January 03, 2004

Angels in America: A Hymn to Life

[Added 1/31/06: Allow me a brief prefatory note about my methodology in this essay: in the first part, I provide many specifics about Angels in America. I do this for two reasons: first, to give you as strong a sense as I can of what actually transpires in the film, of the people, events and the kinds of moments that you see on the screen, and what you experience when you watch it; and second, this degree of specificity stands in stark contrast to the methods employed by those who attack Kushner's work. They denounce and attempt to marginalize it -- and they never provide any details or evidence to support their denunciations. All they offer are evaluations unconnected to evidence -- or evidence which is scant to the vanishing point, or irrelevant -- which makes their criticisms in my view, and in a word, worthless. So I provide here a great deal of detail to document the evaluations I offer. This particular issue becomes clearer in the second half of the article. The earliest of my entries about Kushner's play predated this essay by several months and has not yet been reposted, but the few references to that previous post are largely self-explanatory.

If you've never seen Angels in America, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Its profoundly affirming and deeply joyous message of "More life!" is perhaps the most important one of all, especially given national and world events at the present time. As Kushner writes at the end of his masterful work:

"You are fabulous, each and every one, and I bless you. More life. The great work begins."]

Part I

To offer any sort of comprehensive analysis and appreciation of Angels in America would require much more time and space than I can accommodate, so the following is a discussion of some elements which particularly struck me on a second viewing of the Mike Nichols film, shown on HBO. But the length of even this shortened treatment demonstrates the richness and complexity of the tapestry that Tony Kushner has woven with such enormous care. (Warning: If you have not yet seen Angels and would prefer to be entirely surprised by the many great pleasures it provides, please do not read the following. I include many details about the drama and what happens in it.)

But before I get to specifics, a couple of general comments. In a crucial way, my major test for any work of art -- and for writing of any kind, in fact -- is a simple one: Is this something I haven't seen or read before? Is this new to me? Is it something I haven't thought of before? In other words: Is this original? And in that crucial sense, that is the greatest virtue of Angels in my view: it is stunningly original. It's not a play or film you've seen before: it mixes politics, psychology, sexuality, religion, the countless intersections of all these issues with each other, general cultural trends, the future of the world -- and fantasy elements, lots of wonderful fantasy -- in all sorts of unimaginable ways. Unimaginable, that is, until Kushner imagined them, and presented them as a wonderful gift to all of us. For me, that above all places Angels in America far, far above almost any other new play I can think of in the last decade, or even two. If Angels did nothing else, that alone would be cause for celebration.

But Angels does much more than that. It offers us provocative ideas to think about for countless hours, it brings us characters that we care about enormously -- and it does all this in a marvelously theatrical and entertaining manner. Furthermore, in many of its concerns and the issues it raises, it is a drama clearly intended for adults. In this day and age, with most films being imitations of imitations of movies that were often not that good in the first place, and with many films being $100 million comic books, that is also an achievement of great note. And Angels is shot through with wonderful, pointed wit and humor. I think this should also be mentioned: a viewer need not be concerned with many of the issues I discuss below, or even most of them. You can, if you choose, simply sit back, and enjoy and contemplate it. That is, after all, what art is for in large measure. Angels in America is altogether a genuinely remarkable achievement, for all of these reasons, and for additional ones as well. But these are all evaluations -- so here are a number of specifics to support them. In the following, I will simply proceed through the drama as it unfolds.

-- In the opening segment, a very old Rabbi -- miraculously embodied by a nearly unrecognizable Meryl Streep, who continues to make such miracles appear as simple and as dependable as breathing -- eulogizes an old Jewish woman who has just died. The deceased woman was a Russian immigrant who had come to America many years before. Toward the beginning of the eulogy, the Rabbi is reciting the list of the woman's children and grandchildren -- Morris, Abraham, Samuel, Esther, Rachel -- and then the Rabbi comes to Eric. "Eric? That's a Jewish name?" It's a delightfully funny moment, especially as delivered by Streep, and typical of how Kushner constantly mixes comedy and much weightier matters in a manner which does not undercut the seriousness of the issues at hand in any way at all. The Rabbi then goes on to talk about how the deceased woman "brought the old world of Russia over on her back," how she was not merely "a person" but "a whole kind of a person," how there isn't any "America" qua "America" for immigrants (and perhaps for all of us, in one sense) -- and the Rabbi then talks about how that kind of journey, from the Old World to the New, does not and cannot take place any longer in our world today. But, the Rabbi says, all of the deceased's offspring internally recreate that journey every day: "In you, that journey...is."

In this manner, Kushner raises the following questions in our minds: what is the nature of assimilation into a new society? Do we become part of the new society altogether, or do we always remain apart in some manner? Are we constantly having to make the adjustment from our origins to our New World, whatever it may be? What do we mean by "America," anyway? And the Rabbi suggests still more issues to ponder. This is all accomplished in approximately the first three or four minutes -- more food for thought than most dramas offer in their entirety. And Kushner's just beginning. These issues also contain the essence of what is perhaps the play's major theme, as we shall see.

And when you watch or rewatch Angels, note the telling little moment when Louis and Prior Walter (two of the major characters, who are lovers when the drama begins) leave the synagogue: up until the moment they are "safely" away from all the relatives and friends, Louis and Prior are passing for straight; they behave like "close friends." When they turn the street corner, Prior glances back -- to make sure no one is watching -- and then, finally, puts his arm affectionately over Louis' shoulder. If you're not gay and have never had to play this game, it won't carry as much meaning for you -- but for most of us who are gay and of a certain age, we are all too familiar with this kind of pretense, and the terrible costs it carries. It's a small moment -- but it also heralds a much larger theme to come.

-- I didn't fully appreciate the following moment until I watched Angels the second time. After they leave the synagogue, Louis and Prior have a conversation in the park, and Prior shows Louis his first Kaposi's sarcoma lesion, which has just been diagnosed. (The drama begins in 1985, in the first years of the unfolding horror of AIDS.) At one point, Louis demands to know why Prior didn't tell him of his worries earlier. Prior responds: "I was afraid you'd leave me." And Louis says simply: "Oh." But the way he says it reveals that Louis himself knows that he might leave Prior in the midst of his illness, that Prior knew it, too, and that Louis knew that Prior knew it. It's one of those tiny moments that reverberates in all kinds of ways -- and most of us have had moments like that in our relationships. It carries that shock of recognition for the viewer, a kind of "Oh, no" moment. I suspect many of you probably know what I mean.

-- One of the other central relationships in Angels is that between Joe Pitt and his wife, Harper. Joe is a young, Republican Mormon, who clerks for a judge (and writes most of his opinions) and is also close friends with Roy Cohn, who has become Joe's surrogate father. In one of the first scenes between Joe and Harper, Joe is explaining why the Reagan Revolution means so much to him, and he talks about how America has now resumed its "sacred place among nations," and that people "aren't ashamed of it the way they used to be." It's one of a number of moments that carry an eerie foreshadowing of what has happened since 9/11 in many ways, and it also introduces yet another of Kushner's thematic concerns.

Joe is a closeted gay man. Some of the confrontations between Joe and Harper (who really knows that Joe is gay, but doesn't want to admit it to herself) are extraordinarily painful to watch, and they document in grisly detail the cost of maintaining a public image which does not acknowledge the truth of who we actually are. For example, at one point Joe responds to Harper's doubts by desperately clinging to the idea that as long as his behavior is "correct," then it doesn't matter what he might actually feel, and what he might actually be. Joe talks about how he's nothing more than a "shell of a man," and that there's nothing left in him to kill. And at another point, Harper asks Joe what he prays for. Joe says: "I pray for God to crush me, to break me up into little pieces and start all over again." Thus does Kushner reveal the terribly painful nature of beliefs such as those of many in the Religious Right -- that homosexuality is "just" a behavior, and that of course we love you, and we only condemn your actions. Kushner shows the awful psychological toll of making such demands -- demands which deny all kinds of psychological (and sexual) truths, and which are aimed at our very humanity in a profound sense.

This issue is, obviously, one that Kushner discussed in an interview that I mentioned in my earlier post. Kushner said:
I think that a character's politics have to live in the same sort of relationship to the character's psyche that people's politics live in relationship to their own psyches. People are never consistent. People will always do surprising things, both good and bad, and the way that people surprise themselves and their audience are the most interesting moments of human behavior. The space between what we'd like to be and what we actually are is where you find out the most interesting things.
-- The scene between Cohn and his doctor, when Cohn is told that he has AIDS, is fascinating for many reasons. Cohn's major argument to his doctor is this: I can't have AIDS, because only homosexuals and drug addicts (and maybe a few hemophiliacs) get AIDS. I'm not a drug addict or hemophiliac -- and I'm certainly not a homosexual. Homosexuals have no political power, they have no clout -- they don't know anyone important, and they can't make things happen. But Cohn is a player: he knows people, and he can make things happen. And since, in Cohn's view, we are defined by where we fit into the "food chain," by where we are in the pecking order, Cohn can't be a homosexual. Therefore, Cohn can't have AIDS. He has liver cancer.

Now, think about this for a moment. In another form, this is the same dilemma Joe faces: what defines us -- our actions, or what we are inside, the externalities and how we interact with the world, or our identities in our innermost souls? And what's the relationship between those two aspects of our lives, and of ourselves? If we deny who we are internally by means of our external actions, what kinds of costs does that require? Are they worth it, or do they destroy who we are over time? Which is more important to us? And can we change what we are internally by means of external actions which contradict it in some way? I would suggest that the answers are not always so clear, and I think it is safe to say that Kushner doesn't think the answers are simple ones at all. And these issues come up in our lives in many ways, very frequently. But this is part of a still larger issue that Kushner introduces, which I'll get to in a moment.

-- Two moments are simply wondrous in the telephone conversation between Joe and his mother, Hannah, also played by Meryl Streep. The first is another of those moments of recognition, the kind of psychologically revealing detail that all of us have experienced. Joe calls his mother (also a Mormon, of course) in a moment of desperation, at four in the morning -- from Central Park, where he has again gone to the gay cruising area. Early in the conversation, Joe asks, "Did dad love me?" Streep, who is very upset that something is terribly wrong -- why in the world is her son calling from the street in the middle of the night? and has he been drinking? -- is taken aback and very displeased by the "inappropriateness" of the question: "This is maudlin. I don't like this conversation." Joe tells her that it's about to get worse, and then it does: he tells her that he's a homosexual. When you watch Angels -- or when you watch it again -- look at Streep's eyes and face after Joe makes this announcement: the dead, stunned look, which slowly gives way to the beginning of unbearable pain. It's very brief; blink, and you'll miss it. And the first thing that Streep says -- again, just after Joe has told her he is gay -- is: "Well, you're old enough to understand your father didn't love you without being ridiculous about it."

How many of us have been through moments just like that -- when someone finally offers a truthful answer to a question they never wanted to address, simply to avoid discussing something infinitely worse that has come up in the meantime? Streep's admission of the truth about Joe's father, and her denial of the reality of Joe's being gay, are all the more remarkable in light of the transformations that this character will go through in the rest of the drama. But that conversation, and Streep's acting, are simply stunning, in their simultaneous simplicity and complexity, directness, psychological accuracy, and overwhelming truth.

If you're still with me, we are now approaching the end of only the first third of Angels. The drama has been slowly gathering steam -- it takes time to set up all the characters, conflicts and themes that Kushner deals with -- so you may need to give the first hour and a half a bit of patience. But, as I hope the above makes clear, such patience is repaid many times over. From this point on, Angels is like a locomotive under full power, constantly gathering speed -- and it carries us hurtling along its path. (The sole, and unfortunate, exception to this is the role of Harper, played by Mary-Louise Parker. Parker, who can be very good in a certain kind of part, seems out of her depth here: her performance is played on only a couple of notes, in contrast to everyone else's work. Because of the very limited range of Parker's performance -- a range which is not at all dictated by the character, as revealed by Marcia Gay Harden who played it wonderfully onstage when I saw it -- the Harper storyline pales in comparison to the others, and it sadly unbalances the work.)

-- After Louis has left Prior, who has gotten more and more ill, Louis has a conversation with Belize. Belize is a black nurse (and superbly played by Jeffrey Wright), and this character ties together a couple of strands of the story. Belize had been Prior's lover at one time and remains Prior's close friend. And when Cohn is hospitalized with AIDS, Belize is the hospital nurse who attends him. In the conversation with Louis, Belize finally loses his patience. Louis has been endlessly propounding his theory about "democracy in America," about how everything in America -- including race -- is meaningful only in political terms, and, as Belize says, "yada yada yada, blah blah blah." Aside from what Belize considers the underlying racism in Louis' comments, Belize tells Louis that he, Belize, knows that all this political theorizing actually only comes out of Louis' guilt over abandoning Prior -- that Louis is, in effect, trying to rationalize his guilt away by indulging in the development of political doctrine to no worthwhile end.

The scene is deceptively simply in my view, and much of this subtext can be lost. And as I noted above, the scene can be enjoyed, and enjoyed a lot, simply as drama. It also has some truly hilarious moments in it. When Louis says, "Real love isn't ever ambivalent," Belize riffs on this for quite a while -- telling Louis that that line comes from Belize's favorite paperback novel, In Love With the Night Mysterious, set in the pre-Civil War South. Our heroine, Margaret, is married to the plantation owner, but she is, of course, in love with the master's number one slave, Thaddeus. Since Margaret's husband suffers from AIDS (Antebellum Insufficiently Developed Sex organs, of course), Margaret and Thaddeus catch their moments of bliss when they can. In this wonderfully funny mini-monologue, Belize satirizes a certain kind of trashy fiction, a particular kind of racism, sophomoric ideas about love, and also touches on a number of other subjects. It's simply wonderful writing.

But underlying all this are the issues I touched on above: what is the relationship between the political ideas we espouse and our persons, and our emotions? To what extent are our political theories shaped, and sometimes even distorted, by what we feel? Are our political ideas of value in themselves, even when they're cut off from or contradict our inner sense of ourselves? And many more issues are suggested in the exchange between Louis and Belize -- and one of them is critical to one of Kushner's central themes. At one point, Louis says there are no "angels in America," that there is no "spiritual path," that everything is only political. Here and throughout the play, Kushner thus raises these additional questions: what is the relationship between the spiritual and the political? Between the spirit and the body? Which is more important? Do we need both? How can a political theory properly account for our spiritual needs? Should it? More about these points shortly.

-- I will only mention a couple of points about the scenes leading to the end of the first half of Angels. There is a wonderful scene between Meryl Streep (as Joe's mother) and Emma Thompson as a crazy homeless person. As she is desperately trying to get this crazy person to give her directions to Brooklyn, Streep delivers one of the funniest single lines in the play, offered with all of her character's religious sincerity combined with enormous impatience: "So...I'm sorry that you're psychotic, but just make an effort." A few moments later, Thompson says, "In the new century, I think we'll all be insane." Ah, how true that sometimes appears to be.

There is a deliriously wonderful fantasy scene, when Louis and Prior are reunited -- by means of the apparitions of two prior Prior Walters (as in Prior's ancestors; it's a long, illustrious family line, with Prior Walters numbering in the thirties by now) -- and they dance to "Moon River" in a set out of a 1930s Hollywood musical. Simply divine. There's no other word for it.

And then, the first half of Angels ends -- with the descent to Earth of the Angel finally manifesting herself to Prior, which event has been foretold throughout the first three hours: "The messenger has arrived."

Part II

I hope that Part I of my discussion about Angels in America provided enough details to give a sense of what the experience of watching the film is like -- and to give an indication of the variety and complexity of themes that run through it.

Kushner's thematic material is endlessly rich and provocative. At the beginning of the second half of Angels, the Angel who has appeared to Prior Walter transmits her primary message: "Stop moving!" What she means is this: when God became displeased with His angels, He created man. But in that creation, God inadvertently permitted endless change -- progress, invention, immigration. But all of this constant change, all of this ongoing life, disrupts heaven and results in nothing but chaos and pain. Therefore, the only solution is stasis, peace, quiet, and death. Hence, all movement must stop. This is the message that the Angel wishes Prior to accept, and to act upon. And why wouldn't he? He has AIDS, he is getting sicker and sicker, and he has nothing to look forward to but endless, worsening pain. Moreover, he has been deserted by his lover, Louis.

The balance of Angels shows us how and why Prior rejects the Angel's message -- and why he chooses life. As he says several times: despite all the horrific elements of his existence at the moment, despite the pain, the loneliness, the grief, "I want more life."

Let me flesh out some of the play's themes that I indicated in the first part of this essay. I noted that one of Kushner's primary concerns is the relationship between the spiritual and the political. But more than this, Kushner is concerned about the interrelationships of the personal -- what we are in our souls, the theoretical -- what we believe, what our ideology is, and the political -- the nature of the overall system in which we live and function. Kushner dramatizes this concern through several of his characters: Louis, with his conflict between what he believes politically and his personal desertion of Prior when Prior becomes ill; Roy Cohn, with his conflict between his homosexuality and his political power, and how he must dissemble to maintain that power; and Joe, with his conflict between his homosexuality and both his conservative political views and his Mormonism.

In interviews, Kushner often talks about his view that playwrighting is "dialectical" in nature. Many people are probably quick to ascribe this view simply to Kushner's "leftism." As I discussed in my first post about Angels, Kushner is most definitely a leftist, and I probably disagree with almost all of his explicitly political beliefs. But it is a mistake to think that dialectics belongs only to the left. The greatest champion of dialectics in the name of another political theory is undoubtedly Chris Sciabarra (see, for example, this page about Total Freedom: Toward A Dialectical Libertarianism). And as Chris has shown in his work, a dialectical approach can be found in Aristotle, and in Ayn Rand. To put the matter more simply, as Chris often does, dialectics is the art of "context-keeping." This is the same issue that I discussed in my essay about "Contextual Libertarianism" -- where I emphasized, as I often do, the importance of cultural issues, and the damage that is done when cultural factors are ignored, as they often are by "atomist libertarians." [With regard to the following discussion of an aspect of Rand's methodology, please see the introductory comments to my "Contextual Libertarianism" essay for a brief indication of my now very qualified endorsement of certain of Rand's views. The methodology described below is one I fully endorse; unfortunately, Rand failed to utilize this approach much more often that she employed it -- and that failure often led to disastrous results, in my view.]

So it is not surprising that Chris should discuss a three-level model of analysis, in terms that are almost identical to the manner in which Kushner treats his material. Here is Chris describing this methodology in a major foreign policy essay:
In Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, I explored Rand's mode for analyzing every social problem on three distinct levels: (1) The Personal, in which she focused on the psycho-epistemological and ethical dimensions; (2) The Cultural, in which she focused on the linguistic, pedagogical, aesthetic, and ideological dimensions; and (3) The Structural, in which she focused on the political and economic dimensions. Every social problem-and solution-entailed mutually reinforcing personal, cultural, and structural factors. This is why Rand maintained: "Intellectual freedom cannot exist without political freedom; political freedom cannot exist without economic freedom; a free mind and a free market are corollaries" ("For the New Intellectual"). It is also why she criticized Libertarians: for seeking political and economic change without the requisite personal and cultural foundations. But it is just as faulty to focus on ethics or culture to the exclusion of structural realities. By disconnecting any level from the others, we drain the radical life-blood out of Objectivism and ossify Rand's system into a form of conservatism. The active embrace of one-dimensional thinking by some Objectivists undermines fundamentally Rand's contextual, dialectical way of looking at the world. It is a perverse kind of "vulgar" one-sidedness that has led "far too many Objectivists [to] act as if they are conservatives who simply don't go to church," as economist Larry Sechrest suggests (OWL list, 29 January 2003).
Thus we see how, as I discussed in my post about contextual libertarianism, the approach and methodology utilized by certain leftists and libertarians are not at all dissimilar; in fact, in many ways they are almost identical.

There is yet another issue to be found here. It involves one aspect of Angels which I do not feel qualified to discuss myself. The play is rich, and dense, with religious symbolism, language and allusion. I simply do not have the knowledge to explore this subject in any meaningful way. However, I just recently found this wonderful essay about Kushner's play, and particularly about its treatment of Mormonism. The essay is by a gay Mormon, and published on the site of Affirmation, an organization for "Gay and Lesbian Mormons." In one passage, the author discusses the variety of religious symbolism in the play:
The cosmos in which this play is set is a hodge-podge of elements drawn from a variety of religious and quasi-religious sources. The wrestling-the-angel motif, the flaming Alephs, the ladder on which Prior ascends into Heaven, and the Kaddish for Roy Cohn are drawn from Judaism. The angelic-visitation motif, the peepstones, and the Restoration rhetoric ("A marvelous work and a wonder we undertake. . . . The Great Work begins" [Millennium 62, 119]) are drawn from Mormonism. The prominent role of sex in the workings of the cosmos, the hermaphroditic Angel, and the Angel's multiple Emanations--Fluor, Phosphor, Lumen, Candle--are elements of Gnosticism (which Kushner may have encountered through the writings of Harold Bloom, who calls himself a Jewish Gnostic). The Charlton Heston Moses drag is drawn, obviously, from The Ten Commandments; since, as I have already shown, Kushner insists that the drag is not a lapse into an elbow-in-the-ribs playing style, I presume that the drag is employed as an widely-recognized symbol of the prophetic vocation. (Personally, I think it's pathetic that Americans' concept of the prophetic vocation has been determined by Hollywood, but c'est la vie.) The play even incorporates several allusions to the film The Wizard of Oz, which, as a ubiquitous and at least vestigially archetypal story of the fantastic, is the closest thing to a mythic community text to be found within gay culture. Allusions to the film include the lines, "People come and go so quickly here" (Millennium 34), "If you [c]annot find your [h]eart's desire in your own backyard, you never lost it to begin with" (Perestroika 53), and several lines following Prior's return from Heaven (". . . but all the same I kept saying I want to go home. And they sent me home" [Perestroika 140]).
And from the same essay, here is the author on what is, in many ways, the same point about dialectics that I made above:
Which brings me to the concept of "casserole myth." Having rejected codified, totalizing theories or belief systems, Kushner turns instead to an organic, open-ended worldview. He describes the process by which this worldview comes into being in the afterword to Perestroika:

"I have been blessed with remarkable friends, colleagues, comrades, collaborators: Together we organize the world for ourselves, or at least we organize our understanding of it; we reflect it, refract it, criticize it, grieve over its savagery; and we help each other to discern, amidst the gathering dark, paths of resistance, pockets of peace, and places from whence hope may be plausibly expected. (158)"

It is this process of organizing for themselves their understanding of the world in which we see Prior, Louis, Belize, and Hannah engaged in the play's closing scene. Drawing from Jewish, Christian, and Mormon sacred stories, they create together a new Story, a new myth, the myth of their future cleansing and Prior's healing in the restored fountain of Bethesda. Note that this Story is not a theory; it is not codified, nor does it attempt to totalize human experience. Louis hastens to assure the audience that he and the other characters regard the myth as a metaphor, not a literal prophecy ("Not literally in Jerusalem, I mean we don't want this to have sort of Zionist implications" [148]). But its metaphorical nature does not lessen the myth's importance as a space in which a variety of belief systems come together in a mutual expression of hope for the future.

It is this space which I call a casserole myth. I borrow the term "casserole" from my Latin American studies: unlike North Americans, who have traditionally regarded their culture as a melting pot, Latin Americans describe their culture as a casserole (cazuela), i.e., as a combination of elements from a variety of cultures--Native American, Spanish, African, etc.--each of which has retained its identity rather than being assimilated into a mainstream culture. To borrow a phrase from Angels in America, Latin Americans regard their culture as a "melting pot where nothing melted" (Millennium 10). Similarly, what I term a casserole myth is a combination of beliefs, these beliefs not being assimilated or reconciled into some new totalizing religious system, but rather retaining their own identity in what becomes a non-codified, non-totalizing understanding of the world which expresses itself through a diversity of religious motifs and symbols.
In this respect, perhaps the most astonishing and complex accomplishment of Angels is how Kushner dramatizes the effects of these opposed worldviews in the lives of his characters. Those characters who propound totalistic ideologies -- a belief system which demands that everything be fit into its proper place, a closed system where further thought and exploration are forbidden, and where "impermissible" thoughts or actions are condemned -- end up alone, in pain, or dead. Thus, Cohn dies in agony; and Joe and Harper are alone when the drama concludes (although there might be hope for both of them).

But the characters who appear in the final scene -- Prior, Louis, Belize and, of all people, Hannah (Joe's mother) -- are willing to explore new avenues, both in thought and action. They are willing to look at all of life, and rejoice in its complexity, infuriating complications, and, to put it simply, just how messy it can often be. But they accept it (which does not mean that they do not judge it), without demanding that every development and occurrence be forced into a preexisting ideological framework, whether or not that framework can accommodate it. They accept it, and say: More life. But the others will not or cannot do that -- and as a result, they suffer loneliness or death, and life is lost to them. The ideologies and/or politics that they champion finally destroy them.

One other aspect of Angels should be noted. As I discussed in my first post about the play, Kushner demonstrates great compassion, and even love, for all of his characters, even those (like Cohn) whose politics Kushner himself clearly despises. Thus, for example, we have the brief affair between Louis and Joe, and Louis' acknowledgment that Joe is a "decent and caring man," despite his Republicanism and Mormonism (both of which Louis hates). Joe is one of the most sympathetic characters in Angels in many ways. He is presented by Kushner himself as "decent and caring," and he struggles terribly with the conflict between his political/religious convictions and his homosexuality. But he, too, is willing to allow for change, for life to go on in unpredictable ways -- and after he leaves his wife and begins his affair with Louis, he "blossoms" and seems to be happy. At the play's conclusion, his ultimate fate is unclear, and we are not sure which path he will finally take.

But with regard to Kushner's compassion for and acceptance of life, and even of those characters whose political beliefs might be loathsome, note that Belize, who acknowledges that he hates Cohn, helps Cohn in the course of his illness. And after Cohn has died, it is Belize who makes certain that the Kaddish is recited over Cohn's body. In another remarkable scene that is part reality, part fantasy, Louis says Kaddish --with an assist from Ethel Rosenberg's ghost. The inclusion of Rosenberg in this passage is, as Louis says, "miraculous" -- although there is, of course, that special ending to the Kaddish (which I will not spoil for anyone who hasn't yet seen it). And with regard to Cohn's death, Belize talks about how hard it is to forgive, about how forgiveness wouldn't be as meaningful if it weren't so difficult, but that "maybe a queen can forgive a vanquished foe" -- and that forgiveness is perhaps where "love and justice meet."

Louis and Ethel Rosenberg saying Kaddish over Cohn's body captures one part of the division that Kushner addresses: the crucial need for a spiritual path, as well as a political and ideological one -- how all three parts of that tripartite model are needed to accept life in all its richness. Kushner also emphasizes that we must accept our bodies, and rejoice in our sexuality. As the Angel says to Hannah: "The body is the garden of the soul." And it is the Angel's demonstration to Hannah of what that means that helps Hannah to free herself from the ways in which her ideological system, her Mormonism, has strangled her soul. Thus does Kushner show us that body and soul must be united before we can fully accept what life has to offer.

There are a few additional passages from Angels that I want to mention, in large part because they show another element that I haven't mentioned sufficiently: the richness and beauty of much of its language. In one of the final scenes between Belize and Cohn, Cohn asks Belize about the afterlife. Belize describes a city like San Francisco, and offers a wealth of detail about it. Toward the end of his description, Belize says that "all the deities are Creole, mulatto, brown as the mouths of rivers." And he concludes by saying: "Race, taste, and history...finally overcome. And you ain't there." Cohn asks: "And heaven?" And Belize says: "That was heaven, Roy."

In Harper's final scene, she describes how she believes the ozone layer will be repaired (the ozone layer has been one of Harper's many obsessions): how souls arising from the dead on earth all join hands, and form atoms which plug up the holes which had been there. And she says: "Nothing's lost forever. In this world, there's a kind of painful progress, longing for what we've left behind...and dreaming ahead."

And in one of my favorite moments, Hannah is consoling Prior, who has been hospitalized again. Despite all their apparent differences, Hannah and Prior connect in a very meaningful way -- precisely because, whatever their explicit ideologies may be, they are alive, and they see what is before them. Prior had told Hannah a few things about the Angel that appeared to him, and he admits how frightened he is of the experience. And Hannah tells him: "An angel is a belief...with wings and arms to carry you. It's not to be afraid of. And if it can't hold you up, seek for something new."

And, believe it or not, there is still much, much more than I haven't even mentioned. But I think this gives you an idea of the richness, the complexity, the humor, the pain, the anger, the love, and the countless other elements that make up Angels in America. In Prior's insistence on "more life" -- despite his sickness, despite his pain, despite everything that the Angels believe should make him welcome death -- we witness a great testament to the healing power of our spirits, our bodies, our thoughts, our emotions, all the complexities and contradictions that make us human, and to the healing power of life itself. In this sense, life is its own answer, and we need no other. As Prior says at the very end of this miraculous journey: "You are fabulous, each and every one, and I bless you. More life. The great work begins."

Against all this, we have Andrew Sullivan's entries about the play. Reviewing his archives for several weeks beginning at the end of November, we find the following items about Tony Kushner and Angels in America. There is this one:
POSEUR ALERT II: "His conversation is quick, emphatic, torrential — it comes in complete paragraphs, which themselves come complete with footnotes, jokes and marginalia. The word "dialectic" puts in frequent appearances, and questions about God are liable to be answered with references to 18th-century astronomers." - from the latest New York Times puff-piece on Tony Kushner. There's also a lovely Freudian slip in the text, as a friend pointed out to me in an email: "The writer quotes Kushner: 'Brecht was like a light bulb going off.' Leaving the fledgling dramatist in complete darkness, it seems."
Then there is this one:
'ANGELS' FLOPS: You know that the emperor is sparsely clad when even some of the contributors to the New York Times forums concede they fell asleep in the middle of "Angels in America." The NYT has devoted week after week and page after page to the most glowing hype about this production I can remember. So did almost every other major outlet. I read nothing but raves. (No, I haven't watched it yet. I just got cable two days ago. But I will try and slog through it this Sunday, as I did with the original, interminable stage production.) But the ratings were execrable, despite the massive hype. Hmmm. Could it be that Frank Rich is wrong, and that this pretentious left-wing screed is, er, just a pretentious left-wing screed?
And this one:
ANOTHER 'ANGELS' REVIEW: "I turned it off after the first hour. As a socially progressive Republican from a Catholic background, I was looking forward to what promised to be a nice mix of spirituality and commentary on one of our most pressing cultural issues. It wasn't the leftist propaganda that turned me off - although that certainly didn’t help - but the biggest problem I had with the film was that it was just a bad movie. The scenes of the movie that supposedly brought spirituality into the mix were a convoluted mess that reminded me of a cheesy play. The characters weren't written poorly, but the screenplay wasn't written well as a whole. Pacino, of course, carried the movie as much as he could. And the one thing that could have redeemed the film, its attempt at humor, failed miserably - even the supposedly humorous scenes seemed to turn their nose up at the audience. More than anything, it was just a long, drawn out, poorly written film that exuded a holier-than-thou leftist elitism. I just wish critics would have the guts to say so."
And this one:
CRITIQUES OF 'ANGELS': Here are two actual reviews of "Angels in America," the leftist play hailed by every living critic as a masterpiece for the ages. Dale Peck sees its datedness, as well as its merits. Timothy Hulsey is much tougher. Money quote:

"The scenes and speeches in Angels never add up, perhaps because Kushner's characters don't change or progress much over time. Roy Cohn, the one major character who never fails to impress audiences (and who gives actors a chance to tear off whole chunks of scenery with their teeth), starts the play as an amoral son-of-a-bitch, and ends the play as an amoral son-of-a-bitch. Prior Walter, the protagonist, begins the play as a sweet, introspective left-winger with a trust fund, and ends as a sweet, introspective left-winger with a trust fund. You'd think that angels and AIDS would have had more of an impact on these guys, but no."

I also didn't realize that Kushner had written an earlier play equating tolerance of Ronald Reagan with aquiescence in Nazism. Ahead of his time, for a change.
And this one:
ANGELS DROOPS: The most brilliant, ground-breaking, revolutionary work of art since, er, Frank Rich started writing for the New York Times slipped again in the ratings last week. Its first audience of 4.2 million slipped to 2.9 million for the finale, according to Hollywood Reporter. A reader's defense of 'Angels' can be read here.
The "reader's defense" is worth reading in its entirety. I give Sullivan a few points for publishing it, and it concludes this way:
I used to enjoy reading your blog, though I didn't always agree with your politics. However, after reading this continual diatribe against "Angels," I've lost my taste for your writing. You're more concerned with scoring points against Kushner than giving the play a decent critique. Indeed, I notice you haven't cited any positive reviews of "Angels" in your blog. But I guess when you're pushing an agenda, that's not too important.
And...that's it, to date. In view of the detail I have offered about Kushner's work, I do not think it necessary to characterize Sullivan's treatment of this extraordinary achievement. However, I will note that I find it close to incomprehensible that Sullivan, a gay man, cannot even acknowledge the treatment of a character like Joe, and Kushner's searing portrayal of the terrible costs exacted by an ideology that condemns the actions of gay men, even as it continues to insist that it "loves the sinner."

But I believe that Sullivan himself -- together with innumerable other people of both Right and Left, many of whom place the demands of ideology above all else -- perfectly encapsulates the tragedy that Kushner dramatizes with a character like Roy Cohn. When ideological strictures trump everything, you finally deny yourself the complexities, the reality, and the rewards of life itself. In this sense, a sense much deeper than Sullivan's focus on an issue such as Kushner's treatment of Reagan's attitude toward gays and AIDS, Sullivan is Cohn -- and Sullivan, together with all the other conservatives which he so perfectly embodies, is indeed the "soul of modern conservatism."

So there is your choice: on one hand, you have an unbending ideology, which will force everything into its required place -- or dispense with it altogether, and ultimately destroy it. You have damnations such as "pretentious left-wing screed," "interminable," "poorly written," "holier-than-thou leftist elitism," "cheesy play" -- all offered without a shred of supporting evidence -- and you have the dismissal of a writer of extraordinary talent as a "fledgling dramatist [left] in complete darkness."

And on the other hand, you have the full embrace of life -- the embrace of our bodies, our sexuality, our religions with all their diversity, our political beliefs in all their complexity, our minds and our emotions, and all the myriad ways in which we can connect with each other, if only we will allow ourselves to do so. You have an angel that can "carry you," you have a world of continuity, of ongoing struggle and joy, where "nothing's lost forever" -- and most of all, you have more life.

Each of us, of course, is free to make his or her own choice. I've made mine. What's yours?