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National Review, June 7, 1993

Is it Here? Is it Approaching?

Richard Grenier

"It is New Year's Eve, December 31, 1999. The century is ending, but the millennium has arrived. That is, the homosexual millennium has arrived. Oh, there were dark and bloody times. The Queer Wars racked the country, American cities were soaked in blood, Pat Buchanan was assassinated. But thanks to Act-Up, Queer Nation, the Lesbian Avengers, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance, the Sexual Minority Youth Guidance Center, NOW, the ACLU, the NAACP, CORE, the AFL-CIO, the Urban League, the Supreme Court, Jesse Jackson, Rosa Parks, and the series of Marches on Washington, an idyllic peace now reigns in the land, with homosexuals sitting at the right hand of whomever one is supposed to sit at the right hand of. The cure for AIDS was found long ago but kept hidden by Phyllis Schlafly, Bill Dannemeyer, and Louis Sullivan. But most of those people are in prison now, and in any event the great pestilence is over. Siskel and Ebert are out of the closet. Amy Carter is living in lesbian bliss with Cher's daughter Chastity. Hollywood is remaking the Barbra Streisand Robert Redford The Way We Were with Barbra's son Jason in love with Tom Cruise. Homosexuals can marry now and have fashionable wedding ceremonies in which friends and family unite joyfully. Able to live in happy domestic relationships with the full respect of the community, they seem to have given up their compulsive sexual promiscuity and settled down as ordinary couples just like anybody else. Everything is open to them. They love each other and every body else. Happy twenty-first century!"

THIS, AT LEAST, is the slightly fanciful dream of the future--partly quoted, partly paraphrased--from The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, an entertaining monologue written by David Drake and wittily performed by Erick Paeper to packed houses in Greenwich Village. Earlier passages of the monologue are realistically descriptive of the homosexual life, some passages rather somber. But as it happens there is substantial reason for satisfaction in the homosexual world these days. Another Gay and Lesbian March on Washington has been held. President Clinton has received a delegation of gay and lesbian activists at the White House--a first. The Hawaiian State Supreme Court has legitimized gay marriage. Despite opposition, Mr. Clinton has reaffirmed his intention to lift the ban on gays in the military. And the AIDS epidemic receives voluminous, daily attention in all branches of the media and almost obsessive attention from Hollywood stars at award ceremonies.

Actually, whether there is a truly national AIDS epidemic under way has just been sharply questioned. A detailed study published in February by a committee of the National Research Council has suggested that AIDS is not a threat to the general population at all, being confined to only 25 to 30 clearly delineated neighborhoods around the country. There is a genuine AIDS epidemic, however, in the arts and entertainment industry, where homosexuals and AIDS sufferers have become (as used to be said of the women's movement) "the latest thing in Negroes." In the last few months, major U.S. publishing houses have put out at least 19 novels about AIDS and homosexuals. Although compared, by the New York Times, with works of art about the Holocaust--attesting to "the human imagination's capacity to confront and ultimately redeem incalculable suffering"--these books are a dreary lot. We read again and again detailed accounts of the eccentricities of the "gay" life; there are hardcore sexual encounters, much heavy breathing, AIDS lesions, sometimes a stricken, lonely wife, death, all suffused with abundant pathos and appeals for compassion and understanding, and enlivened only by the occasional flash of camp humor. The best of the lot, in my view, is a British import, Monopolies of Loss, a collection of nine spare, stoic short stories by Adam Mars-Jones, in which AIDS is barely cited by name. None of these books has arrived anywhere near anyone's bestseller list, the books' style and content largely limiting the readership to homosexuals who want to read about themselves.

Kinsey's 10 per cent figure for the proportion of the population that is homosexual is by now discredited. The new study by the Battelle Human Affairs Research Center places exclusively homosexual males at 1.1 per cent, which might help to explain the modest book sales. Such a figure might also explain why U.S. mass-market show business has been distinctly reluctant to climb onto what might not in fact turn out to be a bandwagon. Commercial television, playing to its distracted, inattentive, free-entertainment audience, has made a few sallies into the field, but mainstream Hollywood has remained leery, so far having released only the modestly budgeted Longtime Companion a couple of years ago. The first major picture about AIDS and "homophobia" is in the offing, however. Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) has just finished shooting Philadelphia, in which a top-flight corporate lawyer (Tom Hanks) contracts AIDS, is dismissed from his law firm, and naturally sues. His lawyer (Denzel Washington of Malcolm X) is a homophobic black, but in the course of the movie they learn to love and understand each other. When the film opens in the fall, we'll see if the mass movie audience learns to share this love and understanding.

So where is this audience when you need it? The answer is: on Broadway. Over the last year, New York has had a half-dozen major AIDS-homosexual theatrical productions. One of them, Falsettos, actually an opera with Sprechgesang instead of spoken dialogue, now running for over a year, is a genuine Broadway hit. Another, Jeffrey, playing at the large Minetta Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village, opened some months ago to standing ovations. And a third, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, after a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Pulitzer Prize, and a Drama Critics Circle Award, has been hailed as the play that will "save Broadway."

The difference between the boom in homosexual theater and the boom in homosexual novels is that these big-time theatrical productions are intended for a heterosexual audience. This, as will be seen, can make a large difference. Because the theatrical productions are intended to appeal to a much bigger public, they have been sanitized to suit the tastes of a liberal, heterosexual audience. No heavy breathing.

WHICH RAISES the question: Just who are the legions of theatergoers that have made homosexual theater commercially viable? Here we come to a curious recognition. Starting after World War II, Jewish playwrights have succeeded on Broadway in large numbers, and at the same time Jews have come to dominate Broadway audiences. When I returned to America from Europe in 1977, and was required for professional reasons to see almost everything on Broadway, I was intrigued to find theater audiences that seemed overwhelmingly Jewish--a point perhaps more noticeable to the son of a Jewish mother. So I found it not especially surprising that, in a recent week of diligent theatergoing in New York, at the more commercially successful homosexual works, I got the impression that the audiences were something like 10 per cent homosexuals and 90 per cent heterosexual Jews--to all appearances well-to-do, liberal, husband-and-wife couples. We had some heterosexual Gentiles in the audiences, no doubt, but they appeared to be a distinct minority. During a preview of Angels in America, when one of the characters uttered an expletive in Yiddish, the house positively roared with laughter. (For the cognoscenti, the expletive was "Feh!" resembling "Yuck!" with a suggestion of "Who cares?")

This would be no more than a curious detail of the sociology of New York's cultural life if it were not for the particular historical relationship of Jews to homosexuality. Widely tolerated in their part of the world in Biblical times, homosexual intercourse was vehemently condemned by the God of the Israelites as an "abomination" (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13). And Orthodox Jews have continued to reject the activity to this day, producing a percentage of homosexuals in their own ranks very close to zero. But nowadays agnosticism and atheism are widespread in the Jewish community. Regular attendance at religious worship is far lower than for any other faith. Belief in God is far lower too. And the sexual strictures imposed by Judaism (as by Christianity) are consequently less felt. There has been, in fact, a startling Jewish reversal on homosexuality. In ancient times, Jewish condemnation was harshest. Now, from the mass of prosperous, agnostic Jews, it is faintest.

Many liberal Jews, furthermore--always sympathizers with penalized minorities, owing to their own historical experience of anti-Semitism--have fully accepted the parallel between discrimination based on race or religion and discrimination based on "sexual orientation." This parallel is reflected in the AIDS plays--indeed, it is more than reflected. To put it plainly, these plays are about Jews and Jewishness almost as much as they are about homosexuality.

The plays' authors are almost all Jewish. Angels in America is by Tony Kushner, Jeffrey by Paul Rudnick, and both music and lyrics to Falsettos are by William Finn. The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me is by the only Gentile, David Drake, but the title's Larry Kramer is Jewish and a real person, author of The Normal Heart and The Destiny of Me, two angry AIDS-homosexual plays of 1985 and 1992, respectively. (Barbra Streisand is currently planning a movie version of The Normal Heart.) In all of these plays a homosexual, usually the Jewish protagonist's Gentile lover, dies of AIDS. This is a fixture of these homosexual works, novels as well as plays. In The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me the deaths of many AIDS victims are evoked, and rather grimly.

In most of the other plays, intended for a larger audience, although we feel a fleeting sadness when the beloved AIDS victim dies, there is often something sweet about it, too, like the passing of a moonbeam. This vaguely recalls Hollywood films of a generation ago when, audiences being assumed to be too depressed by details of specific mortal ailments, characters were said to die of "the movie disease." AIDS on Broadway today has about it something of yesterday's "movie disease." In Jeffrey, homosexual love conquers all, and the title character, undeterred by the AIDS death of one of his best friends, undertakes as the curtain falls what appears to be the love affair of his life with a dashing young man who is HIV positive. At the end of Falsettos, Whizzer (Sean McDermott), the Gentile lover of the Jewish central character, suddenly materializes--a ghost, since he has already died of AIDS without bringing an inordinate amount of pain or inconvenience upon himself or anyone else. Marvin (Mandy Patinkin), the central character, along with Whizzer, sings bravely that he'd do it all over again.

And, indeed, since he has not contracted AIDS from Whizzer (the subject is not even raised), nor passed it along to his wife or child (this subject isn't raised either), one could argue that Marvin has not paid a very heavy price for having sexual relations with a man dying from AIDS. If it's only the other fellow who dies and you and your family are all right, why not do it all over again? Falsettos has been praised by at least one New York theater critic as being very strong on "family values," much deeper and more sincere than the family values of Dan Quayle. Marvin, as a showcase example, heroically sings, "I want it all."

The AIDS pestilence is kept at a discreet distance and left as something of a soft abstraction, referred to in an aria only as "Something Bad Is Happening." Marvin and Whizzer, getting the bad news, sing almost nonchalantly, "You Gotta Die Sometime." Marvin's 13-year-old son Jason comes in for a good bit of attention. Whizzer helps him with his Little League baseball. It's all just your typical, warm Jewish family. One of the "lesbians from next door," who caters Jason's Bar Mitzvah party in a hospital room where the dying Whizzer is wryly humorous, sings, "I'm up to my a-- in a kosher morass." We have one of the most successful musical numbers, the ironic "Miracle of Judaism," followed by another ironic musical number, "Another Miracle of Judaism." From the production's opening number, "Four Jews in a Room Bitching," through the last act--fully half of which is devoted to preparations for and the final culmination of young Jason's Bar Mitzvah Falsettos is Jewish, Jewish, Jewish.

It's also agnostic, agnostic, agnostic. At one of its highest and happiest points the production bursts into, "Days like This I Almost Believe in God." Which is to say, specifically, that these people do not believe in God. And one wonders how much meaning Jason's Bar Mitzvah can have for them. Whether or not the Bar Mitzvah should take place is much debated in Act II, with Jason, delightfully undecided, swinging first one way and then the other. Bar Mitzvah wins. For thousands of years, Jews have been chanting the watchword of Israel, the Shema ("Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One"). But now this generation of Jews appears, who, while reminding you of their Jewishness, don't believe in God at all. They only believe in having a warm Jewish family life with Mommy, Daddy, Mommy's psychiatrist, Daddy's homosexual lover helping junior at Little League baseball, and kosher food catered by the Jewish lesbians next door. In all fairness, I enjoyed the excellent cast, good singing, good music, and entertaining performances. Falsettos is in fact a romantic comedy, a comic opera on modern Jewish themes with one AIDS death for color. And a certified hit.

I WOULD NOT dare be so flippant about Tony Kushner's seven-hour Angels in America. The first half of Angels is the three-hour-and-forty-minute Millennium Approaches. The second half is entitled Perestroika and, given events in the former Soviet Union, it is not surprising that the author, who lists as his religion "dialectical materialism," was at last account rewriting frantically. Tony Kushner is grandly confident, seeming to think of himself as a universal thinker, a homosexual Jewish Tolstoy, as it were, with deep insight into politics, religion, history, sexuality, and Jewishness. He quails at nothing, or almost nothing. None of Falsettos' timid pandering to the bourgeois public and avoiding the ugliness of life for Tony Kushner. Told by an interviewer that he was being called upon to "save Broadway," Kushner said firmly that he would not save Broadway, because Broadway was not worth saving. "Most of the stuff on Broadway is garbage," he said. "Phantom of the Opera is one of the most diseased events I've ever seen on stage."

Kushner's only earlier venture to reach the stage was A Bright Room Called Day, a study of Weimar Germany and the advent of the Nazis. A big hit in San Francisco, it played to uniformly insulting reviews in New York and was laughed out of Joe Papp's Public Theatre. Undeterred, and stimulated by a corrosive article on Roy Cohn he read in The Nation, Kushner conceived of the notion of doing the life of Cohn as a play. San Francisco's Eureka Theatre, with Kushner as company playwright and his Roy Cohn work-in-progress as its principal asset, received a $57,000 grant from Frank Hodsoll's National Endowment for the Arts. It was an interesting example of a Reagan appointee giving financial support to an artistic work that actively loathes Ronald Reagan.

Tony Kushner comes from the sort of progressive family that considered Julius and Ethel Rosenberg saints and martyrs. Once upon a time people like this stood out conspicuously in America, but with the progressive radicalization of our artistic and intellectual life under New Left leadership during the 1960s, such an attitude is hardly distinctive any more, and certainly not in show business. Kushner, now 36, has hated Roy Cohn all his life and admits to feeling a surge of gratification when he read that Cohn had died of AIDS. Since I was doubtless one of very few audience members who actually knew Cohn, I must say that the character I saw on stage--cynical, unprincipled, very Jewish, and very loud--bore little resemblance to the Roy Cohn I knew. Actor Ron Leibman, who plays Cohn, says he thinks of him as being much like Shakespeare's Richard III. And Tony Kushner calls him "one of the worst people who ever lived." But the playwright is not given to moderation in expression. He says Ronald Reagan will go down in history as a "tremendously evil" man, who ran a "closet-fascist government." George Bush is a "villain of the first order" who, in order to raise his ratings in the polls, "wouldn't stop at murder."

Since its West Coast kick-off, Angels in America has had something of an organic career, constantly growing and changing. Some five years ago, Kushner and the Eureka company were already working on Parts I and II. Moving to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, the play underwent extensive development, the separate parts being done on alternate nights and occasionally both parts together in all-day marathons. After a "world premiere" in San Francisco, Millennium Approaches was finally selected to play in London, where it had a highly successful one-year run at the National Theatre. Back in Los Angeles last November; after many years of "growth," both halves of the play were again done in alternation, but only the first half, Millennium Approaches--the portion now being performed in New York--was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. This is most curious, as Millennium Approaches is not at all a separate play. It doesn't end with a few loose ends: every end is loose. Presumably the Pulitzer jury did not think as much of Perestroika, which is once again undergoing "development."

Indeed, Mr. Kushner may be a man of some gifts, but one of them is not succinctness. When he began working on Millennium Approaches he gained some 35 pounds, and when his plays are in "development" they undergo something of the same process. He leaves everything in, and they grow bigger and bigger. Millennium Approaches begins with a prologue by a rabbi who complains, at length, that American Jews are losing their cultural identity. (The rabbi, like some other prominent male characters in the play, is performed by a woman, probably a sop to feminists but an absolutely disastrous idea.) We meet the play's central character, Lou, who is a Jew, and his Gentile friend, Prior Walter, who has just come down with AIDS and immediately shows us the first skin lesion. They ruminate about this morbidly, also at length. We have already encountered Roy Cohn, who, although played by the most distinguished actor in the cast, seems over the years of "development" to have biologically mutated into really not much more than a supporting role, a sideshow monster.

Aside from the Lou-Walter-AIDS story, most of the play is the Joe Pitt story. Joe is a Mormon, a chief law clerk, a strong Reagan supporter, and a repressed homosexual. I had expected the play to contain a fair amount of anti-Reagan polemic, but the evil of Ronald Reagan is more or less simply assumed, and its principal didactic thrust--if such a rambling, garrulous, incoherent, inchoate play can be said to have a "thrust"--seems to be that Mormon Joe Pitt would really be better off, as would Jewish Roy Cohn, if the two openly confessed their homosexuality. Jewish Lou makes a mission of convincing Mormon Joe--both religious outsiders, you see--of the desirability of coming out of the closet. Mormon Joe has a wife, and with the stunning
lack of feeling for women that is a hallmark of these plays, she spends an unconscionable amount of time hallucinating, very boringly, that she is floating above the earth somewhere in the ozone layer or visiting Antarctica. I suppose she is psychotic because her husband is a repressed homosexual, or perhaps because he is a Republican.

Enter, at last--some time in the fourth hour of Millennium Approachesthe ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. The reader will not be surprised to hear that reflective, grave, thoughtful Ethel Rosenberg is as nice as Roy Cohn is obnoxious. Now no less a historical personage than Josef Stalin expressed his gratitude for the Rosenbergs' help to the Soviet Union (this according to the memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev). But playwright Kushner either doesn't know this or thinks the Rosenbergs' actions idealistic--principled treason in recent years having become rather fashionable. It falls to Ethel Rosenberg to cry out near the end of Part I: "History is about to crack wide open! The millennium approaches!" Since Mrs. Rosenberg's prophecies of a world Communist paradise didn't exactly pan out, it's hard to see why we should place much stock in her prophecy of a still further millennium. And what kind of a millennium is she talking about? Just before the final blackout, an actress dressed as an angel is lowered from the flies and cries out: "The great work begins! The messenger has arrived!"

And that's it. We see no millennium, no great work beginning. Roy Cohn is dying, but not dead yet. Prior Walter is having visions, but it's not clear whether he's dead or not. Joe's wife is still hallucinating that she's in Antarctica. Joe's Mormon mother has just arrived from Salt Lake City and is wandering about, looking for the Mormon Center on West 65th Street in Manhattan. Joe himself and Lou seem headed for a bed somewhere but haven't got there. We've had buggery vigorously simulated on stage, a black drag queen, a broken condom, heard the “f” word at least once every sixty seconds, listened to endless, rambling talk of homosexuality, race, Jewishness. And where are we left? One of Lou's lines of dialogue, despite the play's title, is, "There are no angels in America!" But perhaps we'll get the angels in Part II, Perestroika--the Russian word for Mikhail Gorbachev’s brave attempt to restructure and save the Communist system. He was not very successful, but perhaps Tony Kushner has a better plan to restructure and save the American system. His homosexual millennium would presumably be some kind of politico-sexual paradise without restraints of any sort, utterly secular, and without sin. But it's hard to imagine what could really satisfy Tony Kushner as, of all these AIDS-homosexual plays, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches is both the most bombastic and the most hollow.

THE MILLENNIUM Mr. Kushner desires, after all, is not a Jewish one, nor, despite the trappings of religion (angels, Ethel Rosenberg as a martyred saint), a religious one of any kind. It is a secular millennium from which even many secular-minded people might reasonably shrink. And the rise of a homosexual culture, of which it is the envisioned triumph, is connected to Jews and Judaism by only the most paradoxical link. Jews are likely be attracted to the secular millennium insofar as they have become alienated from their own traditional beliefs and so have come to define salvation in secular terms. For the simple sociological fact is that agnostic Jews, as both intellectual leaders and followers, have become a paradigm of the thoroughly secularized world, with its repudiation of moral prohibitions as expressed by the great Western religions, Christianity as well as Judaism. Other American religious groups, however, notably mainline WASPs, are catching up, and in Western Europe whole nations have apparently reached the destination of post-religious society.

In a world with God, there are explanations or at least comforts for suffering. In a world without God, however, suffering must be either meaningless or caused by some malign agency. Since it would be intolerable to believe the the suffering caused by AIDS is meaningless, the temptation to blame someone else becomes impossible to resist. And, indeed, what these plays have in common is a fervid desire for compassion, and an equally fervid desire to evade responsibility, to blame someone else for the medical situation of AIDS victims, as if it were all the result of a plot by the Reagan Administration, or at least of public hard-heartedness. Individual sufferers have faced death from AIDS bravely--Arthur Ashe comes to mind--but the cultural response to AIDS has overwhelmingly been one of grievance and complaint.

The whole AIDS cult, in fact, invites comparison with the way society responded to the ferocious syphilis plague, which, although almost forgotten now, raged virtually until World War II. As with AIDS, the disease inspired great horror, for, before penicillin, there was no cure. It could attack any part or system of the body--bones, heart, throat, skin, blood vessels, the nervous system, the brain. Terrifyingly, it could be transmitted from mother to child. Saint Bartholomew's Hospital in London reported that rarely were fewer than three-quarters of its patients syphilitic, and by mid nineteenth century the disease had in its grip an estimated one-third of the entire population of Paris. The disease inspired a terror of madness and death far beyond even the present agitation about AIDS. But most striking in comparison with AIDS was the difference in tone of the social response. There was a kind of gallows humor about the thing, for bravery was the way men--and above all aristocrats, military officers, and society's elite, including its artistic elite--were supposed to face danger of all sorts, whether from dueling, war, gambling, or the pox. Erasmus, of all people, wrote that a nobleman who had not had the pox was not truly noble but a man without honor. Thousands of the most famous names in literature, painting, and politics were syphilitic, and when Guy de Maupassant got it he wrote to a friend with some bravado, "At last, the pox! The same pox as Francis I! How proud I am, and how I scorn these little bourgeois! No miserable little bourgeois crabs or clap for me, but the real thing, the pox!"

Of course not all of these gallants were believers. But they lived in an age and culture suffused by faith and, in particular, by the religious truth--expressed in countless works of art--that, however terrible the sufferings of this world, while there's death, there's hope.