Angels in America (Drama)
Part One: Millennium Approaches
Theater Communications Group, April 1993.
Part Two: Perestroika
Theatre Communications Group, 1993
Paperback: 158 pages
Published in one volume, 2003
Paperback: 304 pages
Not About Mormons: One Reader's Response to Tony Kushner's Angels in America
Note: This review was originally published in Irreantum,
Winter 2003/Spring2004, pp. 135-138.
About a year ago, I was engaged in an online conversation with a
friend of mine (not LDS) who teaches a university course about
sexuality and textuality. Have you, he said, seen Angels in America,
which has several Mormon characters? I've read about it, said I, but never
actually read or seen it.
And so I read the play (actually two plays in one, Millennium Approaches
and Perestroika), and was duly impressed with its craft and competence.
Yet despite the deft and interesting use of Mormon elements and characters in
the play, I ended the experience without much sense of intersection with my own
sense of the experience of Mormonism. And there is, I think, a good reason for that.
Angels in America, as I see it, is not really about Mormonism at all.
That is to say, even though it uses symbols from Mormon history and theology and
features Mormon characters, it's not about what it means to be Mormon, even Mormon
and gay. Similarly, it's not about Mormon beliefs or how those beliefs intersect
with other ideas and belief systems within the play, such as Marxist approaches to class.
When it comes to his characters, it seems to me that Kushner is using Mormons
iconically--a rather different thing from presenting them realistically. Not
that his Mormon characters aren't realistic, but I don't think they're realistic
in their Mormonness. By and large, they don't act like Mormons, they don't describe
their beliefs in terms that would be terribly familiar to most Mormons, and their
religion doesn't seem to impact their day-to-day lives in the ways that it does for
most active Mormons.
The characters don't seem much affected by Mormonism socially. There are no callings,
no home teachers. When Joe's mother arrives in New York, worried about Joe, and is
not met by him at the airport, she doesn't call his bishop, doesn't call on local
church members. Instead, she wanders around and eventually asks directions to the
Mormon Visitor's Center, which becomes from then on the locus of all things Mormon
in the play--as if the connection of Mormons to their religion and each other is
best represented through movies and mannequins.
It probably fits Kushner's purposes to have his Mormon characters disconnected and
isolated; but even though members of the Church may feel isolated internally, if
they are active members of the church they will, in fact, be part of a community,
whether they feel at home there or not. Being Mormon is like being a member of a
close extended family: you really can't rid yourself of people asking how you're
doing and coming over and visiting and such unless you make an active effort to push
them away (and often not even then). None of this is evident in the play.
Similarly, Joe's internal anguish--the struggle to repress his homosexual feelings,
and their conflict with his religious values--seems well drawn to me, but also generic.
They're the sort of feelings that anyone from a sexually restrictive religion might
possess. But if you're Mormon, being part of a family is more than just a badge of
normality; it's part of your essential purpose for existing, a key element of your
eternal identity. Surely part of what makes being Mormon and gay so poignant is the
sense that choosing a life of homosexuality isn't just a sin; it's also giving up
who you are and what you are meant to be as a child of God. That added dimension of
inner conflict and loss could well be incorporated into a play that was about what
it means to be Mormon and gay; but that isn't this play.
Mormon Themes and Ideas
When it comes to the historical and symbolic references to Mormonism (e.g., angels,
elements of the Joseph Smith story), my sense is that Kushner uses these elements
mythically and poetically, partly as a distillation of a particular type of idea of
what it means to be American. They tie into Kushner's structure of ideas--but the
meanings Kushner gives them make them more a riff than a representation of what those
elements mean to Mormons.
Thus, for example, his play has angels coming to earth with a modern message. Their
message (that humans should stop moving around and changing things so much, so that
maybe God will find his way back to heaven) may reflect Kushner's take on religion in
general, at least conservative religions like (as most people see it) Mormonism. But
in the end, it has little or nothing to do with the message of the Restoration. It's
not even a terribly effective critique of that message. Nor, I think, is it particularly
meant to be.
My friend made the comment that he thought Kushner had some important things to say
about religion and sexuality in Angels in America. Well, maybe. But the
(theoretical) Mormon take on sexuality is actually radically different from that of
most religions, at least most contemporary Christian religions, making that critique
(in my view) somewhat off base for Mormonism.
It's possible that part of what attracted Kushner about using Mormonism was an awareness
of the tension between Mormon doctrine, which makes sexuality an attribute of divinity,
and Mormon practice, which is pretty repressive on the subject of sex. His angels, for
example, prompt intensely sexual reactions. I suspect that if Kushner knew much about
Mormon theology (which he may well--I understand that he did study Mormonism before writing
the play), he may have felt it was particularly appropriate/ironic to make the
stereotypically repressed closeted gay be from a religion that theoretically accepts and
even embraces sexuality, but that culturally is (as he would see it) just as repressive
as any other religion. But none of that irony comes out in the play--nor could it, since
Mormon ideas about sexuality are not portrayed as in any way different from, say, Baptist
teachings. Similarly, there's no engagement with the peculiarly Mormon ideas that make
homosexuality not merely a sin but also an eternal dead end. The strikingly heretical
Mormon idea of humans becoming gods doesn't get mentioned. In short, there's no engagement
(as I see it) with the ideas of Mormonism, as opposed to its symbols.
Poor Old Joe
Which brings me to the aspect of the play that I found most puzzling: that is, the rather
stern judgment that is made of Joe, the closeted gay Mormon who leaves his wife to come
out over the course of the play. While most of the major characters--including Joe's
ambiguously Mormon mother, Hannah--become part of a community that is created by the end
of the second play, Joe is sent off and we hear no more about him. Even Roy Cohn, the
embodiment of evil in this play, has the Kaddish said over him by the ghost of Ethel
Rosenberg. But Joe is alone, left with his wife's command to "Go exploring."
It's unclear to me exactly why. His coming-out scene with his wife, Harper, is paired with
the scene where Louis leaves his lover, who is dying of AIDS, because he can't handle his
sickness. And yet the two cases seem hardly equivalent. It is (at least arguably) Harper
who rejects Joe, Harper whose dream-images of terrifying men with knives are revealed as
symbols of her feelings about her husband. By Kushner's own ideology, it would seem logical
that accepting his homosexual feelings would be a step forward for Joe, not an act on the
same level of moral bankruptcy as abandoning a terminally ill partner. And yet in the end,
Louis is allowed to return to the others, while Joe is cast out.
At first, I wondered if the message was simply that for someone who has been what Joe has
been--a writer of repressive court decisions for conservative judges--there is no
forgiveness. Eventually, I decided that probably wasn't the case, though it's hard for me
to tell what it might mean instead. The best I was able to speculate was that perhaps the
problem is that Joe is trying for a superficial transformation--changing one skin, one
identity, for another--when true change comes at a higher cost and takes longer than that.
Which brings me to the notorious garment-stripping scene, where Joe responds to Louis's
shocked rejection of him when he discovers Joe is Mormon by stripping off his clothes and
(specifically) his garments, stating, "Whatever you want. I can give up anything. My skin."
One can't help but wonder: Why is Joe still wearing them anyway? and, Is Louis really so
unobservant that after a month together, it still hasn't occured to him to ask Joe about
his "fruity underwear"? At a more substantive level, one must admit the justice of Louis's
challenge: "How can you stop wearing it if it's a skin?"
Symbolically, the scene works. In fact, I think that for myself as a Mormon, it may work
better than it does for most members of the play's audience, and better than it's meant
to--because, to me, it represents a very real price Joe has paid. Not a sign of shallowness,
but of profound pain.
This is not to say that Joe is completely sympathetic. In fact, over the course of the
play, Joe's character becomes, in my view, considerably less attractive. He turns into a
mouthpiece of Roy Cohn's philosophy (which sounds considerably less convincing from him
than from Cohn), and in general seems to have lost his prior identity without yet having
anything to replace it. So perhaps it is fitting that he be left to wander on his own until
he has discovered or decided who he is going to be.
In a way, it's comforting that in Kushner's world, being gay--even acknowledging your
gayness--isn't enough to make you one of the good guys. Conversely, being Mormon isn't
enough to damn you, as the example of Hannah--one of the most consistently positive
characters in the play--shows. On the other hand, Kushner's political judgments have
nothing of gray about them: issues are black and white, right and wrong are clearly
known, and while Kushner may undercut his characters' certainties he never seems to doubt
his own. His endorsement of difference may embrace quaint middle-aged ladies who believe
in angels, but does not really extend to serious consideration of ideas that are different
from his. Mormonism, conservatism: neither is really allowed a presence or voice in the
play, despite their constant conjuration. It is no dialogue that the play presents, but
rather a carefully scripted set of calls and responses.
Angels in America is an interesting and well-written work. Possibly even brilliant,
although I suspect that those who don't share Kushner's beliefs and prejudices will find
less in it than those who do. It's an important work, from the perspective of Mormon
letters. But not, ultimately--in my view--one that has much specifically to say to, for,
or about Mormons.