledging his sexual orientation and eventually dying a painful death. His struggle with his own identity almost makes readers sympathetic toward him, which Kushner uses as a strategy to reveal to what extent American society and government had marginalized homosexuality. Roy, by eventually dying of AIDS, inadvertently forges a connection to the very community he did not want to be affiliated with in life.
Kushner won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his two-part work. While the play is set in the 1980s, its descriptions of issues such as LGBT rights, religion, political minorities, the environment, drug use (I mean Valium is still a drug…), conservatism, and more remain directly relevant today. This is especially true in the current political and social environment, in which minority rights of all types are being recognized even as the American political environment creates and perpetuates deep divisions between various social groups. Its opening acts, where the Rabbi mourns the death of a migratory generation, is especially noteworthy in its ironic incorrectness as America remains as a nation that is driven by change and immigrants. Perhaps the play is best understood as a discussion of identity: national identity (democracy vs communism, a dichotomy that is still employed to divide American politics), sexual identity (at times in conflict with religious identity), professional identity (politician or a lawyer), and public identities that sometimes contradict what happens in private life. Most if not all of these identities and labels are social constructs, existing due to a social need to categorize and understand people with a small number of descriptors; they are perpetuated both by society and by individuals so that they may find others with similar beliefs and values. Whilst this play no doubt calls into question the debilitating and destructive ability of labels and stigma related to them, it also raises the question of how useful an ‘identity’ can be to an individual.
On the topic of individual and group identities, a previous convener’s post raises the questions of individuals having a “say” in their own lives. There are certain truths provided to characters by the society about who they are and how they ought to behave. These restrictions then translate to a taboo in one’s thoughts and expressions on an individual level.
Is it human instinct to distinguish oneself from others? Where do the social stigma against certain labels even coming from? Why are there some identities that are, by nature, at complete odds against one another?
From a literary point of view, the author’s packaging of these themes into a ‘fantasia’ is a fascinating choice. The elements of ghosts, angels, and hallucinations which escalate the tension in the play are certainly useful dramatic techniques — but why are these fantastic elements employed? After all, there are sufficient pre-existing social pressures in the setting to drive the plot. Perhaps it is a commentary on religion, with American people and politicians often characterising the nation as ‘Christian’ even though it is specifically defined otherwise in its constitution. Perhaps it is a commentary on the LGBT community, who might be thought of as ‘dreaming’ a fantasy where they are accepted as a member of the society without any stigma. Perhaps it is a commentary of the author’s work itself – that escapes of reality such as his play are not truly ‘escapes’ as fantasies and realities are inherently intertwined, often with as significant corporal impact as seen in the play. Whatever the author’s original intent was, the impact of the fantasy elements is significant enough for the audience to ponder. After all, the divine is often associated is being all knowing and all good — while in this play there is certainly no such entity which can claim such characteristics.
A lot has progressed since the AIDS epidemic and the time when the play was written. Although it has been decades since the AIDS epidemic was primarily identified as a “gay” disease, Angels in America remains relevant. As an ending note, we can ask what about Angels makes it resonate with us today:
Is it the political and social dimensions portrayed? Does it have something to do with how the U.S. government handled the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s? Do we see similar management of authority in pressing issues today?
I find it really interesting that, although Roy Cohn is clearly completely self-serving and a villain, Louis is equally as selfish when it comes to Prior’s illness, and so perhaps just as or even more villainous than Cohn. Cohn sends Ethel to her death, but Louis also harms someone, and the fact that the person he’s harming, Prior, is someone he loves seems to make it even worse.
But even as we see Louis abandoning Prior, Louis isn’t so much a villain as he is a human being, one who is scared of illness. Or rather, not necessarily the illness itself, AIDS, but all the symptoms of it – the visible lesions and the fear that accompanies such insidious disease. AIDS is a fascinating disease because it lies latent for so long, then erupts to utterly hijack the body’s immune system. Kind of like how neo-Nazis lay low, then all of a sudden they “come crawling out of the woodwork”, like ghosts lodged within the foundation of America.