Kushner’s title tortures me. Not just because over 80% of Americans believe in angels, but because they think it’s possible for anyone/thing to be looking over their shoulder –on the order of the Rocky Graziano sentiment in “Somebody Up There Likes Me”– now that we’ve become The Torture Capital of the World. (1)
I’ve had many close friends die of AIDS. Some –grotesquely disfigured and screaming at the south and clutching at the north– in front of my eyes. But victims of AIDS, including their loved ones…even if they’re Americans, can and do support torture and other abominations.
About a decade ago, Intiman Theatre produced “Angels in America,” playwright Tony Kushner’s epic “gay fantasia on national themes.” The much-celebrated play, divided into two three-hour segments, has won multiple awards and honors, including two Tonys (one for each section) and a Pulitzer Prize. In fact, it was named one of the top five Tony Award-winning plays of all time! Kushner shared that honor with Arthur Miller, Edward Albee and O’Neill.
For those into trivia, you can guess the names of the other plays (Marilyn’s ex got two!). And speaking of trivia, I’m writing this article ’cause I just saw the HBO version of Kushner’s work…and I’m appalled at the trivial way in which political talk was treated in this overly-praised piece. (2)
I can look the other way with Tennessee Williams’ creations being ignored vis-a-vis the “top five,” but I cannot keep quiet about Angels’ indiscretions (dis)respecting political talk…because it is so common…and so dangerous.
The play is “fabulous” in rising high above the pathology, demographics and therapies associated with AIDS (underscoring that each and every one of us is a literally fabulous creature), but escaping the limitations of the medical and social sciences is not enough…if an American pathology is perpetuated.
I speak of our collective attitude toward political talk. We like to patter on, but we insist upon keeping the peace (pathetically) between us. Let’s not spill any organic lemonade during intermission.
There’s plenty of politics interweaved with the issues surrounding AIDS and other gay-related problems in the play, but it’s the general attitude toward broad political discourse that’s wanting. Quite infuriating for Kushner to talk in platitudes at the end of his Perestroika segment…and plant vague seeds that won’t offend anyone on the left. It’s the old balancing act (requisite for success on Broadway):
Louis: Whatever comes, what you have to admire in Gorbachev, in the Russians is that they’re making a leap into the unknown. You can’t wait around for a theory. The sprawl of life, the weird…
Belize: Maybe the sheer size of the terrain.
Louis: It’s all too much to be encompassed by a single theory now.
Belize: The world is faster than the mind.
Hannah: You can’t live in the world without an idea of the world, but it’s living that makes the ideas. You can’t wait for a theory, but you have to have a theory.
Louis: Go know. As my grandma would say.
This is not Joe Papp. This is pure pap. The talk about Zionists and Palestinians at the very end is more of the same. And, once again, all discussion is cut off before it has a chance to embrace anything substantial. There’s a superficial softbelly-solidarity that’s safe for commercial consumption here.
It’s all like the end of a PBS discussion where one has listened to three “experts” on a given subject, and comes away with the feeling that it’s “all one half a dozen of one, six of another.” Angels allows for ranting about the ravages of AIDS, but it can’t get itself to risk losing…its audience. Just imagine one of the PBS participants leaping across the desk, and grabbing a guest by the throat screaming “I will not allow you to RATIONALIZE torture!”
An uplift is provided by lifting something from the minds of audience members. Their discriminatory powers. They have been conditioned –through the course of the play (and within the society in which they are imprisoned, the stage on/at which they are brainwashed)– to reduce all political talk to their particular corner, their narrow concern, and chalk all else up to…”if we have time…when it’s convenient…within the prescribed limits.”
When Belize (my saftig favorite), the former drag queen, says
“Well, I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, 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. That was deliberate. Nothing on earth sounds less like freedom to me.”
… he’s/she’s uttering some gorgeous dramatic poetry.
But the catch is that Louis (“people like you”) hold too much sway in the play/for the day. His spoken politics is carefully juxstaposed with the obligatory activities/dialogue directly related to AIDS…so that it comes off, most of the time, as…not as important.
And it is significant that Louis is the character who could not care for his fallen lover, ran from his moral/ethical potential/obligations. Political talk is associated with THAT.
Louis-like behavior can plague us all, but it must be called for what it is when it rears its ugly face.
When Kushner concludes on his very positive notes concerning how everyone will become “citizens” and “the Great Work” will begin, he neglects the fact that increasing numbers of Americans are placing their parents in horrific old age homes…and the like. That within and without the Gay Community, trends that contradict the playwright’s optimism are spinning…not even “forward” (as per Prior’s final speech)…but out of control.
Kushner would have us bust out into a rendition of some Hair-like ditty in lieu of lambasting the Louises that line the country’s spine, up and down, coast to coast.
When Harper’s vision of human and planetary healing is expressed:
“Souls were rising, from the earth far below, souls of the dead, of people who had perished, from famine, from war, from the plague, and they floated up, like skydivers in reverse, limbs all akimbo, wheeling and spinning. And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles and formed a web, a great net of souls, and the souls were three-atom oxygen molecules, of the stuff of ozone, and the outer rim absorbed them, and was repaired.”
We have dramatic poetry on the order of Tennessee Williams, and a message that must warm the hardest of hearts, inspiring hope.
But Kushner is making a mistake by invoking a vision of existence beyond the plague here. As it distracts from earthly obligations/urgency…drawing our minds into, and blending all by some medieval mode/injunction that what’s here and now cannot be confronted, should not be confronted with more mundane manipulations, more than a mystical attitudinal set.
Ultimately, he has created a realm in which those plagued by AIDS can survive in all important senses…at the expense of dispensing with the fire needed to fight The Earthly Powers on larger issues.
Tony’s angels do not angst about anything (else) like they do respecting AIDS. Nothing on the level of lesions, certainly. That wouldn’t please the God of Entertainment.
It is an attitude –consciously created or not– that dominates life in what’s left of/in America. And it keeps people (albeit, working feverishly in their isolated corners) from moving in solidarity on any macroscopic level. With any urgency.
At the very end, Prior, the diseased angel (“almost done”), reassures the audience that the horizon is ringed with a nimbus of a glorious future, but it must ring hollow for any activist who has been on the streets, and ventured beyond The New York Times.
Arnold Weinstein, in an otherwise brilliant rundown of “Angels in America,” says
“Kushner’s play reworks all the motifs…in the plague-text, from Sophocles through Defoe, Camus and Bergman…. But in Angels in America, what was discrete in the other texts seem is now revealed in its ‘fit,’ its coherence. All of these texts seem to tell us that an epidemic ushers in some dreadful truths about sexuality, identity, and political order, but these truths remain murky. In Kushner’s play, it all comes together with brilliance and chutzpah….” (3)
I agree with the statements respecting sexuality and identity, but I have deep reservations concerning the “political order” point.
Whereas Kushner would have us believe that AIDS and the Gay Movement constitute a revision of America’s experience, I submit that they are a fringe phenomenon –albeit, extremely significant, deserving and replete with parallels/lessons that we should pay attention to– and have evolved to the point where gays (and lesbians) can feel quite comfortable in confining their activism to purely gay issues.
That’s as suicidal a position as assuming The Position in The Baths.
Talk about our Common Denominators of Enlightened Self-Interest remain…without legs. We are all crippled by the microscopic concerns of our little corners. And like Estragon and Vladimir in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, we never get past the verbal resolve to “go.”
If Love is letting go of Fear, than, surely, Radical Change is rooted in letting go of the individual lesions that plague us individually (exclusively), and focusing on what’s caused The Disease for us all. (4) We must not torture ourselves any longer remaining in denial.
If it’s not derived from the Wrath of God, then we can be sure solutions are to be found on terra firma…far from the footlights.
And on that count, Camus’ The Plague, Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, Dickens’ Bleak House, and the ancient Sophocles’ Oedipus all offer more.
There are virtually no angels in America beyond the Broadway types that put up the moolah for that insatiable Moloch, entertainment. (5)
(1) It’s not just the recent developments regarding institutional sanctions, as the country, obviously, has a longstanding pattern of “looking the other way” respecting torture practiced at home and abroad. Definitive documentation on this point provided upon request.
(2) Of course, it’s wonderful that the main subject got such great exposure, and –certainly– there were elements that were handled beautifully. The message that we are “fabulous creatures each and every one” is gorgeous. But to say, “not a single thing about Angels in America is anything less than perfect” is going a bit far. For the trvia teasers, email me.
(3) Arnold Weinstein, A Scream Goes Through The House: What Literature Teaches Us About Life (New York: Random House, 2003), p. 274 and p. 287.
(4) It’s one thing to cling to the notion that “all politics is local,” but one always has a choice of what to focus on within that realm…that might impact more fundamentally than the corner stop sign. If one has limited heartbeats to spend on activism, which is the case for most of us. For instance, consider the following (culled from the December 3rd Democracy Now! Headlines):
“BBC Reveals NYC Tests HIV Drugs on Kids
A nine-month-long BBC investigation has revealed that the city of New York has been forcing HIV positive children under its supervision to be used as human guinea pigs in tests for experimental HIV drug trials, in some cases against their will. All of the children in the program are under the legal guidance of the city’s child welfare department, the Administration for Children’s Services. Most were living either in foster care or independent homes run on behalf of the local authorities, Almost all the children are believed to be African-American or Latino. One New York social worker told the BBC she had never been informed that the drugs she was administering to children were experimental and highly toxic. Jacklyn Hoerger said, “We were told that if they were vomiting, if they lost their ability to walk, if they were having diarrhea, if they were dying, then all of this was because of their HIV infection.” In fact it was the drugs that were causing many of the problems. The BBC identified pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline as one of the companies that provided drugs for the tests.”
If one is going to work on behalf of AIDS-related issues in NYC, one can choose to make certain that someone is held responsible for the above…for starters.
(5) Moloch was a Canaanite deity referred to in several books of the Old Testament, to whom worshippers sacrificed their children. Anything that has great power and demands torturous sacrifice can be described as a Moloch. See Ginsburg’s Howl for starters.
RICHARD OXMAN, former Professor of Dramatic Arts, is living in Los Gatos, California, and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.