Approaching the Millennium: Essays on Angels in Americaby Deborah R. Geis
Tony Kushner's complex and demanding play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes has been the most talked about, analyzed, and celebrated play of the decade. The critic Harold Bloom has included Kushner's play in his "Western canon" alongside Shakespeare and the Bible, and drama scholar John M. Clum has termed it "a turning point in the/i>
Tony Kushner's complex and demanding play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes has been the most talked about, analyzed, and celebrated play of the decade. The critic Harold Bloom has included Kushner's play in his "Western canon" alongside Shakespeare and the Bible, and drama scholar John M. Clum has termed it "a turning point in the history of gay drama, the history of American drama, and of American literary culture." While we might be somewhat wary of the instant canonization that such critical assessments confer, clearly Kushner's play is an important work, honored by the Pulitzer Prize, thought worthy of recognition on "purely aesthetic" grounds at the same time that it has been embraced--and occasionally rejected--for its politics.
Kushner's play explicitly positions itself in the current American conflict over identity politics, yet also situates that debate in a broader historical context: the American history of McCarthyism, of immigration and the "melting pot," of westward expansion, and of racist exploitation. Furthermore, the play enters into the politically volatile struggles of the AIDS crisis, struggles themselves interconnected with the politics of sexuality, gender, race, and class.
The original essays in Approaching the Millennium explore the complexities of the play and situate it in its particular, conflicted historical moment. The contributors help us understand and appreciate the play as a literary work, as theatrical text, as popular cultural phenomenon, and as political reflection and intervention. Specific topics include how the play thematizes gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity; the postmodern incarnation of the Brechtian epic; AIDS and the landscape of American politics. The range of different international productions of Angels in America provides a rich basis for discussion of its production history, including the linguistic and cultural shifts required in its "translation" from one stage to the next.
The last section of Approaching the Millennium includes interviews with Tony Kushner and other key creators and players involved in the original productions of Angels. The interviews explore issues raised earlier in the volume and dialogues between the creative artists who have shaped the play and the critics and "theatricians" engaged in responding to it.
Contributors to this volume are Arnold Aronson, Art Borreca, Gregory W. Bredbeck, Michael Cadden, Nicholas de Jongh, Allen J. Frantzen, Stanton B. Garner, Deborah R. Geis, Martin Harries, Steven F. Kruger, James Miller, Framji Minwalla, Donald Pease, Janelle Reinelt, David Román, David Savran, Ron Scapp, and Alisa Solomon.
Deborah Geis is Associate Professor of English, Queens College, City University of New York. Steven F. Kruger is Professor and Chair of the Department of English, Queens College, City University of New York.
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Approaching the MillenniumEssays on Angels in America
The University of Michigan PressCopyright © 1997 University of Michigan
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Chapter OneAmbivalence, Utopia, and a Queer Sort of Materialism: How Angels in America Reconstructs the Nation
Critics, pundits, and producers have placed Tony Kushner's Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes in the unenviable position of having to rescue the American theater. The latter, by all accounts, is in a sorry state. It has attempted to maintain its elite cultural status despite the fact that the differences between "high" and "low" have become precarious. On Broadway increasingly expensive productions survive more and more by mimicking mass culture, either in the form of mind-numbing spectacles featuring singing cats, falling chandeliers, and dancing dinnerware or plays like The Heidi Chronicles or Prelude to a Kiss, whose style and themes aspire to "quality" television. In regional theaters, meanwhile, subscriptions continue to decline and with them the adventurousness of artistic directors. Given this dismal situation, Angels in America has almost singlehandedly resuscitated a category of play that has become almost extinct: the serious Broadway drama that is neither a British import nor a revival.
Not within memory has a new American play been canonized by the press as rapidly as Angels in America. Indeed, critics have been stumbling over one another in an adulatory stupor. John Lahr hails Perestroika as a "masterpiece" and notes that "not since Williams has a playwright announced his poetic vision with such authority on the Broadway stage." Jack Kroll judges both parts "the broadest, deepest, most searching American play of our time," while Robert Brustein deems Millennium Approaches "the authoritative achievement of a radical dramatic artist with a fresh, clear voice." In the gay press, meanwhile, the play is viewed as testifying to the fact that "Broadway now leads the way in the industry with its unapologetic portrayals of gay characters." For both Frank Rich and John Clum Angels is far more than just a successful play; it is the marker of a decisive historical shift in American theater. According to Rich, the play's success is in part the result of its ability to conduct "a searching and radical rethinking of the whole esthetic of American political drama." For Clum the play's appearance on Broadway "marks a turning point in the history of gay drama, the history of American drama, and of American literary culture." In its reception Angels—so deeply preoccupied with teleological process—is itself positioned as both the culmination of history and as that which rewrites the past.
Despite the enormity of such claims, I am less interested in disputing them than in trying to understand why they are being made—and why now. Why is a play featuring five gay male characters being universalized as a "turning point" in the American theater and minoritized as the preeminent gay male artifact of the 1990s? Why is it both popular and "radical"? What is the linkage between the two primary sources for the play's theory of history and utopia—Walter Benjamin and Mormonism? And what does this linkage suggest about the constitution of the nation? Finally, why has queer drama become the theatrical sensation of the 1990s? I hope it's not too perverse of me to attempt to answer these questions by focusing less on the construction of queer subjectivities per se than on the field of cultural production in which Angels in America is situated. After all, how else would one practice a queer materialism?
The Angel of History
The opposite of nearly everything you say about Angels in America will also hold true: Angels valorizes identity politics; it offers an antifoundationalist critique of identity politics. Angels mounts an attack against ideologies of individualism; it problematizes the idea of community. Angels submits liberalism to a trenchant examination; it finally opts for yet another version of American liberal pluralism. Angels launches a critique of the very mechanisms that produce pathologized and acquiescent female bodies; it represents yet another pathologization and silencing of women. A conscientious reader or spectator might well rebuke the play, as Belize does Louis: "you're ambivalent about everything." Angels' ambivalence, however, is not simply the result of Kushner hedging his bets on the most controversial issues. Rather, it functions, I believe—quite independently of the intent of its author—as the play's political unconscious, playing itself out on many different levels: formal, ideological, characterological, and rhetorical (Frank Rich refers to this as Kushner's "refusal to adhere to any theatrical or political theory"). Yet the fact that ambivalence—or undecidability—is the watchword of this text (which is, after all, two plays) does not mean that all the questions it raises remain unresolved. On the contrary, I will argue that the play's undecidability is, in fact, always already resolved because the questions that appear to be ambivalent have in fact already been decided consciously or unconsciously by the text itself. Moreover, the relentless operation of normalizing reading practices works to reinforce these decisions. If I am correct, the play turns out (pace Frank Rich) to adhere all too well to a particular political theory.
Formally, Angels is a promiscuously complicated play that is very difficult to categorize generically. Clum's characterization of it as being "like a Shakespearean romance" is doubtlessly motivated by its rambling and episodic form, its interweaving of multiple plot lines, its mixture of realism and fantasy, its invocation of various theological and mythological narratives, as well as its success in evoking those characteristics that are usually associated with both comedy and tragedy. Moreover, Perestroika's luminous finale is remarkably suggestive of the beatific scenes that end Shakespeare's romances. There is no question, moreover, but that the play deliberately evokes the long history of Western dramatic literature and positions itself as heir to the traditions of Sophocles, Shakespeare, Brecht, and others. Consider, for example, its use of the blindness/insight binary opposition and the way that Prior Walter is carefully constructed (like the blind Prelapsarianov) as a kind of Tiresias, "going blind, as prophets do." This binarism, the paradigmatic emblem of the tragic subject (and mark of Tiresias, Oedipus, and Gloucester), deftly links cause and effect—because one is blind to truth, one loses one's sight—and is used to claim Prior's priority, his epistemologically privileged position in the text. Or consider the parallels often drawn in the press between Kushner's Roy Cohn and Shakespeare's Richard III. Or Kushner's use of a fate motif, reminiscent of Macbeth, whereby Prior insists that Louis not return until the seemingly impossible comes to pass, until he sees Louis "black and blue" (2:89). Or Kushner's rewriting of those momentous moral and political debates that riddle not just classical tragedy (Antigone, Richard II) but also the work of Brecht and his (mainly British) successors (Howard Brenton, David Hare, Caryl Churchill). Or the focus on the presence/absence of God that one finds not just in early modern tragedy but also in so-called absurdism (Beckett, Ionesco, Stoppard). Moreover, these characteristics tend to be balanced, on the one hand, by the play's insistent tendency to ironize and, on the other, by the familiar ingredients of romantic comedies (ill-matched paramours, repentant lovers, characters suddenly finding themselves in unfamiliar places, plus a lot of good jokes). Despite the ironic/comic tone, however, none of the interlaced couples survives the onslaught of chaos, disease, and revelation. Prior and Louis, Louis and Joe, Joe and Harper, have all parted by the end of the play, and the romantic dyad (as primary social unit) is replaced in the final scene of Perestroika by a utopian concept of (erotic) affiliation and a new definition of family.
Angels in America's title, its idea of utopia, and its model for a particular kind of ambivalence are derived in part from Benjamin's extraordinary meditation, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," written shortly before his death in 1940. Composed during the first months of World War II, with fascism on its march across Europe, the darkness (and simultaneous luminosity) of Benjamin's "Theses" attest not only to the seeming invincibility of Hitler but also to the impossible position of the European Left, "stranded," as Terry Eagleton notes, "between social democracy and Stalinism." In this essay Benjamin sketches a discontinuous theory of history in which "the services of theology" are enlisted in the aid of reconceiving "historical materialism." Opposing the universalizing strategies of bourgeois historicism with historical materialism's project of brushing "history against the grain" (257), he attempts a radical revision of Marxist historiography. Suturing the Jewish notion of Messianic time (in which all history is given meaning retrospectively by the sudden and unexpected coming of the Messiah) to the Marxist concept of revolution, Benjamin reimagines proletariat revolution not as the culmination of a conflict between classes, or between traditional institutions and new forms of production, but as a "blast[ing] open" of "the continuum of history" (262). Unlike traditional Marxist (or idealist) historiographers, he rejects the idea of the present as a moment of "transition" and instead conceives it as Jetztzeit, "time filled by the presence of the now" (261), a moment in which "time stands still and has come to a stop" (262). Facing Jetztzeit, and opposing all forms of gradualism, Benjamin's historical materialist, then, is given the task not of imagining and inciting progressive change (or a movement toward socialism) but of "blast[ing] a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history" (263).
The centerpiece of Benjamin's essay is his explication of a painting by Paul Klee, which becomes a parable of history, of the time of the Now, in the face of catastrophe (which for him means all of human history):
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. (257–58)
In Benjamin's allegory, with its irresolvable play of contradictions, the doggedly well-intentioned angel of history embodies both the inconceivability of progress and the excruciating condition of the Now. Poised (not unlike Benjamin himself in Europe in 1940) between the past, which is to say "catastrophe," and an unknown and terrifying future, he is less a heavenly actor than a passive observer, "fixedly contemplating" that disaster which is the history of the world. His "Paradise," meanwhile, is not the site of a benign utopianism but a "storm" whose "violence" gets caught under his wings and propels him helplessly into an inconceivable future that stymies his gaze.
Benjamin's allegory of history is, in many respects, the primary generative fiction for Angels in America. Not only is its Angel clearly derived from Benjamin's text (although with gender reassignment surgery along the way—Kushner's Angel is "Hermaphroditically Equipped"), but so is its vision of Heaven, which has "a deserted, derelict feel to it," with "rubble ... strewn everywhere" (2:48; 121). And the play's conceptualizations of the past, of catastrophe, and of utopia are clearly inflected by Benjamin's "Theses," as is its linkage between historical materialism and theology. Moreover, rather than attempt to suppress the contradictions that inform Benjamin's materialist theology, Kushner expands them. As a result, the ideas of history, progress, and paradise that Angels in America invokes are irreducibly contradictory (often without appearing to be so). Just as Benjamin's notion of revolution is related dialectically to catastrophe, so are Angels' concepts of deliverance and abjection, ecstasy and pain, utopia and dystopia, necessarily linked. Kushner's Angel (and her/his Heaven) serve as a constant reminder both of catastrophe (AIDS, racism, homophobia, and the pathologization of queer and female bodies, to name only the play's most obvious examples) and of the perpetual possibility of millennium's approach, or in the words of Ethel Rosenberg (unmistakably echoing Benjamin), that "history is about to crack wide open" (1:112). And the concept of utopia/dystopia to which s/he is linked guarantees that the vehicle of hope and redemption in Angels—the prophet who foresees a new age—will be the character who must endure the most agony, Prior Walter, suffering from AIDS and Louis's desertion.
Within the economy of utopia/dystopia that Angels installs, the greatest promise of the millennium is the possibility of life freed from the shackles of hatred, oppression, and disease. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Roy Cohn is constructed as the embodiment and guarantor of dystopia. Not only is he the paradigm of bourgeois individualism—and Reaganism— at its most murderous, hypocritical, and malignant, but he is the one with the most terrifying vision of the "universe," which he apprehends "as a kind of sandstorm in outer space with winds of mega-hurricane velocity, but instead of grains of sand it's shards and splinters of glass" (1:13). It is, however, a sign of the play's obsessively dialectical structure that Roy's vision of what sounds like hell should provide an uncanny echo of Benjamin's "storm blowing from Paradise." Yet even this dialectic, much like the play's ambivalences, is deceptive insofar as its habit of turning one pole of a binarism relentlessly into its opposite (rather than into a synthesis) describes a false dialectic. Prior, on the other hand, refusing the role of victim, becomes the sign of the unimaginable, of "the Great Work" (2:148). Yet, as with Roy, so Prior's privileged position is a figure of contradiction, coupling not just blindness with prophecy but also history with an impossible future, an ancient lineage (embodied by Prior 1 and Prior 2) with the millennium yet to come, and AIDS with a "most inner part, entirely free of disease" (1:34). Moreover, Prior's very name designates his temporal dislocation, the fact that he is at once too soon and belated, both that which anticipates and that which provides an epilogue (to the Walter family, if nothing else, since he seems to mark the end of the line). Prior Walter also serves as the queer commemoration of the Walter that came before—Walter Benjamin— whose revolutionary principles he both embodies and displaces insofar as he marks both the presence and absence of Walter Benjamin in this text.
Throughout Angels in America the utopia/dystopia coupling (wherein disaster becomes simultaneously the marker for and incitement to think Paradise) plays itself out through a host of binary oppositions: Heaven/Hell, forgiveness/retribution, communitarianism/individualism, spirit/flesh, pleasure/pain, beauty/decay, future/past, homosexuality/ heterosexuality, rationalism/indeterminacy, migration/staying put, progress/stasis, life/death. Each of these functions not just as a set of conceptual poles in relation to which characters and themes are worked out and interpreted but also as an oxymoron, a figure of undecidability whose contradictory being becomes an incitement to think the impossible: revolution. For it is precisely the conjunction of opposites that allows what Benjamin calls "the flow of thoughts" to be given a "shock" and so turned into "the sign of a Messianic cessation of happening" (262–63). The oxymoron, in other words, becomes the privileged figure by which the unimaginable allows itself to be imagined.
Excerpted from Approaching the Millennium Copyright © 1997 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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