Angels in America

Last weekend Elli and I had the privilege of seeing both parts of Tony Kushner’s brilliant play Angels in America in New York City. This is a marathon: two 3½ hour segments separated by a 2½ hour break. I was mesmerized by this revival of the original 1993 production, but I don’t intend to review the play in this blog. Instead I’ll focus on one small, but important, interaction that takes place late in its second part.

For those who are unfamiliar with Angels in America, it is primarily the story of several gay men, their interactions with each other, their families, and the AIDS epidemic, set in late 1985 during Ronald Reagan’s second term in office. Roy Cohn, who was the assistant prosecutor in my parents’ case and later counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy, is hospitalized, dying of AIDS. As the play progresses Cohn, who has proclaimed that he was the moving force behind my mother’s death sentence, is visited by my mother’s ghost periodically as the disease slowly consumes him.

In the scene I’m focused upon, my mother’s ghost helps Louis Ironson, one of the lead characters who is a secular Jew, say the mourner’s Kaddish (popularly referred to as the Jewish prayer for the dead) over Roy Cohn’s dead body. However, when she’s finished she calls Cohn a “son of a bitch.”

I’ve been asked my opinion of Angels in America many times, but I’ve been asked most often about my reaction to my mother’s recitation of Kaddish for Roy Cohn. Many people have been distressed by the playwright’s putting these words in my mother’s mouth. Here’s what I think now.

This is a powerfully evocative scene that works very well in the play. I’m not upset by it. Tony Kushner is not attempting to paint a biographical portrait of my mother. This is a work of fiction, and fantastical fiction at that. Since I don’t believe in ghosts, it is hard to take anything my mother says as a ghost literally. Some are offended by the idea of my mother helping or forgiving Roy Cohn. She’s not helping or forgiving Cohn, as her final statement makes clear, she’s helping Louis, and I see nothing wrong with that.

I don’t view this as Tony Kushner’s declaration of what the real Ethel Rosenberg would do because I doubt that my mother would say Kaddish for anyone. Kaddish is not a prayer for the soul of a departed loved one, although many people see it that way, it is rather a more general acceptance of someone’s death by acknowledging the supremacy of God. My mother was an atheist. I don’t think that she’d proclaim God’s greatness and mean it.

My mother utters no lines in Angels in America that indicate her desire to forgive Roy Cohn. I see my mother’s effort to help Louis Ironson as Tony Kushner’s final tribute to Ethel Rosenberg. It is his statement that she was a better person than her tormentors.

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