From Schnitzler to Kushner
The good-looking young men cruising the aisles were putting on a show of their own. “Questionnaires!” they sang as they handed out pink forms to everybody. “Get your questionnaires!” The curtain of the Walter Kerr theater on Broadway would not be going up on this performance of Millennium Approaches, Part 1 of Angels in America,1 before everyone in the audience did his or her duty. If the Angels scripts, T-shirts, and baseball caps in the foyer were yours to buy or not, the questionnaire verged on mandatory.
And so the Jewish Long Islanders making up the bulk of the house, plus the corn-fed Midwesterners and Japanese tourists glad to be at this first half of Tony Kushner’s seven-hour “Gay Fantasia,” the hottest thing for two seasons running, yielded up the desired information as cheerfully as if they were doing a painless good deed. “Where,” for example, “do you currently reside?” Followed by: “Please indicate which of the following factors or sources of influence you were aware of regarding Angels in America, and then the degree each factor was influential to your decision” to come. Tony Award for Best Play of 1993? Of 1994? Personal recommendation? Advertising?
Only after the mainly straight audience finished complying, and the ushers, at least one of them wearing a yarmulke, gathered the data, would the lights be killed.
One of the few audience members not cooperating, I was musing instead about the life, times, and work of a long-dead playwright as I waited. That playwright was Arthur Schnitzler, who used to be mentioned in the same breath as his fellow turn-of-the-century Jewish Viennese trailblazers: Theodor Herzl, Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler. But today, if Schnitzler’s name rings any bell at all in pre-millennial America, it is as the author of Dance in a Circle, and this because a harmless travesty of his play entitled La Ronde was filmed in 1950 by Max Ophuls.
The idea of Dance in a Circle/La Ronde is fairly uncomplicated—The Prostitute meets The Soldier meets The Housemaid meets The Young Gentleman, and so on, the before-and-after dialogues of ten loveless heterosexual couplings up and down the social pyramid until with The Count and The Prostitute we are back again where we started. The copulations are never enacted on stage, needless to say, but only indicated with blackouts. Among the post-copulatory exchanges:
The Actress: Count, you have done me a great honor.
The Count: I kiss your hand, Fraulein.
Probably few Americans who saw Hello Again, a short-lived musical by Michael John LaChiusa Off-Broadway recently, knew that his daisy chain of gay and lesbian brief encounters was modeled on the same little Schnitzler play which first was banned and then, when put on, caused riots in Vienna and Berlin. Of course, the situation today is different in both those cities. There, unlike here, Schnitzler is well enough known, although it is an open question how much of his popularity is on account of his various works and how much due to nostalgia for a culture and its makers run out of town or exterminated by the grandparents of today’s Viennese and Berliners themselves.
Was there anyone bending over a questionnaire in the Walter Kerr who did not know that Angels is the great AIDS play? Hard to imagine, even of the visitors from Osaka. As for Schnitzler and his contemporaries, they had something else to worry about. Public-health statistics a century ago were not what they are today; nevertheless, the overall incidence of syphilis in the capital of the Hapsburg empire in 1895 was probably between 15 and 30 percent.
“He who knows syphilis,” William Osier had declared, “knows medicine.” In other words, because the infection could hide for years before exploding in any organ of the body, and could impersonate diseases from mononucleosis to ringworm, it seemed the disease of diseases, the master disease. The filthy part, for Victorians, was its principal mode of transmission, and the hideous part, for anyone, was that mothers-to-be infected their unborn children.
Fifty years later, Stefan Zweig, a famous Jewish humanist and pacifist in his day, would write in his memoirs of Vienna:
To the fear of infection was added the horror of the disgusting and degrading forms of the erstwhile cures. . . . For weeks on end the entire body of anyone infected with syphilis was rubbed with mercury, the effect of which was that the teeth fell out and other injuries to health ensued. The unhappy victim of a severe encounter felt himself not only physically but spiritually spotted, and even after so horrible a cure, he could never be certain that the cunning virus might not at any moment awake from its captivity and paralyze the limbs from the spine, or soften the brain.
Never in his many plays on the ways of heterosexuality in a bad society does Schnitzler more than very fleetingly hint at syphilis. Himself a doctor and a doctor’s son, a Jew in terrifically anti-Semitic Vienna, the playwright had enough on his hands without breaking the VD taboo, à la Ibsen uniquely in Ghosts. It would have been very unwise for him to lay out how each character in the dance could well have infected the next, as foolish as it would have been to dig into the interconnected subjects of homosexuality, treason, and hatred of Jews in the upper reaches of the army of the emperor.
Schnitzler was brave, not crazy. As it was, he was put down as a decadent Jew for these sex plays, and as a pacifist traitor for his treatment of the near-holy institution of dueling. There was really nothing of the demon about Schnitzler, as there certainly was about his Viennese contemporaries Karl Kraus, the gemlike Jewish anti-Semite, or about the ineffable Otto Weininger, dead at twenty-three by his own hand—or, for that matter, as there was about Strindberg or Wedekind or Ibsen. The feeling about his plays, even when they climax in suicide as they often do, is sadder than it is tragic. A Schnitzler play is nicely-made, deceptively casual, oppressive rather than shattering. His virtues are those of rationality, detachment, humaneness: the perishable virtues of a doctor, with a strong dash of wit and implicit loathing for bourgeois hypocrisy thrown in.
But this did not keep his public or his enemies from misunderstanding him with a vengeance. That public, Schnitzler’s core hometown audience flocking to what it liked to think were his amoral sex plays, was mostly Jewish. As Zweig was to remember: “The Jewish bourgeoisie . . . were the real audience, they filled the theaters.” This audience was not especially interested in treatments of the anti-Semitism it tried to live with, and Schnitzler, having a good enough instinct for self-preservation, brought the topic up on stage only once, in Professor Bernhardt. Since (in contrast to Freud) he loved Vienna more than he hated it, one might say it was a good thing he died in 1931, seven years before a certain syphilophobic ex-tramp rode back into the city to the joy of that majority of its citizens which had always thought Schnitzler and his kind were dirty wreckers.
In Mein Kampf, without naming Schnitzler or any other writer, Hitler had labeled the Viennese theater of his youth “trashy . . . awful . . . unclean . . . obscene.” Summed up the Nazi paper Der Völkischer Beobachter on Schnitzler’s death: “Refined Jewish decadence.”
Showtime finally on West 48th Street. The curtain goes up on a white-bearded hasidic rabbi, played by an actress. So intensively has Angels in America been publicized that the only revelations are going to be seemingly minor touches like this one, plus the feel of the production, including the currents passing back and forth between stage and audience.
Projected over the stage is the date of Act 1: October-November 1985. The bearded woman stands next to a coffin draped with a Star of David. In an unconvincing Yiddish accent, she (he?) is eulogizing one Sarah Ironson:
. . . not a person but a whole kind of person, the ones who crossed the ocean, who brought with us to America the villages of Russia and Lithuania—and how we struggled, and how we fought, for the family, for the Jewish home, so that you would not grow up here, in this strange place, in the melting pot where nothing melted. Descendants of this immigrant woman, you do not grow up in America, you and your children and their children with their goyische names. You do not live in America. No such place exists. Your clay is the clay of some Litvak shtetl, your air the air of the steppes—because she carried the old world on her back across the ocean, in a boat, and she put it down on Grand Concourse Avenue, or in Flatbush, and she worked that earth into your bones, and you pass it to your children, this ancient, ancient culture and home.
To repeat: the audience to whom Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz addresses himself (herself) as to the family of the deceased is three-fourths suburban-Jewish. But on the whole this audience does not seem to understand how to take him (her) or the speech. As irony? As camp? As given? But this opening note will turn out to have been struck deliberately, for both the veil of ambiguity and the Jewish element are going to figure throughout both parts of the marathon Angels.
The very next scene gives us the excellent F. Murray Abraham as the late Roy Cohn, working the phones while tempting a young blond Mormon law clerk named Joe Pitt to take a job at the Justice Department in order to help block Cohn’s disbarment. It is first-class shtick. By ten minutes into Millennium Approaches, several things have been established: a rapid-fire, high-decibel campy wisecracking performance style which the audience usually manages to love; the widest possible terms of reference on the part of the playwright, Tony Kushner; and the aura of some kind of existential affinity between gayness and Jewishness, at least today’s native American Jewishness.
On this last point: if the devilish Cohn with his Yiddishisms will provide the most delectable moments of two long evenings out, another chief thread of a very tangled plot is introduced when the lead character, Louis Ironson, after the funeral service for his grandmother, is overwhelmed by the sight of his Wasp lover’s first lesion. Will Louis ditch Walter Prior? Or will he be a mentsh and stay? The great play of AIDS is also going to be Jewish, in its way.
So what else is new? Though Kushner is more ambitious than his predecessors, his “fantasia” is but the latest in a tidal wave of homosexual New York plays by Jewish sons, going back almost a quarter-century.
True, not all the gay plays of the past 25 years have been written by Jews. An incomplete list of the nots would include Mart Crowley’s pioneering The Boys in the Band; the works of Terrence McNally; David Drake’s The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me; T-Shirts by Robert Patrick; Fifth of July by Lanford Wilson; and the late Robert Chesley’s raunchy Jerker, or The Helping Hand and his Night Sweat, the first AIDS play.
However, when in the Roaring 70’s a new industry of unmasked, self-respecting, innocent, or agitational homosexual plays, based in Greenwich Village but with Shubert Alley in its crosshairs, was founded, this was done mainly by writers of Jewish extraction doing nothing to pass.
There was, for instance, Passing By, a 1972 Off-Broadway work by Martin Sherman. The new innocence and naturalness here are such that when Toby gives Simon hepatitis, they savor being ill together, getting well, and splitting, no hard feelings and close to none of the usual suicidal impulses. Toby is given to exclaiming, “Feh!” Sherman’s equally didactic Bent (1979) has Max, a prisoner at Dachau, exchanging his yellow star for a pink triangle before walking into the electrified fence. Bent made it to Broadway, where the Times‘s Walter Kerr found it “strong.”
Harvey Fierstein also carried the message of gay self-acceptance uptown to the straight audiences, first in his Torch Song Trilogy, then in the smash drag musical for which he wrote the book, La Cage Aux Folles (1983). His Arnold Beckoff in Trilogy is a vulnerable, feisty queen in love with Ed, a bisexual Gentile who is unwilling, at first anyway, to leave his wife.
Among the memorable scenes in Trilogy, which first played downtown in 1978, is one where Arnold is penetrated anally in the orgy room of a bar while keeping up his patter and smoking a cigarette. The scene is played in the dark but is supposed to have nothing grim about it. Even his mother, “the Rita Hayworth of Brighton Beach,” finally has to accept Arnold for what he is, the avatar of an overdue change in our society. Fierstein himself, in the role of Arnold, netted Tonys for both best play and best actor when the show moved to Broadway in 1982. There it joined Falsettos by William Finn and James Lapine, a tale in Sprechstimme of a New York husband and father, Marvin, who leaves his wife and child for the half-Jewish, very athletic Whizzer.
None of these Jewish-homosexual plays, where kvetching is in and self-loathing and menace out, is dramatically in the same league as Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, not to mention closeted works like Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire or Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? They are, Bent included, more akin to second-rate cabaret, with or without music, and the Jewish element never goes much beyond the simple matter of fact and a certain domesticated style. But they served a vital function in the rise of the “crossover” play. Broadway producers ascertained that straight audiences would shell out, not to patronize or sneer at but to empathize with uncloseted stage gays who bled a little when pricked a little, and laughed when tickled.
So long, that is, as the “life-style” of gay liberation was not depicted too realistically. The cocaine snorting and no-tomorrow sadomasochistic orgying, down to which liberation was boiling, and which the Jewish writer-activist Larry Kramer fixed with disapproving eye in his in-group novel Faggots (1978), did not travel uptown. What traveled, and began disarming the general culture, was the schmaltzy version which Jewish boys were better at cooking up than goyim.
It therefore was not so astonishing that when the AIDS virus crashed the party, and a different type of crossover play had to be written, it turned out even more “Jewish” than before. The AIDS dramas by Jews which have come out so far, and which Angels epitomizes while aiming to transcend, make a genre topical as the obituary page, stylized as the Passion plays of Oberammergau.
Always the scene is Manhattan. The homosexual couple nearly always consists of a Jew and a Gentile, and conventionally the Gentile is the one who falls ill. (Exceptions: the suicide Reuben in Jean-Claude van Itallie’s Ancient Boys; the inter-faith lovers in Fierstein’s Safe Sex, both frightened but neither yet sick; the yuppies Peter and Drew in Richard Greenberg’s Eastern Standard, both of indeterminate ethnicity.) Will the Jewish partner in the conventional scheme obey the golden rule? Or will he run? From this problem springs the genre’s dramatic tension, such as it is, beginning with the problematical Larry Kramer’s own The Normal Heart (1985).
In that play, the emotional Ned Weeks, Kramer’s alter ego, does stick by the dying Felix. In fact, they “marry” in the final scene in the hospital. In As Is by William Hoffman (also 1985), Saul not only tells Rich, “I’ll be here for you no matter what happens,” but in the last hospice scene climbs into bed with him, albeit behind a drawn curtain. Likewise in the 1990 sequel to Falsettos entitled Falsettoland, set in a time when “something very bad is happening”; there, Marvin not only comforts the dying Whizzer but is joined by his understanding ex-wife, her new shrink husband, and the lesbian neighbors for the bar mitzvah of the son, performed as a rousing finale around the hospital bed. No second thoughts, no true irony, no bad feelings.
By 1993 and Jeffrey, whose author is the self-described “nice Jewish boy” Paul Rudnick, it was predictable that the talkative, brave, sensitive, HIV-negative hero, fearfully pledged to abstinence and transparently disguised as a Roman Catholic, would see the light and go with buff, HIV-positive Steve. In short, when Felix, Rich, Whizzer, and Steve die, Ned, Saul, Marvin, and Jeffrey are going to have the right, the moral right, to publish their names in the obituary notices as loyal companions.
What about Louis Ironson? This is a question that remains unanswered for most of the combined 420 minutes of Angels.
Louis is a shmendrick. He is given to such talk as
Jeane Kirkpatrick for God’s sake will go on and on about freedom, when she talks about it, or human rights; you have Bush talking about human rights . . . these people don t begin to know what, ontologically, freedom is. . . . And what I think is that what AIDS shows us is the limits of tolerance.
The question whether Louis will stand by Walter Prior, his Wasp lover, and then whether, having abandoned him, he will be allowed to return, is one of three plots set in motion in Millennium Approaches and clumsily developed into the year 1986 in Part 2, Perestroika. Intersecting this is the story of Joe Pitt, the closeted Mormon Reaganite living in Brooklyn, his psychotically heterosexual wife, and his mother who flies in from Salt Lake City attempting to save the marriage after Louis guesses Joe’s true nature. Third and foremost is the story, and presence, of Roy Cohn as quintessential McCarthyite and gay-bashing New York closet homosexual macher.
As biographies by Sidney Zion and Nicholas von Hoffman tell us, the real-life Cohn during his final months was indeed preoccupied with escaping disbarment, and was indeed claiming to be dying of something other than the gay disease. In Angels, when informed by the doctor that he has AIDS, he replies: “Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who . . . have zero clout.” Hence it is not possible for Cohn to have AIDS. This by-now famous line is one of Kushner’s inventions.
Another is the ghost of the atom spy Ethel Rosenberg, who shows up at Cohn’s hospital deathbed to taunt him for his role in the prosecution of her and her husband Julius more than 30 years before. Still another is the trademarked angel, descending over Walter Prior’s bed with the words: “Greetings Prophet!” to close Part 1.
The sequel has Prior saying, “Maybe I am a prophet. Not just me, all of us who are dying now.” During this evening he is befriended by the mother of Joe Pitt; Joe leaves his wife for Louis and refuses to help Cohn; Joe is left by Louis, who is guilt-ridden over having abandoned Prior. Cohn is ejected from the bar and noisily dies, the very sick Prior wrestles the angel for a blessing, curses God during a visit to heaven for “all the terrible days of this terrible century,” and in an epilogue dated 1990 apparently has permitted Louis to return to keep him company.
Dramatically, Angels is much wind-up, little delivery. The play’s champions have touted its grab-bag formlessness as itself definitively American, and it is true that everything including the kitchen sink gets in before the final curtain, giving the impression not only of expansiveness but even of a tolerant ambiguity on religion and unbelief, selfishness and loyalty, Right and Left. Even those puzzled by the seeming chaos get a lot for their money. Both evenings move along, thanks to director George C. Wolfe, to much stage business, and especially to the character of Roy Cohn—a Jewish monster beyond good and evil.
Cohn is the only really interesting figure in Angels, the only nontype. An anti-shmendrick, the opposite of Louis, he runs away with the show. Louis, meanwhile, is Kushner’s alter ego, a gay, hyper, Jewish liberal-radical tripped up only occasionally by a hospital nurse, a flaming black queen with a perfect ear and great campy lines.
Although he blathers a great deal, and is sometimes a hypocritical coward, Louis’s politics and sexual behaviors are, as far as Kushner is concerned, and we are supposed to concur, right on. The general rule in this play is that Kushner’s ambiguities are quite studied—one understands where the playwright stands. A single lapse in the park aside, Louis could not be wiser or more generous sexually, as when he rescues Mormon Joe from the closet and they finally get together on the Lower East Side, the same neighborhood, Louis does not fail to say, where “the Jews lived when they first arrived.” Joe has come to him but still hesitates. Louis is gently implacable. “Sometimes,” he reassures the uptight conservative lawyer, “even if it scares you to death, you have to be willing to break the law.” Kushner’s stage directions: “Louis slips his hand down the front of Joe’s pants . . . Louis pulls his hand out, smells and tastes his fingers, and then holds them for Joe to smell.”
Rapt silences from the dark side of the footlights alternate with hurricanes of friendly laughter throughout Angels. Thus, when actor Dan Futterman as Louis elaborately follows the stage directions here, the audience is captivated. And no one has earlier protested, much less rioted, when Louis kneels, spotlighted, pants down, to be taken by a Central Park stranger in leather. “Infect me,” he says not very wisely. “I don’t care.”
But that is the weak Louis. The strong Louis is the one who leads Joe with a firm hand out of the wilderness of heterosexual marriage into the promised land of homosexual lovemaking.
Louis: I don’t believe in God. I think you should know that before we fuck again.
To which Joe, with him in bed, responds, “I love you.”
No one makes a demonstrative exit from the theater during this scene, either. Or any other. A collective intake of breath for the naked, wasted Christ-like body of Prior (Stephen Spinella) with its painted-on sores. Laughter for the punch-line when Louis asks Isidor Chemelwitz: “Rabbi, what does the Holy Writ say about someone who abandons someone he loves at a time of great need?”
Rabbi: . . . You want to confess, better you should find a priest.
Louis: But I’m not a Catholic, I’m a Jew.
Rabbi: Worse luck for you, bubbelah. Catholics believe in forgiveness. Jews believe in guilt.
Or again, when his baffled, earnest, desperate wife is telling Joe about her day: “I heard on the radio how to give a blow job. . . . It was a little Jewish lady with a German accent.” A tremendous knowing shriek, no one pausing to wonder how Dr. Ruth’s size can be inferred from the radio.
And delight for the burning letters of the Hebrew alphabet, part of the stage design. Readers of the Sunday New York Times entertainment section have been instructed by Kushner that
Hebrew is a language of great antiquity and mystery, and of great compression. Each letter, each word encompasses innumerable meanings, good and evil. The physical letters are themselves totems, objects of power. The Torah, the Book, is to be treated with veneration. Here is another Mormon-Jewish connection: both are people of the Book—only very different books.
If anyone in the theater thinks Kushner treats either the Jewish or the Mormon book with less than veneration, and is upset by that, he keeps it to himself. More laughter for a diorama at the Mormon visitors’ center, where Joe’s mother drags his wife. And the hugest laugh of all, for this:
Belize [the black queen]: Guess who just checked in with the troubles? The Killer Queen Herself. New York’s number-one closeted queer.
The laughter has a more knowing edge to it than at Millennium Approaches. This is because, although suburban Jews predominate on both evenings, a much larger cohort of with-it Manhattan gays shows up for Perestroika. No doubt all have already seen Part 1, and every bit of camp is picked up instantly. But more ghosts hover during Evening Two than Evening One. These are the spirits of the youngish men, often beautiful to look at, sometimes gifted, who died piteously in the past decade, just as some in the audience who knew, loved, abandoned, were unfaithful or faithful to, and nursed and wept over them know they also will die in the next decade unless a cure is found. The air especially at Evening Two is consequently shot through with grief, dread, and bravely stylish good humor, with sentiments of community, and also of resentment of something out there in America.
The mood, improbably, embraces the dying Roy Cohn as well. Throughout Part 2, anticipation of the next scene with him offsets incipient longueurs.
Roy: I don’t trust this hospital. For all I know Lillian fucking Hellman is down in the basement switching the pills around.
A thunderclap of laughter. “I pleaded till I wept to put her in the chair,” Cohn tells Joe. “Her” is Ethel Rosenberg again, whose ghost, like the Commendatore’s in Don Giovanni, materializes to say, “Be seeing you soon, Roy. Julius sends his regards. . . . History is about to crack wide open.” Having enjoyed him, the audience relishes Cohn’s writhing exit quite as much as does Ethel, whom Kushner has say: “I came to forgive but all I can do is take pleasure in your misery. . . . And when you die all anyone will say is: better he had never lived at all.”
What follows is probably as definitive a first on Broadway as the mimed sodomy earlier. Asked by the black nurse to do the right thing and say kaddish over the body, Louis is willing but ignorantly unable. Whereupon the shade of Ethel Rosenberg, played by the same actress who did the hasidic rabbi, intones the entire Aramaic prayer, Louis with a Kleenex on his head stumbling behind. You can hear a pin drop.
The epilogue, set at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, with its stone angel, has the ill but surviving Prior, Louis, the black queen, and Joe’s mother, all reconciled. “This disease,” Prior says to the audience in an envoi shedding the last veil of ambiguity and reminiscent of Clifford Odets at his agitprop best, “will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away . . . MORE LIFE . . . The Great Work Begins.”
Triggering a long stormy ovation and many curtain calls and leaving the dense and the unconverted to figure out what it all means.
Jewish homosexuals, famous and obscure, there have always been, including those who in the bad old days found ways to live unrepressed. The composer Ned Rorem, a non-Jew, tells in his memoirs of going home with one Morris Golde, “a brash, short, swarthy, muscular presence” from the Bronx, in prehistoric 1943. Later Rorem, who estimates having gone to bed with 3,000 men and several women, refers to “unsentimentally” obliging the anarchist poet-philosopher Paul Goodman, who “smelled of his baggy sweater and pipe smoke.”
But this is old stuff. The art, fashion, music, publishing, and theater scenes were known by those who knew anything to be disproportionately Jewish and importantly gay many decades before Tony Kushner. Often enough, as in the Aaron Copland-Leonard Bernstein-Marc Blitz-stein set, to which Rorem as a non-Jew won only partial entree, the attributes of Jewishness and gayness overlapped, and were spiced by political fellow-traveling. The phenomenon is not new. The extent perhaps is.
Has the number of Jewish homosexuals taken a quantum leap, or is the increase simply apparent, the result of the closet having been vacated? Any bitterly unmarried, straight, non-Orthodox Jewish woman in the New York area yearning to marry in the faith and have children probably believes she can answer that one. It is not just that the closet is not what it used to be, she will tell you. No, the gay life has become positively fashionable among her generation of male Jews, and the absolute number of Jewish homosexuals has gone through the roof.
Here we enter uncharted territory. All the experts say that no matter what the group, and regardless of time and place, of repression or liberation, the ratio of men preferring men to those preferring women stays constant, and statistically minuscule. But what, our childless Jewish woman lawyer with a brother in the Village might ask, do they know? If the experts are right, how can it be that on any given Friday night, there may well be more worshippers at Beth Simchat Torah, the gay and lesbian shul downtown, than at any other synagogue or temple in the Diaspora? Go to the West Village after services on Friday night and see all these Jewish men having dinner with each other in candlelit Italian restaurants!
Don’t get her wrong, she will add: a basher of homosexuals is the last thing she is. She retains a Jewish heart, she can’t help admiring their stylish courage—her brother, thank God, remains HIV-negative. Moreover, her work takes her to other cities, where she has discovered smaller islands of the gay archipelago boasting a high percentage of Jews and has been told how these are raising property values in neighborhoods formerly given over to blight. Nevertheless, she’s unhappy. She has the money, but not the time, for Angels.
Behind her and her frustration, and her brother, loom their parents, and one does not want to get her going on them. But there are many like her, you cannot avoid them unless you have nothing to do with Jewish women, and unless you pin everything on genetics; this raises a double question: has the American Jewish family of the last generation, a family more and more often with the father vanished, become a nursery for homosexual sons? And why have the many playwrights among them, with the exception of the intrepid Larry Kramer, shunned the family topic as if it were the real plague?
Kramer’s The Destiny of Me (1992) is a sequel to The Normal Heart. In that first play, his nudnik of an alter ego, Ned Weeks, says, “We have simply fucked ourselves silly for years and years, and sometimes we’ve done it in the filthiest places.” Now his Gentile lover has died, Ned himself is sick, and it is time to remember in a series of flashbacks what the playwright calls his own “journey to acceptance” of gayness. This means unearthing himself as a boy, unearthing his parents, and later the shrinks with names like Schwartz and Grossman who tried to “cure” him.
The Destiny of Me, like The Normal Heart, reveals that Kramer is no dramatist—his primary subject is himself, and he cannot get much distance from it. But at least he rummages openly in the past, agonizing over what he finds—something the ideology frowns on. It turns out Ned Weeks’s father was hated by his artistic son, while the smothering mother was adored.
Ideological homosexuals were bound to give The Destiny of Me tepid reviews, despite Kramer’s political standing as founder of ACT-UP. This dwelling on childhood and parents, like his earlier sermonizing against promiscuity, is extremely incorrect. It raises doubts whether he has truly told Drs. Schwartz and Grossman to go to hell. Much better for gay playwrights to leave childhood and puberty, mom and especially dad strictly out of their work.
This has so far been done by Tony Kushner, although he has confessed in one of numberless interviews that his own coming-out initiated “a family battle,” and that his father took much longer to adjust than his mother, doing so only when Angels struck gold. In the play, Louis Ironson of course has parents and siblings—they are present in front of Rabbi Chemelwitz at the funeral of the grandmother. Explaining to Prior why he never visited this old lady at her nursing home, Louis says: “She looked too much like my mother.”
And that is all, in seven hours, concerning his family. “Vast, sprawling, inclusive, wordy,” Michael Feingold gushed in his review of Angels in the Village Voice. But while Ma Pitt comes on at length, and her deceased professional soldier husband, Joe’s father, is thoroughly dissected, the Ironsons are kept out of sight and mind. Besides sparing Kushner’s own family, this makes dramatic and ideological sense. The dramatic interest in Angels is Cohn, and the ideological message is that AIDS is more than a disease and that a homosexual perspective best comprehends reality and history. Bringing in Louis’s family would have jeopardized everything.
In fact, in the beginning, Angels was to be a play about Cohn. The attractions for an ideological gay like Kushner are self-evident. What less obviously yet also compellingly makes Cohn’s last days almost too good to be true is that he was such an anti-Communist.
Born three years after the Rosenbergs were electrocuted, Kushner is something of a red-diaper baby. Anyone with a nose in these matters can sniff it from Angels, but the playwright has come entirely clean in a credo published recently in—where else?—the Nation. It reads like nothing so much as one of Louis’s expostulations. If American “capitalism” were to accommodate homosexuals by giving them equal rights, as it has every capability of doing, and if that were that, this in Kushner’s eyes would be a tragedy. What profit from the struggle if gays end up with the same rights as heteros while the “free market” goes on savaging the world?
Poverty, war, alienation, environmental destruction, colonialism, unequal development, boom/bust cycles, private property, individualism, commodity fetishism, the fetishization of the body, the fetishization of violence, guns, drugs, child abuse, underfunded and bad education (itself a form of child abuse)—these things are key to the successful functioning of the free market.
Homosexuals like Andrew Sullivan of the New Republic who are satisfied with tolerance are put down by Kushner as “assimilationists.” This is quite a dirty word in some Jewish lexicons—but Kushner’s teacher is neither Herzl nor any rebbe. It is Oscar Wilde, the preceptor of socialism with a gay face, “a socialism of the skin.”
The notion that decadence is in the eye of the beholder, no more than an epithet for anything new in a culture which is feared by reactionaries, is always beguiling. “Decadence,” said the critic Richard Gilman back in the 70’s, in much the same words the ordinary professor of communications would use today, “is not a fact but a value judgment”—a judgment passed on the most forward-looking, actually the best, healthiest, most useful artists of the day. As for sex, conservatives always get hung up on this, naively or cynically identifying the sex in “decadent” art with paganism, and paganism with social breakdown.
To this, the straight butch lesbian Camille Paglia has entered a ringing plea of guilty: “Judeo-Christianity never did defeat paganism, which still flourishes in art, eroticism, astrology, and pop culture.” According to Paglia, the eternal hallmark of decadence is the celebration of sexual perversion; and such decadence, long may it wave, continues to be with us because Christianity failed to destroy paganism, including “all theater, which is pagan showiness.”
Paglia exaggerates. Not merely the celebration of perversion but blanket approval of the instincts and the love of death are what you have in truly pagan theater, and what you do not have in Shakespeare, Jonson, Chekhov, Schnitzler, Beckett, etc. Nevertheless, when Paglia vouches for a culture war going back 2,000 or 4,000 years and continuing into the future, attention should be paid. And we might remember, too, that Gore Vidal, saluted by Kushner as his mentor, has identified the great enemy today as homophobic monotheism. If such as Paglia and Vidal not only acknowledge paganism, but affirm the life-enhancing qualities of a pagan consciousness which squares, conservatives, and Bible-thumpers call decadent, where does Kushner’s play fit in?
He implies the answer in his interviews—Angels is a play of gay ideology. Professors of that ideology agree that if straights are to be reeducated, their noses are going to have to be rubbed in it. They must be forced to look, not only at males kissing, but at the act itself, sex being the essence of this yet-to-be-fully-accepted way of life. “Sexual desire,” states John Clum, a member of the deconstructionist and neo-Marxian English department at Duke, “is not the only dimension of the homosexual experience, but it is the core.” To assert gay pride, and desensitize the heteros into acceptance, the lineaments of that desire gratifying itself have to be made visible. Among the beauties of Angels for Clum is that here, it happens.
But homosexual agitprop must not only render the gay way nonobjectionable. On this Clum is a more honest ideologue than Kushner. “In the past twenty years,” writes the former, “homosexuality in drama has moved from shame-filled hints to proud assertion. Heterosexism, which used to be upheld as the norm, is now driven offstage.” In other words, in order to accept gayness, the straight has to be led to the realization that his own way is a not-so-good one. Neither a good way of sex, nor a good way of imagining, of seeing and being in the world.
The ideology propagated directly by academics like Clum and indirectly by Kushner avows that imagination and sexuality grow one from the other, and that a distinctively homosexual imagination possesses the future. Gays, when free, see more clearly, powerfully, and inclusively than straights. No crossover play will do the job unless it sends the audience home with this new understanding. Angels is especially fine, says Clum, because it “challenges the heterosexuals . . . to see with gay eyes.”
What Clum somehow misses is that Kushner goes farther. He does to AIDS what Arthur Schnitzler, M.D. would never have dreamed of doing to any illness, let alone syphilis—he metaphorizes it. AIDS is shown as ghastly, but Prior comes to believe that having it endows him with the faculty of prophecy, is evidence of some kind of grace for “all of us who are dying now.” And nothing believed in by this brave, together Wasp is to be dismissed by us.
It would be nice to know how many of those flocking to Angels, straights and for that matter homosexuals alike, buy the prophecy of a gay millennium. But one does not need an audience poll to feel that, ideological though Angels is, it is not, finally, pagan. A New Yorker profile reports that Kushner keeps a teddy bear among his possessions, and that seems right. Mimed homosexual acts notwithstanding, the fascination with Cohn notwithstanding, this play, like others of the genre, has a basically soft and cuddly, not a hard and Greco-Roman, feel about it.
However, Variety reports that the master director Robert Altman is bringing Angels to the screen. The Kushnerian view of America, sex, and the Jews is thus soon going to be available to the masses, and no doubt with its squishiness taken care of. At every multiplex where Schindler’s List played last year, Americans will be offered the adventures of Roy, Louis, Joe, Prior, Ethel & Co., probably excluding the sodomy but including subtitled Yiddish, burning Hebrew letters, the f-word every 30 seconds, lesions, and kaddish, the whole megillah artistically riveting. Will the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have the intestinal fortitude to bestow on the Altman version the Oscars guaranteeing it long, profitable, influential runs? Hard to say.
Uncertain, too, given this country’s irritable mood, is the popular reception awaiting the movie when it opens. It is not inconceivable that at some malls the clean-cut will be out picketing what they apprehend is the brilliant glorification of pagan decadence. Should this happen, the ACLU will cite the First Amendment, while Jewish defense organizations, known among other things for their dutiful advocacy of gay rights, abortion-on-demand, and sex education, and for their reasoned opposition to prayer in school, will see no need but to keep mum.
For here is a salient difference between Europe in 1895 and our uniquely forgiving country 100 years later: Godfearing Christians, even the Puritans and the worse-than-uptight among them, those for whom AIDS is retribution from heaven, do not, whatever they mutter among themselves, publicly blame “the jews” for anything. The ancient hateful conflation of homos, atheists, feminists, abortionists, Communists, and Jews is limited to the remoter gulches of Idaho that harbor the likes of the Aryan Nation. Everywhere else it is, and one hopes it will remain, beyond the American pale.
1 Both Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, Part 2, closed in New York last month, but a national tour is being planned.