“Because the soul is progressive, it never quite repeats itself, but in every act attempts the production of a new and fairer whole.”
Tony Kushner uses this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson as the epigraph for Perestroika. The title of the second half of Kushner’s “Gay Fantasia on National Themes” refers to Mikhail Gorbachev’s “restructuring” (the meaning of “perestroika”) of the now-defunct Soviet Union. We get glimpses of the Soviet Union in its dotage in Perestroika, but the relationships of all the characters undergo restructuring as well. As Tony Kushner writes about the two halves: “Millennium Approaches is a play about security and certainty being blown apart, while Perestroika is about danger and possibility following the explosion. The events in Perestroika proceed from the wreckage made by the Angel’s traumatic entry at the end of Millennium. A membrane has broken.”
The idea of “membrane” is important. Skin, and the body (both individual and politic), echo through Millennium Approaches as emblems of identity, along with the related themes of movement and stasis. Here they come to the fore. How do people and societies change? Especially in the midst of the “mad swirling planetary disorganization” that has seemed to characterize our world for the past quarter-century?
The culmination of Angels in America takes each of its characters’ soul to places never imagined, asking them (and us, the audience) to imagine “a new and fairer whole” - which the Emersonian epigraph reminds us has been perhaps the most important moral project of the United States since its founding.
Picture: Mikhail Gorbachev on the cover of Time, March 25, 1985, two weeks after inheriting the position of General Secretary of the Communist Party from Konstantin Chernenko, following the latter’s death.