When I was 8 or 9, my sister and I were avidly working our way through the children's library, one book shelf at a time. We would bring home stacks of books and devour them. Eventually, when I had made my way to the science fiction area and started bringing home books with dragons on the covers, I think my dad thought we had better add some non-fiction to the mix before we ended up in a basement involved in some Live Action Role Play.
I remember walking over to the shelf of non-fiction books thinking, "oh great, I'm going to have to read some boring book about bus mechanics or something", when, what caught my eye was a series on conspiracy theories. Intriguing. The first one I picked up was about the Rosenbergs. Now this was the early 90's, a few years before the VERONA documents would have been released confirming the involvement of Julius. Let's just say it was a bit on the traumatic side. I remember, with unnerving precision, the black and white photos of the electric chairs. I think what I found most horrific though was the idea that maybe, just maybe, they could have been innocent.
Let’s just say I have a low tolerance for the Rosenbergs being put through any additional, even fictional, ringers.
Out of all the horrific, in your face obscenity, tricking Ethel into singing a lullaby for her nemesis, is like the powdered sugar topping on a cake made of excreta. But I think it is a good summation for everything I dislike about this play. It’s just too gratuitous. It’s bad enough that Roy gloatingly takes full responsibility for sending Ethel to the chair, he then has to continually thumb his nose at her wandering spirit. Ethel has shown up at Roy’s sick bed to hopefully be the one to personally deliver the news of his disbarment. Ultimately she wins, not only because she is able to pass on the losing tidings of his career, but because in a way she is able to forgive him and offer the kaddish at his bedside as he slowly dies, painfully and in agony.
I think the most effective parts of the play are the opening and closing scenes, because they tie the play to a place and time and provide a backdrop of contextualism to what is otherwise a gay love fantasy.
Scene 1 begins with the oldest living Bolshevik asking questions about the future:
Prelapsarianov: The Great Question before us is: Are we doomed? The Great Question before us is: Will the Past release us? The Great Question before us is: Can we Change? In Time? And we all desire that Change will come. (A little pause, then with sudden, violent passion:) And Theory? How are we to proceed without Theory? What system of Thought have these Reformers to present in this mad planetary disorganization, to the Inevident Welter of fact, event, phenomenon, calamity?…If the snake sheds his skin before a new skin is ready, naked he will be in the world, prey to the forces of chaos. Without his skin he will be dismantled, lose coherence and die. Have you my little serpents, a new skin?
Scene 2 begins where Millennium Approaches left off. Harper is still wandering around Antarctica, but the periphery begins to dissolve. She has gnawed through a pine tree, in part to assuage her grief, in part because she’s on pharmaceuticals, and as the snow melts around her, her mirage drips away. Joe’s form, ungraspable, is the thing that is slowly crushing her with the weight of it’s absence. Her heart is slowly breaking and she reflectively pauses to consider why she is even still alive. Shouldn’t you die when your heart breaks?
Later, while Harper and Joe’s mother, Hannah, take up residency at the Mormon visitor center, Harper will spend her time lethargically watching ‘the great history of mormonism’. In the diorama the Mormon Mother has no lines, but is a passive victim to her fate, while some characters embrace change, desire and progression. Harper is a mirror image of the Mormon Mother. She’s stuck in place, glued to the fantasy of a desire. She is the only truly one dimensional character. Without Joe she is nothing, merely a psychotic wandering the streets of Manhattan in the 1980’s. When for a nano second Joe returns, she quickly hops into bed with him, which is strange and almost out of character, if in fact she had a character to be out of. She is merely a pining away, one dimensional foil for Joe’s desirability. He’s the ‘Marlboro Man’ and both genders are duly attracted to him. When afterwards he once again leaves, unsatisfied, to “go for a walk.”, she’s at the breaking point…but since this is the only place she has ever existed, this doesn’t come across as much of a climax, but more of a “what just happened?”
To be fair “What just happened?” Is kind of how this whole play comes across. But back to the Bolshevik. It’s 1986. Gorbachev has begun his new economic policy of ‘Perestroika’; a restructuring to reform and preserve the socialist system. The years of fabricated starvation are behind them and the fear and the terror of the Cold War is coming to an end. Change is in the air, and with it comes hope.
Scene 4 brings us to the hospital room where we have last seen Prior. As the previous play came to a close the Angel had crashed through the ceiling calling out “Greeting Prophet; The Great Work begins; The Messenger has arrived.” We now see Prior reeling from the shock of what he has just witnessed, but while the “Angel” will prove to be inept and reactionary, Prior is competent and thoughtful. It is unclear how or why or for what purpose Prior is called to be a “prophet”…but he effectively serves as a counterpoint for the ineffectual redundancy of spiritualism.
It is a new world order. God has left in 1906 after the San Francisco earthquake. For 70 years there has been unmitigated chaos. The Angels run hither and thither trying to persuade people to stop moving, hoping that if everyone could just stop, could just remain sedentary, maybe God could be persuaded to come back.
Angel: Forsake the Open Road:
Neither Mix Nor Intermarry: Let Deep Roots Grow: If you do not MINGLE you will Cease to Progress: Seek Not to Fathom the World and its Delicate Particle Logic: You cannot Understand, You can only Destroy, You do not Advance, You only Trample. Poor blind Children, abandoned on the Earth, Groping terrified, misguided, over Fields of Slaughter, over bodies of the Slain: HOBBLE YOURSELVES! There is no Zion Save Where You Are!
While Prior contemplates the Angels injunctions, for a moment it almost makes sense. Maybe he is a prophet. Maybe all of those, dying crippling deaths, in this epidemic of AIDS have caught the ‘virus of prophesy.”
Prior: …Be still. Toil no more. Maybe the world has driven God from Heaven, incurred the angels’ wrath. I believe I’ve seen the end of things. And having seen, I’m going blind, as prophets do. It makes a certain sense to me.
Angel: FOR THIS AGE OF ANOMIE: A NEW LAW! Delivered this night, this silent night, from Heaven, Oh Prophet, to you.
Prior: I hate heaven. I’ve got no resistance left. Except to run.
Act 3 begins with another sort of illogical miscalculation. Louis has had a dream that Joe is in a cult, like the moonies or the mormons or something….meanwhile, we have been privy to their intimate or rather public sex life and it seems unlikely that Louis would not have noticed Joe’s special underwear. When Joe says…’actually I am a Mormon…’ Louis is shocked…(’oh…so that’s what that body suit is…’)
Louis: OY. A Mormon.
Joe: You never asked.
Louis: So what else haven’t you told me? Joe? So the fruity underwear you wear, that’s…
Joe: A temple garment.
Louis: Oh my God. What’s it for.
Joe: Protection. A second skin. I can stop wearing it if you…
Louis: How can you stop wearing it if it’s a skin? Your past, your beliefs, your…
Louis then begins his panicky reassessment, which is his safe place… Louis is all talk, and beneath the very thin facade is a cowardly man with his sexuality being the only dimension he truly embodies. He is a coward because he refuses to stay in any relationship long enough to encounter the truth and the pain that comes hand in hand with love. When Prior is diagnosed with AIDS, he sticks around until Prior is lying prostrate on the floor begging for help. When the ‘Marlboro Man’ becomes a reality; a living, breathing, bisexual Republican/Mormon, Louis runs back to Prior, and Prior, unlike Harper, has the agency to choose not to pick up where they left off.
As Harper wanders the city with the Mormon Mother from the diorama, she asks how people can change.
Mormon Mother: Well it has something to do with God so it’s not very nice. God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge filthy hand in, he grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they slip to evade his grasp but he squeezes hard, he insists, he pulls and pulls till all your innards are yanked out and the pain! We can’t even talk about that. And then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled and torn. It’s up to you to do the stitching.
Kushner’s world view has changed over the last few years. Now instead of God throwing people willy nilly out of the boat, he is actively tormenting them, and it is up to us, one Howard Beale after another to shake our fists and yell “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
Ultimately, Prior isn’t a prophet to humanity, but to the angels. He walks in on the angel equivalent of an office meeting. The angels are wringing their hands over the absence of God and the catastrophe of Chernobyl. Prior walks in, throws down his prophetic mantle and says he’s done with the whole thing. He’s not going to sit around waiting for a God that obviously doesn’t care. They should sue the ‘bastard’ and be done with him. How dare he.
Throughout this speech, there are 3 thunderclaps, perhaps a reference to the Viconian cycles of history? With the last thunderclap, a new era of history has dawned, the era of men. God is no longer needed, he has failed and it is now time for men to pick up the pieces and make sense of where he has left off.
In the last scene, Prior, Louis, Belize and Hannah all sit at the Bethesda fountain in Central Park. The Bethesda angel is immortalized in stone behind them. This angel would stir the waters in a pool near Jerusalem, and the first person to touch the water afterward would be healed. Now at the angel’s feet sit the the whole gauntlet of the human race, a WASP, a Jew, an agnostic, a Mormon, a gay son, and a grieving mother. Together, in their unlikely solidarity, they will usher in the new restructured social order, an order without the need for the divine.
I guess the question that remains, is whether or not this play is still relevant. At one point in the play while Belize, the transgender nurse is taking care of Roy, who is evil incarnate, Roy asks why Belize is helping him:
Belize: Consider it solidarity. One faggot to another.
But as homosexuality loses it’s outsider culture, it loses one of the things most integral to its unification. In a New York Times article, “Historic Day for Gays, but Twinge of Loss for an Outsider Culture” (Kantor, Jodi. June 26, 2015) Andrew Sullivan is quoted asking “What do gay men have in common when they don’t have oppression?”
The sense of community, the solidarity, shared by the protagonists of Kushner’s plays, largely comes from each character representing an outsider culture. But now, gay marriage is legalized and Gordon Hinckley did his best to white wash Mormonism into an almost palatable brand of Christianity. Instead of reading this play and observing a cast of characters, struggling against the odds to be heard and to have a voice…it feels like a lot of whining, interspersed with a lot of gay sex. Even the nihilism feels a bit worn, kind of like a less successful modernization of Kafka. Rather than take any responsibility or agency, each character has the perfect scape goat to blame for their current hell and like a Kafka character, they wander around, inside what has become little more than a joke hidden behind the buttresses of political theory.