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