Emma Thompson in Mike Nichols' Angels in America (HBO)

The Thunderbolt of Change: ‘Angels in America’ and the Marriage Equality Victory

Complicated, fabulous and deeply progressive, Angels in America may be more pressing and relevant in the time of SCOTUS' decision on marriage equality than it was during the height of the AIDS crises.

I. “The Specialness of Being Gay”

No more than a day after the Supreme Court’s historic, paradigm-shifting, and yes, long overdue legalization of same-sex marriage in its ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges, Jodi Kantor wrote in a New York Times article, “Historic Day for Gays, but Twinge of Loss for an Outsider Culture” that “…just as the gay marriage movement peaks, so does a debate about whether gay identity is dimming, overtaken by its own success.” Among her examples was the anecdote that “(i)n theater, playwrights say there will never be another The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s 1985 cri de coeur about AIDS, or Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s 1991 saga about the same topic.”

The implication, somewhat vaguely, is that both were “outsider” works, bracing and startling for what they had to say to a mainstream audience from a position on the margins. Each production was the crossing of a boundary, which will never happen again because the boundary has been erased.

This would be a good opportunity for me to discuss Fun Home, the musical based on the cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s memoir which won five Tony Awards this past May. But I haven’t seen it. For Kantor and Lisa Kron, who wrote the book and lyrics for the musical, Fun Home seems to represent the mainstream acceptance of gay culture. “The thing I miss is the specialness of being gay,” Kron tells Kantor, who points out later that the actress who plays the older version of Bechdel, Beth Malone, was often met at the stage door by young women “who whispered their plans for coming out, even with an unknowing parent standing a few feet away.” “This,” says Kantor, “is why gay culture is unlikely to disappear…”

Still, I started to consider the idea that Kushner’s Angels in America might lose its power as a work of art. A sprawling piece of theatre comprised of two plays, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, gathered together with the subtitle “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes”, and centered on the mid-’80s AIDS crisis, Angels in America is difficult to explain succinctly. It pairs the spiritual with the political with the domestic, marrying fantastic, fabulous, and humorous theatricality with the breaking down of relationships between two couples, foremost among them Prior Walter, afflicted with AIDS, and his anxiety-wracked partner, Louis Ironson.

In fact, everyone in the play is anxious about their identities—holding on to them, letting them go, transforming—and abandoning the people they love; Louis abandons Prior; Joe Pitt, a closeted Mormon, finally comes out to his mother and then abandons his mentally-ill wife, Harper; the play’s nemesis, Roy Cohn, the closeted former aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy, denies the truth of the AIDS virus’ infection of his body. In short, as much as Kushner’s play is about the HIV/AIDS epidemic as it reached terrifying levels in the mid-’80s, Angels in America is also about identity politics and being gay, being Other, in America.

As being gay has become less numinous, less verboten in America—and I say that with a million qualifications, hesitancies, and there’s-still-work-to-do’s—does that mean the play, acutely connected to the time in which it was produced, might lose its potency?

II. “It’s Up to You to Do the Stitching”

In 2005, Harold Bloom anticipated this question in the introduction to his critical anthology about Kushner, one volume in the Bloom’s Modern Critical Views series. Bloom wrote that he was concerned the playwright and gay rights activist “might be so deformed by public concerns that he could dwindle into another Clifford Odets,” that is, a political artist whose work increasingly becomes dated. It is Kushner’s way with theatre’s magic, the “fantasia” in Angels in America‘s subtitle, that for Bloom will keep this from happening. “Social ironies, like political concerns, drive Kushner into the composition of Period Pieces,” Bloom writes, but “(t)he dramatic impulse towards phantasmagoria always will be his aesthetic redemption.”

Setting aside the question of Kushner’s career, the question of what will happen to Angels in America depends on what we think and will continue to think the play is about. Angels in America is often treated like a documentary about AIDS and the NYC gay community in the ’80s, and while that’s true to an extent, it’s also a profound statement about the great promise and contradictions of the United States of America. At its heart is the personal trouble caused by the failure of that political promise of equal rights—not just the freedom to pursue happiness, but the state’s responsibility to protect that pursuit. As much as this failure appears in the Reagan administration’s slow response to AIDS, affecting both Prior and Cohn’s search for medicine that works, it courses through the anxieties of nearly all the characters.

Even more pressing, and relevant today, is the play’s concern with how progress happens in America. The words of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are just words, endlessly flexible, debatable, and designed to serve arguably paradoxical purposes: to provide both a stable foundation and the language and capacity for change. This is the ambiguity, debate, and dialogue Kushner instills into his work. Complicated, fabulous and deeply progressive, Angels in America remains a timely meditation on change: how it happens personally, publicly, and politically, its obstacles, its costs, and its rewards. Rather than sequestering these themes as LGBTQ concerns, the play integrates them into its “National Themes”. In other words, gay concerns are national concerns, and national concerns are gay concerns. This dialogic stance echoes and was indeed necessary for the progress emergent in the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling.

The choice and inevitability of progress affects all of the characters in Kushner’s play, who wrestle with these, again, contradictory qualities. When Louis leaves Prior as his health worsens, it seems inevitable, though it’s his choice; the same is true of Joe’s coming-out, but his handling of it is abysmal. Initially Harper resists the radical change that’s tearing apart her life, but eventually she realizes it needs to happen. In one scene, she asks the Mormon Mother, a dummy come to life in the Mormon Visitor’s Center Diorama Room, how people change. “Well it has something to do with God so it’s not very nice,” says the Mother:

God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a filthy hand in, [sic] he grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they slip to evade his grasp but he squeezes hard, he insists, he pulls and pulls till all your innards are yanked out and the pain! We can’t even talk about that. And he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled and torn. It’s up to you to do the stitching.

Even when characters embrace change, they run into its limitations. In a scene with Louis, who is now abandoning him, too, Joe strips his clothes in an attempt to shed his past. “I can give up anything,” he says. “My skin.” Cohn wishes he could prevent the changes wracking his body since they point to the truth of his sexuality, which he’s worked long and hard to suppress publicly. The divorce between the private and public body is what leads to Cohn’s devastating monologue at the end of Act One in Millennium Approaches, when he dares his loyal doctor to call him a homosexual. (Not surprisingly, his defensive diatribe is unleashed at his doctor’s office, when his body is laid bare, intimately ‘public’, the threat of exposure close-at-hand.) For Cohn, public identity is everything—this is a real person, seen through Kushner’s eyes—and to maintain his power, he denies what he does in private. For him, homosexuals are defined entirely as “men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a piss-ant antidiscrimination bill through City Council.” As the private Roy Cohn falters, the public “Roy Cohn” will remain a powerful name, which Cohn thinks, desperately, will save him since “…what I am is defined entirely by who I am.”

But the essence of change is captured nowhere more dramatically than in Prior Walter’s confrontation with the Angel of America. After she breaks through his ceiling at the end of Act One, the Angel insists he embrace his role as a prophet. She even hurls a lightning bolt at his refrigerator so he’ll read the tome buried underneath. “(Y)ou probably released a whole cloud of fluorocarbons,” says Prior.

As many have noted, Kushner’s works are filled with contradictions; the difference between him and agit-proppers like Odets is the Dostoevskyian suspension of authorial directives, at least until the play’s worked itself out. One of those contradictions is that the Angel’s forced and fearsome revelation, instead of being the precursor and engine of radical difference in the making, is intended to convince Prior of her conservative message: “Stop moving.” Ultimately it has the opposite effect; in a fever dream while hospitalized and near death, Prior rejects the angel’s gifts and rejects death. It isn’t in human nature to stop moving, he says, even if it’s a bad habit. “Bless me anyway,” he adds. “I want more life.”

Who is the God in Kushner’s play? In her book A History of God, Karen Armstrong observes that:

(t)he Greeks saw movement and change as signs of inferior reality: something that had true identity remained always the same. This utterly static image of divinity would have an immense influence on Jews, Christians, and Muslims, even though it had little in common with the God of revelation, who is constantly active, innovative, and, in the Bible, even changes his mind.

The latter God has run amok in Angels in America. His angels push a traditionalist agenda, we can surmise, because He himself has abandoned them (and humanity) to parts unknown. Like angry and rather self-important children, the angels resist change for the ruptures and heartbreak it causes; “innovation,” the new, is a scourge, even if staying put or passively waiting doesn’t solve the existing problem.

III. “Justice That Arrives Like a Thunderbolt”

In his dissenting opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, Chief Justice John Roberts sounds a bit like those angels, afraid of and trying to warn us against the thunderbolt of radical change. Most of the post-ruling attention was paid to the bewildering utterances of Justice Anthony Scalia, and sure, next to him, anyone can seem sane, but Roberts’ at least cogent argument is a profoundly blinkered bit of rhetoric. “Indeed, however heartened the proponents of same-sex marriage might be on this day,” he writes, “it is worth acknowledging what they have lost, and lost forever: the opportunity to win the true acceptance that comes from persuading their fellow citizens of the justice of their cause. And they lose this just when the winds of change were freshening at their backs.” Except polls show that 70 percent of Americans are in favor of marriage equality, so consider that acceptance won.

Bemoaning the trampling of state’s rights and Constitutional limitations Roberts, like other traditionalists, cries that we’re acting too quickly. Too much, too fast! Stop moving! “As a result, the Court invalidates the marriage laws of more than half the States,” writes Roberts, “and orders the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia, for the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs. Just who do we think we are?” Roberts’ overall argument that “(s)tealing this issue from the people” (who are always equated with individual states) is a spurious sleight of hand, designed to drum up feelings of persecution among those who still disagree with same-sex marriage, as their voices haven’t been heard, loudly, for decades upon decades.

Warning against change is not, on its own, without merit. But now? Please. This change has not come soon enough. It follows centuries upon centuries of dispossession and violence against LGBTQ persons. It arises from a public debate in America, which ostensibly began with the Stonewall Riots in 1969, nearly 46 years to the day before the Court’s decision on Obergefell v. Hodges was handed down. This change is the result of multiple court rulings—Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 and United States v. Windsor in 2013, both also handed down on 26 June — and a slew of cultural dialogues on the matter, including Angels in America. To those like Roberts, the age-old question should be asked: “If not now, when?” Their answer, truly, would be, “Never.”

The thunderbolt of radical change can be terrifying, and it can be deeply rewarding. For no small reason did President Obama use that metaphor in his speech after the ruling, when he said, “(S)ometimes there are days like this, when that slow, steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.” In Angels in America, the notion is depicted literally, with camp and circumstance; the bolt is destructive before it becomes constructive. For Roberts, the thunderbolt is only ever destructive; for Obama and supporters of the ruling, myself included, it is reparative, overdue, and ultimately constructive.

Kron reminisces to Kantor in that New York Times article, “Because the traditional paths were closed, there was a consciousness to our lives, a necessary invention to the way we were going to celebrate and mark family and mark connection. That felt magical and beautiful.” This might as well describe Angels in America, but I humbly suggest that consciousness and invention are not things of the past for any of us. They remain necessary in a political world. The path which has opened up, marriage equality, is not traditional in the truest sense of that word; it expands and changes the tradition for the better based on ethical and moral principles of equality and freedom, which are enacted, and protected, in a political dimension, a dimension defined by change.

As Obergefell v. Hodges is far from the end of change, and far from the end of prejudice against LGBTQ Americans, Kushner’s play can remain relevant even as we progress, and especially if we falter, so long as we embrace rather than deny the play’s wide political dimensions—which is not to say, assimilate the uniqueness of gay culture and concerns, or excise them from the play’s politics. (As one of my brilliant teenage students wrote recently, “queer” is not enough to define her, but it can’t be taken out of her definition of herself.) Angels in America is not ambivalent about its fabulousness, its gayness, or its purpose: to be a work of prophecy as only a work of art can be, announcing, as Allen Ginsberg declared the end to the Vietnam War in “Wichita Vortex Sutra”, the end to stigma, mere tolerance, and stagnation.

At its end, Angels in America secures this not with a warning but with a blessing. Prior speaks to the audience, telling us, “The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.” And then he wishes for the audience “More Life”, which is what the word “blessing” means. Kushner dares to imagine that in America a blessing can be political. It doesn’t guarantee good fortune, happiness; nor does it even guarantee equality and freedom. But it does guarantee the life by which those things can be fought for and protected once gained. “The great work begins,” Prior adds, and it continues.