Pride Month, Part I: Angels in America


I’ve watched Angels in America at least twice before (although never on stage). I will say, on a third viewing, it still absolutely lives up to the hype. Go right out and watch it now if you haven’t yet. It’ll be better use of six hours than dragging yourself through Netflix.


For my money, the most precise, fully realized character is Louis Ironson, the gay Jewish word processor (back when ‘word processors’ were human beings) at the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Louis is one of the best fictional representations of US liberalism I’ve ever seen. Precisely because both Kushner and the play itself are quite aware of the dilemmas of US liberalism but unable to break out of it, Louis emerges as the embodiment of the key themes of the play.

It is Louis’s abandonment of his lover, Prior, due to Prior’s AIDS diagnosis that undergirds the structure of the entire play. Act One introduces the probability that Louis will chose to leave rather than deal with the reality of caring for his lover through to his death, and Act One ends with Louis finally resolving to leave Prior. Act Two finally resolves with Prior and Louis reaching a rapprochement (through not really a reconciliation). Louis’s abandonment of Prior is the emotional trauma at the heart of the play, forming the basis for both how we view the closeted lawyer Joe Pitt’s abandonment of his wife Harper and how we view God’s abandonment of humanity as the play shifts into its supernatural aspects.

Louis running away from Prior is shown as a character flaw, if quite a human one. However, it also flows from his politics in ways that are not fully appreciated. Louis’s fundamental characteristic, as his not-really-friend Belize tells him, is that he is “ambivalent about everything.” Louis has deep anxiety about the law and fear of judgment. It is an eternal ambiguity, not radical or deconstructive, but destructive.

When justifying to himself his decision to leave Prior, he tells Prior he hates the law because “all that matters is the verdict,” gabbling on that the law “should be the question and shape of a life, its total complexity gathered, arranged and considered, which matters in the end, not some stamp of salvation or damnation which disperses all complexity in some unsatisfying little decision.” Prior, knowing what Louis is really saying, responds, “I like this; very zen; it’s … reassuringly incomprehensible and useless. We who are about to die thank you.” Louis’s sin (and he and the play both view it on some level as a sin in the real sense) is, interestingly, justified in thoroughly liberal terms. His is the classic liberal critique of harsh right-wing jurisprudence: that life is too nuanced to be decided in a court room, that it is unjust to squash all the possible complexities into a singular narrative. In fact, this is the reigning view of much of current academia, which takes the reality that oppression denies the reality of the oppressed and concludes from this that the real problem is that there was a narrative at all. Louis isn’t wrong, exactly. But he is, as Prior says, “useless” in the face of real need.

One of the characteristics of contemporary US liberalism is a wallowing in ambivalence, mistaking this for wisdom and maturity. This has often been remarked on, to the extent that “nuance” has become a punchline. It is the inability to decide which side you are on, an overpowering fear of conclusions which would then require actions, actions one is not willing to take.

This form of thought allows all critiques, viewpoints, and ideologies to coexist, without one gaining supremacy over another discursively. It is precisely by this mechanism that the true workings of American power are obscured. At the end of the play, Prior, Louis, Belize, and Joe’s mother Hannah are all joined together in a heated but basically friendly argument. Louis’s last words are a confused mess in which he, characteristically, both rejects religious forms of ‘Zionism’, declares himself an ‘advocate of the Palestinian cause,’ and insists that Israel giving up the Golan Heights and the West Bank would be ‘a bridge too far.’[1] Prior then addresses the audience directly, asking us to tune out the argument and focus on the sacred, universal gift of life which he bestows upon us.

As David Savran argues in his analysis of the play,

a kind of dissensus (of which liberal pluralism is the contemporary avatar) has been the hallmark of the very idea of America – and American literature – from the very beginning. In this most American of ideologies an almost incomparably wide range of opinions, beliefs, and cultural positions are finally absorbed into a fantasy of a utopian nation in which anything and everything is possible, in which the millennium is simultaneously at hand and indefinitely deferred. Moreover, the nation is imagined as the geographical representation of that utopia, which is both everywhere and nowhere. For, as Berlant explains, “the contradiction between the ‘nowhere’ of utopia and the ‘everywhere’ of the nation [is] dissolved by the American recasting of the ‘political’ into the terms of providential ideality, ‘”one nation under God.”’ Under the sign of ‘one’ all contradictions are subsumed, all races and religions united, all politics theologized.”

Louis’s conversation with Belize, referenced earlier, is also quite relevant here. Louis responds to Belize’s accusation of racism by insisting ‘most black people are anti-Semitic’, referring to the then-current incident of Jesse Jackson calling New York ‘Hymietown.’ This reflects a decades-long history of using the specter of black anti-Semitism to separate black and Jewish people politically—a tactic which has made a roaring comeback in the past few years. Belize then points out Louis donated to Jesse Jackson; Louis says his check bounced, which is what prompts Belize’s statement that “All your checks bounce; you’ve ambivalent about everything.”

Louis is not ignorant. He insists he doesn’t “want to speak from a position of privilege” when Belize contradicts him, although he doesn’t really understand what Belize is saying. His liberalism has red tints sometimes, like when he calls Gorbachev “the greatest political thinker since Lenin” or claims to think “the world, …. will change for the better with struggle,” as “a person who has this neo-Hegelian positivist sense of constant historical progress toward happiness or perfection or something.” He only manages to finish saying the Kaddish for a dead Roy Cohn in one scene through the assistance of a ghostly Ethel Rosenberg; but is totally unaware of her presence and sees this recitation as his own personal achievement. This suggests how certain forms and parts of Marxism can congeal with liberalism while diluting any kind of real radicalism—and here it’s hard not to see Tony Kushner himself, who can passionately read and translate and genuinely understand Bertolt Brecht, and yet be an equally passionate fan of Obama and write a movie like Munich.

Louis’s ambivalence is not simply a character trait; it is representative not just of liberalism, but of a certain kind of liberalism in a certain kind of place and time, the liberalism of the American intelligentsia, in late ‘80s New York. I don’t mean to imply that liberalism was good at some point and then lost its way, but rather that real shifts in what liberalism was occurred. Liberalism provided no assistance or solidarity to gay people in the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic. Instead, both frightened and attracted by the sweep of neoliberalism, liberalism fell into the arms of conservatism, as Louis is attracted, despite himself, to Joe Pitt.

In fact, it is Joe, the conservative Mormon in the grip of the Reagan Revolution, who speaks for embracing the imperfections and complexities of the world and of personal freedom outside of the law: “You believe the world is perfectible and so you find it always unsatisfying. You have to reconcile yourself to the world’s unperfectibility by being thoroughly in the world but not of it. … The rhythm of history is conservative. You have to accept that. And accept as rightfully yours the happiness that comes your way.” (In the stage directions, though not in the miniseries, this conversation occurs as Joe is jerking Louis off, further emphasizing the seductive nature of conservative ideology to Louis.) In the language of Adam Smith[2] and the invisible hand, he tells Louis he shouldn’t feel guilty for abandoning his lover, because you have to be cruel to be kind and the good derives from self-interest, not charity. Liberation from the law, which had seemed (and usually really was) a left-wing cause, becomes instead liberation from ties to others, to the oppressed, and for pursuit of one’s own personal profit.

This is, however, also the scene where Louis first begins to seriously pull away from Joe. Louis is genuinely disgusted when he learns Joe is the protégé of Roy Cohn and finally rejects him, to which Joe reacts violently (“Like a sex scene in an Ayn Rand novel, huh,” Louis says bitterly). This is important because liberalism in the US, contrary to some basically correct but one-sided left-wing critiques, is not simply conservatism in disguise. It truly does hate the right-wing (and is hated back), it recoils in disgust from the truth of America, but this disgust leads to nothing. (But, you say, Louis does go back to Prior in the end. Patience, I’ll get there.)

Angels in America is obsessed with movement and change. The reactionary Angel demands humanity stop moving. Prior finally rejects this in the climax of the play, exhorting us to move. Louis is someone who can’t move anywhere, or rather, can’t stop moving but not to anywhere, a movement that is meaningless.

Louis’s later reunion with Prior is not quite a reconciliation or a forgiving, but there is a rapprochement, representing gay America’s rapprochement with America itself, a suppression of the realities of the AIDS crisis.

Who, then, is Prior? Belize and Ethel represent the radical ‘outsides’ of America, Joe and Roy represent American conservatism (in its flamboyant, corrupt and its repressed, religious forms). (Harper and Joe’s mother, despite their importance to the play, somewhat fall out here and relate to politics only obliquely—Harper can’t be bothered to care, has only an emotional/mystical intuition of environmental catastrophe and Joe’s mother, while a devout Mormon, does not see her religious and gender politics as interacting with state politics in the way that Joe does. Which probably shows some kind of gender problems deep in the structure of the play, but I’m too fatigued to think about that right now.)

Prior is much harder to slot in. He has very little character apart from suffering from AIDS, his bitterness over AIDS and his abandonment by Louis, a bemused fear of the Angel, and a gay affect/camp. He is ‘featureless’ (that is, he is rich, white, and male), thus can stand in for all gay men who died of AIDS. He must literally come down from above to heal, he represents the possible messianic potential of ‘America’. He, unlike Louis, has an unproblematic and loving relationship with Belize. He is the real ‘angel,’ the messenger who ushers in a new age. He is the imaginary mediator who must exist for US liberalism to make sense.

Maybe predictably, it is the conservative political fixer and real-life villain Roy Cohn who has the sharpest view of what power in America really is. judging from YouTube comments, most people read Roy Cohn’s “Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man, Henry, who fucks around with guys” as ‘denial’ or ‘mental gymnastics’, incorrectly seeing this as a denial of Roy’s true identity. They miss the point that Kushner is making through Cohn here: that we, like Cohn’s doctor, think words “mean what they seem to mean,” that they identify something’s essence rather than its power, what Cohn throughout the play calls “clout.” Labels are “where an individual fit[s] in the food chain,” they are relational statements. Cohn is quite right to say it is not “hypocrisy” or “sophistry” to say that he is not a gay man.

Similarly, in his conversation with Belize, Cohn spews a bunch of racist rhetoric but then insists “These racist guys, simpletons, I never had any use for them—too rigid. You want to keep your eye on where the most powerful enemy really is.” The point is not the simplistic one it might be, that Cohn uses racism for political power but is not personally racist, that, as Louis argues earlier to Belize, that “racists just try to use race.” Rather, it’s that Cohn is racist, including in the “merely” personal ways, but understands that racism is a power relationship, which he can use to antagonize and bully to get his way (as he does with Belize later). Race is not some real thing that should motivate you, as it motivates those “racist simpletons.” Cohn’s concern for racism is explicitly how racial categories allow the operation of American power, as when he tells Belize that unlike Jews “you people had Jesus so the reds never got to you. I admire that.”

It is Louis’s fear of the body, as he explicitly discusses, which causes him to leave Prior. Describing himself in the third person, he says “maybe that person can’t, um, incorporate sickness into his sense of how things are supposed to go. Maybe vomit … and sores and disease … really frighten him, maybe … he isn’t so good with death.” Similarly, Roy Cohn complains “Americans have no use for the sick…. It’s just no country for the infirm.” Liberalism starts to stumble when it realizes its autonomous, free, unencumbered individuals don’t actually exist.

The best defense of Louis is, of course, that the hardship of caring for a lover dying of AIDS should not fall on just one person. Sarah Schulman rejects the play on this point, because it doesn’t show a politically engaged community of gay men, in a criticism that, I think, really misses both the real achievements of and real problems with the play. For one, I think Schulman’s account of unity in the face of the AIDS crisis is a little idealized; two, the point of the play is to show the consequences of the absence of care, in a way that thus makes the case for its importance; and, three, more to the point of this essay, the characters in the play are representations of currents within American society as much as they are individual gay men living in New York. (Which I am all for by the way: more allegories, fewer “three-dimensional characters.” Otherwise we are cutting ourselves off from the full possibilities and capacities of art as a form.)

So in the end, I don’t think we can judge Louis Ironson, the character in Angels in America, too harshly. No one person can take on the role of guiding another person through a nasty death.[3] But what about gay liberalism, as a political project? And, for all the sturm und drang around homonationalism and assimilation, how do we create a real, concrete alternative? Is the problem that liberalism can accommodate queerness, or that it can’t? Can we get beyond simply bemoaning the existence of gay/queer liberalism to building a genuine queer socialist movement? I hope the next books I discuss here will help me think through these questions.

Works cited:

Angels in America. Directed by Mike Nichols. Written by Tony Kushner. HBO, December 2003.

Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. New York: Theatre Communications Group, Inc., 2013.

Savran, David. “Ambivalence, Utopia, and a Queer Sort of Materialism: How Angels in America Reconstructs the Nation.” Theatre Journal 47.2 (1995): 207-227.

[1] Kushner, for his part, reveals his own limited imagination when Belize, positioned as part of black radical thought, chooses to advocate only for a Palestinian Bantustan in the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights.

[2] I am perfectly aware of the revisionist readings of Adam Smith claiming he was actually a prescient critic of capitalism and can be reclaimed for the left and I do not agree with them, so don’t @ me about it.

[3] Nor do I want to turn to some exhortation to care for each other, rather than fighting for a world where health care doesn’t depend on personal aid. Nor do I want to suggest the sick cannot fight and care for themselves.

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