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Angels in America Draws a Clear Line Between Donald Trump and Roy Cohn
When Tony Kushner’s Angels in America debuted on Broadway in 1993, likely no one anticipated that the sleaze bag protégé of Roy Cohn, Kushner’s unforgettable villain, would wind up in the Oval Office. Yet here we are, almost three decades later, as Cohn’s heir apparent governs the fractured nation by mob rule from behind the Resolute Desk. Seen through the lens of Angels in America, Donald Trump’s political ascendence seems almost inevitable—a consequence of the moral rot of American conservatism, evoked so vividly in this play, whose longtime sins have come home to roost.
As Kushner’s seminal masterpiece re-enters the spotlight on the eve of a historically consequential election, with a murderer’s row of Broadway luminaries live-streaming an abridged evening of selected scenes to benefit amFAR’s COVID-19 relief fund, its keen illumination of our political divisions—and our national identity—is more prescient than ever. Set in the latter years of the Reagan administration and subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” Angels in America is a juggernaut of American drama, arguably the definitive work about the age of AIDS. At the ferocious heart of the play is Prior Walter, a young gay man diagnosed with AIDS; around him spins an interconnected web of disparate souls, who struggle with questions of identity, morality, and love.
In the age of the coronavirus pandemic, the play’s portrait of living through a plague takes on added meaning. To revisit it now is to reconnect with the palpable terror and confusion of an obliterated generation, whose path to full equality remains shamefully incomplete. Leaving the funeral of a friend struck down by AIDS, Prior argues that gay men don’t “count,” saying, “We’re just a bad dream the real world is having, and the real world is waking up.” While AIDS and COVID-19 are different diseases, Prior’s words call to mind the shameful degree to which Black and brown communities have not “counted” during our current crisis, with racism and inequality restricting their access to healthcare. Kushner himself has been startled by the play’s newfound relevance, saying in an interview this week, “The world is being clobbered by a thing that reminded me of the ‘gay cancer’ I first read about when I was 25.”
As much as the play evokes our current public health crisis, it also evokes the rampant corruption of our political landscape. In an early scene, Joe Pitt, a deeply closeted Mormon lawyer mentored by Cohn, dines in a ritzy Manhattan restaurant with Cohn and Martin Heller, a publicity agent to the Reagan Justice Department and a sycophant to Cohn. Heller rhapsodizes about the new American future ushered in by Reagan’s election, saying, “The Supreme Court will be block-solid Republican appointees, and the federal bench—Republican judges like land mines, everywhere, everywhere they turn… We’ll get our way on just about everything: abortion, defense, Central America, family values.” If you read Heller’s words divorced from context, you’d be forgiven for attributing them to Mitch McConnell.
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As for the long and knotty relationship between Trump and Cohn, which remains an enduring subject of scrutiny, Kushner’s portrait of the universally reviled Cohn draws striking parallels to the man Cohn’s mentee would become. In Cohn, defending his crusade to put Ethel Rosenberg to death on the electric chair, we hear Trump’s indignant, self-centered exceptionalism: “Was it legal? Fuck legal! Am I a nice man? Fuck nice!” As the play unfolds, with Cohn’s AIDS diagnosis leading him to hospitalization, Cohn wheels and deals with just as much moral bankruptcy as Trump does, cashing in political clout to score a private stash of AZT, then an experimental drug undergoing clinical trials. How strangely circular to see Trump undergo an experimental treatment of his own following his COVID-19 diagnosis, proving that, just as in the late 1980s, the wealthy and powerful still enjoy access to a different standard of care than the average American.
At the midpoint of the narrative, an angel crashes through Prior’s bedroom ceiling to deliver a prophecy. She reveals that God, frustrated by human progress, has abandoned heaven, and that in order for Him to return, mankind must suspend its forward motion. In the angel’s commandment to “stop moving” and return to the old ways, we hear shades of conservative insistence that we turn back on the clock to return to a more godly state. So too does the angel’s command that humans stop “migrating” call to mind conservative rhetoric about immigration, and the ongoing struggle of living in a country that Kushner describes as “the melting pot where nothing melts.”
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In the epilogue of the play, Prior famously says, “The world only spins forward.” Today, it feels as if the world is spinning backwards, with conservative lawmakers fighting to turn back the clock on civil rights, rolling back environmental regulations, and assaulting constitutional norms. To read Angels in America on the eve of the 2020 election is to see the Reaganite vision of the future realized, with startling, frightening clarity.
Yet to read Angels in America in 2020 is also to feel profoundly hopeful. This is, after all, a play about hope—how we reach through unfathomable suffering to find it, and how we “live past hope,” as Prior says. Angels in America dreams of a better future: one where the hard-hearted can change, where forgiveness is possible, where a middle-aged Mormon housewife can feel a soul-deep connection with a young gay man. Our contemporary divisions are represented by this play, but so too is our eternal quest to meet our nation’s highest ideals of love, justice, and progress—even when we fall short.
Progress is agony, of course—and Kushner knows it, writing, “In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead.” 26 days from now, we have the opportunity to appeal to our better angels (pardon the pun) and cast a vote for progress, slow and imperfect and forever late, as it is. If you’re not registered to vote, there’s still time. So buckle up, America. The Great Work Begins.
To watch The Great Work Begins: Scenes from Angels in America, tune into Broadway.com’s YouTube channel at 8:30 PM ET.
Adrienne Westenfeld is a writer and editor at Esquire, where she covers books and culture.
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