Threshold of Revelation

Threshold of Revelation

By Meghan Evans

Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Part 1 Millennium Approaches tells the story of eight characters that struggle with lies and secrets surrounding their identity. The play is set in New York City in 1985, at the beginning of the HIV/AIDS crisis in America. Driven by fear, the characters confront personal ghosts both figuratively and literally.

Roy Cohn, played by Al Pacino, struggles with his sexuality while holding a position as a powerful lawyer known for the persecution of homosexual federal agents. In Act I, Scene 9, his longtime friend and physician, Henry, diagnoses Roy with AIDS. In a powerful sequence of dialogue, Roy denies his homosexuality stating that he has liver cancer.

“No. Like all labels they tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology, or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout…Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout. Does that sound like me, Henry?”[1]

Roy believes that to maintain his power and prestigious reputation that he must fulfill the requirements of the label he assigns himself. In this case, it is that of a heterosexual white male.

Joe and Harper Pitt struggle with religion, drug addiction, and sexuality. After several years of a marriage filled with secrets, Joe realizes that Harper’s drug addiction and fear is rooted in his inability to admit his homosexuality. As Mormons they deny the truth about themselves and live half-lives until the truth is revealed. Harper fortuitously comments, “The suspense, Mr. Lies, it’s killing me.”[2]

Likewise, characters Prior Walter and Louis Ironson struggle with acceptance of homosexuality. Prior reveals to Louis, his long-time partner, that he is being treated for AIDS. This admission is ill timed at the funeral of Louis’s Jewish grandmother. Louis struggles with his identity as a Jewish homosexual, shunned by his family for his lifestyle. The knowledge of Prior’s diagnosis throws Louis into a frenzy of guilt and poor judgment, wanting to be there to support Prior, yet wanting to run away from the horror. Prior’s ex-partner and best friend, Belize, states to Louis, “you’re ambivalent about everything.”[3]

Angel of the Waters, Bethesda Fountain
Angel of the Waters, Bethesda Fountain

Ironically, or perhaps purposefully, Kushner’s characters make their deepest confessions and revelations in one location – Central Park. Here, Prior tells Louis of his diagnosis; Joe comes out to his mother Hannah; Louis confesses his guilt to a male prostitute and later to Joe. Like a ninth character, Central Park acts as a confessional.

In many respects Central Park is the perfect set and a most effective visual for Angels in America. The inspiration for Kushner’s The Angel comes from Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain featuring the famous statue Angel of the Waters. The Angel stands upon a pool of water with one hand outstretched and the other clutching a bouquet of lilies. She blesses the water passing along special powers of healing in reference to the Gospel of John. The purpose of the fountain is to commemorate the efforts to clean New York’s water after horrific cholera epidemics in the mid-1800s. The Angel of the Waters invokes symbols of rebirth and purity, a perfect correlation to Kushner’s play as characters “come clean” about their identity. [4]

Though several major themes that continue to play a role in our nation come to light, including religion and sexuality, one major theme struck me – the theme of struggle. It did not matter who the characters were, their class, race, or gender. They all struggled to live the life they had to discover their true identities. They suffered along the way for mistakes made – like Joe suppressing his sexuality and Louis running away from responsibility. We all make mistakes along the path of self-identity, yet our stories continue. They do not end in some dramatic fight scene or with the words “happily ever after.” So what happens next?

Citations

[1] Tony Kushner, Angels In America: A Fantasia on National Themes Part One: Millennium Approaches (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1993), 45.

[2] Ibid., 18.

[3] Ibid., 95.

[4] “Bethesda Fountain,” Official Website of New York City’s Central Park, accessed April 29, 2013, http://www.centralparknyc.org/visit/things-to-see/south-end/bethesda-fountain.html.

Bibliography

Kushner, Tony. Angels In America: A Fantasia on National Themes Part One: Millennium Approaches. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1993.

Official Website of New York City’s Central Park. “Bethesda Fountain.” Accessed April 29, 2013. http://www.centralparknyc.org/visit/things-to-see/south-end/bethesda-fountain.html

Image courtesy of www.ahistoryofnewyork.com and the Official Website of New York City’s Central Park.

8 thoughts on “Threshold of Revelation

  1. I really like your suggestion of struggle as a theme. I would have classified it more specifically as the struggle to understand or find one’s self. In only one semester of CRG I feel like I have had several identity crises, and in reading this first half of the play you can see the character’s struggle with multiple identity crises. Your blogpost also reminds me of the conversation between how to portray oneself in society and who they “really are.” It depicts the struggles of the LGBT community in their daily struggles to maneuver through society.

  2. One of the things I noticed about the character Roy is that for him homosexuality is more of an act and not a state of being. He doesn’t consider himself a gay man even if he has sexual relations with other men. He views gays as a powerless minority and refuses to be categorized as a gay man, even if he is sexually attracted to other men. It seems a lot deeper than just hiding his sexuality from others, he also wants to hide it from himself.

  3. I too thought your suggestion of struggle being a major theme in this piece to be intriguing. Beyond their struggle with their identity, the characters have to struggle with who they are – do they leave their lover, do they move, do they do something they feel is unethical becuase it is asked of them? I really enjoyed reading the play and found the suspense to be captivating.

  4. Reading this play was very educational experience. Much of the history surrounding this point in time is not covered. The struggle that each of these characters faced was difficult to read. I was intrigued by the constant struggle within each person over their identity and acceptance of who they are.

  5. It’s interesting that the confessional in this play is Central Park – a place so public for characters to reveal such personal things. This makes some sense given the park’s place in gay history, as a place where gay men could go to find what they perhaps were not allowed to express in their homes and everyday lives.

    1. I totally agree, Lindsey. Central Park already holds an odd place in LGBT history, since it is totally public, but also has that subversive, private, and secretive life as a traditional gay hook-up spot. The park makes for an incredibly apt confessional symbol, especially when you take into account the Bethesda Fountain angel (which has long made me think of Angels in America, no matter what context I see it in).

  6. I loved the overall focus on identity in the book. Each character focused on identity and the struggle to either identify or NOT identify as one specific thing. So I agree, struggle was a main theme, but the specific struggle was the attempt to answer the question “who am I? how does the world see me? an does it matter?”

  7. Until reading your blog, I had never thought of Central Park as an important geographic location in the play. I suppose I had imagined that this play could have transpired in any place within the United States. Now thinking about it, the New York City location is important to the story, as is the role of Central Park as a traditionally public space that is being used for sexual acts, which would normally take place within a private space.

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