National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science No. 56: ‘Life, Liberation & Happiness,’ Part 1: ‘Angels in America’

For gay men during the AIDS Dark Age (1981-1996), during which time an estimated 400,000 of us died horribly and way too soon, there was nothing more valued than life, itself, and as Prior, the main character in Tony Kushner’s amazing play about that era, “Angels in America,” insists on, “Life…more life!”

The promise of “life, liberty (liberation) and the pursuit of happiness” as “inalienable rights” involves not only enjoying them, but empowerment to provide them to others, as well (something we homosexuals are very good at). It’s because the promise was not only written, but delivered by the Founding Fathers, who made a revolution to secure it for all. Each of its components – life, liberty and happiness – is properly defined in terms of the other two.

In Kushner’s epic Pulitzer, Tony and Emmy Award winning play, the two-part “Angels in America,” subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” (1993), life is the reality most affirmed in the seven-hour (presented in separate parts) drama about struggling to cope in the AIDS Dark Age.

The play is about insisting upon life while confused angels counsel against the idea, and ends with its AIDS-wracked but still standing hero Prior blessing all of us at the healing pond of the angel Bethesda – this one not in Jerusalem, but Central Park – and by so doing bestowing life upon us.

Drawing the exhaustive “Angels in America” to a close – after God is absent, angels are befuddled as heaven is crumbling, a Jewish activist prays for her enemy, a Mormon mother makes a breakthrough and puts love ahead of everything, a saucy male nurse steals from the rich for a friend in need, a depressed housewife breaks free, Prior breaks a fever, and much more – Prior turns from his friends sitting at the Bethesda fountain to speak to the audience, to us homosexuals. He says:
“The fountain’s not flowing now, they turn it off in the winter, ice in the pipes. But in the summer it’s a sight to see. I want to be around to see it. I plan to be. I hope to be.

“This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We don’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.

“Bye now.

“You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.

“And I bless you: More Life.

“The Great Work Begins.”

For non-gays asking, “What about us?,” this play is not about them, but for homosexuals in our darkest hours. Others can watch and learn.

Especially for any homosexuals, and our friends and loved ones who lived in that era, “Angels in America” is amazing beyond words. It was made into an HBO mini-series in 2003 that won and astounding 11 Emmys (directed by Mike Nichols and with a star-studded cast that included Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Patrick Wilson and Mary-Louise Parker).

An overarching theme is the unspoken alliance between women and gays against white male brutes, with the brutes in the play – the notorious Roy Cohn and his young lawyer ally – both being right-wing closet queens. Their closets are the product of the straight white male dominated culture that they bought into, and by so doing brought misery upon others. (Such gay assimilationists become, practically speaking in life, political reactionaries because assimilation doesn’t come naturally to them. They have work hard at it.)

This points to the role of homosexuals in nature’s wider order, to protect and provide for the advance of civilization by allying with independent-minded women to resist the cruelty and brutality of unbridled male supremacist behavior.

The archetypical male supremacist order is death-centered. Territorial by nature, it raises its young to fight its wars and to generate more fodder. Young males are raised to kill and die, or spiritually die to the monotony of its convention, and young females to bury them, actually and metaphorically, and make more.

Core homosexual traits – heightened sensibility, alternate perspective and constructive non-conformity – resist the dynamics of this archetype, combining with awakened women to fight it by…giving life!

Life in this sense – not as birthing to fuel the machinations of death, but a life that flares up and empowers the human spirit – is fundamental to who we are as homosexuals. We collaborate with women to break the death-cycle of male supremacy and create great, just and enlightened civilizations.

Our power to give this life – through humor, irony, education, music, dance, art, poetry and invention – is compromised only when we lose a passion for it.
Thus, it’s so critical to fight against resignation and jaded cynicism and insist on this life in “Angels in America.”