Thoughts on Kushner, Angels in America

Several years ago, prompted by a non-Mormon friend, I read Angels in America, a set of two plays set in New York City in the mid-1980s, written and performed in the early 1990s, that won multiple awards (including a Pulitzer). The play is largely about homosexuality, AIDS, and political conservatism. Several of the characters are Mormons, though Tony Kushner (the playwright) is not.

My reaction (which I initially posted on AML-List, and which was later published in more polished and expanded form in Irreantum, the journal of the Association for Mormon Letters) was that despite the Mormon characters and some Mormon iconic symbology, I didn’t really feel that the play was about Mormons or Mormonism in any meaningful way. At the time I wrote my reaction (2003), that was a perspective I didn’t see reflected or even much addressed in discussions of the work — bafflingly so, considering that 3 out of 9 main characters are supposedly Mormon.

So I wrote my response, which I’ve decided to repost below, in the hopes that perhaps this will prompt a little more discussion or at least awareness on this issue.

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. Also posted online here.

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.

Mormon Characters

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 [Mormon] 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 [LDS temple] 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 occurred 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.

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6 Responses to “Thoughts on Kushner, Angels in America”

  1. […] a cultural mindset if you’ve been raised outside the culture. To quote Jonathan Langford’s review of Angels in America: Angels in America, as I see it, is not really about Mormonism at all. That is to say, even though […]

  2. Rilke says:

    You have it exactly right. I thought Nichol’s “Angels in America” was excellent but could never really put my finger on what was missing. You pointed out what should have been obvious to me; Joe’s disconnect from the Church.
    Kushner apparently had no intention of making Mormons seem the least bit sympathetic or capable of understanding people in painful circumstances.
    His Mormon characters appear to be blind followers with no ability to see beyond what they’re told to see.
    I came away with the feeling Kushner had a grudge of some kind.

    • annonymous says:

      i’m afraid i am going to have to diagree with you, one of the most loving a sympathetic characters in the play is mormon (Hannah Pitt) she proclaims herself that she is not sympathetic but we quite clearly see that she is, she is just a bit frosty to begin with bacause, it seems to me, that she is uncomfortable with meeting new people, particularly as she is in a strange city. she not only takes care of Harper but also Prior, whom she developes an close friendship with by the end of the play as well as with louis and belieze, and she continues to look after her son and to help him in his time of greatest need.

  3. annonymous says:

    all the characters in the play are purposefuly disconected from their respective churches in order to effectively demonstrate one of the main points of the play, that god has dissappeared. Joe is not abbandoned at the end of the play he is simply freed to find his way to where he wants to be, whether he wants to be a gay man, or a mormon or both. this demonstrates that we all have to get a little lost in order to find ourselves or whatever god one may be serching for, joe says in the very begginning of the play to his wife harper that he feels distant from god, i’m sure that even amongst mormons this is not something that is all that uncommon, for a person to feel distanced from god. i don’t believe that Kushner is trying to condemn any religion but is merely stateing that who we are is not something that can be changed and sometimes a strict religion can interfere with that. i agree that this can be true of any religion and not just mormonism and i do not think that the play is particularly centred around mormonism. i would also disagree that Roy Cohen is forgiven but Joe is not, the character Belieze says that he was a horrible man but he died a hard death and has therefore paid a price, and i would also point out just how unhappy about saying the prayer for roy louis is. Joe has not done anything wrong to be forgiven for, he is simply heart broken at the end but cirtainly not condemned.

    • Jonathan says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      What bothers me isn’t that Joe is lost from God at the end of the book, but rather that (unlike all the other main characters, as best I can recall) he is also exiled from the human community formed by the other characters. Saying the Kaddish over Roy Cohn isn’t (as I take it) a sign of forgiveness, but rather a sign that he is at least in some sense a member of his community and connected to his heritage. But Joe is left unconnected.

  4. […] And you should get it right. Allen Drury gets points for making Brigham Anderson’s internal conflict over his homosexual impulses (influenced by his Mormonism) part of the central drama of Advise and Consent. But he quickly loses many of those points by his ignorance of the fact that for Mormons, a mission is only temporary. Likewise Tony Kushner in Angels in America, as I’ve argued elsewhere. […]

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