Among the dramatis personae in Tony Kushner’s two-play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes are a couple of non-fictional characters, Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg. Cohn (1927-1986) was one of the most morally reprehensible characters in American history. I am old enough to remember him as chief counsel to Joe McCarthy’s Senate subcommittee “investigating” Communist influence and activity in what is now called the “Second Red Scare” (c.1947-56, the first being c. 1917-20). Cohn appeared live on American TV during the Army-McCarthy hearings, and the screen showed a conventional-looking, crew-cut young man, sometimes whispering advice into the satanic ear of the vile McCarthy. Cohn was a U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor at the espionage trial in 1951 of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and it was Cohn’s examination of Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, David Greenglass, that historians say resulted in the conviction and execution of the couple. In his autobiography, Cohn actually boasted that he had influenced the appointments of both the Chief Prosecutor, and the judge in the case, Irving Kaufman – and that he, Cohn, had persuaded Kaufman to impose the death sentence. Not only was this ex parte interference out of order, but it in effect made Cohn Ethel Rosenberg’s murderer; for, in 2008, a “co-conspirator,” Morton Sobell, said that Ethel had been innocent. I remember, as a 12-year-old in a decorously Southern Kentucky town, reading the detailed newspaper account of Ethel’s electrocution in June, 1953, and being shaken and sickened by the barbarity of it. Only a few years later, at university, I encountered the Rosenbergs’ two sons, whose parents and childhoods had been destroyed by, among others, Roy Cohn.
As if this were not enough to mark Cohn as a major villain, in 1971 he represented (and some say mentored) Donald Trump, who was accused of violating the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against blacks. Not surprisingly, Cohn helped Reagan win in 1979-80, and seems to have had the President’s ear, or, better still, as the play says, Nancy Reagan’s phone number.
There’s more mud to be flung, however; for, during his time with McCarthy, he and Cohn targeted not only “communists,” but also homosexuals, resulting in (says Wikipedia) “the firing of scores of gay men from government employment” and the blackmail of many others. This was the so-called “Lavender scare” of which a former US Senator, Alan K. Simpson, said: “The so-called ‘Red Scare’ has been the main focus of most historians of that period of time. A lesser-known element … and one that harmed far more people was the witch-hunt McCarthy and others conducted against homosexuals.”
The final and most distressing and despicable part of the Roy Cohn story, which Kushner focuses on in Perestroika, the second play of the Angels in America duo, is that Cohn always insisted that he was not gay, he was simply a man who liked having sex with men. He was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984 and died in 1986. In the play, his deathbed is shadowed by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, and he doesn’t die until he’s played one last trick on her, toying with her maternal instincts and deceiving her into singing a Yiddish lullaby for him.
This coup de théâtre, only one of many in the seven hours and forty minutes it takes to see both plays, is representative of what makes Angels in America a classic. Somehow Tony Kushner can find it in his own heart to be generous to his Roy Cohn, and portray him on his deathbed as mischievous – diabolically mischievous – but still playful, with a naughty boy’s slight charm overlaying the profound evil of which we know he’s capable. (As though Iago or Claggart had a sense of humour.) I saw the first National Theatre production of Angels in America in 1993, and remember thinking then that Kushner had remarkable reserves of sympathy for this moral monster, Roy Cohn. The role was played by David Schofield. In the current production Cohn is played by a great star, Nathan Lane, and it is hard to see how his performance could be bettered. Lane made me believe that the only thing Cohn feared was being disbarred before his death, as that would make him a loser. (I think we can take it that the real-life Cohn passed this attitude on to his client, Trump.)
The new NT staging is directed by Marianne Elliott, and Ian MacNeil’s sets take advantage of all the considerable bells and whistles available on the Lyttelton stage. The permanent set is the ceiling, a Techno-Baroque dome that contains much of Paule Constable’s lighting rig. I’ve re-read the scripts, and am impressed by how closely the revolving rooms, mysteriously opening windows and trap doors conform to Kushner’s elaborate stage directions. There are other well known faces in the cast, such as the marvellous Denise Gough. The stark naked, body-hairless Russell Tovey as the closeted Mormon, Joe, made me all but forget Daniel Craig in the earlier production; but thrilling as Andrew Garfield is playing Prior Walter, I still treasure the memory of Stephen Dillane’s trembling, nervy innocence as the man who grapples with the angel. (God takes quite a beating in these two plays, for He has abandoned His angels, as well as mankind.)
Magnificent as the casting and the staging are, what captures the attention, imagination, and part of the soul of the audience is the generosity of Kushner’s vision. As a playwright he uses all the resources of his art to make the audience feel that his character, Roy Cohn, is a human being; it has to be said of Kushner that, as a gay American man himself, in these two plays he has shown grace and the virtue of charity. The human race has had an awful lot of luck when it comes to the plague of AIDS. A pandemic was averted by science, not by the intervention of angels; but Tony Kushner’s epic play will tell future generations a great deal about what it was like to live through the crisis.
There are cinema NT Live Broadcasts of
Part One: Millennium Approaches – 20 July 2017
Part Two: Perestroika – 27 July 2017
(with varying Encore screenings; see ntlive.com to find your nearest venue)