To close my second lecture on Kushner’s Angels in America, I typically show two film clips, one from Ric Burns’s New York: A Documentary Film, and one from the HBO production of Angels. I preface the clips with the idea that they will illustrate the process by which old meanings and materials get reassembled into something new — a note the play hits over and over — in this case, a new set of meanings assigned to the angel at Bethesda fountain in Central Park. (I wrote a long meditation on the fountain and its incorporation into Kushner’s play last year around this time; it includes — along with great clips from Godspell and video of the street performer Thoth — my discussion of a historical flaw the Burns film makes regarding the fountain, as well as my defense of the mistake: Just because it didn’t happen doesn’t mean it’s not true!)
The final scene of the play is also about the magic of the theater–the real effects of something artificially staged. “The magic of the theater” is a phrase Harper, the valium-popping Mormon housewife, uses earlier in the play when she encounters a magically speaking mannequin in the Mormon visitors’ center uptown. At the conclusion, Prior breaks through the fourth wall to address the audience directly, in a way doing something like what the pioneer woman from the diorama did for Harper.
Here’s the fountain scene:
And here’s how I read that moment, when Prior ends the play by blessing the audience: above all, it needs to be understood in the context of other blessings mentioned in the play – blessings that come from wrestling, struggling with the Almighty, as the Rabbi and Louis’s grandmother say Louis needs to do. This would include blessings raised intertextually: Jacob’s inheritance, as well as his blessing and new name received after struggling with the angel and ascending to heaven — one of Prior’s antecedents.
All of these blessings are intensely physical, and bodily issues are ever present in this play, as you might expect from a play dealing with AIDS. There is promise and peril in the exchange of fluids, particles — little pieces of Louis going up Joe’s nose. The experience of watching Angels, especially in the theater, is likewise extremely physical: by the time you get to the Bethesda blessing at the end, your body is aching from laughing and crying so hard–something that isn’t totally replicated in the experience of watching it on TV. At least I remember my sides splitting and a sense of physical and emotional exhaustion by the time we got to the end.
I think what Kushner’s getting at in having Prior perform a blessing as the play’s conclusion is again metatheatrical: rituals and blessings are among the oldest uses of theater, the oldest ways to organize new communities. Rituals like this one promise “more life,” which, as Kushner notes in a postscript, is a translation for the Hebrew word for “blessing.” I know some people who are offended by the blessing at the end of the play — that it’s foisted on the audience whether or not they want it, that it comes off as condescending to pronounce your viewers fabulous citizens, that in order to do so Kushner had to think pretty highly of his own prophetic calling. But that’s not how I see it — or feel it — at all. Count me among the converted: I’ll take that kind of blessing any day.