The Great Work Begins: Theater as Theurgy in Angels in America

By Lioi, Anthony | Cross Currents, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview
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The Great Work Begins: Theater as Theurgy in Angels in America


Lioi, Anthony, Cross Currents


"To do this, every Kabbalist on earth would sell his right nut."
--Rabbi Chemelwitz, Act 5, Scene 6, Perestroika

Before we sell the family jewels, it would be wise to consider Tony Kushner's Angels in America as theurgic theater, a door into the Great Work of repairing the self, the nation, the world, and God. Despite its title, Angels in America has not been widely acknowledged as religious drama without ironic quotation marks. Hailing it as socially engaged theater in the Brechtian tradition, as an American AIDS epic, the first generation of Angels reviewers focused most of their attention on the play's sexual politics. Writing in The Progressive, Bob Blanchard spoke for many when he praised the play as "taut, serious, heart-breaking drama about the AIDS epidemic and ... a witty, sexy evocation of gay life in contemporary America." (1) Such an approach is certainly justified: six of the eight main characters are gay men, two of whom develop AIDS at the height of the Reagan presidency, just as radical AIDS activism--embodied in ACT UP, Gran Fury, Gay Men's Health Crisis, and Queer Nation, among other groups (2)--begins to coalesce in New York and San Francisco. (3) Nonetheless, I believe that the popular media's preoccupation with sexuality in Angels has obscured another source of the play's vitality--Jewish spirituality, particularly the traditions of biblical prophecy and Kabbalah--which radically reconfigures the psychic and political spaces in which the characters struggle. Even the most exhaustive collection of scholarship on the play, Deborah R. Geis and Steven R. Kruger's Approaching the Millennium: Essays on Angels in America, tends to efface Judaism as a spiritual path in favor of Judaism as a cultural tradition, a move that many contributors seem not to recognize as skewed towards secularism as an ideology. (4) I acknowledge, however, that Kushner does not appropriate Jewish traditions in their received forms, hostile as they are to the queer erotics he celebrates. Instead, he recasts their sexual dynamics through the figure of Prior Walter and his celestial companion, the Angel of America. In the spirit of his Kabbalistic predecessors, he creates a theater of theurgy where the nature of God, humanity, and the cosmos is transfigured for characters and audience alike. Theurgy, which literally means "god-work," is a spiritual practice based on the belief that the performance of mitzvot, or good works mandated by Torah, actually changes the nature of God, empowering his merciful aspect to heal the Creation, whose brokenness reflects God's own wounds. (5) Kushner's new theurgy operates in a context that is explicitly postmodern: eschatological but antiapocalyptic, (6) ecologically aware, post-existential, and gender-destabilized. Like the Marxist and feminist liberation theologies of recent decades, Kushner promises freedom-in-exodus from the demonic powers of capitalism, totalitarianism, and patriarchy, though his cry of hope is tempered by the knowledge that the world cannot be redeemed in a night, even a night in the Theater of the Fabulous. (7) In Angels, heaven and earth both labor under the shadow of self-division and shattered histories.

Most critics have analyzed the play through a secular hermeneutic--in which its visionary aspects are written off as dreams and drug-induced delusions--or a conservative religious hermeneutic--in which homosexuality is de facto the realm of fallenness and abomination--and thereby fail to detect the strains of prophecy and Kabbalah which provide a coherent religious cosmology amidst disaster and betrayal. Even Geis and Kruger, in their editorial Introduction to Approaching the Millennium, feel the need for quotation marks around the word angelic as they describe the forces that disrupt the play's realism. (8) The playwright himself is not so cautious. Despite the imputed atheism in his profession of faith in dialectical materialism, (9) Kushner makes no bones about his attraction for things spiritual, insisting that love of the world and love of God are intimately related.

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