Perestroika: Blurred Lines

Perestroika is to restructure. The title alludes to the 1986 Law aimed to reform the Soviet government and the Communist Party brought about due to the end of the Cold War. The title foreshadows change throughout Act 2 of the play. It could suggest the blurring of lines and the breaking of borders, a step towards this so-called “cosmopolitanism” – and could also be hinting at the core irony of US’ “success” in the Cold War, as despite its political triumph, America was turmoiled with an internal revolution: a social and ideological revolution led by those excluded by the white, protestant, and heterosexual America. In Perestroika, the blurring of lines becomes startlingly apparent through the genderlessness of angels, sexual fluidity amongst characters, the distinguishment (or non-distinguishment) of dreams/hallucinations and reality. Social structures are also prone to restructurization, as seen through the pervasiveness of HIV across social structures, essentially minimizing the differences among people. Roy is wealthy, but dies. Prior, who comes from an affluent family, but owns little assets himself, survives for at least another five years. The contagion can cause a little revolution in society…

Through many identities portrayed in Perestroika, Kushner captures the polarized, yet functional cultural landscape of American society. There are many identities shown in the second part of Kushner’s book. Black and white, straight and gay, rich and poor, Jewish, Mormons, politically-connected people, and normal citizens.  When Louis finds out that Joe is a Mormon, which he describes as “some bizarre religious sect” (186), Joe becomes instantly defined by this label. Even when Joe talks about the US as the “Best place on earth. Best place to be” (203), which may appeal to Joe and Luis’s common identity as Americans, Luis cuts Joe short by saying “OY. A Mormon” (203). Kushner emphasizes the labels by capitalizing phrases, such as Prior’s description of Joe, “A Gay Mormon Republic Lawyer” (220). Belize faces constant derision from Roy for his race, and says “I am trapped in a world of white people. That’s my problem” (225). This is another instance of a character’s life deeply affected by their identity, without their ability to be able to affect it. So why is this relevant? The US is often regarded as the melting pot of nations. However, the play shows American society – as represented by NYC society – as quite polarized. Racism, anti-semitism and homophobia are very present, even in the liberal atmosphere of NYC. This can be viewed as a criticism of the American culture. On the other hand, Kushner shows an interesting paradox: even though the characters have distinct identities, they manage to get along at their gathering at Bethesda.

An interesting take on American society is depicted by the Angel who tells Prior about the detrimental effect human progress has brought to Heaven and encourages him to become a reactionary prophet. They want humanity to go back and settle down, because society’s movement has caused God to leave paradise. He changed the Angels for Men.

“Forsake the Open Road:
Neither Mix Nor Intermarry: Let Deep Roots Grow:
if you do not MINGLE you will Cease to Progress”

For centuries, America has supported its expansion policy at home (emigration to the West) and their intervention abroad to spearhead lead the road to freedom and democracy.  However, according to the Angels (and think of this in terms of the Mormon elements in the play) such progress is rather undesirable. This makes sense insofar as, for many of the characters of the play, progress has brought about great disappointment.  Harper, Joe, Prior and Belize are not all that happy in America.

“It’s a Promised land, but
what a disappointing
promise!” (196)

“I hate America, Lous. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high nobody can reach it” (228)

So the question stands: is perestroika – is change – desirable? Are the angels – the divine – stating the greater truth? Could it be that change brings about more drawbacks than benefits in society? Is freedom achievable in any society?

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  1. In ascribing contagion a power to level social classes, you simplify an aspect of the disease as shown through the play. Firstly, Roy is indeed wealthy and gets sick. We see that his wealth cannot keep his death from him. However, his wealth was able to get him to a good hospital, get him the trial pills, and then get him the non-placebo pills. When it comes down to two people at the same stage of the disease, obviously the wealthier one gets the upper hand. The only character that legitimately feels like a minority in the play is Belize (although I am certainly not discrediting the minority of the homosexuals, but because 5 of the characters are gay and the Angels are mainly genderqueer, they’re the majority in the world of the play). And to me, the greatest identity conflict outside of the internal process of an individual occurs between Belize and the rest of the characters he interacts with. Roy’s denial of the label homosexual simply is a conflict within himself. Joe’s conflict is also in coming to terms with his homosexual identity. Belize’s identity seems to be more of a conflict with other people, in fact, with the monolith of straight white male America.

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