No angels in America

Today I participated in a panel discussion about Angels in America, which my university’s theater department is staging. A great work of drama–and a vivid example of a postmodern take on religion (which, by coincidence, we’ve been discussing the past couple of days in my course on theory and methods for the study of religion).

The passage of the play from which the title comes (or at least where the title is used) has always intrigued me for being one of the most obscure passages of the play. The point being made, basically, is that if you discount Native Americans, America is a land with no history. For Louis, the gay Jewish leftist delivering this coffee shop rant, America’s history-less-ness opens up the possibility for change, for constructing a just society. Europe, by contrast, he describes as a place where “hope is dissolved in the sheer age of [the] place, where race is what counts and there’s no real hope for change.” And then this:

Ultimately race here is a political question, right? Racists just use race here as a tool in a political struggle. It’s not really about race. Like the spiritualists try to use that stuff, are you enlightened, are you centered, channeled, whatever, this reaching out for a spiritual past in a country where no indigenous spirits exist–only the Indians, I mean Native American spirits and we killed them off so now, there are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political, and the decoys and the ploys to maneuver around the inescapable battle of politics, the shifting downwards and outwards of political power to the people . . .

Except, it turns out in the play, there are angels in America: Jewish angels, Mormon angels, Christian angels, angels in statuary commemorating the nation’s fallen dead. And they become, in a decidedly postmodern, eclectic, ironic-yet-serious, non-totalistic way, a paradox-laden symbol of hope. Kushner reaches out for a spiritual past in a country that, according to the character I suspect is most like the playwright, doesn’t have one–and it turns out there’s something he can work with.

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