Friday, December 28, 2018

Literary Friday: The Struggles Between Religion and Homosexuality in Tony Kushner's "Angels in America"

In reading and reviewing Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, the audience is introduced to a mid 1980’s world where the characters struggle with accepting their homosexuality, face challenges in their contraction of AIDS, and battle their innermost desires with the values and beliefs of the religions that condone those desires. In Angels in America, Kushner uses the struggle between homosexuality and religion to illustrate the unstable and constantly shifting relationship between the sexually transgressive and religious values (most notably values from Judaism and Mormonism) to show that though the characters seek to find stability and belonging, they still remain “different” and alienated from the heteronormative world. 

Kushner introduces this theme in scene one of Millennium Approaches when Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz is giving a eulogy at Sarah Ironson’s funeral in front of her grandson Louis and his lover Prior. Chemelwitz preaches that they “can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not… exist” but that “every day of your lives the miles that voyage between that place and this one you cross”  (Millennium Approaches 10) the bridge between the rejecting heteronormative world and their personal world where they are accepted for their varying religions and sexual identity. The rabbi claims that Louis and Prior “do not live in America” and that their heritage is “[the] clay of some Litvak shtetl, your air the air of steppes” (10). Chemelwitz is comparing the fate of the Jew and the fate of the queer to be the same: they will both “be eternally other even in the Utopian land that proclaims itself a haven for all aliens (Freedman 92). Kushner is emphasizing the contiguity between the Jew and the queer (Freedman 92) but instead of fusing the two together to create synonymous outcomes, whether the character in question is Jewish or gay or both, he interplays the two traits to identify the similarities and differences between what it means for a character to belong to a minority religion in comparison (or contrast) with what it means for a character to identify as anything besides heterosexual. 

These characteristics of religion and sexual identity manifest themselves within their characters and cause internal struggles that must be dealt with; for the character Joe he struggles with both his Mormon religion and his suppressed homosexuality. Joe’s dream of Jacob wrestling with the “golden-hair[ed]” (Freedman 92) angel expresses his homoerotic desires in the male-male imagery and his internal struggle with his suppressed homosexuality. In relation to Joe, the vision of Jacob wrestling the angel takes on two interpretations. Joe relates to the Jacob-angel scene as a homoerotic image, desiring to press himself against another man in a sexual manner; but he also relates to Jacob in the sense that Jacob is a weak human wrestling with an all-powerful angel, representing his Mormon values that condemn homosexuality.  Joe sees this image as a battle he is guaranteed to lose in the struggle between his homosexual desires and his religious values. Giving into his homosexual desires means that he would lose his fight with the angel, and therefore his “soul [would be] thrown down in the dust, your heart torn out from God’s” (Millennium 50). Joe’s recurring homoerotic dream of Jacob and angel show his inner struggle with homosexual desires he can no longer ignore but his desire to abide by his Mormon values, ultimately leading Joe to a wandering, unstable life in which he can choose to struggle with his religion vs. desires forever or choose to act upon his desires and therefore be “different” and alienated from the world he lives in. 

From a Jewish standpoint, Kushner uses the openly gay Louis to show a greater struggle between religion and sexual identity. Louis first becomes aware of himself as a Jew only after encountering anti-Semitism from a Jamaican-born black man in a London gay bar (Freedman 92). Louis recalls that he “[felt] like Sid the Yid, you know I mean like Woody Allen in Annie Hall with the payess and the gabardine coat” (Millennium 91). His Jewishness first comes to light for himself and the audience when he’s rattling on about the politics of others in the gay community. This is the first time we note that Louis feels like he’s “different” from the normal world; in this case it’s because of his religion. 

Throughout both Millennium and Perestroika, Louis’s primary conflict with his religion isn’t with his Jewish values (he doesn’t seem to live by many, if any, Jewish teachings) but with his unending feeling of guilt for abandoning Prior while he suffers from AIDS. Louis is very clearly afraid of death and does not have the courage to be around those who are suffering and guaranteed to die (his grandmother and Prior specifically). When struggling with his conflict to stay by his lover Prior through this last difficult time or to abandon him to satisfy his own desire to not witness Prior’s slow demise, he consults Rabbi Chemelwitz on what the Holy Writ preaches about abandoning a loved one in need. Chemelwitz replies that the Holy Writ does not say anything on the subject, and that if Louis did decide to abandon a loved one, “Catholics believe in forgiveness. Jews believe in Guilt” (Millennium 25). Louis finally gives in to his desires to abandon Prior and satisfy his need of being ignorant of Prior’s suffering, but in doing so he commits himself to a wandering existence and unbearable guilt; he picks up Joe as a temporary lover but feels incomplete and eventually regrets his actions and tries to persuade Prior to take him back but is rejected. Louis’ struggle between the moral consequences of his religion vs. his personal desires to avoid the pain of others’ suffering cause him to choose his desires over his fear of consequence, leading him to an unstable path on which he loudly voices righteous virtues but shirks his own responsibilities to those virtues and is left searching for the stability and belonging he craves but is too cowardly to actively pursue. 

Kushner takes on a different approach in setting the struggles and conflicts for his primary antagonist, Roy. Roy Cohn, the power hungry consciousless New York lawyer, is based on the late Roy M. Cohn (1927-1986), whose illegal conferences with Judge Kaufmann during the Rosenberg trial led to the Rosenbergs facing the death penalty. Much like the real life Roy Cohn, Kushner’s Roy follows the popular American image of the Jewish male as a peculiar combination of sexual and political power, perverting gentile bodies and the political body in one gesture (Freedman 94). Using this well-known historical context of the late Roy’s tendency to dole out unnecessarily harsh punishments in court and his non-observant Jewish background, Kushner based his Roy upon this same persona, only with his own unique dialogue.  Despite Louis also being Jewish and attentive to signs of anti-Semitism, Louis likens Roy’s personality to populist images of Jewish monstrosity (Freedman 94), saying he was “like the polestar of human evil, he’s like the worst human who ever lived, he isn’t human even…” (Perestroika 95). Roy himself does not adhere to his Jewish upbringing; Kushner uses him as a comment on anti-Semitism and prevailing images of Jewish people. Roy’s primary struggle is his unrelenting denial that he is homosexual. During his AIDS diagnosis, Roy insists to his doctor that “Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man, Henry, who fucks around with guys.” Roy even goes so far to claim that he does not have AIDS because only homosexuals and drug addicts can contract AIDS. He isn’t a drug addict and he isn’t homosexual; he only fools around with homosexual men but since he refuses to accept his own homosexuality, he cannot possibly have AIDS and instead has liver cancer (Millennium 46). 

Roy’s conflict in accepting, or even recognizing, his own homosexuality isn’t the only conflict he embodies. Pederson argues that Roy is the most relatable character to Jacob in the Jacob wrestling the angel image. In his constant reference to archaic Judaism explained in The Book of J by Harold Bloom, Roy embodies the lawlessness of archaic Judaism and does not follow the law or prostrate himself before it (Pederson 593). He lives by his quote “Make the law, or subject to it” (Millennium 108). Roy himself describes Jacob as a "ruthless motherfucker, some bald runt, but he laid hold of his birthright with his claws and his teeth" (Perestroika 81). Jacob thrived because of his single-minded, grasping pursuit of his goals and subversion of widely accepted customs and tradition; Roy reflects this same description (Pederson 594). Roy sees himself as Jacob in that he takes what he sees as his birthright and entitlements and does not release them without a fight; this is extremely present when he fights to keep himself on the bar but right before his death is disbarred by the panel. In this conflict, Roy fights for his own interests and to protect his “birthright” (being a lawyer) from a resisting world that battles to keep the heteronormative and its ideals and customs stable despite Roy’s attempts (but guaranteed failures) to undermine those ideals and customs with his own ambition. 

Through his meritable dramatic writing and clever staging, Kushner brings the struggles of religion and expectation vs. homosexuality and personal desires to life for many of his characters in Angels in America. In exploring how the characters desires (sexual and nonsexual) transform them into the sexually transgressive, while their religious beliefs contrast with their desires, Kushner follows his characters through their struggle as aliens in an unaccepting heteronormative world through their pursuit of stability and belongingness, even though their religions and sexual identities will never allow them to achieve their quest for a normal, accepted lifestyle. 

Works Cited
Freedman, Jonathan. “Vol. 113, No. 1, Special Topic: Ethnicity.” pp. 90-102.
Modern Language Association; 1998.
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America, Part One: Millenium Approaches. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1991. 
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1991
Pederson, Joshua. “Contemporary Literature Vol. 50, No. 3.” pp. 576-598.
University of Wisconsin Press; 2009.