Teaching Angels in America

One of my favorite texts to teach is Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which comes at the end of my 20th c. American Literature course. I use the text to introduce postmodernism as the last major literary style/genre we study, particularly the idea of “historiographic metafiction,” which is just a fancy way to say fictionalized accounts of historical events or people. (NB to Vox, Hamilton is not fanfic, it’s postmodern theatre.)

I am also on a continual mission to inspire my students to find ways of connecting our class texts to the contemporary world around them. While I’ve been doing this for some time in the classroom, I recently read a great piece about specific strategies for helping students make connections to a text, and it’s been very helpful. I think my students are sick of me saying “in case you think our class discussion is only relevant within these four walls…” And it turns out that we have reached Angels in America at just the right time. It has three major connections to contemporary politics and society that students can easily understand and discuss:Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and anti-LGBT legislation.

In the play, Roy Cohn is a major character who mentors Joe Pitt, a young lawyer in New York City, and who is a closeted gay man, much like Cohn himself. The character of Cohn hews closely to the real life man, and it traces the decline in his health and ultimate death from AIDS. Most younger students need some context for the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, when the play is set, and the 1990s, when the play was published/produced. Because HIV/AIDS has much less stigma in 2016 that it has ever before, and because treatments are available that can maintain a much higher quality of life for much longer than past medicines, the play’s concerns over AIDS panic and gay panic can seem foreign to students. Which, actually, is a good thing. But I do provide students with context so they know what a death sentence HIV was (and certainly can still be, particularly in developing nations), and the stigma attached to being gay, particularly when combined with a health panic like HIV.

At one point, Cohn informs his doctor:

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 shakes his hand. Because what  I am is defined entirely by who I am.

The only way this revelation has any impact is if you know that Reagan was notoriously homophobic and avoided mentioning anything to do with AIDS until nearly the end of his presidency. Much of the play, in fact, deals with the role memory plays in our lives and what we take from the past with us as we move forward, both as individuals and as a society. Hillary Clinton recently misspoke (presumably, as she later apologized) and said the following on CNN:

It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. And because of both President and Mrs. Reagan, in particular, Mrs. Reagan, we started national conversation when before no one would talk about it…

Clinton was roundly and correctly criticized for attributing something to an administration that literally did the opposite, but it was an instructive news story for my students. They could see how public memory can be clouded or reinforced, and they could see the role AIDS played in the 1980s as a political hot potato that cost so many lives.

To stay with the character of Roy Cohn for a moment, he is presented as the real life mover and shaker private lawyer he was in the 70s and 80s. Cohn had become larger than life in New York City society, where he became a mentor to another up and comer, Donald Trump, in the mid 70s. Politico published a story that traced the very close friendship and business relationship between Cohn and the leading Republican presidential nominee, which ended once Trump found out Cohn had AIDS. Cohn died in 1986, completely disgraced, disbarred, and alone.

When I brought this story up to my students after they had read Part I of the play, they were amazed, but not surprised, per se. They saw the connections between the kind of selfish, corporatized bluster that both Cohn and Trump represent, but were perhaps amazed that this character on the page was based in a reality that wasn’t too far from our current reality. This connection made the play seem much more immediate.

Finally, with the wave of anti-LGBT legislation sweeping our states, I have found the ending speech by the character of Prior Walter especially poignant. I say especially because I am usually somewhat misty-eyed when I show the film in class and actor Justin Kirk delivers the final lines, so this year it might be worse (we get to that part in my syllabus tomorrow). Here’s what he says:

This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated, and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins. (bold mine)

At the close of the play, Prior boldly predicts a better future for himself, his community, and the world. Kushner emphasizes progress and kindness in equal measure, even as the play calls for self respect and individual agency as tools of change. And yet, recent political maneuvering threatens the very progress that Prior demands when he says “we will be citizens.” The character is referring to gay persons, specifically gay persons with AIDS, but I think the play calls for all marginalized people to be seen and invested with full citizenship and rights. State legislation is rolling back the Great Work. By reading this play and making these connections, I am hoping my students will, if nothing else, leave my class with a greater sense of empathy for those around them. This will make them better readers, which achieves a major objective for my course, but it will also make them better citizens–all of them.

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