Angels in America: A Study in Queer Ideology
Angels in America: A Study in Queer Ideology
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Millennium Approaches, the first half of Tony Kushner’s two-part drama Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is, to say the least, a powerful exploration of the gay community in America from a very postmodern perspective - Angels in America: A Study in Queer Ideology introduction. The play by no means limits itself to the much-explored genres of gay/lesbian problem play or the AIDS problem play. As Don Shewey, one of the foremost commentators on the play states, “Angels in America is a landmark not just among AIDS plays or gay dramas but in American theater – partly because Kushner has the audacity to equate gay concerns with the fate of the country.”(91) In fact what Tony Kushner successfully achieves in Angels in America, is not only to underline the much discussed ‘gay issue’ but to align the issue with some very universally relevant concerns of postmodernism: the issues of control, of power, of stereotyping and marginalizing; of the oppressive conservative essentialist philosophical discourse that opposes change and poses a threat to any movement towards liberation. This paper intends to analyze the concerns of the gay community as revealed in Kushner’s play Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, trace the play’s constant questioning and subsequent deconstruction of general assumptions about gay male culture, and examine its relation with a newly emerged critical approach called ‘Queer Theory’.
Queer theory can be defined as a philosophical stance or an intellectual technique that criticizes the concepts of gender, feminism and the preconceived idea of genetic determinism in sexual preferences. Deriving its inspiration from the European avant-garde philosopher like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, Queer theory shares with Deconstruction, skepticism about any essentialist discourse and attempts to ‘unbuild’ or deconstruct any so called ‘straight’ ideology. Although in common parlance it is associated with homosexual representation, queer theorists in fact attempts to explore the issues of gender, race as well as sexuality contesting any and every type of categorizations and stereotyping of the human identity. “As queer is unaligned with any specific identity category, it has the potential to be annexed profitably to any number of discussions. In the history of disciplinary formations, lesbian and gay studies is itself a relatively recent construction, and queer theory can be seen as its latest institutional transformation.”(Jagose) And this is where Tony Kushner’s groundbreaking play aligns itself with queer theorists. The play features over thirty characters drawn from various walks of life, but has five main protagonists: Roy Cohn, the infamous, real-life prosecutor and the former henchman of Senator Joseph McCarthy; Prior Walter, a young man who has been diagnosed with AIDS; Louis, a Jewish homosexual who is Prior’s lover; Joe Pitt, an ambitious bisexual Mormon who works for Cohn and is his protégé; and Harper Pitt, Joe’s wife. Homosexuality is of course a theme that weaves through the lives of the protagonists, but what Kushner attempts to portray in the play is not the similarity between these characters sharing a common identity based on their sexual preferences, but the differences, the multitudes of differences that make them individuals. It is these differences that throw them apart, breaking down relationship highlighting their loneliness along the tumultuous journey called life. But it is these same differences that also bring them together, forming new bonds in a celebration of life. For that is what Tony Kushner celebrates in this masterpiece of his: life with all its differences.
One of the foremost concerns of the queer theorists lies with the notion of identity in general and sexual identity to be more specific. The problem with the lesbian/gay identity lies in the fact that: 1) It is considered to be a derivative, a complication, a negation of the normal or ‘straight’ sexual identity, that is heterosexuality. Thus in the heterosexual/homosexual opposition, the first term belongs to the ‘norm’ and is a higher truth, while the second term marks a fall. 2) Moreover as a decisive term in the production of identity of an individual, it is one that delimits his potential and is prone to stereotyping and subsequent repression.
Queer theorists thus, drawing their inspiration from Derridean Deconstruction, presents its critique of the notion of human identity in a dual ground: 1) They refute the culturally and sociologically perceived notion of identities falling in two categories: the normal, and the subversive. Thus homosexual identity is not an opposition to or negation of heterosexual identity but is equally valid in itself. 2) They claim that identities are not fixed but rather fluid in nature; that the human subject cannot be categorized and labeled according to their sexual preferences or generalizations based on gender. These concerns of the Queer theorists with the question of identity is reflected and explored in depth in Tony Kushner’s play Millennium Approaches.
It is interesting to note in this context that none of the characters in the play are merely Americans or a generalized representative of the member of the human race. Each and every character are specifically identified by their sexual preferences, race, ethnicity, gender, skin color and so on and so forth. In fact Kushner’s play traces the actions, motivations, choices and decisions of these characters: an exploration that tells us less about the communities they belong to than about the impossibility of limiting these characters within the stereotypes of their community or individual sexual orientations. Thus the protagonists of the play are Jewish, Mormon or even black; moreover the male characters are defined by their homosexuality. Even the deadly AIDS infection serves as an identity mark as prone to stereotyping or categorizing as are race and gender.
Kushner is in no way superficial in exploring the issues of identity. He realizes that the categorizations have immense capacity to infect a population with divisiveness. And this is clearly underlined in Louis’s callousness about race. Moreover, his suspicion that Belize harbors anti-Semitic sentiments is sufficient to sour their relationship and drive a wedge between them. Louis is endlessly opinionated about big issues that trouble the world like racism, democracy, revolution and never stops his intellectual talk about them. But he falls apart when illness and death strikes close at home. He is the young progressive, idealist and wordy Jewish New Yorker who walks out on Prior when he is diagnosed with AIDS. “There are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political,” (52) Louis says, in one of his intellectual commentaries meant to hide his own moral quandary.
Critics have found a parallel between the character of Louis and Kushner himself. However as John Lahr, in a particularly brilliant review of the play pointed out, Louis invokes, not Kushner but Alexis de Tocqueville and it is Tocqueville who puts his finger on that force of American democracy whose momentum creates the spiritual vacuum Kushner’s characters act out. Tocqueville writes: Thus, not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him….” (quoted in Lahr, 128) However, Kushner is not sentimental about the ability of a group identity to connect people automatically. In the play characters like Roy Cohn compulsively resists their inclusion in a community of which they do not want any part. In fact, Cohn’s resistance to the gay identity has a dual aspect. On the most superficial level it does seem to fit in with the Queer theorists resistance against categorization and stereotyping. However, when one pries deeper into the play and the character one realizes that the Cohn’s very resistance is a function of the categorization of the gay community as one uniform and objective whole. His actions and decisions are clearly based upon a socially constructed notion of homosexuality. After learning that Pitt has contracted AIDS, Cohn vehemently denies and represses his own homosexuality. He engages in a relentless, reckless and manic pursuit of political power and believing that homosexuals lack political power, he subsequently argues that because he has power, he is not gay – he is simply a heterosexual who has sex with men. He tells his doctor when he learns he has AIDS, “Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant anti-discrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Does this sound like me, Henry?” (67)
However, one must note that this isolation and breakdown of relationships is not the final message of the play. This step is only a step, albeit a necessary one to the reconstitution of a community where individuality and differences are not frowned upon but celebrated and even welcomed. And this is where Kushner’s play aligns itself with the theorizations of the Queer theorists as well as the postmodernists who make so much of celebrating any and every type of differences and finds true liberation in that ideal only.
The ultimate message that Angels in America comes with is that individuality and differences need not be discarded or done away with in order to come under the embrace of a community. In fact it is from these differences that new bonds are born in the play; new relationships are formed. The playwright asserts that communities that resist change, that is intolerant towards difference must at some point break down. However, the isolation, loneliness and the wreckage of relationships traced in Millennium Approaches is not the end. Rather out of the wreckage, almost like a phoenix rising from its own ashes new bonds emerge, new communities develop that celebrate difference. A new bond is forged, for instance between Hannah and Prior. Despite Prior’s misgivings Hannah does not reject him after she learns that he is gay. In spite of her Mormon bringing up she accepts Prior as what he is. Thus the play asserts the fluidity of identity and takes up its stance against categorization and essentialist discourses.
In fact, as Tony Kushner claims, while writing Angels in America, this is the question that was foremost in his mind. “The question I am trying to ask is how broad is a community’s embrace. How wide does it reach?” (Shewey, “Interview with Tony Kushner” 36). In Perestroika, the second part of the two-part drama, Kushner shows that communities are forged in new and often unlikely ways. The differences among Prior and Harper in their positions in life for instance does not come in the way of forging a relationship between them too. In fact, so very much like the queer groups in ACT UP, in case of Tony Kushner’s characters too, the differences serves as a kind of glue between them and bring them together.
The visions and hallucinations that punctuate the play from time to time is another good point in this regard. Prior, the AIDS patient dances with Louis, his estranged lover in a dream. In another vision, Harper fantasizes herself in the Antarctica, and later Joe comes hilariously alive during Harper’s vigil in the Diorama Room of the Mormon Visitor’s Center in New York City. These, on the most superficial level are expressions of the characters’ lovelorn grief and loneliness. But on another level, proceeding from the perspective of Freudian psychoanalysis, one might suggest that these are repressions of individual desires and motivations that find their expression in the dreams. As John Lahr in a most enlightening essay points out: “These hauntings are sometimes dramatized as projections of parts of the self that have been murdered in order to survive.” (129)
In other words, these hauntings and visions are the effects of the characters’ attempt to fit into the categories and classifications that they have been subjected to and against which their individuality rebels as does the Queer critics. “Are you a ghost?” Prior asks Louis as he sways in the arms of his guilty lover to the enchanting music of “Moon River”. “No,” Louis says, “Just spectral. Lost to myself.” (52)
Tony Kushner has always been an active participant in the radical movements associated with Queer Rights organization like ACT UP. In fact the famous playwright has been arrested three times for taking part in the demonstration of the aforementioned organization. It is thus quite obvious that Kushner is well acquainted with the advocates of Queer theory. An interview the author gave to Don Shewey after the phenomenal success of play also points to this direction.
In the interview, Kushner asserts that the main problem of the homosexual community today is one of stereotyping which is a necessary consequence of the essentialist discourse: “I don’t know that I believe in archetypes. I have a big problem with anything that smacks of the essentialist or the eternal. I don’t believe that gay people have the role of shamans or priests or artists. There have been a time when gay people were honored, when difference and otherness was sacred rather than satanic…That’s an important thing….” (“Interview with Tony Kushner”, 34)
And this is the final message of the play Angels in America: the vision of a community that views difference and otherness as something sacred rather than satanic, as something to be honored rather than to be frowned upon, as something that is the only truth in this truth less world. Kushner’s characters are not merely a collection of gay people; they are a study in difference ranging from the vicious Roy Cohn to the almost saintly Prior, from the Jewish homosexual Louis to the Mormon bisexual and Cohn’s protégé Pitt.
Another issue in connection with Kushner’s celebration of difference is the playwright’s analysis of change and loss. The characters wage a full-fledged and often funny battle throughout the play in order to deal with catastrophic loss. Everyone loses, but the attitude towards loss varies from person to person. And in fact, it is in their ability (or disability) to handle loss that Kushner places his characters’ fate. Roy Cohn, is placed in the center of this discourse as in everything else. Cohn is the king of control and will not accept loss at any cost. He fights valiantly to maintain his fantasy of omnipotence. But it is a misguided and misdirected battle that he is waging: “I can get anyone to do anything I want….” (73)
But all change require loss and as Kushner has asserted through his play again and again, any community that does not value difference and impede change, inevitably self-destructs. Cohn is powerful no doubt and he attempts to use his power to impede change and thereby stop loss. His emptiness is colossal torn apart by the categorizations and his personal desires.
Significantly, Cohn dies mouthing the same words that introduced him in Millennium Approaches. Kushner shows his other characters growing through an acceptance of loss. “Lost is best”, Harper says, refusing to take Joe back after his fling with Louis, and going with the flow of her aimlessness. “Get lost. Joe. Go exploring.” (45) Prior too has finally wrestled control of his life and what remains of his momentum from the Angel of Stasis. “Motion, Progress, is life, it’s – modernity”, he says, unwilling to be stoical. “We’re not rocks, we can’t just wait…And wait for what? God.” His task is to make sense of death and, as he says, “To face loss, with grace.” (71)
Thus an analysis of the play shows the presence of a multiplicity of themes and motifs popular with Queer theorists in the play. The question of identity related to a person’s sexuality is naturally given the utmost importance. But other themes like that of acceptance of difference and the inevitability of change, themes common in queer literature also finds expression in Kushner’s epoch-making play. Where Kushner differs from other artists of similar orientation is in the fact that he does not limit the concerns to the homosexual community. Rather, he moves a step forward to connect the Queer concerns to the concerns of the humanity. As Shewey remarks, “Unlike…other well known gay dramas which bravely and unapologetically revealed gay life to the straight world, Angels takes an the whole world from the specific, peculiar, privileged viewpoint of Homosexuals.” (92)
Clum, John M. Staging Gay Lives: An Anthology of Contemporary Gay Theater. Ed.John M. Clum. Foreword by Tony Kushner. Boulder, CO: Westview P, 1996.
Gelb Hal. “Angels in America, Part I” The Nation, New York, Vol. 256, No. 7, Feb 22, 1993 pp 246-248.
Jagose, Annamarie. “Queer Theory”. Australian Humanities Review. http://www.lib.latrobe.edu.au/AHR/archive/Issue-Dec-1996/jagose.html
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: Millennium Approaches. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1993.
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: Perestroika. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1993.
Lahr John “Beyond Nelly” The New Yorker. Vol. LXVIII No. 40, Nov 23, 1992, pp 126-130.
Shewey, Don. “Revelations”. The Village Voice. Vol. XXXVI, No. 31, July 30, 1991. pp 91-92.
Shewey, Don. “An Interview with Tony Kushner”. The Village Voice. Vol. XXXVIII, No. 43, June 22, 1993. pp 94-95.