Nothing unknown is knowable

Tony Kushner’s ‘Angels in America’ is laden with examples of intertextuality, with references to either ‘The Wizard of Oz’ or ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ in “People come and go so quickly here…” (Act 1 Scene 6).

Kushner also references Tennessee Williams’ ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, and the almost verbatim allusion in the following lines (Act 2 scene 5) struck me acutely:

Prior: Stella.
Belize: Stella for star.
Belize: Not to despair, Belle Reeve.

It is only fitting that Belle Reeve is a French mistranslation for “beautiful dream”, because Prior is constantly plagued by visions, illusions and dreams of angels, and of his ancestors. However, the connection between Kushner and Williams has deeper roots. Williams accepted his homosexuality in the 1930s, and his sentiments on his own sexuality resonate with Kushner’s portrayal of homosexuality in his ‘gay fantasia on national themes.’ In a time of rampant homophobia, the implicit undertones of homosexuality in Williams’ play shows a hesitation to explicitly state his sexual beliefs, much like the characters, not just in ‘Angels in America’ but also in Ibsen’s ‘Ghosts’ too, who fear naming what they fear. ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ was of stylistic importance as well. It paved the way for the emphasis on dramatic realism in plays later in the 20th century, including ‘Angels in America’. Additionally, many of Williams’ female characters, including Blanche in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and Laura in ‘The Glass Menagerie’ are based on his mentally fragile sister, and their hallucinations are clear signs of depression and mental instability. There is an eerie similarity between these characters and that of Harper, whose conversations with Mr. Lies and hallucinations involving Prior possibly illustrate a constant struggle to get over a husband who never loved her. 

One of the themes in Act 1 scene 6 of the play is the limit of imagination, or whether it is possible to know the unknown, and to be able to imagine what has not been sensed. This is possibly a representation of Mormon religious beliefs, as Mormons do not believe in creation ex nihilo, or the creation of the world out of nothing. Mormons believe that matter is eternal and God simply reorganized it. Kushner’s acceptance of borrowed elements makes his play an embodiment of Harper’s philosophy “nothing unknown is knowable”.

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