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.
I would hardly call Tony Kushner
Hi, Maureen. Thanks for your comment. You should, of course, feel free to come talk to me during office hours about the text or the lecture, but I’m also glad you opened this conversation here in case others had similar thoughts or would want to take issue with your reading (or mine, for that matter).
I’m sorry you felt the clip was anti-Reagan. I am certainly aware that the way I used it–the specific clips I chose and the context in which I played it in lecture–emphasizes the same critique of Reagan’s politics that the play does, and that was precisely the point of using it. The film is actually quite sympathetic to Reagan overall and, even in this section, which focuses on his detractors, relies on commentary by his closest associates. You’re right that the play doesn’t shy away from political critique and it has a pretty clear line when it comes to its take on Reagan’s America. It’s not the first thing we’ve read that wears its politics on its sleeve. In assigning it for this course, though, our aim isn’t to endorse Kushner’s agenda but to recognize the work–as many others have (it won a Tony and the Pulitzer Prize, for instance)–as a major piece of late-20c American literature. If you had stayed to the end of lecture you might have a more complete sense of how I contextualized the clip: thinking about politics and media, for one, or the uses of NYC in political discourse from both right and left. My intent was to analyze the clip–and to use the clip to frame Kushner’s critique of Reagan–not to endorse either. Of course you and others are welcome to argue with Kushner’s play. I think the play invites such argument.
I realize it’s tricky to negotiate political content, especially when it’s so close to our own age. It’s certainly hard to teach this material without my own political views being on the table. I think the important thing is to stay at the table for the discussion.
I hope you show up for class on Monday. Among other questions I raise about Kushner’s use of historical figures (his creation of what some critics refer to as “historiographic metafiction,” a category that would also include Doctorow’s Ragtime) I plan to address directly his use of the Mormon origin story and ask why he turns there to draw on elements for a new American mythology. You’re not the first person to question whether his group of characters at Bethesda is exclusive or whether his version of cosmopolitanism is narrow, but that’s part of the conversation we hope this text generates. I think he’s more generous than you’re giving him credit for, and I think his version of cosmopolitanism is pretty consistent with Appiah’s (the definition we’ve turned to throughout the semester), but we can take that up later.
Again, thanks for starting this conversation.
P.S. Here’s Cyrus’s reading of the play’s engagement with cosmopolitanism.