In his work, “The Theater of Tony Kushner: Living Past Hope”, James Fisher says, “Kushner’s politics are based in a socialism, inspired in part, by Brecht’s dramatic aesthetic, which created for Kushner a template for political drama. Angels is certainly inspired by aspects of Brechtian theater” (8). Art Borreca writes, “– a Brechtian spirit resides at the center of the work.” M. Elizabeth Osborn calls Kushner, “A passionate political thinker and devoted student of Bertolt Brecht…” (Kerkhoff 6). Tony Kushner himself said, “I was also very much drawn in Brecht to the epic form, to the chronicle play. It was almost immediately, as soon as I read Mother Courage, that it became my favorite Brecht” (Kushner 107). Fisher went on to say, “Kushner was intimidated by Brecht’s dramatic achievement, that if he could not write a play equal to Mother Courage and Her Children, he did not want to write at all” (7-8). Lucky for us, Kushner achieved his goal, winning two Tony Awards for Best Play (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika), and the distinguished Pulitzer Prize for drama as well. In this essay I will prove that Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is profoundly influenced in all aspects, including setting, theme structure, character, dialogue, and plot, by Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children.
First, the Staging: Brecht requires that the “…theatricality of the production’s props, lights, sets, and equipment (be) visible, thereby reminding the members of the audience that they were seeing a play” (Jacobus 1057). Kushner suggests that “The play benefits from a pared-down style of presentation, with minimal scenery and scene shifts done rapidly (no blackouts!) employing the cast as well as stage-hands – which makes for an actor-driven event, as this must be. The moments of magic – the appearance and disappearance of Mr. Lies and the ghosts, the book hallucination, and the ending – are to be fully realized, as bits of wonderful theatrical illusion – which means it’s OK if the wires show, and maybe it’s good that they do, but the magic should at the same time be thoroughly amazing” (1661). Both writers work to alienate the audience from the drama to assure that they would be “emotionally detached and intellectually alert”. “Representing reality, (Brecht) believed, lulled audiences into a state of passive empathy, diminishing their objective intellectual engagement with the events of the play.” (Lester) Brecht intended “not to render thought unnecessary but to provoke it: not as a substitute for artistic creation but as its stimulus.” Kushner reflects this in his writing as he moves easily from beautifully phrased epigrams like “I’ve thought about it for a very long time, and I still don’t understand what love is. Justice is simple. Democracy is simple. Those things are unambivalent. But love is very hard. And it goes bad for you if you violate the hard law of love,” (Jacobus, 1686) to brutal rants like “Dumb Utah Mormon hick shit!… When Washington called me I was younger than you, you think I said “Aw fuck no I can’t go I got two fingers up my asshole and a little moral nosebleed to boot!”… Fuck you Mary Jane, get outta here” (1688). The effect is very off-putting and shocking; it stops you in your cerebral tracks. Which is precisely what the intention is.
Next, the themes at work in both plays are similar in that both challenge the status quo of the times. Mother Courage was “too politically inflammatory to be produced in Stockholm at a time when Hitler made no secret of his designs on Scandinavia” (Lester). Mother Courage criticizes the political thinking that is the foundation of the Nazi regime during the period of time when Hitler is coming to power. Kushner describes Angels as “A Gay Fantasia on national Themes” (Angels, 17). “Set in the 1980’s, a decade of greed and conservatism, Angels in America can not avoid exploring the impact of the Republican politics on the country.” Roy Cohn represents “the worst the right wing has to offer; political monopoly, economic disparity, discrimination and censorship”. Martin, the henchman of Roy, brags that “soon Republicans will control the courts, lock up the White House, regain the Senate, and run the country the way it ought to be run”. Kushner writes about the political thinking that is the foundation of the Republican Party at a time when the Republicans were in power. Both plays speak openly about politically divisive topics and intentionally inspire angry responses from the audiences to provoke a dialogue. Another theme that is present is that of change and transformation. In Mother Courage and in the character of Roy in Angels, this theme presents itself in the complete lack of change or transformation that takes place in the characters. In Angels (part II) the theme is present in the character arc that occurs in Louis, Harper, Joe, Hannah and Prior. Each has a transformation resulting in a character reversal and leaving us with a sense that there is a possibility for change.
The characters, although not apparent at first glance, are built on a similar structure. Mother Courage is a type of anti-heroine. She is a loud, opportunistic, parasite of the war. She flatters, bribes and threatens to get what she wants. She delivers shrewd commentary of the realities of the war while fighting for her life and, unsuccessfully, for the lives of her children. Roy Cohn is a loud, vulgar, mean and treacherous man who flatters, bribes and threatens to get what he wants. He is fighting for his professional status and his physical life, both of which he loses. Roy also delivers brutally shrewd and one sided commentary on the realities of politics. Next the characters of Prior and Kattrin are similar. Both start as victims and end as fighters. Both have physical disfigurements and/or illnesses that make them repulsive. Prior confronts the angels and refuses to “stop the forward progress of the world and find God again.” (Angels, 15) He makes a poignant speech to the Angels summing up the spirit of his own struggles and all of humankind when he says simply, “We live past hope.” Kattrin goes against her mothers wishes and stands up to the soldiers by drumming a warning, saving the babies and mothers of the town. Both endure great trauma throughout the plays, and both grow stronger as a result.
The similarities in writing style are especially noticeable as they relate to the character development shown in the dialogue of the two pieces. Brecht has long monologues or songs which act as small lessons, usually taking the form of song. Kushner has long monologues which act as lessons or commentary that are told either through the fantasy characters such as the angels, Prior I and Prior II, Mr. Lies or through the dialogue that Roy has with various characters. Each of these conventions works to alienate the audience in the conventional Brechtian sense by breaking into our conventional thought patterns and suspending them in order to influence a different level of consciousness; one that has less judgment, perhaps.
Finally, the plot and style of Kushner’s Angels in America is influenced strongly by Brecht. Both plays are classic epic theater in that they strive to “break the fascinating, trance-like effect of the dramatic spectacle, transform the spectator into its critical observer, and rouse him to thought and action” (Wayne, 4). Both use fantasy elements to achieve the “distanciation” effect. Both change settings often and use the interruption of action and dialogue as well as simultaneous scenes to achieve tension and distance. Both plots take place in a war setting; Mother Courage during the 30 year war of Poland in the 1600’s and Angels in America during the “war on gays”, waged by the aids epidemic and the political right in the1990’s. Both plots take place over many years, enduring enormous trauma, and using many characters to tell the story. However, there is a note of hope at the end of Angels that is noticeably absent in Brecht’s Mother Courage. When asked about this Kushner said, “You have to have hope. It’s irresponsible to give false hope.” He went on to explain that he had written the final passage for a woman who was originally cast as the angel and who died of breast cancer before the play opened. Kushner says, “In one of my last conversations with her, she told me that she thought a lot about that image and hoped I would include it in the play. I think I wouldn’t have included it otherwise, but I’m glad I did now.” (Jacobsen, 1694) This explains the departure from the classic Brechtian style. I wonder if Brecht would approve?
As you can see, Kushner’s brutally honest and openly antagonistic, Angels in America was strongly influenced by the writings of Brecht. Should Brecht and Kushner have discussed so publicly such controversial and polarizing issues? Kushner says, “Of course it’s going to be discussed publicly. But you have to be smart. When you make a public utterance you are responsible for being responsible. We’re still an embattled community, and if you’re stupid about it you’ll give aid to the enemy.” (1696) Sounds like something Brecht could have said. At any rate, it is clear that Tony Kushner is still profoundly influenced by his predecessor and mentor Bertolt Brecht.
“Angels in America,” Drama for Students, Eds. David Galens and Lynn Spampinato. Col.1. Detroit: Gale, 1998
Fisher, James: The Theater of Tony Kushner: Living Past Hope, (New York and London: Routledge, 2001), p. 7-8
Jacobus, Lee A., Kurshner, Tony, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, The Bedford Intro to Drama 4th Edition, Boston, Ma: Bedford/ST. Martin’s
Jacobus, Lee A., Brecht, Bertolt, Mother Courage, The Bedford Intro to Drama 4th Edition, Boston, Ma: Bedford/ST. Martin’s
Kerkhoff, Ingrid, Contemporary American Drama, Angels in America: A gay Fantasia on National Themes by Tony Kushner, Osborn, M. Elizabeth, from: .A. Berney, ed., Contemporary American Dramatiswts, London, St. james Press, 1994, s.v., November 24, 2005
Kurshner, Tony, Angels in America: Perestroika, revised version, New York, NY, Theater Communications Group, Inc.
Tony Kushner, Dr. Olga Taxidou’s Lecture – Angels in America, I and II, Kushner, Tony, Tony Kushner in Conversation, p.107, November 26, 2005
Lester, Gideon, A Model of Courage – Gideon Lester explores the evolution of Mother Courage and her Children, American Repertory Theatre, February 6, 2001, November 24, 2005
Wayne, Derek. SparkNotes on Mother Courage. 24 Nov. 2005 http://www.sparknotes.com/drama/endgame/