THE GREAT WORK BEGINS:
by Anthony Lioi
"To do this, every Kabbalist on earth would sell his right nut."
—Rabbi Chemelwitz, Act 5, Scene 6, Perestroika
Before we sell the family jewels, it would be wise to consider Tony Kushner's Angels in America as theurgic theater, a door into the Great Work of repairing the self, the nation, the world, and God. Despite its title, Angels in America has not been widely acknowledged as religious drama without ironic quotation marks. Hailing it as socially engaged theater in the Brechtian tradition, as an American AIDS epic, the first generation of Angels reviewers focused most of their attention on the play's sexual politics. Writing in The Progressive, Bob Blanchard spoke for many when he praised the play as "taut, serious, heartbreaking drama about the AIDS epidemic and . . . a witty, sexy evocation of gay life in contemporary America."1 Such an approach is certainly justified: six of the eight main characters are gay men, two of whom develop AIDS at the height of the Reagan presidency, just as radical AIDS activism—embodied in ACT UP, Gran Fury, Gay Men's Health Crisis, and Queer Nation, among other groups2— begins to coalesce in New York and San Francisco.3 Nonetheless, I believe that the popular media's preoccupation with sexuality in Angels has obscured another source of the play's vitality—Jewish spirituality, particularly the traditions of biblical prophecy and Kabbalah—which radically reconfigures the psychic and political spaces in which the characters struggle. Even the most exhaustive collection of scholarship on the play, Deborah R. Geis and Steven R. Kruger's Approaching the Millennium: Essays on Angels in America, tends to efface Judaism as a spiritual path in favor of Judaism as a cultural tradition, a move that many contributors seem not to recognize as skewed towards secularism as an ideology.4 I acknowledge, however, that Kushner does not appropriate Jewish traditions in their received forms, hostile as they are to the queer erotics he celebrates. Instead, he recasts their sexual dynamics through the figure of Prior Walter and his celestial companion, the Angel of America. In the spirit of his Kabbalistic predecessors, he creates a theater of theurgy where the nature of God, humanity, and the cosmos is transfigured for characters and audience alike. Theurgy, which literally means "god-work," is a spiritual practice based on the belief that the performance of mitzvot, or good works mandated by Torah, actually changes the nature of God, empowering his merciful aspect to heal the Creation, whose brokenness reflects God's own wounds.5 Kushner's new theurgy operates in a context that is explicitly postmodern: eschatological but anti-apocalyptic,6 ecologically aware, post-existential, and gender-destabilized. Like the Marxist and feminist liberation theologies of recent decades, Kushner promises freedom-in-exodus from the demonic powers of capitalism, totalitarianism, and patriarchy, though his cry of hope is tempered by the knowledge that the world cannot be redeemed in a night, even a night in the Theater of the Fabulous.7 In Angels, heaven and earth both labor under the shadow of self-division and shattered histories.
Most critics have analyzed the play through a secular hermeneutic—in which its visionary aspects are written off as dreams and drug-induced delusions—or a conservative religious hermeneutic—in which homosexuality is de facto the realm of fallenness and abomination—and thereby fail to detect the strains of prophecy and Kabbalah which provide a coherent religious cosmology amidst disaster and betrayal. Even Geis and Kruger, in their editorial Introduction to Approaching the Millennium, feel the need for quotation marks around the word angelic as they describe the forces that disrupt the play's realism.8 The playwright himself is not so cautious. Despite the imputed atheism in his profession of faith in dialectical materialism,9 Kushner makes no bones about his attraction for things spiritual, insisting that love of the world and love of God are intimately related. In an interview with Don Shewey of the Village Voice, he observed:
Given, then, that the playwright will not authorize an anti-spiritual reading of Angels, that he sees no contradiction between its sexual, political, and religious orientations, how can we account for its reception among such bellwethers of high-cultural life as The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and The National Review?11 Why insist, as have their reviewers through sins of omission or commission, that there are no angels in Angels? The answer, I believe, goes to the heart of current debates about the place of religion in twentieth-century Western cultures. Kushner has confounded the aesthetic and political logic of modernity and postmodernity as these have come to be defined in the American and European academy. On the one hand, he has refused the dynamic of secularization, recognizing with Rosemary Radford Ruether that "[t]he social orders created by liberalism and socialism have generated fears of a future impoverished of meaning, if not indeed devastated by pollution, poverty, depletion of basic resources, and war."12 At the same time, he also refuses the response to this crisis found in the theories of postmodernism canonized by Fredric Jameson and Jean-François Lyotard, in which the primary aesthetic privileges depthlessness and the "waning of affect," while the primary epistemology counsels skepticism toward the traditional meta-narratives of Enlightenment progress and rationality.13 Challenged by a plague to produce a new poetics of suffering, Kushner turns instead to the prophetic-messianic tradition—a key source of progressivism for Marx and the French philosophes of revolution14—and the Kabbalah, the contemplative system that created a mysticism of exile to make Christendom endurable. But these anti-dualistic gestures, which critique modernity through a renewal of its biblical roots and fashion a queer spirituality within a religion that has divinized heterosexuality, render his religious vision undetectable to those who cling to secular or spiritual traditionalism as the answer to our problems. In a review of AIDS-plays that appeared in The National Review, Richard Grenier evidences exactly this kind of blindness:
Placed at the climax of an article dedicated to revealing the threat of a homosexual culture-coup in the 1990s, Grenier's interpretation of Kushner rests not on the words of the play or playwright, but on an assumed incommensurability between religion and gay life, making a "homosexual millennium" necessarily secular. It is apparently beyond this reviewer's imagination to envision Angels in America as a performance of authentic Judaism by a gay man with a real spiritual life, but that is just what Kushner has written. As Alisa Solomon says, "Subliminal associations between Jewishness and sexuality seep out of it like sweat . . . Angels shakes its fists at God with Old Testament fury; the divine shows itself in frenzied Kabbalistic figures."16
Before I proceed to an analysis of Kushner's intricate religious achievement, a review of the play's setting and main characters is in order. Millennium opens in 1985 at the funeral of Sarah Ironson in New York, attended by her grandson Louis—the Jewish Everyman of the play—a word processor for the Second Circuit appellate court, and his high-WASP boyfriend Prior Walter,17 who lives off a small trust fund. Louis sets much of the play in motion by abandoning Prior after the funeral during the onset of Prior's first full-blown bout with AIDS. As Belize, their mutual friend, says later in the play, Louis is "ambivalent about everything," and it is precisely his emotional and political indecision which make him a fit representative of the upwardly mobile, white-ethnic middle class living in the shadow of their grandparents' immigrant heroism. Belize, on the other hand, is the bright cardinal to Louis' dull sparrow: he is a nurse and an "ex-ex-drag queen," equal parts righteous Black activist and nurturing mammy. Though Kushner has been taken to task for creating a character who is merely an amalgam of racist and heterosexist stereotypes, I agree with Framji Minwalla's assertion that Kushner wants us to consider "this most transgressive of invented personae as also the most moral and stable character in the play."18 The same cannot be said for Roy Cohn, the character based on the infamous lawyer of the McCarthy era, and his assistant, Joe Pitt, the closeted Mormon who becomes Louis' lover. Cohn, who begins and ends a villain, requires little comment here. Joe is a more complicated character, in some ways the Christian version of Louis in his abandonment of his spouse, Harper, and in his political ambivalence as a gay apprentice to the monstrous, fag-bashing, and equally closeted Cohn. Perhaps the most generous thing to be said about Joe is that he needs to be saved but is not himself a savior. His wife Harper is in a stronger position— her addiction to Valium is also a window into visionary, prophetic experience. Though she does not stand at the center of the play, as Prior does, she is nonetheless his peer in prophecy; like him, she uses her predicament to become an agent in the plot which could have trapped her in mere victimhood.
And then there is the angel, America.
In accord with his dedication to dialectic, Kushner spends most of Act I elaborating his thesis: the very earthy dilemmas of Prior and Louis, Harper and Joe, and Roy Cohn. No sooner is the first couple finished with the funeral of Sarah Ironson than the news of plague descends—Prior has discovered his Kaposi's Sarcoma lesions, herald of full-blown AIDS. In the face of this news Louis falters but does not yet fail. Meanwhile, we are also introduced to the troubled marriage of Couple Number 2, in which a man with deeply buried sexual secrets attempts to comfort his valium-fiend wife who is apparently delusional. But the true master of shadows, Roy Cohn, weaves a protective screen of disinformation around himself after his more advanced stage of AIDS is diagnosed. In doing so he initiates the ironic mirror-dance he will share with Prior throughout the play, despite the fact that the two never meet. Though there is only a hint of it now, this liar-to-prophet dynamic, centered on bitter denial and bitter embrace of AIDS, begins the motif of co-dependently-arising opposites (derived from Kabbalah rather than Buddhism) which will structure the dramatic action henceforth. As the play moves forward it will become increasingly evident that Roy embodies the emanation of God's Judgment gone awry, while Prior becomes, among other things, his balance and foil, the emanation Mercy. For the moment, though, we receive only one explicit hint of the spirit-to-come: Harper's visionary meeting with Prior in Scene 7.
Scene 7 marks the first break with the realism that dominates Millennium. As the stage directions indicate, Harper is having "a pill-induced hallucination" in which Prior appears while Prior is dreaming of Harper at the same time. Together they create a communal visionary space in which each is lucid, far more lucid than they are in quotidian consciousness. It is this lucidity that should signal the audience, reviewers aside, that the vision should be taken seriously, because Prior and Harper tell the truth. "[Y]our husband's a homo," he says; "Deep inside, there's a part of you . . . entirely free of disease," she observes. Tellingly, as if in endorsement, the Voice from heaven makes its first appearance, speaking the traditional words of a biblical herald: "Prepare the way." This allusion to the advent of prophecy, reminiscent of John the Baptist in Matthew's gospel, authenticates Prior and Harper as seers. At the same time, Kushner injects a strong element of comedy and pathos through Prior's camp and Harper's irony. Knowing that he's ready for his close-up and that she's not impressed by deductions like “Valium addicts are unhappy," we can conclude that Kushner takes his oracular brew with arsenic rather than sugar. Prior and Harper should not be taken as absolute authorities; rather, they are frightened, struggling mortals who occasionally snatch traces of the Real from the haze of their afflictions. This renders their prophecy more believable and more poignant—funny, even. But it does not detract from the message of the Voice: realism is only the beginning of wisdom.
Like its predecessor, Act II contains only one explicit break with the mundane located in Scene 5. After Prior has displayed a traditional, if gender-reversed, mark of pollution—a flow of blood—in Scene 1, Louis abandons him at the hospital, despite the rabbinic warning that "the Holy Scriptures have nothing to say" about those who abandon loved ones in a time of need (Act I, Scene 5). Now Belize, Prior's ex-lover and former sister-in-drag, cares for him with a mixture of herbal medicine and accredited nursing. Their badinage is similarly curative, calming Prior long enough to report the presence of the Voice, who we discover has never left the room once Belize exits. Despite his doubts, Belize seems to embody the very Comforter the Voice announces. This is not the last time Belize will act in the persona of Lovingkindness, but for now he is primarily a confidant, privy to one of Prior's more intriguing revelations—hearing the Voice makes him "hard." The ensuing dick-humor is a left-handed signal, typical of Kushner, that something profound has been revealed. Though the audience has no way of knowing at this point in the play, Prior's sexual response to the Angel and her harbinger lends a particularly Kabbalistic flavor to her announcement of coming prophecy. Kushner's allusion is complicated enough to warrant an excursion outside the realm of the play for a more detailed account of Kabbalah and its relationship to the prophetic tradition.
Kabbalah—the word itself means "tradition" or "that which is received"—is the fountainhead of Jewish mysticism and biblical revision in the era of Christendom. The singular number of the term is deceptive because it implicates a number of textual corpora across at least four centuries and several Mediterranean cities, as well as the subsequent popular appropriations which would become the Hasidic movement and the modern theosophical traditions. Though it is crucial to remember the diversity of texts, teachers, and techniques in Kabbalah, my treatment will, for reasons of space, remain relatively schematic.19
Following Gershom Scholem, friend of Walter Benjamin20 and preeminent scholar of Kabbalah in the twentieth century, recent scholarship has identified three primary eras in the formation of the tradition: Early, Zoharic, and Lurianic. The Early Period, typified most often by the Sefer ha-Bahir ("The Book of Brilliance"), involves an efflorescence of speculation on the nature of the Godhead in twelfth-century Iberia.21 It thus coincides with the "urban renaissance" of medieval Europe, usually identified with the first renewal of Western culture after the fall of Rome. But at least one of its primary inspirations-Gnosticism—is Late Antique. Already, in a corpus composed of various philosophical, highly speculative tracts, we find unmistakable signs of Gnostic-Neoplatonic cosmology transposed into a rabbinic milieu. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has been imagined in a scheme of ontic and spacial descent reminiscent of the systems devised by the Jewish philosopher Philo and the Gnostic Christian theologian Valentinus, among others. In this scheme, the transcendent, unsignifiable Godhead known as Ein-Sof, the Infinite, emanates ten sefirot—vessels of divine power—which channel various aspects or attributes of YHWH. In order of descent, they are: Keter, the Crown; Hokhmah, Wisdom; Binah, Understanding; Din or Gevurah, Judgment or Power; Hesed, Lovingkindness or Mercy; Tif’eret, Beauty; Hod, Majesty; Nezah, Endurance; Yesod, Foundation; and Shekhinah or Malkhut, Presence or Kingdom.22 In functional cosmogonic terms, the ten sefirot bear a remarkable resemblance both to the orthodox Christian Trinity23 and the Gnostic Archons or Aeons: like the members of the Trinity, each sefirah is conceived as a hypostasis or persona of the One; like the members of the Valentinian Pleroma, or divine Fullness, the sefirot are arranged in male-female pairs which emanate "children," i.e. the sefirot directly under them in the celestial hierarchy. Thus, the first sefirot after the Crown, the pair Binah-Hokmah, are the transcendent parents of the seven lower sefirot which carry the primary responsibility for relating to the world. Given the hierarchical nature of this scheme, lowness in the sefirotic tree (often identified with the Tree of Life in Genesis) corresponds to greater materiality; thus the lowest sefirah, Shekhinah or Malkhut, is the mystical gate from the phenomenal world into the intra-divine realm. Building on the Talmudic notion of the Shekhinah as the "Presence" of God on earth, Kabbalah says it is She who appears to the questing mystic. (Note, however, that the Presence is female only in post-Talmudic tradition; the Talmud thinks of shekhinah as an abstract noun, "dwelling".) Therefore it is no surprise that the Angel of America is gendered female, nor that there are seven continental principalities in Perestroika; Kushner appears to have patterned America after the Shekhinah, and her angelic siblings after the other six lower emanations. And there is ample precedent for this—in the systems that developed after the Early Kabbalah, each sefirah is associated with its native angel who carries its power into relation with humanity.24
So far, the sefirot have appeared largely as metaphysical rather than mythical entities; that is, they appear to be convenient personifications of categories of being rather than people. But the true charisma of Kabbalah—and the true precedent it has set for Kushner—lies in the many stories about the sefirot which cast them as characters in a cosmic drama which God is playing out with Godself and the created world. This reading of the sefirot, which itself is a revision of scripture, finds its classic expression in the Zohar, an enormous text now widely believed to be the work of one thirteenth-century Spaniard, Moses de León, and his immediate community of Kabbalists,25 though León passed it off as the only surviving edition of a treatise by the second-century Rabbi Shim'on, son of Yohai.26 It is the genius of the Zohar, or Book of Splendor, to demonstrate through endless midrashim that the sefirot are the main characters of the Torah. Through the Zoharic optic, the stories of the patriarchs, of Moses, and of the desert exile, usually considered by Christians as salvation history, are utterly reconfigured as myth (which underlies all history anyway, according to Kabbalah). Thus the pillars of cloud and flame that guided the Hebrews through the wilderness are seen as Malkhut, while the glory that shown forth from Moses after he descended from Sinai is associated with Hod. Examples could be multiplied, but the most important Zoharic theme for Angels is the myth of God's self-division into male and female halves. After the incident with the Golden Calf and the breaking of the Tablets of the Law, the lower male face of God—usually associated with Tif’eret—turns away from the people of Israel in anger and disgust. But the separation of Israel from God becomes a division within Godself, and the Shekhinah goes with the people into exile. Nonetheless, the divine King still longs for the Queen and Israel, as in the following passage:
Thus the Zohar, by positing this fracture within the Godhead, can say that God is both present and absent, that the world is both blessed and a place of sorrow and exile. In this way it possesses more flexibility than standard Christian accounts of realized eschatology in which the world is already completely saved. It also implicitly critiques its Gnostic sources by showing that brokenness need not lead to a demonized material world created by an insane Demiurge. This subtle take on the presence/absence of the divine must be taken into account when America says that "God" disappeared after the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906:
Given that "God" is always spoken of as male, and given that the angels are still present and powerful, it seems reasonable to conclude that "God" might not be all of YHWH but in fact represents only a male persona who has abandoned the world. Against interpretations of Angels as merely nihilist or existential-atheist, the Zoharic myth of divine self-exile allows Kushner to overcome the nauseating Absence within existential thought while affirming that the world has not been ordered by a perfectly powerful Daddy. At the same time, Kushner's version also explains why this split inside God is so hard to talk about: if the emanation whose face is turned away is the "Aleph Glyph," the source of all words, the fracture in the Godhead is also a fracture within representation itself, which demonstrates, from a different angle, why Kushner would not want his play limited by realist principles. As an act of theurgy, Angels must use the wound in language to heal the wound in language, which is also a wound in God. But until this healing is fully accomplished, language cannot be trusted to be perfectly mimetic.
The Zoharic myth of the split within God is amplified into a cos-mogonic-eschatological system in the third main phase of development, Lurianic Kabbalah. Isaac Luria was a sixteenth-century rabbi who lived in Safed, Palestine, after the expulsion of the Sephardim from Spain in 1492. In the wake of this disaster, Luria and his circle developed a new interpretation of Kabbalah which radicalized the Zohar's notion of cosmic fracturing.28 In brief, Lurianic Kabbalah teaches that God created the world through sefirot which were intrinsically flawed. In the beginning, when Ein-Sof emanated the Crown, Understanding, and Wisdom, these highest sefirot were strong enough to contain the energies of creation. But Din, the sefirah of Justice and Judgment, was too rigid and could not contain the energies flowing from above. As a result, Justice shattered, and his shards (referred to as "shells") fell into the void and became demonic powers.29 For this reason, Din is associated with Samael, the Devil. Because of this initial disaster in the fourth sefirah, the six others below it also shattered, though not to the same extent. This primal catastrophe is referred to as the "Breaking of the Vessels," and represents Luria's explanation for the existence of evil and imperfection. Because the sefirotic tree forms the image of God, it provides the pattern for the world as a whole and human beings in particular, for the tree can also be seen as Adam Kadmon, the Original Androgyne. Therefore, creation is flawed because of a mistake in the sefirot, which is sometimes also seen as the moment of Adam Kadmon's sinful turning from God. In any case, Lurianic cosmology asserts that God cannot effect tikkun, the repair of the world and Godself, without the help of humanity. Each good deed performed in obedience to halakhah, Jewish law, empowers God to heal the fractures in the sefirot.30 In such a system, individual actions have vast repercussions for the structure of the universe and the nature of God: the World of Manifestation or phenomena decisively influences the intra-divine Worlds of Emanation, Creation, and Formation, on which it depends.31
Now we can return to the case of Prior and the Angel with the matter of Kabbalah as a guide. Though Kushner never provides an abecedary of Kabbalah for the audience, he does drop hints for those who have ears to hear. Note, for instant, the chant of the two Priors in Act III, Scene 1. Meant to herald America before her first appearance, this formerly mysterious mantra contains the word "Zefirot" as well as the epithets "Daughter of Light" and "Daughter of Splendor," possibly references to the Bahir and the Zohar.32 Besides the name-dropping, Kushner also suggests a link to Kabbalah through Prior's erotically supercharged relationship to the Angel, which points to one of the great mitzvot of repair: the sexual union of husband and wife on the Sabbath. But this gesture is complicated. In the first place, it is clear, despite America's self-declared bisex-uality, that Prior has been fucked by her female aspect.33 Like Roy Cohn's earlier declaration that he, as a man of power, is simply a heterosexual who sleeps with men, the gay prophet's copulation with a divine woman is meant to strategically disrupt received sexual categories and, indeed, the category of the "normal."34 Thus the gay prophet, who certainly represents an assertion of a fully queer Judaism in one sense, also undermines the essentialism in many theories of sexual identity. Though gender and sexuality as performance, an idea classically theorized by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble, may seem commonsensical to an academic audience, 80s gay activism and the conservative backlash against it were grounded in a far more static view. Therefore, Kushner has pandered to no orthodoxy, least of all a sexual one.
It is important to note, while on the subject of orthodoxy, how Prior's role as reluctant Kabbalistic prophet functions as a ratification and a critique of all the religious discourses involved. Perhaps the most traditional thing about Prior's prophecy is his attempt to refuse it. As the Angel and Hannah Pitt observe at different moments in Perestroika, many biblical prophets have attempted to refuse: Isaiah, Jonah and Jeremiah chief among them. Thus Prior's petulant denial—"Go away!"—is unremarkable. But in the biblical stories, God always convinces the shirker to accept his calling, by hook or by crook and sometimes by whale. Prior, on the other hand, actually succeeds in denouncing and returning the Epistle of Anti-Migration, which may itself be part of the Primal Torah, the Original Letters through which God made the world. But these textual powers are usually thought of as untouchably transcendent, though they are said to hide between the letters of the unfinished Torah we possess, grounding ever-new interpretations—a power Prior finally seizes. He does not become a prophet to the World of Manifestation at first, but sings a new song among the sefirot themselves throughout Act V. Here he is addressing the Angels at the pivotal moment of refusal:
As this passage demonstrates, Prior's refusal to prophesy actually embodies a far more profound oracular identity for both Heaven and the audience. Kushner has used the Kabbalistic notion of theurgy—the idea that human deeds can change the Godhead—to critique traditional forms of prophetic action in which the flow of authority remained God-to-world. Now a man suffering from AIDS, who traditionally would be in need of God's favor, declares unto Heaven that its message is flawed, that the messiness of history cannot be refused. In doing so, Prior ministers not only to the Godhead in general, but to Din, Justice and Judgment, specifically. Recall that Judgment's original rigidity caused the vessels to break—a Lurianic formulation that appears to be a critique of the prophetic mode, given its frequent biblical association with ethical condemnation and ethnic exclusivism. In light of this critique, perhaps, James Miller reads Louis' assertion that "Justice is God" (Act I, Scene 6) as "theological ramblings [that] amount to no more than sophistries".35 But Prior is alive to this problem, asserting that a rigid Justice is no longer possible. Furthermore, in a sly nod to Waiting for Godot, Kushner topples the expectation that a Judge should be longed-for in the first place. Beckett's play is based on the tension between the deus absconditus and the characters who refuse to give up the hope that Godot will return. Prior says: stop waiting. Don't expect any of the worlds to go back to a secure state. And if "God"—who seems less and less like the Absolute as Prior condemns him—wants to hold a grudge forever, no one should impede the "animate" nature of the world by waiting for the Bad Husband/Bad Father to return. Given that biblical prophetic action and Kabbalistic world-repair are often imagined as, respectively, the reunion of the wayward Israel with her father/husband or the reunification of paired male-female emanations within the Godhead, Prior's denunciation of this pattern represents a decisive break with tradition in favor of modernity's progress, even as it speaks to the parts of the divine who remain to be addressed.
Perhaps the most subversive mode in this pan-revisionist play is humor, the universal solvent of all dogmatisms. No wonder then that Act II, Scene 2, dishes outrageous jokes right along with its mystical profundities. One of the best gags happens almost immediately. After the Angel has bombastically announced herself, scaring Prior half to death, she begins to command him to take out the Sacred Implements:
Above and thereafter, Kushner presents nothing less than a slapstick parody of prophetic commissioning and angelic visitation. America's cocksure certainty that she knows the drill rapidly degenerates into an echo of Abbott & Costello's routine "Who's on First?" and Monty Python's Holy Grail. This is the Annunciation as camp, in which the angel certainly declares unto Mary, but not in the usual sense. Soon America is so embarrassed at the failure of the heavenly plan she has to speak to offstage minions, whose last-minute machinations set her precious Implements under the kitchen sink. Despite these many embarrassments, America muddles through Prior's many refusals, finally revising the narrative out loud in King James Bible-speak: "And lo, the Prophet was led by his nightly dreams to the hiding place of the Sacred Implements." Aside from the welcome comic relief, Kushner is also making a statement about the stranglehold of tradition on heaven and earth alike. America seems quite uncomfortable having to improvise, while Prior—good modern soul—still refuses to acknowledge what is happening as anything but a dream, even while the dialogue reminds us of the import of biblical dreaming. As if this weren't bad enough, the scene continues with the spectacle of prophetic sex featuring Prior screaming uncontrollably while the Angel chants like a deranged Baptist preacher: "HOLY estrus! HOLY Orifice! Ecstasis in Excelsis! AMEN!" Here the profoundly serious motif of erotic theurgy is transformed into a moment of orgasmic satire in which the ridiculous vagaries of human sexuality—loss of rational control, unintelligible shouting, and the urge to rut—are attributed to the sefirotic realm as well. Far from the debunking of Prior's experience, which Belize would approve, Kushner's irreverence actually ratifies the exchange. This is what Allen J. Frantzen has missed when he claims that "Kushner's Hollywood-derived, Oz-like, Broadwayesque version of heaven . . . shows how irrelevant religious belief is to a vision of life at the millennium".36 Kabbalah itself was over-the-top hundreds of years before Hollywood, and thumbing its nose at certain emanations of God long before Kushner—the lack of dignity ascribed to religion is merely traditional. If anything unites the characters in Angels, it is the universal loss of dignity: America's sense of cosmic-bureaucratic order is disappointed, Roy Cohn's power cannot stop his death, AIDS brings the numberless humiliations of catastrophic illness. If the Continental Powers were exempt from this suffering, they would seem less solid, more distanced, and thoroughly less interesting than the other characters. Kushner has learned, perhaps from the medieval mystery plays,37 that if the divine is to appear onstage, it must be at least as vivid, material, and incarnate as other characters. And the comic mode, whatever else it may be, is a treasure map to the limits of material existence.
Finally, though, laughter is a prelude to blessing. The biblical tradition of blessing has been neglected in post-Enlightenment thought, carrying as it does the whiff of Jewry, magic, papist idolatry and saint-mongering. Recently, however, blessing has undergone a modest renaissance, primarily through the work two figures: theologian Matthew Fox and critic Harold Bloom. Fox's basic position, elaborated in his book Original Blessing, flows from the assertion that Christian tradition has overemphasized the sinfulness and flaws of humanity and the cosmos to the near-exclusion of blessing, the constant overflow of God's love into the world which is the primary reality.38 Though criticized for oversimplifying complex traditions of spirituality and dogma,39 Fox has a point. His worldview is deeply sacramental, and his defense of blessing in the face of an obsessive focus on Original Sin (not even a biblical concept, as he points out) promises the beginning of a solid theological corrective. Bloom—credited in the Afterword to Perestroika with the idea of the Blessing as "more life"40—elaborates this translation in The Book of J. Highly speculative as a reconstruction of one strand of the redacted Torah narrative, Bloom's book offers many provocative thoughts. Among them: exile is J's primary theme, and is nothing more than the ironic displacement of God's Blessing on the Patriarchs.41 J's emphasis on the struggle to gain the Blessing—classically represented by the Jacob and Esau story—resonates with many plot-strands of Angels, including the father-son relationship developed by Joe and Roy, and the extraordinary Kaddish scene courtesy of Ethel Rosenberg. But blessing only assumes its place as primary thematic focus at the very end, beginning in Act V, Scene 10. Harper has a dream of the souls of the dead encircling the earth as O3 molecules to repair—Kushner uses that very word, tikkun—the dangerously frayed ozone layer. This image of spiritual salvation as ecological salvage, of eschatology without apocalypse, meshes very well with Fox's ancient belief that the visible cosmos is the primary expression of God's love which must be included in salvation history, not discarded during an anti-material end-time.42 The Epilogue, which immediately follows Harper's vision, reinforces this view explicitly. Prior, Louis, Belize, and Hannah are sitting at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, five years later, arguing about Gorbachev's perestroika. Everyone agrees, despite certain earlier statements, that life moves too quickly to wait around for theories. And what is left in the theoretical void is blessing, embodied by Bethesda. Prior explains:
The speech that follows, describing Bethesda as the once-and-future source of the Temple's healing fountain, has been given to the character least likely to understand it, at least in his Neo-Hegelian phase way back in Millennium. Louis hereby proves that he has changed, rejecting the modern narrative of guaranteed progress for something else, something more mythical, more biblical. He and the other characters weave a vision of blessing that would please Harold Bloom, fraught as it is with partiality, struggle, and loss. It is a chastened pro-gressivism, an appropriate companion to Prior's AZT-lengthened life. But it is a vision of hope, an endorsement of the Lurianic view that, despite the catastrophic flaws of the sefirot, humanity can help God put Din—the rigid source of Judgment whose angel is Samael, the Devil—back together through constant acts of lovingkindness, balm for Hesed. As Prior's descent from Heaven reveals in Scene 7, the blessing is turned on the most corrupt among humans as well—witness Roy, even in the afterlife the ultimate player, assuring a thunderous, faraway Absence that he can protect Him from the paternity suit America has filed. If Roy Cohn can begin again with a comedic turn, there's hope for us all, as the Prophet ritually confirms. Prior's penultimate words, "And I bless you: More life," dispense this hope, turning it at last to the audience in a grand gesture of prophetic commissioning.43 To this theatrical eschaton, I now turn.
In the beginning of this essay I held that reviewers caught in a secular worldview tended to misinterpret Angels because they had no way to take its visionary aspects seriously, while reviewers dedicated to a rigid religious traditionalism rejected Kushner's conflation of queer life and spirituality. Nonetheless, it remained difficult to speak of what positive course Kushner was following amidst his myriad appropriations, subversions, and transfigurations of prophecy and Kabbalah, realism and absurdist drama. If it is true, as David Savran claims in "Ambivalence, Utopia, and a Queer Sort of Materialism," that Angels adheres "all too well to a particular political theory"—namely, "rationalism and progress,"44 that theory is finally subsumed into the dynamics of Kabbalistic theurgy. Theurgy represents the strand of Kabbalah least amenable to our disenchanted world because it aims, through ritual devotion and ethical practice, to effect changes in the Godhead itself. Those who would love the Zohar with its brilliant parables or the Lurianic corpus with its intricate categorical systems might still balk at the idea that these texts could be used to change the intrinsic nature of God, and thus the true character of the world. Indeed, Christian theology has stayed far away from narratives of the interior life of the Trinity after the early traumas of the Arian, Docetist, and Gnostic conflicts. But the Kabbalists of medieval and Renaissance Europe were driven to extremes by life under Christendom, particularly in the wake of the expulsion from Spain in 1492. Their world had gone radically wrong, and they adopted radical measures to change it.45
Tony Kushner lives under different, though perhaps comparable, pressures. As a gay Jewish playwright born in the century of Auschwitz and AIDS, he is compelled, in the words of Irving Greenberg,46 to find a theater credible in the face of burning children. It would have to acknowledge God's failures without denying God's love, and strengthen the people for struggle without dashing their hopes on instant karma. Realism, with its commitment to mimesis, would be a good matrix for reassuring the viewer that the world of the stage includes the everyday world, while the fantastic—what Kushner has called "the fabulous"—could plumb the depths of personal interiority and the heights of cosmic speculation. But none of this would be worth much after the curtain dropped without a sense of transformative ritual that offers the audience the New Heaven and New Earth in their own lives. Thus, when Prior speaks the Blessing, he pours out the action of the play past the proscenium arch and into the messi-ness of history. In this sense, Angels has more in common with the medieval passion plays and the Eleusinian Mysteries than with other Broadway shows: it is sacramental, it enacts the secrets it narrates, and effects real change in the willing participant.47 As Martin Harries points out, Kushner's "supernatural project" is "to concoct a countermagic that not only disenchants but also has its own sacred force".48 Thus its radicalism ultimately lies in its traditionalism, which reaches past the prohibitions of Enlightenment thought to bring back an older wisdom for use in the new millennium. Because Kushner is a subtle thinker and not a dogmatist, he freely admits his enormous debt to the philosophy his play has tried to transcend, but transcend it he does. His work is religiously postmodern precisely in the way Richard Falk has outlined in his discussion of the renewal in progressive religious politics:
Or, as Rosemary Radford Ruether put it, renewed religions must cope with "the realities of finitude."50 This, Angels in America does supremely well. In the tradition of rabbinic theurgy, it begins a world where Justice and Mercy are lovers once more. Doing so, it faces honestly—as religious orthodoxies have not—what that world implies: the passing away of some of our most cherished traditions and beliefs, a difficult passing, the work of many generations. And unlike the secular philosophies the play still addresses, it offers hope that humans are not alone in the Great Work, but still accompanied by Guardians who themselves must evolve. Bethesda's Fountain runs dry in winter, but as spring arrives it flows in the midst of disaster. For Kushner, a mighty feat, which any Kabbalist on earth would envy.51
1. Bob Blanchard, "Playwright of Pain and Hope." The Progressive 58/10 (October 1994): 42.
2. Kushner's practice, in Angels, of staging sex to confront audiences with their own discomfort has a great deal in common with the strategies of American AIDS activism in the 80s and early 90s. See, for instance, the kiss-ins detailed in Chapter 5, "Vanishing Points: Arts, AIDS, and the Problem of Visibility" in Richard Meyer, Outlaw Representation : Censorship & Homosexuality in Twentieth-century American Art. New York : Oxford University Press, 2002.
3. Particularly in reference to a play such as Angels, which seeks to disrupt categories of gender and sexuality, the words gay and queer are fraught with complications. At the time the play premiered, "gay" was often taken as a term that privileged a white, male, middle class group demanding access to the sphere of the "normal" in American life. It has since become more flexible along lines of ethnicity, race, class, and political orientation. "Queer" was and still is deployed, sometimes quite literally, as a revolutionary identity intended to include men, women, and transgen-dered people under a rubric that subverts the heterosexual/homosexual, male/female dualisms. Much like "bitch," "dyke," and "niggah," it is a slur reversed into an assertion of pride and solidarity. Of course, politics is never this clear-cut, so both terms will be used in different contexts in this essay. In reaction to the queering of gay politics, some theorists have tried to assert gay identity as normatively masculine. See, for instance, Adam Isaiah Green, "Gay But Not Queer: Toward a Post-Queer Study of Sexuality." Theory and Society 31 (2002): 521-545. It should also be noted that both gay and queer identities can be troublesome to African Americans, Latinos, and white ethnics, among others, when these identities require that one give up membership in an ethnic community; the idea of "living on the down low," for instance, is a response to this problem. I thank the performance theorist Sara Warner for reminding me of this.
4. Kushner himself has recently defended both secularism and faith in their non-fundamentalist forms: "I don't think that fundamentalists are particularly good representatives of religious faith. Certainly fundamentalists don't have the monopoly on religious faith they seem to feel they have. I'm a huge fan of both the secular and the rational, and I think both are in desperately short supply these days—the hegemonic grim spirit of the age being incarnate in our thought-disordered bloody, greedy, little plutocrat-slash-soulless-theocrat of an unelected President—but I don't know that only secular rationalism opposes religious fundamentalism. Living, intelligent faith, believing in a genuinely merciful, compassionate and just God, opposes the murderous, unimaginative verities of fundamentalists of all denominations and creeds; look for instance at recent near schisms over homosexuality in Protestantism. And we should remember as well that the real architects of the debacle in Iraq, the noisiest geniuses of right-wing think tanks at least publicly consider themselves secular rationalists—wouldn't Condi Rice call herself a secular rationalist, wouldn't Antonin Scalia, or even nutty Ann Coulter call herself that? Surely Bill Kristol does. In this world secular rationalism can be used as a cover for all sorts of chicanery, just as fundamentalism is often an expression of desperation, emanating from poverty, illiteracy and long histories of oppression, exploitation and terror—and this is true in America as well as in other parts of the world. So perhaps the role of the artist, or one role at any rate, is to mix up and confuse all such antinomies." "10 Questions for . . . Tony Kushner." New York Times online. June 4, 2004. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/04/readersopinions/kushner-questions.html?ex=1087527122&ei=1&en=e8f8aafd1610791f.
5. Arthur Green identifies theurgy as the fifth tradition that underlies the Zohar, the central text of Kabbalah. His explanation is worth quoting at length: "I refer to the speculative/magical tradition that reached medieval Jewry through the little book called Sefer Yetsirah and various other small texts, mostly magical in content, that are associated with it. Sefer Yetsirah has been shown to be a very ancient work, close in spirit to aspects of Greek esotericism that flourished in the late Hellenistic era. While the practice associated with this school of thought is magical/theurgic, even including the attempt to make a golem, its chief text contains the most abstract worldview to be found within the legacy of ancient Judaism. By contemplating the core meaning of both numbers and letters, it reaches toward a notion of cosmic unity that underlies diversity, of an abstract deity that serves as cosmic center, in whom (or perhaps better: "in which") all being is rooted. The magical praxis is thus a form of imitatio dei, man's attempt to reignite the creative spark by which the universe has emerged from within the Godhead" (xxxvii). See Arthur Green, Introduction. The Zohar. Pritzker edition. Translation and commentary by Daniel C. Matt. Volume 1. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2004. xxxi-lxxxi.
6. Many critics have identified the play as apocalyptic, so I want to clarify what I mean here, especially because its strong millennialism—the belief in a future aeon of justice as the leading edge of history—is often conflated with apocalypticism per se. Angels is apocalyptic in the strict biblical sense that it involves revelations in visionary form; however, in contemporary popular usage, apocalyptic means something like "advocating a necessary, violent confrontation between the forces of good and evil," as in the Book of Revelation. (Revelation is a book in which the vision is of the millennium; hence the confusion.) In this sense, the play is actively anti-apocalyptic, in that the protagonists are too morally ambiguous to qualify as agents in a Manichean cosmic drama, and because the play advocates a number of non-violent examples of world-repair, such as the souls of the dead joining hands to form ozone molecules, and the help of the angel Bethesda in Central Park. In a truly apocalyptic cosmology, there could be no humor attached to Roy Cohn, no forgiveness for Joe and Louis, no heroics for Harper or Prior, and no fallibility among the Powers.
7. The term is Kushner's. It deliberately echoes the chant of Queer Nation: "We're here, we're queer, we're fabulous, get used to it." Kushner explains that "fabulous" is also intended to mean (1) not ridiculous, unlike the semiotics of drag, and (2) fabled, having a history as a community. I would add that fabulous is closely linked to fabulation, which evokes the Angels subtitle "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes." See David Savran's interview, "Tony Kushner Considers Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness." American Theatre 11/8 (October 1994): 24-25.
8. Deborah R. Geis and Steven E Kruger, Introduction. Approaching the Millennium: Essays on Angels in America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997. p. 3. It should be noted that individual writers within this collection often take Kushner's religiousness very seriously without exploring the religious traditions he draws upon in any depth.
9. It is particularly important to Richard Grenier's analysis of Millennium Approaches that Kushner's Marxism be taken as a dogmatic statement of atheism. See Richard Grenier, "The Homosexual Millennium: Is It Here? Is It Approaching?" The National Review 45/11 (June 7, 1993): 54.
10. Don Shewey, "Tony Kushner's Sexy Ethics." The Village Voice 38/16 (April 20, 1993): 31-2. On matters religious, particularly the imagistic origins of the play's angels, David Savran's interview with Kushner is also very enlightening.
11. See Grenier, Frank Rich, The New York Times, May 5, 1993, p. C 15, and Frank Sheck, The Christian Science Monitor, December 3, 1993, p. 14.
12. Rosemary Radford Ruether, Women-Church: Theology and Practice of Feminist Liturgical Communities. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985. p. 1.
13. See Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Raleigh: Duke University Press, 1980. pp. 6-16 and Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
14. For a detailed discussion of the Enlightenment adaptation of messianism to a revolutionary-progressivist philosophy, see Rosemary Radford Ruether, The Radical Kingdom: The Western Experience of Messianic Hope. New York: Harper & Row, 1970.
15. Grenier, p. 56.
16. Alisa Solomon, "Wrestling with Angels: A Jewish Fantasia," in Geis and Kruger, p. 118.
17. Alicia Ostriker has suggested that, because Louis is not the chosen prophet of the Angel of America, there is a buried issue of Jewish self-hatred in Angels (Ostriker, personal communication). While I believe that this possibility is worth considering—though I often wonder how much buried self-hatred there is in worrying about buried self-hatred—I do not believe that the play necessitates this view. Seeing the role of chosen one as prime metaphysical real estate requires us to believe that America's choices are cosmologically normative, an assumption that the play as a whole undermines. The Continental Powers are neither infallible nor particularly well-organized. It seems more likely to me that Prior's status as chosen one is a reflection of Kushner's understanding of Prior's people, the WASPs, as central to traditional narratives of American history. The play works to de-center narratives of WASP supremacy, and Prior himself is an agent of this change as he challenges the authority of the Epistle of Anti-Migration. I prefer to see it as a sign of Kushner's generosity that Prior, as a representative of a lineage with a history of anti-Semitism, is neither punished nor erased by the plot, but contextualized as part of a larger, multi-ethnic community. I admit that this interpretation may be an effect of my membership in the "Free to Be You and Me" generation, and of a Catholic-boy meta-urge to universal harmony.
18. Framji Minwalla, "When Girls Collide: Considering Race in Angels in America" in Geis and Kruger, p. 105.
19. While I am neither Jewish nor a scholar of Kabbalah, nor do I read Hebrew or Aramaic, part of my point in offering this explanation—a kind of Kabbalah 101—is that even a beginner can see these patterns in Angels given only the most basic information. In other words, if the goyim get it, it's probably obvious.
20. One of the ironies of Benjamin's influence on Kushner is the line of critical argument that tries to deny a religious meaning to the angels by appealing to Benjamin's Angel of History without an understanding of its Kabbalistic background. For example, Charles McNulty argues: "Kushner's angels were inspired not from any biblical ecstasy but from the great twentieth-century German-Jewish critic Walter Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History'," even though an understanding of the Kabbalistic theory of history as a disaster within the divine goes a long way in explaining the Angel of History as a version of the Lurianic "Breaking of the Vessels" (see below). See Charles McNulty, "Angels in America: Tony Kushner's Theses on the Philosophy of History." Modern Drama 31/1 (Spring 1996): 84-101.
21. Joseph Dan, ed., Introduction. The Early Kabbalah. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1986. pp. 1-41. See also Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.
22. Daniel Chanan Matt, Introduction. Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment. New York: Paulist Press, 1983. pp. 3-39. An absolutely indispensable explanation of the sefirot, free of Scholem's tendency to abstract and over-systematize. See Appendix 2 for a map of the sefirotic tree.
23. Green, p. lx.
24. A. E. Waite, The Holy Kabbalah: A Study of the Secret Tradition of Israel as Unfolded by Sons of the Doctrine for the Benefit and Consolation of the Elect Dispersed through the Lands and Ages of the Greater Exile. 11th edition. Secaucus: Citadel Press, 1960. pp. 253-260. Waite was a Christian/theosophical kabbal-ist, and his analysis should in no way be mistaken for Jewish theology.
25. Green, p. lvii.
26. Matt, p. 3.
27. Matt, pp. 156-57.
28. Moshe Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988. pp. 156-99.
29. See Green, p. xliii.
30. For a detailed account, see Chapter 6, "Tiqqun: Healing the Cosmos through the Performance of Mitsvot," in Lawrence Fine, Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2003. I thank Catherine Madsen for pointing out this excellent source.
31. Waite, pp. 196-7.
32. America's appearance is also congruent with traditional representations of the Shekhinah as a winged figure. See Green, p. lii.
33. However, it is interesting to note that there is in Malkhut/Shekhinah what contemporary theorists of gender performance would call "genderfuck": this emanation of God who is identified in highly feminized terms as Bride and Shulamite (in the Song of Songs) is also identified with the historical figure of King David. See Green, p. lii.
34. Savran, p. 26.
35. James Miller, "Heavenquake: Queer Anagogies in Kusher's America" in Geis and Kruger, p. 63.
36. Allen J. Frantzen, "Prior to the Normans: The Anglo-Saxons in Angels in America" in Geis and Kruger, p. 147.
37. See Benilde Montgomery, "Angels in America as Medieval Mystery." Modern Drama 41/4 (Winter 98): 596-607.
38. Matthew Fox, Original Blessing. Santa Fe: Bear & Co., 1983.
39. See Rosemary Ruether, "Matthew Fox and Creation Spirituality." The Catholic World (July/August 1990): 168-72.
40. Kushner, p. 154.
41. Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg, The Book of J. New York: Random House, 1990. pp. 306-15.
42. For confirmation of this idea's antiquity, see Irenaeus of Lyon's treatise Against the Gnostics.
43. Prior's words are taken directly from The Book of J, which construes the Blessing as a primarily this-worldly phenomenon.
44. Savran, "Ambivalence," pp. 15 and 21 respectively.
45. Green, p. lix.
46. Greenberg states his norm of post-Holocaust religious language this way: "[N]othing can be said of God and of humanity which is not credible in the face of one million burning children. " See Irving Greenberg, "Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity, and Modernity after the Holocaust." Contemporary Jewish Theology : A Reader. Eds. Elliot N. Dorff and Louis E. Newman. New York : Oxford University Press, 1999. 396-416.
47. Angels was recently produced for television by HBO and first broadcast in December 2003. Because I did not see the original broadcast, and the DVD has not been released at the time of this writing, I cannot comment on the transformation of the play's theurgic effects in the transition from stage to small screen. This would be a fruitful line of inquiry for future research.
48. Martin Harries, "Flying the Angel of History" in Geis and Kruger, p. 194.
49. Richard Falk, "Religion and Politics: Verging on the Postmodern." Sacred Interconnections. Ed. David Ray Griffin. Albany: SUNY Press, 1990. p. 97.
50. Rosemary Radford Ruether, "Feminist Theology and Spirituality." Christian Feminism: Visions of a New Humanity. Ed. Judith L. Weidman. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. p. 19.
51. I would like to thank the following people for their help and encouragement during the writing of this essay: Kris ten Abbey, Rick Anderson, Sarah Avery, Carol Denise Bork, Mary Lawlor, Katherine Lynes, Marc Manganaro, John A. McClure, Alicia Ostriker, Christopher Pizzino, Alison Pruitt, Mark Rife, Erica Romaine, Channette Romero, Sara Warner, Mary Jo Watts, and Ruth Yeselson.
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