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"Angels", a word that today have sublime connotations ultimately derives from a rather mundane classical Greek masculine noun angelos, "messenger". In Greek, the word is no more so exciting than, say, "postman" or "radio announcer" is in English. It was only centuries later, after the word was introduced for biblical purposes , that angeloi, "angels", started to rival their messages in beauty and importance with white sprouting wings, blowing mighty horns, singing in celestial choirs, and altogether becoming iconic religious symbols. Angels in America is a play by Tony Kushner that sets during the mid 1980s, which marked the early years of the AIDS crisis in the United States. It was a period in which the terrible sense paranoia was directed towards the gay community to reach a point where the homosexuals, victims of the illness, were isolated by the virus and stood in contrast with the deeply conservative Republican administration, from whose "family values" they were excluded. It was only in 1987 that President Reagan finally addressed the illness in public. It had been six years since the first cases where reported, and three since virus that causes the illness had been identified, and by that point, twenty-four thousand people had died of it. Angels in America came as an enraged and intellectually ambitious response to that atmosphere of denial, silence and ignorance. The message Kushner was revealing was that the AIDS crisis was not a moral flaw on the part of gay men, as the conservatives running the country would have it, but rather a moral failing in America itself, which is embodied through the bitter and corrupted historical figure of Roy Cohn. This genius evil lawyer ultimately ties together the theme of Angels in America, the de-escalation of a country during the Reagan era, through his greed, selfishness, disillusionment, and denial of his identity.
Roy Cohn represents the raw, soulless appetite that processes for its own sake. He is first seen, at the beginning of scene two, sitting at his desk and yet, in an exaggerated state of motion. The stage directions used by Kushner are: " Roy at an impressive desk (...) Roy conducts business with great energy, impatience and sensual abandon: gesticulating, shouting, cajoling, crooning, playing the phone, receiver and hold button with virtuosity and love."(11) Cohn is portrayed as a rapacious predator, juggling over phone calls, completely committed to non-stop movement. He even tells Joe, his protégé: "I wish I was an octopus, a fucking octopus. Eight loving arms and all those suckers" (11). More arms mean more motion. All his frenetic activity and all his connections to the activity of the powerful in America, serve as his instruments of power. When Cohn gets a diagnosis of AIDS at the beginning of the play, instead of succumbing to a world of fantasies, which the weak and passive Prior does, he is unable to leave the crude and fervent world of ambition. While Cohn physically deteriorates throughout the play, he is nonetheless trying to advance his interests by pulling the necessary strings to get his disbarment proceedings dismissed. He even tries to co-opt the idealistic Joe Pitt into helping with his projects. Roy's desire to extend his influence everywhere exposes his obsession with power.
Not only is Roy greedy, he also preaches a gospel of selfishness and self-sufficiency. When his protégé, Joe, confides to him about his guilt of abandoning his wife, Cohn replies: "Life is full of horror; nobody escapes, nobody; save yourself. Whatever pulls on you, whatever threatens you. Don't be afraid (â€¦)What you are capable of. Let nothing stand in your way " (58). Roy advices Joe from identifying with any individual, suggesting that there is no room for compassion. Everything is about what you are capable of through power. Roy also has the most disturbing view of the universe which he describes as "a kind of sandstorm in outer space with winds of mega-hurricane velocity, but instead of grains of sand it's shards and splinters of glass"(13). His understanding of chaos and terror fuels individualism, not community through the imagery of shattered glass.
Roy also represents the aggressive hypocrisies of America during the Reagan administration. He is a conservative Republican, supporter of Reagan. He loathes homosexuals and asserts that he is a "heterosexual man" who "fucks around with guys" (46). Roy is nasty, dangerous and selfish. He embodies America terminal, crazy and mean. He wields the power of life and death over individuals. For instance, when the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg appears before him, it is revealed that he caused her death over illegal practice during her trial, which, in return, catapulted him to professional infamy. Power for him is everything. Power is his might. Power is his escape from his dissatisfactions. When he is diagnosed with AIDS, he realizes that he is soon going to die and, more strikingly, that his homosexuality might be revealed; he immediately invokes his connections to power to banish that idea. In a conversation with his doctor Henry, he states:" No. AIDS is what homosexuals have. I have liver cancer" (46).Through his denial, Roy makes an attempt to crush his disease, a reminder of his homosexuality. The possibility of death is nothing to him, compared to revealing the truth of his sexual orientation to the public. More than death itself, Roy dreads the loss of his fame, reputation and power. In fact, what Roy fears is his symbolic death: the possibility that the recognition associated with his name "Roy Cohn" might disappear. During a visit of Ethel Rosenberg, he proclaims that he is "immortal" by forcing his "way into history". According to Cohn, individuals can disappear but with power, their name will be remembered. That is why he is devastated toward being disbarred. He will welcome his death so far it does not involve a symbolic death. Despite his denials, Roy Cohn, the historical figure, dies of AIDS at the age of 59. Ultimately, AIDS have been the final victor of his controversial life. This reveals Roy's self-disillusionment which further asserts his hypocrisies.
Sexual identity against power is another reality revealed through Roy Cohn. He believes that political and sexual identities are inconceivable differences. He refuses to admit he has AIDS since it only affects "homosexuals and drug addicts". (46) Although Roy does admit to sleep with men, he rejects the label "homosexual" to be part of his identity. Upon learning his diagnosis, he threatens his long time physician and begins a breathtaking series of rationalization stating:
"No. Like all labels they tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology or sexual taste, but something much simple: clout "(45).
Roy contends that it is quite impossible for him to be gay, because gay people have no power, no clout, while he can get the president's wife on the phone within minutes. Thus, he declares his most famous statement: "Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual, who fucks around with guys" (46). For him, while politics is raw power that he reveals in his "clout", homosexuality is political impotence. He rejects his sexual identity, which is based on his sexual taste and embraces his political identity, which is based on how powerful he is in society. Roy himself is a contradiction, torn between his "clout" and homosexuality. His casuistry exemplifies America's moral, spiritual and intellectual stagnation. Roy Cohn outwardly asserts his hate for homosexuals while denying his own homosexuality. He is voracious, ruthless lawyer that is unable to accept the chasm between clout and disease.
In conclusion, Angels in America is an important work not just because it is about AIDS, but because it is about AIDS as a symptom of a profound rupture in American life. It is not only a play about gays, AIDS or the rottenness of official America's handling of the crisis, but about America as a whole, "selfish and greed and loveless and blind", embodied by the character of Roy Cohn. What made Angels in America such a success was the fact that it was a work about AIDS, where Tony Kushner reveals the American body politics on scale epic enough to suit his theme.