Angels in America and the 1980s Experience
Before beginning the play Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, author Tony Kushner begins with a disclaimer: “Roy M. Cohn, the character, is based on the late Roy M. Cohn (1927-1986) who was all too real; for the most part the acts attributed to the character Roy… are to be found in the historical record.” While Kushner takes artistic license with the dialogue – “his words are my invention, and liberties have been taken” – the essence of his play is deeply engrained with the actual person of Roy Cohn (5). More specifically, the play deals with the sexual politics of New York City during the Reagan years, the accompanying rise of the conservative movement, as well as the burgeoning public health crisis in the form of the AIDS epidemic. Though the work is fiction, all of the characters are a product of the 1980s and how homosexuality was viewed at that time. Their different experiences are representative of the varying ways in which people dealt with -- or repressed -- their sexual desires as a result of political and cultural forces, and how these forces shaped their lives.
Beginning in the fall of 1985, Angels in America paints several portraits of characters from different segments of society and shows how they confront their own homosexuality, as well as presenting the societal context in which their decision is made. Of these characters, none is larger than the notorious lawyer and noted closet-case, Roy M. Cohn. Depicted as arrogant and domineering – a contentious prick, to put it mildly – the figure of Cohn, as Kushner discusses in his introduction, was all too real. Gaining notoriety from his role in the staged political theatre that was the anti-communist Army-McCarthy hearings as an assistant to Senator Joseph McCarthy, and then for his role in the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for treason, Cohn was one of the most influential men in America, as well as one of the most prominent conservative figures. When disbarment proceedings were launched against Cohn in 1986 for borrowing $100,000 from a client and refusing to pay it back, amongst other things, the witnesses he called to his defense were some of the most important conservative figures in the country (“Roy Cohn”). A write-up from The Nation at the time described the hearings as a testimonial to “the long shadow of Cohn’s influence” and mentioned that those who spoke included “prominent journalists, high-ranking men of God, Federal and state judges, law school deans and professors, establishment lawyers, White House officials, politicians of every stripe, millionaires, a legless Vietnam vet, an ambassador and the former assistant director of the New York office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.” According to the same article, conservative luminary and editor of the National Review, William F. Buckley, testified under oath that Cohn’s honesty was “absolutely impeccable,” and equated the disbarment hearings as an ideologically motivated event stemming from Cohn’s “devotion to his country” (Reuben 48). Such was the standing of Roy Cohn that he was revered by leading conservatives as an anti-communist hero and a man of fine, upstanding moral principles, and he could command an audience with the most influential political figures – but he was leading a secret double life. Though publicly homophobic, it was a bit of an open secret that Cohn was gay, but something that was never mentioned in public and which he denied to his death.
The reason why Roy Cohn never “came out” as a homosexual is quite simple – homosexuals lacked political power, and to be anybody, politically, in the 1980s required one to be conservative. Although he represented notorious gangsters and dance club owners, Cohn was also an esteemed member of this conservative movement, and actively campaigned against laws that would allow homosexuals to teach in New York schools, for example. Privately, however, Cohn was quite promiscuous and very much homosexual – a fact carefully overlooked by his political bedfellows, who nonetheless seemed to recognize the uneasiness in the situation. William F. Buckley, in his obituary for Cohn in the National Review, seemed to recognize the disparity between the public and private Cohn, writing: “’I would like to be a fly on the wall of the Pearly Gates the day Roy passes through,’ my son wrote me. Me, I’m not so sure: Certain things, about people for whom we feel a loyalty, one wouldn’t want to know” (“Roy Cohn, R.I.P.”). Pointedly, Buckley’s obituary omits both Cohn’s cause of death – AIDS, though he claimed it was liver cancer – as well as any hint that Cohn may have been gay. To admit as much, even on the occasion of his death, would have caused a stir in the conservative movement. For years, the National Review and other conservative papers had decried what they referred to as the “gay agenda,” and had presented homosexuality as a disgusting and sinful vice acted out by effeminate, weak men. In a typical article in the National Review from October 1986 entitled “Doomed to be Gay?” writer Joseph Sobran approvingly reviews a book by a Dutch psychotherapist who claimed to have developed a remedy for “curing” homosexuality. In the article, Sobran approvingly cites the doctor’s belief “that homosexuality is rooted in feelings of inferiority” caused by an absent father, a domineering mother, or an abusive sibling that may cause the person to take “refuge in self-pity, feeling that the whole world is against him,” resulting in the “disorder” that is homosexuality (Sobran 53). Weak, perverted, and with the advent of AIDS, sickly, homosexuals were modern-day lepers, at least as they stood within the conservative movement. It was for these reasons that Cohn could not be gay – he was too powerful, too successful, and he knew too many important people. As the character Cohn states when responding to his doctor’s diagnosis of AIDS, a disease closely associated with homosexuality, “[h[omosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a puissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout. Does this sound like me, Henry?” (45) If the extent of Cohn’s sexual proclivities were known, he wouldn’t have power; he would be weak and would lose his status as a powerful man. Homosexuals were feeble, not powerful, and Cohn was determined to be a powerful man above all else.
In today’s world, maybe Roy Cohn could have come out publicly and faced minor repercussions. But in the 1980s conservative movement, to be gay was not simply a sexual preference, but a personal failing not to even be talked about after death. As Alexander Cockburn wrote in The Nation following the death of Terry Dolan, a prominent right-wing organizer, from AIDS, “[t]he right, never famed for its protective zeal in this regard, has developed a veneration for privacy where conservative AIDS victims are concerned.” This newfound respect for privacy arose from the fact that many conservatives recognized the discord between being politically conservative but privately homosexual, and as Cockburn noted at the time, “[t]here are plenty of gays on the Reagan team… [t]he relevance of this is that these people are dedicated to the suppression of freedom and are therefore, like Dolan, psycho-political time bombs, in that their public life is seamed with existential contradiction” (Cockburn 70). The “psycho-political time bomb” to which Cockburn refers can be witnessed in another character in Angels in America besides Cohn, and that is the character of Joe, who as a conservative Mormon who voted for Reagan twice, suffers as a result of the differences between his public life and his inner, repressed desires. This confliction boils over in an argument Joe has with his wife Harper, where in response to her question about his sexuality he responds with “I am a very good man who has worked very hard to become good and you want to destroy that” (40). To Joe, accepting that he was a homosexual would mean the rejection of that for which he had worked his entire life. As a good Mormon and Reaganite, he felt crushed by the burden of his outward appearance, as he himself stated when speaking with Roy Cohn: “The failure to measure up hits people very hard. From such a strong desire to be good they feel very far from goodness when they fail” (53). In addition to the outward political pressure that Cohn feels, Joe has the added burden of a conflicted moral conscience – his religion tells him that his physical desires are immoral and wrong, and so his homosexuality becomes not only something that he has to hide from others, but something that he is forced to hide and bury within himself.
Angels in America is a play that is unique to its time and place – it couldn’t have been set in Victorian England, for example. Inseparable from the text are the very real political and cultural forces of the 1980s – the reelection of Ronald Reagan, the perceived shift of the country to the right, and the emergence of the AIDS epidemic. Roy Cohn is a person that was a direct manifestation of this changing political and social reality; his love of power and prestige, as well as his standing within the conservative movement, forced him to publicly reject and conceal his personal lifestyle choices. In this, he was representative of a large number of closeted Americans, who through a combination of political and social pressures, felt that they had to hide who they really were. Ultimately, the play highlights the destructive repercussions of concealing one’s true identity, and provides a cultural testament to the importance of being honest and forthcoming not only with the public, but with one’s self.