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Tony Kushner's "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches"


Anthony Robert “Tony” Kushner's famous black comedy Angels in America: Millennium Approaches (1992) takes place in 1985. As can be seen from the text of this controversial play, America in the 1980s was in the midst of two devastating national epidemics. One is AIDS, the new “Black Death” which, in Kushner's words, “afflicts mostly homosexuals and drugs addicts.... Hemophiliacs are also at risk” (1.9.24-25). There is no known cure for AIDS, according to Dr. Henry—not even new experimental drugs like the NIH's AZT. AIDS is taking a terrible toll on the homosexual community—sickening both the low, poor and powerless like Prior Walter and the high and mighty like powerful New York lawyer Roy Cohn, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney for Manhattan who was infamous for having dishonestly prosecuted hundreds of suspected Communists in the late 1940's and the 1950's, many of whom were falsely accused of being Soviet spies. Unlike the impoverished Prior Walter, however, Roy Cohn—who brags on stage of often talking on the phone with President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy and of even bringing his homosexual lovers to the White House to shake hands with both of them—denies that he has AIDS: “No, Henry, no. AIDS is what homosexuals have. I have liver cancer” (1.9.89).

The reason why Cohn publicly denies having AIDS is made quite obvious by Kushner. It is only because of the other ongoing “Black Jack” epidemic—the so-called Conservative Revolution, which ushered in the reactionary Reagan Administration (1981-1989). Like Reagan's Attorney-General Edwin Meese (another of Cohn's odious political friends in the play), the homophobic Republicans refused to address the public-health threat of AIDS, which they saw as God's just punishment for what they considered to be the immoral and degenerate life-style of openly gay men like the play's Prior, Louis, and “Belize.” Kushner does not even try to hide his politics, voicing in Angels in America: Millennium Approaches his anger and hatred for Reagan's policies. But who could fault the playwright for his anger? In addition to homosexuality, Reagan also wanted to outlaw abortion, pornography, Darwinism, and even atheism. Having drastically cut corporate taxation and taxes on the very rich, the Reagan Administration went on to bankrupt the federal Treasury by carrying out the biggest peacetime military buildup which in eight short years turned the country from the world's biggest creditor into the world's biggest debtor (and currently the worst deadbeat government in history, owning some $20 trillion, most of it to foreigners).

By refusing even to acknowledge that AIDS was a nation-wide public-health threat #1, Reagan and his religious Far-Right allies were endangering the lives of everyone else in America, not just the “homosexuals, drugs addicts, and hemophiliacs.” Because tens of thousands of other Americans became infected with AIDS by contaminated blood transfusions, for example. No one was safe anymore, because the Reaganites chose to see AIDS as “the scourge of God”—that is, as a just punishment from above for “the homos.” In 1987, the conservatives even banned HIV-positive persons from coming to America by passing laws that were influenced by homophobic and xenophobic sentiments. As Louis warns his new gay lover Joe near the end of the play, “Children of the new morning, criminal minds. Selfish and greedy and loveless and blind. Regan's children. You're scared. So am I. Everybody is in the land of the free. God help us all” (2.8.90-93).

But the worst villain in Angels in America: Millennium Approaches is clearly Roy Cohn, the right-wing Jewish attorney from New York City, who is portrayed on stage as being as evil and vicious as the historical Roy Marcus Cohn was `in real life. The real Cohn gained notoriety as chief counsel to the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in 1954-55, when he helped the notorious Republican Senator Joe McCarthy hunt for “hundreds” of Communists who were supposedly operating from inside the Truman Administration, especially in the State Department. McCarthy wanted to prove that the Harry Truman Administration, which had many Democratic holdovers from the FDR presidency, was riddled with Communists spying for Moscow. Cohn was a protégé of long-time FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Senator McCarthy, both of whom were known to be, like Roy, closet homosexuals. (In fact, McCarthy is said to have drunk himself to death driven by guilt over his secret homosexuality.) But after Cohn had tried unsuccessfully to prevent his Subcommittee's well-paid consultant and homosexual lover G. David Schine from being drafted as Army private (rather than Army officer), he publicly accused the U.S. Army of being penetrated by many Communists. The resulting Army-McCarthy Senate hearings destroyed the anti-Communist reputations and political careers of both McCarthy and Cohn. Cohn resigned and went into private practice, during which he defended many New York celebrities, including well-known mobsters, before being officially disbarred as lawyer for having committed numerous offenses, including stealing his clients' money. He served as a private adviser to Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan until dying of AIDS in 1986.

What made Cohn especially notorious was his controversial role in the prosecution and imprisonment of hundreds of real and suspected Communists, including the top eleven leaders of the Communist Party (CPUSA), for supposedly wanting to overthrow America's constitutional system. Under the draconian Smith Act, everyone who was a member of the CPUSA could be prosecuted as a traitor and Soviet spy. When Cohn threatened a known Jewish Communist named David Greenglass with charges of high treason and atomic spying for the Soviets during World War II, Greenglass falsely implicated his sister Ethel and her husband Julius Rosenberg, admittedly to protect himself and his wife. President Truman had assured Americans that Moscow could not acquire a nuclear weapon for the next 20 years, so when the Russians tested an atomic bomb in 1949, the hunt was on for domestic traitors and spies for Moscow. Relying solely on Greenglass's coerced and suspect testimony, Cohn and the presiding judge Irving Kaufman illegally consulted each other and conspired to subvert the Rosenbergs' legal defense. Though obviously innocent, the Rosenbergs were convicted of atomic espionage and electrocuted in June 1953 despite national and world-wide protests. Just two months later, the Russians tested the world's first operational and bomber-delivered hydrogen bomb, which demonstrated the folly of the idea that Moscow needed to steal America's nuclear secrets.

Like the old miser Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol, Kushner's anti-hero Roy Cohn is confronted in the middle of the night by the ghost of his electrocuted innocent victim Ethel Rosenberg—that is, the ghost of Cohn's “crimes past.” But the old anti-Communist witch-hunter and New York City shyster is not frightened or deterred by the ghosts of his hapless victims: “Well you're wasting your time! I'm scarier than you any day of the week! So beat it, Ethel! BOOO! BETTER DEAD THAN RED! Somebody trying to shake me up? HAH HAH! From the throne of God in heaven to the belly of hell, you can all f**ck yourselves and then go jump in the lake because I'M NOT AFRAID OF YOU OR DEATH OR HELL OR ANYTHING!” (3.6.105-109). It is the ghost of Ethel who eventually calls 911 for an ambulance to take the critically-ill Roy to the hospital's emergency room. But, as the play shows, Cohn remains to the end unrepentant and even very proud of his prominent role in the legal murder of the Rosenbergs: “I'm immortal, Ethel.... I have forced my way into history. I ain't never gonna die” (3.6.133-134).

According to Marxist literary criticism, authorial intent is manifested in the text and is always a reflection of the writer's political ideology. The author's intent is thus reproducible from his or her work, as it is usually embodied in the clash of several opposing ideological views (such as those of Roy Cohn, Martin Heller, and Joe Pitt versus those of Louis Ironson in the play). Kushner weaves his progressive, left-wing ideology most unambiguously in Angels in America: Millennium Approaches. The only hero in Angels is the left-of-center liberal Louis, whom Kushner seems to identify with—in spite of Louis's evident faults and failings. Kushner sympathizes and empathizes with Louis, even as he wants him to shed his liberal blinds and work for radical change as well as a more progressive, inclusive, and tolerant society.

At the same time, Kushner makes it abundantly clear what he thinks of Ronnie Reagan as the repugnant symbol of “White Straight Male America.” Although the playwright's views about politics should not be equated with the various personal opinions voiced in his play, in this case his political stand is quite unmistakable. The obnoxious villains in his drama are all conservatives—though they are not always Republicans. Let's not forget, after all, that both Roy M. Cohn and Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Reagan's controversial representative to the U.N. that Louis mentions on stage at least once, were conservative Democrats, not registered Republicans. But they still represented the conservative politics of President Reagan and other right-wing Republican politicians, whom Kushner obviously finds most repulsive. In Kushner's view, the Reagan Administration's right-wing policies clearly represented the moneyed special interests of Wall Street and the military-industrial complex. Not only were they uninterested in identity politics which cost them money and profits, the Reaganites also wanted to abolish Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the federal minimum wage, unemployment insurance, collective bargaining, labor unions, and other mainstays of the FDR's “New Deal” that had saved the country during the Great Depression.

The play's dramatic plot is based at least partly on the real life of Roy Cohn, who was more of a successful federal prosecutor than a successful Big Apple lawyer. But if it were not for Cohn, nobody would have paid much attention to the uncouth, coarse, and always inebriated Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin. And if it were not for Cohn, the Rosenbergs would have never fried in the Sing Sing's electric chair. The more one reads about their case, the more one becomes convinced that Roy was a real monster, who perhaps deserved his tragic fate. Because he and Judge Irving Kaufman (who was also Jewish) knew perfectly well that Ethel had little to do with her husband's Communist politics and was, at best, just a meek follower. But Cohn and Kaufman sought to create the opposite impression, pretending that Ethel was the ringleader of their “Communist spy cell,” thus making sure that she would be electrocuted, too. The idea was to put pressure on her husband and make him confess his “sins” and implicate other “Communist spies.”

Applying the criteria of postmodern literary criticism, one can see that Angels is written in the innovative, experimental style of Bertold Brecht's famous “epic theater,” especially in the use of split scenes which make this Brechtian-like drama resemble an Italian grand opera—with each dramatic character singing at the same time their own so-to-say “aria.” But otherwise our “Socialist” playwright has replaced the fundamental Marxist concept of socioeconomic classes and class struggle with the postmodernist notion of sexual, religious, racial, ethnic and every other kind of thinkable identity found in contemporary America. That is why the play is about identity politics, not about social and economic conflict which is the usual staple of neo-Marxist art. For a self-confessed socialist, Kushner pays scant attention to the problems of the urban working class or the city poor in New York. For example, he does not even mention what happened in the Big Apple after the Reagan Administration had drastically cut federal spending on mental heath care circa 1982, when the city streets suddenly filled with homeless mental ex-patients who could no longer afford to pay for their continued institutionalization. These deranged homeless people begged, stole, robbed, and sometimes killed for money in order to survive on the mean streets of the huge metropolis (where I grew up in the 1980's). This postmodernist play focuses on the plight of the individual, not on analyzing the conflicting social classes and conflictual class interests. In that respect, Angels is a postmodern play which does not lend itself very easily to a Marxist literary analysis.

Angels in America: Millennium Approaches was awarded the Tony Award for Best Play, the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993. Tony Kushner himself received the prestigious National Medal of Arts from President Obama in 2013.


Works Cited

Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, in J. Ellen Gainor et al. Eds. The Norton Anthology of Drama, 2nd shorter edition. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company. 2014. pp. 1718-1784.