Equating Roy Cohn to Post-colonial America By Peter Prus Wisniewski

Abstract: In this research essay, I analyze the interactions that Roy Cohn shares with other characters in Angels in America. Following a description of Roy Cohn as a character, I go in depth regarding each of the analyzed interactions, which include: redefining homosexuality to his doctor, his self-diagnosis of liver cancer after his doctor infroms him he has AIDS, and by card stacking, or repressing one side of an argument, in order to persuade Roy Cohn into performing unethical tasks. After conducting research on american historical parallels to the aforementioned events, I concluded that the redefining of homosexuality best compared to the colonial construction of the term “whiteness,” the self-diagnosis of “liver cancer” best parallels to the idea of redlining, and the unbacked justification of being unethical best compared to the idea of manifest destiny. These comparisons display that Roy Cohn’s persona of being the villain of the play emphasizes the view that many maintain on America in that the history of the United States is one of being the enemy to many different types of individuals. The evidence put forth emphasizes the idea that Roy Cohn the ideals of America in its post-colonial development.

How do the relationships and interactions amongst characters and Roy Cohn in "Angels in America" display and parallel the ideologies of power dynamics and the oppressive nature of westward expansion and the following developmental period in the United States?

Description of Object of Study: Roy Cohn. The introduction of Roy Cohn in scene two embodies his personality; he acts arrogant, lacks manners, shouts, acts very vulgar, and is disrespectful to every person with whom he interacts. The Al Pacino's performance of Cohn displays this persona as he shouts over the phone while Joe Pitt is waiting in his office patiently, swears constantly at his clients, and licks his fingers before handing a sandwich to Joe. Cohn has images all around his office showing his accomplishments and refers to Mormons as “delectable,” stating that met mormons in Vegas before offering Joe a great job. Roy also arranges tickets to a show for a judge’s wife over the phone, showing his integrity. In addition, in scene nine at the doctor’s office, when the doctor is simply explaining that Roy has AIDS, Roy is very confrontational and demands that the doctor call him a homosexual. When the doctor states that Roy has sex with other men, Roy affirms this and calmly states that being homosexual is simply a label, and “like all labels they tell you one thing and one thing only, where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain.” Roy redefines the term homosexuality and states that he is not homosexual because of his great clout, claiming, “this is not hypocrisy, this is reality.” Roy is calm and thus persuasive in what he is saying. After stating this reasoning, he becomes more confrontational and intense when stating that he cannot have aids because he is not homosexual. Finally, Roy states in a calm way, “I have liver cancer.” Roy refers to his enormous “clout” the whole time that he talking to the doctor and shows his arrogance. Finally, in the dinner scene with Joe after Joe states that interfering with the hearing in unethical, Pacino delivers a monologue in a very intense, angry, and flustered manner stating that ethics do not matter in this game of politics, and that this is simply a part of being alive.

Pacino playing Cohn talking on the phone with a client. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jLV03MxxZq8.
An image displayed in Cohn's office. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jLV03MxxZq8.
Pacino playing Cohn delivering a sandwich to Joe after licking his fingers. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jLV03MxxZq8.
Pacino pouring tea and talking on the phone while Pitt is waiting in his office. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jLV03MxxZq8.
Roy Cohn while battling AIDS. Retrieved from https://www.maryellenmark.com/text/magazines/life/905W-000-035.html.

Throughout Angels in America, by Tony Kushner, the political and social atmospheres of the performance can be analyzed by looking into the conversations and manners in which the characters interact with one another. A great example of this idea may be seen in Roy Cohn’s interactions with other characters. Roy Cohn is seen as a sort of villian in this play, and Cohn represents an evil part of society that is hypocritical, homophobic and anti-sematic. This type of society mirrors society in America during westward expansion and the following developmental period in the United States.

Roy Cohn with one of his clients. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/10/roy-cohn-mafia-politics/599320/.

Roy Cohn is a man that has sex with other men, who rejects his homosexuality throughout this play. When Cohn’s doctor, Henry, simply explains that Cohn has AIDS, Cohn is very confrontational and demands that the doctor call him a homosexual. When Henry states that Cohn has sex with other men, Cohn affirms this fact and calmly states that being homosexual is simply a label, and “Like all labels they tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain.” Cohn redefines the term homosexuality and states that he is not homosexual because of his great clout, claiming, “this is not hypocrisy. This is reality” (Kushner 46). Cohn’s performance here mirrors society during westward expansion as Cohn is constructing a definition of homosexuality in the same manner that colonists constructed the term “whiteness.” “Whiteness” refers to the controlled assimilation of “white” individuals into a society dominated by those who see themselves as white (Baldwin). In 1790, only free “white” immigrants were ones eligible to become naturalized citizens, and after the Civil War, people of African descent were also eligible. The power, however, was still in the hands of “white” people as they were still the ones eligible to sit on juries, vote, and hold office. Being white was thus the only way to gain full access to the aspects of being a citizen. White people still had a far easier route to naturalization, so people applying for citizenship attempted to classify themselves as white, regardless of skin tone. In this Jim Crow Era, the courts held the power in classifying people as white or black so that segregation could be enforced. Being “white” in a developing America is, in principle, the same as being straight in the eyes of Roy Cohn. Both Cohn and the court systems see that these labels simply tell where an individual stands in society in order to create a power imbalance based on social constructs. Both Cohn and the individuals defining “whiteness” use these labels as a way to give themselves leverage in society through oppression.

Pacino after stating "Roy Cohn is not a homosexual." Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8CXsD1EpTk.

The ways in which Roy Cohn attempts to “rewrite the narrative” also correlates to society in developing America. Roy Cohn, after learning that he has AIDS, rejects the idea that he has AIDS because he believes that the disease is only for homosexuals. Cohn then states in a calm manner, “I have liver cancer” (Kushner 46). Cohn’s attempt to keep his name clean by not telling other people that he has AIDS correlates to the societal approach to redlining in the United States. Redlining is the institutionalized racism practice of offering worse rates and refusing mortgages to different communities based on the different races present in a community (Lockwood). Redlining was very prominent in the early and middle twentieth century, and the effects of redlining may still be seen today as some communities lack diversity from this recent practice of racism. Cohn does not wish for individuals to gain a bad opinion on him based on the fact that he has a disease that he believes is for homosexuals, and redlining relates to this in the way that individuals did not want to live in a community in worse societal standing because of community diversity. Cohn sees that if people find out that he has AIDS, people will associate him with homosexuals, who were oppressed in the society seen in Angels in America; Similarly, people who did not want to live in communities with black people as they would then be associated with this oppressed people.

A newspaper displayed on Cohn's office that Cohn considers his greatest achievement. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jLV03MxxZq8.

While at the dinner table with Joe Pitt, Roy Cohn snaps at Pitt after Joe states that he is uncomfortable with carrying out an illegal task, with the task being the reason that Cohn initially offered Pitt a great job (Kushner 68). Cohn states that “[Being unethical] is politics… the game of being alive. Cohn maintains the mindset that being unethical is an integral part of being a lawyer, and similarly, in the developing United States, the settlers saw that being unethical was an integral part of taking control of the land. Thomas Jefferson claimed that western expansion was essential for the future of the United States, and he made assertions such as “[Native American] blood will run through our veins and spread with us through this great continent,” to create a mythos to justify the removal of Native Americans from their land (Story We Tell). Statements such as this one created the illusion that the settlers seeked just treatment of Native Americans, rather than displaying the truth that the settlers used genocidal measures to remove the natives. In addition, “Manifest Destiny,” or the idea that there was a divine authority justifying the methods used to expand the nation west, is another mythos that creates problems defining America (Clark). The assertion that God called for westward expansion creates illegitimate reasoning for the genocidal methods carried out by settlers; using a godly influence to justify stealing land and killing an entire population is deception and an inadequate justification of how America was formed. By creating these illusions that Westward expansion was justified, the developing United States may be correlated to Roy Cohn’s interactions with other individuals. Roy Cohn justifies his illegal actions by simply stating that these illegal actions are simply a part of being alive, which is inadequate justification, similar to the justification given by “manifest destiny.” Cohn creates a mythos to justify his unethical methods to be successful, just as Jefferson did in stating that he wished to immerse the native community into america when actually taking the land through genocidal methods.

Pacino while stating that being unethical is a part of life. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qafGPTmItNk.

The interactions that Roy Cohn has with other individuals in Angels in America mirror the approaches that settlers took when expanding America and the ways in which America developed. Cohn is the villain of this performance and America has been the villain in many instances in history, which explains the aforementioned deep relation to Cohn. America is still, however, developing, and change may happen in the United States in order to loosen this relation to Cohn for a more fruitful future for generations to come.

A sickly and desperate Roy Cohn played by Al Pacino. Retrieved from https://www.hbo.com/angels-in-america/cast-and-crew/roy-cohn.

Roy Cohn holding the Star-Spangled Banner. Retrieved from https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2019/07/wheres-my-roy-cohn-trailer.


Clark, Dan E. “Manifest Destiny and the Pacific.” Pacific Historical Review, vol. 1, no. 1, 1932, pp. 1–17., doi:10.2307/3633743.

Kenan, Randall. “On Being White...And Other Lies.” The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, by James Baldwin, Pantheon Books, 2011, pp. 135–138.

Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Theatre Communications Group, Inc., 1992.

Lockwood, Beatrix. “The US Government Used These Maps to Keep Neighborhoods Segregated.” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, 30 July 2019, www.thoughtco.com/redlining-definition-4157858.

“The Story We Tell.” Race: The Power of Illusion. Dir. Christine Herbes-Sommers, Tracy H. Strain, and Llewellyn Smith. California Newsreel, 2003. Online Recording.