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No Redemption in “Angels in America” (Guest Post) 30 August 2010

Posted by Todd in Culture, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay Culture, Literature, Mormonism/LDS Church.

In a conversation with some friends last week about the brilliance and shortcomings of Kushner’s play cycle Angels in America, a friend of mine, Caroline Udall, wrote this piercing critique of Kushner’s choice to redeem every character except the gay Mormon. Her comment is in medias rex, as it were, but I think it stands on its own as an example of excellent literary criticism. The first paragraph is my comment to which Caroline is responding.

Even today, however, I find that it stings me to the core that the only character who doesn’t find forgiveness in the play is the gay mormon character. Everyone else, even Roy Cohn the evil monster proto-typical self-hating Himmler of American gay life from HUAC to AIDS, even *he* finds redemption. But the gay mormon character is simply lost, refusing redemption at the end of the play, a poison to his wife, his mother, and to the boyfriend he beats up.

This is the exact bone I have to pick with Angels in America as well (I mean the HBO version; I’ve never seen it on stage). To me Joe was a heartbreaking character–absolutely trapped and warped by his family, his religion, his whole right-wing mormon milieu. And I thought Kushner deeply, deeply betrayed that character.

I read a bit of an interview with Kushner once. I can’t remember where I read it, but it was shortly after I saw the DVD. Kushner said, essentially, that he didn’t want Joe to come away with ANYTHING. He wanted him to lose EVERYTHING—that he saw him as some kind of completely hypocritical closet case and wanted to set it up to punish that kind of figure. But the problem is, he didn’t set him up as a Ted Haggard type, or even as a Roy Cohn type. He set the character up as this lost soul who is deeply naive, believes in his religion and consequently hates himself, is really just as much a victim of the patriarchs and their patriarchal homophobia as Harper or his mother are victims of patriarchal misogyny. He develops Joe as having been wounded and rejected by a homophobic, unloving father and thus vulnerable to the warped father-figure of Cohn. That scene where Cohn puts his hands on Joe’s head and blesses him in this really twisted playing out of a mormon father’s blessing was absolutely seething with evil to me. And Joe absorbs it with really no awareness that he is under the hands of the devil. He even tells Cohn that he loves him in that scene–and he clearly means it in a son-to-father sense, not in an erotic way. So here he is getting the devil’s blessing and receiving it, in all innocence, as if it were something holy.

Joe doesn’t share Cohn’s values, but is sort of hypnotized into thinking that Cohn shares his values. That scene where he confronts Cohn about federal witness tampering (or whatever it was) demonstrates clearly that Joe was not inherently a dishonest man.

I fucking hated the character of Louis (which, I suppose may have been the point, lol) for partly this reason. Joe is clearly, CLEARLY ignorant about who Roy Cohn is and what part he has played in history. Yet when Louis finds out that Joe works for Cohn, that’s it. Knowing nothing more than that, he sobbingly rejects Joe in absolutely cruel, arrogant, judgmental terms. It’s not Cohn that’s the villain here–it’s Joe—simply for his proximity to Cohn. Louis even quotes that whole “Have you no decency, sir?” stuff at Joe, as if Joe were the one who had done all that shit during the HUAC hearings. And this is from a man who abandons his AIDS-stricken lover bleeding on the floor because he himself is too physically squeamish to deal with it. He doesn’t even bother to call the ambulance before he goes. It’s like Cohn’s sins have been pronounced on Joe’s head and JOE gets sent off into the desert to die. Joe’s been the innocent scapegoat and so enables everybody else to have basically a warm, lovely happy ending. (Hmm. D’ya think? It works for me. But maybe it’s too much of a stretch. Then again, considering the scene in the hospital where he gets Cohn’s blood all over him after Cohn lays hands on him–maybe it’s not such a stretch.)

If Kushner wanted to punish evil, self-hating, hypocritical closet cases who make life worse for other gays, then why does Cohn get to have Kaddish said for him (in the movie, by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, no less–a woman he participated in essentially murdering), but Joe loses everything, gets no comfort, no redemption of any kind? Joe was in no way a conscious betrayer, a conscious evil presence, in the way that Cohn was. In Joe, Kushner created what I thought was a beautiful, tragic, wounded, and essentially innocent character that was very, very true to what it means to be a victim of mormonism–gay or otherwise. And then he betrays him and psychically kills him off, while giving the TRUE villain of the piece on every. single. level. one of the most redemptive scenes in the play.

Yeah, lol. It clearly bugged me. Joe’s character broke my heart as much as any character in that play and I thought Kushner absolutely betrayed him. I’m still gnawing on it, five years after I saw the thing.



1. El Genio - 30 August 2010

I noticed the exact same thing when I watched the series. Rather than being upset about it though, my reaction was more along the lines of thinking to myself, “How typical. The gay mormon is abandoned by everyone. Just another example of why these young men end up killing themselves so often.” Tragic, but true.

2. Caroline Udall - 31 August 2010

It’s a good point. In light of your comment, I sort of examined the etiology of my reaction as it were. When I initially saw the film, I think my reaction was just pained confusion about it. The last we see of Joe he is just basically destroyed. And then, when we see the epilogue where Prior gives his little speech to the camera and all the other characters are smilingly gathered behind him, all snuggly, Joe is absent. He is simply gone.

I couldn’t figure it out. Did he just not know what to do with Joe? Is he off somewhere living a more authentic life now (which was the implication with Harper)? There was nothing in the play proper that would indicate that, though. I just didn’t get it.

Then a few weeks later, I happened across that interview and it totally pissed me off. He did that to Joe ON PURPOSE. He excoriated Joe with that HUAC “have you no decency” speech and had Ethel Rosenberg and LOUIS, fer fuck’s sake, say Kaddish for Cohn. He stripped Joe of everything–no mercy–when Joe was, to me, one of the biggest victims in the play. And he left him with nothing.

That’s what turned my whole feeling about it.

3. Jess - 2 September 2010

I agree with you 100%! I love everything about Angels in America, the story, characters, and dialogue were beautifully written, but I loathed how Kaushner wrote Joe off and fed him to the wolves. Joe was by far my favorite character – he was so naive, trusting, hurt, and tragic that I couldn’t help but like his character. It pissed me off that someone as self-serving and judgemental as Louis gets a peachy ending, and we never hear from Joe again.

4. maycatdecal - 27 October 2010

I am a student, I joined the blog to make friends with the lava away from the liver around the world. I want to learn many things about the country, people, life, culture … of your country. Happy to be acquainted with the original.

5. Danny - 26 June 2011

where is this interview???

6. Michael - 20 August 2011

It might be interesting to you to know something of Kushner’s progression on the character of Joe.

Angels in America went through months and months of initial stagings and rewritings. The version originally presented in London, which preceded the Broadway production (which became the published text) by about a year, had a decidedly different trajectory for Joe. In London, it was not Joe who beat up Louis–Louis beat himself up, with a frying pan, as a gesture of shame and apology to Prior. In London, Joe’s gesture of returning to his wife and asking if they might try to make love was his own idea, not an order from Cohn–a futile, earnest effort, not to protect a false marriage, but actually to return to the straight life that had become more and more distant. And Joe’s final scene was a reconciliation with his mother, with no renunciation of his gayness, in which Joe, while dancing with his mother, recounted a dream in which he was reconciled even with his dead and disapproving military father, a dream in which the sky was filled with stars that resembled his father’s military medals. Joe was not present in the final scene at the Bethesda Fountain, but we nevertheless left him in a place of blessedness.

It was the year of further workshopping in the United States that led Kushner to simplify the ambiguity of the character and, ultimately, to villainize him, to make him the one who beat Louis, to reduce his attempt to heal his broken marriage to an act of obedience to the closeted Cohn, and ultimately to leave him utterly adrift. (There were other debatable adjustments and simplifications.) Interestingly, in the television script, Kushner softened this slightly. In the teleplay, the last time we see Joe is actually in a sidewalk encounter with his mother, who offers to cook for him that night as a street choir sings a hymn in the background. In the published text of the play, even this hint of kindness for Joe is denied him.

7. Matt - 8 November 2011

I can’t agree more, this was poorly done and basically wrong. It made me hate this miniseries, the unfairness of it too much to bear. Not to mention I thought the final scene was just silly, how exactly did the Mormon Mom turn into that person at the fountain?? Made no sense to me. One minute she is pretty clueless about many of the ways of the modern world and the next she is so in touch and cosmopolitan it’s ridiculous.

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