Vol. 31 No. 2

The Poetics of the Tragic in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America

by Julia Rössler
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 31, Number 2 (Winter 2019)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2019 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

The art of playwriting is not fundamentally a narrative art
like novel writing; it is dialogic, it proceeds from
contradiction, not cause and effect.

-Tony Kushner, “Notes About Political Theater”[1]

Since the post-war period, American drama and theatre has been shaped by a strong political consciousness: the Theater of the Ridiculous, queer and gay drama, and the growing public presence of Latin-American and African-American playwrights during the 1960s to 1980s reflect a thematic and aesthetic diversification of American drama that is unparalleled in its history. Some scholars relate new formal developments to the impact of postmodernism as the prime characteristic of a distinctly contemporary American drama and theatre.[2] Moreover, it shows a growing interest among dramatists to establish drama and theatre as a site for critical self-reflection and public debate in which “socio-political goals of challenging hegemonic political representations and presenting identities outside the established social ideal of how Americans ‘should be’” are a central function.[3] In the early 1990s, Tony Kushner, for instance, has received much critical attention for his landmark play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1992) in which he documents multiple ills of US-American society, culture, and politics during Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s. Kushner, who has for years been an openly political voice in American theatre, has on numerous occasions identified himself as a writer of political theatre and describes his political aspirations as a form of “conscious intent to enter the world of struggle, change, activism, revolution, and growth.”[4] Explicit citations of socio-cultural and political events and historical circumstances pervade his dramatic oeuvre in plays such as A Bright Room Called Day (1994), Slavs! (1995), or Angels in America (1992). In many of his plays, dramatic plots and the character’s actions function as symbolic explications of the interrelation between human suffering and the dominant ideologies that inform our understanding of reason, morality, and truth while displacing the absolute value and legitimacy of such notions. In particular, his alertness to the social inequalities and injustices resulting from the discriminatory policies on race, ethnicity, and class give his plays political force and has contributed to his reputation as a receptive analyst of the multiple precarious situations that shape human life and experience. Occasionally, Kushner’s plays give the impression of being a personal venture into the possibilities and limits of a dialectical and Marxists world-view. Many critics see this venture as one main feature of Kushner’s work as a dramatist and yet respond with mixed reactions: Harold Bloom, for instance, voices some concern over an ideological overburdening of Kushner’s creativity and dramatic talent at the expense of his artistic and intellectual openness.[5] Other scholars have taken the political suggestiveness of his plays as cues to explore Kushner’s dramatic and aesthetic style in relation to a close intellectual affinity of his oeuvre with the works of Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, or the theories of Marxism.[6]

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