‘Children of the new morning, criminal minds
Selfish and greedy and loveless and blind.
Angels in America is a play about bodies. Kushner revels in giving his characters bodies which fail them, which defy their self-aggrandisement, which betray their religious principles, or which simply give up entirely and cease to function, leaving even his most powerful or seductive character bed ridden and forcibly benign. It is impossible, I think, to write not just a play with queer characters but a self-titled ‘Gay Fantasia’ without focusing on and addressing the body, and its relationship with queer identity.
The primary role the body played for gay men in 1980s New York, where the play was set, was fundamentally destructive. The AIDS crisis ripped through vulnerable communities, whilst the term ‘gay plague’ was thrown around derisively by the hand wringing moralists of the Evangelical Right, the word plague itself feels strangely apt. When Kushner wrote the first part of Angels, doctors weren’t entirely sure what caused AIDS – blaming HIV was only the ‘best guess’. It’s difficult to imagine what that must have been like, to have your friends struck down, suddenly and with startling regularity, with a disease about which nothing was known other than that it leads to a swift and painful death.
Add to that, of course, the fact that for queer people at the time, as with many today, friends could never be just friends. They became your family, too, because in many if not most cases living openly meant giving up your ‘real’ family. Because AIDS wasn’t the only betrayal from your body, oh no your body had already betrayed you when it decided that you should be attracted to the wrong kind of person. That sense of profound self-disgust is found in Angelsmore often when characters struggle to come to terms with their sexuality than with their illness. At the time, the distinction for some was not clear cut – at the time when Angelswas first performed, the World Health Organisation still classified homosexuality as a mental disorder.
Roy Cohn, the macho, sadistic lawyer who turns out to have AIDS, isn’t concerned with his impending demise. Rather, he demands his doctor pretend, to the outside world and even to Roy himself, that he has liver cancer. According to Roy, he is not a homosexual. He can’t be, because homosexuals are men who ‘know nobody, and who nobody knows. Men with zero clout’. Roy has a lot of clout, and because he sits above homosexuals in the ‘pecking order’, he is not one of them, merely a ‘heterosexual guy who fucks around with dudes’.
Roy Cohn is not, unlike the other characters in Angels, wholly fictional. He is closely based on the real Roy Cohn, a man who amongst other things worked for Joe McCarthy during the ‘Red Scare’. Part of his work for McCarthy involved outing, accurately or otherwise, thousands of supposed homosexuals who worked for the U.S government. Destroying the person lives of fellow sufferers seems, for Kushner, to lie just behind the power and the glory of the American dream. Wealth, class, race – all critical to achieving a certain kind of power, but nobody can save you from the selfishness and distrust which permeates a society fundamentally ill at ease with itself. ‘History is about to crack wide open’.
But disgust is not merely turned inwards. Distrust of the bodies of others, categorising them as ‘dangerous’ or simply abnormal, is the main vector for action in the play. Joe describes his wife’s intellectual disobedience as ‘emotional problems’. Pathologizing things you cannot understand can almost feel natural when everyone is ill, or desperately terrified about becoming so. Homophobia is not rational, it is a reptile brain response. It is pure, physical disgust, horror which characters in the play seeks to articulate in various ways. And as with any such feeling, animal instincts are the fundamental motivation. Roy appeals to the notion of a fundamental hierarchy, with homosexuals lacking in moral fibre placed at the very bottom of the ‘food chain’. For Joe, homosexuality is an afront to God. But whereas for Joe his religious convictions haunt him throughout the play, feeding his sexual ill ease, driving a wedge between himself and anyone who loves him. Both views, both held by gay men, are essentially motivated by a desparate need to elevate themselves above those who society has rejected. They must find some identity greater than the abnormal, the strange, the quite-literally queer. Fear and greed lie at the heart of the American psyche, and never is this so clearly expressed than in the way homosexuals are treated.
Harper sees things far more simply. When confronted for the first time with Prior, an actual real life in the flesh gay man, she simply informs him that her church doesn’t believe in homosexuals. His immortal reply, that his church doesn’t believe in Mormons, elicits a moment of confusion, a laugh and then an innocent change tack from her.
Harper is, in a sense, the bellweather for reason – she isn’t clouded by the same personal struggles Joe is, and so she is able to adapt. She has to – her immediate reality is utterly hopeless, boring, the goldfish bowl of domestic drudgery which even in the 1980s was the lot of many American woman. She has become addicted to Valium, the quintessential substance abuse problem of the bored housewife. But Harper is so much more than the life she has been left with – she is thoroughly intelligent but above even that, she is marked out for her imagination. She creates worlds for herself – filled with fanciful characters, transcending the real world so thoroughly that snowy New York City transforms into Antarctica, and homeless people keeping themselves warm can become eskimos lighting fires across the ice. Harper’s hallucinations seem at first to be the expression of profound nihilism. This world is too tedious, so selfish and filled with distrust that substance abuse and escapism of all kinds is to be actively encouraged.
But as the play progresses, above all the horror there emerges another world. Harper’s dreams may be only dreams, but nevertheless this is a world filled with ghosts, with angels, with divine messages and a fate in heaven. This is a Gay Fantasia, after all, and the aesthetics of campness are toyed with throughout only to create a wonderful, decadent metaphysical system of voices and angels. This is the kind of spirituality which has been turned against gay people for generations, used as a moral justification for generations of stigma, reimagined by Kushner into a magnificent technicolour picture of higher reality. It is the fantasy of acceptance and love and beauty so obviously missing from the world of the body. But it is still, even by the end of the play, ultimately a fantasy. Having a world as brutally realist as the one Kushner paints overlaid with these magical moments creates a cognitive dissonance that is never fully resolved. But the overall sense is one of loss, of grief for the kind of beauty which can only be imposed on the world through theatre and artifice. Kushner’s stage directions for the Angel’s appearance and for the use of stage magic is that it should be stage magic – the wires should show. Angels in America is a play where the only possible response to reality is make believe, where imagination becomes a necessary form of self-preservation. The tyranny of disgust, the tyranny of the body and its weakness is too great and hopeless to bear. What Kushner offers, if only for a moment, is the possibility of ecstatic make believe. And a moment is, perhaps, just enough.
Angels in America Part 1 is playing at the Keble O’Reilly Theatre Wednesday 19 – Sunday 23 February at 7:15pm with a matinee on Saturday at 2:30. You can buy tickets here: https://fixr.co/event/648021306?fbclid=IwAR2OG4RVZYxQnAxubBGh1RJ95LtrQdbpynO4qrzAyuGnnRV6ZuNKI3r_ZrE