Category: Sex

“The world only spins forward”

The second part of Angels in America, titled Perestroika, deals with the aftereffects of the occurrences in Millennium Approaches and the conclusion of the play as a whole. In this part we gain insight into the Angels, Heaven, and God. Kushner describes them in a human way, very unlike the way they are normally discussed both in normal life and inside the play, where Mormon ideals run strong through some of the characters. God decides to leave, the Angels create through sex, and Heaven is a rundown town. These are all characterizations that would be expected to be found in Greek deities, not the Christian faith.

Perestroika shows new sides of each character. Roy, now in his deathbed, has moments in which he changes his normally brutish behavior for something completely different. There are flashes of compassion in his treatment of Belize during his feverish hallucinations, his normally kind treatment of Joe changes suddenly once Joe declares his homosexuality. Joe himself shows new things, under Louis’ harsh questioning he keeps trying to find excuses and attempts to escape culpability to the point of beating Louis when the wouldn’t stop his questioning. This is a huge break from the normally passive Joe. Finally, Perestroika also deals with the conclusion of the obstacles the characters had during Millennium Approaches: Louis and Prior get back together, Prior renounces his prophetic assignment, Harper moves out, Roy dies, and Hannah finds a new home in New York.

There was one more theme present in Perestroika that had big implications for the meaning of the play. The relation between dream and reality is very strong, many of the character’s hallucinations have very real effects on the world, from Ethel prompting Louis to sing to Prior and Harper almost recognizing each other from their shared experience in Millennium Approaches. Kushner plays fast and loose with what is real and what is not. There are moments in which the Angel arrives to Earth and all hell breaks loose, Prior fights the Angel, Hannah is flabbergasted over the entire situation, but in the end the event is remembered as dream rather than an actual event.

How should God be represented, and by extensions, what it means to be holy? Is following the Angels will faith or servitude? Is not following it heresy or independence?
Seeing the Angels’ behavior compared to people like Belize, who are the real Angels in the play?
Forgiveness is a heavy theme in the play, used by the characters to move forward; is being forgiven, and forgiving, a right or a privilege?
Is Joe deserving of hate? Is his behavior is fault or is that he can’t extricate himself from his conflicting convictions?
In the end Hannah is found to be in the group, what does that mean for her? Is she accepting, or has she become a member of the LGBT community?
Here is the video of the Epilogue, Bethesda, as portrayed in the movie Angels in America:

Let’s Talk About the S Word

While the first act of Henrik Ibsen’s play Ghosts strikes as though it were leading towards a strong social commentary on feminism and gender issues, Ibsen abruptly shows us that his play is far more complicated. Far beyond a commentary on gendered realities, Ghosts is a chaotic, perhaps even irreverent, tale of incest, excess and debauchery, adultery, lies, and ultimately, disease.

Throughout his play, it’s as though Ibsen were consciously manipulating readers’ sympathies towards his characters. Whereas in the first act, it seems that Ibsen’s gearing our sympathies towards the women of the play and towards Oswald — who escaped the conventionalism of his town in order to study the frowned upon pathway of art — as soon as the second act begins, we’re meant to lose our trust in him, since he appears to be following his father’s steps in sexually harassing Regina, the maid. At one point, Ibsen has us vouching for Mrs. Alving, but towards the end she becomes a character we can very well resent.

How does Ibsen play around with our sympathies and for what purpose? Ultimately, who does he want us to sympathize with the most? Are we meant to sympathize more with one character than another? Or is the message actually that we can’t judge people based on the sympathies we hold in one moment?

There is so much chaos in the play, that it’s easy to get lost. What is ultimately the most essential message in the play? Is it that lying always leads to chaos? Is it that living a life primarily concerned with external opinions is a one-way-ticket to misery? Is it a critique to extremely conventional religiosity/Catholicism?

For Pastor Manders, the only reason not to insure the orphanage was that if people found out, they would certainly turn against him. His obsessive concern with others views leads the orphanage to become an irreparable loss after it’s burnt. Mr. Alving’s debauchery led his marriage to be a disaster, but convinced by Pastor Manders, Mrs. Alving decided to stay with him for as long as he lived, so as to prevent gossip in town. She was willing to let go of her 7-year old Oswald just to prevent gossip! Besides Johanna and Mr. Alving, no other names are mentioned in the play. Why are Mrs. Alving and Pastor Manders so concerned with how others see them if these others are so irrelevant that they don’t even have names?

And lastly, the narrative of venereal disease. It’s only in the final pages that we discover that Oswald suffers of a venereal disease. Contrary to the other pieces we’ve read, where our narrators and main characters are merely witnesses of disease, in Ghosts, we’re exposed to disease first-hand. We’re inside one of the infected homes and we see what it means for Oswald to be sick. One by one, characters start leaving the house: first Pastor Manders and Engstrand, finally Regina. But the only characters that remain are the diseased and his mother. Such is his suffering that Oswald urges his mother to assist him in suicide/kill him.

Never in the play does Ibsen specify Syphilis, making it clear to the audience and readers that the topic is a taboo. Ibsen is bringing up STDs without specifically saying it. Regardless, when the play was first published and performed it received very negative critiques. Why do people consciously choose to shut off discussion upon pressing topics that deal with contagion and sex? Why is contagion a taboo, instead of something people can freely talk about? Isn’t this only leading towards a more diseased society, instead of one that can possibly be cured?

Listen to this song because it’s hilarious (and all the more irreverent) (and it does exactly the opposite from keeping sex and disease taboo):


Drugs, Body Fluids, and an Unearthly STD

“I froze. I can’t explain what happened. It was like a deja vu trip or something…a premonition. I felt like I was looking into the future…and the future looked really messed up. I was looking at a hole…a black hole and as I looked, the hole opened up…and I could feel myself falling forward, tumbling down into nothingness.”

Physics tells us that black holes are what happens when stars collapse in upon themselves. The result is a highly dense region in which matter is tightly packed. No light can escape a black hole; we cannot even directly see them. The only way for us to observe black holes is through observing their effects on other bodies in space, seeing stars irresistibly drawn to them only to be pulled apart and ripped to shreds.

We can use the above scientific information to argue that Keith’s usage of the term “black hole” was incorrect because it’s impossible to see anything in them at all, let alone pull out fortune-telling scrolls. But the image of a mysterious, unknown thing pulling helpless adolescents into a future from which they have no hope of escape – this image is so terrifyingly perfect that surely the most staunch physics purist would forgive Burns’ inexact scientific terminology.

With that in mind, let us turn to Charles Burns’ Black Hole. It is suburban Seattle in the 1970s, and teenagers are recklessly exchanging drugs and body fluids – and an unearthly STD. Unlike many of the other diseases that we read about during the semester, the disease in Black Hole is not lethal. It does not cause its patients excruciating physical pain, nor force them into sick beds and hospitals. What this disease does, however, is change the physical appearances of its victims, causing them isolation and psychological damage. The teenagers in this book constantly demonstrate an insensitive shared aversion towards victims of the “bug:”

“Eew, look at those guys…it’s so disgusting! Why do they have to come here and ruin everybody’s good time?” – Chris’ friends Marci, in her presence, shortly after they both found out that Chris had contracted the disease.

The fatalities in this book were a result of patients, well, Dave, going insane due to continuous rejection and isolation. While it is true that the uninfected teenagers don’t march up to the sick with pitchforks and force them into “the pit” in the forest, they do actively make them feel they have no place in society anymore. For example, Chris used to be a popular girl in her school, but even she is isolated by her old friends and schoolmates after they realize that she also has the “bug.” She gets stares in the toilets, and is dismissed by her best friend Marci for not understanding David Bowie. It seems to be so easy and so quick for these high-school teenagers to turn their backs on their classmates. The relationship between them is fragile and immature. If the high-school setting in this book serves as a microcosm for the larger society, is Burns criticizing the irrationality and instability of human collectives?

An interesting aspect to the illness is the nature of the mutations. The bug results in a plethora of various physical changes that appear random, but may also have some significance in relation to the character who undergoes them. Why is it that Rob gets a mouth on his neck, Eliza gets a tail, and Chris sheds her skin? Furthermore, why do the others who camp at the pit exhibit grotesque deformations that cannot possibly be hidden? A sense of inequality emerges here. Why do people suffer differently from the same disease? Is Burns trying to question the existence of equality in any place within the human world?

Black Hole is a fantasia about universal teenage themes, seen through the lens of reality and fantasy and dreams, of drug, hormone or disease induced hallucinations.  There is a progression of time but there are instances when this progression is not linear, but is abstract, like the juxtaposition of “deja vu” and “premonition”. Deja vu is something that has already happened; premonition is a view of what is yet to come. In the scene when Keith finds a girl’s skin in the forest, we can see the presence of both. Although he does not know that it is Chris who has shed her skin, he still feels an inexplicable “terrible sadness” upon beholding it. This look into a moment that has already occurred is a premonition of the later events determined by Chris’ infection with the bug. Then there are the recurring dreams (the wavy frames) and the mixing of dreams, visions and memories. Both Chris and Keith dream of pulling a picture out of a cut – a black hole – in Chris’ foot. This weird dream has its basis in reality, since Chris does actually cut her foot. However, it is interesting to note that Chris dreams this before she cuts her foot, while Keith dreams this towards the end of the novel – again, premonition vs. deja vu.

The reader follows the characters’ transition between various physical and metaphysical worlds. Dream worlds aside though, the characters navigate various terrains and settings, from the suburban house parties to “Planet Xeno,” a fantastic depiction of a black hole which, in this physical world, is a seemingly impregnable area of the forest.

“It seemed like the woods would be better…they were natural. Natural things would make more sense.”

What is the significance of Planet Xeno and other natural areas? Is it part of an alternate reality that these teenagers can literally or figuratively escape to? Escape is a vital part of the novel after all. The infected teenagers hide away in Planet Xeno; Keith runs out of Jill’s house to the woods; in the end, Chris escapes out of the McCroskys’ house and heads back to the quiet beach she once visited with Rob. For Chris, swimming is transcendental. The end shows her swimming as well:

“The water is unbelievably cold…almost more than I can take. I dive in anyway…swim out beyond the breakers, swim as hard as I can. After a while I feel a little warmer and roll over onto my back. The sky is amazing…a deep, dark blue, the first stars are coming out. I’d stay out here forever if I could.”

Why does the story start with Keith looking into a black hole in a frog and end with Chris staring out into the stars – the stars out of whose collapse black holes are born? Why does Chris becomes the narrator of the story? In a world of teenagers where everyone displays different symptoms and  views the physical and temporal worlds differently, what is the significance of Keith and Chris as the narrators? 

“[We’d] [talk about this] forever if [we] could…”

Abhi, Rosy, and Yan.

To Progress or Not to Progress

The second part of Angels in America is entitled Perestroika for a reason. The first part mainly introduced the AIDS epidemic in America in the 80s, and thus generated a lot of debate about identity, sickness and imagination. This section focuses on progress, what is progress and different definitions of it. Following the characters in the play, we identified multiple perspectives when talking about progress.


Harper believes that new things we create are made from combinations of different informations we had and known before, a.k.a Fantasia. It’s the same with the progress too. We do not just progress into a new future, we progress into a future that is a combination of the past and our dream future. In page 285, when she is traveling in a plane, she says “Nothing’s lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of a painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead.”. She sees the future that is painful because the future is neither the one we want or the one we had previously in the past. It’s the combination of both. Does progress have to be a radically, completely new change, or can it be more like fantasia?


In the play Prior and Harper are the ones that talk about progress and future. However, it is Louis and Joe who make progress. Joe leaves Harper to fulfill his sexual attraction and Louis leaves Prior. We don’t hear anything about progress from Joe and Louis but they are the making progress. Is progress only action, or can it be a change in thought instead? Also just because Louis and Joe do something “different”, does that constitute as “progress”?


Harper in page 263 says that “Devastation. That’s what makes people migrate, build things.” According to her, progress and change comes only after devastation. So, progress is not actually a good thing because before progress there is devastation. She talks about ozone layer depletion and ice caps melting. These are the symptoms of devastation. Progress and change will be followed by it. Similarly, progress also has a negative connotation in Prior’s dream. It makes the God flee. God does not like progress and change. Why do you think the God fled when people moved and progressed?  What is the relationship between progress and their version of God?


Prior, on the other hand, argues progress with the Assembly of the Continental Principalities. The Assembly is concerned about the upcoming Chernobyl disaster, the largest nuclear disaster in human history up to date, forecasting the Millenium, “[n]ot the year two thousand, but the capital-M Millenium” (page 289). The approaching of the Millenium is a belief held by some Christian denominations (including Mormons) that there will be Golden Age or Paradise on Earth in which “Christ will reign” for 1000 years prior to the final judgment and future eternal state. However, it is believed the Millenium will be forecasted by man-made catastrophes, thus the concern for the upcoming Chernobyl disaster. The Angels are afraid of the deaths to follow, and are shocked by Prior’s demand for more life. His “addiction to being alive” is unknowable to the seven Angels who cannot understand how does one desire more life when only death is to follow?  Why are the Angles scared of death? Why do they demand cessation instead of progress? Should we lay our future in God’s hands or make the progress ourselves? Prior, the Prophet, presents them with the idea behind modernity and progress:

“We can’t just stop. We’re not rocks. Progress, migration, motion is… modernity. It’s animate. It’s what living things do. We desire. Even if all we desire is stillness, it’s still desire for. (On “for” he makes a motion with his hand: starting one place, moving forward) Even if we go faster than we should. We can’t wait. And wait for what. God–“ (page 275)


Prior’s conversation with the Angel on page 172 and 278-279 reveals the conflicting attitudes between man and entity. The Angel wants humans to stop “moving forward” and “progressing” because it believes that this is why God left the heavens and earth. Prior initially resists very timidly, saying he does not want the prophet job. Later when Prior is in heaven, he humbly rejects the angels’ offers of cure and instead states he “wants more life.” He lauds the “addiction to being alive” and the idea of “hope” in staying alive. Through these passages, it seems like Kushner is criticizing Republican ideals. 20th century Republicanism generally is conservative, which means it wants to retain old ideals/methods and is usually against change. 20th century Democrats generally are supporters of liberalism, usually advocating what they call “progress” and “change.” Throughout the last century in US history, the Democrats mostly were the first ones to support the gay community and gay rights (which might explain why Kushner in his introduction was relieved that Obama won the 2012 election). If we are to attribute this Angel as the Angel of America, then one can see how America is still chained to stagnation. The Angel’s goal is to stem growth and progress but it is up to people like Prior to break free from these restraints and actually create change. Yet what constitutes change? What does it mean to be civilized? If we have freedom of thought and ideas, then why is Kushner bashing on Republicans? Even if it is not a popular chain of thought wouldn’t attacking the Republicans be a contradiction to the free thought that Kushner is preaching here?


What is progress for you readers?


Love, प्रेम, co љубов,

Wes, Krishna and Evgenija

Millennium Approaches and Change Approaches

In Angels in America, the author of the play, Tony Kushner, explores many issues such as homosexuality, identity, religion, politics and ghosts. Part One of the play, “Millennium Approaches,” deals specifically with how people, especially those in America, react to homosexuality. Generally, the response is quite negative. While we all know that Joe is a homosexual, in the initial part of the play, he denies that he is gay. This first scene of denial is seen when Joe and Louis talk about Republicanism. When Joe says, “I voted for Reagan,” Louis calls Joe, “A Gay Republican” (Act I, Scene 6). In response, Joe quickly says, “I’m not—,” thereby showing that he’s denying his true self. He continues to deny whenever the topic of him being gay comes out. When Joe declines to have sexual intercourse with Harper, Harper asks, “Are you a homo?” (Act I, Scene 8). At first Joe hesitates but then replies that he isn’t. These two scenes show that there’s a possibility of Joe being gay. While he denies the fact that he is gay because such an idenity is degraded and discouraged both by his religion, Mormonism, and American society at large, in both scenes he shows hesitation before denying: “I’m not—” and takes some time before replying to his wife, Harper. The reactions in these scenes bring up specific questions. How do people generally act or react toward homosexuals? Is it right to criticize them? What is the right or moral way to react or respond to homosexuals? How is the idea of homosexuality explored in the play? Did the play change your mind about homosexuality?

The inner or identity struggle that Joe faces is clearly depicted in Act 2 Scene 2, in which he describes Jacob wrestling with an angel:

I had a book of Bible stories when I was a kid. There was a picture I’d look at twenty times every day: Jacob wrestles with the angel. I don’t really remember the story, or why the wrestling—just the picture. Jacob is young and very strong. The angel is … a beautiful man, with golden hair and wins, of course. I still dream about it. Many nights. I’m … It’s me. In that struggle. Fierce, and unfair. The angel is not human, and it holds nothing back, so how could anyone human win, what kind of a fight is that? It’s not just. Losing means your soul thrown down in the dust, your heart torn out from God’s. But you can’t not lose. (Act 2, Scene 2)

Through the metaphor of the angel, Joe implies that he is struggling with homosexuality. Because he is a devout Mormon, his religious beliefs repress his homosexuality. In this metaphor, the angel symbolizes Joe’s difficulty in understanding God’s will or purpose. The battle seems to represent his struggle to overcome or deny his character or the nature of his homosexuality. Losing in this battle also seems to foreshadow that he will eventually accept his sexuality. What do you guys think of this wrestling scene? What’s the significance of this scene? What do you think the losing of the battle symbolizes or suggest?

Eventually, in Act 2, Scene 8, when Joe talks to Hannah, his mother, Joe faces and admits that he is gay: “Mom. Momma. I’m a homosexual, Momma” (Act 2, Scene 8). Unfortunately, his mother’s response is negative and quite hurtful. At first she does not say anything. Afterwards she says, “You’re old enough to understand that your father didn’t love you without being ridiculous about it… You’re ridiculous. You’re being ridiculous” (Act 2, Scene 8). The repetition of the word “ridiculous” emphasizes that the mother does not accept Joe being gay and that it is something very wrong and against the rules or laws in both Mormonism and the larger society. The stage directions also show that Hannah was quite upset and she warns him saying, “Drinking is a sin! A sin! I raised you better than that.” While she was referring to drinking, she was also referring to his confession. Once again, through his mother’s response, we can see that homosexuals are degraded and looked down upon in American society. If you were the mother, how would you have reacted?

Through homosexuality, Kushner also introduces one of the greatest health issues from the 1980s to the present, AIDS. The disease is first introduced in the play as Kaposi’s sarcomas in Act I, Scene 4. During the conversation between Prior and Louis, Prior says, “K.S., baby. Lesion number one. Look it. The wine-dark kiss of the angel of death” (Act I, Scene 4). The angel of death signifies that K.S. is detrimental. But, what does wine-dark kiss suggest? Why was the disease compared to a wine-dark kiss? Does the color of red wine suggest blood, signifying death? We find this comparison quite interesting. What do you guys think? Moreover, how does the disease, AIDS, affect the lives of the characters in the play?

Another theme which the play outlines is movement. Movement, whether it is physically from one location to another or psychologically from one state to another usually symbolizes new beginnings. It provides a second chance, a new beginning with nothing from the past to hold you down. In Angels of America, we see that Harper is struggling with her life and when Joe asks her to move with him to Washington she refuses. A new place, new job and a new neighborhood would give her a chance to start again. Yet,with change and new beginnings also comes fear. That is the reason Harper decides to stay. At the very beginning of the play we witness the funeral of an old lady called Sarah, who has moved from Eastern Europe to America for a better life. Despite her fears, she was capable of building new future for her sons. Is movement always a positive change? Does movement always symbolize new beginnings? At this stage in the play America is portrayed to be the land of freedom, equality and new beginnings. It is the land where dreams come true. Is this how America will be portrayed throughout the play? Or is the ‘American Dream’ merely propaganda?

Similar to Ibsen’s Ghosts, Millennium Approaches also addresses the idea of ghosts. In the play, Prior is confronted by two ghosts also called Prior Walter. In conversation, Prior 1 and Prior 2 explain that they both die of the same plague that the resent Prior is about to die from. They explain the process of their death but tell Prior that they had their wives and children with them because they were married. Prior explains however that he will die alone because he has no wife and children since he is gay. The idea that Prior is dying of the same disease as his predecessors coincides with Mrs. Alving’s claim that ghosts haunt us. These ghosts that are the behaviours of our those that came before us. Prior could not run from his fate, he was going to die of the plague. None of the previous Prior Walter(s) could have escaped their fate just as Oedipus could not escape his. Do you think that if Prior had met his ghosts earlier he could have saved himself from his fate? What is the significance of the ghosts in the play? 

The themes discussed in this play are still topics discussed today. The idea of giving human rights to gay people is a topic debated by politicians, church congregations, and the average man across the world. The topic of AIDS and finding a cure is mentioned in every medical conference. Issues of democracy, racism and religion are debated everywhere. They all promised us that change was coming. How much have we really changed?

While thinking about these questions, perhaps you may enjoy this trailer for Angels in America as presented by Signature Theatre Company.

Happy reading!

Rhoshenda, Jenny, Shereena.

Middle Class isn’t sexy. Is it?

Middle Class. Soy Milk Macchiato. Mortgages. PTA. Mumsnet. Reserve Pension Funds. White. Prim. Proper. Dull.

In Black Hole, middle class teenagers take risks whilst exploring their sexuality. We might immediately class this as typical: private schools are awash with those who wish to experiment at parties, in the full knowledge that they have their hockey team kudos that no amount of embarrassing sexual encounters will diminish.

We might look to their parents and hope that it is finished by that stage, but research suggests that those PTA meetings aren’t as dull and dispassionate as you might expect. One of the key aspects of black hole is the freedom the girls take to experiment, and this aspect of being a middle class woman doesn’t diminish with time.

The Barcelona Public Health Agency presented findings in the Annals of Epidemiology earlier this year to suggest that women who have higher disposable income and the ability to manage their own contraception are far more sexually satisfied (16% more than those on lower incomes). They were described as having a greater awareness of their own needs, which led to higher satisfaction. 

Anyone with a vague awareness of Mumsnet knows there are certain threads you need to avoid, or read – depending on your disposition. Countless stories are in the press over the private affairs of the middle class enraging their husbands as they chase the option that maximizes their utility. Such wild abandon is not deemed suitable for women in the upper class, and the working class often lack the ability to do so. 

So, do we take the actions of the teenagers in Black Hole to be necessary to develop an awareness of these sexual needs before they can demand them as adults? Is this, then, a natural stepping-stone on the way to adulthood? 

It is easy to forget that Middle Class adults were once Middle Class teenagers, and as such had the money and trust to pursue what pleasured them.

The Middle Class. Not so prim after all.


Sex and Drugs and… Religion as an Affective Influence?

Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, self-labeled as a ‘gay fantasia’ aims to provoke from the title onwards, describing itself as being a play based ‘on national themes,’ thus truly horrifying every Republican and ‘Nationalist’ that encounters the text. Kushner feels that the issues presented in the plays are representative of the themes in America at the time of writing, the late 1980s to the early 1990s. These themes will be described in this conveners post as change, religion and politics. None are unique, but few could argue that Kushner’s work is not. 

The theme of change within the play is continuous during Millennium Approaches, the part of the play duo we are considering in this post. The development of morals is something we can accept, but the ‘depressing… limitations of… imagination’ is what prevents change from occurring fully, it allows the characters to remould the world: but the world is made from the same dough, just pressed into a brand new shape. Same beast, different form.

‘When we think we’ve escaped the unbearable ordinariness… it’s really only the same old ordinariness and falseness rearranged into the appearance of novelty and truth.’– Act One, Scene Seven

The escapism in the play seems possible only with death or social acceleration, like the presentation of Roy’s career threatening freefall at any moment due to its crumbling foundations of hypocrisy. Perhaps a moralistic plot twist, but a satisfying collapse all the same.

The ways in which Kushner’s work assesses the topic of change is especially important for the reader’s of today who must live in a fast-paced, globalized world, the first signs of which were recognized by the characters of the play in the 1990s. This acknowledgment of the ‘sickness’ of modern man, is presented in this contradictory passage, where the cure to constant movement is supposed to be to continue this movement. After all ‘the only cure for motion sickness…’ is ‘to keep moving.’

 Does the play suggest feasible methods to the modern man for how to deal with this rootlessness? Does it provide a judgment on globalization or cosmopolitanism? Does the play suggest that the way America should respond to the ‘call’ of modern times is to embrace change and recognize diversity?

The theme of religion is evident, from the discussion of the neurotic Mormon, Harper, to the hardened Roy Cohn of Judaism. The distinction between the religious divides of characters is clear, two religions with clear intersections. Both religions follow commandments that clearly define their moral code: every character with a defined religion in Millennium Approaches defies a commandment, whether it be through homosexual intercourse, lies, drug addiction or hatred.

The commonality between the characters is not coincidental, Kushner masterfully creates an atmosphere in which everything lies at a point of conflict, situations which seem impossible even to the most gifted of Game Theorists. The emerging political philosophy championed by Kushner, and thus by Louis, is that of democratic optimism. Something that is not affiliated with the ‘evils’ of Republicans demonstrated throughout, and certainly could not be projected at the beginning of Millennium Approaches before one has information symmetry. The characters are unpredictable, which makes the game they play so much more dangerous: their political philosophy of democracy makes them even more so, because the decisions they make are liable to have impact on not only their lives, but the lives of the people they love. A prime example of this being the separation and the impact it has on Harper.

‘When we think we’ve escaped the unbearable ordinariness… it’s really only the same old ordinariness and falseness rearranged into the appearance of novelty and truth.’– Act Three, Scene Two 

John Sexton would be proud of Kushner’s ability to derive political statement from religious background: Mormons and Jews generally vote on opposite ends of the political spectrum, with Jews favouring the more Conservative parties, and Mormon’s either abstaining from political contest or voting for social democracy. The idea of religion as an affective influence on voting behaviour is strong in the play, not only due to the issues surrounding sexuality and religion: something acceptable within Judaism, not so within Mormonism. It is near enough a battle of wills, between religion and sexuality – the result feeding the ‘X’ on the ballot in the game of chance they are embroiled in. The lies and the conflict between their love for God, and their love for each other seem ordinary, and as disease twists the world they live in, the escape becomes a trap once more. A trap that no ‘democratic idealism’ will free them of.

‘Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a puissant antidiscrimination bill through the City Council… who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout.’– Act One, Scene Nine

The idea of sexuality as something that hinders the progression of the characters is embodied primarily through Roy, and his desperation to hide his sexual preferences even when it will be AIDS that kills him: not bigotry. His refusal to become one of the unknown, lost souls is seen as a bad thing by the other characters as he is painted as a cold, almost evil character by Kushner. Yet his success within his field is admirable, and one cannot help but like Roy. His imperfections are vivid and clear, but they make him all the more human and workable.

The conflict he faces is excruciating: his career or his life. To seek full treatment would require his honesty, not something he is willing or able to provide.   

If we consider the conflict faced by the characters in Camus, how do we define what the more difficult choices are? Who acts more rationally in the face of danger and disease?

Sex is ever-present in the play, if not in lengthy scenes, in the shadows with AIDS, HIV, separation, love… there is not a moment when the looming figure of sex is not present. It is a blight on the characters, influencing their actions: from the victimisation and infestation of Prior, the social prejudice Roy projects on his ‘peers’, the liver ‘cancer’, and Harper’s descent into addiction. 

Yet the characters do not cease their participation, much like in Pushkin’s ‘A Feast during Plague’, where despite the risk of congregation, or in the case of Angels in America, the risk of sex – the characters continue their dangerous exploits. The idea of risk is all-consuming: the cards are dealt, the poker faces are on. They play the high stakes: unprotected sex, politics, law, love. All are set to lose, but the draw of the game is too strong to avoid. The plotting referred to in the quote above is not a coincidence with the theme of risk, the reference to the inescapable battle of politics is a form of addiction, something every character experiences, whether it be an unhealthy lust or the pill popping that both preserves and destroys.

In light of Prior’s and Louis’ separation it is important to ask, whether in the play AIDS is a force that pulls people apart (as opposed to the influence of the plague in Camus’ novel) or that brings people together into a strange, almost absurd community (think of Harper’s and Prior’s shared feverish vision)? Does AIDS have a different effect on human behaviour as the previously studied disease, due to its capability of ‘permeating’ the most intimate part of human relationships? What other manifestations of disease can we find in this play, apart from the sickness of modern man, corruption and guilty conscience?

Azmyra, Laura, Maisie and Sharon

Party, Party all Plague Long

A returning theme in our discussions is the power of disaster (of which disease may often be read as a subset). These instances cause the breaking of norms, the destruction of taboos in society, and ‘the creation’ of an increasingly liberal, and often unconventional space for people to live in. We began to explore these notions after the task of reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell during the summer vacation.

This pattern of celebration in the aftermath of distress returns in both the work of Pushkin A Feast during the Plague and John Wilson’s City of the Plague — which was the original text used by the Russian writer to ‘compose’ one of his Little Tragedies. In both works, a group of men and women set up a table on the street, thus creating their own microcosm (not dissimilar to Boccaccio’s Decameron). Through a huge feast, a gathering place is formed to remember one of their friends (Jackson) who was a victim of the Plague.

What is the underlying meaning and aim of feast in these texts? What is the significance of the plague being “our guest” at this feast? Why is the impact of diseases on society a recurring motif for literary pieces? What do feasts symbolize and teach us about human nature? How is this “party behaviour” manifested in today’s society (such as in issues like alcoholism)?

The purpose of the feast in these plays is explicitly stated in the song of the Chairman: the citizens are left with only one option — to fight the plague by remaining cheerful and living in the moment:

“That’s how we’ll meet the Plague’s attack!

We’ll light the fire and fill the cup

And pass it round — a merry scene!

And after we have all drunk up,

We’ll sing: all hail to thee, dread queen!” (p. 101)

It is apparent from this passage that the characters view their situation as absolutely hopeless, and in their panic are determined to ‘laugh’ in the face of the disease; to show a last act of defiance and stubbornness when all seems to be lost. The hymn in honor of the plague sung by the chairman, is also his own (human) way of mocking a devastating force that has unknown origins, and is beyond the human ability to comprehend (“Beyond our power to explain” p.101).

The use of consumption as a device is interesting in that, much like religion, by consuming as they are, they are contributing to a higher power: in this case GDP and economic growth instead of a spiritual existence and afterlife. Unintentionally creating a better world for those left behind (for those living in the world of Keynes), or perhaps creating a disaster ready to lurk in the shadows due to the over-consumption lead by the perception of ‘finite time’ (if you prefer your economics Austrian). Both can be analysed here: in Pushkin’s Russia, trade was starting to grow and capitalism was beginning to come onto the stage internationally. This allows us to consider how people react, as the mentalities are in flux. The people have not completed the transition. This is very much representative of Pushkin’s life, his grandfather having been a Serf who gained Aristocratic station for himself and successive generations of family before his death. This was almost unheard of until this period, as innovation was not seen as a requirement for success. During the era of Pushkin, the socio-economic landscape changed dramatically. Such a leap in ability and fortune in such a short time meant education had not kept up: the fatalistic mentality displayed within the text is testament to this.

What are the implications of this ironically fatalistic mentality? How can these characters respond to imminent death with such mirth and lightheartedness? What does this mean for us, in terms of the role of news and rumour during an epidemic?

It is also interesting that the little group identifies the disease as a female being: a queen who rules over her kingdom of suffering. This idea of the “female as a source of the curse” is in harmony with the play’s references to Greek or Roman mythology (for example, the group asks for a Bacchus song, who was the Roman God of agriculture and wine), and is probably inspired by tales such as the Pandora’s Box or Medusa, the complex of Jocasta’s blame. The personification of the plague is another noteworthy point. The mere possibility that she can “knock at our windows without cease…” creates a helpless feeling among the people, leaving them questioning what they should do.

Why is the plague personified as a woman? How does this compare with history? How do the readers perceive the notion that the plague is embodied? What parallels the qualities of femininity with the effects of the plague? How does this contrast the role and portrayal of women that was seen in our previous novel, Arthur Mervyn?

Moreover, the group’s gathering can be regarded as an ‘ultimate act of consumption’, since they do not only eat up their food, but in a way their life as well, by preparing themselves for the reception of death. Curiously, in the work of John Wilson the feast has a sexual connotation as well, since the priest, who attempts to remind the group of the codes of conduct they abandoned and defines them as blasphemous, calls the gathering an orgy. This can be taken as a term used to describe the ‘lack of restraint’, where desire has overtaken sense and it is true selfishness, despite not being at the deliberate expense of others. Food is often described as inherently sexual in that it is used as both a complement and substitute for such activity. However, this term could also be derived from ‘orgiastic’, which belies wildness, a lack of control, the death of restraint — not used to define a sexual connotation at all. The question appears, was this sexually more explicit term left out by Pushkin on purpose or was it simply lost through the process of translation?

When studying the underlying meanings of the feast, we must not forget about the religious implications it can carry. Is it possible that this last ritual of eating in the works of Wilson and Pushkin is a reference to the Last Supper of Jesus Christ and his apostles? If yes, then does their fate contain a hope of resurrection? Or are they going to be resurrected through their stories that lead to eternal remembrance, which; in fact, is implied in the first lines of the play:

“But he’s gone away

To a cold lodging underground…

Although that tongue of wondrous eloquence

Has not yet fallen silent in the grave” (p. 96)

We hope that we have provided enough topics to talk about in the upcoming days, and haven’t been too ambiguous for a Pushkin text. For vagueness is a trait of his works, leaving the reader yearning for a definite answer and simultaneously teaching us that we must be comfortable with the unknown: much like how his characters respond to the looming, unfamiliar world of death.

These short texts demonstrate a possible method of dealing with bad news and with disease. Rather than lamenting the tragedy, the characters use music and entertainment to lighten their hearts, practically mocking “this rude visitor the Plague” (Wilson, 44). Ultimately, just don’t take things too seriously, and remember to party orgiastically whilst you can!

Azmyra, Laura, Maisie and Sharon

Jane Austen, meet Arthur Mervyn

If anyone here is a Jane Austen fan, you may want to think about the fact that Brown’s Arthur Mervyn and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice are separated by roughly a dozen years. I’ve written here before about ties between these two novels — and on the special consideration novels in general give to questions of love, marriage, and property — though coming soon, we may also have to consider additional connections between Austen and our course material

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.