The Great Work Begins

Cody Walker
December 29, 2016
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Late in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika, Belize tells Louis, “You come with me to room 1013 over at the hospital, I’ll show you America. Terminal, crazy and mean.” I feel like I’ve been waking up in room 1013 every morning since November 9th. Some days it takes me a few minutes to remember where I am, but I’m reminded soon enough: a voice on the radio says “President-elect Trump”—and not as part of some comic riff or demented fantasy. “Nothing is real,” the Beatles once promised us. But this feels real.

In Kushner’s play, a dying Roy Cohn is confined to room 1013. As Louis says, “He’s like the polestar of human evil, he’s like the worst human being who ever lived, he isn’t human even, he’s. . . .” Louis trails off; words fail. But listen to Cohn’s own words, from the previous scene: “My generation, we had clarity. Unafraid to look deep into the miasma at the heart of the world, what a pit, what a nightmare is there—I have looked, I have searched all my life for absolute bottom, and I found it, believe me.” Believe me. You’ve been hearing this phrase all year. Roy Cohn! Trump’s mentor! This horrifying fact can’t be repeated often enough.

Here are more of Cohn’s words, as penned by Kushner:

Love; that’s a trap. Responsibility; that’s a trap too. Like a father to a son I tell you this: Life is full of horror; nobody escapes, nobody; save yourself. Whatever pulls on you, whatever needs from you, threatens you. Don’t be afraid; people are so afraid; don’t be afraid to live in the raw wind, naked, alone. . . . Learn at least this: What you are capable of. Let nothing stand in your way.

I alone: Trump’s ethos. You can hear it when he speaks. You can see it in his Christmas card. The Moving Finger tweets; and, having tweeted, moves on. Citizens, we’re in a world of trouble.

So what do we do? Relentless ridicule (which I’ll get to, in my next post) is one option. Committing a kind of spiritual suicide in room 1013 is another. But Kushner offers a different way forward. Consider the epigraphs he chooses for each of the two parts of his miraculous play. The first comes from Stanley Kunitz’s “The Testing-Tree”:

In a murderous time
the heart breaks and breaks
and lives by breaking.

I felt that possibility, that living-by-breaking, a few days ago as I read a smart and unsettling essay by the writer and photographer Michael David Murphy. Titled “Today’s Threat Level: Orange,” the essay doesn’t minimize the danger that Trump’s election poses for many of the country’s most vulnerable populations. But it does give me some tiny amount of hope because it shows that someone is paying attention. (Murphy, on the Trump battalion: “It called itself ‘the alt-right’ and strutted around. It hitched up its big boy pants and did a spin for the cameras while pointing at the cameras, admonishing their gaze. It was normalized.”) Reflecting on what we witness, in a murderous time, is a form of resistance.

Kushner’s second epigraph comes from an 1841 essay on art by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Because the soul is progressive, it never quite repeats itself, but in every act attempts the production of a new and fairer whole.” We want this to be true; the play (written during the Reagan and G.H.W. Bush years) seems to believe it. Perestroika rejects Roy Cohn’s nihilism and the “mixed-up, reactionary” Angel’s desire for stasis. (The Angel thinks “we should stop somehow, go back.”) Belize, the play’s conscience, says, “But see that’s just not how it goes, the world doesn’t spin backwards. Listen to the world, to how fast it goes.”

Perestroika, Kushner writes, “is essentially a comedy, in that issues are resolved, mostly peaceably; growth takes place and loss is, to a certain degree, countenanced. But it’s not a farce; all this happens only through a terrific amount of struggle, and the stakes are high.”

Which is all to say: Trump’s vision—a ghastly, zero-sum vision—can be countered. The Great Work Begins.

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