Angels in America: Millennium Approaches (1992)

By Tony Kushner

Note: These are my initial thoughts on Millennium Approaches, written as a journal assignment in the fall of 1998. I’m tempted to revise it or pull it down altogether, but I’ve decided to keep it up here as an artifact of sorts.

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A copy of Perestroika is sitting within my reach. I refuse to open it until I finish this journal. In this first part of Angels in America, Tony Kushner offers a modern deconstruction of the American family drama, along with political/social commentary (and humor!), united perfectly in a crosshatch of formal realism and fantasy. Quite a feat. I’m not sure where to begin.

“I took the bus that I was told to take and I got off — well it was the very last stop, so I had to get off.” — Hannah

That Millennium Approaches references Tennessee Williams should not be a surprise. Kushner, a gay playwright whose work addresses issues of family, love, acceptance, and destruction, is obviously indebted to his predecessor. That his play so often references A Streetcar Named Desire specifically is of a bit more interest. The allusions are hardly subtle. In Harper, for instance, Kushner paints for us a portrait of what Blanche DuBois may have looked like while she still struggled for life at Belle Reeve. Like Blanche, Harper has genuinely fallen in love with a man whose homosexuality, admitted or not, has ruined both their relationship and her sanity. And also like Blanche and her desire for “magic,” Harper prefers “pretend-happy” to the ugly truth. “[It’s] better than nothing,” she tells Joe.

Near the end of Millennium Approaches‘ first act, Harper finally confronts Joe about his sexuality. Her words are biting, laced with religious condemnation. “I knew you . . .” she tells him before stopping herself. “It’s a sin, and it’s killing us both.” I can practically hear the strains of music drifting through Blanche’s mind, stopped suddenly by a gunshot. Although Joe does not end his own life (reflecting, I think, some social change in America over the last forty years — the gay man musn’t necessarily be punished), Harper’s accusations do effectively end their admittedly superficial marriage. For Harper, as was famously the case with Blanche, the truth is too difficult to face. So instead, she slips into the darkness, both literally and metaphorically.

Perhaps the most obvious allusion to Streetcar (aside from Prior’s and Belize’s quoting of it in Act 2, Scene 5) occurs near the beginning of Act 2. Joe returns to the apartment to find Harper “sitting at home, all alone, with no lights on. We can barely see her.” When Joe asks her why she sits in the dark and then turns on the light, Harper screams, “No,” and shuts them off again. By the end of Millennium Approaches, Harper, again like Blanche, has fled reality completely. It is only when she travels with Mr. Lies that Harper is able to survive in a “very white, cold place, with a brilliant blue sky above.”

“Eric? This is a Jewish name?” — Rabbi Chemelwitz

You’ve got to love any work that begins with a Rabbi eulogizing in a very Woody Allen/Mel Brooks kind of way, his sentiments alternating between moments of divine wisdom and hilarious asides. In Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud exposes the genealogy of the Jewish joke, noting its remarkably long and often self-critical history. The Jews, according to Freud, have developed such a rich comedic tradition as a response to centuries, millennia actually, of persecution and anti-Semitism. What better catharsis is there, he might say, than a good laugh?

In Millennium Approaches, Kushner uses jokes in a similar manner, expanding their range, however, to encompass not only issues of anti-Semitism and Jewish stereotypes, but also of homophobia. The result, I think, is the formation of living, breathing, and oft-suffering characters, as opposed to the two-dimensional cutouts who often inhabit Gay and Jewish roles. Kushner acknowledges stereotypes, then undercuts them. “My grandmother actually saw Emma Goldman speak. In Yiddish,” Louis tells Prior. “But all Grandma could remember was that she spoke well and wore a hat.” Henny Youngman would be proud. “It’s an old Jewish custom to express love,” continues Louis. “Here, Grandma, have a shovelful. Latecomers run the risk of finding the grave completely filled.” The lines echo with Borscht Belt rim-shots. But instead of allowing the jokes to flatten Louis into a stereotype, Kushner uses them to expose other forces which have contributed in varying degrees to the formation of his identity — Louis is not just gay, not just well-educated, not just a word processor. Being aware of his identification as a Jew helps us better understand the many conflicts in Louis’ life. Jews aren’t supposed to be gay. The importance of this conflict is, of course, echoed in Joe’s and Harper’s struggle. Mormons aren’t supposed to be gay either.

Jokes, I think, are used in a similar manner to humanize the homosexual characters in Millennium Approaches. Again, Kushner acknowledges stereotypes — Prior exposing Louis’ embarrassment about his sibilant S, for instance. But he also moves beyond those stereotypes and confronts the audience with casual, though often graphic, references to homosexual sex. “Oh and by the way, darling, cousin Doris is a dyke,” Prior tells Louis. “You don’t notice anything. If I hadn’t spent the last four years fellating you I’d swear you were straight.” The discomfort lines like this would cause in a large audience would, I’m sure, be lessened somewhat when relieved through laughter.

And that same laughter is also used to release the terrifying tension created by the play’s greatest threat: AIDS. During research for my thesis, I was surprised to learn that most within the Jewish-American community were unwilling to even mention the Holocaust until the mid-1960s. Much of that silence seems to have been broken by people like Mel Brooks, whose Oscar-winning screenplay for The Producers featured the notoriously hilarious “Springtime for Hitler” song and dance scene. Millennium Approaches must have had much the same impact. Nearly a decade after its original production, and I was still shocked to hear Prior’s light-hearted resignation:

K.S., baby. Lesion number one. Lookit. The wine-dark kiss of the angel of death . . . I’m a lesionnaire. The Foreign Lesion. The American Lesion. Lesionairre’s disease . . . My troubles are lesion . . . Bad timing, funeral and all, but I figured as long as we’re on the subject of death . . .

I noticed that in the notes which accompany Perestroika, Kushner calls the play “a comedy,” distinguishing it from a “farce” and forbidding any amount of sentiment. Making a joke of “the subject of death,” I think, is this play’s greatest accomplishment, not because it makes light of a serious matter, but because it forces us to acknowledge — without the safe distance allowed by farce and sentimentality — the painful, human reality of that matter.

“You have all these secrets and lies” — Harper

I’m fascinated by the idea of trying to place Millennium Approaches in the tradition of the American family drama. It explores similar themes, particularly the destructive effects of secrets and the breakdown of communication. The obvious problem with this type of reading, however, is that, aside from Joe’s mother and Louis’ dead grandmother, there are few references to traditional, multi-generation families. But that, I think, is also the point. In writing the homosexual American experience, Kushner has, by necessity, thrown off common notions of family. Instead of the matriarchal “Mama” from A Raisin in the Sun, Kushner gives us Belize, a mothering drag queen, and Harper, a de-sexed woman who can only imagine fertility. Instead of offering unity within the biological family, Kushner shows us the isolated lives of gay men, first in Roy Cohn, then in the abandoned Prior. Instead of allowing an imagined familial bliss, Kushner exposes its failings. For some reason, I find the play’s saddest lines belong to Joe, who describes to Roy his inability to pass for someone “cheerful and strong.”

Those who love God with an open heart unclouded by secrets and struggles are cheerful; God’s easy simple love for them shows in how strong and happy they are . . . I wanted to be one of the elect, one of the Blessed. You feel you ought to be, that the blemishes are yours by choice, which of course they aren’t. Harper’s sorrow, that really deep sorrow, she didn’t choose that. But it’s hers.

As is often the case in American family dramas, the tragedy of Millennium Approaches stems from the inability of its characters to live honestly. Blanche DuBois’ husband committed suicide instead. Joe and Harper lived a loveless life together instead. Roy Cohn ignored the truth and sought power instead.