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