Sammy Sussman: ‘Angels in America’ portrays beauty in confusion
This past Thursday, I attended a performance of SMTD’s “Angels in America” written by Tony Kushner. It was an incredibly intense experience. While I am still not sure what the play was trying to convey, I am sure that it is an important message.
As soon as I got home from the play, I set out trying to find different interpretations of the play online. The dominant theme, as I learned, was the idea of community and the groupings that separate members of a larger community. This interpretation is backed by Kushner’s assertion that “the question I am trying to ask is how broad is a community’s embrace. How wide does it reach?” He claims the work focuses on the boundaries between communities and identities in American culture, particularly during the Reagan years.
To me, however, this thematic concept is wholly inadequate in describing the significance and meaning of the play. This concept is the driving force behind the play, the lifeblood of its plot. But it does not explain the questions that the play raises or the messages that it delivers about contemporary culture. At no point did I find myself questioning the breadth of a community’s reach or the intersection and limitations of these communities. If anything, the contraction of communities occurring throughout the play was predictable from the beginning, the boundaries between communities already having been clearly defined by the audience’s preconceptions. The divisions based on race, ethnicity and sexual orientation, for example, conform neatly to what one would expect of society during the Reagan years.
What then, I asked myself, was the meaning of the play? This was four days after I had attended the performance. I had been thinking about the play almost constantly in that time, and yet I was no closer to reaching an answer to this question than I had been when I left the theater. If anything, I found myself moving farther and farther away from a coherent answer. I had rejected political themes (too restrictive to the Reagan years); I rejected racial, ethnic and cultural themes (too narrow to fully encompass the religious and political allusions in the play); and I rejected religious themes (too infrequent and inconsequential to the plot as a whole). I had only been able to reject themes that I knew were incorrect. I was yet to find an answer that I found convincing: an understanding of the play that would finally allow me to stop thinking about it.
To this end, I was reminded of one of my favorite plays, Samuel Beckett’s monumental “Waiting for Godot.” This work, and the enigma surrounding the work, has always fascinated me. On the surface, the play is incredibly simple, almost laughably so. The dialogue can be prohibitively confusing when one first hears it — the rapid, illogical conversations easier to reject as meaningless than to accept as holding some meaning. It is not uncommon to hear laughter when one first witnesses the work, the bizarre nature of the dialogue provoking an immediate, though perhaps uninformed, response.
The more that one begins to analyze and pull apart the “Waiting for Godot,” the more that the various intersecting ideas and interpretations of the work begin to venture out from below this seemingly humorous surface. On Wikipedia, interpretations of the work fall under many categories: Freudian, Jungian, existential, ethical, Christian, autobiographical and even sexual. Each one of these interpretations capture some aspects of the play but none have ever been universally accepted as a primary, or most correct and all-encompassing interpretation.
I first analyzed the piece in my high school A.P. Literature class. Given the level of this class, we chose to use the religious interpretation of the work. Godot’s name was taken as proof of the God-like symbolism of this character. We spoke about the loss of faith in the interwar and post-World-War generations, trying to connect Godot’s absence throughout the play with the questions being raised about God and the role of God in 20th-century Europe.
While this interpretation suited the class quite well, it never quite satisfied my understanding of the play. Beckett himself was reported to have explained that the play is “all symbiosis.” Ignoring the questions of the authenticity that surround this quote, I have always found the very idea of symbiosis as the focus of the play to be unhelpful and unsatisfying. How can an entire play be about symbiosis? Is symbiosis not a basic aspect of the human condition? What can be gained from understanding the play as revolving around symbiosis?
As I have continued to analyze these two complex works of theater, I have slowly begun to understand that their complex, illusory meanings are what make them so engaging. In all my conversations about “Angels in America” I have never once found myself holding the same understanding of the play that I did before. And whenever I chose to revisit “Waiting for Godot” I find new thematic ideas and cultural references that lead me in different interpretive directions.
Fully understanding a magnificent piece of art is impossible. One cannot help but see one’s ever-changing perspectives and experiences reflected in art. One cannot help but see in art what one wants to find, the various interpretations of the piece slowly drifting to the surface of one’s own interpretation.
Though I still do not fully understand Kushner’s “Angels in America,” I am confident that I need not understand it to fully comprehend its beauty. Though I am no closer to understanding “Angels in America” than I was when I first witnessed the work, it is the constant journey to understand art, and not my theoretical final interpretation, that gives it beauty. Beauty can be found in confusion and confusion in beauty. It is the road through confusion to finding this beauty that gives art its value, and the ever-receding end of this road that gives art its timelessness and its intrigue.