In the past century, the LGBT in America have fought long and hard for their equal rights. The majority of Americans are now in favor of homosexual marriage, while as lately as 1989 merely a little more than 10 percent of the nation liked this idea (Smith). Gay writers have played a big role in this shift, as Christopher Bram writes: “The gay revolution began as a literary revolution” (qtd. in Smith). According to him, The Second World War and the civil rights movements in the 1960s have helped normalizing gay’s social image, however that progress was impeded by the epidemic of AIDS. Gram argues: “Antigay politicians now used the disease to resist campaigns for tolerance and equality” (qtd. in Smith). The circumstance is especially so in the Reagan Era as he championed traditional family and Christian values, protecting the mainstream rich and neglecting the needs of those who pose alternative religious and political stances, especially gays and AIDS patients. The gay rights movement retreated, and they desperately needed a voice to preclude from being ostracized and misread by the mainstream values. So, gay writings were “invigorated” (Smith). This is when Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: a Gay Fantasia on National Themes stepped on the stage of history.
In 1991, the first part of Kushner’s play, Angels in America: Approaching the Millennium received its premier in San Francisco, and the second part: Perestroika premiered in 1992. By the time that Kushner officially published the complete work in 1995, Angels had already earned one Pulitzer and two Tony Awards accompanied with a great number of other awards and nominations. Being a Jewish homosexual, Kushner was well aware of the problems described by Bram, and he saliently highlighted AIDS and homosexuality at the center of the stage. Among the eight main characters, all the five males are homosexual and two of these five have AIDS. Kushner puts them in New York City in 1985, amidst the Reagan Era, and lets them demonstrate the intolerance of the conservative mainstream.
The right-wing thinking at the time prevailed, and the Reaganite Republicanism encouraged prejudiced opinions on gays. Every gay character of Kushner’s suffers impact from that environment. Prior Walter, Louis Ironson, and Belize are out of the closet. And according to Prior, he and Belize even used to be drag queens (Part One, Act II, Scene 5). They are fine with exposing their sexuality to the unaccepting world. On the other hand, Joe Pitt and Roy Cohn are very much closeted. Contrary to the attitude of Prior’s group, Joe and Roy both reject the identity of gay – Joe responses “No, I’m not!” immediately as Louis comments “Well oh boy, a gay Republican” (Part One, Act I, Scene 6), and Roy delivers a big speech to his doctor about power contrasting gayness after being diagnosed of AIDS (Part One, Act I, Scene 9). However, whether revealing or concealing their sexuality, they all face both fear and threat from AIDS, and the censure from the conservative mainstream. Since the existence of contradictions in the characters’ sexuality, religious, moral, and political inclinations, throughout the play, they are confronted with choices with regard to political, religious, and personal identity. The character Louis particularly takes an ambiguous stance on political and social issues of the country as he asserts “I’m ambivalent” (Part One, Act III, Scene 2). The other characters, though not saying so and some -- such as Roy Cohn-- even seeming very sure of their own view and place in the world, all have a trait of ambivalence in their character. And as they go through “several separate but inevitably intertwined relationships that are complicated by homosexuality and AIDS” (McCallum 3), the result, as Ranen Omer-Sherman observes, is that “By the end of the drama each of these characters will have not only experienced, but embraced, startling changes and shifts in identity” (Omer-Sherman 16).
How does a play deliver its meaning if it is full of ambivalence and doubt? This question can be one of the reasons why critic Lee Siegel called it in The New Republic, “a second-rate play written by a second-rate playwright who happens to be gay,” and an “overwrought, coarse, posturing, formulaic mess” (Siegel). Notwithstanding Siegel’s opinion, it is David Savran’s assertion that the ambivalence in each individual character is not messy at all, but as a whole unequivocally champions a certain ideology – liberal pluralism (Savran 219), which he thinks remains the best hope for tolerance and change (Savran 223). I am more inclined to agree with Savran and do not think that Angels is a mess, and I see a strong connection between the ambivalent characters and the idea of tolerance and acceptance. As Kushner said in a video interview:
［I］f the play works, you just feel everybody go “Oh my God, we are not isolated individuals, lost one another, and we don’t stop at our own skins. We share something.” It’s like a momentary experience of the universal mind. (Kushner, interview by Signature Theater Company)
That is, no matter how queer and unique the characters are, they can be reached, related to, and united through their ambivalent identities.
The thesis intends to examine the traits of “ambivalent identity” of the key characters. The purpose of the analysis is to show the relationship between an ambiguous identity in a person and the idea of tolerance and catholicity that is needed by people of the minority. If we fail to recognize the fact that people of different religion, sexual orientation, and political agenda are all ordinary human with common ground on other respects, reading/watching Angels would be like a perfunctory trip that is none of our business. Thus, on the basis of close reading and textual analysis, the research demonstrates how Kushner probes into the identity struggling characters, and expresses his appeals for tolerance and compassion to the gay community.
The following is the format of the research: besides the Introduction and Conclusion, four chapters establish the main body of the paper, successively discussing the ambivalent identity of characters in this order: Prior, Roy, Louis and Joe, Hannah. They each addresses how the ambivalence of the character is caused and presented, and then analyses their connection with the theme of tolerance. Lastly, the research findings will be summarized in Conclusion, which demonstrates Kushner’s hopes for tolerance in America.
The Ambivalent Identity of Prior Walter
Prior Walter is considered by many critics such as Kimberly Lynn Dyer to be the hero of the play, but before the Angel comes to him, Prior is just a heartbroken gay man who is dying from AIDS. Kushner portrays the Reagan era as “dysfunctional” (Dyer V), and Prior’s condition can be an epitome of that. Abandoned by Louis, angry in pain, hallucinating in his own room, talking to the ghosts, these images of darkness and depression all contradict his heroic figure. Therefore, the largest ambivalence in Prior’s character is his imminent mortality and his identity as “America’s hero” (Dyer V), i.e. his weakness and his strength.
Prior Walter’s homosexuality is, as he brandishes himself, “stereotypical” (Part Two, Act IV, Scene 4). He speaks in a femininely refined manner, taking part of his soliloquy for example: “One wants to move through life with elegance and grace, blossoming infrequently but with exquisite taste, and perfect timing, like a rare bloom, a zebra orchid…” (Part One, Act I, Scene 7). Also, he wears make-up to deal with “emotional emergency” (Part One, Act I, Scene 7). He curses all the time, and he carries HIV. Facing AIDS and death, Prior frequently shows his frustration and vulnerability. After his fantastical encounter with Harper, he looks in the mirror and says, “I don't think there's any uninfected part of me. My heart is pumping polluted blood. I feel dirty,” and at the end of the scene he morns, “Poor me. Poor poor me. Why me? Why poor poor me?” (Part One, Act I, Scene 7). In the hospital with Belize, he suddenly bursts out desperately, “I don't remember, I don't give a fuck. I want Louis. I want my fucking boyfriend, where the fuck is he? I'm dying, I'm dying, where's Louis?” (Part One, Act II, Scene 5). Even after the angel tells him that he is the Prophet (Part Two, Act II, Scene 2), he still shows a lot of despair. After his friend’s funeral, refuting Belize’s consolation, he complains with an especially pessimistic tone: “A great queen; big fucking deal. That ludicrous spectacle in there, just a parody of the funeral of someone who really counted. We don't; faggots; we're just a bad dream the real world is having, and the real world's waking up. And he's dead” (Part Two, Act II, Scene 1). Apparently, the discrimination from the rest of the “real world” and the trauma from both AIDS and Louis’s abandonment have taken some of his faith away.
And then, there is another side of Prior, one with courage and vision. Contrary to what he said earlier about his “polluted blood,” when the Angel approaches and he gets scared, he goes through a little ritual to stay calm: “no, no fear, find the anger, find the… anger, my blood is clean, my brain is fine, I can handle pressure, I am a gay man and I am used to pressure, to trouble, I am tough and strong” (Part One, Act III, Scene 7), which we can assume is a mechanism he has used before. After this, his role as a prophetic hero begins. Here, before reading into his heroic figure, we can still see weakness even when Prior is accepting the role, as he still shows ambivalence. On the one hand, he cannot be sure if his encounter with the supernatural actually happened. On the other hand, he somehow believes the whole experience and meditates on it. When he discusses this with Belize, he says “I’m almost completely sure of it” (Part Two, Act II, Scene 1). Then when Belize questions the truthfulness of the story, he gets into a debate with him:
PRIOR (Overlapping): I hardly think it's appropriate for you to get offended, I didn't invent this shit it was visited on me…
BELIZE (Overlapping on "offended"): But it is offensive or at least monumentally confused and it's not… visited, Prior. By who? It is from you, what else is it?
PRIOR: Something else.
BELIZE: That's crazy.
PRIOR: Then I'm crazy.
BELIZE: No, you're…
PRIOR: Then it was an angel.
BELIZE: It was not an...
PRIOR: Then I'm crazy. The whole world is, why not me? (Part Two, Act II, Scene 2)
The ambivalence as to whether to accept the prophetic role indicates again the vulnerable and despair side of Prior, having lost faith in reality. However, it is because of the despair that Prior is willing to believe his fantasia: “Maybe I am a prophet. Not just me, all of us who are dying now” (Part Two, Act II, Scene 2). Finally, albeit still in ambivalence, Prior decides to deal with the Angel no matter she is real or not. When Hannah fearfully refuses to deal with the angel in the hospital, saying “I don't, I don't, this is a dream it's a dream it's a...,” Prior responses quite comically: “I don't think that's really the point right at this particular moment” (Part Two, Act V, Scene 1). So he chooses to confront the angel, going with his guts and rejecting the vision.
The most heroic part is his short appearance in Heaven, returning the tome, shaking his fate, giving instructions to the Angels, and asking for life (Part Two, Act V, Scene 5). Not only because in this scene Prior’s speech shows certainty, clarity and determination (On the notion of “stop moving” he refutes, “It's animate, it's what living things do,” touching the notion of progress that Kushner tries to convey; referring to God, he tells them to “sue the bastard,” as if talking about Louis, which reminds us again of the uncertainty of the truthfulness of his Prophet identity; then, though he is told by the Angels that AIDS cannot be stopped, he demands, “Bless me anyway. I want more life. I can't help myself.”), but also because he tosses off the Angel’s manipulation, as the Angel here represents Reagan Era values. I hereby allude to Dyer’s argument that the Angel in Angels is linked to human institutions, capitalism, self-interest, and Celestial Apparatchiks (Dyer 8). Therefore, there is a sense of survival and triumph as Prior goes back to a world without the Angels, though still with AIDS, still with his socially and politically prejudiced homosexuality, and of course still with his vulnerability. The victory belongs to his stereotypical gayness, feminine, weak, but increasingly stronger. Dyer also quotes John Paul Middlesworth, that Kushner “finds the epic mode irresistible and creates in Prior Walter a hero, making the character a spokesperson for his community during historical crisis, the emergence of AIDS as an epidemic” (qtd. in Dyer 11). Therefore, Prior as a member of the vulnerable and dying stands out to be optimistic and vigorous, as he talks to the audience with warm hope at the end of the epilogue, “We won't die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins” (Epilogue).
To sum up, this chapter discusses Prior Walter’s ambivalent identity between a dying gay with AIDS and a hero. By making Prior stand up as a representative of the weak and dying and of the disparaged, Kushner expresses his view that strength, integrity and goodness can be found in gayness, which deserves some respect and tolerance in the world.
The Ambivalent Identity of Roy Cohn
Kushner’s Roy Cohn is known to be enjoyed by critics (Hilton 20). According to Melissa Hilton, Richard Hornby says the character Cohn is a “Brutal, manic, lying manipulator, a Richard III without a hump” (qtd. in Hilton 21). Don Shewey observes, “［T］he stage is dominated by Roy Cohn, a tour de force role: Flagrantly unpleasant, shrewdly seductive, the Devil incarnate” (qtd. in Hilton 21). In this chapter, the thesis will show that the generally acknowledged viciousness of Roy Cohn derives from his ambivalent identity, and then discuss the ambivalent attitude that Kushner has toward him.
Social-Darwinism and self-interest is the center of Roy Cohn’s philosophy. On life he pontificates, “I see the universe, Joe, as a kind of sandstorm in outer space with winds of mega-hurricane velocity, but instead of grains of sand it's shards and splinters of glass” (Part One, Act I, Scene 2). He also teaches Joe Pitt:
Life is full of horror; nobody escapes, nobody; save yourself. Whatever pulls on you, whatever needs from you, threatens you. Don't be afraid; people are so afraid; don't be afraid to live in the raw wind, naked, alone. . . . Learn at least this: What you are capable of. Let nothing stand in your way. (Part One, Act II, Scene 4)
Indeed, in Roy Cohn’s life, nothing apart from death could stand in his way.
On the basis of Italian scholar Umberto Eco’s outline of features of fascism, Hilton even argues that Kushner’s Roy Cohn is a categorical fascist (24). Indeed, many of Roy’s talks brazenly advocate contempt to the weak and the dissident and embraces power at all cost, which is what, as Prior and Kushner consider, foments injustice and endangers the country. One of the examples is when he brags about his lawyering masterpiece of securing Ethel Rosenberg’s death:
Why? Because I fucking hate traitors. Because I fucking hate communists. Was it legal? Fuck legal. Am I a nice man? Fuck nice. They say terrible things about me in the Nation. Fuck the Nation. You want to be Nice, or you want to be Effective? Make the law, or subject to it. (Part One, Act III, Scene 5)
However, Roy’s malignant attitude contradicts his own identity. Before he is a Reaganite Republican, he is a Jewish homosexual. But he belittles people from both categories. In reality, Roy Cohn was Joe McCarthy’s “vicious boy-henchman, expert in publicly humiliating and smearing alleged communists and homosexuals (nearly all of them Jewish)” (qtd. in Hilton 19). He is the alienator, traitor even, to his own group. In Angels we can find congruent statements. “But the thing about the American Negro is, he never went Communist. Loser Jews did” (Part Two, Act I, Scene 5), as if he is racist to his own race. Most importantly, Cohn equates homosexuality with weakness, and steers clear with that identity, as he instructs his doctor not to mistake him as a homosexual in this scene:
ROY: Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout. Does this sound like me, Henry?
ROY: No. I have clout. A lot. I can pick up this phone, punch fifteen numbers, and you know who will be on the other end in under five minutes, Henry?
HENRY: The President.
ROY: Even better, Henry. His wife.
HENRY: I'm impressed.
ROY: I don't want you to be impressed. I want you to understand. This is not sophistry. And this is not hypocrisy. This is reality…Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man, Henry, who fucks around with guys.
HENRY: OK, Roy.
ROY: And what is my diagnosis, Henry?
HENRY: YOU have AIDS, Roy.
ROY: NO, Henry, no. AIDS is what homosexuals have. I have liver cancer. (Part One, Act I, Scene 9)
Contrary to Roy’s own excuses, this is obviously sophistry, and the fact that he can blatantly twist the obvious shows how hypocritical and cowardly he is about who he really is. The ambivalence of Roy Cohn sets off his image as a satanic villain. Then it is naturally acceptable that the honest Prior could live while the savage Roy dies. He is an activist of the right-wing intolerance, but he ends up a victim of the Right (Hilton 41).
However, although Kushner’s Roy is meant to be so bad and to be hated so much, Kushner deliberately creates space for the audience/reader to feel compassionate for Roy. Approaching his demise, physically, Roy suffers from frequent and painful spasms, but what he cares more about is his reputation of prowess, his legacy. “After I die they'll say it was for the money and the headlines. But it was never the money: It's the moxie that counts. I never wavered. You: remember” (Part Two, Act IV, Scene 1), he tells Joe. So it hurts him tremendously that he is disbarred. So at last he takes a cheap stunt of faking death, trying to win for the last time: “I fooled you Ethel, I knew who you were all along, I can't believe you fell for that ma stuff, I just wanted to see if I could finally, finally make Ethel Rosenberg sing! I WIN” (Part Two, Act IV, Scene 9). But under such circumstances, the cheaper his stunt is, the more deplorable he gets. As Hilton observes, “Despite the despicable and hypocritical aspects of Kushner’s Cohn, the play generates sympathy for the man Cohn, as he is dying of AIDS. The audience’s ambivalent feelings toward Cohn – disgust mixed with compassion – generate some of the most powerful tension in Angels” (Hilton, 21). This kind of ambivalence is actually portrayed in the play, as Belize tries to give friendly medical advices to Roy:
ROY: YOU hate me.
ROY: Why are you telling me this?
BELIZE: I wish I knew.
ROY (Very nasty): You're a butterfingers spook faggot nurse. I think ... you have little reason to want to help me.
BELIZE: Consider it solidarity. One faggot to another. (Part Two, Act I, Scene 5)
In this way, Cohn’s “actions repulse us but” his “suffering moves us” (Hilton, 21). Therefore, the idea of compassion and tolerance is embedded.
To sum up, this chapter discusses the ambivalence of Roy Cohn. He is Jewish but he treats Jews as a group of enemies. He is gay but he treats gay as weak grass roots of the society. Ostensibly, he sticks to a solid way of life, but actually, he turns his back on himself and the people like him. Kushner perfectly portrays the ambivalent and ironic aspect of his character, but generates compassion for his death. In my opinion, any death from AIDS is worth grievance to Kushner, and that is a message he wants to send in order to get people’s attention on the issue of AIDS, and encourage tolerance. He has succeeded in this regard.
The Ambivalent Identity of Louis and Joe
The experience of Louis parallels with that of Joe Pitt, as they both abandon someone they have responsibilities for, and somehow their stories also intersect with each other by becoming lovers.
Louis’s ambivalence is explicit in the play on religious, political and moral respects.
To begin with, morally, he is troubled by the contradiction between his need for love and his fear for death and loss. From the beginning, he reveals to Prior after the service for his grandmother that he had abandoned her for a decade, “I never visited. She looked too much like my mother” (Part One, Act I, Scene 4). Later after the funeral he confesses to his Rabbi that he cannot “incorporate sickness into his sense of how things are supposed to go,” and “vomit… and sores and disease… really frighten him” (Part One, Act I, Scene 5). He loves Prior very much, but till the end he still fails in loving him. I really failed you. He explains to Prior, “Failing in love isn't the same as not loving. It doesn't let you off the hook, it doesn't mean ... you're free to not love” (Part Two, Act V, Scene8).
In addition, Louis’s religious, political and moral concerns also conflict with each other. For example, he thinks his passion for the law and for politics cannot be fulfilled because of his Jewish identity:
Jews don't have any clear textual guide to the afterlife; even that it exists. I don't think much about it. I see it as a perpetual rainy Thursday afternoon in March. Dead leaves…Well for us it's not the verdict that counts, it's the act of judgment. That's why I could never be a lawyer. In court all that matters is the verdict. (Part One, Act I, Scene 8)
Also, as he attempts to seek moral relief from his religion, his Rabbi’s response enfeebles his Jewish identity:
“RABBI ISIDOR CHEMELWITZ: You want to confess, better you should find a priest.
LOUIS: But I'm not a Catholic, I'm a Jew.
RABBI ISIDOR CHEMELWITZ: Worse luck for you, bubbulah. Catholics believe in forgiveness. Jews believe in Guilt.” (Part One, Act I, Scene5)
In the meanwhile, politically, Louis’s left-wing liberal view of politics starts to unveil in his conversation with Belize, who describes them as “yaddadda yaddadda blah blah blah” (Part One, Act III, Scene 2). What complicates things is the fact that he admits of being racist, which contradicts a liberal thinking, to which Belize comments, “Oh I really hate that! It's no fun picking on you Louis; you're so guilty” (Part One, Act III, Scene 2). But the most ambivalent part of Louis comes with his affair with Joe Pitt. His guilt and love for Prior, who needs him too, makes him extremely lonely, and yet his solution is to find companionship from Joe, whose Reaganite Republican and Mormon background cannot be any more incompatible with his own ideal. He cannot get around the question of “how can a fundamentalist theocratic religion function participatorily in a pluralist secular democracy?” (Part Two, Act III, Scene 3). He and Joe can never find common ground on Reagan. But as he confesses, “This is interesting. I'm losing myself in an ideological leather bar. The more appalling I find your politics the more I want to hump you” (Part Two, Act III, Scene 4). The case that Kushner presents here is a conflict between human nature and political ideal. It makes Louis very complex and hard to define, and the harder it gets for us to define this person, the more possibilities and ideas he embraces, which adheres to the theme of “liberal pluralism” (Savran 219), a calling for tolerance.
Joe Pitt is also very unsure of his choices, his belief, and his future. His ambivalence is not like Louis’s, only between nature and his political outlook. His good nature – austerity, ethicality, etc. – is largely shaped by his Mormon belief, which is also the source of his right wing conservatism. However, since politics is not a church of dignity but an arena of power that requires indecency, as Roy Cohn teaches him, he cannot find a way to fulfill both his religious and political ambition. This can be complex enough, although it must be Joe’s wishful thinking that his predicament stays binary, but he has a third identity – he is a closeted homosexual who has a wife. Thus, his ambivalence proliferates. His gayness contradicts his religion, since the Mormon Church “don’t believe in homosexuals” (Part One, Act I, Scene 7). His gayness also contradicts his partisanship, because gays are not equally treated by the right-wing agenda. He is obligated two-fold to hate gays, therefore to hate himself, and a part of him has been doing it for years. He tells Harper “I pray for God to crush me, break me up into little pieces and start all over again” (Part One, Act II, Scene 2). And then he confesses to her, “I try to tighten my heart into a knot, a snarl, I try to learn to live dead, just numb, but then I see someone I want, and it's like a nail, like a hot spike right through my chest, and I know I'm losing” (Part One, Act II, Scene 9). The misery caused by decades of self-denial and the frailty by lengthily desired happiness and freedom, these are some powerful emotions to be exposed in front of the audience. This is a crucial point where different experiences and even prejudices are exchanged and even challenged.
As Joe finally decides to let go of any past bridle and stay with Louis, he is at last happy. As he tells Louis, “I keep expecting divine retribution for this, but... I'm actually happy” (Part Two, Act III, Scene 4). However bothered by the concern that his wife is abandoned and lost due to his happiness, he tries not to care about it. “What you did when you walked out on him was hard to do,” says he when he tries to convince Louis to stay with him, “the world may not understand it or approve but you did what you needed to do. And I consider you very brave” (Part Two, Act III, Scene 4). It is a line of exoneration not only needed by Louis, but also desperately needed by Joe himself, indicating that no matter how acceptable he tells himself his conducts are, deep inside, he has a sense of guilt. Sure enough, his argument that he and Louis both fundamentally want the same thing contradicts the ideological and political differences between them, and as he is confronted by Louis regarding his court decision against his conscience, their differences maximizes. He cannot get back to Louis, without a trace of anybody that can either love him or be loved by him. At this point, sexual satisfaction has to become peripheral, and the thing more important is to keep his wife who loves him. So when Harper finally decides to leave him, he implores, “I don't know what will happen to me without you. Only you. Only you love me. Out of everyone in the world. I have done things, I'm ashamed. But I have changed. I don't know how yet, but Please, please, don't leave me now” (Part Two, Act V, Scene 8). Is Joe ashamed of his sexuality again? Or does he simply say that just to keep Harper staying with him? In what way has he “changed”? Judging from his joyous and free status when he is with Louis, I’d say he can never go back to the life of self-denial. As for Joe’s ending in this story, Kushner does not specify. His future is not given any description, leaving a large space for interpretation. It may be because Kushner himself cannot be sure, as to how a decent homosexual Republican lawyer can find a right path. But the door of that discussion has certainly been opened. However, as far as I am concerned, the future of Joe Pitt is not important. What matters is what Kushner has shown us, the misery it causes by pretending to be something you are not, and doing things inconsistent with your good heart, which are both productions of the pressure from Reaganite conservatism.
In conclusion, Louis and Joe are both struggling with their ambivalent identities, from which they suffer a lot. Louis’s biggest quagmire is the fear of imperfection in life, such as death and guilt, and at last it is his rather steady political principles that cause him to leave Joe, so he travels a big circle from Prior to Joe and then back to Prior. Joe’s predicament is his sexual orientation which contradicts his religion and the Republican doctrine that he approves. When the play ends, Louis loses his lover Prior but he can still hang out with him, while Joe remains alone with an unclear future. Although gayness is still a noticeable identity in the two characters, their complexity raises questions involving more than sexuality, that is Kushner’s political vision. Metaphorically, Joe’s sullen ending embodies the fact that, under gay scrutiny, the Reaganite Republicanism is numb, unjust and detrimental, incapable of welcoming and defending the needs of the minority.
The Ambivalent Identity of Hannah
Joe’s mother, Hannah, does not appear in as many scenes as Belize and Harper, but she is more fitting to the subject of ambivalence and tolerance. That is why the last chapter only discusses Hannah and forgoes the analysis of the other two characters.
Our first impression of Hannah is that she is a very harsh and religious Mormon. Because there is no place for gays in Mormon Church, as Harper reveals, “In my church, we don’t believe in homosexuals” (Part One, Act I, Scene 7), when she gets her son’s phone call at three o’clock in the morning, and learns that Joe is a homosexual, she could barely process the news:
HANNAH: YOU really ought to go home now to your wife. I need to go to bed. This phone call. . . . We will just forget this phone call.
HANNAH: NO more talk. Tonight. This… (Suddenly very angry) Drinking is a sin! A sin! I raised you better than that. (She hangs up) (Part One, Act Two, Scene 8)
As this scene shows, Hannah is not ready to accept Joe’s homosexuality. Not only that, at a time when her son is in need of support and direction, she simply flees from the topic, and even criticizes Joe’s drinking. This is a very cold reaction. However, based on people’s impression on Mormonism, it is probable that not many people would find it surprising. That is why this scene actually strengthens people’s prejudice against Mormons, who are considered rigid, harsh odd, and certainly anti-gay.
When Hannah appears for the second time, she is already in New York, lost. Joe fails to show up to pick his mother up, and she is understandably angry. The conversation between her and the homeless woman reveals very little more about her, but she does express some opinion on an issue that slightly touches politics, i.e. immigration:
I asked the driver was this Brooklyn, and he nodded yes but he was from one of those foreign countries where they think it's good manners to nod at everything even if you have no idea what it is you're nodding at, and in truth I think he spoke no English at all, which I think would make him ineligible for employment on public transportation. The public being English-speaking, mostly. (Part One, Act III, Scene 4)
It is a comment that implies a very tenuous hostility to immigrants, plus our first impression of her, Hannah emits conservatism.
It’s when Prior meets Hannah in the Mormon Visitor’s Center and later in the hospital that we see another side of her. First of all, when Prior gets very uncomfortable and asks her to call him a cab (Part Two, Act IV, Scene 4), she takes Prior to the hospital even though she does not have to come along, which, considering the attitude toward homosexuality that we assume she bears, is very generous. And she continues to surprise us. But first of all, Hannah will not discard her conservative values, and her discussion with Prior circles around religion. Prior thinks that he must be insane to have seen an Angel, but Hannah tells him the story of Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith, which is amazingly similar to Prior’s encounter. “He had great need of understanding. Our Prophet. His desire made prayer. His prayer made an angel. The angel was real. I believe that” (Part Two, Act IV, Scene 6). At this point, it is more obvious that Hannah values her religion very much. That is why it should be surprising to us that her view about homosexual is very clement, which is expressed in the scene that follows:
PRIOR: I don't. And I'm sorry but it's repellent to me. So much of what you believe.
HANNAH: What do I believe?
PRIOR: I'm a homosexual. With AIDS. I can just imagine what you...
HANNAH: No you can't. Imagine. The things in my head. You don't make assumptions about me, mister; I won't make them about you.
PRIOR (A beat; he looks at her, then): Fair enough.
HANNAH: My son is ... well, like you.
HANNAH (A nod, then): I flew into a rage when he told me, mad as hornets. At first I assumed it was about his . . . (She shrugs)
HANNAH: But that wasn't it. Homosexuality. It just seems ... ungainly. Two men together. It isn't an appetizing notion but then, for me, men in any configuration ... well they're so lumpish and stupid. And stupidity gets me cross.
PRIOR: I wish you would be more true to your demographic profile. Life is confusing enough. (Part Two, Act IV, Scene 6)
Hannah clearly denies Prior’s presumption that she must be homophobic because of her Mormon beliefs. She just finds it not an appetizing notion which does not have that much of a difference from any other notion that is unappetizing, as if she were saying, “homosexuality does not offend me; it does not offend my God, only I am just a little not fond of it, the same as I am not fond of pornography.” It’s actually a very accepting attitude, because it is natural for heterosexuals to feel uncomfortable about gays being intimate, only it should not permits different social status. Hannah being so moderate on this issue, no wonder Prior feels confusing.
After this, she has more progressive opinions about Prior’s vision as Prior asks her what would happen if he doesn’t want to be the Prophet:
PRIOR: The prophets in the Bible, do they... ever refuse their vision?
HANNAH: There's scriptural precedent, yes.
PRIOR: And what does God do to them? When they do that?
HANNAH: He____ Well, he feeds them to whales. (Part Two, Act IV, Scene 6)
Then she tells Prior to disregard the tradition in the Bible, “An angel is just a belief, with wings and arms that can carry you. It's naught to be afraid of. If it lets you down, reject it. Seek for something new” (Part Two, Act IV, Scene 6). It is very fresh to see someone who takes her religion extremely serious to pose the idea that a belief can be changing, progressive. It is certainly not something that Roy Cohn and Ronald Reagan would want to encourage. At the end of the play, although it is unknown if Joe is living with his mother, Hannah finds herself a new family. “The couple that Prior and Louis once formed is replaced by the play's final argumentative, but communal, quartet of Prior, Louis, Belize, and Hannah” (Kruger 156). A family of three gay men and an old Mormon lady shows enormous conversion on Hannah’s part.
To sum up, this chapter analyzes Hannah’s moderate attitude against her very strict belief. She is certain about her religion, but she is also ambivalent about the possibility of other explanations of the world. It is Hannah who offers a sense of catholicity and wholesomeness while she, as a Mormon, is assumed to be the last person to behave like this. Through depicting the character of Hannah, Kushner describes his wishful vision for America, in which a pious believer can respect and accept the existence of alternative religious and political views.
In the 1980s, i.e. the Reagan Era, conservatism prevailed and the voice of minority, including gays’, was ignored. It is in the same period that the storm of AIDS started to rage in America, but the issue of AIDS was also ignored by Reagan. The LGBT community suffered from two kinds of discrimination, one of their sexuality, and one of AIDS. They were ostracized and rejected by the majority. Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is one of the earliest literary works that explore on this issue.
Kushner says in a reflection of this play, “People who don’t recognize common cause are going to fail politically in this country. Movements that capture the imagination of people are movements that deny racism and exclusion” (Kushner & Vorlicky 16-17). Therefore, it is essential to find bits and moments in the play which call for tolerance and illuminate on common ground, in order to understand Kushner’s political ideal.
The research discovers a notion of tolerance by examining the ambivalent identities of key characters. Ambivalence is a key motif of Angels, and every character is ambivalent about different elements of their identity. Prior Walter’s ambivalence lies between his vulnerable gayness and his courageous heroism, which brings integrity to the gay community, and denounces Reaganite conservative institutionalism. Roy Cohn’s ambivalence derives from the contradiction between his innate Jewish and gay identity and his disparaging attitude towards Jews and Gays, and his demise embodies the dysfunction of the Reaganite and self-interested Republicanism. Louis Ironson and Joe Pitt are both ambivalent about many things, including love and responsibility, religious and political belief and personal happiness. They represent pluralism, which, as far as Kushner is concerned, might be the best hope for change of America’s chaotic situation (Savran 223). And Joe’s struggle with his family and his uncertain ending in the play also reflects the detriment of conservatism. Hannah Pitt is very moderate. She loves and adheres to Mormon teachings, but is also in favor of the others’ freedom and right to choose and believe in what they think is right. The advocacy of tolerance can be discerned in each one of these five cases. In this way, Kushner’s purpose of conveying a political ideal that denies racism and exclusion is fulfilled.
Dyer, Kimberly Lynn. Prior Walter as Hero: a New Mythological Paradigm in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Thesis, Angelo State University. Ann Arbor: ProQuest/UMI, 2006. (Publication No. AAT. 1436344.)
Hilton, Melissa. The Political Ideologies of Roy Cohn and Prior Walter: Tony Kushner’s Political Vision in Angels in America: a Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Diss., Angelo State University. Ann Arbor: ProQuest/UMI, 1997. (Publication No. AAT. 1386100.)
Kruger, Steven F. “Identity and Conversion in Angels in America.” Approaching the Millennium: Essays on Angels in America. Eds. Deborah R. Geis and Steven F. Kruger. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997. 151-169.
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1995.
Kushner, Tony and Robert Vorlicky. Tony Kushner in Conversation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.
McCallum, Robin Lee Green. Medieval Death Iconography in the Portrayal of AIDS in Angels in America. Diss., California State University. Ann Arbor: ProQuest/UMI, 2005. (Publication No. AAT. 1430838.)
Omer-Sherman, Ranen. “The Fate of the Other in Tony Kushner's Angels in America.” MELUS, Vol. 32, No. 2, Thresholds, Secrets, and Knowledge Summer 2007: 7-30.
Savran, David. “Ambivalence, Utopia, and a Queer Sort of Materialism: How Angels in America Reconstructs the Nation.” Theatre Journal, Vol. 47, No. 2, Gay and Lesbian Queeries (May, 1995): 207-227.
Smith, Jordan Michael. “The Literary Roots of the Gay Revolution.” Page Views. 2 February 2012. 22 May 2012 <http://www.cjr.org/page_views the_ literary_roots_of_the_gay.php?page=all>.
Siegel, Lee. “Angels in America.” The New Republic. 29 December 2003. 22 May 2012 <http://www.tnr.com/article/angles-america>.