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Those People: A Look at Demonic Othering and Homosexuality in Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Kushner’s Angels in America
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The arts and humanities have served as not only social and political barometers of their representative ages, but also as cautionary voices aimed toward the future. Both Tennessee Williams and Tony Kushner incorporated the voices of the marginalized into their dramaturgy. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Williams animates a southern family’s fractured relationships and its dealings with the truth, craftily alluding to underpinnings of homosexual relationships and ruminating on their place within the South; Kushner examines this same marginalized group in Angels in America, but casts homosexuality into the forefront of culture. Each playwright addresses the subjugated group from a unique perspective: Kushner, directly; Williams, indirectly. Although Williams and Kushner utilize different techniques to present homosexuality and its relationship in contemporary social stratification, both Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Angels in America comment on the depiction of the homosexual as “other” — a creature to be feared and persecuted.
How is this “other” initially constructed? Tenets of both egocentric and ethnocentric thought lead to the dismantling of culture and the subjugation of others outside of the mainstream social image. As Ann Dobie notes, the process of othering—by which individuals view and interpret those who are in some way different from the social norm—is critical to the stratification of culture (Dobie 189). It is this stratification that justifies hierarchies and the distribution of wealth and power within a class system. Sometimes the dominant class or culture views another group as evil because of their traditions or practices. This process, according to Dobie, is known as demonic othering (189). Neither Williams nor Kushner practice othering in the portrayal of their respective gay characters; instead they allow their characters to directly reflect American society, so that the othering process is cast in a new light. They also, however, astutely complicate the issue of homosexuality in America by allowing their characters to hide their orientations. Dobie calls this related process mimicry, or an attempt by the marginalized group to disguise themselves to become a more equal and functioning part of the norm (190). For example, Williams gives Brick Pollitt alcoholism to mask his sexual ambiguities. This then allows the other characters to interchange one perceived disease for the other. Similarly, Kushner has Roy Cohn, one of his homosexual characters, denounce his sexuality and infection with AIDS: “AIDS is what homosexuals have. I have liver cancer.” (Kushner 913) With this statement Kushner succinctly sums up the nature of mimicry and attributes the behavior to homosexual stereotypes and the American social climate. Both authors acknowledge that displaying sexual deviance can be a mistake of unforgivable proportions. Both agree that their characters are better suited to disguise themselves behind booze, semantics, and outright lies rather than risk being devalued by family, society, and even America as a whole.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof does not directly affirm a homosexual connection. Williams skates around the topic indirectly, referring to Brick’s relationship with his best friend, Skipper, and their “unnatural” friendship. The audience is introduced to Brick as an alcoholic. Brick’s wife and the rest of the Pollitt family other him under these pretenses throughout Act I. However, as the play evolves, Brick’s relationship with Skipper is brought into the spotlight. Maggie stabs at her husband, eluding to a homosexual relationship in Act I when she brings up Skipper and accuses: “Oh, excuse me, forgive me, but laws of silence don’t work!” (Williams 32). This reference to silence is related to Williams’ use of the indirect inferences to Brick’s ambiguous sexuality: none of the characters want to talk about it. However, it is Skipper’s death that Williams uses as a subtle interface between homosexuality and American society. As Marie Napierkowski notes, a writer often “kills off a character whose actions or presence contradict or threaten society’s most cherished mores” and therefore does not threaten the status quo with a measurement of morality (Napierkowski 198). Instead Brick is left to consider his own worth—homosexuality included—in the world around him. He chooses to hide behind alcohol abuse to not only reconcile his own feelings of inadequacy, but also to fit into the prescribed normalcy of his family and, on a larger scale, America. Brick affirms his perceptions regarding the social strata for gay men when he discusses the original owners of the plantation and states: “Straw? Ochello? A couple of…fucking sissies? Queers?…” (Williams 120). Even Mae chimes in, referring again to the “unnatural” relationship in question. Through these quips and machinations, Williams delivers a strong statement on American culture and the demonization of homosexuals without ever directly attaching the moniker to Brick. The underlying inferences in dialogue alternated with silence allow the audience to have an idea of the truth, while still keeping the moral quandary safely in the closet.
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In contrast, Kushner opens Angels in America with the pomp and circumstance of a “Gay Fantasia on National Themes”. Such an introduction leaves little to the imagination short of the light in which the characters are to be portrayed. Kushner makes no apologies for the mannerisms of his production; his sets are minimalist, his cast employed in multiple roles, and the dialogue is spoken outside of the confines of space and time. Kushner’s methods enable him to get the maximum from his characters’ interactions while the simultaneous dialogue creates a strong sense of urgency for the moment. It is this urgency that augments the othering among the homosexual cast of characters. For example, in Act I Scene 8 there are multiple dialogues occurring simultaneously: Joe and Harper are at home, while Louis and Prior have a discussion in bed. Harper rhetorically states that she fears her husband is gay, blaming part of her dysfunctions on his latent sexual desires. At the same time, Prior tells Louis the awful symptoms associated with AIDS—a disease very much attached to the gay community in the play. Kushner does not poeticize the disease, and, in fact, commenting on homophobia, equates the new epidemic to a plague for “fags”. He is not one for mincing words; his play comes at you like a bag of bricks, direct, frank, and textually obvious (if subtextually elusive).
Aside from the othering associated with AIDS and general fear-mongering and persecution, Kushner uses his characters as foils to perpetuate separatism. As Ross Posnock notes, Kushner’s illustrations of Roy Cohn’s character create a “pathologically conflicted and self-loathing” individual who is representative of so many homosexuals in American culture (Posnock 66). Cohn refuses to allot any allegiance to the gay community, as evidenced in his dialogue with his doctor when he discovers that he too has AIDS. He proclaims his loathing for homosexuals as he states : “Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a puissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council” (Kushner 912). Through Cohn, Kushner directly states that homosexuals have less clout and are decidedly devalued in society. Through AIDS and futility, Kushner posits a distinctly dark image as the face of the homosexual—certainly one that society views as twisted and alien.
Both Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Angels in America touch upon homosexual activity. Neither of these plays, nor the playwrights, offer a solution to the problem of marginalization. Furthermore, neither play nor playwright could be considered philanthropic when it comes to a portrayal of the homosexual plight. Instead, Kushner and Williams suggest that society’s moral fabric is an invariable force that cannot be toppled through menial protest. They do, however, imply that marginalization can be avoided through mimicry, or blending into the status quo. Both playwrights seem to acknowledge that the battle over homosexual othering and discrimination is not likely won in their own respective time periods. Kushner closes Angels with the line: “Greetings, Prophet; The Great Work Begins: The Messenger has arrived” — suggesting that the “Great Work” is just getting started and that there is hope for the future (Kushner 935). Neither Kushner nor Williams, however, claim to be the gay messiah.
Dobie, Ann. Theory into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism. London:
Napierkowski, Marie Rose. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Themes.” Drama for Students.
Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 1998. eNotes.com. January 2006. 9 May 2007.
Posnock, Ross. “Roy Cohn in America” Raritan. 13 3 (1994): 67. eNotes.com.
7 May 2007. <http://www.enotes.com/drama-criticism/kushner-tony/angels-
Tony Kushner, “Angels In America, Part One: Millennium Approaches”, The Longman
Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Drama: A Global Perspective, ed. Michael Greenwald et al. (New York: Pearson, 2004) 900-935.
Williams, Tennessee. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. New York: New Directions, 2004.
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