It’s the fear of what comes after the doing that makes the doing hard to do.

Martin, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches by Tony Kushner

ENGL 3355

The Personal, Well, Private Life: In the Closet of Two Contemporary Queer Classics

Tony Kushner knows whose shoulders he is standing on: “I’ve always loved [Tennessee] Williams. The first time I read Streetcar, I was annihilated. I read as much Williams as I could get my hands on” (Fisher). Williams’s plays are dotted with characters of questionably sexuality, of thinly-veiled admissions, and of sly nods to cultural mores. But it all had to be hidden in some way. This was the way Williams wanted it, too, because his plays are not about being gay, but some of his characters happen to be gay. Suddenly Last Summer takes a bigger step, however, concerning the death of a gay character, maybe because he was gay. Kushner, a generation later, takes the next step, in Angels in America, writing about the consequences. A handful of characters are in different stages of coming out as gay, and, together, they illustrate the perspective of society at the time, as well as their authors. In Williams’s time, the audience could accept a gay man on stage if they could also deny the truth about him. Kushner’s characters cannot be denied. Joe Pitt and Roy Cohn stand on the shoulders of Doctor Cukrowicz and Sebastian Venable before them.

In Suddenly Last Summer, Tennessee Williams presents a cast of characters tightly wound around each other. Sebastian Venable is never seen, but Doctor Cukrowicz enters with a striking bit of stage direction. Williams uses the directions to great effect, not letting sit useless, but integrating description into the narrative as a prose writer may. The Doctor is blonde, “all in white, glacially, brilliant, very, very good-looking” (Williams 9). He is the first man to enter, and he stands in for the unseen Sebastian in many ways. Mrs. Venable likes him immediately. She explains, “I already feel I can lean on your shoulder” (Williams 10), just as the audience imagines she did with her own son. Later, Mrs. Venable’s nephew, George, will come in wearing Sebastian’s hand-me-down clothes, but it is the Doctor who is the true analogue. It is he who suggests Sebastian in his final moments: “white as the weather he had on a spotless white silk Shantung suit and a white silk tie and a white panama and white shoes, white—white lizard-skin pumps!” (Williams 82). He plays the role for Catherine and Mrs. Venable both, as they relate their stories of Sebastian.

When Catherine sees the Doctor in the window—”too blond to hide behind window curtains” (Williams 39)—she is reminded of Sebastian, drawing an explicit link between the two. “Cousin Sebastian said he was famished for blonds” (Williams 39), Catherine remembers, and, of course, the Doctor is blond. Not only is he a stand-in for the late Sebastian, but there is an implication that Sebastian would have been interested in the Doctor in a sexual way. In his conversation with Mrs. Venable, the Doctor implies that he might be interested, too.

He tells her, “Mrs. Venable, doctors look for God, too” (Williams 17). The search for God was Sebastian’s particular quest, one that can be extrapolated to mean something in the broader sense of searching for one’s self and, even, searching for a way to live as open as one wishes. The Doctor acknowledges Sebastian’s struggle, even sympathises with it: “I think [doctors] have to look harder for him that priests since they don’t have the help of such well-known guidebooks and well-organized expeditions” (Williams 17). This is also Williams talking about how to be a homosexual in the early part of the twentieth century. Without those who come before and make the path, it is nearly impossible for those, like Sebastian and the Doctor, to find their own way out of the closet.

Of course, Tennessee Williams would never write a play as explicit as that. When the Doctor asks Mrs. Venable about her son’s ” personal, well private life” (Williams 23), he does so with very careful vocabulary. He uses similar euphemistic language when he speaks of his experimental lobotomy work: “My work is such a new and radical thing” (Williams 29), and, as Sebastian the poet, the Doctor’s work is his life. His life is “new and radical” and Sebastian’s is “personal and private”. Mrs. Venable may deny the implication, she may play along, or she may, honestly, not understand the subtext. The Doctor leaves the choice to Mrs. Venable. Whether she knew Sebastian was gay is not made clear until Catherine begins her story—when Mrs. Venable gets caught up in the frenzy, as everyone else—and, yet, even then it cannot be said for sure.

The Venables are incredibly meticulous. Even Sebastian’s garden is perfect and planned, “a well-groomed jungle” (Williams 11), the Doctor calls it. Mrs. Venable drops everything at five o’clock for a frozen daquiri and Sebastian never had more than one cocktail before dinner. “Nothing was accidental,” she explains, which is why Mrs. Venable has such a hard time understanding what happened last summer. As Catherine puts it, “suddenly, last summer, wasn’t young any more” (Williams 77). Sebastian felt his very careful grip on life fall away from him, and that’s when it happened. He got careless, and he forgot to stay in the circles where he was known and comfortable. Sebastian only speaks a few times, through Catherine, of course, but she relates direct dialogue from him in the moments leading up to the attack. Frantic, he yells at Catherine, “Please shut up, let me handle this situation, will you? I want to handle this thing” (Williams 91). Because he cannot handle this thing—his sexuality and its consequences—any longer. It has gotten away from him.

“He liked me and so I loved him” (Williams 40), Catherine says, and twice it appears in the text. Despite that, Catherine cannot save Sebastian. When she tries to take care of him (she calls it “the mistake of responding too much to his kindness” (Williams 74), he turns restless, and he breaks away from his comfort zone. Catherine is on this trip with Sebastian because his mother had a stroke, and she is getting older and can no longer “procure” the attention that Sebastian desires. “We all use each other and that’s what we think of as love, and not being able to use each other is what’s—hate” (Williams 63), Catherine says, but that last hesitation before that last word suggests that even she did know Sebastian in his last moments. Even then, she still loved him, tried to save him, tried to understand him, and he was not brave enough to reach out to her.

A millennium later, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America presents a new generation of characters grappling with identity in general and being gay in particular. The two closeted characters are tied together as Sebastian and the Doctor are. Roy Cohn is “a Saint of the Right” (Kushner 70) by his friend’s description—”the heart of modern” (Kushner 213) by his own. Yet, he is also a homosexual. No. ” Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual, Henry, who fucks around with guys” (Kushner 52) because, in his line of work, he cannot be gay. Roy is the closet’s biggest proponent, but, as Sebastian found places and times where he could be himself, Roy carves out his identity where and when he can. Because he is a lawyer—constantly fighting for this bill or that divorce—Roy cannot help but fight against the community that urges him to come out and call himself gay. For Roy, though, it is not about sex, “[n]ot who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will pick up the phone when I call, who owes me favors” (Kushner 51). Roy does not use the traditional euphemisms for his lifestyle. He is not searching for God or himself. Roy Cohn makes his definitions.

He stays in the closet because his job and his politics demand it. But Roy will not hide. Sebastian uses his mother and Catherine when he goes out, but Roy will “bring the guy I’m screwing to the White House and President Reagan smiles at us and shakes his hand” (Kushner 52). Roy defines his own closet, then pushes against those borders like a challenge to the world. His is not a traditional closeted life, but, the same way he works his phone, Roy works the world: “Roy conducts business with great energy, impatience and sensual abandon: gesticulating, shouting, cajoling, crooning, playing the phone, receiver and hold button with virtuosity and love” (Kushner 17). He wishes to be “an octopus” (Kushner 17), to be able to keep track of who knows and who does not.

When the truth leaks out in small moments, the audience has to know that Roy knows, too. There is no information that you have that Roy has not already overheard at cocktail party. Like Sebastian, nothing is an accident, so, when, on the phone and in between a number of calls, Roy tells Joe about La Cage Aux Folles, it sounds more like an admission than a friend recommending a Broadway show. La Cage is a play about a conservative couple meeting a homosexual couple when their children decide to marry. Roy calls it, “Fabulous. Best thing on Broadway. Maybe ever” (Kushner 19). It is another challenge, and, maybe, a signal for Joe, to let him know that Roy knows. Because Roy always knows.

Joe gets another one of these signals from Louis in the courthouse bathroom. Louis throws out the line, “Run in my nylons” (Kushner 34) and waits to see Joe’s reaction. Louis thinks he can tell—he thinks Joe “sounds like a…” (Kushner 35), but does not come out and say the word to end that sentence. Instead, they play it safe, teasing each other, using the equally reviled word “Republican” in place of “gay.” When the same sizing-up scene happens between Roy and Belize, his nurse and a former drag queen, there is no mincing of words. Belize, perhaps the most out and comfortable of all Kushner’s characters, winks knowingly at Roy, then explains, “Consider it solidarity. One faggot to another” (Kushner 161). By using the word, Belize stands out from the rest, and out of the closet.

Roy may not tell the world, but he does know who he is himself. Joe is married to Harper. They both believe they can be happy, but it soon starts to crack. Harper demands they are “happy enough! Pretend-happy. That’s better than nothing” (Kushner 29), but, for Joe, it is not. That moment in the bathroom, when Louis made Joe confront the names of things, even in a roundabout way, makes Joe consider everything else. Harper, a pill addict prone to hallucinations, seems to have tapped into something when she tells Joe, “I heard on the radio how to give a blowjob…You want to try?” (Kushner 33). As if she knows exactly how her husband is straying and how she may bring him back, Harper offers exactly what Louis is offering. It does not work, however, because the problem, and solution, is not only sex.

Joe has felt out of place a long time. “I never stood out, on the outside,” he says, “but inside, it was hard for me. To pass” (Kushner 59). He does not quite understand it, but Joe is talking about how to be a gay man in the world. Like Sebastian and the Doctor, a generation ago, Joe has learned to pass as someone who belongs, “[a]s someone cheerful and strong” (Kushner 60). He searches, as Sebastian did, for that acceptance in God, because “[t]hose who love God with an open heart unclouded by secrets and struggles are cheerful; God’s easy simple love for them shows in how strong and happy they are. The saints” (Kushner 60). That is what Joe wishes to become, and what Roy—”Saint of the Right” (Kushner 70)—in his own way, already is.

On his way to an open heart, Joe comes out four different times. First, to his mother, because he is a good man. It happens over the phone, and the script plays out mostly as a modern audience expects: “Mom. Momma. I’m a homosexual, Momma. Boy, did that come out awkward” (Kushner 80). It is significant that Joe says the words, that Kushner writes him the words. Sebastian does not have a scene like this one, and, judging from Mrs. Venable, the audience can be forgiven if they believe he never said the word “homosexual” aloud in his life, let alone to his own mother.

To Harper, Joe speaks of truth. “You want the truth. This is the truth. I knew this when I married you” (Kushner 83), he says, absolving her of any blame for the end of their marriage. That he has finally name his desires is something new, but Joe continues, “I’ve known this I guess for as long as I’ve known anything” (Kushner 83). It is something he has known for a long time, but something he never felt comfortable expressing, particularly in his background.

Louis has a bad dream. He wakes up and describes it to Joe, in bed next to him: “it turned out you were a member of some bizarre religious sect, like a Moonie or a Rajnishi or a Mormon or something, and you hadn’t told me, and it was like I didn’t know you at all” (Kushner 186). This is perfect timing for Joe’s next coming out. “I am. I am a Mormon” (Kushner 186), he tells Louis. Kushner uses these two aspects of Joe to great contrast. Among his Mormon family and community, Joe is out of place because he is gay. Among the gay community, he is out of place because he is Mormon. The two have absolutely nothing to do with each other, but, in separate contexts, they are treated exactly the same by people who do not understand. “So what else haven’t you told me?” (Kushner 203) Louis asks, worried that Mormonism is only the tip of an iceberg he cannot deal with. But Joe has come a long way because he realises that, no matter what label you give yourself, you have to do the same thing: “You have to reconcile yourself to the world’s unperfectibility by being thoroughly in the world but not of it” (Kushner 204). It sounds like a lesson from Roy.

“Don’t be afraid” (Kushner 64), Roy tells him, “people are so afraid; don’t be afraid to live in the raw wind, naked, alone…Learn at least this: What you are capable of. Let nothing stand in your way” (Kushner 64). A foul-mouthed Republican lawyer, Roy Cohn is the voice of wisdom in Angels in America. He has figured out what the rest have not: “Don’t be afraid.” Joe is not done until he comes out to Roy: “I left my wife. I needed to tell you” (Kushner 217). “With a man” (Kushner 218), he explains, because he knows that Roy knows and that Roy understands.

Roy Cohn and Joe Pitt have come a long way since Doctor Cukrowicz and Sebastian Venable. Roy has a problem with people calling him “homosexual,” but he does not deny that he sleeps with men—his problem is with the label. Joe is married and from a Midwest Mormon family, but finds courage inside himself to come out. Had Sebastian found that same courage to live openly, he might not have died. Had he been comfortable with himself, he might not have leaned so heavily on his mother and Catherine, might not have held the control of his life so tightly. The Doctor, in another time, might have found a society more open to his “new and radical” ideas. But Tennessee Williams had to write Suddenly Last Summer first. He set the groundwork for Tony Kushner and others to follow, to write about their lives, and bring characters out of the closet and onto the stage.

Works Cited
Fisher, James. “‘The Angels of Fructification’: Tennessee Williams, Tony Kushner, and
Images of Homosexuality on the American Stage.” Mississippi Quarterly. 491 (1995/6).
Williams, Tennessee. “Suddenly Last Summer.” Four Plays. New York: Signet, 1976.
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. New York:
Theatre Communications Group, 2003.

There is just no way I’m gonna be able to talk intelligently about tonight’s Doctor Who. Maybe by next week I’ll be able to stop clapping and grinning.

Nathan: Procure him for me.

Maggie: Why don’t you show him something you wrote, Tennessee?

RACE YOU TO THE BOTTOM, a film where this is the best moment. Trust me. Nathan is gay, but having an affair with Maggie, and they’re fighting about what it means. The ‘him’ is a waiter, who seems to be flirting with Nathan (and Nathan with him), until, at the next vineyard, they meet his girlfriend.

Mark: We both know you could never go to the beach in a million years. You’d be mobbed.

Edward: Like Sebastian Venable in Suddenly Last Summer.

Hinton, Gregory. Santa Monica Canyon. New York: iUniverse, 2007. 32.

Edward is an actor. Mark is his partner, a poet, younger. They were together before Eddie was famous, but now he is. Now, Edward has to be in the closet, and, while Mark isn’t, no one can know he’s with Edward Bloom.