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Angels in America.

Angels (they say) don't know whether it is the living they are moving among, or the dead.

-R. M. Rilke, Duino Elegies

Angelos is the Greek word for messenger, and the angel who crashes through the ceiling at the end of Millennium Approaches-the first half of Tony Kushner's epic drama Angels in America-indeed announces: "The messenger has arrived." The first half opened in April at the Walter Kerr Theater in New York City, and the second half, Perestroika, opened in October. That angel's final curtain is calculated to leave the audience waiting in suspense for the rest of the message. But can the second half truly complete a work already marked by a degree of self-censorship and by certain compromises of production? Both the playwright and the director, George Wolfe, are greatly gifted; the question is whether they were sufficiently daring.

"A Gay Fantasia on National Themes" is the subtitle Kushner has given his epic, and his themes include the ways in which we become kindred or alien in America, and the personal and political repercussions of the AIDS epidemic. He shows great heart and wit in the strongest scenes, but the promotional blitz for this play ranked it with Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire, and A Long Day's Journey Into Night. No, even a Pulitzer Prize and other awards cannot put this play in that company. Besides, such comparisons obscure Kushner's distinct aims and gifts.

In Greg Tate's excellent Village Voice interview with Kushner (April 20, 1993), Tate makes very large claims for Angels in America:

What's important about his play is that finally homosexual consciousness, which has been the underground force behind leading art movements in America since World War II, is firmly and visibly out in the center. That's the genius of the project. Tourists from Iowa are going to see it, and it will change culture in America.

Tate's first claim verges on gay chauvinism only because it is stated in too singular a form--"the underground force"-but fundamentally he's right. Queers have long inhabited terra incognita within the minds and maps of our fellow citizens; our presence has been policed at the borders of heterosexual consciousness; and our work has often been treated as an exotic import, sometimes sanitized and mislabeled for the consumption of the general public-a creature which, as the AIDS epidemic proved once again, is by official definition anything but queer. I am cheered when Kushner and Wolfe claim popular culture both as an inspiration and a proper place for their own work, but I also believe the only way for citizens and artists to change our culture is to tell certain truths which remain deeply unpopular. And not just in Iowa, but even in the province of Manhattan, even in the editorial offices of the New York Times, and even in the theaters of Broadway.

Kushner is both worldly and visionary. He has said that the angelic visitation which links the end of the first part and the beginning of the second was drawn from a dream about a friend who had died of ADS. Though the play ventures beyond the gay couple (Louis and Prior) and the married Mormon couple (Joe and Harper), these four characters do give the plot a semblance of four-square structure. Louis, for all of his leftist idealism, abandons a lover dying of AIDS; and Joe emerges from the closet as a gay man, while his wife retreats into a fantasy world. It is Louis who laments, "There are no angels in America," but an encounter between this Jewish leftist and the Mormon conservative while both are cruising in a park is already an intimation of transcendence. As Kushher has said, "The only American angel that we know of-the angel Moroni-is the angel that came to Joseph Smith," and (in Mormon faith) delivered a new gospel inscribed on golden plates.

Telling any kind of a story is both as natural and unnatural as language itself, and the advantage of angels for storytellers is that they travel between the world we know and the world we only suspect. Supernatural belief is not essential for an angel to do her narrative work. In the Voice interview, the playwright stressed the influence of Marxist dialectical analysis upon his own work:

If there is a spiritual dimension, it's in constant interaction with the material. Which is why I feel very comfortable expressing a certain kind of spirituality in the theater. Because of course that angel has all those wires attached to her .... You see that it's unreal and hokey and rigged up at the same time that it feels like a vision.

The problem is that Kushner's ideas are more convincing in conversation than they are on stage. That angelus ex machina is undeniably spectacular, but it is not really earned by the characters and story. Kushner may not be the best medium for the spirits of Oscar Wilde, Bertolt Brecht, and Emmanuel Sweden, borg-but even such aspiration is proof of strong sensibility, and greater work may follow. If we take Kushner at his own word, then he becomes his own best critic. Quoted in Playbill, he said, "The world seems to have gone mad. What we understand as the natural order of things has been completely shattered and disrupted because people are dying at the age of 20. And I think that at those moments the rules of reality crack open." But Kushner's characters hopscotch right over some of the craziest and deepest fault,lines in American culture, and earthquakes register only as personal tremors. A story which requires surrealism stops short at stage effects and situation comedy; and the bits of tear-jerking do not, finally, rise to tragedy. A whole scene depicting Harper's psychic isolation on all-too-literal arctic ice floes is so ineffectual it should be scrapped. And Belize, intended to be a spirited black queen, is little more than a sounding-board for other characters.

The single convincing crucible for both personal and political elements in this play is the character of Roy Cohn. He's a dynamo ever on the edge of derangement, devoted to the memory of Joe McCarthy, and fiercely reasoning that he is neither gay nor dying of ADS. It's a great solo part for Ron Leibman, but it deserves a different play. If only the other characters shared a similar alchemy and energy, then the stage might truly have been set for the entrance of an angel.

In the Village Voice interview, Kushner posed the question:

Do you cry for Roy Cohn? Part of the impulse to write Angels in America came from the way this man who I hated got an obituary in the Nation by Robert Sherrill that was completely homophobic. The question of forgiveness may be the hardest political question people face .... But forgiveness, if it means anything, has to be incredibly hard to come by.

The "obituary" was, in fact, Sherrill's 1988 review of a biography of Cohn which (as Sherrill stated later) "went into great detail about Cohn's dying, to good purpose, since there was something quite fitting in the putrescent ending of this very putrescent fellow." Sherrill's logic and morals would have been equally "fitting" on the far right-and were shared to a great degree even by Roy Cohn himself, as Kushner perceived.

Cohn's life did not lack in drama, but as an emblematic figure of reaction in the 1980s he cannot really bear the burden Kushner places upon him. In this respect, Kushner confirms, rather than contradicts, Robert Sherrill, and a gay man with AIDS serves all too easily as the metaphor and medium for a dozen years of rampant heterosexism and triumphal Republicanism. But William F. Buckley, for example, is an equally grotesque and dramatic figure who once proposed tattooing all HIV-positive people for easy identification-and his political power far exceeded Roy Cohn's during that decade. Introducing a living public menace in the play would have made "the question of forgiveness" Kushner raises a great deal more challenging and pointed.

Indeed, this question must extend far beyond folks on the right, or else Kushner's message remains all too an, gelic, all too comforting to the many liberals and humanitarians in any Broad, way audience, all too simple a moral to the story. In other words, precisely all too partisan, ideological, undialecticaland in the very terms which the paying public expects to encounter. The question of forgiveness must span the whole social and political spectrum; because after all, Robert Sherrill only offered more evidence that hatemongers find shelter even on the left. The question of forgiveness cannot be answered without raising the question of solidarity.

The AIDS epidemic is an earthquake revealing the deepest fault-lines and chasms in both personal and public life, and yet even Marxist dialectics did not serve the playwright well enough to raise this question of basic social solidarity in the sharpest dramatic form. In fact, Marxism ain't required. In my own view, it's even incidental. The playwright's own dialectical sense of ethics and aesthetics would suffice-if only he had dared further. Such daring often comes up against cultural and material obstacles which can stop artists colder than outright state censorship. Here, again, a Marxist analysis might be useful; and again, it ain't required.

To paraphrase Marx, all artists make choices among materials and markets, but they do not make such choices purely as they please. Among historical figures who might be chosen for the stage, Cohn does offer a convenience: you can't libel the dead. But the recent television drama about AIDS in the United States, And the Band Played On (based on Randy Shilts' book), did include a villainous Dr. Robert Gallo, a leading researcher who is alive and well. Like Cohn on stage, however, Gallo on TV also bears too great a burden of guilt, as though the many folks in Congress, at the National Institutes of Health, and in the Christian right merely played bit parts while the death toll grew. Drama is not sociology, and no one character can stand in for any social system. But since Kushner does claim a degree of social realism, that's precisely why Cohn becomes a problematic protagonist. His presence in the play is not the problem, but it under, scores the complete absence of the main players in power during those years. Even if they appear in the drama's second half, we would be left with two disconnected halves of one reality.

Kushner knows more than he dares let the audience know. Cohn does embody this knowledge on stage more intensely than the other characters, most of whom share no scenes with him. The playwright never allows them the same reality, so we get only the illusion of dimension, like holograms. Prior is the other gay man dying of ADS in the play, a sweet and campy character with some of the best lines. But even he is deprived of crucial words and motives-a speech dramatically equivalent, for example, to the ferociously delusional one Cohn delivers to his doctor, a scene which is really the severed heart of the play. Only connect!

Submerged knowledge did surface in the Voice interview, where Kushner reveals himself wrestling with his own angel; and, like the biblical Jacob, he's wounded in the struggle. The interviewer headed these comments under the rubric of "inclusiveness," but that word will not really serve:

Prior used to have a section in his final speech where he said these very confrontational things: "We won't die for you anymore, and luck you if you can't accept it." I changed it because all the straight people in the cast came to me and said, "We feel hurt by this. You ask us to go on this journey with you, and we go, and at the end you turn it into us-and-them?

I felt very angry at first: "Come on, grow up." ... It felt like the whiny American thing of "We're one big family. We are the world." ... On the other hand, these were political, deeply decent people who were feeling something I did not want people to be feeling at the end of the play. That kind of political note would only work if it could be under, stood in the context of an era, bracing gesture the play is making that I want the play to make.

The general public means general idiocy and must be overruled. Solidarity, if it means anything, must be harder to come by than this very kind of unearned inclusion. The playwright betrayed his angel when he failed to tell those actors, "Satan, get thee behind me!" Instead, he responded like a social worker keeping harmony in a support group. His first response was best-instinctive, intelligent, intransigent. The audience deserved to hear Prior's speech uncensored. No "embracing gesture" is worth a damn in either art or politics unless the real damages and distances are first acknowledged. Otherwise, the most transcendental humanism becomes the most dishonest and dangerous.

"Thus," wrote Hannah Arendt, in the case of a German and Jew under the conditions of the Third Reich it would scarcely have been a sign of humanness for the friends to have said: Are we not both human beings? It would have been a mere evasion of reality and of the world common to both at the time; they would not have been resisting the world as it was .... In keeping with a humaneness that had not lost the solid ground of reality, a humanness in the midst of the reality of persecution, they would have had to say to each other: a German and a Jew, and friends.

I don't use her words to place a simple equal sign between one holocaust and another; but rather to resist anew our old, old temptation to abandon "the solid ground of reality."

Stand firmly on that ground and then transcendence may be possible. Kushner said in the Voice: "The slave knows what the master can't know. You can approach that from the mystical-spiritual or the materialist position and believe the same thing. It's what Walter Benjamin calls the earthworm action of the oppressed." Earthworm wisdom might tempt even the angels to descend! If Kushner had allowed Prior to cry out in the most articulate rage and grief, then Angels in America might have earned that last moment and image. Whether that play would have been produced on Broadway is a question we might leave open.

Rilke wrote, "Ein jeder Engelist schrecklich"-every angel is terrible, awesome, fearsome. Any artist who takes up the themes of sex and death is already venturing on an angelic mission, and any playwright dealing with AIDS in America must lead the audience through a convincing stretch of hell before revealing a bit of heaven. Or even before revealing a bit more decency on earth. I've rafted here if I haven't encouraged readers to see both parts of the play, as I will soon myself. And I recommend reading Robert Alter's book Necessary Angels: Tradition and Modernity in Kafka, Benjamin, and Scholem (Harvard University Press, 1991) as a useful preface to Kushner's work. There, drawn from a diary entry for June 25, 1914, you'll find an unfinished story by Kafka in which the narrator describes the ceiling becoming cracked and trans, parent: "Things striving to break through seemed to be hovering above it."

In the same book, you'll find Walter Benjamin's meditation on a painting he once owned-words which Kushner probably knows well, as his reference to Benjamin would suggest. I confess my own great sympathy with the mystical materialism-or simply call it worldly wonder-which Benjamin and Kushner share in common. All good messengers must also be good listeners and witnesses; and every angel is terrible with knowledge:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Scott Tucker is an artist, activist, and writer. He was a rounding member of the Philadelphia chapter of ACT UP.
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Title Annotation:Walter Kerr Theater, New York, New York
Author:Tucker, Scott
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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