“Weird Name. Prior Walter. Like, ‘the Walter before this one.’”
-Emily, Millennium Approaches, Act 2
When he was writing his “Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” Tony Kushner felt it important to have a character “who can claim antecedents stretching back a millennium.” Placing this in contrast to his Jewish, African-American, and Mormon characters emphasizes, as Kushner told the New York Times, that “a certain sense of rootlessness is part of the American character.” It also gave him a way to remind his audience that “Plagues and epidemics are nothing new,” by bringing in two prior Priors in Act 3, both victims of horrible plagues that struck England in the 14th and 17th centuries. But why did he give the character such a “weird name,” as Emily notes?
Well, there actually was a “Walter before this one.” In an interview with American Theatre magazine, Kushner says he’d “been looking for one of those WASP names that nobody gets called anymore,” but that the name really came out of a conversation with his friend Kimberly Flynn (to whom Kushner dedicated Perestroika). They often discussed the German-Jewish Marxist writer Walter Benjamin, whose writings Flynn had introduced him to. Flynn “said jokingly that at times she felt such an extraordinary kinship with him that she thought she was Walter Benjamin reincarnated. And so at one point . . . I said, ‘I had to look up something in Benjamin – not you, but the prior Walter.’”
Benjamin was a significant essayist of the 1920s and 30s. His literary topics were wide-ranging: in addition to Kafka, Flaubert, and his friend Bertolt Brecht ([whose plays and theory were a massive influence on the young Kushner), he also worked on a massive project examining the social impact of shopping arcades on social life in Paris. He committed suicide on the Spanish border while fleeing the Nazis in 1940.
Two of Benjamin’s essays have had particular power for literary and aesthetic thinkers and artists over the past several decades: "The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction," which examines how the innovation of picture postcards and color reproductions changed what he called the "aura" of great artworks, and his "Theses on a Philosophy of History," a manuscript found in his luggage after his death. The Theses had a particularly strong influence on Angels in America: it may be here that the "Kabbalist-inflected mysticism and a dark, apocalyptic spirituality” which Tony Kushner, in an afterword to Perestroika, mentions Benjamin inserting into Marxism and psychoanalysis is felt most strongly.
This seemingly contradictory combination of political radicalism and Jewish mysticism is one of the features that most attracts Benjamin’s admirers. The young Turkish novelist Elif Shafak recently described Benjamin as “my hero” in the Guardian because "One doesn't read him to feel better. One reads him to feel. In his universe nothing is as it appears to be and there is a vital need to go beyond surfaces and connect with humanity."
She points out that "Gershom Scholem, the fountainhead of Jewish mysticism [and whose work also influences Angels in America], thought Benjamin was a most special soul but why on earth did he converse with those leftists? Brecht had a profound respect for him but never understood what he was doing with those mystics. And in between two worlds, translating the words of those who never spoke the same language, Benjamin stood on his own, beautiful in his loneliness."
In the Theses, Benjamin argues that "to articulate the past historically . . . means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger,” that it is necessary "to brush history against the grain" and "to blast open the continuum of history" – a phrase echoed in Ethel Rosenberg's prophecy to Roy Cohn in Act 3 of Millennium Approaches that "history is about to crack wide open."
The strongest influence on Kushner's play, however, is Thesis. Here Benjamin describes "the Angel of History," inspired by a Paul Klee painting he owned. Here's a link to the passage, along with Klee’s painting:
The “storm we call progress” is one of Tony Kushner’s greatest concerns in Angels in America. In Perestroika, the continuum of history is blasted open for his conflicted angels.
Photo: Aubrey Deeker and James Ijames. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.