The Fabulous Grace of God: on revolutions in gay styles of dramatic literature through the onset of HIV/AIDS in America
Columbia College English Department Senior Essay
Advisor: Prof. Jean Howard
April 7, 2014
“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the human heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”
Egregious thanks are due to the many people who helped shape and inform this essay. Firstly, thank you to professors Katherine Biers and Erik Gray for their help in developing a proposal and beginning research, as well as my fellow English majors who critiqued ideas in seminars and provided invaluable support throughout the drafting process. Thanks are also due to the various theatre artists, connoisseurs, and writers who offered their brains to picked on the cultural events herein discussed: David Schweizer and Edmund White for their inspiring anecdotes and insights, Sean McKenna for his fearless candor about his experience of the AIDS crisis, and anyone else whom I’ve pestered with endless questions, ideas, and monologues on these topics. This essay wouldn’t exist without the exquisite guidance of Professor Jean Howard, whose patience and critical instruction were always selflessly available. It has been a delight to work under her truly fabulous supervision. Lastly, I must thank Tony Kushner, Larry Kramer, Harvey Fierstein, Mart Crowley, all those who have helped craft a theatrical history for gay men, and who have managed to create beauty from one of the most devastating periods of American history. I am grateful beyond words for the stories they tell. This essay is dedicated to the individuals about whom these stories are told, to those whose stories were cut short too soon, and to the allies who listened.
On the night of June 26, 2013, the day the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, Gay men and women crowded the streets outside The Stonewall Inn, site of an infamous police raid and one of the first radical, violent gay protests on the east coast. Some blocks north, production on HBO’s film adaptation of Larry Kramer’s play, The Normal Heart, was wrapping up for the night, and several of the extras rushed downtown to join the festivities. Police barricaded the block so that the celebration could carry on in the street until the wee hours of the night. The entire world, it seemed, was reeling from one of the most important civil rights decisions in years.
Gay men have not always had such cause to celebrate their role in America’s political scene, and have suffered a long history of oppression in a nation supposedly built on Christian values of liberty and equality. Theatre provides gay artists with a medium primarily concerned with visibility and action. As the political attitudes toward gay men have shifted, so have the modes of theatrical expression employed by the gay community to gain visibility on the national stage. Gay theatre, that is theatre by gay playwrights focused on gay subject matter, contains brilliant artifacts from each step on the path towards the particular and capacious liberation gay men had achieved by the time of DOMA.
Gay theatre also follows a thread of tragedy, as the joy of post-Stonewall liberation was obliterated by the AIDS crisis of the 80’s and early 90’s. Once the arena for gender-bending, campy free-expression, theatre styles transformed to rally a community that had already endured immeasurable adversity. As the battle against HIV/AIDS was waged, gay theatre became the crucible in which an aggressive new gay political front was forged. Theatre also provided the tools to move forward from the AIDS crisis and to imagine a positive future for gay America, one in which empathy and imagination create hope for a people disheartened by disease.
Through the plays herein discussed, I will delineate a progression from freedom, through one of the darkest periods for America’s gay population, back to an opportunity for a reimagining of the public gay identity at the end of the twentieth century. The plays The Boys in the Band and The Torch Song Trilogy book-end a period of liberation, but also dangerous political isolation, for gay men. They reclaim homophobic vocabulary and stereotypes with camp, but their narratives are haunted by unrelenting judgment of their unsympathetic straight counterparts, even in the face of tragedy. This sets the stage for a dissolution of the gay political identity during the AIDS crisis, when Larry Kramer’s austere and unflinching The Normal Heart depicts a gay community whose efforts to organization is threatened by the fear and judgment of the straight world. Amidst this turmoil, Tony Kushner crafts his “gay fantasia,” Angels in America, a Fabulous revitalization of gay theatrical style with imagination, desire, and hope after the devastation of the AIDS crisis.
When the Human Immunodeficiency Virus made its first appearances, Gay America was finally enjoying the fruits of hard-earned labors: a social liberation that emerged from years of oppression and consequent sexual revolution. Despite anti-gay sentiments running high elsewhere, gay men had cultivated thriving communities in most of America’s major cities. Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band is often cited as one of the most groundbreaking works of theatre for gay men, and with equal parts humor, self-derision, and political criticism, it showcases the style of camp that would dominate gay theatre for almost 20 years. As it operates in Crowley’s work, camp involves a mostly light-hearted humor at the expense of others or oneself. It also has a history of sexual fluidity, as it often incorporates cross-dressing with a critical jab at the shackles of the gender binary, which is certainly seen in the flamboyance of some of the best drag performances. Like the word “gay” itself, camp insists on a bold and unapologetic joy in displaying insubordination to gender norms, or as Alan Sinfield words it, “acknowledgement of the demand for secrecy, and iconic refusal of it” (113). Despite its fearless excesses1, camp also treads dangerous semiotic territory within the gay community, playing with the vocabulary of homophobia that had targeted prior generations of gay men and women. Tennessee Williams has described camp jokes as “products of self-mockery, imposed upon homosexuals by our society” (Sinfield 187). Camp therefore demands a resilience in those who partake, however benign its barbs may appear. In a community like Crowley’s, where closeted and homophobic undertones (and overtones) become violent, self-derision and self-loathing homophobia aren’t always mutually exclusive. Full of aggressive quips and digs, camp may not intend to offend, but it always treads the knife’s edge between comedy and pain.
The play spans one night and showcases the antics of eight gay men gathered for a birthday party where almost every stereotype is represented: the boyfriend, the butch, the femme, the promiscuous one, the racial minority, etc. These homosexuals are not defined by their sexual relations with other men, but by an isolationist rejection of the straight ideal of masculinity in exchange for a more gender-fluid expression of their identities. John Lahr refers to camp as “an essentially homosexual comic vision of the world that justifies attachment,” and the men in The Boys in the Band exemplify the privileges of their “detachment” from a harshly-ordered straight world in their flamboyance (Sinfield 98). The party is mostly joyful, full of female pronouns, lewd sexual humor, and double entendres, such as in the following exchange with a hustler, whom Emory has hired as a birthday gift:
Cowboy: I lost my grip doing chin-ups and I fell on my heels and twisted my back.
Emory: You shouldn’t wear heels when you do chin-ups.
Cowboy: [oblivious] I shouldn’t do chin-ups – I got a weak grip to begin with.
Emory: A weak grip. In my day it used to be called a limp wrist. (Crowley 78).
Emory’s camp takes equal pleasure in exposing his gayness and projecting gayness onto others. Such assertions are part of the fun, but also part of the political deconstructive effect of camp on the gender binary, because they are often unconcerned with the actual sexual orientation of others. When the host, Michael, receives an unexpected straight visitor (an old college chum, Alan), and urges his guests to tone down their behavior, Emory retorts with sass, reassuring him, “Anything for a sis, Mary,” to which Michael rebuts with a strict command of “No camping!” (Crowley 44). Michael defends his attachment to the straight world: “Believe it or not, there was a time in my life when I didn’t go around announcing that I was a faggot,” to which Donald parries, “That must have been before speech replaced sign language” (Crowley 30). These exchanges showcase both the playful side of camp, its willingness to allow ridicule for the sake of laughter, but also the dangerous re-appropriation of anti-gay slurs, and the stigma still surrounding the closet.
Crowley empties the closet with his play: it is a delight for his characters to be out and proud, and condemnable to hide one’s sexual identity. Instead of protecting the privacy of its cloistered gay characters, The Boys in the Band stages a massive imposition of the straight world (via Alan) on their revelry, resulting in a forced outing when Michael claims that Alan is secretly gay. Alan escapes with his cover intact, but the disturbance he creates by assaulting one of the more effeminate guests, Emory, highlights the fragility of the party’s jovial mood. As Michael tells his friends, “it’s much simpler to deal with the world according to its rules and then go right ahead and do what you damn well please” (Crowley 40). This maxim of appeasement assumes it is “simpler” to hide one’s non-heteronormative behaviors when dealing with “the world,”2 but it also takes for granted the privilege of gay detachment from straight hegemony that camp affords. Even though Michael’s public life appeases the straight majority, his mostly-private gay life is threatened by crossover between the two.
After Alan proceeds to assault Emory, and is held hostage by Michael, who initiates an emotionally charged “truth-or-dare” style party game, the party turns sour as signs of homophobic self-loathing surface. The potential for homophobia has already been well-sown by Crowley’s free-flowing use of slurs like “faggot,” “Mary,” and “fairy,” which supposedly lose their efficacy when employed for the sake of camp, but whose bite is nonetheless audible. Their presence and their history make clear the difficult political line these men are riding by reclaiming these words, making them terms of endearment that nod to a history of shared oppression. When Alan begins to attack Emory for his lisp, he employs the same words, but with malicious intentions, and to disastrous effect:
Alan: [Quick, to Emory] How many esses are there in the word pronoun?
Emory: How’d you like to kiss my ass – that’s got two more essessss in it!
Alan: How’d you like to blow me!
Emory: What’s the matter with your wife, she got lockjaw?
The difference is clear, and Crowley’s juxtaposition of the two modes of use for derogatory language illuminates an underlying semiotic incompatibility between the straight and gay communities represented in the play. Not only is Alan unable to use these words the same way his gay counterpart can, but he is unable to interpret Emory’s humor as anything but offensive, an attack on his own masculinity rather than an affirmation of Emory’s pride. This exchange showcases the unreadiness of straight communities to accept the aggressively liberated expression of gay identities as they are experienced within their own communities, and Crowley shows that this is firmly embedded in the language that separates gay from straight.
Their undaunted use of slurs, and playful humor at the expense of other characters, is a seizure of agency, but underlying (and partially fueling) this is the lingering knowledge that, outside of their community, these men are hated. Humor in this play is a tonic for a deep-seated dissatisfaction with oneself, but as a successful theatre piece and 1970 film, this work promotes the new possibility for gay men to reclaim the words that have oppressed them. Alan’s violent disruption of an otherwise harmonious community of camp is Crowley’s acknowledgment that such a community can only remain intact in isolation, but his crafting of that community exhibits the possibilities, and limitations, for gay men in America.
Over a decade later, during the same year that the first cases of HIV were being reported, Harvey Fierstein picked up where Crowley’s record of the evolving gay male identity left off. Torch Song Trilogy premiered in New York in October of 1981, just months after the New York Times’ infamous Gay Cancer headline. The virus makes no appearance, but the trilogy remains a haunting portrait of the firm and impermeable emotional divide between the straight and gay worlds in New York City at the dawn of the AIDS crisis. Fierstein’s cycle of three plays follows the protagonist, a drag queen named Arnold seen mostly out of his professional setting. In the first play, he is spurned by his lover for a woman; in the second, this lover and his new fiancé invite Arnold and his new lover to their cottage; in the third, Arnold struggles to pry sympathy from his homophobic mother after the death of his young lover from part two of the trilogy.
Camp characterizes Arnold’s narrative as his defining character trait3, and Fierstein uses it aggressively to exhibit the diminution of gay men in an unsympathetic straight world, even in times of great need. His fellow characters seem merely the butts of his jokes, but like Alan, their reactions to his antagonistic humor expose the truth that straight society has no room for a character like Arnold or Emory. Unlike boys in the band, Arnold goes beyond slurs and tackles stereotypes, often preempting the judgments his straight peers are ready to pass on his lifestyle. When Arnold’s ex-lover’s fiancée, Laurel, invites him to church, he declines saying, “I’ve converted. I’m what you’d call a Scientific American. Yes. See… we believe that all of mankind’s problems can be solved with lip gloss,” but when she asks whether he has no need for prayer, Arnold retorts, “I wouldn’t say that. I’m often found on my knees,” reframing the promiscuity stereotype as a punchline (Fierstein 76). All the stereotypes he touches upon are more or less true, since Arnold is effeminate and is frequently sexually active, but they’re not necessarily offensive4. In Arnold’s unabashed bevy of sex jokes, Fierstein confronts the straight characters with the question: “So what?” Arnold isn’t searching for gay acceptance, but gay equality, and the freedom to lead his social, sexual, and professional lives as he pleases without being denied the support and respect of his straight peers.
Underlying Arnold’s self-derision is an understanding of what he is worth, and an eagerness on Fierstein’s part to show the reluctance of straight America to see the same value. In The Boys in the Band, the drama is the result of an intrusion, the entrance of Alan into a space that promotes gay visibility, and one just as inhospitable to straight characters as the straight world is to gay characters. In Torch Song Trilogy’s third play, the drama stems from Arnold’s request for empathy from the straight world, but also a longstanding, unrequited desire for validation from that world. As he tells his mother, “You want to know what’s crazy? That after all these years I’m still sitting here justifying my life. […] There is nothing I need from anyone except love and respect. And anyone who can’t give me those two things has no place in my life” (Fierstein 151-2). Embedded in this comment is Arnold’s knowledge that a sense of empathy, a respect for the troubles of others and a fellow-feeling for the pain of those different from oneself, is necessary to bridge the gay-straight divide. This proclamation also nods to the limited success of sexual liberation, and that “after all these years” gay men are still tasked with proving themselves worthy of acceptance. This confrontation challenges the insufficiency and unsustainability of the style of community The Boys in the Band depicts, and exposes the need for a more constructive exchange between gay and straight cultures.
The double-edged sword of camp and sexual liberation would threaten the success of anti-HIV efforts by dividing gay men along the assimilationist/isolationist line that haunted The Boys in the Band. Appeals to the straight world would be stymied by prejudice and misinformation about the nature of the virus. The rise of a sexually transmitted virus in a community defined by their fight for sexual liberation and their detachment from an oppressive majority would threaten the foundation upon which the gay community was built. As Kim Powers claims, “The Stonewall Riots of 1969 ushered in gay liberation; there must be an equivalent ‘riot’ in gay theater before its assimilation into the mainstream can take place” (Powers 65). If theatre were to give a voice to the voiceless and expose painful truths, to which most turned a deaf ear, a radical and unrelenting new leader would be needed to pen a new style of gay drama that would meet the needs of the moment.
Known for his irascible and dauntless political bent as one of the founders of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Larry Kramer is even better known for his semi-autobiographical play, The Normal Heart. Chronicling his first love, the onset of the AIDS crisis, and his dismissal from the coalition he helped found, its clinical language and its oversaturation with facts characterize an intensely politicized theatrical style that serves as a stark antithesis to camp. The text seems stiff, unemotional, and the dialogue is increasingly dominated by anger with every scene, but at its core The Normal Heart is Kramer’s desperate, emotional appeal to both the gay and straight communities for cooperation.
Ugly, fiery, and loud, the Normal Heart burst onto the New York theatre scene in 1985, telling its story through the antagonistic protagonist Ned Weeks, the opposite of Fierstein’s sex-positive Arnold or Crowley’s campy Emory. Quick to lose his temper and impatient to be dismissed by those he confronts, Ned is urged by Dr. Emma Brookner to stop homosexual intercourse altogether until the connection between gay sex and the increasing death rate is better understood. As Bruce Niles, the co-president of his coalition (an unnamed analog for GMHC) tells him, “you’re a bully. If the board doesn’t agree with you, you always threaten to leave. You never listen to us. I can’t work with you anymore” (Kramer 107). Another member, Mickey, adds to this description elsewhere, “You keep trying to make us say things that we don’t want to say! And I don’t think we can afford to make so many enemies before we have enough friends,” which pales in comparison to another criticism by Mickey: “I love sex! I worship men! I don’t think Ned does. I don’t think Ned likes himself” (Kramer 94). Both characters, members of the coalition’s Board of Directors, are not only critical of Ned’s style of guerrilla activism in trying to gain the attention of (an unnamed) Mayor Koch, but they are also adversarial, ultimately coordinating in Ned’s expulsion from the board. As in The Boys in the Band, conflict over the ideal relationship between gay and straight communities undermines the ability of the play’s gay community to effectively organize and overcome adversity. However, the source of adversity in The Normal Heart isn’t the virus, nor is it anti-gay sentiment itself. The true attack against the organized political identity of the gay man comes in the form of the unresponsiveness of local government, the silence of doctors and journalists, and the inaction of private donors and closeted gay men.
The dichotomy between Ned and Bruce is a clear cut and dynamic one, as the character Tommy puts it: “we need both your points of view. Ned plays the bad cop and Bruce plays the good cop” (Kramer 77). Their relationship is not so simple, as Ned laments Bruce’s dismissal of his previous romantic advances. When asked by his brother Ben if Bruce is a lover, Ned‘s response, “Don’t I wish. I see him. He just doesn’t see me,” highlights Ned’s incipient isolation from the types of men he’ll try to organize, and Bruce’s practical troubles with visibility (Kramer 32). Bruce is not only closeted, but his reluctance to make a public fuss also effectively “closets” the epidemic, cloaking its prevalence. The two are alike in only two respects: they are both gay, and they both want to end the epidemic. Their styles are in direct opposition to each other, with Ned favoring enraged public outcry, and Bruce preferring a private and peaceful appeal to known gay men. Bruce is outraged to find that the return address on the coalition’s first mass mailing contains the word “gay” as part of the organization’s name, and when Ned criticizes Bruce’s reluctance to out, and potentially embarrass, would be supporters, Bruce retorts, “not everyone’s so free to say what they think” (Kramer 51). While Ned claims his freedom to say what he thinks “without guilt, fear, or giving a fuck if anybody likes it or not,” is a victory of years of therapy over his internalized homophobia,5 Bruce’s use of the word “free” refers to active external barriers to his coming-out, namely his job as VP of Citi Bank (Kramer 51). Ned’s defense is to claim that were Bruce to be fired for his sexuality, the organization could sue for discrimination. In turn, Bruce sites instances of homophobic jokes from his boss, and the two battle it out until Ned’s expulsion; Ned resorting to aggressive but strategic tactics, and Bruce seeking a pragmatic alliance with the Mayor’s office and a support system for suffering patients.
The autobiographical backbone of The Normal Heart makes a political tool of the play itself. Kramer is not writing a play for entertainment or cultural expression. His play is both his and Ned’s cry for awareness, action, and empathy from the straight world. This urgent political outcry is the play’s only style, and all aspects of the work are goal-oriented, ultimately aimed at stopping HIV infection. Through Ned’s battles with those around him, and in Ned’s desperation to enlighten those at risk, Kramer speaks directly to the audience. His play is a condemnation of identities like Bruce’s as political role models. To Ned, the gay men represented in The Boys in the Band and Torch Song Trilogy are ill-equipped to uphold the political responsibility of getting the straight community to help their community survive. Through their own detachment from the straight world, and the proliferation of identities and behaviors that appear ridiculous to a straight-dominated political system, Kramer depicts gay men as having lost critical political efficacy. Kramer’s rejection of camp and humor also liberates him from the trap of self-derision that holds characters like Michael back, who only identify as gay in their private lives. Kramer, who sees institutionalized homophobia targeting gay men on a public level, with near-genocidic consequences on the gay population, writes Ned as a character who sees no division between his public and private identities. He is a gay man in both, and he is an activist in both.
Even more frightening to Kramer’s protagonist, the gay men chosen to lead in The Normal Heart cause the coalition several key setbacks, as does Ned’s own furious response to such ineffective leadership. Ned’s call for abstinence in the gay community positions him as an anti-sex figure in comparison to Bruce, entirely to the chagrin of his peers who have fought for the freedom to practice homosexuality with a certain degree of liberty. However, Bruce’s closetedness and the limits it imposes on his participation6 as an aggressive and visible public figurehead for the cause is just as much a threat to the continued liberation of the gay male, although ultimately the board decides it is the most effective style for their mission.
In The Normal Heart, the decimation of the gay population by AIDS provides a metaphor for the decimation of a once elysian and loosely unified gay political community, a community all but invisible to the straight world. AIDS as a disease is destroying the physical community, while AIDS as a crisis is destroying the political community.7 In The Normal Heart the growing dissolution of a once unified political front results from a struggle to protect the gay identity from AIDS, that is, to separate the idea of the gay man from the idea of the AIDS “victim”8 while simultaneously keeping AIDS out of gay bodies. Kistenberg also warns against the use of the word “victim” to describe People With AIDS (PWAs), claiming that “victim” invokes a fatalist foreboding, and constructs an unfair moral dichotomy between “innocent” and “non-innocent” victims, meaning heterosexual and homosexual PWAs respectively. The fatalist view is present in The Normal Heart, as the disease is unnamed for the entire first act, and viewed as an absolute death sentence throughout. The error of the innocent/non-innocent victim dichotomy lies at the heart of Kramer’s work, as Ned Weeks strives to warn gay men that while he personal finds promiscuity distasteful, his political view that gay sex needs to stop entirely to stop the epidemic isn’t a moral judgment, but an ultimatum. The work reflects Larry Kramer’s own division from the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and the philosophy behind his founding the more radical activist group, AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP). While the theatrics of The Normal Heart make little use of metaphor, the infectious panic and the loss of political camaraderie in the gay community dominates the play as the most jarring and most visible parallel of the spreading virus within the same community.
In his foreword to The Normal Heart and its sequel, The Destiny of Me, Tony Kushner describes Kramer’s work as “startlingly plain […] almost antipoetical. […] The writing avoids metaphor, avoids all painterliness. It is governed by a stark, unyielding economy” (Kushner viii). As an artifact of the real-life history of GMHC and ACT-UP, the play’s plain, pedestrian vocabulary rebels against the camp of earlier gay works with the pure, unfiltered horror of the AIDS crisis. More interested in conveying facts than emotion, Kramer gives his protagonist a lengthy monologue at the play’s climax that begins with a list of twenty-three famous gay men from history. Another especially emotionally charged scene comes just before Ned is fired, when, just before admitting to a suicide attempt, Mickey berates Ned: “Do you think the CIA really has unleashed germ warfare to kill off all the queers Jerry Falwell doesn’t want? […] The Native received an anonymous letter describing top-secret Defense Department experiments at Fort Detrick, Maryland, that have produced a virus that can destroy the immune system. Its code name is Firm Hand. They started testing in 1978 – on a group of gays” (Kramer 97). Whether or not Mickey’s facts are true, his verbal progression to an eventual catharsis is a series of such “facts” that spill out one after the other. The same occurs when Dr. Brookner’s application for government funding is rejected, and she, in a lengthy and enraged monologue, proceeds to out doctors and spout very real criticisms about the National Institutes of Health and research that had taken place in France, as well as comparisons to the Chicago Tylenol scare of 1982. Kramer is firmly rooting the emotional life of his play in fact, not sentiment, and not aesthetic. The most impassioned moments become the most informative, and the most frightening.
Kramer’s production notes describe the play’s original stage design:
The New York Shakespeare festival production at the Public Theater was conceived as exceptionally simple. Little furniture was used […] The walls of the set, made of construction-site plywood, were white-washed. Everywhere possible, on this set and upon the theater walls too, facts and figures and names were painted, in black, simple lettering. (13)
This description exemplifies Kushner’s note on the absence of “painterliness” in that color and ornamentation, even that used in naturalist plays to construct an environment, are all stripped from the scene. Instead, the space that would normally be used for the visibility of a physical environment (one that would, in naturalist theatre, inform the psychological lives of the characters) is used for more informational language, but contains the explicit information that drives the conflict behind every scene. The notes even list examples of the kinds of facts used in the original production.
Kramer has pulled his autobiography out of the realm of pure naturalism, sacrificing environment for pedagogy, but he has also redirected the audience towards the importance of text as a communicative, rather than aesthetic tool. The text of Kramer’s play functions to transmit information, not to constitute gay identity or depict gay pride in the way Fierstein and Crowley’s campy styles do. The humorous language of the two former playwrights’ work is more a tool of ornamentation, but one that accurately represents the styles of gay identity that developed after Stonewall, making a bolder statement about their personal identities than their own positions on the matter. Kushner notes the interesting incongruence between Kramer’s antipoeticism and his emphasis on text, citing preceding gay “writers for whom long-breathed lines and intricately detailed surfaces are expressions of agency, are (for contemporary writers at least) a proud displaying and a public reclamation of identity, a rejection of shame, a manifestation of power.”9 Kramer obviously makes a break with this type of display, which effectively pushes back against “reclamations of identity” through excesses, such as prolific sexual encounters, and removes from his gay characters any superficial defense mechanisms.
Kramer’s rejection of “long-breathed lines and intricately detailed surfaces” is inextricable from his rejection of sexual liberation because they are bound up in the same work with the same political agenda. On the surface, the goal is to end AIDS, but in Kramer’s eyes, and in Ned’s eyes, the rejection of the prevailing gay identity, as well as the rejection of the dominant gay “expressions of agency” is the only way to rescue gay bodies and establish, as Ned begs, a gay culture “that isn’t just sexual” (Kramer 110).
The tragedy of The Normal Heart isn’t solely the death toll, nor the political disunity (although those dominate the action of the play), but also the semiotic reversion of homosexuality to a pathology. What camp had subdued (indoctrinated self-loathing of the fledgling gay political identity), AIDS revitalizes. The linking of AIDS and homosexuality has been incredibly problematic, but in an AIDS play with 9 gay male characters and only 2 straight characters, one female, Kramer’s story supports Kistenberg’s suggestion, that “the financial stability of gay men, in comparison to others with AIDS-related symptoms, made them far more visible to the medical community”10 (Kistenberg 11). The play in fact opens with three gay men in a medical waiting room, and Ned’s medical advice comes directly from Dr. Emma Brookner, whom he, and his dying lover, see often. The men in the play are not lobbying for healthcare (ostensibly because they are all covered), but for visibility and initiative within the medical and political communities: the issue is not being treated, but being treated well enough. As stated earlier, the play mostly covers a time when the virus had not yet been found or named. When his brother refuses to agree that homosexuality is natural rather than a psychological disease, Ned rages, “the single-minded determination of all you people to forever see us as sick helps keep us sick,” articulating his fear, one already realized, that the blind eye straight people turned toward the AIDS crisis was based on an acceptance that gay men were already diseased in a way that AIDS merely makes mortally active (Kramer 61). The reverend Jerry Falwell’s prophesy that AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality is the fear at the very core of The Normal Heart- not that his claim is truth, but that the straight world at large, especially those with political power (Mayor Koch, Reagan, and the most prominent doctors), share this view and have thus accepted the deaths of gay men as deserved. This cements the tie between gay sex and death from AIDS, and Ned, knowing he cannot separate the two nor deny their connection, must struggle to stop both. Though his protagonist alienates several would-be straight allies, Kramer’s play lays startlingly bare the consequence of two communities’ unrelenting opposition to each other’s views. This ideological opposition to straight perspectives meant liberation for characters like Michael and Arnold, but for Bruce, Ned, and the gay men of the 80’s, detachment from the straight community would mean death.
Tony Kushner’s seminal work, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, arrived after the furor of the late 80’s, and because of this furor, the audience was primed for its premier in repertoire and marathon at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in November of 1992. This was the first time the piece had been presented as two fully staged plays, Millenium Approaches and Perestroika, although a partially staged production had gone up at the Eureka Theater in San Francisco over a year and a half earlier (Román 40). Between the premier of The Normal Heart and a fully-staged version of Angels in America, HIV/AIDS had gained a name and a diagnosis, but it had lost some momentum thanks to the efforts of activists like Larry Kramer. Despite the struggle of central characters against the virus itself, Angels is not necessarily a play about AIDS. Instead, Tony Kushner’s style of fantasy, and his pairing of the most unlikely allies in the face of the HIV/AIDS crisis, offers an imaginative model of empathy for the suffering of others as a vehicle for hope.
Tony Kushner’s theory of a Theatre of the Fabulous injects the play with a parable-like historical self-consciousness. Kushner’s stage notes call for a “pared-down style of presentation, with minimal scenery and scene shifts done rapidly,” but insists that the “moments of magic […] are to be fully realized, as bits of wonderful theatrical illusion – which means it’s okay if the wires show, and maybe it’s good that they do, but the magic should at the same time be thoroughly amazing” (Kushner 11). The play is aware of its historical context, and its appropriation of biblical tropes grants it mythic proportions. The moments of magic are many, including the appearance of ghosts and an ascent into heaven itself, but by revealing the theatrical machinery at work, Kushner asks producers and designers to maintain a nebulous division between fantasy and reality. There is no power hierarchy between the supernatural and the mortal, nor between reality and imagination. When the main character quarrels with an angel, it’s a fair fight, and when revelations are had in daydreams and hallucinations, the truths revealed therein are truths in reality as well. The audience may never be certain whether the moments of magic are part of the play’s reality or merely a character’s delusion, but the exposure of the theatricality at work in constructing those moments calls into doubt the importance of such a distinction.
In an interview with David Savran, Kushner described his Theatre of the Fabulous in two senses: “there’s fabulous in the sense of an evolutionary advance over the notion of being ridiculous, and fabulous also in the sense of being fabled, having a history,” (300). The first idea of “an evolutionary advance” beyond ridicule speaks clearly to the self-derision of such styles as camp, that have internalized the homophobia of others, and possibly to the sex-negative implications of Kramer’s hyper-political work as well. Fabulosity replaces ridicule as the standard for gay men in theatre. Kushner thus positions his work as something chronologically latter to the earlier styles of gay theatre, an “evolutionary” step that emerges after a prior notion of being ridiculous, a reconstruction of a truly fabulous gay style after ridicule, via camp, deconstructed oppressive mores imposed by the gender binary. The second leg of Kushner’s style involves “being fabled, having a history,” even though there is, in most cases, a very real difference between fable and history, in that the former is a fantasy, while the latter is fact. As Kushner sees the two bound up in the word “fabulous,” he suggests that there is a similar appeal in literature to fables and “true” history alike, that both can operate to a similar effect. Because both fantasy and history are removed from the present, they are only accessible through re-telling, through stories, and Kushner’s Theatre of the Fabulous gives equal importance to fantasy and fact in telling its stories.
The division between reality and fantasy in Angels in America proves to be almost inconsequential, and interplay between the two show how a strong imagination can transcend one’s physical limitations. The character Prior Walter, dying of AIDS and abandoned by his boyfriend Louis at the end of Millenium Approaches, is visited by an angel who delivers a prophecy he must proclaim in Perestroika. Prior’s interactions with the angel, as well as with the ghosts of his ancestors who visit to announce her incipient arrival, are believed to be delusions by most of the other characters, but for Prior, these visitations seem to be real. The character Harper never meets with angels, but interacts with hallucinations that include a travel agent, an Eskimo, and a mannequin, as well as Prior. One wants to separate the magical scenes as a fantastical expression of Prior’s earthly burden, but Harper instead suggests to Prior that her fantasies are “the very threshold of revelation sometimes,” that fantasy can be a source of truth (Kushner 39). Technically, Harper and Prior, without ever meeting in the real world, are then able to share information with each other that neither could have known by any realistic means, Prior revealing that Joe is gay, and Harper divining that Prior is sick. Though neither character can offer solutions to the other, fantasy affords them a communion, and an understanding of each other’s lives, that was impossible, or at least very unlikely, in their respective realities.
Harper’s hallucinations are presumably induced by her frequent valium dosages and offer respite from the disappointments of real life. As Mr. Lies explains when Harper hallucinates that she is in Antaractica, “This is a retreat, a vacuum […] deep-freeze for feelings” (Kushner 108). Similar to the isolationist respite camp offered to Crowley and Fierstein, fantasy-as-escape spares neither Prior nor Harper the pains of reality, and Kushner makes this clear when, in a dream, Prior tells himself, “you know you’ve hit rock-bottom when even drag is a drag” (Kushner 37). Fantasy encroaches upon real life as well, as when Prior and Harper see the love affair between Louis and Joe, their respective estranged significant others, coming to life in a diorama at the Mormon Visitor’s Center. Instead of escape, Kushner uses fantasy to enlighten his characters, to challenge their misguided assumptions about one another and themselves, exposing truths to which they’d been either willfully or accidentally blind, whether they like it or not.
Prior’s visions are more of an imposition than Harper’s, and his prophecy is a burden that he wishes not to bear, or as he tells the angel, “You’re scaring the shit out of me, get the fuck out of my room” (Kushner 170). While Harper’s fantasy life grants her a temporary reprieve, Prior’s agitates his already fragile emotional state. The prophecy, or “The Book of the Antimigratory Epistle,” is supposed to tell mankind to stop moving because their progress has caused God to abandon heaven and earth. When rejecting the book in heaven, Prior tells the angels, “We can’t just stop. […] progress, migration, motion is…modernity. It’s animate, it’s what living things do. We desire” (Kushner, 263-4). The command for humans to “stop moving” eerily echoes Larry Kramer’s anti-sex political theatre. At a time when escape was not possible, and humor and frivolity seemed irresponsible, Kramer rejected fantasy in exchange for starkness and unornamented fact. In this early response to the AIDS crisis and the straight world’s failure to act, Kramer’s command was that gay men must stop having sex, or to “stop moving.” In some ways, it is the progressive and sexually liberated social structure of the gay community that Kramer admits has contributed to the rapidity of AIDS’s surreptitious spread. His call for a sexual ceasefire demands that gay men replace homosexual practice with homosexual politics, and his play insists that anger is the only appropriate response to devastation.
Any real political feud between the two playwrights being beside the point, their plays serve as the two foci of the theatrical history that emerges from HIV/AIDS in the 80’s. With a slightly later premier date, Angels in America gains a chronologically privileged perspective on AIDS that The Normal Heart couldn’t have. Kushner’s play is written, then produced and revived, in a time when Kramer’s battle had already made its most considerable gains, and the virus itself had, at least, a name. On the context and perspective afforded his play by its distance from the onset of the AIDS crisis, Kushner says, “In a way [Angels is a history play.] Although when I started writing it, it wasn’t. As it gets older, it will become increasingly about a period of history” (Savran, 313). As much as Kramer’s play is the definitive AIDS play about immediacy, the need to already be acting, Angels is the AIDS play that cements the disease’s place in history, invokes a memory of the past, but also imagines socially progressive alliances that were not common in the 80’s. As Kushner suggests, Angels is constantly becoming less a play about AIDS and more a play about a period of crisis; not just HIV/AIDS, but the venomous institutionalized homophobia responsible for the carnage of the AIDS crisis.
Kushner widens the scope of the AIDS play, staking its position within the greater umbrella of history plays. In doing so, Kushner not only elevates the AIDS crisis to a historical significance comparable to that of his other subjects (the holocaust in A Bright Room Called Day, or the civil rights movement of the 60’s in Caroline, or Change), but he suggests that one can hope to see a future beyond AIDS crisis. In her final monologue, Harper describes a fantastic hallucination of the souls of the dead repairing the ozone, and she claims, “Nothing’s lost forever” (Kushner 275). For Kushner this is especially true, given his broad perspective on the present moment as just one in many that will comprise history. The knowledge that hope can be found, even in the wake of devastation, pervades his play. Harper explains the relationship between loss and hope, calling it “painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead” (Kushner, 275). She infuses hope with desire, which necessitates an object, a vision of the future towards which one desires to progress. In suffering one has desire for what is “left behind,” for that which is lost, but also must find the ability to desire what lies ahead. Kramer shows that in the wake of devastation, denial must be dismantled by any means possible, but after anger and mourning Kushner’s play suggests that progress must be made. One must not be rendered immobile by one’s outrage, but rather inspired to correct the systems that allowed for devastation in the first place. Being Fabulous, being fabled and having a history, demands an ability to move forward, despite the pain of progress, and to let the past recede further and further away.
For the gay characters of Angels in America, moving forward doesn’t mean simply surviving oppression by their straight counterparts as in Torch Song and The Normal Heart, but possessing, and seeking out in others, a sense of empathy where previously there was only incompatibility. Upon meeting Hannah, the Mormon mother of his ex-lover’s new lover, Prior immediately reveals that he is homosexual and ill, but she accompanies him to the hospital where, when he criticizes her beliefs about homosexuals, she parries “you can’t. Imagine. The things in my head. You don’t make assumptions about me, mister; I won’t make them about you” (Kushner 235). Although their apparent identities seem incompatible, the two are able to take refuge from their troubles in each other’s areas of expertise: Prior in Hannah’s knowledge of angels, and Hannah in Prior’s knowledge of homosexuals. By listening to each other expressing his or her needs and concerns, they are merely helping the other to feel heard, not cured. They cannot solve each other’s problems, but by taking each other’s suffering seriously, they make the problems more manageable.11 Prior’s abandonment by Louis is the exact opposite, a refusal of empathy, and an active dissolution of community. Like the gay men of The Boys in the Band, Louis achieves liberty through detachment, but the community from which he exempts himself are the people who care for the suffering, those practicing empathy.12
Prior’s companionship with Harper is similar to his meeting with Hannah, in that they are unlikely friends, but unlike Hannah, Prior can in fact imagine the things in Harper’s head. Their communication shows how his work as a prophet exemplifies the possibilities that empathy can create. Through their threshold of revelation, Prior and Harper both do what Hannah claims is impossible, that is to imagine another person’s deepest and most private thoughts. As a prophet, Prior’s role in Harper’s life is to deliver news (that Joe is gay), but also to help her understand her struggles, not by providing solutions, but by sharing his own struggle. In their last meeting, Prior sees Harper in heaven, and she reveals what she claims is the secret of “all that Mormon energy. Devastation. That’s what makes people migrate, build things. 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”13 (Kushner 253). Harper sees devastation the way Kramer might, in that it should stir us to action and expose that which is truly flawed in our relationships or society. One must accept the truth (in Harper’s case, her husband’s homosexuality, but in Kramer’s case, the sexual transmission of the virus) in order to make progress, to move beyond it, and to no longer be rendered powerless as a victim to it. If Kramer’s mission was to reveal truth to the public, Kushner seems more interested in capturing the methods individuals can use to achieve their own personal truths. In rejecting the Book of the Antimigratory Epistle, Prior is choosing to confront his truth: that he is sick, that his disease will progress, and that eventually death will come. This truth is reached through his fantasy, and depicts the power of fantasy in exposing the future as a collection of truths not yet determined.
Prior’s fantasies become the arena in which he confronts his outrage and ultimately accepts the inevitability of his prognosis14, but his hope for the future is founded on a historical awareness that his people are not the first to suffer, and survive, as a people. When he decides to leave heaven, he tells the angel:
I’ve lived through such terrible times, and there are people who live through much worse, but… You see them living anyway. […] 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. (Kushner 267)
Prior reimagines his devastation as something that has connected him to other people and other periods of history, rather than something that has isolated him. Kushner sees a game beyond Larry Kramer’s endgame, and understands that death or cure will not be the end of gay suffering, but he also doesn’t posit mutual suffering as a pre-condition for empathy. Instead, his Theatre of the Fabulous suggests that imagination is the necessary tool for real empathy. Fabulosity, as the new gay style, escapes the traps of internalized homophobia as it was seen in camp, and it is predicated on a respect for the individual, an ability to empathize with the other, to imagine his or her point of view, and to imagine cooperation where there is difference.
The abundance of fantasy and theatrical self-awareness in Angels trumpets what Kushner presents as the indeterminacy15 of the future of AIDS. Kushner’s Angels operates almost as a parable of the human imagination, a fantastical reimagining of the AIDS crisis rather than a genuine depiction of what life was like during the period.Although it is certainly more interested in grounding its audience in the reality surrounding them, The Normal Heart too is a stylized re-imagining of the AIDS crisis as a very specific period in history, and one equally concerned with how the decisions of individuals can affect the future of a population. Kushner’s own definition of the Theatre of the Fabulous, that it is concerned with fables as constituting a history, suggests that such reimaginings create, for gay men, a history very different from that of The Boys in the Band-era gay America. Kramer and Kushner are enormously concerned with the equitable inclusion of gay history as part of American history, with Kramer decrying the harmful division of gay and straight America, and Kushner imagining the possibility of a symbiosis between the two. Kushner’s title alone boldly asserts that a play called “Angels in America” can actually be a gay fantasia, that an American story can also be a gay story, and Kramer’s titular use of the word “Normal” (as well as his title’s appropriation of a line from “September 1, 1939” by the great American poet Auden, a known homosexual) seems to say the same thing. History has divided gay and straight America along ideological lines that don’t have to, and probably shouldn’t, exist.
The Normal Heart, though it raised hell and injected the public understanding of AIDS with a visible record of its urgency and its ravishment of gay men, worked to minimize the possibilities of what gay men could be. It ranted and raved and told them exactly what they shouldn’t do if they were to fulfill their moral responsibility to each other in combating HIV infection. To a degree, this style of theatre worked, and some AIDS survivors today will say Larry Kramer saved their lives, but to do so there had to be sacrifice, devastation, and the freedom of a post-Stonewall gay community had to be made an enemy, if only to serve the parable of The Normal Heart.
Angels sets the values of empathy and responsibility far above the American value of liberty, and instead shifts the rights of liberty from the body to the mind of the gay man. In Angels, liberty is only self-serving, and alienates characters like Louis from communities of support. For those who practice empathy, and see it as their personal responsibility to be empathetic to those who are suffering, liberty does not exempt them from that duty. In Angels, gay men are not defined by the freedom of their bodies, but their minds: their diverse beliefs, political affiliations, desires, fears, and, most importantly, fantasies. Kushner’s use of fantasy as the tool by which Prior gains empathy from the most unlikely allies16 shows that imagination is necessary to experience a genuine sympathy for suffering one has not experienced. It is through freeing his mind, allowing himself to engage others in ways he hadn’t before, that Prior is able to gain the courage he needs to confront his burden (both the prophecy and his illness). It is through his imagination that Prior is able to elevate himself above the anger and the reality of his bodily existence. In one’s imagination, AIDS doesn’t have to exist, but the problems of AIDS (death, disability, isolation, abandonment, etc.), can all be confronted in myriad ways, through myriad perspectives that may be alien to one’s own experience. The Fabulosity (that is its use of a fabled historical perspective and its desire to progress beyond helplessness) of Angels is less of a model than a playground, a kaleidoscope that multiplies the possibilities of how gay men can imagine America after AIDS, encouraging patience and empathy with points of view that appear repugnant. When the objective of The Normal Heart is reached, when the enemy has a name and attention and a growing literary history, Angels in America prophesies what one can do about it, what one can do about enemies in general, and reminds its audience that no prognosis is absolute, that nothing is truly lost forever. Through the fantasy of theatre, Kushner rejects the predetermination of moral behaviors and appropriate versus inappropriate identities. In the rich spectacle of his stagecraft Kushner blows open the boundaries on how to address crisis, and how to imagine a life beyond it. Instead of encouraging subjugation to the doomsaying of angels and diagnoses, Kushner directs one’s attention to the indeterminacy of the next period in history, and emphasizes the agency of the individual in selecting his or her next step, as well as the weight of such steps in determining one’s character.
At the end of The Normal Heart, Ned stands by the hospital bed of his husband, Felix, and remembers, “when they invited me to Gay Week at Yale, they had a dance… In my old college dining hall, just across the campus from that tiny freshman room where I wanted to kill myself because I thought I was the only gay man in the world – they had a dance. Felix, there were six hundred young men and women there. Smart, exceptional young men and women” (Kramer 118). Very rarely is one privileged to watch the lot of his own oppressed group improve, and it is a bittersweet fruit for those who have previously watched it decline. HIV/AIDS is not a gay disease, but the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s was one of the darkest moments in gay history. There are few easy ways to document or discuss the types of shameless bigotry that have plagued America, and there are even fewer appropriate ways to depict it. What Tony Kushner and Larry Kramer have created are not just monuments to those lost, or records of dark times past, but memories for gay men still to be born that they could never have themselves. It’s a common lament in gay communities that there is no familial lineage for gay history, since it’s not necessarily handed down from parents or teachers, and gay men must seek out their own history. These are the parables of a maturing gay ideology, fables on which to raise a new generation of gay men.
For every playwright like Kushner or Kramer, there were many other bright lights extinguished too early by a virus still not perfectly understood. Since the first cases of AIDS were reported, an estimated 36 million men and women have lost their lives to the syndrome. More die everyday, but more and more often they live. Playwrights, musicians, talent agents, teachers, lawyers, fathers, daughters. What also survives is a tenacity, a patience with the knowledge that to be part of an oppressed group is not always to be understood, not always to be accepted and appreciated. To survive in this world means to share it- with viruses, bigots, crooked politicians, but also with men like Tony Kushner, Ned Weeks, Arnold, Mart Crowley. To learn from those one doesn’t understand, to imagine the suffering of “the other,” to allow oneself hope without ridicule, is more than surviving: it is living “past hope,” it is living Fabulously, and it is a blessing.