As a person who is relatively unfamiliar with American history, many of the references inAngels in America did not ring a bell and had to be looked up – except one particularly notorious reference that often shows up in literature:
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs…The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers — goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me at every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway.”
The above quote is taken from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, a novel chronicling the protagonist Esther’s descent into suicidal depression. Esther was fascinated by the Rosenberg case because of her fascination with death in general, but she was not the only one whose interest was captured by the highly controversial case. Indeed, the Rosenberg case generated heated political and ethical debates that found their way into art and literature – such as Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.
Kushner uses the Rosenberg case, particularly the characters of Ethel Rosenberg and the prosecuting attorney Roy Cohn, to raise up various ethical and political issues. He takes a firm stance against Roy Cohn, who was said to have taken pride in the part he played in the Rosenberg verdict. Cohn was the one to interrogate Ethel’s brother David Greenglass, whose testimony charged the Rosenbergs with espionage for the Soviet Union. He was also the one who personally recommended the death penalty to the judge, a sentence that was overly harsh especially in light of more recent revelations that Ethel Rosenberg was innocent.
Indeed, the prosecution headed by Roy Cohn appears to have been guilty of misdemeanor in handling the case, particularly regarding Ethel Rosenberg. The charges against her were rather dubious, and it is thought the prosecution was using her in order to push her husband Julius to confess. David Greenglass eventually admitted that his testimony against his sister was false and she had been innocent of espionage even if her husband wasn’t. To make things worse, while it is reported Julius died quickly after receiving the first or second shock, Ethel’s heart was still beating after the third shock, and she was given more electricity until smoke rose out of her head.
In class we wondered why Kushner chose to include Ethel and not her husband. Perhaps it is because in her treatment we see the worst, most ruthless side of Roy Cohn, who sentenced her to die when she did not deserve to do so and considered it a great achievement. For whether or not she was guilty, death by electric chair is a gruesomely awful sentence that the Rosenbergs were the only spies to receive. And whether or not we can accurately rely on Kushner’s depiction of Cohn, the historical information pertaining to the Rosenberg case does rather establish him as a Very Bad Man.