Illness in America
“You are hung up on words, on labels, that you believe they mean what they seem to mean,” says Tony Kushner’s fictionalized and detestable Roy Cohn (51). As Roy says, “labels” rely on intersectionality to assume identity for the characters in the play Angels in America. Intersectionality is a method of understanding the complex identities of human beings. Contributing factors of intersectionality can consist of everything from race, gender , etc. In Angels in America, however, illness becomes an intersectional identity. Three of the main characters—Harper, Prior and Roy—demonstrate the idea of intersectionality through their illnesses. Each character carries this labeled identity, but Kushner’s carefully worded text and use of rhetorical devices demonstrates that they reject these assigned identities.
One of the most unique characters, Harper, is burdened with complex layers. She is a neglected Mormon wife with emotional problems that resulted in a Valium addiction. It is through these facets of her character that intersectionality unfolds. She frequently wrestles with the intersection of Mormonism and addiction: “Mormons are not supposed to be addicted to anything. I’m a Mormon” (38). In this passage Kushner crafts a Mormon ethos to show that Harper does not believe addiction is even possible under the umbrella of Mormonism. Her tragic struggle becomes more evident as she claims that religion disqualifies the mental illness that plagues her. While she prays with Joe, she alludes to the intersectionality of her religion and illness: “God won’t talk to me. I have to make up people to talk to me” (46). The text demonstrates that Harper’s staunch and close-minded religion plummets her mental illness and addiction further into a dark chasm. The text is rather simple, but this is actually atypical of Harper. Kushner deliberately wrote with concision to show an increasingly apparent lack of faith—a lack of faith in people, and a loss of faith that has promulgated Harper into mental illness. When he writes, “make up people,” Kushner toys with Harper’s mental illness to demonstrate her loneliness and distance from God.
While Harper herself confides her labels as both a Mormon and mentally ill, other characters’ perceptions reveal further insight to her identity. For example, in the shared dream with Prior, he intuits to Harper, “You are amazingly unhappy” (39). The self-explanatory statement reveals that other characters construct her identity, too. Similarly, Harper’s mystical encounter with the Mormon Mother also illustrates Harper’s transparency. The Mormon Mother speaks of God’s unhelpful mangling of one’s innards and recommends, “It’s up to you to do the stitching” to which Harper responds, “And then get up. And walk around” (211). Kushner’s writing is not coincidental; it is strategically crafted. The somewhat gruesome metaphor of stitching after God mangles one’s guts tells Harper to endure the suffering of her religion and mental illness. But this conclusion is insufficient for Harper. Rather, she resolves to let go: “I’ve finally found the secret of all that Mormon energy. Devastation. That’s what makes people migrate…Heartbroken people do it, people who have lost love. Because I don’t think God loves His people any better than Joe loved me. The string was cut, and off they went” (253). Kushner’s parallelism of both God and Joe’s letdown explains Harper’s true devastation. Harper has lost love and been betrayed by Mormonism, and the intersection of the two has manifested into mental illness that can only be cured by rejecting their oppression. With this newfound revelation, Harper leaves Joe and boards a flight to San Francisco with optimism to life ahead: “Nothing’s lost forever. In this world, there is a painful kind of progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead” (275).
Prior, on the other hand, is man of privilege living off funds from an old and important family. Prior carries many intersecting qualities that affect his experience. He is gay; he is a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant); and his most important quality: he has AIDS. AIDS for Prior certainly defines his experience throughout the play. It leads him to depression, “Oh my queen; you know you’ve hit rock bottom when even drag is a drag” and—in addition to Louis’s cowardice of course—tears his relationship apart: “Apartment too small for three? Louis and Prior comfy but not Louis Prior and Prior’s disease?” (84). Prior recognizes that his suffering and heartbreak are a direct result from AIDS. Kushner’s carefully crafted language relies on play on words to show Prior’s sadness. Choosing to say “drag” references Prior’s past life as a drag queen and makes a bleak pun regarding the tragic suffering Prior faces with AIDS. The disease has essentially taken over his identity. The text asserts that AIDS inhibits Prior from past joys. Kushner also uses language to personify AIDS as he asserts that the illness will occupy space in their home. Kushner’s language asserts that Louis cannot welcome Prior’s illness into his life so they must separate. Kushner further presents this heartbreak as a metaphorical judicial sentence as Prior mimics a judge: “Bang bang bang. The court will come to order…We have reached a verdict, your honor. This man’s heart is deficient. He loves, but his love is worth nothing” (84-5). Kushner uses language of a judicial metaphor to encapsulate Prior’s heartbreak as something that is consequential to his AIDS. His text demonstrates that life is a “drag” because of the “verdict” of AIDS.
Furthermore, Kushner classifies Prior’s virus as more of a metaphor for time through the Angel: “In creating YOU, Our Father-Lover unleashed/Sleeping Creation’s Potential for Change./In YOU the Virus of TIME began!” (175). His illness elicits a call as a Prophet to stop the momentum of time. But he refuses to let AIDS identity his life’s purpose: “Even sick. I want to be alive” (265). Prior recognizes that the Angel uses his AIDS a means to define him, but he rejects her identification. Prior refuses to let AIDS define his integrity and life: “We live past hope. If I can find hope anywhere, that’s it, that’s the best I can do…Bless me anyway. I want more life” (265). Kushner uses this pathos to demonstrate that while Prior is labeled, he enlists agency over his life and refuses to let AIDS define his life or purpose. In Prior’s case, it is an arduous journey, but perhaps it is lovely. More life. More hope. Kushner gives the audience an optimistic final impression of Prior as a resolute and confident man: “But in the summer it’s [Bethesda Fountain] a sight to see. I want to be around to see it. I plan to be. I hope to be” (280).
In contrast to Prior and Harper, Roy refuses to acknowledge his illness altogether. When his doctor diagnoses him with AIDS, he refuses to accept it largely because of the negative connotations that accompany AIDS as a label: “Like all labels they tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology, or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout” (51). Kushner pens a metaphoric “food chain” to declare that identity is indubitably constructed through power, and that AIDS assumes a stigma of homosexuality. But Roy refuses to categorize himself as a homosexual:
Not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will pick up the phone when I call…This is what a label refers to. Now to someone who does not understand this, homosexual is what I am because I have sex with men. But really this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a puissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout. Does this sound like me, Henry? (51)
Roy rejects the social construction of what a homosexual lifestyle entails. The intersection of his homosexuality and thirst for power demonstrate a refusal to deign himself to society’s ugly labels on homosexuality. It is clear that Roy disregards social construction of labels by subverting the doctor’s hierarchy . Kushner most readily uses irony and politics of the time to draw out Roy’s hypocritical identity. While Roy clearly acknowledges that he sleeps with other men, he refuses to call himself a homosexual and even discriminates against them, calling them “nobody.” Kushner also draws on the political context of 1985 to demonstrate oppression of homosexuals. The fact that the homosexual community can’t pass a “puissant antidiscrimination” implies a social hierarchy of which homosexuals are at the bottom. The idea of irony and power dynamics continues in Roy’s false claims about identity: “Because what I am is defined entirely by who I am” (52). Kushner uses the thin line between who and what to make his final commentary. “What” Roy is, is a powerful man, therefore “who” he is, must be a heterosexual man. Kushner uses Roy’s illogical telos to show how dispensable identity can be. Despite his illness, Roy ignobly rejects his identity as a gay man with AIDS by diagnosing himself as a straight man with liver cancer.
Labels assume identity, but through Angels in America, Kushner shows us that intersectional identity can either be embraced or rejected. Kushner’s beautifully and poignantly crafted text allows an audience a vicarious experience through three highly variable characters, all of which reject their constructed identity. We laugh with them; cry with them; even loathe them, but the message is clear: embracing intersectional identity is something the characters in Angels in America deny. The play ends on an optimistic note: “The world spins forward.” Kushner reminds us that through our tragedies, life goes on and we are the arbiters of our own identity (280).
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