play fourteen: angels in america part two: perestroika

Marcus Graham's portrayal of Roy Cohn in the 2013 Belvoir production was electrifying.
Marcus Graham’s electrifying portrayal of Roy Cohn in the 2013 Belvoir production.

Author: Tony Kushner

Published: 1993

Synopsis: (as before) Three threads of American living gradually interweave in the cold new era of Reagan and in the face of the catastrophic AIDS crisis. Louis is confronted with his own cowardice as he abandons his lover Prior to struggle with his diagnosis of AIDS alone. Mormon couple Harper and Joe struggle with the constraints of their religion as sexuality and addiction collide. Roy Cohn, a New York arch-conservative lawyer responsible for the death of Ethel Rosenberg, refuses to submit to the label entailed by his deteriorating health.

What moved me: perhaps what is most moving about this work is that it has such a thick weave – there is so much going on in every moment – that its indictment of American Individualism coming at the cost of universal healthcare becomes just a single, ironcast, thread amongst many.

BELIZE: Well I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you.

The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word “free” to a note so high nobody could reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing on earth sounds less like freedom to me.

I also cannot pass the final paragraph of Kushner’s ‘Afterword’. This is what I hope for:

“I have been blessed with remarkable comrades and collaborators: Together we organise the world for ourselves, or at least we organise our understanding of it; we reflect it, refract it, criticize it, grieve over its savagery and help each other to discern amidst the gathering dark, paths of resistance, pockets of peace and places from whence hope may be plausibly expected. Marx was right: The smallest indivisible human unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction. From such nets of souls societies, the social world, human life springs. And also plays.”

Tony Kushner, ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’, 1993, 155

Gangnam prison

I couldn’t sleep last night for the idea, or question, really, that was buzzing around the inside of my skull. I was thinking about the final moments in Steppenwolf when he is waiting to be executed in his prison cell and there’s that stunning passage that I try to live by now.

Shadows of window blinds fall upon private eye Jake Gittes, performed by Jack Nicholson, in Chinatown (1974).

My thought-train leapfrogged to the influence of German expressionist film upon film noir, particularly in the use of a single harsh light blazed through a set of horizontal blinds. Strips of dark and lightness are used to heighten the claustrophobia of fast-encroaching modernity – every individual is caught, literally, in a prison of his own making.

Then I was struck by this thought: what if you could choose your claustrophobia?

What if you could choose for your cell to be in any 6m by 10m space?

If you had to look at one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Would you choose the main belly of a train carriage, for constant variety?

Or would you choose the edge of the sea?

A library jam-packed with books?

Or the kitchen of your family home?

Of course, all these options are to do with space rather than company. It is this distinction that brought home to me the key to imprisonment: it is not about restricted boundaries so much as your inability to cross them.

No matter what space you choose, whoever enters it has the ability to leave again, whereas you do not. And would you condemn another human being to live with you forever in a 6m by 10m box, no matter how bright the paint, or how real its colours? It is almost like a condensed form of immortality – you will outstay (rather than outlive) the people that surround you; although they may share some patch of time with you, isolation will be the defining state of your existence.

I guess your prison may as well be blank and bare; being imprisoned elsewhere may let you believe, momentarily, that you are free again, and the memory that you are not would make the plunge in the pit of your stomach all the more deep.

Also, I came across this video of inmates in a Philippine prison performing a mass dance routine to Gangnam Style and it sent chills down my spine.