Earlier this year, a team of professors–from Berkeley and elsewhere–issued a study that linked Ronald Reagan to Hitler. The scholars proclaimed: “Hitler, Mussolini, and former President Ronald Reagan were individuals, but all were right-wing conservatives because they preached a return to an idealized past and condoned inequality in some form…. This intolerance of ambiguity can lead people to cling to the familiar, to arrive at premature conclusions, and to impose simplistic clichés and stereotypes.”
The professors would be shocked to recognize how well the latter generalization fits a certain type of person: the dedicated Reagan-hater. This type is on prominent display in Tony Kushner’s drama Angels in America, the film version of which is set to begin airing on HBO Sunday night. The story is set in the 1980s. While the Free World is fighting off Communism, Kushner, too, sees a global struggle of good versus evil–but in his version it’s Reagan against the gays. Kushner strips Reagan of any merit, and reduces him fictionally to an anti-gay crusader. One character says with a straight face: “If [Reagan] didn’t have people like me to demonize where would he be? Upper-right-hand square on The Hollywood Squares.”
In the Manichaean world of Angels in America, everything Reagan stood for (capitalism, etc.) is evil. The most vocal Republican in the film is Roy Cohn–the unscrupulous gay lawyer who denied his sexuality and AIDS diagnosis to his death. In Cohn, a man ultimately undone by his own lies and hypocrisy, Kushner finds his embodiment of Reagan’s administration. To complement Cohn, Kushner creates Joe Pitt–closeted Republican Mormon do-gooder extraordinaire. Joe’s not a very good Mormon–he makes one reference to the Bible but states that he can’t remember the significance of Jacob wrestling with the angel, “only the picture.” He also doesn’t appear to be very smart. Before his illness, Al Pacino’s Roy Cohn is a shiftless, unlikable bully; when Joe Pitt is surprised that the plagued Cohn is corrupt, you want to slap him.
The acting–by Meryl Streep, Justin Kirk, Jeffrey Wright, and, at times, Pacino–is brilliant, but in an unworthy artistic cause. With one exception–the AIDS-stricken Walter Prior–it is hard for viewers to invest emotionally in the fate of Kushner’s characters. Furthermore, he’s too obviously incapable of writing strong parts for women: Mary-Louise Parker’s chattering, valium-addicted Mormon housewife is irritating; Emma Thompson’s oversexed angel has great hair but little substance. Kushner’s dialogue is occasionally witty, and his emotional range is broad; but he cannot get past his anger long enough to teach the audience anything new.
Roy Cohn is simply too convenient as a demon-figure. He was such an awful person that Kushner can damn Reagan for employing him, Ed Meese for working with him, and any remaining Republicans for thinking he did some things right. Cohn played a large role in getting Ethel Rosenberg executed, so Kushner brings back the convicted traitor to haunt the disbarred lawyer; she is forced to feel sympathy for his suffering, but never once empathy for his beliefs. Kushner can’t separate out the complexities of such this truly conflicted character.
And this failure to comprehend complexity is the play’s major flaw. Kushner talks about progress and awakening, but the only people who learn are Republican. We are expected to believe that the rest of his characters would have no problems, if they could just get Reagan and his evil crew to leave them alone.
At the end of the play, the 1980s are over and nearly everyone–besides the dead or reformed Republicans–is exactly as he was. Cohn is dead, his apprentice has disappeared from the script, and Joe’s insipid wife has run off with his credit card to self-medicate herself into oblivion. Joe’s Mormon mother (reformed!) has shed her dowdy look and replaced her confused family with her new friends.
Even the angelic mysticism embodied by Emma Thompson proves a meaningless dead end: Prior rejects her offer of prophecy and everything goes conveniently back to normal.
Those Berkeley researchers described wanting to “shun and even punish outsiders and those who threaten the status of cherished world views” as a feature of conservatism. In fact, it’s in a work like Kushner’s that this pathology is flagrant. In his world, there is practically zero space for opposing thought. In the end, his play is not really about the unfolding saga of the characters, what they have learned, or what place religion has in the modern world. Despite all his talk of modernity and moving forward, Tony Kushner’s play is tragically stuck in his own, truly reactionary solipsism.
–Meghan Keane is an NR editorial associate.