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The American Apocalypse

Essay by review  •  February 5, 2011  •  Research Paper  •  4,444 Words (18 Pages)  •  1,566 Views

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In spite of its critically cherished commitment to post-modern ambiguity, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America unapologetically weaves a through-line of stark apocalyptic imagery into its eighties Reaganite tapestry of failed ideological narratives and corrupt American realpolitik. There are cainite markings, divine plagues, holes in the ozone-layer, a demonic Roy Cohn; lest we forget the descending angel and naught-prophetic Prior, for whom the impending Armageddon is strictly personal. The forbearer of all this doom and gloom is, of course, the angel who, in all her clamor and scripted biblical wish-wash, too stands terrified before an end - in a dreary, godless San Francisco rife with dour spirits and tacky nostalgia - but an end nonetheless. God has вЂ?wandered off’ and left his progeny вЂ" angels and humans alike вЂ" in the balance. With all the fire and brimstone a famished nineteen eighties heaven can muster the instrumental angel descends, in the opening of Perestroika, to deliver its message: “Forsake the Open Road: Neither Mix Nor Intermarry: Let Deep Roots Grow: If you do not MINGLE you will Cease to Progress: Seek Not to Fathom the World and its Delicate Particle Logic.” (178)

One of the main dialectics of Kushner’s play is that opposing progress and its thematic antithesis, apocalypse, but it’s not until the first act of Perestroika this dichotomy transcends Louis’ scatterbrained political wrangling about progressivism in the Reagan era, and is imbued with literal eschatological meaning at the appearance of the angel. The end of times is not figurative nor symbolic, but in the spirit of American millennialism a very literal purge of the perceived вЂ?perverted’ and вЂ?subversive’ elements that so thoroughly populate Kushner’s Angels. The interrogation of progress, the catalyst of impending doom, roughly takes up four of the play’s five Acts scouting the heavens for collapse, but the fifth and the epilogue relapses into a hurried defense of progress, in spite of the overwhelming evidence stockpiled against it. As Matthew Wilson Smith notes in his acclaimed essay “Angels in America: A Progressive Apocalypse” the respective ideas of metamorphosis within the progressive and apocalyptic framework appear to be inherently incompatible.

In the apocalyptic worldview, transformation is generally sudden and total: complete destruction and complete rebirth, … it is only when history comes to an end that liberation is truly possible; … . [In] the progressive worldview, instead of sudden, radical transformation, progressives tend to see the world evolving slowly, see history as a gradual, painful growth toward liberation. (Smith 156)

The contrast is between the sudden and abrupt sweeping of the world by divine providence, and “a kind of painful progress” as Harper coins it in her final monologue вЂ" slow, unsure and stumbling, but ultimately moving towards “something” better. This paper will examine the relationship between the progressive and apocalyptic in Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, and argue that while the play’s epilogue epitomizes the very progressives the angel forbids (intermingling, migration), we’re ultimately left with a promise of some sort of apocalypse to fully redeem Kushner’s plagued world.

In order to understand the eschatological subtext of the play’s two parts, it’s important to note that the term apocalypse, derived from the Greek word вЂ?apokalypsis’, literally means ”to unveil”, and in historical Judeo-Christian contexts, as seen in Revelations, usually describes some sort of prophetic disclosure of God’s judgment, if not the actual end of days (Keller 1). The vision itself is traditionally marked by the destruction of the corrupt ruling powers and vindication of the righteous dead who shall be raised to the kingdom of heaven by divine expediency (Revelations 20). In the world of Angels, however, the apocalyptic prophecy is not a preordained unveiling of God’s design, but the result of the absence of design. Through our driving God away, we have orchestrated our own impromptu demise, evident in the environmental, political and carnal diseases afflicted upon us in the waning days of the millennium. At least that’s the speculative supposition the Angel posits when it charges us to “turn back. Undo. Until he returns again” (179). It is this plea for change, changing back, that so tries the characters of Angels, who spend Millennium Approaches enduring the old, toppling world of 1985, and Perestroika bringing it down. In the words of Aleksi Antedilluviasnovich, the world’s oldest living Bolshevik: “The question is: are we doomed? … Can we change? In time?” (147). The implicit answer is no, not without вЂ?theory’.

In the play’s opening scene Rabbi Chemelwitz eulogizes Louis’ grandmother Sarah Ironson, who was, not so much a person, but the idea of one: a “whole kind of a person”. Like the opening scene of Perestroika holds mass for the death of the obsolete grand theory of communism, so does Rabbi Chemelwitz mourn the outmoded immigrant characters America was built upon. To Aleksi Antedilluvianovich, this brave new theory-less world leaves us with only one choice: “We dare not, we cannot, we MUST not move ahead” (149). The loss of the unifying concepts that gave life structure, meaning and boundaries is depicted as a kind of apocalypse in itself, a revelation of new disorder and fragmentation. Antedilluvianovich mirrors Rabbi Chemelwitz in more than vintaged mannerisms; he too leads us in to requiem for the departed; for all the вЂ"isms that collapsed upon themselves in the 20th century, and left us stumbling blindly in the dark towards the edge. It’s in this world вЂ" unbound by the logic, principles and theories of yore вЂ" that the end of the world, prophesized by double-gendered angels, AIDS-stricken prophets and hallucinatory travel agents, seems strangely unremarkable.

Of course, the most notorious prophet of Millennium Approaches, prior to the introduction of the angel, is Harper who time and time again muses on the inexorable downward spiral of human progress in weirdly prophetic manner. Everywhere systems are failing and paradigms breaking up, and the only clearly logical explanation is that the sky is falling.

I feel … that something's going to give. It's

...

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