Angels in America: An Interpretation

Together we organize the world for ourselves, or at least we organize our understanding of it; we reflect it, refract it, criticize it, grieve over its savagery and help each other to discern, amidst the gathering dark, paths of resistance, pockets of peace and places whence hope may be plausibly expected… the smallest indivisible human unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction. From such nets of souls societies, the social world, human life springs. And also plays.

– Tony Kushner

Angels in America teeters on the cusp of either devastation or greatness; it’s hard to say. At odds with each other are: the zeitgeist and an epidemic, to which the country turns a blind eye out of fear of no, not the plague, but the homosexuals – Joe is afraid to even say the word ‘gay’. The present and the future, as the millennium approaches. God and His Angels, whom He has abandoned. Heaven is, Kushner says later in his endnotes, in a state of “cosmic unwellness”; the Angel of America is sick, struck with a chronic cough. She herself is four selves (“I I I I,” she booms) – one is a fiction. Reality erodes entirely. This state of total disrepair is apocalyptic, desperate, hopeful. 

“What System of Thought have these Reformers to present to this mad swirling planetary disorganization, to the Inevident Welter of fact, event, phenomenon, calamity?,” asks Prelapsarianov, by way of introducing the second act. That is, how do we make sense of it all? And, perhaps by extension, Where is God? The stable ground, a reprieve to cleavage, our continuous light. Despite the existences of Heaven, of Angels, of Death: God never appears in this work. The rootlessness is almost paralyzing. What are we supposed to follow? What is true, and good, and what is not? In this dizzying question Kushner forces us to engage. In Prior’s ascent to prophethood, and his knowing of the Angel, we see laid bare his doubt, his terror, the core of his self. When he wrestles her, he wins by not strength but tenacity, clinging to her leg as she attempts to fly.

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Seek something new. How do we reconcile the new, and the old? At first it seems blasphemous. But Hannah’s not saying to throw away tradition. She’s saying: moving forward past tradition is not weakness. It is tenacity. It is the courage to open your eyes. Kushner is constantly pitting movement against stasis, change against preservation. We teeter on the cusp; are we more likely to fall if we cling to the edge, or if we forge ahead seeking firmer ground? What lies on the other side? Earlier, in Millennium Approaches, Harper says: “Nothing unknown is knowable.” Are we on the perpetual verge of…? The question will remain unfinished, even as we seek its answers. The Great Work is infinite because it is incomplete. 

Furthermore: that which is unknown is not knowable even through God. Heaven is portrayed as as wrecked as Earth (literally, imitating post-earthquake San Francisco). The disorder is not limited: cosmic unwellness. To find a linear narrative of answers, a linear narrative of omniscience, is impossible. Kushner provides us no set & stable ground except the tenuous existence of a waiting unknown. Scriptural precedent – and then a blank, open space, waiting to be filled. Stasis and change are two sides of the same coin; either way, what lies on the other side is inevitable, the cliff a fact.  In his introduction Kushner says: “This is the place from which it seems to me I’ve always written, perched on the knife’s edge of terror and hope.” Angels in America confronts this edge, relentlessly.

And we too walk this edge, our Great Voyage a la Rabbi Chemelwitz: in us this journey is. We make this crossing a hundred times a day; between terror and hope we navigate the old and the new against a gathering dark. The fact of devotion and the fact of moving forward are not at odds, but rather the conjunct continuation of the “Great Work”. As we make the journey, God lies in our persistence, our commitment to belief; our willingness to confront it. God is in the cusp, as we are in the making.

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