“Individualism is an American value, part of a democratic ideal, but it often impedes sacrifice and truly loving one’s kin.” A look at self in community in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.
Tony Kushner opens up Angels in America with the vision of an individual. The rabbi tells the story of Louis’s grandmother, Sarah Ironson, at her funeral.
“She was not a person but a whole kind of person, the ones who crossed the ocean, who brought with us to America the villages of Russia and Lithuania—and how we struggled, and how we fought, for the family, for the Jewish home, so that you would not grow up here, in this strange place, in the melting pot where nothing melted.” (10)
The rabbi sets up a serious Ironson family legacy. It ends up feeling fractured: “She was up there in that home for ten years, talking to herself,” Louis tells Prior after the funeral. “I never visited. She looked too much like my mother” (19). Louis’s detachment from his grandmother’s life of sacrifice, for his own peace of mind, poses the question of roots. How can one retain their roots in a new land, as each generation becomes more American? A major part of Americanization and the American dream that Kushner grapples with is the loss of one’s own heritage, and how this anomie manifests in choices and actions that privilege self-interest.
Individualism is an American value, part of a democratic ideal, but it often impedes sacrifice and truly loving one’s kin. Louis’s self is most palpable when he’s philosophizing, evident by his lengthy indulgences in abstractions and ideas. His choice to remain suspended in a myopic reality enables his neglect of his grandmother and later, his abandonment of Prior. Joe Pitt’s priority is political success and fitting in with the conservative elite. His concern with achievement prevents looking past the facade of his lifestyle to relieve his wife from a failed marriage. On the worst end of the spectrum of American individualism is Roy Cohn: unconflicted, narcissistic, and arguably the finished ideal of American individualism. His life serves the cause of his own repute and power. But more interesting is Kushner’s exploration of the texture of kinship and the remnant of roots in such a life. Cohn’s unbound self-interest inclines him to disparage community and empathy, leaving any presence of kinship in his life damaged and unsustainable.
Roy Cohn’s Failures of Kinship
Roy Cohn is motivated by power and disgusted by weakness. But his aversion to weakness, in himself and others, is what leaves him without kin. At the same time that Kushner is portraying Roy Cohn the politically powerful man ridden with contempt for society, he is examining Roy Cohn the monumentally alienated cultural figure. Roy Cohn explains an aspect of his philosophy of kinship to the doctor: “I have sex with men. But unlike nearly every other man of whom this is true, I bring the guy I’m screwing to the White House and President Reagan smiles at us and shakes his hand. Because what I am is defined entirely by who I am.” (46) Roy detaches his gay sexuality from any sense of gay identity. He says of himself, “Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man . . . who fucks around with guys” (46). Cohn calls gay people “men who know nobody and who nobody knows.” (46) His generalization of the gay community reveals a basic contempt for identities that are marginalized, weak, unable to influence the direction of the country. He subjects the value of any human relationships to political power, or clout. The act of distancing himself from a gay identity is an act of protection—of his reputation, of his ego, of the idea that he must be untouchable. Kushner depicts the extent of Roy’s ruthlessness by having him taunt Ethel Rosenberg, yet his cruelty ends up feeling petty and even sad—it’s after this ugly moment that he drops dead. There is the sense that closing off weakness and empathy was his loss.
Kushner creates an image of Ethel Rosenberg as Roy Cohn’s Jewish mother. Roy performs fear to make Ethel comfort him with a Jewish lullaby: “I fooled you, Ethel! I knew who you were all along! I can’t believe you fell for that Ma stuff!” (255) He shows disdain for the vulnerability and urge to care that is so ingrained within the family dynamic. The song is an expression of tenderness and care, simply a means of love. He laughs at love, tortures love in its broken state. He compares her singing to a confession of guilt: “I just wanted to see if I could finally, finally make Ethel Rosenberg sing! I WIN!” (255). He sadistically lures her maternal instinct to prove that love and guilt are the same thing: weakness. With Ethel Rosenberg, someone he sees as a Jewish mother, acting as his mother, Cohn’s treatment of her almost feels like self-loathing, self-hatred. She is a symbol of the source, a symbol of his origins, and he must destroy the idea of her even after he has killed her. But Roy’s need to kill the kinship of the past proves that his hatred of weakness comes from a weakness within himself. The instincts of veering away from his roots holds true in his attempt to create kinship with a younger man who is nothing like himself.
Roy’s main interest in kinship is his relationship with Joe. He courts Joe to go work with him in Washington D.C. His attempt at reconstituting kinship happens within a mentor-protégé dynamic. It elaborates his life’s work in self-interest, as he wishes Joe to carry on his political and cultural legacy:
“If you want the smoke and puffery you can listen to Kissinger and Schultz and those guys, but if you want to look at the heart of modern conservatism, you look at me . . . My generation, we had clarity. Unafraid to look deep into the miasma at the heart of the world, what a pit, what a nightmare is there…After I die they’ll say it was for the money and the headlines. But it was never the money: it’s the moxie that counts. I never waivered. You: remember” (210).
The image of Joe represents a nostalgic conservatism to Roy. Joe is Mormon, married, good-looking, very Republican, and professionally driven. He is archetypically American and conforms to the heteronormative. If Roy is looking to recreate himself, Joe represents all the straight, white, privileged, unfamiliar-with-weakness, advertisement-ready Americanness that he worships. But for Joe to join his team, Joe must meet his standard of recognizing extreme pessimism and horror, and staying invincible at the core, as if a machine. Joe fails Roy’s standard when he becomes vulnerable and tells Roy that he is gay:
“now I’m going pillar to post looking for, for oh Lord I don’t know—‘Sympathy?’ I suppose? Which I never used to need, which I never wanted, never allowed or even felt for myself I always found the whole idea of it just contemptible, just . . . repulsive—I know you care for me” (213).
From his mentor, Joe asks for love and community. Even when he was in control of himself, he knew Roy in an almost intimate way, as one feels intuitively bonded to kin. It is reasonable that he would seek his help. Joe’s vulnerability transforms the image Roy holds of him, from an ideal to someone destructible after all. Kinship only remains possible if Joe returns to solidness: “I want you home. With your wife. Whatever else you got going, cut it dead” (215). Joe’s identity exploration is of no use to the agenda of power. Roy will not sacrifice any room within his own sense of self for the weaknesses of other people. But there is mourning for the vision of their relationship: “Every goddamn thing I ever wanted they have taken from me. Mocked and reviled, all my life” (215). Where Cohn sees weakness, he takes it as personal insult, rather than the suffering of others—it’s a failure of perspective. Self-interest without sacrifice or empathy makes his relationship with Joe unsustainable. What he calls weakness is actually vulnerability. Renouncing ego or self in the action of sacrificing for the welfare of others. Without the weakness Roy so scorns, meaningful kinship is impossible. The pursuit of strength without weakness is less fail proof once Kushner shows the audience that facing weakness together is required to maintain true bonds. Cohn’s political connections provide him AZT, but providing a resource is quite different from showing up to care for him in the hospital. Ronald Reagan and other friends in high places are not his community. And Roy is not immune to desiring community: “Sit. Talk,” he urges Belize, whose response to this offer of friendship is also a response to his notoriety: “Mr. Cohn. I’d rather suck the pus out of an abscess.” After Belize insults Roy, he only shows more vulnerability, revealing that he is not immune to wanting and needing friendship, or at least, companionship: “Oh forchristsake. Whatta I gotta do? Beg? I don’t want to be alone” (152). Only when he is all alone and at the mercy of others, he shows this moment of weakness. But it is brief and without sacrifice. Meaningful kinship is still impossible for Roy.
Prior Walter’s Constant Return to Kinship
While Roy Cohn clings onto invincibility and power even as he is dying, Prior Walter is someone who feels all loss and weakness as he suffers from AIDS. His physical and emotional pain overtake his sense of self. In his status of uncertain survival, he is momentarily not a contender in the American dream and the future vision of himself. Kushner explores a philosophy of kinship as formed by a return to spirituality rooted in a bare essence of humanity. Prior’s struggle through identity and illness is generative. In losing oneself, possibilities of kinship open up.
Prior’s nuclear standards of kinship are clarified against the mistakes Louis makes. Louis destroys and reconstitutes kinship with self-loathing, a myopic self-interest detached from tangible life. Prior, when being abandoned, diagnoses Louis’s inability to really invest in community or kinship with a person he really claims to love. Reality is clear to Prior in a way it is not to Louis:
Prior: (Shattered; almost pleading; trying to reach him): I’m dying! You stupid fuck! Do you know what that is! Love! Do you know what love means? We lived together four and a half years, you animal, you idiot.
Louis: I have to find some way to save myself (83).
In the big picture, Prior is the one at the center of suffering. Yet Louis prioritizes his own emotional well-being, unable to make the sacrifices that love requires. The story Prior tells about his ancestor who was a captain is particularly analogous to Louis’s logic. The crew, “implacable, unsmiling men, irresistibly strong” threw people overboard to stay afloat; nine out of 70 people get to Halifax.(42) The effort to survive, the rational act of keeping the boat going, ultimately seems irrational, considering the cold facelessness of the crew. What is missing from such an ordeal is love—the act of comforting one another, at least offering compassion before an inevitable death. Similarly, Louis thinks the rational thing to do is abandon Prior, so he can keep his own emotional stability and survive. In this act of survival, Louis’s rationality does willfully shuts out love and compassion. Though Louis loves Prior and proclaims it verbally, he is unable to manifest the love into action and effort. His love for Prior is then somewhat false, vivid in theory yet lacking in actuality. Ultimately, even though Louis is invested in the idea of loving Prior, he fails at the practice of loving him. Prior despises this theoretical love that has failed him: “We have reached a verdict, Your Honor. This man’s heart is deficient. He loves, but his love is worth nothing” (82). On a larger scale of love, anyone would be faulted and alienated by theoretical community that promises support but does not make sacrifices to produce that support for its people. Prior values sacrifice. It is clear to him that love requires sharing in someone’s suffering. Love, without pain, makes the pleasure meaningless.
Kushner espouses Prior’s philosophy of kinship. He launches the possibilities of Prior’s perspective into the realm of fantasy to see what can happen. The journey begins in pain and dying. The loss of self allows the reckoning with his roots to begin. Prior meets the ghosts of his ancestors, one from the thirteenth century, and one from the seventeenth century.
Prior: Are we having a convention?
Prior 2: We’ve been sent to declare Her fabulous incipience. They love a well-paved entrance with lots of heralds, and—
Prior 1: The messenger come. Prepare the way. The infinite descent, a breath in air—(91).
His ancestors precede his communion with the divine. Prior 1 and 2 also died of infectious disease, epidemics that surprised the human population. They recognize Prior’s sexuality quickly; but much more palpable is their connection through the same cause of death: “They chose us, I suspect, because of the mortal affinities. In a family as long-descended as the Walters there are bound to be a few carried off by plague,” says Prior 2 (91). Kushner here thinks about the larger social significance of AIDS: a catastrophic moment in history, like other historical plagues, that tests human ability to treat disease but also human selflessness to care for the diseased. It is a recurring litmus test of humanity’s integrity. History and ancestry, once enacted into imagination, expands the scope and power of Prior’s consciousness. This experience of fantasy has a real psychological effect on Prior. He realizes his existence inherently contains a community and worth, simply because he is alive. No one is ever really alone, and no moment in time is singular. Prior’s suffering is a lot more illuminating for him than it is for Roy. His innate hope in kinship enables these visions.
Prior 2: We two come to strew rose petal and palm leaf before the triumphal procession. Prophet. Seer. Revelator. It’s a great honor for the family.
Prior 1: He hasn’t got a family.
Prior 2: I meant for the Walters, for the family in the larger sense (92).
The union of Prior with his ancestors recongregates his purpose and individuality. By having Prior dialogue with past versions of himself, Kushner bestows upon him primordial quality and rootedness. Stripped of the American dream, a spirituality of the sensual and the timeless self arises. The regenerative power of kinship is defended and solidified at Prior’s core; the stakes of life are reestablished. The angels, overwhelmed pain and disaster in heaven, urge him to welcome death as freedom: “Let any Being on whom Fortune smiles Creep away to Death Before that last dreadful daybreak” (278). However, Prior’s core belief in kinship strikes down their advice: “The earth’s my home, and I want to go home.” Pain is a part of love. And to give into fear is to fail his values, and himself. He renounces the illusion of control over life, as people like Roy strive for: “I recognize the habit. The addiction to being alive . . . .If I can find hope anywhere, that’s it, that’s the best I can do” (279). He chooses suffering, as long as there is hope: “ it’s what living things do. We desire” (279). the reconstitution of kinship is not only good enough, but the only thing Prior really believes in.
Kushner reestablishes that those in pain and suffering must move toward kinship. Kushner ends the play with Prior emerged as the model for cognizant American individualism. In Prior’s new utopia, suffering is a shared experience, in which he invites Louis to take part, despite the abandonment. The death of Prior’s and Louis’s relationship has regenerated into a new form of kinship. Prior shares the knowledge of the narrative of death with Louis, offering him a new chance at love without punishing him: “This is the angel Bethesda. Louis will tell you her story” (289). The idea of death is juxtaposed with the image of perfect art; their coexistence is important and one cannot be significant without the other. The contradiction embodied by the angel is particularly meaningful. The angel that crashed through Prior’s ceiling is transferred from fantasy to a real space in their community, to remember a time of suffering.
“This angel. She’s my favorite angel. I like them best when they’re statuary. They commemorate death but they suggest a world without dying. They are made of the heaviest things on earth, stone and iron, they weigh tons but they’re winged, they are engines and instruments of flight” (289).
Though the statue’s creation is born out of man’s knowledge of mortality, it is a perfect, enduring form. Kinship must be similarly motivated. Life is strengthened and a person’s spirit is perfected by death. Prior’s own suffering and pain, whether physical or emotional, then serves as inspiration for joy and collective union.
Kushner writes Prior’s character to break the fourth wall to transfer the mission upon the audience, insinuating that the “Great Work” is timeless as long as there is human life. The Angel thinks of the Great Work as humanity ending: “Let any Being on whom Fortune smiles Keep away to Death . . . ” (278). Prior pushes against this, and believes the real Great Work of humanity requires pain and change, and persistence through pain is what he argues for when he meets the angels up in heaven: “I still want . . . My blessing. Even sick. I want to be alive” (277). Kushner envisions progress in America to be made through more sacrifice, more community, more empathy for people of vulnerable social conditions. He pushes spiritual generosity and broader consciousness of kinship within the idealization of American individualism. Democracy is more legible if the desire for power is counterbalanced by the act of sacrifice. By the end of Angels in America, Kushner returns to the importance of community on a small and intimate scale, grounding his vision in a realistic scene. However, for all the disillusionment the play explores on a national scale, the final scene does not pose solutions on an equal scale.
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Theatre Communications Group, 2013.