City on Stage

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Today’s reading for vWNY is Benjamin Baker’s 1848 play A Glance at New York, best known for introducing NYC’s homegrown folk hero, Mose the Bowery B’hoy, to the American stage. The full text doesn’t seem to be available online, but you can find it anthologized here, with used copies going pretty cheap.

If you were reading along for George Foster’s New York by Gas-Light, you encountered the hero of Baker’s play in Foster’s chapter “Mose and Lize.” Writing just two years after the Bowery actor Frank Chanfrau first played Mose in Baker’s play, Foster, who wasn’t always fond of working-class culture, described Mose as, like Davy Crockett, the end-point of “free development to Anglo-Saxon nature.” He gives the b’hoys props for manning the city’s Fire Department:

Yonder we see [a b’hoy] standing fearlessly upon the very verge of a five-story roof, chopping deliberately away at some wooden spout it is desirable to sever, while the treacherous flames crawl like fiery serpents out at the window-casing, down the shingles, and at length grown bolder, come to lick his very feet. So absorbed is he in his perilous occupation that he has not heard the cries of warning which the crowd below have been sending up through the smoky din of the conflagration. In a moment more the roof is all on fire, the air has lost its last particle of vitality and can no more be breathed. Too late he discovers his peril; and, blinded by smoke, suffocated and choking with the hot air, he strikes out at random for the window whence he issued, now framed with glowing flame. For a moment his heart sinks, as he sees before him his horrible but inevitable fate. But in another he rallies — recalls the half-remembered fragments of a prayer his mother taught him, long, long ago — sends a look, a kiss and a blessing after “Lize,” who perhaps even then is dreaming of him in her tidy little garret bed-room — and disappears forever.


We’ve built up a stockpile of posts about Mose and Glance and Bowery b’hoys over the years. (See links below.) For more, visit The Bowery Culture Archive, part of CUNY’s Lost Museum online exhibit. Also check out this blog post from NYC I SEE, which speculates that Mose may have been a prototype for Superman. Not sure what we think of that theory, but it’s a fun read nonetheless. Is there room in New York for a Mose revival? The Axis Company staged revivals of Baker’s play in 2003 and 2007. (We missed them, sadly.) And Magic Tree House author Mary Pope Osborne retells his story for 21st-century children in New York’s Bravest.

Previously on PWHNY:
Paul Bunyan in Billyburg
No Dainty Kid Glove Affair
New York’s Vauxhall Gardens
“Big Mose Must of Dropped It”
City on Stage

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In the epilogue to Anna Cora Mowatt’s comedy Fashion (1845) — modeled, as Edgar Allan Poe pointed out in an early review, on Sheridan’s plays — one character expresses her hope that Fashion will become fashionable. The play’s republican hero, an overprotective grandfather, reiterates his distrust of fashion, and yet another character, the heroine, concludes by asking the audience both to show mercy on the performers and to give them “your honest verdict,” which will allow them to “learn to prize at its just value — Fashion.”

All the punning on Fashion/fashion seems to betray not only an anxiety about the status of fashion in the antebellum city but about the reception of Mowatt’s play. As it turns out, Mowatt had a hit, which eventually opened the door for her to take the stage as a professional actress. If her play seems awfully like Tyler’s The Contrast in its Sheridean debts, there does seem to me to be less equivocating about its accommodation of fashion. Mowatt’s republican mouthpiece is now a grandfather rather than a bachelor hero, and the heroine’s concluding speech doesn’t reject fashion so much as accommodate it. For Mowatt, the nouveaux riches pose the biggest danger, because they overvalue fashion and seek to use it as part of their scramble for upward mobility. If you value fashion (and Fashion) justly, by contrast, you must be part of that natural nobility Trueman was always blathering about.

There’s much more to be said here than I have time to write about today, but it’s worth noting how performances of age, race, and gender play into this discussion of fashion — and performances of authorship as well. That’s the angle Poe took up when he wrote about Mowatt in his essay series “The Literati of New York.” He begins:

Mrs. Mowatt is in some respects a remarkable woman, and has undoubtedly wrought a deeper impression upon the public than any one of her sex in America.
She became first known through her recitations.  To these she drew large and discriminating audiences in Boston, New York, and elsewhere to the north and east.  Her subjects were much in the usual way of these exhibitions, including comic as well as serious pieces, chiefly in verse.  In her selections she evinced no very refined taste, but was probably influenced by the elocutionary rather than by the literary value of her programmes.  She read well; her voice was melodious; her youth and general appearance excited interest, but, upon the whole, she produced no great effect, and the enterprise may be termed unsuccessful, although the press, as is its wont, spoke in the most sonorous tones of her success.
It was during these recitations that her name, prefixed to occasional tales, sketches and brief poems in the magazines, first attracted an attention that, but for the recitations, it might not have attracted.

The same goes for Fashion‘s success: “Her first decided success was with her comedy, ‘Fashion,'” he writes, “although much of this success itself is referable to the interest felt in her as a beautiful woman and an authoress.” He concludes with an extended gloss on her beauty. (Read the full sketch here.) Though he has some appreciative things to say about her writing, it seems clear that Poe dismisses her success as itself the whim of fashion. He may have been right, of course, given that her status at the apex of female American authorship was extremely short-lived, requiring her to be perpetually rescued by literary and theater historians.

If you have access to JSTOR, you might be interested in two relatively recent pieces on Mowatt: one on Poe as prototype for the play’s character T. Tennyson Twinkle, and the other on the creation of Mowatt’s public persona.

Of course, whenever I think about Mowatt’s play, this is what comes more immediately to mind:


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Following on yesterday’s Q&A with Alex Roe, who directed The Contrast for the Metropolitan Playhouse in 2009, today we’re happy to host a Q&A with Professor Cynthia Kierner of George Mason University, who edited the play with a substantial introductory essay for NYU Press in 2007. Professor Kierner directs GMU’s PhD program in History and Art History and is the author of Scandal At Bizarre: Rumor and Reputation in Jefferson’s America (Virginia, 2004).

PWHNY: When I teach The Contrast in an American Lit survey I discuss it as dealing with post-Revolutionary American culture broadly. In Writing New York it’s a more local affair, a picture of New York staged for New Yorkers by a visiting Bostonian. How do you teach the play?

CK: I first read the play in grad school, but never really thought about teaching it (or editing it) until it was one of the assigned texts for a discussion group (among high school teachers) that I was leading for a National Humanities Center Seminar in North Carolina. Although I thought that the play was really, really funny, I had never really thought that its humor would transfer to a discussion group of modern readers. It did. So, the main reason I decided to edit the play was to create an accessible edition for use in college-level courses. What fun to talk about dating and sex and shopping in a college history class! (The only online edition at that point was a real mess and not especially usable.)

I have used the book as a required text in undergraduate and graduate classes on the Revolutionary era and in an undergraduate course in American women’s/gender history. In both contexts, I tend to play up the gender angles. Among other things, this play is very much about the distinctive roles of women and men — at home, in the marketplace, and in society — and how, if at all, those roles differed in a republic. I also emphasize the extent to which, even after the Revolution, the U.S. was part of an Atlantic culture. The question of how distinctive Americans were within that Atlantic world is arguably the central one in Tyler’s play. And the notion of “American exceptionalism” continues to be hotly debated, even in today’s political discourse.

PWHNY: Cold War readings of the play often took for granted that Manly and Maria and Jonathan were unquestionably virtuous and the play’s heroes. Over time I’ve come to think that Tyler satirizes them as forcefully as anyone else. Does the play have characters we’re meant to embrace and emulate?

I agree completely that Tyler satirizes both Manly and Maria. Despite his admirable qualities — patriotism, loyalty, respect for his parents and for women, etc. — Manly is long-winded and wears bad (and old) clothes. Arguably, his patriotism, however inspiring during the war, was not the kind that would make him an effective role model in the post-revolutionary era. (Note that George Washington, that quintessential role model, was known for his reticence and also for going back to civilian dress after the war was over). I think that Tyler is much gentler toward Maria, but she’s not perfect either.

I can’t think of any single character that Tyler would have wanted his readers to emulate completely. I think that most of his characters have admirable qualities, but they also have flaws. And maybe that’s the point: Americans don’t have to be perfect as individuals to have a republic, but they do have to be sufficiently moderate and open-minded to make their experiment work.

PWHNY: Charlotte’s opening anecdote about her stroll on the Battery seems to set the stage (so to speak) for a long tradition of conflating New York with the theater: the town, that is, seems to be one big performance situation. Do you think Tyler was trying to get at something he saw, as an outsider, as specific to New York, or are we being given insight into the nature of commercial society?

CK: Interesting point (about conflating NY with theater). I think that for anyone whose experiences had been primarily rural — a category that would have included the vast majority of Americans ca. 1787 — any city would have struck them as “one big performance situation.” The thing that might have made New York special in 1787 would have been its new status as the capital of the United States, which made it the stage on which the nation’s leaders (and prominent New Yorkers) enacted official and quasi-official rituals as they constructed the public culture of the republic. Philadelphia occupied this position both before and after New York’s brief stint as the center of government. (Note that NY was not the largest city in the U.S. at that time, nor was it the one with the most significant theater history.)

PWHNY: What do you think The Contrast has to teach us today?

CK: My students are really interested to learn that theater was so controversial — that people regarded the stage variously as a source of corruption and a source of education. Does that make theater the “new media” of late eighteenth-century America? On an even more basic level, by including characters from so many different ethnic backgrounds, Tyler’s portrait of New York teaches readers that the city — and, by extension, the United States — was born diverse, and that contemporaries saw diversity as an important aspect of their society. That’s a crucial insight and a useful counterpoint to those who would see the story revolutionary era as a top-down founders-focused sort of history.

PWHNY: Thanks for this conversation!

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Two seasons ago our friends at the Metropolitan Playhouse put on a fantastic staging of Royall Tyler’s The Contrast (1787). At the time I wrote a couple posts about it. Since we’re spending a week with the play here for #vWNY I thought this might be a good time to go back to the Metropolitan’s artistic director, Alex Roe, with a couple questions about his experience with that production. The Metropolitan Playhouse is located at 220 E. 4th St, between Avenues A and B. Alex describes their current play, Charles A. Taylor’s From Rags to Riches, (1903) as “a fascinating late melodrama that I see as a purposeful send-up of the genre, something like Airplane was to disaster movies, or the Scary Movie series is to horror.” In January the theater will center its annual Living Literature Festival on the nineteenth-century American author Horatio Alger. Submission deadline is September 30.

PWHNY: The Contrast: A) A Sheridan rip-off? B) An early American play? C) A New York play? D) A Boston play about New York? E) All or none of the above?

ALEX: Of these, I’d have to say an early American play — as it captures the spirit of a new country trying to define itself socially, politically, ethically, and philosophically. It parodies Massachusetts AND New York, but without siding with either. Really, it uses these as much as philosophical and cultural signifiers as actual places, and the two poles represented by them neatly stake out extremes of the infant nation’s concerns. As to its debt to Sheridan, to use its inspiration as a critique is trivial at best, to me, for it misestimates what the play is. If anything, Tyler makes a more interesting social satire than, say, The Rivals. One could draw numerous parallels to Tyler’s advantage, I think, and find that a hero like Manly is a combination of Falkland and Absolute — both a leading man and a buffoon; Dimple is malicious and vain, like O’Trigger and Acres; Maria an affected Julia; Charlotte an edgier Lydia. But in the end, what is interesting is these characters articulating American aspirations and foibles. In this, the play more closely resembles the Restoration comedies than the Georgian.

PWHNY: One of your key decisions in staging the play was to drop the period costumes and dress your actors in tanktops and jeans. Can you tell us what prompted this call and what you think its effects were?

ALEX: Well, not jeans, which would have worked against us, I think. We sought a look that would show the bodies of the actors as unadorned as possible, without revealing them as sexual objects (which would have been distracting) or tying them to a particular fashion tradition (so grey slacks and skirts instead of jeans, work pants, tights, or formal wear). Of course, the audience had to draw some fashion connection, and the look to me most evoked either a ballet or gymnastics squad — either of which was suitable, as it suggested an acting “team” presenting the show — or perhaps school children in uniform, which was also apt for a satire that reduces our behaviors to adolescent affectations.

But why? The Contrast is concerned with social affectation and signs of status. To present it in full period regalia would surely have been a treat for the audience, but might have obscured some of the satire. We sought to underscore how insubstantial is the obsession with the right hoop skirt, or for that matter, the right manner of courtship, the right conversation at a reception, the right reverence for the Father of the Country, etc. In our production, every character, whatever the identification, is as vain as Malvolio. That is not to say that there are no virtues, but rather that one must choose values when all are equally ephemeral. In our production, the emperor truly had no clothes, and characters were obliged to identify contrasts based on merit and integrity, not their outward show.

PWHNY: The Metropolitan stages work, for the most part, from the century following Tyler’s play, from the 1780s into the nineteen-teens. What do you think are the key changes over that century in how American theater worked?

ALEX: What may be most remarkable is how durable themes and conventions prove to be, in fact! Consider three plays from our repertoire: The Contrast, of course, Anna Cora Mowatt’s Fashion (from 1845), and our production now running through this October 16, of Charles A. Taylor’s 1903 play From Rags to Riches. Each play presents characters rather plainly written to embrace opposing or sympathetic current attitudes towards the world and its inhabitants; confront them with one another through a plot in which money, status, and sexual appetite drive their interactions; challenge the Machiavellian pursuits with appeals to honor and generosity; and follow those interactions to their illogical conclusion. Each play functions by presenting these characters in a self-consciously theatrical medium, and allowing us to embrace them even while we preserve our distance. And ultimately, each offers a lightly satirical but loving vision of American culture.

The specifics of setting change, but rather strikingly, the same interactions take place: duplicitous wealthy characters with European affectations or connections prey on a naive but infatuated maidens and their deceived but willing guardians; stiffly pure righteous characters oppose on grounds of dignity and virtue; successful merchants are in danger of losing their wealth to the follies or machinations of a younger generation; the specter of legal obligations and actions, in the form of wills, contracts, and lawsuits, alternately threaten and abet the heroes’ progress; and everything works out well enough in the end for the naive and selfless … though the evildoers are not punished. The description of American life is much the same from play to play.

Are the mechanics of the plays very different? Each establishes characters in the time honored tradition of actors pretending to be other people, liberally violating that pretense with asides to the audience, but essentially offering a degree of exposition at the start, followed by a foreshadowing of characters and dilemmas to come, and then a portrayal of those dilemmas through climax to denouement. Then each resolves with a scene that brings all the characters onstage for a final reckoning.

An historian might note the more complicated technologies that enhance the staging, so The Contrast plays largely in intimate scenes of a few characters, while Fashion presents a fancy dress ball to dazzle its audience, and From Rags to Riches brings firearms, breakaway furniture, dogs, and a demolishable wall onto the stage. In this case, the entertainment becomes increasingly more sensationalistic, as the public appetite changes over the century, but the central conceits for communicating with that audience are much the same.

One might note the introduction of musical diversion into stage performances, achieving its height in the melodramas of the mid- to late-19th century, but here too is a matter of degree, not kind, for indeed, The Contrast calls directly for two songs sung by its actors.

It is true that for these examples, I choose three satires. But to some degree, representational theater is always satire in that presents an imitation of life for an audience’s examination and reflection. In this light, a play like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, full of comic scenes, but hardly meant as a comedy, follows nonetheless the same rules of presentation.

What does change is the play’s acknowledged relationship to itself, as it were. In the beginning of the 20th century, plays flirt with new levels of self-consciousness. One result is a play that parodies its own form. The latest of the plays above, From Rags to Riches, includes sensational action and audience asides in the melodramatic tradition. But this play goes so over the top in broadly stereotyped characters, absurdly contrived plot coincidences, and frequent allusions in the lines to its own contrivances, that I cannot believe the author was not sending up the genre as he celebrated its popular appeal. By the end of the first half, an entire melodrama has played out, taking poor characters from rags to promised riches, just as the title suggests. In the later half, when the naive heroine falls in love with her tormentor, legal actions prevent any of the heroes from receiving their riches, and the plucky boy hero begins to squander the money he finally receives, one sees the melodrama asking what would really happen if these whimsical tales played out in the ‘real’ world. Here, the self-conscious play asks us to doubt its reality entirely.
The opposite request seems another result of a growing self-consciousness in the theater.

In the later part of the 1800s and particularly in the early 1910s, plays begin to want to abandon their theatricality entirely. After the rise of the sensation scene that flourished in melodramas, plays began to achieve more personal, less incendiary climaxes. Additionally, they do away with prologues and epilogues, and audience asides and soliloquies drop from the text. This change asks for the audience to have a more private interaction with the play, though it is still experienced as a public event. From our repertoire, William Vaughan Moody’s The Faith Healer and The Great Divide, James A. Herne’s Margaret Fleming, and Clyde Fitch’s The Truth and The City, all work on this more intimate level, however much theatrical pathos they may still seek to exploit. Perhaps they seek to reach an audience’s deeper, more complicated emotional life by asking that audience to forget they are in the theater. It certainly seems to be the assumption of an audience today that the older, more theatrical styles are shallower and more naive … though I am not convinced that that verdict is just.

PWHNY: Is The Contrast a play for our times?

ALEX: So long as we are encouraged to judge our leaders, families, friends, and neighbors by their outward displays of wealth, patriotism, power, and savvy; so long as we are dedicated to seeking admiration, influence, and love through our command of fashion — that is, for the foreseeable future of humankind — The Contrast is undoubtedly a play for our times.

PWHNY: Thanks for this exchange!

From Rags to Riches plays at the Metropolitan Playhouse through October 16.

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Cyrus’s discussion of Irving’s History over the last week or so lays the foundation for one of the big trajectories we trace in Writing New York: the idea of constructed histories — the literariness of the city’s history — and the very real effects those histories have had on the city’s development over time. (Elizabeth Bradley’s Knickerbocker is also instructive in this regard.)

The material I’m taking up over the next few weeks for #vWNY gets at another of our big issues: the way so much writing, especially over the course of the nineteenth century, channels anxieties about the theatricality of everyday urban life. The plays that we teach in this unit share preoccupations with fashion, manners, and the distance between public and private selves. They also fixate on the fluidity of social class. These issues aren’t unique to New York writing, of course, but they do seem to have played into the city’s reputation and self-conception for a very long time.

In lecture I use this bit from Luc Sante’s Low Life as a starting point:

Manhattan was a theater from the first. When, early on, it was a walled city, and further surrounded by a forest of masts, it enclosed in its ring a small universe. This enclosure is the model of cities as it is of theaters, as can be seen when one compares old representations of fortress cities and of Greek amphitheaters and later theaters like the Globe. In Manhattan, social stratification followed a course in which the waterfront and the area environs near it became undesirable, became like the galleries [in theaters], which the dead center, Fifth Avenue, would be the orchestra stalls. What, then, would be the stage? There are two answers. One of them in contained in the image of the city as a theater, consisting of rings, loge, and parquet, in which . . . the audience is the object of its own contemplation. Manhattan has eternally been fascinated by itself. . . . The other answer has to do
with the street that runs diagonally up the island — Broadway — putting itself on display and carrying in its train its dark twin, the Bowery.

Sante’s attention to lower Broadway (and, later, the Bowery) as a space of social performance anticipates the opening scene of Tyler’s play, in which Charlotte recounts for a friend her adventures walking on the Battery for an audience of soldiers and beaux. In our post-Erving Goffman world, the idea that we perform our way through everyday life is practically taken for granted. In Tyler’s day it was one of the reason some social conservatives distrusted theater: because it lent to the theatricalization of ordinary social exchanges. If everyone’s performing, whom can you trust?

The easy answer, on many reading’s of Tyler’s play, is that you need to trust Colonel Manly — a sentimental patriot, dressed in homespun, throwing off the trappings of England and celebrating his country’s native virtues (including Maria, the sentimental heroine). But I’m pretty sure Tyler isn’t letting these characters off the hook so easy. When we talk about the contrasts in The Contrast it usually involves making a list that goes something like this:

country / city
simple virtue / luxury
homespun / import
sentiment / politeness
revolutionary gravity / frivolity
democracy / aristocracy
veteran / beau
age / youth
marriage / seduction
patriarchal authority / filial insubordination
New England / New York
America / Europe
Country (USA) / City (NYC)

But, as I try to make the case in lecture (and in my chapter of the Cambridge Companion), I think one additional contrast undoes some of these others — the contrast between inexperienced theater-goers (especially Jonathan, the Yankee rube, who thinks he’s peeping in on the neighbors when he’s watching a play) and more sophisticated consumers of plays, including, we presume, this play’s target audience. By aligning himself with the theater, Tyler walks a thin line, and in some contemporaries’ minds probably fell over that line and landed flat on his face. It’s hard to take the play’s moralizing at face value when it’s thrown in its lot with a form so inimical to republican virtue. (Others, including George Washington, didn’t share these conservative qualms.)

Tyler’s play seems (inadvertently?) to expose Manly and Maria’s sentimentalism as so much show. Does it expect us to find a way to step outside our everyday performances? Or are we simply supposed to be more honest in recognizing the ways we act, in naming the performances from which the city won’t let us escape?

Previously on PWHNY:

The contrasts in The Contrast.
John Adams, Royall Tyler, and Woody Allen.
More thoughts on the Metropolitan Playhouse’s The Contrast.
Royall Tyler’s The Contrast at Metropolitan Playhouse.
The Battery’s Down: Lost and Found at South Ferry.

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As we wrap up our discussion of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America in today’s Writing New York lecture, we’ll be talking in part about what Kushner gets out of incorporating historical figures such as Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg into his play. Readers who want to get a handle on what Cohn meant in 1988, right about the time Kushner’s play begins to gestate, might check out Cohn’s Life magazine obit. In terms of New York City cultural history, the play situates Cohn most closely within the story of the Rosenberg executions; another place to turn is Cohn’s close association, in the 70s, with the owners of Studio 54 (pictured above). Certainly an individual full of contradictions.

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Two years ago, I wrote a post here, entitled “The Cosmopolitan and the Provincial,” about using the idea of fallibilism to think about Kushner’s two-part play, Angels in America (1992-95). Today, I’d like to share a few additional ideas about the play’s relation to the theory and practice of cosmopolitanism.

Increasingly, Kushner’s play has become important to my work on U.S. emergent literatures after 1940, literatures that express marginalized cultural identities and that construct themselves over against the dominant canonical tradition of U.S. literature. I’ve come to consider Angels in America to be one of the great pieces of late-twentieth-century U.S. emergent writing. I think of the play in the context of what the novelist and critic Edmund White and others have described as a “post-gay” perspective.

In a 2006 roundup of gay fiction for the Village Voice, White described Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours (2002) and Alan Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Line of Beauty (2004) as “post-gay” novels, because “the action of both of these books, to be sure, takes place outside the gay ghetto and includes many important straight characters.” White describes “post-gay fiction” as “a subgenre that David Leavitt may have invented in his first collection of stories, Family Dancing [1984].”

Cunningham’s novel, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award, takes its inspiration from Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway, as it tells three interwoven stories: the “Mrs. Woolf” sections of the novel tell the story of Woolf’s final days; the “Mrs. Brown” sections tell the story of a housewife living in Los Angeles in 1949, who will ultimately leave her family, which includes a son who will grow up to be Richard, a celebrated gay poet suffering from AIDS who is one of the two main characters in the “Mrs. Dalloway” sections of the novel. These sections recapitulate elements from Woolf’s novel as they focus on the preparations that Richard’s friend Clarissa is making for a party in his honor. In the “Mrs. Dalloway” sections, Clarissa has a daughter, but she lives with her partner, a book editor named Sally.

The Hours is a great middlebrow novel: it is literary but not nearly as challenging a reading experience as Woolf’s formally experimental novel. Cunningham uses the middlebrow in the way that Stowe uses sentimentality: as a way of luring readers to a set of insights that they might not be otherwise willing to confront. In the case of The Hours, these insights center on the ordinariness of gay experience, which is omnipresent in the novel but never the novel’s central subject.

Like The Hours, Kushner’s Angels in America is animated by a post-gay perspective, but I would describe it additionally as  “cosmopolitan” because of the way that the play dramatizes the interplay of sameness and differences in its exploration of what it means to be gay during the Reagan era at the height of the AIDS crisis. The play brings together an unlikely set of elements including Jewish humor and Mormon mythology to create a vision of cultural redemption in the face of intolerance and indifference to those in need.

Late in Perestroika, the second part of the play, Prior Walter, who is dying of AIDS, is examined by his nurse in a scene that captures some of the play’s central dynamics:

Night. Prior, Emily (Prior’s nurse-practitioner) and Hannah in an examination room in St. Vincent’s emergency room. Emily is listening to his breathing, while Hannah sits in a nearby chair.

EMILY: You’ve lost eight pounds. Eight pounds! I know people who would kill to be in the shape you were in, you were recovering, and you threw it away.
PRIOR: This isn’t about WEIGHT, it’s about LUNGS, UM … PNEUMONIA.
EMILY: We don’t know yet.
HANNAH: You’d breathe better if you didn’t holler like that.
PRIOR (Looks at Hannah, then): This is my ex-lover’s lover’s Mormon mother.
(Little pause.)
EMILY: Even in New York in the eighties, that is strange.

The scene is an example of the play’s humor, but it also reinforces an important idea that runs throughout the play: the idea of cosmopolitanism.

New York emerges in Kushner’s play as a cosmopolitan space of transformation, a place that’s all about learning to embrace difference and change in contrast to Heaven, depicted in Perestroika, as a place of stasis. Most of the play’s characters resist being typecast by U.S. culture—even the play’s villain, a fictionalized version of the historical Roy Cohn. Told by his doctor that he has AIDS, Roy counters that he has liver cancer: “AIDS is what homosexuals have. I have liver cancer.” Roy refuses to accept the label of “homosexual,” refusing to accept the logic that his sexual preferences are in any a determinant of his identity. He tells his doctor:

This is not sophistry. And this is not hypocrisy. This is reality. I have sex with men. But unlike nearly every other man of whom this is true, I bring the guy I’m screwing to the White House and President Reagan smiles at us and shakes his hand. Because what I am is defined entirely by who I am. Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man, Henry, who fucks around with guys.

In this moment, Roy sets himself against the logic of U.S. identity politics—and of the pluralist multiculturalism that grows out of it. And in this moment, the play’s sympathies are with its villain.

Angels in America is a play that recognizes, and is committed to, the transformative power of language. The play bears out Kwame Anthony Appiah’s suggestion that cultural change is

a gradual transformation from one mixture to a new mixture, a process that usually takes place at some distance from rules and rulers, in the conversations that occur across cultural boundaries. Such conversations are not so much about arguments and values as about the exchange of perspectives. I don’t say that we can’t change minds, but the reasons we offer in our conversation will seldom do much to persuade others who do not share our fundamental evaluative judgments already. When we make judgments, after all, it’s rarely because we have applied well-thought-out principles to a set of facts and deduced an answer. Our efforts to justify what we have done—or what we plan to do—are typically made up after the event, rationalizations of what we have decided intuitively to do. And a good deal of what we intuitively take to be right, we take to be right just because it is what we are used to. That does not mean, however, that we cannot become accustomed to doing things differently. (Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers)

Angels in America is all about how people can learn to do things differently by learning from one another, and the play ends with a conversation—or rather two. The first conversation the conversation among four friends who have come together against all odds: Prior, the AIDS survivor; Louis, his ex-lover; Hannah, his ex-lover’s lover’s Mormon mother; and Belize, a gay African American male nurse who serves as the moral compass of the play. The second conversation is between Prior and us, the audience, and it ends with a blessing: “More life.”

It’s important the Prior uses the word “citizens” in the moments before he utters that blessing: “We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.” What Prior is evoking is the idea of the world-citizen, a fundamental concept for cosmopolitan theory. It’s the idea that each of us has a fundamental obligation to humanity as a whole. The time has come, Prior is telling us, to step up and be cosmopolitan, to be citizens of the world, to take responsibility for the way in which the world spins forward. That is what the play’s final line—“The Great Work Begins.”—ultimately signifies. To my mind, that’s a powerful way of understanding the project of emergent U.S. literatures.

We’re closing in on the end of our Writing New York semester with some texts that explore utopian and dystopian elements of New York City at the end of the 20th century and start of the 21st. When we first taught this course in 2003, most students hadn’t seen Kushner’s Angels in America because they had been too young for its Broadway run. The HBO version hadn’t been made yet, either. But now we’ve seen both that adaptation and a Broadway revival and can reflect on two decades’ worth of the play’s impact on our culture:

When Angels premiered, critics hailed it as bringing salvation to the declining American theater — and to Broadway in particular. Our Cambridge Companion contributor Robin Bernstein quotes the critic John Clum on the play’s role in reframing American literature in relation to gay culture: the play marked “a turning point in the history of gay drama, the history of American drama, and of American literary culture … remov[ing] from the closet once and for all the enlivening relationship of gay culture and American theater and the centrality of the homosexual gaze in American literature.”

We’re now accustomed to see Kushner as a literary giant of the new millennium:

I haven’t seen that 2007 documentary. Have you? Any thoughts you’d like to share on Kushner’s place in American literature at the turn of the 21st century?

Here’s our post from last year offering a round-up of our Angels-related blog content over the years.

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Melissa Etheridge concluded her run as St. Jimmy in American Idiot tonight. Here’s an audience video of her final encore:

And I’m happy to report that I got my wish. The MP3 from her first night — and from every performance through February 5 — has been posted online:

Just fill in the date of the performance that you want to hear and you can stream (or download) the track.

St. Melissa

Just back from seeing the Broadway musical production of Green Day’s American Idiot for the third time in three weeks, this time with Melissa Etheridge in the role of the drug dealer and possible figment of the main character’s imagination, St. Jimmy.

To revive flagging ticket sales, the producers had asked Green Day front man and composer Billie Joe Armstrong to play the role of St. Jimmy for 50 performances during January and February. I was lucky enough to catch one of those last week, and Armstrong’s performance was marvelous: his antic disposition on stage captured the seductive nature of drugs, simultaneously irresistible and repellent. Armstrong’s St. Jimmy was a seemingly asexual party animal, at odds with the idea of love. The tension between St. Jimmy and the protagonist’s girlfriend (“Whatsername”) is palpable but not sexual.

Armstrong was unavailable this week, so the producers enticed Etheridge to take over the role. (When my January Term students met director Michael Mayer two weeks ago, he revealed that a woman would be playing the role, but was coy about who it would be.) With Etheridge as St. Jimmy, the dynamics change — and not just because some of the character’s songs seem to have been lowered a key or two in order to fit Etheridge’s vocal range more comfortably. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Etheridge said, “I definitely have to be in shape because it’s a lot of young folks running around on that stage. … Young, pretty and skinny, so I’m going to be a bit more voluptuous than the previous Jimmys.” Her St. Jimmy seems less like a Fight Club-esque alter-ego than a perverse manifestation of the protagonist’s mother, the one who “lent me the money” for the bus ticket to get away — “the bitch.” The tension between Etheridge’s St. Jimmy and the girlfriend has definite sexual overtones — and probably some Oedipal ones too — particular during her death scene, when Etheridge strips off her leather jacket to reveal a T-shirt with a heart split in two — echoing the T-shirt that the the protagonist wears in an earlier scene as well as the pattern that now appears on his naked chest.

Watching Etheridge in the role was a little bit like watching a woman play Hamlet — definitely interesting but definitely not definitive. Etheridge’s fans — who seemed to be in the audience in force — would no doubt disagree, and once she got over some jitters in the opening lines of her first song, Etheridge started to really tear into the role vocally. She’ll probably be terrific over the weekend. If the producers are smart, they’ll find a way to put out an EP with her songs. Sadly, there was no insert in the Playbill tonight inviting the audience to send a text and receive a link to download tonight’s version of the show’s encore, “Good Riddance (The Time of Your Life).” I hope that’ll change.

[Photo credit:]

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