Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Histories, Futures, and Queer Lives

Vanessa Campagna/

We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there. . . . Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality for another world.[1]

José Esteban Muñoz

Two decades have passed since Tony Kushner’s opus, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1993), premiered on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre, yet the questions raised by the play are no less a part of the current zeitgeist than they were when the play debuted. Through its protagonist, Prior Walter, Angels in America poses audiences with provocative and poignant questions including: Does a queer engagement with the future exist? If so, what does queer futurity entail? What are the terms and conditions of the “citizenship”[2] Prior demands for himself and his fellow queers? These questions evoke two of the play’s major themes, history and futurity, and initiate conversations about queer lives.

In the twenty years since Angels in America debuted, these themes and conversations have become increasingly integrated into American public discourse. The Defense of Marriage Act[3] has been repealed, the United States Supreme Court defeated Proposition 8,[4] and marriage equality measures have passed in nineteen states. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell[5] legislation was dismantled by President Obama, and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act[6] has been presented to nearly every Congress since 1994. To borrow from John M. Clum, “the place lesbians and gay men are allowed to hold in contemporary American society,”[7] is a concern that prevails in post-Millennium America. We see this concern in Kushner’s play-world as well.

Prior’s forward-thinking and resilient spirit is very much still alive; in addition to political initiatives, New York’s Signature Theatre staged a critically-acclaimed revival of Angels in America in their 2010-2011 Season. Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company staged productions of parts one and two (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, respectively) in 2013. In view of the play’s longevity and its thematic relevance to the current historical moment, the time is ripe for scholarship that continues to critically examine the play. This study explores the interplay between history and future that seems inherent in the work, and attempts to reveal potential answers to the major questions the play poses. A large portion of this study investigates the ways that Kushner’s play functions metadramatically to work against past representations of gay lives and create openings for future, decidedly queer representations. By placing Angels in America in conversation with earlier plays from the gay and lesbian repertoire, I aim to cultivate deeper insight to the history that Kushner’s drama addresses, challenges, and ultimately subverts. In turn, the queer future imagined and demanded by Prior is contextualized and more fully illuminated.

The conceptual framework of this study is motivated by recent works from Theatre and Performance Studies scholars Dustin Bradley Goltz and Sara Warner. Goltz’s Queer Temporalities in Gay Male Representation: Tragedy, Normativity, and Futurity (2010), analyzes over one hundred films and twenty-five television programs[8] to argue that queer futurity does not yet exist because the heterosexist monolith holds a monopoly on the future. Integral to Goltz’s discussion of queer estrangement from the future is literary theorist Kenneth Burke’s concept of the tragic frame. To summarize, the tragic frame is a symbolic structure that uses victimage to purify or impose order upon embodied experiences. Drawing from Burke, Goltz contends that, both on and off the screen, homosexuals are cast as the sacrificial scapegoats whose narratives are routinely and systematically censored, if not altogether purged. The singular alternative to the tragic frame is assimilation through heteronormativity. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) characters avoid condemnation to the tragic frame, and subsequent victimage, if—and only if—they perform a “normalized” representation of homosexuality. As Nikki Sullivan notes, the assimilationist ambition is that homosexuals will be “accepted into, and [will] become one with, mainstream culture.”[9] Only through the adoption of heteronormative semiotics and participation in heteronormative institutions do LGBT characters escape punishment and receive the endowment of life, or futurity.

Assimilation, however, does not secure queer characters—nor, by proxy, their real-life counterparts—a future unto themselves, but merely a corner in which they can exist within the future of heteronormativity. At the crux of Goltz’s work, then, is the liberationist cry for gay narratives (and, more broadly, gay futures) existing “beyond the tragic cycle,”[10] and its stark binary of assimilation or punishment. Sara Warner offers a similar thesis in Acts of Gaiety: LGBT Performance and the Politics of Pleasure (2012), which critiques homoliberalism, the “conservative program for social assimilation… the economic, political, and social enfranchisement of certain normative-leaning, straight-acting homosexuals.”[11] Warner asserts that queer theories, the equality movement championed by organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, and myriad performance traditions share a preoccupation with tragic narratives that center upon a history of victimage. Too often, she notes, homoliberalism is identified as the idyllic rejoinder to a painful history. Like Goltz, Warner calls for decidedly queer narratives—for,

comical and cunning interventions that make a mockery of discrimination and the experience of social exclusion. These antics provide a creative outlet for the outrage, alienation, and sorrow that attend queer lives in the form of dramatic displays of revelry and rebellion.[12]

The work of scholars like Goltz and Warner is representative of the vibrant and complex conversations circulating in the Academy and society at large about queer histories and futures, and—as relating to Theatre and Performance Studies—representations of queer lives and futurity. Goltz’s and Warner’s theses echo and bolster the claims made by Kushner’s Prior two decades earlier, as the character grappled with the dichotomies of death/life and history/futurity, and envisioned (and demanded access to) queer citizenship. Like Goltz and Warner, Prior imagined alternatives to the tragic queer history.

Kushner said in an interview with Mother Jones’s Andrea Bernstein, “The fundamental question is: Are we made by history or do we make history—and the answer is yes.”[13] This philosophy of history is epitomized in Prior, who recognizes the impact history has had on him and other queers and, in turn, fights to re-appropriate space for reimagined lives and futures (or new histories). To that end, Angels in America can be read as an example of the kind of narrative called for by Goltz and Warner. Certainly, Prior Walter was not remarkable for surviving to the play’s final curtain; countless openly gay male characters had already done so. As early as 1958, Joe Cino (an openly gay, retired dancer) founded the Caffe Cino, a performance venue in Greenwich Village that gave rise to now-celebrated, gay playwrights like Doric Wilson and Lanford Wilson. At the Caffe Cino, dramatists not only allowed their openly gay characters to live, but created these characters as complex human beings, and showed them in a positive light (examples include, Doric Wilson’s And Now She Dances! [1961] and Lanford Wilson’s The Madness of Lady Bright [1964]). Although Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band (1968) aroused criticism for what some perceived as depicting internalized homophobia, it remains a highly regarded play in the gay repertoire. Among defenders of the play is John M. Clum, who praises the work for its daring: “For the first time, mainstream audiences [saw] gay men talk openly about their sexual predilections, dance together, kiss, and retire upstairs for sex.”[14] Moreover, Clum celebrates the play as one that, “more than any other single play, publicized homosexuals as a minority group,”[15] in need of liberation and empowerment. Kushner has noted that The Boys in the Band “was really [his] first intimation that there was a world beyond Lake Charles, [Louisiana],”[16] his hometown. Perhaps The Boys in the Band was the play that made Kushner realize that “more life” was possible for himself—if not a life under a different set of circumstances, perhaps on a different set of terms?

The 1970s and 1980s gave rise to various other gay characters who survive to the play’s end; exemplars include Ken Talley from Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July (1978), Georges and Albin from Harvey Fierstein’s La Cage Aux Folles (1983), Ned Weeks from Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart (1984), and Stephen from Terrence McNally’s The Lisbon Traviata (1989). The critical qualifier, however, is that relationships dominate these characters’ lives, for better or for worse, and they exist within plots that center on “traditional” values like family and monogamy. Despite the ways in which the plays queer “normative” themes and engage their complexities, the heteronormative paradigm is present and the characters are therefore saved from ultimate condemnation.

Angels in America departs from the trajectory of its progenitors in that Prior does not become a victim of the tragic frame, but neither does he submit to hegemonic ideals and practices. Prior not only lives, but he lives on his own terms. In this sense, the play not only reimagines queer lives in America, but functions metadramatically to redirect historical representations of queer characters in the American drama. When Angels in America is analyzed within the context of earlier plays from the gay and lesbian repertoire, we gain deeper insight to the history that Angels subverts; by reading the play intertexually, Prior’s rejection of history and visualization and demand for a queer future are more fully revealed. In what follows, I trace the origins of the gay anti-hero character in American drama and locate the ways Prior is inscribed within a similar narrative, thus establishing the tragic frame that operates around Kushner’s play. I provide a detailed character analysis in order to support my assertion that Prior is a revolutionary character for his resistance of that tragic frame, and for his subsequent demand for a future incumbent of a decidedly queer citizenship.

In analyzing Angels in America and the earlier plays that established and perpetuated the anti-hero, tragic narrative, I employ the terms “gay,” “lesbian,” “homosexual,” and “queer.” As these terms have been used both interchangeably and distinctively, it is prudent to explicate the way in which they are used in this study. I use “gay” to reference male homosexuals/ity; conversely, I use “lesbian” to reference female homosexuals/ity. “Homosexual” is used to discuss homoerotic/homocentric attraction, relationships, or identity without regard to gender, thus encompassing both male, female, and genderqueer experience. My use of “queer” draws upon Alexander Doty’s Making Things Perfectly Queer, which suggests that the term “attempts to account for the existence and expression of a wide range of positions within culture that are… non-, anti-, or contra-straight.”[17] Correspondingly, Nikki Sullivan’s A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory cites prominent queer theorist David Halperin to advance an understanding of queer identity, positionality, and/or ideology as “whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant.”[18] As I argue in this essay, Prior Walter’s ability to resist tragedy and victimage without reliance upon a “normalized” representation of his homosexuality makes the character radical and important (particularly, as Warner would argue, in these homoliberal times). Bearing this in mind, my use of the word “queer” carries the sense of difference articulated by Doty and Halperin.

Gay Lives and Gay Futures on American Stages

To see Burke’s tragic frame epitomized by the gay anti-hero stock character, one must only consider the history of written and performed queer lives. Nicholas de Jongh describes the gay anti-hero stock character in Not in Front of the Audience: Homosexuality on Stage as “the [character] with no future, sure to be punished by the play’s end, with sexual orthodoxy and the secure straight and narrow thoroughly approved.”[19] Plays that include queer characters have, throughout history, been constructed using what Donileen Loeske calls formula stories: “recognizable and predictable plots, characters, and morals.”[20] Gay anti-hero narratives, in which homosexual characters become sacrifices to, or reflections of, hegemony are abundant in twentieth-century dramatic literature. Prior Walter exists within the tragic frame, as did the gay characters who preceded him. However, through a study of the exemplar plays from the gay and lesbian genre—the preeminent formula stories and stock characters—it becomes clear that the central character of Kushner’s Gay Fantasia ultimately diverges from the anti-hero narrative.

When Angels in America is studied in conversation with the long lineage of tragic heroes from which Prior descends, it becomes clear that he has unprecedented agency. The fact that Prior asks for, begs for, fights for “more life” (266), is subversive. The fact that, unlike the characters who appeared on stages before him, Prior lives outside the harsh victimage/assimilation binary is daring. The fact that, with Prior, Kushner’s drama offers a revolutionary voice that rejects the scripts enacted throughout history, in favor of a script that engages with the future—and, more precisely, a future contingent upon citizenship (“the time has come, we will be citizens” [280])—is extraordinary.

Anti-Heroes in the America Drama

The gay anti-hero’s debut on the American stage may not have been a literal and/or physical debut. The title character and absent protagonist in Susan Glaspell’s 1919 play, Bernice, has died in the play’s previous action.[21] In 2001, J. Ellen Gainor analyzed Bernice as a character who may have been read by the Provincetown Players’ predominantly feminist and lesbian audiences as potentially queer; in which case, the character’s absence—her lack of life and any possible futurity—carries special meaning. In her article “‘Making Queer New Things’: Queer Identities in the Life and Dramaturgy of Susan Glaspell,” Cheryl Black identifies the dramaturgical elements in the play that would have afforded a queer reading; she notes that scholars have “thus far, underestimated the subversive potential of Susan Glaspell’s dramaturgy to critique not only sexism, but also heterosexism.”[22] It is for this reason that Black expounds upon Gainor’s initial queer reading of Bernice and offers additional, persuasive evidence pertaining to the relationship between the title character and her long-time friend, Margaret.

Black’s argument draws upon the play’s expository dialogue, which provides insight into the life led by the title character and, specifically, the relationships that colored her life. Most relevant to this study is that the marriage between Bernice and her husband, Craig, is presented as contrary to the proverbial marital bliss. For instance, Craig avows that he “never had Bernice.”[23] More indicative of the marriage’s queerness is that the husband and wife did not share a bedroom, and that Bernice did not want to do the things that “a wife should want to do.”[24] It is not difficult to determine the things that go unnamed in Glaspell’s play, and so it is no surprise that Craig engaged in extra-marital affairs nor that Bernice calls for Margaret while on her deathbed.

The queer readings offered by Black and Gainor illustrate that Bernice’s death can be viewed as typifying the tragic frame; the character’s death is her punishment. Similar to Goltz’s critique of the ways in which gay narratives are restricted to “the margins of dominant narratives,”[25] and de Lauretis’s notion of the space-off, Black notes that Glaspell’s protagonist is located in “the most marginalized position conceivable—offstage.”[26] In instances of an absent queer character, the tragic frame is reinforced because the character is not afforded an opportunity to re-write, or even challenge, her life-script. The anti-hero narrative prevails, futurity is withheld; full stop.

The absent queer character is a notable feature of pre-Stonewall gay and lesbian dramatic literature—most notably in the plays of Tennessee Williams. Allan Grey in A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) has committed suicide after being discovered in a homosexual affair; Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) is tormented over the death of Skipper, the man with whom he may have had a romantic relationship; and Catharine in Suddenly Last Summer (1958) is lobotomized because of her knowledge of her cousin Sebastian’s homosexual orientation and the specifics of his death. Arguably, Williams’s dramaturgy made the absent queer character a mainstay within American drama, yet it is entirely possible to view Bernice as the prototype (even if only surreptitiously) of this gay anti-hero model. So what of Prior, who is not an absent character?

Through an examination of gay characters whose narratives are played out upon the stage, we see the ways in which Prior is inscribed with—and, ultimately, fights against—an anti-hero script. Queer lives presented on stage frequently fall victim to the tragic frame in three major ways: murder, suicide, or disease. The essential point is that when a queer character does not assimilate, plot points ensure that death disavows futurity. Another early example is Mae West’s 1927 play, The Drag, in which the queer protagonist is victimized through murder. The play’s action centers upon Rolly Kingsbury, a married man who—with few exceptions—keeps secret his homosexual penchant, for fear of mortification and ostracism. The character is “out” to a select group of queer friends and engages in clandestine affairs with men, but is married to Clair in order to preserve his family ties (he is the son of a prominent judge), and his reputation as a successful architect. Early in Act One, David (one of the men with whom Rolly had a liaison) appears on the scene.

Although a secondary character, David’s presence in the drama is critical for two reasons: 1) David’s dialogue demonstrates the tragic frame: “I am one of those damned creatures who are called degenerates and moral lepers for a thing they cannot help—a thing that has made me suffer,”[27] and 2) David is the catalyst, whose actions ensure that Rolly is condemned to an anti-hero narrative. In the play’s third and final act, the queer protagonist abandons heteronormative conventions and hosts a drag ball while his wife attends the opera. Rolly forsakes, even if only for an evening, his assimilationist script and, quite literally, stops “wearing the privilege of straight culture.”[28] In doing so, Rolly secures his position within the tragic frame and becomes a quintessential gay anti-hero—he is murdered by David, due to unrequited love.

George O’Neil’s American Dream (1933) features a gay anti-hero who is destroyed as a result of suicide. The three-act play centers upon three generations of men in the Pingree family, of which the third generation is most relevant to this study. The play’s third act centers upon the twentieth-century Daniel Pingree, who has returned to his family’s home, where he and his wife Gail entertain several queer friends. Cheryl Black notes in her essay “‘Three Variations on a National Theme’: George O’Neil’s American Dream, 1933” that the dialogue suggests a homoerotic attraction between Daniel and one of the friends, Jake:

Gail: You’re both so sensitive and shy. It’s just lovely to watch. An ideal couple. If you ask me, it’s rather excessive, isn’t it—this attachment between you two?

Daniel: That makes me a homo-sexual hero-worshipper I guess. Yes, I’m a fairy then! I’m a pansy! In your stinking mind, I’m in love with Jake Schwartz.[29]

By the end of the emotionally-charged third act, Daniel retreats to the hallway and shoots himself. Black’s essay argues that O’Neil’s play is radical for queering the American Dream and for challenging a beloved American trope. While Black presents persuasive textual evidence to support her thesis, I offer an alternative reading. When American Dream is analyzed using Kenneth Burke’s tragic frame, its conventional dramatic structure (which confines the queer character within the tragic frame via suicide) reveals the play as less radical.

Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour (1934) followed the suicide model of the gay anti-hero the following year. The Pulitzer Prize-nominated play tells the story of two school teachers who are accused of being lesbians by a deceitful and vengeful student. One of the teachers, Martha, experiences a sexual awakening and admits that she does, in fact, possess homoerotic love for Karen. Realizing the impossibilities of a productive, happy future, Martha confesses to Karen, “In some way I’ve ruined your life. I have ruined my own.”[30] Convinced that a queer future does not exist, Martha resigns herself to the tragic frame and a gunshot sounds from off stage.

Throughout the mid-twentieth century, the anti-hero narratives originated in earlier decades were reified. Homosexual characters remained limited to tragic scripts with predetermined endings, the ultimatum always being death or assimilation. It was not until the riot at Stonewall Inn in 1969 that the American Gay Liberation Movement began and afforded a degree of freedom to homosexuals, and offered newfound artistic liberties to theatre practitioners. Doric Wilson’s The West Street Gang played at Spike Bar for six months in 1977 and offered a “Daringly theatrical and hilariously funny … polemical satire [concerning] the attempts of the Village gay community to defend itself.”[31] Wilson’s The Other Side of Silence was the first professional gay theatre company, and its five-year tenure demonstrates its relative success. However, it should not be overlooked that these progressive, affirmative depictions of queerness were presented alongside tragic scripts like Martin Sherman’s Bent, which was imported from London to New York’s Apollo Theatre in 1979. By the mid-1980s, anti-hero narratives once again monopolized stages as catastrophe ushered in yet another model of the gay anti-hero narrative: disease.

AIDS, first known as GRID (gay-related immune deficiency) quickly made scapegoats of thousands. In response, American stages became sites of activism, awareness, and emotional purgation. The narratives in AIDS plays integrated seamlessly into the long-established tragic frame. Consider Felix in Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart (1985); the character is given death, not life. Death is the penalty for not having conformed to the stark binary: heterosexuality vs. everything else. The binary that places heterosexuals outside and homosexuals inside of the tragic frame is exemplified in the dialogue of Ned, Felix’s lover:

We’re all going to go crazy, living this epidemic every minute, while the rest of the world goes on out there, all around us, as if nothing is happening, going on with their own lives and not knowing what it’s like, what we’re going through. We’re living through war, but where they’re living it’s peacetime, and we’re all in the same country.[32]

In Kramer’s play-world, divisiveness prevails. Heterosexuals are proffered access to life and the ability to ignore the crisis affecting the gay community, while the homosexual characters—representative of their counterparts beyond the theatre doors—have no such opportunity. Within the same country, some are citizens with access to life and liberty, and some are not.

Another example is Rich in William Hoffman’s As Is (1985). While it seems a triumph that the character does not die in the staged action, the dialogue continually references his placement in the tragic frame: “My lover leaves me; my family won’t let me near them; I lose my business; I can’t pay my rent.”[33] Essential to this study is that Hoffman’s dialogue references the inevitable outcome: “I’ve been wondering what happens after I die … Do you think things go on and on? I don’t know. Is this all the time I have? I hope not ….”[34] In spite of dissatisfaction with the thought of an impending death, Rich decides only to make the most of what time he has left. In other words, the character does not do as Prior does and demand futurity nor a different quality of life, one that entails enfranchisement or citizenship. The character does not boldly delineate his own terms and conditions, as does Prior in his explicit call for citizenship. In the 1980s, AIDS meant death, and so the nation was confronted with tragedy, and characters like Felix and Rich existed within the tragic frame.

It is crucial to note that it is not my intention to criticize plays that center upon AIDS narratives. Without question, the plays born out of the epidemic were invaluable, as they raised public consciousness and provided emotional healing. However, performances do not exist in a vacuum. From as early as 1919, anti-hero narratives had been the queer narratives, and anti-heroes restricted to the tragic frame had been the queer figure. Until Angels in America, that is. In Kushner’s masterpiece, narratives of death coexist with Prior’s epic journey toward futurity, and this makes the play remarkable and gives it additional magnitude. Kushner’s play is metatheatrical in that its critique of American history also functions as a critique of the theatre’s historicized relationship to queerness, one (as illustrated above) characterized by tragedy and lack of queer futurity.

Angels in America: The Writing of a New History

In part one, Millennium Approaches, it seems unlikely that Prior will escape the anti-hero narrative, for assimilation is inconceivable. Prior is openly gay with a partner, whom he teases for acting “closety” and “butch” (19) when around his family. In Prior’s world, there is no place for masquerading as a “He Man,” as did Rolly for the first two acts of The Drag. As a consequence of his liberationist ideals, Prior exists within the tragic frame, wherein he has endured pejorative treatment: “I can handle pressure, I am a gay man and I am used to pressure, to trouble” (117). The fact that Prior has been diagnosed with a terminal illness further secures his anti-hero narrative. Despite having two proverbial strikes against him, Prior is alive, emboldened, and strong (of will) at the play’s end.

Prior’s transition from inside to outside of the tragic frame is fascinating because, in Millennium Approaches, he resigns himself early in Act One to the idea that his death is quickly approaching: “K.S., baby. Lesion number one. Lookit. The wine-dark kiss of the angel death” (21). Angered about having been “fucked over” (30), Prior refers to himself as a “corpsette” at “rock-bottom” (30). Prior resigns to the idea of his imminent death and refutes Harper’s revelation that his “most inner part, [is] entirely free of disease” (34). By Act Two, Prior—wracked with pain—actually wishes he were dead.

In Act Three, fear emerges as an important motif, one that alters Prior’s orientation to death. Prior admits to his ancestors that he is afraid to die, and he confesses to Emily that fear kept him from attending a friend’s funeral. When, in the final scene, the sound of angel wings fills the room, Prior is “consumed by [an] ice-cold, razor blade terror that just shouts and shouts ‘Keep moving!’ Run!’” (235). Certain that the Angel heralds his death, Prior pleads for her to leave him, but to no avail.

At this point, Prior’s narrative could have quite easily conformed to the suicide model. Tormented by illness and haunted by visions, a suicidal plot point would have been entirely conceivable, particularly given the fact that Prior has been abandoned by his lover, Louis. Instead of regurgitating a decades-old plotline, however, Kushner created Hannah, who tells Prior that he need only refuse the vision and seek an alternative:

Hannah: An angel is just a belief, with wings and arms that can carry you. It’s naught to be afraid of. If it lets you down, reject it. Seek for something new … You … you … wrestle her.

Prior: SAY WHAT?

Hannah: It’s an angel, you … just … grab hold and say … oh what was it, wait, wait, umm … OH! Grab her and say “I will not let thee go except thou bless me!” Then wrestle with her til she gives in. (237 and 250)

If the vision is death, the alternative is life, which means that it is possible for Prior to resist the gay anti-hero narrative. If only he wrestles with the angel and demands more life, Prior will escape the tragic frame that claimed Bernice, Rolly, Daniel, Martha, Felix ….

Undeniably, Prior will die, someday, and perhaps even soon. By the end of Perestroika, Prior’s eyes have begun to fail and he is frail, but he rejects death in the current moment; he rejects dying a “secret death” (280), a death that fulfills a tragic frame. He is gay. He is sick. But he will not be written off by God, by Angel, nor by Playwright. Whether the future procured is five days, five months, or five years is superfluous; the essential point is that “The time has come” (280), for homosexual characters and homosexual Americans to demand and secure futures. For Prior, futurity operates in tandem with a queer citizenship that abandons the historical models of disempowerment or the singular recourse of assimilatory enfranchisement.

David Román has suggested that Angels in America “calls into question the concept of an official history.”[35] Indeed, history emerges as a prominent theme as early as the play’s opening scene, in which an elderly rabbi aware of his own mortality (“pretty soon …all the old will be dead” [11]) presides over the funeral of a Jewish woman. The rabbi delivers a eulogy entrenched in the religious and cultural history shared by himself and the deceased, and thus his remarks offer a contextualized reading of her life—her history. The drama’s subsequent scenes depict various other characters confronting their personal histories. The most notable examples are Roy Cohn[36] and Prior Walter.[37] Roy is desperate to protect his identity and secure his legacy as a prominent lawyer. Repulsed by the notion that he would be remembered as a homosexual, an AIDS victim, and failed attorney, his sexuality is never admitted, his medical records are amended to state that his illness is liver cancer, and he attempts to circumvent disbarment. In Act Two of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, Roy says to his protégé:

I’m gonna be a goddamn motherfucking legally licensed member of the bar lawyer, just like my daddy was, till my last bitter day on earth, Joseph, until the day I die. (68- 69)

Roy Cohn is a character who relentlessly manipulates the facts and works desperately to preserve his image to ensure that his history is written as he desires.

Prior Walter directly confronts his history as he interacts with his ancestors (his biological history) while in delusional states induced by his illness. Prior’s ancestors have gone before him, and he is sure to join them, bringing to a close his living history. Compelled by the fear of his impending death, Prior avoids interaction with the historical figures/figments: “Look. Garlic. A mirror. Holy water. A crucifix. FUCK OFF! Get the fuck out of my room! GO!” (113). Prior’s fear motivates him to dispel the historical narrative of death-by-plague that claimed Prior I and Prior II in favor of a new narrative that is future-oriented. Together, Sarah Ironson, Roy Cohn, and Prior Walter are exemplary characters in Kushner’s script who negotiate their own histories and, in doing so, dispel the very notion of an official history. For Prior, to contest an official queer history and reimagine life and queer futurity is to petition for citizenship.

The Terms and Conditions of Citizenship

Throughout the two decades that have passed since the premiere of Angels in America, the movement for LGBT equality has evolved from its grassroots into a formalized national campaign that endeavors to uphold the constitutional rights of homosexuals and enable them to be full citizens. In America, as in the plays produced on American stages, homosexuals have routinely been—and, in most cases, remain—restricted to the margins of society. James Fisher understands Angels in America as a play that reroutes this dramaturgical trajectory by asking “no less a question than can a nation—its society and its people—be considered moral if it oppresses any portion of its citizenry.”[38] When Kushner’s text is viewed within this queer theoretical framework, it becomes clear that Prior is not a citizen, but rather longs to be.

The marginalization and Othering of homosexuals within Kushner’s play-world is perhaps best illustrated by this monologue delivered by Roy Cohn in Millennium Approaches:

Homosexual. Gay. Lesbian. You think these are names that tell you who someone sleeps with, but they don’t tell you that. . . . 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….Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout. (45)

Roy’s monologue deserves to be quoted at length due the exemplary manner in which it defines the parameters of citizenship. Roy, Louis, Belize and, of course, Prior are no strangers to the fact that “concrete institutional forms of sexuality. . . are imbued with conflicts of interest and political maneuvering, both deliberate and incidental. In that sense, sex is always political.”[39] The inherently political nature of sex directly implicates Kushner’s queer characters. To elaborate, Roy has “clout. A lot” (45), and he is aware that personal identification as a homosexual would jeopardize his prestige. In view of the intersection between the personal and the political, Roy remains in the closet and maintains a heterosexual identification.

A sharp contrast to Roy is Louis, who affirms his liberationist sexual-political position: “fuck assimilation … [with] the monolith of White America. White Straight Male America” (90). Although Louis recognizes that he is endowed with a degree of white privilege, he also acknowledges that he has limited access to power, and so he routinely critiques American democracy and the lines of oppression that exist therein. Belize, an African American and former drag queen, asserts that he has “a rather intimate knowledge of the complexity of the lines of [oppression]” (94). And then there is Prior, whose final monologue challenges the American tradition that equates affiliation with minority groups (specifically, the queer community, and the AIDS community), with Otherness:

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. (280)

In view of the historically institutionalized practice of Othering sexual minorities, Prior’s demand for forward momentum, future-orientation, and citizenship is significant and necessary; but what, precisely, is the citizenship that Prior envisions? Is Prior’s brand of citizenry one that amalgamates with the assimilationist trajectory? Kushner is less than explicit:

Prior: Bless me anyway. I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do. . . . Death usually has to take life away. I don’t know if that’s just the animal. I don’t know if it’s not braver to die. But I recognize the habit. The addiction to being alive. We live past hope. If I can find hope anywhere, that’s it, that’s the best I can do. It’s so much not enough, so inadequate but. . . Bless me anyway. I want more life. (267)

The logical—and pressing—question remains: What is the life that Prior seeks? Does it center upon the coalescence of gay and straight cultures? Is a citizenship accrued through participation in heteronormative institutions and practices the citizenship Prior desires? Or does he call for a decidedly queer citizenship—and, similarly, a decidedly queer future? Although prophetic and revolutionary for the ways in which he rejects the tragic frame and an anti-hero narrative, Prior is ambiguous regarding the specific kind of life and citizenship he wants. I presume that if Dustin Bradley Goltz or Sarah Warner were to envision a Part Three of Angels in America, it would not depict Prior as having conformed to the very institutions that had disenfranchised him. Instead, Prior’s future would be well-spent in a liberationist, “flamboyant and flagrant flaunting of [his] sexuality.”[40] He would not have to forfeit his queerness in order to accrue citizenship.

To decipher what Kushner may have envisioned, I turn to textual evidence that appears to offer some specific insight to Prior’s conception of futurity. The dialogue comes from Prior’s first encounter with his ancestors:

Prior: I’m not alone.

Prior I: You have no wife, no children.

Prior: I’m gay. (86)

This dialogue does not indicate that Prior associates queerness with heteronormative paradigms of futurity: “a story of happily ever after: love conquering all, the blessed gift of children, and a guaranteed slice of the American Dream.”[41] Contrarily, the passage can be read as a forerunner to the claims made by Lee Edelman who, in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive,[42] argues against reproductive futurity in favor of a queer future that rejects the established social-political order.

Prior’s longing for queer citizenship is also a forerunner to the convincing arguments made by José Esteban Muñoz in Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. Muñoz insists that “queerness is not yet here.” Understanding queerness as an ideality and an aesthetic protocol that works to reject “objective” reality and its monolithic hierarchies and, instead, fashion non-conforming selves, Muñoz asks us to “dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds.”[43] Prior not only dreams of, but begs for and demands and the opportunity to live in—to enact—other ways, vis-à-vis citizenry. Certainly, Muñoz’s emphasis on “collective, political becoming”[44] is reminiscent of, and fortifies, Prior’s revolutionary, future-oriented, utopic spirit.

Perhaps Prior’s call is for a citizenship without parameters, without qualifiers, caveats, and binaries; a citizenship without a prescribed way to experience being alive. If the prophet demands such a future, the assertion that “the great work begins” (119) carries additional meaning for those of us living in the current historical moment, which seems preoccupied with nearly exclusively assimilationist ambitions. Indeed, it will require great work to amend America’s history. But, as Prior says, “the time has come” (280).

With the opening of Angels in America, the time had come to subvert the history that had long since been written of queer lives. As Jean E. Howard has articulated, “In Angels in America, Kushner … create[s] a tentative theatrical intimation of a different, less injurious future.”[45] The time had come for a queer character to live beyond the tragic frame. The time had come for a queer character to demand futurity. The time had come for a queer character to challenge existing terms and conditions of obtaining citizenship. The time had come for a queer character to receive not merely access to life, but to a life lived on his own terms. And so, Prior boldly rejects death. He rebukes the tragic frame that says to queers, “conform or be written off.” I believe Prior asks us to do the same, and in ever-progressive ways. In the final analysis, Prior is not an anti-hero; he is a prophet.

Vanessa Campagna is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Monmouth College, where she teaches Theatre History and Dramatic Literature courses. She has worked professionally as a director, actor, choreographer, and dramaturg in theatres throughout the Midwest region. Vanessa is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Theatre at the University of Missouri; her research interests include LGBT representations in American drama, queer theory, actor training, and autobiographical performance.

[1] José Esteban Muñoz. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of a Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 1.

[2] Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1993), 280. All subsequent references are indicated in parentheses.

[3] Statute 2419 was enacted on 21 September 1996, under President Bill Clinton; the law endowed states with the power to deny same-sex marriages. The law was ruled unconstitutional on 26 June 2013.

[4] A 2008 ballot proposition and state constitutional amendment that opposed same-sex marriage, which had been legalized in the state of California earlier that year. The legislation was officially repealed by the United States Supreme Court on 26 June 2013.

[5] Official legislation enacted on 28 February 1994 under President Bill Clinton; the law preserved the illegality of military service by openly homosexual persons, but prohibited harassment and discrimination against closeted homosexuals. The law was repealed by President Barack Obama on 20 September 2011.

[6]Legislation that would include sexual orientation and gender identity in the non-discrimination policies related to hiring and employment.

[7] John M. Clum, The Drama of Marriage: Gay Playwrights/Straight Unions from Oscar Wilde to the Present (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 2.

[8] Examples include Brokeback Mountain, Queer As Folk, and The Hours.

[9] Nikki Sullivan, A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory (New York: New York University Press, 2003), 23.

[10] Dustin Bradley Goltz, Queer Temporalities in Gay Male Representation: Tragedy, Normativity, and Futurity (New York: Routledge, 2010), 46.

[11] Sara Warner, Acts of Gaiety: LGBT Performance and the Politics of Pleasure (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012), xi.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Andrea Bernstein, “Tony Kushner: The award-winning author of Angels in America advises your to trust neither art nor artists,” Mother Jones, July/August 1995, accessed on 5 August 2014,

[14] John M. Clum, Acting Gay (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 255.

[15] Ibid., 254.

[16] Partick Healy, “‘The Band’ Helped Writers Find Their Beat,” The New York Times, 2 March 2010, accessed on 29 July 2014,

[17] Alexander Doty, Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 3.

[18] Sullivan, 43.

[19] Nicholas DeJongh, Not in Front of the Audience (New York: Routledge, 1992), 14-15.

[20] Donileen Loeske, “The Empirical Analysis of Formula Stories,” in Varieties of Narrative Analysis, eds. Jaber Gubrium and James A. Holstein (New York: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2012), 253.

[21] It is prudent to note that Glaspell had also penned an absent, dead character three years earlier in her seminal one-act Trifles. Like Bernice, John Wright has died in previous action.

[22] Cheryl Black, “‘Making Queer New Things’: Queer Identities in the Life and Dramaturgy of Susan Glaspell,” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 20, no. 1 (2005): 50.

[23] Susan Glaspell, Bernice (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2006), 98.

[24] Ibid., 101.

[25] Dustin Bradley Goltz, Queer Temporalities in Gay Male Representation: Tragedy, Normativity, and Futurity (New York: Routledge, 2010), 115.

[26] Cheryl Black, “‘Making Queer New Things’: Queer Identities in the Life and Dramaturgy of Susan Glaspell,” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 20, no. 1 (2005): 56.

[27] Mae West, “The Drag,” in Three Plays By Mae West, ed. Lillian Schlissel (New York: Routledge, 1997), 101. Italics mine.

[28] Danae Clark, “Commodity Lesbianism,” in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, et. al. (New York: Routledge, 1993), 197.

[29] George O’Neil, American Dream (New York: Samuel French, 1993), 155-156. (Subsequent citations in text.)

[30] Lillian Hellman, The Children’s Hour (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1934), 104.

[31] Doric Wilson, “The West Street Gang,” On the Purple Circuit, 1 June 2007, accessed on 5 August 2014,

[32] Larry Kramer, The Normal Heart (New York: Nal Books, 1985), 104.

[33] William Hoffman, As Is, in Forbidden Acts, ed. Ben Hodges (New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2003), 617.

[34] Ibid., 649.

[35] David Román, Acts of Intervention (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 204.

[36] A character depiction of the famous American lawyer Roy Marcus Cohn, who garnered fame during the McCarthy era and who later died of AIDS.

[37] The drama’s protagonist; an openly gay man who has been diagnosed with AIDS.

[38] James Fisher, ed. “We Will Be Citizens”: New Essays on Gay and Lesbian Theatre (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2008), 26.

[40] Gayle S. Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, et. al. (New York: Routledge, 1993), 4.

[41] Warner, xii.

[42] Goltz, 83.

[43]Lee Edelman. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).

[44] Muñoz, 1.

[45] Ibid., 189.

[46] Jean E. Howard, “Tony Kushner’s Angel Archive and the Re-Visioning of American History,” The Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, accessed on 9 July 2014.



Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Histories, Futures, and Queer Lives by Vanessa Campagna

ISNN 2376-4236

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 26, Number 3 (Fall 2014)
©2014 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

Editorial Board:

Co-Editors: Naomi J. Stubbs and James F. Wilson
Advisory Editor: David Savran
Founding Editors: Vera Mowry Roberts and Walter Meserve

Editorial Staff:

Managing Editor: Phoebe Rumsey
Editorial Assistant: Fabian Escalona

Advisory Board:

Bill Demastes
Amy E. Hughes
Jorge Huerta
Esther Kim Lee
Kim Marra
Beth Osborne
Robert Vorlicky
Maurya Wickstrom
Stacy Wolf
Esther Kim Lee

Table of Contents:

  • Ida Wells-Barnett and Chicago’s Pekin Theatre by Karen Bowdre
  • History is Distance: Metaphor, Meaning, and Performance in Serenade/The Proposition by Ariel Nereson
  • Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Histories, Futures, and Queer Lives by Vanessa Campagna
  • “Persian Like The Cat”: Crossing Borders with “The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour” by Tamara L. Smith

Martin E. Segal Theatre Center:

Frank Hentschker, Executive Director
Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications
Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

©2014 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
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New York NY 10016




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