Guest post by Paul Sukys
Some literary critics argue that the artist can no longer be content to simply create pleasing literary artifacts that exist only for their own sake. Such critics champion the activist writer who uses his or her art to reflect and perhaps even shape the social and cultural consciousness of a generation. On the other hand, the fact that certain artists are concerned with social issues does not relieve them of their responsibility toward their art. On the contrary, the artist-activist must pay close attention to his or her art or risk being labeled an agitator, or even worse, a fraud.
The split personality of the artist-activist has been actualized in a variety of different works. However, one of the most poignant contemporary settings for the presentation of this dramatic dual identity occurs within the chaotic universe of the AIDS crisis. One of the most celebrated of these literary works is the award winning, two part drama, Angels in America by Tony Kushner. This monumental work, which is set during the early days of the AIDS crisis, tells the story of that crisis from the perspectives of two persons with AIDS, plus several additional characters, all of whom share their bewilderment at the incomprehensible nature of the crisis and their struggle to cope with its chaotic implications. In Angels in America, Kushner has created a socially conscious play which dramatizes the plight of many persons with AIDS and compels the members of the audience to take notice of a problem they would just as soon, if not ignore, then certainly forget. Yet Kushner would not succeed in communicating this theme had the drama degenerated into a hard hitting polemic. Had he chosen the route of the polemicist, his voice might never have been heard (or at least not as loudly as it has been heard to date).
The play succeeds precisely because Kushner chooses not to abandon his art but to embrace it. This tact allows Kushner to create a believable central character who is more that an allegorical figure spouting philosophy as he “struts and frets his hour upon the stage.” The central character, Prior Walter, a former club designer, comes to life as a realistic hero lost within the chaotic world of the AIDS crisis. As a realistic hero, Prior acts very much like Camus’ hero, Meursault in The Stranger, as he, Prior, attempts to determine why he has been stricken with AIDS and condemned to the nightmare world that confronts every person with AIDS.
Prior, of course, unlike Meursault, is not trapped in a subjective world of irrational absurdity. Rather, he is immersed in a clearly identifiable, socio-historical moment. Prior is first and foremost a person with AIDS who must face the horrifying reality of his terrible affliction. To ignore or to downplay this crucial fact would be to dodge the central point of Kushner’s drama and would thus diminish its value. However, we must remember that Prior is also a victim of personal betrayal at the hands of his lover Louis Ironson, who abandons Prior in his hour of greatest need. The strategic addition of Louis to the plot, complete with its own set of emotional and social problems, transforms Prior’s crisis from a socioeconomic drama into one of deep personal loss. Prior can, in this way, be seen not only as an incarnation of social and historical forces that have converged at a particular existential moment in time, but also as an individual with whom the audience can identify and about whom the audience cares.
However, it would be a mistake to see Kushner’s addition of Louis and the abandonment of Prior as simple devices to trick the audience into identifying with Prior. To interpret that play in this way would be to overlook the subtle genius of Kushner’s art and would, quite frankly, demean the personality of Prior, whose quiet dignity makes him one of the most attractive and sympathetic characters to appear on the American stage in recent memory. No, Kushner is not involved in mere plot manipulation here. Rather, he has compelled the audience to understand that historical and social forces can make each of us act in ways that are either admirable or despicable, depending on our own inner character. The social and historical forces within the play do not deprive Prior and Louis of their ability to act freely. However, neither can these forces be ignored. Both Prior and Louis act within the context of the crushing events of the AIDS crisis, a crisis made worse by a society that refused to respond to the crisis in a timely and effective fashion. In this way, each of us is like Prior and Louis.
What Kushner has dramatized so effectively is that freedom is not a right as much as a privilege that we are permitted to exercise with few restrictions. We are free, for instance, to walk through the park on sunny day unimpeded, save for the occasional “keep of the grass” sign. We are free to do this day after day, until that one day when a jogger in front of us collides with a biker and is seriously injured. At that precise moment, our freedom evaporates and we are obliged to help a fellow human being in distress. What is more, we all know intuitively that this is the case. Of course, even then we still have the practical freedom to walk on by; however, and this is the point, that practical freedom has been superseded by the moral responsibility to help. Sure, we can still walk on by, but to do so abuses the privilege to act freely and marks that action as immoral, no matter how we try to convince ourselves otherwise.
The success of Kushner’s play lies within his ability to dramatize that moment of choice within the context of the AIDS crisis. Louis has been walking through the park unimpeded for years and when, at the precise moment when he witnesses the horrible collision that plunges his companion into chaos, he chooses to walk on by. In this way Kushner places the humanity of the audience in touch with the humanity of the person with AIDS, as well as the humanity of those who have “walked on by.” At the same time, the audience is acutely aware of the socio-historical context of the play and is thus conscious of how human nature is shaped by and responds to that historical moment. Thus, Kushner’s play is both immersed within the historical moment and sufficiently distanced from it. This dual image compels the audience to examine critically the cultural matrix from which the events emerge, while never losing sight of the knowledge of how they as individuals would have acted had they been on that stage and in that moment.