Category: History


Angels in America is a period piece. Kushner bridges fact and fiction in a story set in 1980s America. One of the key pillars of that bridge is big gun prosecutor Roy Cohn. He is the only major character in the play explicitly based on a real life person.

“Have you no sense of decency?”

Louis berates Joe for lying to him, and repeatedly asks if he knew who said that. Joe’s oblivion is convincingly shocking for Louis. This was one of the turning points of American politics in the 1950’s.

It’s worth exploring some of the background behind Roy Cohn, who he was, and how he is relevant even today, decades after his death

It all began with the rise of Communism across the world. There was a growing body of communists in the US, who also supported the USSR. Anti-Soviet rhetoric was heralding the Cold War. In order to protect the American ideals of liberty and democracy against the oppressive regime of the Soviets, many Americans created an oppressive regime that attacked the American ideals of liberty and democracy.

The man who would come to lend his name to this period in America’s history was Joseph McCarthy. He was a Republican senator from Wisconsin who made a name for himself by attacking anyone and everyone under the guise of purging the US of communists. This “McCarthyism” manifested itself in the widespread fear of even an accusation of being a communist.

A brief overview of McCarthyism and its consequences

Roy Cohn would be chief counsel to McCarthy in the Army vs. McCarthy hearings. These came at the height of McCarthy’s influence, when he even got into a tussle with the US Army about it’s security. During this trial, this famous sentence was used by the army’s lawyer Joseph Welch. This would be the point which determined McCarthy’s downfall, losing him popularity nearly overnight.

Roy Cohn was also famous for his trial of the Rosenberg case, where he prosecuted suspected Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. He was publicly proud of his role in getting them the death penalty, as is also referenced in the play.

What isn’t referenced in the play though, is who Roy Cohn mentored. It was none other than Donald Trump, back when he was a real estate mogul in New York City. They met at a club in New York City in 1973, and hit it off. Cohn would become Trump’s lawyer through thick and thin. His aggressive approach was what Trump loved, and that is what Trump learnt.

Roy Cohn and Donald Trump
Roy Cohn and Trump giving a news conference declaring a lawsuit on the NFL

According to a Washington Post article,

“Cohn also showed Trump how to exploit power and instill fear through a simple formula: attack, counterattack and never apologize.”

Anyone living today who reads this will agree that that has been Trump’s mantra all along. He comes on aggressive, attacks everyone, and never backs down from his claims. Cohn was also the one who introduced Trump to Roger Stone, who became one of Trump’s campaign advisors in his successful bid for presidency.

Cohn became so important to Trump, that birthed a catchphrase for sticky situations: “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”

In real life, just like in the play, Roy Cohn maintained until the end that he had “liver cancer”. He was disbarred as a lawyer shortly before he died, and maintained his disgust for homosexuality in his political beliefs. As his friend Roger Stone said:

“Roy was not gay. He was a man who liked having sex with men. Gays were weak, effeminate. He always seemed to have these young blond boys around. It just wasn’t discussed. He was interested in power and access.”

Roy Cohn, in his short life of 59 years, left a lasting impact on the legacy of America through Donald Trump. Even in death, he had the power to turn the country upside down.

The name’s Bond. Liberty Bond

Pale Horse Pale Rider is a story set in World War 1, and we see a lot of elements from the era become everyday realities for Miranda, our protagonist. One of those are the Liberty Bonds, which salesmen keep hounding her for, and she wonders what use her 50 dollars could be for the country. 

War is a military effort. It is an economic effort. It is a political effort. The Liberty Bonds were a way of making it a public effort too. It is quite interesting to delve a bit deeper into Liberty Bonds, to understand what they were and how useful they ended up being.

An explainer on how bonds work

Bonds provide a regular cash flow (in the form of interest payments), and can be very safe investments depending on the issuer. US Treasury bonds today are considered the safest asset in the world (i.e. the government will never default). The government’s reputation was very important in establishing credibility for people to buy Liberty Bonds.

A war is, beyond the display of military firepower, a stress test for the economy as well. Great war efforts need an economy that will support them. The “war economy” is the result of changes a country makes to alter its production capabilities. This means reorganising factories and mobilising extra labour (on account of increases in required production, and drafting of able-bodied soldiers).

However, a vital cog in this machine is how all of this is funded. When automobile companies produced vehicles for the US military, they called it their patriotic duty, but they still had to get paid for it. Who would pay, and how?

During World War 1, the US Government had 3 options: printing money, taxation, and borrowing. While printing money sounds like an easy fix, it actually means facing the risk of inflation in the economy, which wasn’t an exciting prospect in the middle of a war. 

Both taxation and borrowing were on the table, but having only one of them wasn’t the right option. Taxation meant that the US Government could conveniently pick the tax rate and collect a certain amount of revenue for the war. However, in an uncertain situation, it was not known how much the war would cost, and regularly increasing taxes was not something any government would be keen on.

Hence, Liberty Bonds were introduced as a way to raise an extra amount of money to fund the effort. They were supposed to be effective because of their high interest rates and the sense of patriotism one was supposed to get from buying one. It was targeted at households and individual investors, to introduce them to financial securities.

The Committee for Public Information, a propaganda office that was established to mobilise public opinion, took care of building a campaign around the bonds. 

Uncle Sam asking for the $$$

The effort was unprecedented

Here is a quote from an article by the Federal Reserve:

The loan drives were the subject of the greatest advertising effort ever conducted. The first drive in May 1917 used 11,000 billboards and streetcar ads in 3,200 cities, all donated. During the second drive, 60,000 women were recruited to sell bonds. This volunteer army stationed women at factory gates to distribute seven million fliers on Liberty Day. The mail-order houses of Montgomery Ward and Sears-Roebuck mailed two million information sheets to farm women. “Enthusiastic” librarians inserted four-and-one-half million Liberty Loan reminder cards in public library books in 1,500 libraries. Celebrities were recruited. Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, certainly among the most famous personalities in America, toured the country holding bond rallies attended by thousands.”

It did not go unrewarded. Approximately 20 million individuals purchased bonds, and they funded two-thirds of the expenses of the war (the rest funded through taxation).

Fueled by this success, the US Government also continued issuing War bonds during World War 2 (along with other governments involved in the War). Fortunately we have not seen any more world wars. However, the US government remains the most important player in the Bond market. Most financial investors looking to hold a balanced portfolio (i.e. distributing their eggs across baskets) hold about 40% of their investments in bonds (both government and corporate). US Government bonds are currently the safest investments on earth. 

Coming closer to the present, in the “war against COVID”, it’s the public that needs money, not the government. So the Federal Reserve actually bought bonds in the market, as a way to ease the economic pressure in the market.

Bonds are a reliable, frequently used tool in the arsenal of central banks around the world. Liberty or not, bonds have affected the day-to-day life of billions of people around the world, directly and indirectly.

P.S. – who can say no to Captain America?

Camus and the Postcolonial (augmenter’s post)

Albert Camus’ The Plague has widely been studied as an allegory for the invasion of Nazism in France during World War II. In the novel, set sometime during the 1940s, the bubonic plague invades the town of Oran in French Algeria, starting from a deluge of unexplained dead rats to the rapid upsurge of “inguinal-fever cases”. According to Steve Coll of the New Yorker, several writers have thus referred to The Plague as allegorical for “the virus of Fascism,” with characters such as Dr. Bernard Rieux— a Fauci-esque figure in the novel—as symbolic of the French resistance to Nazi occupation.  

But while the text can be seen as this allegory for Nazi occupation in World War II, one thing that should perhaps be emphasized is the fact that this text is situated in French Algeria; and that, in the grand scheme of the course, The Plague is the first time we are encountering a pandemic in a postcolonial setting. Keep in mind, that Algeria as a colony contributed significantly to the French army in World War II, and that not too long after the war Algeria gained its independence from France  in 1962. Therefore, in some ways, The Plague is situated within a colonial narrative. David Carroll writes the following in his essay “The Colonial City and the Question of Borders: Albert Camus’s Allegory of Oran” in regard to The Plague and the postcolonial:

“[Camus] claims in fact that his choice to narrate history by means of an allegory of the plague has a decided historical and political advantage: that of suggesting a number of ‘historical referents’ or contexts for the plague and thus different forms of political oppression and injustice rather than just one (National Socialism). Camus clearly had in mind Stalinism as another form of political oppression that should be associated with the plague, but is it really possible to disassociate from the plague the forms of economic injustice and political oppression that were effects of colonialism and imply or assert that Camus intended such a disassociation?”

Carroll, David. “The Colonial City and the Question of Borders: Albert Camus’s Allegory of Oran.” L’Esprit Créateur, vol. 41, no. 3, 2001, pp. 88–104. JSTOR, Accessed 4 Nov. 2020.

One of the questions we could ask ourselves is to what extent The Plague engages with theories and matters of the postcolonial. One of the ways we can think about this question is through the novel’s emphasis on anonymity, and a refusal to name things and/or people. The prefect, for instance, refuses to publicly name the disease, despite the evidence that seems to classify it as the plague bacillus. Then, and perhaps most significantly, there is the refusal of the text itself—at least, in the starting chapters— to name the narrator, who the novel also refers to as a “historian” of sorts given their collection and documentation of plague-related “data.” Why is that so?

If for now, as readers, we assume that Dr. Rieux is our mystery narrator— who, we might further assume, is French— what implication does that have in regard to whose voice is being heard, or whose record of plague history we are reading? As a French physician part of the seemingly wealthier classes of Oran, what does it mean for someone like Dr. Rieux to narrate the events of the plague in colonial French Algeria? Another question also worth thinking about is how does Dr. Rieux’s form of documentation compare to mysterious newcomer Jean Tarrou’s, described by the novel as “observing events and people through the wrong end of the telescope,” with “trivial details which yet have their importance”? And finally, whose voices as a result are being excluded in the novel? In thinking about the postcolonial, Camus in many ways becomes a work of plague literature that offers a lot to think about in terms of whose pandemic experiences are recorded, and whose are potentially overlooked.

What’s in a name?

In Katherine Ann Porter’s short novel Pale Horse, Pale Rider, the protagonist Miranda Gay has a near-death experience with the 1918 influenza pandemic . However, “influenza” was not the only name which was used for this globally spread disease and the pattern of naming it across the world is actually quite interesting. The British science journalist Laura Spinney writes in her 2017 book Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World:

….people followed the time-honoured rules of epidemic nomenclature and blamed the obvious other. In Senegal it was the Brazilian flu and in Brazil the German flu, while the Danes thought it ‘came from the south’. The Poles called it the Bolshevik disease, the Persians blamed the British, and the Japanese blamed their wrestlers: after it first broke out at a sumo tournament, they dubbed it ‘sumo flu’.

Spinney, Laura. (2017). Pale rider: the Spanish flu of 1918 and how it changed the world. Vintage. p. 36. 

As wartime censorship suppressed the reporting of the flu in allied countries, the news of its spread in Spain (which was neutral in WW1) went across and countries like America, France, and Britain were quick to assign the name and the blame- “Spanish flu”. Thus, as the disease arrived across nations, the practice of blaming an already existing common “national enemy” or a particular group was followed.

This also relates to what we read earlier in the Justin Stearns’ 2009 essay “New Directions in the Study of Religious Responses to the Black Death”. Stearns writes:

One irony deserves to be mentioned in this context, namely that where Jewish authors at times refer to the plagues God sent upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians as a sign of God’s ability to punish sinners, Muslim scholars at times cite a Prophetic tradition explaining that the origin of plague lies in a punishment that God sent down upon the Jews long ago, and Pope Clement VI noted in a mass the example of David’s sin resulting in the punishment of the people of Israel by plague (Second Samuel 24:15–19).

Stearns, Justin. (2009). New Directions in the Study of Religious Responses to the Black Death 1. History Compass, vol. 7(5), p. 1363-1375.

Religious groups also promptly assigned the blame of the plague on other groups, finding a common enemy and cause for their own group (reminds me of this meme). For example, with the current pandemic in India, this was done by blaming Muslims, an already persecuted minority, by pointing to a Muslim religious gathering as the root cause of the infection’s rampage in the country.

This practice of blaming gives a persona to the hitherto unfamiliar and strange disease and provides an unjustified but easy channel for venting out the anger and hate against the disease by putting it on the blamed group. To prevent such unjustified names (and to some extent the blames) from sticking around or even making it to official proceedings, the World Health Organization (WHO) has instated naming conventions that prevent the use of specific identifiers such as places, people or animals. The naming COVID-19, shorthand for COronaVIrus Disease – 2019, does follow these protocols. However, we are all also familiar with the American president calling COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus”. Hence, it is up to us and especially leaders in power, to be careful of the implication of the names we do use in our vocabulary.

P.S. On the lighter side of things, sometimes this name and blame game does not have to come down to a particular group as was the case when the 1918 influenza pandemic came to Spain:

So who were Spaniards to blame? A popular song provided the answer. The hit show in Madrid at the time the flu arrived was The Song of Forgetting, an operetta based on the legend of Don Juan. It contained a catchy tune called ‘The Soldier of Naples’, so when a catchy disease appeared in their midst, Madrileños quickly dubbed it the ‘Naples Soldier’.

Spinney, Laura. (2017). Pale rider: the Spanish flu of 1918 and how it changed the world. Vintage. p. 36. 

Alving’s Haunt- The Form and Place of Ghosts. (Bhrigu’s Augmenter Post)

Ghosts work from home. Apart from the Flying Dutchman’s crew and the Wild Hunt, ghosts, ghouls, and other phantoms are homebodies, content to stick to one place to carry out their spooky business. Captain Alving is such a ghost, tormenting his long-suffering wife throughout the action of Ibsen’s Ghosts.

Ibsen keeps Alving’s ghost in one place by structuring the play with reference to Aristotle’s “classical unities” of action, time, and place in dramatic tragedy. The time of the play is uncertain- the place however remains the same. This form of drama resembles quarantine- by enforcing strict boundaries in the form of the play, Ibsen tries to contain Alving’s sins to his lonely country estate by the fjords, a quarantine-like focus that reduces the chances of the audience catching the impression that this tragedy happened because of any reasons other than Alving’s original actions.

The setting also prevents the fallout of his sins on the larger community beyond the Alving family, burning down his memorial to society. The orphanage was destroyed quite quickly after it was constructed; something to be grateful about, for if it had survived for too long, the memories of the place would spread, and Alving’s ghostly contagion would proliferate. Albert Speer, the Nazi architect, designed around “Ruin Value“, an architectural idea that called for buildings of the Third Reich to last for a long time and to remain aesthetically pleasing while ruined-the most oppressive ghosts of World War Two. Promoting Captain Alving through an orphanage built around the Ruin Value principle is a deeply distasteful thought. Thus, with Engstrand’s smoking match, Ibsen burned the orphanage.

Parthenon- an example of aesthetically pleasing ruins that have served as the revenants of Greek ideas and their ghosts.

The audience can see how structural failures in Danish patriarchal society force the necessity of a literary quarantine in Ghosts, a failure that permitted Alving to make his wife’s life a misery and brand his sins on his son’s brain. Syphilis is often called the “great imitator” (NSFW images in article, view at own risk) as its presence resembles the symptoms of other disease. Syphilis, like a ghost, is also perfectly happy to wait, as in its latent form, it can haunt the afflicted for years before manifesting in tertiary stage of the disease, a stage at which the victim is no longer infectious. Oswald cannot pass this disease on, and the contagion has been contained in his central nervous system, at the expense of Oswald’s life, Regine’s marriage, and Mrs Alving’s happiness.

Defoe: Spilling the Tea Since 1723? (Convener’s Post)

Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year is an elusive text. First published in 1722, it describes life in London during the Bubonic Plague through one man’s experiences and documentation. Though Defoe refers to it as a “Journal”, which is evident in the title of the book, it is debatable whether this book can be categorized as factual or fictional. It leans towards an objective account when it depicts documentation of the times, such as mortality bills, and then leans to the comparatively new fictional form of the novel when it conveys the emotional atmosphere of the plague, such as the descriptions of people’s suffering in both mental, physical, and spiritual dimensions. Today, Defoe’s book is categorized as a historical novel, which seemingly accounts for the dual nature of the book’s contents.  As this previous convener’s post notes, Defoe weaves both storytelling and documentation together, to paint a picture of London in its direst straits, describing all the facets (societal, classist, psychological, etc.) of London that the plague changes. 

  1. London’s Dreadful Visitation, or, A Collection of all the Bills of Mortality for this Present Year (London: E. Cotes, 1665) 

2. Bill of mortality for the week of 19th–26th September 1665, which saw the highest death toll from plague.

We are interested in exploring the subjectivity of the documents and bills quoted by Defoe, as mentioned in the convener’s post above. The recurrent use of weekly mortality bills gives the text of the narrative sections an administrative, authoritative, and authentic texture. However, there is a corollary impression with this choice to emulsify fiction and nonfiction. With fiction and information in such close proximity to each other (they’re not social distancing!), it results in a situation whereas the narrative becomes more authentic, the documentation becomes more suspect. Specifically, Ellen Cotes’ ‘London’s Dreadful Visitation’ (Fig. 1), a collection of all the bills of mortality printed in London during the Great Plague of 1665, elicits a question of to what extent a primary historical document could be a product of manipulation or reconstruction. Labels on causes of death, such as ‘suddenly,’ ‘frighted,’ and ‘grief’ (Fig. 2) are in the approximated language, leading to a question of who assigned these causes to the deaths. Whether it’s in fiction or in reality, the attempts to cover up and distort the numbers of the pandemic have continued from centuries ago. However, such continuity does not take human societies’ adaptations to the nausea of statistics, percentages, and predictions (of the pandemic) for granted.

    “Preparedness, for Defoe, needed to be a closer collaboration between individual citizens and the state, one in which both parties understood their social and ethical responsibilities to each other. To be prepared involved much more human work.” — Travis Chi Wing Lau

Central to reading any piece of literature is the reader’s relationship and interactions with the text. There is no denying that reading A Journal of A Plague Year during a pandemic equips a reader with a lens through which one can further engage with and critique the text. For instance, the bills listing the number of burials per week remind us of daily COVID case announcements. The exacerbation of class issues and inequalities by the plague (as with the poor and the servants falling sick in greater numbers than other demographics) reminds us of the way the poorest and most vulnerable populations around the world today are hit hardest by the spread of the coronavirus. The lack of citizen compliance to home quarantine in the Journal when infected resembles our current-day anti-maskers and anti-lockdown rioters. Such close and jarring comparisons between our current pandemic and a legendary plague which took place hundreds of years ago, tells us a lot about the nature of governance and citizenship in crises.

The questions we had after grappling with the Journal’s elusiveness are these- What sort of literary form is most useful to warn our descendants of epidemics and pandemics, and to convince them to live in austerity that protects their community? Is it the objective form, such as through using mortality bills and statistical models? Is it the narrative form of exploring people’s grief and the dimensions of their suffering? Or do we combine both forms in as Defoe does? Which forms help us tolerate the uncertainty and subjectivity of plagues? And how can we spread useful information in a counter contagion? If A Journal of A Plague Year does warn us of times such as the one we live through, are we even paying attention to Defoe?

A complex complex

I’d like to throw out two general areas for our consideration as we begin our discussion of Oedipus: First, the question of plague as material fact and as metaphor. To what degree can we think about the representation of plague in these separate ways — i.e., literal and figurative? To what degree are they conflated here? (This will be a question for us to continue asking as we go through the course.) The second general area has to do with social organization: What models of government or leadership are on display here? Kingship? Kinship? Social authority? Information networks? What does a plague setting offer to the play’s attempt to address such issues?

In a convener’s post for Oedipus the King I wrote for Contagion 2012, way back during the first iteration of this course, I mentioned a strain of recent scholarship on Sophocles’ play that takes the plague setting seriously:

After all, the assumption on scholars’ parts has long been that Sophocles introduced an epidemic as the setting for his version of the Oedipus myth because Athens had so recently suffered from plague (as recounted in the brief excerpt you’ve read from Thucydides). With mass deaths so fresh on their minds, these critics ask, wouldn’t Sophocles and his audience have understood the plague to be an actual fact of life rather than a literary symbol? If this set of questions interests you, I’d point you in the direction of this recent book by Robin Mitchell-Boyask, a classicist at Temple University in Philadelphia. You might also want to check out an even more recent article, written by a team at the University of Athens Medical School. It appeared this year in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, published by the Center for Disease Control in the United States, and “adopt[s] a critical approach to Oedipus Rex in analyzing the literary description of the disease, unraveling its clinical features” to conclude that “this epidemic was an actual event, possibly caused by Brucella abortus.”

My assumption, in that post, was that we’d approach the plague in Sophocles’s novel as either intended to recall medical situations Sophocles’s original audience would have recognized, or that the plague was being used metaphorically, to represent something morally “sick” about the community — or its leader. As I noted in that original post, we read this play at the start of this course not just to recognize how long the plague-as-metaphor idea has been around, but also to question whether the literal and figurative registers are as separate or opposed as we commonly take them. From your reading of the play, do you see compelling reasons to side one way or another on the issue? What would it mean to decide that “this epidemic was an actual event”? Does the plague become more or less powerful in the play’s world? And how might this set of questions force us to continue thinking even more carefully about the relationship between sickness or medicine and the language we use to describe it (and anything else)?

As may be apparent by the juxtaposition on the syllabus of Sophocles’ play against Thucydides’ description of the Plague of Athens — coming soon! — we’ll be talking over the next little while about the significance of genre here. Sophocles is writing a play; Thucydides is writing a history. How does the plague figure into each? How does each author represent it? What can narrative structure teach us about either work’s ideals related to self, social, or medical knowledge? And how might each work help us consider the question of whether it’s possible to write about disease in language that doesn’t trade in metaphor of some sort?

I will be curious to see how you think this first general area of concern relates to the second I mentioned: the play’s consideration of social organization or government, starting with a king who declares himself (warning! dramatic irony!) to be the sickest one of all, even as he attempts to get at the plague’s source.

If you read the introductory material to Oedipus or poked around a little on the web, you’ve probably started to get a sense of how Athenian theater anticipated audience members who were citizens, involved in direct deliberation of public policy. (What role does deliberation play in this tragedy?) Greek theater developed at the same moment as political democracy, philosophical thought, classical architecture. There’s an emphasis in the play — and in the very dramatic form — on civic life: theater is central to political culture. A Greek theater could seat 14-15K spectators. (The ruins of the Theater of Dionysus are shown above.) Playwrights wrote for contests that coincided with religious festivals. The chorus was a theatrical innovation that incorporated older forms of song and dance into the theater. One of Sophocles’ chief innovations as a playwright was to move beyond two actors, making the relationship among characters the thing that drives the play, and making the chorus recede into role of commentators who to some degree perform as surrogates of the audience-as-jury. With this in mind, note how the chorus seems to go back and forth in this play as more and more evidence is presented. Where do they ultimately fall on the question of Oedipus’s guilt? What does the play seem to want its audience to take away on the question of good government? And how is that theme related to the issue the play has remained most famous for: the question of self-knowledge?

The World’s Worst Industrial Disaster: Who’s To Blame?

In the early hours of December 3rd 1984, between 30-40 tons of methyl isocyanate, a highly toxic gas, leaked from the Union Carbide pesticide plant just three miles outside of Bhopal, India. The poisonous gas burned people eyes, throats, and resulted in the immediate death of at least 3,800 people. In a 2006 affidavit Indian government figures estimate that over 5,200 people were killed and several thousand other individuals were severely disabled. Following the disaster, Union Carbide tried to avoid any legal responsibility. Survivors fought for years to bring justice to the suffering they faced. The cause of the disaster remains under debate even today. Many, including local activists and the Indian government, argued that poor management and maintenance led to a backflow of water into the methyl isocyanate tank and led to the leak. However, Union Carbide disagreed. In 1985 they began an extensive investigation into the incident, conducted more that 70 interviews and “examined some 70,000 pages of plant records and documentation that the Indian government had reluctantly released”. They concluded, around 3 years later in The Jackson Browning Report, that a large volume of water had been put into the methyl isocyanate tank. In short, it was an act of sabotage.  Eventually the company reached a settlement with the Indian government. They accepted moral responsibility and paid a compensation of $470 million. This disaster created sentiments of distrust and hatred of American companies, as seen so clearly in Animal’s People. So, who’s to blame for what happened? The “Kampani” from “Amrika”? Or those who sabotaged the pesticide plant? How does this change the way we think about the book and how blame is divided? 

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Fantasia V.S Real-Life Events

As we look at the title of Kushner’s masterpiece: Angels in America: A Gay “Fantasia” on National Themes, the idea of “this is just another fiction” probably flashes through all of our minds. As a matter of fact, the fantasia is based on several real-life events that makes this play look more related to our lives. Since not all of us are that familiar with US history and politics, below are the links that provide some relevant information that can make the course of the reading less confusing and more interesting.

Roy Cohn

Lavender scare

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

Ronald Reagan



Democrat V.S Republican

Happy Reading!!


Iron Lungs


In Roth’s Nemesis (2010), we have come across the term “iron lungs” which some of the characters in the novel had to use when they contracted polio. It has been stated that there is no other device more associated with polio than an iron lung, or a tank respirator. Physicians that treated people who were at the early stages of polio found that they had trouble breathing because the virus paralyzed the muscle groups in their chest. At this stage, death is frequent. Although, those who survived recovered almost all of their strength.


What powered the iron lung was an electric motor with two vacuum cleaners. The pump would change the pressure inside the “rectangular, airtight metal box” which would pull air in and out of the lungs. Breathing on one’s own usually happened one or two weeks later.


Nothing worked well in trying to help people breath until Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz Shaw at Harvard University, in 1927, invented a version of an iron lung that helped to maintain respiration artificially until the person could breathe independently. An inventor called John Emerson later refined the device where a patient would lay on a bed (called a “cookie tray”) and could slide in and out of the cylinder when needed. The tank also had windows so that attendants can reach and adjust sheets, limbs etc. Emerson tested it by spending the night in it and it was first used in Rhode Island to save the life of a priest who had polio.

Fun Facts:

Mass distribution of iron lungs happened in 1939. In the 1930s, an iron lung cost around $1,500 which was the average price of a home. During this time, Drinker took Emerson to court and said that he “had infringed on patent rights by altering [his] iron lung design.” However, “Emerson defended himself by making the case that such lifesaving devices should be freely available to all.” In 1959, there were 1,200 patients using tank respirators in the United States, but in 2004, there were only 39 due to the polio vaccine.

Hope you enjoyed these facts!

Thanks & Regards

Mahra Al Suwaidi