Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,

My fundamental problem with Angels in America: Perestroika

This is a post I've been meaning to write since I saw the HBO adaptation, or for almost eight years, though I am no longer using the absolutist shorthand of "the fundamental flaw." It assumes a familiarity with the play and involves spoilers for the entire thing.

I am finally getting around to this post because [personal profile] rushthatspeaks posted about reading the play, and in comments, I said I could sum up my problem with part two as "What has Joe done wrong?" Which turned out to be too succinct: I should have said, "What has Joe done wrong, that he alone is not forgiven?"

Consider the three "bad guys" in the play. There's Roy Cohn, who one character calls "the polestar of human evil," who cheerfully admits to massive violations of legal ethics that, among other things, resulted in the execution of Ethel Rosenberg (who is haunting him as he dies of AIDS), and who is a vicious closeted bigot. There's Louis, who leaves Prior because he can't cope with the "in sickness or in health" part of long-term relationships, and who spouts massively self-involved racist bullshit. And there's Joe, who leaves Harper because he finally came out of the closet (he was raised Mormon), who is a Republican law clerk trusted by other conservative judges on the court to ghostwrite at least two particularly loathsome decisions, and who, on one occasion, punches Louis several times.

What happens to each of them?

Roy dies in pain, but is shown compassion by Ethel Rosenberg before he dies, and has the Kaddish said for him by Louis and Ethel at the request of Belize, the moral center of the play:

He was a terrible person. He died a hard death. So maybe . . . A queen can forgive her vanquished foe. It isn't easy, it doesn't count if it's easy, it's the hardest thing. Forgiveness. Which is maybe where love and justice finally meet. Peace, at last. Isn't that what the Kaddish asks for?

He is last seen in the afterlife, enthusiastically agreeing to defend God against charges of abandonment.

Louis is not taken back by Prior; he is last seen four years later having friendly conversations with Prior, Belize (to whom he spouted his massively self-involved racist bullshit), and Hannah (Joe's mother).

Joe is last seen [*] when Harper demands his credit card from him so she can leave. He pleads with her not to, saying that she is the only person in the world who loves him and he doesn't know what will happen to him with her. When she refuses, he asks her to at least call; she says, "No. Probably never again. That's how bad." Earlier, Harper—who is screwed up but positioned as a voice of insight—said that "the truth" about Joe was that "[h]e's got a sweet hollow center, but he's the nothing man."

[*] In the play; the HBO adaptation adds a brief moment of connection between Joe and his mother after Harper leaves.

(Interestingly-to-me, my impression is that the play considers Joe's principal sin to be leaving Harper. I base this on three things. First, when Harper declares him "the nothing man," she doesn't, as far as I can tell, know that he beat up Louis or about the substance of his work. Second, the play devotes relatively little time overall to Joe's beating up Louis; the person most upset by it seems to be Joe himself. Third and most importantly, as Belize says, "I smell a motif. The man that got away." That is: when even God's sin turns out to be abandonment (of Heaven and his angelic lovers), the common thread is really hard to ignore.)

But regardless: Joe is less corrupt than Roy (note that he refuses Roy's request that he join the Justice Department so that he can quash ethical proceedings against Roy). He left his lover for better reason than Louis. And he was responsible for less physical harm than Roy (some bruises, as opposed to an execution). Yet at the end, he alone is left unforgiven and entirely bereft.

Which really undercuts, for me, the play's explicit messages about forgiveness and denial of stasis. Indeed, I'm not sure there's a worse example of stasis in the play than Joe and Harper's marriage; though she loves him, their marriage is not making her, and cannot make her, happy (hello, Valium addiction?). Him either, though the play seems to have lost, between parts one and two, its compassion for his struggle to overcome the self-loathing denial inculcated by his upbringing. (I ached for them both in part one, as much as I did for Prior.)

I have my doubts about the consistency and necessity of Joe's characterization and role in the second half. But even taking those at face value, I still don't see why he deserves, in the play's moral logic, the ending he gets. And that is my fundamental problem with Angels in America: Perestroika.

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