Play of Protest, a Play of American Identity: Tony Kushner’s 1993 “Angels in America”
“Angels in America” by Tony Kushner is a kind of theatrical protest piece of the postmodern American age of fragmented identity. The construction of the play weaves different forms of modern American culture, such as Jewish assimilation, gay rights and religion, the anti-communism of the past era, and the Republican politics of the present, into a singular narrative. However, by doing so, it also suggests that, no matter how fragmented Americans may be by their politics, there is a cohesive humanity that unites America together, under the common guiding vision of the same angel. By blurring time and space over the course of the play’s progression, the play creates connections between lonely and socially disconnected characters. In doing so, the play suggests that America is less segregated than the audience may be initially apt to think.
The suggestion that America is a seamless fabric of interrelated issues, rather than a patchwork of identities, is first suggested in the opening monologue of the rabbi, who is administering the funeral of an elderly Jewish woman. The rabbi speaks of the assimilation of the Jewish woman’s children and the struggles of the woman’s ancestors to make it in America. Although the rabbi rather cynically says that in the American melting pot nothing truly melts, the stories of the different characters do intersect, if only in dreams, during the course of the play.
For example, the gay man Louis learns that his lover Prior has AIDS, and he abandons him. Joe, a gay Mormon lawyer, abandons his wife Harper. Harper is a Valium addict, and at one point in the play Harper and Prior meet in a dream, because both of them have been abandoned, and both of them are suffering because they love selfish people who cannot love them back. Common tragedy and dreams unite disconnected people in America; despite the fact they come from different social groups and have different religious affiliations.
This meeting also suggests, of course, that gay men and women should not be excluded from the fabric of America, anymore than holy people such as the Mormons. Suffering is similar, only prejudice keeps people apart. However, the cruelty of Louis towards his lover Parker also shows that gay people are not necessarily morally superior to straight people — any more than religious people or Republicans are better or more American than their gay counterparts.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this suggestion is found in the persona of Roy Cohn. Roy is a gay, Republican lawyer dying of AIDS who actively persecuted supposed communists in the name of American justice during the McCarthy era. Roy is Jewish, gay, and a Republican, thus his persona unites different facets of the identities of Louis, Joe, and also Parker. But Roy insists that he can be none of those things — he is only a Republican American because gays have “zero clout” and he has clout — by denying everything he is, and remaking himself into a false, straight zealot of the right wing. Ironically, the most truly, genetically ‘American’ of all the characters is the drag queen Parker, who is visited by a vision of all of his ancient Puritan ancestors, in another of the play’s intersections between dreams and reality. This vision of Parker’s past history suggests that everyone has different claims upon America’s past, and that America’s past history of diversity — and its Puritanism — continues to affect America’s present.
Through dreams and by combining different parallel stories together on the stage, the play ultimately calls upon the viewer to perceive a larger American truth, a truth much greater than the narrow American truth espoused by Roy Cohen and his followers. The truth is that all Americans are interconnected in their common lives and struggles. Joe works for Roy, but is unaware of Roy’s homosexuality, just as he attempts to conceal his own for career, personal and religious advancement, even though his sexual alienation causes his wife and himself great pain. He and Louis meet in a washroom in one of the play’s many intersecting moments, and in this scene both men despair for their own futures and the futures of an America based on lies.
However, part of their perceptions that America is a lie is based on the fact that their own selves are lies, constructed to be the same as what they see as the mainstream of the country, a mainstream that does not really exist. The play ends with a note that suggests in the millennium that there is no mainstream. The dying drag queen Parker, lying in bed, is granted a vision of the angel of the world to come, and the America to come that is based on truth, not lies, and embraces all peoples, not just some peoples and some constructions of American identity.
Kushner, Tony. “Angels in America.” 1993.
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