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


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  1. I think it is interesting to talk about this tendency of people to deny the reality, when it is not what they want, to accept a lie that makes them feel comfortable instead of a truth that can threaten their happiness. In this play the escape is accomplished through the power of imagination but it seems that even the imagination has its own limitation, so people are force to create their own universe using materials from the real world and, not even this imaginary universe is perfect. But is this desire to escape due to the monotony and ordinariness of the life or to the fear of change, the approach of the new millennium produce? And moreover, is this isolation an effective method to escape (even in a small extent) from life’s problems? We can look back to some of the books we studied to answer this question. For example in Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague, Walsingham and his revelers try to fight the disease creating their own microcosm with its own rules, which, at least in their imagination, is plague free. But the way the play ends, with the chairman plunged in deep contemplation is a proof that their method, that their way to fight the plague is not perfect as they thought and the danger of the real world can truly menace them. Then, in Ibsen’s Ghost the name of the disease – syphilis – is not mention during the whole play, the characters trying, again, to deny the truth by hiding him, but despite their attempt, the plague begins to manifest, destroying their own safe universe. Even in The Plague, the trial of authorities to negate the fact that the town was stricken by a plague contagion is useless as the symptoms of the disease begin to appear and the truth can’t be hidden anymore. So, as we can observe from these examples, denying the reality is not the best way to approach a situation, as, any universe created by human mind will fall sooner or later. In conclusion, the destiny of the characters of the play is strongly influenced by the fact that they don’t accept the reality, which leads to disappointments and failures. Even if their world is subjected to major political, ideological, social change and confronts with an AIDS epidemic, this is the real world and despite what they want, they must accept it and adapt to it.

    • To add on to your point, I believe the play is resolved by having all the characters initially in denial of reality eventually come to acceptance. Harper leaves Joe, Joe comes out of the closet, Hannah accepts her son as he is, Prior and Louis learn to cope with AIDS together. Perhaps the only character who never fully admits to “the truth” is Roy, who is the only character whose story ends in death.

  2. Hi, all. Just getting a chance to log in and take stock of this discussion. I hope you’ve enjoyed the screening and reading this week. I’d love to see some more comments on these posts and hear what you’re thinking about the play so far.

    I had one quick note on the conveners’ post: The line “Jews favouring the more Conservative parties, and Mormons either abstaining from political contest or voting for social democracy” doesn’t quite seem right to me. In the US, at least, and especially in NYC, Jews stereotypically are seen a liberals. Mormons are social conservatives for the most part. (Utah is often seen as the most Republican state in the US.) You’re right, though, that in the nineteenth century Mormons tended to be seen as utopian separatists. How they went from that utopian mindset to becoming the epitome of conservatism seems to be part of what Kushner finds useful in their religious narrative. I’ll have a lot to say about religion when we finally get a chance to talk in person and I have some links I will provide as you guys transition into part two.

  3. I think it is interesting to note the parallels of both disease and homosexuality in the play, in terms of the effects they have on various relationships, which links directly to the question concerning the role of AIDS in relationships. In Angel’s in America, AIDS seems to spread and infest the relationships between the characters in a manner that is similar to how the disease itself spreads and infects its victims – after the transmission of the disease has occurred, the symptoms of the body under attack are not detected immediately, but they are most definitely present. This is the case in regards to AIDS and relationships – the effect of the disease on the partnership is not detectable immediately, but the tension is building beneath the surface. The primary example a relationship that is pulled apart by AIDS is that of Louis and Prior. We see that initially Louis struggles with the dilemma as to whether he should leave Prior after discovering his diagnosis, and as the play progresses we later see that he decides in favour of this, which serves to show how in relationships, the tension that AIDS causes seems to manifest and mount before it is the brought to the surface, where the tension is converted into action, and it is at this point in time during the infection on the relationship, that the effects are most detrimental – Louis leaves Prior, making him an unfavourable character in the play for his lack of morality. Homosexuality seems to have a similar effect on Joe and Harper’s relationship. The truth of Joe’s homosexuality and its manifestations are not readily detectable and seem to lie deep within Joe’s subconscious. However, this truth doesn’t seem to remain dormant – it is active, and is slowly rises to the surface. Here, the impact of this truth is felt in all its force – Harper learns of his truth and the end of their marriage comes shortly after.

    The effect of disease on relationships varies in the texts we have read so far. In some instances, disease can be seen to be an agent that brings people together, but more often than not it keeps people estranged from each other. Looking at the example The Plague, we see that disease separates both Rieux and Rambert from their wives; in A Feast During the Plague, disease has taken the life of Walsingham’s wife thereby breaking their marriage, circumstances which are similar for Miranda in Pale Horse Pale Rider, where Adam dies after having contracted Influenza, thereby leaving Miranda estranged. All of these texts demonstrate how disease is an agent that forces relationships apart, however Angels in America differs from these texts wherein the split relationships, as a result of disease, are conscious choices made by the characters, which may in large be due to the fact that AIDS “permeates the most intimate part of human relationships” as asserted in this post.

  4. I think that the parallel you draw between the nature and appearance of homosexuality and AIDS is very significant, but I also find your assertion, that the characters in Angels of America consciously decide to leave their partners, very revealing. How does the fact that Joe and Louis have rationally decided to abandon the people they ‘love’ help us in the analysis of the play’s characters? I wonder, does the play criticize them for this outcome or rather claims that every individual has the right to act similarly? How does the play view the statement that “we owe things to the people we love”? I believe that it would be interesting to compare the approach of Angels in America and previous works we have read to what love and obligations mean in times of disease, and whether different types of diseases have a different influence on human relationships. Do all diseases affect people the same way, or should we take into account the biological structure and component of each before embarking on the ‘journey’ of analysis?

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