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Roy Cohn in Hell

Your Humble Blogger went to the NTLive cinema presentation of Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika yesterday, and wow. It’s an amazing piece of work: too long, too loud, too much, and wonderful. It’s a mess, and it’s a work of greatness—possibly the work of American Greatness in the theater, if there can be one. I had never seen Part Two staged; I saw the national touring company’s production of Part One (Millennium Approaches) and also a regional theater, I think, doing a production in a little black box with almost no set.

I did watch the television adaptation, back in 2005, and now finally have seen (albeit at a remove) the second play on stage. I am not writing up a review of the thing—

Digression: I recently attempted to count up, and it seems that I read something on the order of fifteen theater reviews a week. Seven hundred a year? That could well be low, actually: I read all the reviews in the Gaurniad, pretty much (I may miss a few) and most of the reviews in the New York Times (I only read Monday-through-Friday, and miss a few days, particularly in summer), plus some local reviews (mostly when I know a performer in it, but sometimes I’ll just randomly a review of some local production) and the occasional extra review of some playwright or actor or production I am sufficiently interested in to scout out some extra angles on. It might even be as many as a thousand reviews a year, some years; let’s call it between three and five thousand reviews over the last five years. And yet, I have no idea what I am looking for in a review, how I would want to write them if somehow I were tasked with that job, what constitutes a review I like and what a review I don’t. I couldn’t tell you whether I think (f’r’ex) that Ben Brantley is a good reviewer, or whether Michael Billington is. Mostly, I just like having a sense (probably illusory) that I know who is doing what—when I hear about a new production generating buzz, I often know something about the playwright’s previous work, or the actors, even if I don’t know much more than titles. Still, it makes me feel informed and inner-circle, which is awesome and in this particular case, cheap. End Digression.

Anyway, I am not writing up a review of the thing; I am only writing about this because one of the scenes I was looking forward to, right at the end of Perestroika, didn’t happen. And it didn’t happen in the television adaptation, either. I remember griping about it being cut, but also understanding that there were a bunch of cuts, and this while I would have personally preferred to keep this short scene, it made sense as a cut. So getting to watch the whole thing, finally, after many years, I was looking forward to it. During the second interval, in fact, I texted my Best Reader: Roy Cohn is dead, I sent. I look forward to seeing him in hell.

I’ll take a moment and point out that I didn’t re-read the text before going to see the broadcast. It wasn’t a particular choice, really. I don’t actually own a copy of the thing for some reason, and it didn’t occur to me to grab it from the shelf of the library that employs me, and anyway I was still beating my 39S lines into my memory and have little brainpower for reading anything else remotely playlike. I read the playscripts when they came out in print in the mid-1990s, and I read them again probably ten years after that, when the television film came out. I may have read them a third time at some point, as they are so awfully good, but possibly not within the last ten years, so while I remember quite a bit (they are pretty memorable) there were plenty of things that I didn’t remember or didn’t remember clearly. Entire scenes as well as details within scenes, recalled as they happened but not before. I would probably describe myself as having been familiar with them rather than knowing them, if you see the distinction. And less familiar with Perestroika, since while I’m sure I read it the same number of times as Millennium Approaches, seeing it (twice) puts it more strongly in the memory. Right? So for something to have stuck with me like that, for it to be a scene that I was looking forward to, well, it must have been a hell of a scene, right?

Not there. And I started wondering: did I imagine it? I’ll digress a moment to tell the story that when I saw Pinocchio with my Best Reader in a movie theater in 1992 or so, she was appalled that they cut the scene at Pleasure Island where the donkeys all got turned back into boys again. I hadn’t seen the film as a kid, so I just agreed that it was strange that the re-released version was missing a scene, but the people we were with knew the movie well and said what scene? There was no such scene, it turns out, though my Best Reader remembers it quite clearly. Can see it in her head, still. Memory is a malleable thing, under enough pressure, and she wanted those donkeys turned back into boys. Did I want to see Roy Cohn in hell so much that I put him there, in my memory?

As it happens, no. There is a scene, marked optional in some versions of the printed playscript but not others. But it isn’t the scene I remembered… I remembered Roy Cohn in Hell. The stage directions read: …Roy, at a great distance, in Heaven, or Hell or Purgatory—standing waist-deep in a smoldering pit, facing a volcanic, pulsating red light. Underneath, a basso-profundo roar, like a thousand Bessemer furnaces going at once, deep underground. Well, that’s one version. In another, he is facing a great flaming Aleph, which bathes him and the whole theater in a volcanic, pulsating etcetera. The great flaming Aleph is the Divine in the play, back in Part One and again earlier in this play, as discussed by the angels. Roy Cohn is talking, of course, trying to sell his services to the Divine Glyph: Yes I will represent you, King of the Universe. And then I gotta start by telling you you ain’t got a case here, you’re guilty as hell, no question, you have nothing to plead but not to worry, darling, I will make something up. It’s a lovely little scene, and I wish they had included it, but it is probably more accurately described as The Divine Presence in Hell.

There’s another scene, one that I had completely forgot, that is also marked optional. It immediately precedes that Roy Cohn scene—let me say, first Prior Walter wrestles the angel in the hospital room, and then a shaft of white light streams in through the blue murk. Within this incredibly bright column of light there is a ladder of even brighter, purer light, which Prior climbs. Then, in this version of the play, he reaches Heaven, a place much like San Francisco, and converses with Harper. Then he enters the Hall, and there’s a sort of trial or prophecy or whatever, after which Prior storms out. The next scene, also optional, is on the streets of Heaven; this is the scene I forgot. And it’s after that, while Prior is journeying from Heaven to this world, that he sees Roy talking with the Divine.

So, the scene I forgot: Prior sees the Rabbi from the very beginning of Part One, playing cards with Louis’ grandmother, whose funeral is the first scene of all. There’s a bit about cards and chance and predestination, riffing off one of the themes of the play, and then the Rabbi calls into being the ladder to take Prior from the other world back to this one. As Prior starts to descend, the bubbe sends a message to her still-living grandson: Az er darf ringen mit zain Libm Nomen. Yah?! Azoi toot a Yid. He should wrestle with the Beloved Name. Yes?! That’s what a Jew does.

I don’t think that Tony Kushner altogether means to give the Bubbe the final word on What a Jew Does. It’s not as simple as that. Louis isn’t going to take his grandmother’s admonishment to heart, even if they are played by the same actor. Louis is done struggling with the Divine; he will no longer believe and won’t even struggle with his disbelief.

And Roy Cohn? Roy Cohn is a Jew, too. He won’t struggle with the Divine. Oh, he knows the Divine is guilty as hell, sure, but he’ll make something up.

Yesterday was Tisha B’av, my friends, the annual commemoration of the Destruction of the Temple and the expulsion from the Holy Land. Today? Today… isn’t Tisha B’av. We hold the Temple in our memories—whatever our metaphorical Temple is, more utterly unlike the actual Temple than my memory of the optional scene in Perestroika and we go on. Struggling, not struggling, making something up. Whatever. Nach azoi toot a Yid.

That was the last time I spoke with President Trump,

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