Sunday Pages: "Angels in America"

Meditations on Tony Kushner's "Gay Fantasia on National Themes"

Dear Reader,

A few days after 9/11, which morning I spent at 50 Rockefeller Plaza in Midtown Manhattan, I was overcome by an urge to re-watch The Big Lebowski. I’d seen it in the theater when it came out in March of 1998, found it mildly amusing—decent enough for a Coen Brothers comedy, but no Raising Arizona—and had not thought about it again until the Towers fell. By some stroke of luck, the Blockbuster Video on Broadway in Astoria, where we lived, had a copy in its meager DVD sale rack. I bought it. I watched it. Then I watched it again. And again. And again.

I still don’t know what possessed me to seek out that particular movie at that particular moment. Did my subconscious somehow recall that the check The Dude writes to buy half-and-half for his White Russians was dated September 11, and that his torment at the hands of the Nihilist goons thus began that same day? Or did I intuit that The Big Lebowski was the sort of comedy that demanded and rewarded multiple viewings, and that multiple viewings were exactly what my depleted soul needed in those trying times? I have no idea. But I was clearly not the only one self-soothing with Walter, Maude, and The Dude. It was exactly at that time that The Big Lebowski began to acquire its cult status; Lebowski Fest debuted in 2002.

I felt a similar urge this past week to watch Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. I’d seen “Millennium Approaches,” the first part of the two-part play, on Broadway in 1993. That was the version I really wanted to re-watch, but the HBO miniseries had to suffice. Why now, in October of 2020? Was it just to balance the scales, to write about a man named Kushner who isn’t evil incarnate, but rather a literary genius? (One wonders if Tony feels an especial loathing for Jared; I know I would, if a key MAGA named Olear had imposed a Blue State Genocide). No, there are better reasons.

Angels in America is set in 1985, at the height of the AIDS crisis—a moment in recent history when fear and hopelessness reigned, especially in the gay community. Then as now, there was a pandemic. No one knew its origins, but it seemed, and plenty of sanctimonious religious types believed, that it was God smiting the Sodomites. The federal government was run by an actor, a guy trained to look a certain way on camera—a Republican who took zero interest in the pandemic, who didn’t understand the danger, who did as little as he could to contain it.

The play is about many things, chief among them: hypocrisy. The hypocrisy of the gay Mormon, Joe Pitt, lying to himself and his wife about his sexual orientation. The hypocrisy of the government, especially the Justice Department, which is prominently featured in the script. The hypocrisy of one of the main characters, Roy Cohn, who in 1985 may well have been the most powerful gay man in the United States—which did not stop him from contracting HIV, any more than the power of the presidency would protect Donald John Trump, a Roy Cohn protégé, from contracting the novel coronavirus 35 years later.

Here is Cohn talking to his doctor, Henry, who has given him the dreaded news that he has AIDS:

Roy Cohn: Your problem, Henry, is that you are hung up on words, on labels: gay, homosexual, lesbian. You think they tell you who a person sleeps with, but they don’t tell you that. Like all labels, they refer to one thing and one thing only: Where does a person so identified fit in the food chain? In the pecking order. Not ideology or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout. Who owes me favors. Not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will pick up the phone when I call. To someone who doesn’t understand this, homosexual is what I am because I sleep with men, but this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who, in 15 years of trying, can’t get a pissant anti-discrimination bill through City Council. They are men who know nobody, and who nobody knows. Now, Henry, does that sound like me?

Henry: No.

Roy Cohn: No. I have clout—lots! I pick up that phone, dial 15 numbers, and guess who’s on the other end of the line? In under five minutes, Henry.

Henry: The President.

Roy Cohn: Better—his wife.

Henry: I’m impressed.

Roy Cohn: I don't want you to be impressed, Henry—I want you to understand. This is not sophistry, and this is not hypocrisy. This is reality. I have sex with men, but unlike nearly every other man of which this is true, I bring the guy I’m screwing to Washington, and President Reagan smiles at us and shakes his hand, because what I am is defined entirely by who I am. Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man who fucks around with guys.

Tony Kushner makes the words dazzle, but Roy Cohn really did say that bit about being a heterosexual who has sex with men. He knew all about power, how to apply it to get what he wanted. His power doomed Ethel Rosenberg. His power enriched Donald John Trump. But he failed to use that power to pick up the phone and call Nancy Reagan and convince her that the crisis was real, that the government needed to do more. Instead, he called in favors selfishly, jumped the line to participate in the AZT clinical trials, and insisted to his dying day that it was liver cancer, not AIDS, that killed him. After he died, the IRS seized almost all of his assets, because he was a tax cheat.

No wonder I wanted to revisit the play!

But there’s more. Louis, played on Broadway by the exquisite Joe Mantello, is fatalistic, and deeply feels the doom and gloom he sees all around him. He has abandoned his partner, Prior, who is dying of AIDS, and taken up with the married closeted Mormon. He bemoans what he perceives as the lack of spirituality in the United States:

Louis: There are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political, and the decoys and the ploys to maneuver around the inescapable battle of politics.

Ah, but Louis, brilliant as he may be, is wrong, as the title of the play suggests. There are angels in America. Maybe not actual angels, with wings sent from Heaven, but true-blue forces of good. They are visible even in the country’s darkest hours—like right now. I speak of the whistleblowers, the truthtellers, the scientists and doctors. For every Scott Atlas, there’s an Anthony Fauci; for every Ric Grenell, a Fiona Hill; for every Brian Kemp, a Marc Elias; for every Kristi Noem, a Gretchen Whitmer; for every Chuck Todd, a Rachel Maddow; for every Kellyanne, Rudy, Mitch, or Donald, a Claudia, Caroline, Porter, or Mary.

The traitors are easy to spot, as I’ve been pointing out for the last four years. The angels, it’s true, are harder to see. But that doesn’t mean they’re not there, all around us.

Sixteen more days.

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Photo credit: Stesso via Wikipedia. Bethesda Angel statue in Central Park.