A note about Angels in America

Angels in America, a play in 2 lengthy parts, by Tony Kushner, is being revived in New York and Salt Lake this month.

If you’ll indulge me, I’ll reprint in this blog post a response I wrote to a question at TalkinBroadway.com, AllThatChat. It came from a Mormon, querying other Mormons about their response to the television presentation of Angels, from 2004. Here’s what I wrote:

I think your question deserves an elaborate response, though I am a little bit hesitant. I am also LDS, currently active in the Manhattan Stake, though I am gay, a conundrum if ever there was one. I am not entirely innocent of the gay lifestyle, but I am almost permanently unattached, which makes it easier to be received in the religious community without too much complication.

I know the woman who was a student of Tony Kushner’s, and gave him the Book of Mormon (with the Angel Moroni on the cover) and started him on the
journey to “Angels…” Her idea was clearly evangelical, but he was fascinated by the history, doctrine and rituals, and eventually borrowed liberally from these to create the play.

I think Tony is respectful of his Mormon characters in the sense of giving them intelligence, inner lives, and heavy doses of reality. They are not stereotypes of conservative transplanted Utahns, with Spanish Fork accents and Laura Ashley clothes. They are modern people with modern concerns. In other ways, though, Kushner betrayed his disdain for these “believers,” portraying Joe Pitt, for instance, as an impossibly ambitious conservative lawyer on the “evil” side of law briefs (against the common needs of the people). Kushner even has Louis say, “All religions less than 2000 years old are cults.” So, Judaism is excepted (and in this case, much more reverence is accorded Judaism’s religious rituals, notably the Kaddish delivered by Louis with Ethel Rosenberg’s help). But Mormons are all about Jesus (the  proper name is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), a detail that is completely absent in the play.

Many Mormon details are portrayed, some with accuracy and others with facile disdain. In the movie, Joe Pitt wears one-piece Temple garments with a zipper, something he probably wouldn’t ever have worn. Temple garments today look like Calvin Klein underwear, the boxer-brief kind. Harper wears more up-to-date two-piece garments, though she wouldn’t make love while wearing them. All the LDS characters use rhetoric including the word “God,” as in “as God is my witness,” and “My Lord…” etc., in the exclamatory sense and I find this false. Hannah says to Joe over the phone, “drinking is a sin,” which is very false, because Mormons don’t think of sin this way, and certainly don’t exclaim it as such (more of a born-again Christian trait). I also find the isolation of the couple in Brooklyn to be entirely false. Perhaps Joe Pitt has isolated himself in his closet fantasy, but Harper would be surrounded by other transplanted Mormon wives, and probably would submerge her needs in Church  community service. When she separates from Joe, Harper would return to her Church community in her hometown, or wherever she goes back to. I find the character of Harper exceedingly falsely written.

How Kushner achieves the falseness is with disclaimers, that Harper was always “different,” that Hannah was always “independent,” etc. This is the easy way to explain away the lack of a certain kind of research, how people speak to one another and behave in certain situations. Kushner understood Belize and Louis and Prior and created a hugely compelling, fantastical demigog in Roy Cohn, but he wasn’t really interested in finding the peculiar Mormon rhetoric that I’ve known all my life. Norman Mailer wrote it more accurately in “The Executioner’s Song.”

But then, I think Kushner’s ultimate point is that one must eliminate the shackles of faith in order to find sustained fulfillment. Hannah and Harper are redeemed by becoming “enlightened” in the sense of… turning away from their Victorian, restrictive faith. And poor Joe Pitt is left unredeemed, something for which I almost cannot forgive Kushner, though in the movie, there is an extra little scene between Hannah and Joe in which it is suggested that she will take care of him, and he will be OK (again, by finding his real self, the gay man, against the tenets of his own divine belief).

Kushner’s point is very modern, urban, popular, and vaguely clichéd. Be yourself. Ok, but what if your self is slovenly, drug-addled, and untrustworthy? Perhaps a better theme should be… be your “best” self, the self you’d really like to be. Have a few goals. Make yourself into something that’s unique and wonderful. Yes, progress forward (the “progress” message is very heavy-handed in the “heaven” scene of the play) but not just in the (sorry) “liberal, leftist, urban, 21st century” way that these works promote. Faith can be modern too. And anyone who creates beautiful things knows that the best creations come from restrictions, of scales or rhythm, or color palettes, or boundaries of stone, or rhyme scheme, or even, social behavior.

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One Response to A note about Angels in America

  1. Heidi Naylor says:

    Thank you for posting this. I tried to watch Angels in America a few years ago and became too upset to continue. Harper’s green jello, her dreary take on faith, the way the couple isolated themselves (always dangerous) . . . I found it all so goofy and false, not to mention unsympathetic, and you can see I didn’t get that far. When Kushner won so many awards for the play, I was again chagrined. I decided I could really never trust an “outsider’s” portrayal of religion or faith. He’d certainly not put his finger on mine . . .

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