A Vision of Empathy: On Watching ‘Angels in America’

March 20, 2019 | 5 books mentioned 1 9 min read

I had the chance to see it, “the greatest American play of the waning years of the 20th century.” Angels in America was being produced at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco in 1994, and I held tickets. The play had won the Pulitzer, the Tony, and heaps of praise by then, and I wanted in on the cultural moment. But when curtain time drew near for Part One: Millennium Approaches, on a weeknight after a full day at the office and with my kids waiting at home, I collapsed.  I didn’t have the stamina to sit through a two-intermission, 3.5 hour play that would run until almost midnight. My husband accompanied me home, gallantly never once mentioning our forfeit of the orchestra seats we’d splurged on.

covercovercovercoverRegret welled up as soon as I walked in the door. I saw that the kids would’ve been perfectly fine without me—there were three of them; they were a self-entertaining lot, and the babysitter was a dream. We didn’t call it FOMO then but my Fear of Missing Out was every bit as gnawing. I compensated in the years that followed by seeing other Tony Kushner works—Slavs!; Homebody/Kabul; Caroline, or Change; The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures; and the Spielberg movies he wrote, Munich and Lincoln. I went to hear Kushner speak and was amazed at his ravening curiosity, the breadth of his knowledge. Listening to him give a five-part answer to a one-part question was like watching Robin Williams scoop up a stray phrase and run with it, pausing after a couple of miles to let the rest of us catch up. I watched the HBO Angels mini-series more than once. But none of those offerings, dazzling as they were, matched in my imagination the sublime experience of seeing Angels performed live onstage.

So I was brimming with expectation when I went to see the 2018 production of Angels at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in back-to-back matinees—Part One: Millennium Approaches on Saturday, and Part Two: Perestroika on Sunday. I’d waited 24 years and this time, I wasn’t going to whiff. There was just one problem: my eyes were out of whack; my vision was askew. I couldn’t properly see the stage or anyone on it.

In April, a good three months before, I’d had cataract surgery in one eye. I’m nearsighted in both eyes; I’ve been wearing glasses since age six, and I’d developed a cloudy lens in the left eye. They sucked out my old lens and implanted a new plastic one that gives me wonderfully clear vision in the left eye when I’m viewing an object 33 centimeters away. The right eye, unclouded, they left alone. I assumed that, after surgery, I’d get a new pair of glasses with a revised prescription for my revamped eyes. Sure, said the doctor. We can try. Try? What hadn’t I understood?

It turns out, glasses no longer correct my vision. In fact, they boggle it. The condition is called anisometropia, when the refractive power of one eye differs from that of the other. My eyes are now so mismatched that they no longer play well together. Pictures beamed in through my glasses are of different size: the left eye sees things bigger and clearer than the right, and my brain refuses to meld them into a single, coherent image.

A contact lens, which sits directly on the eyeball, can correct for the difference. With a single contact lens in my right eye, I would have been able to watch the play without disturbance. But the contact lens was giving me trouble, and I couldn’t wear it. I had only two choices: wear no glasses, which would leave me so nearsighted that I couldn’t see past the back of the head of the person sitting in front of me. Or wear a pair of glasses that left my eyes fighting and my vision swimming.

I took my seat and put on the glasses. My brain began protesting: what was it looking at? I tried to focus and couldn’t. I wasn’t seeing double, exactly. There weren’t two ghostly images side-by-side. I was seeing asymmetrically, as though one eye was looking through the proper end of a pair of binoculars and the other eye, goofing around, had turned the binoculars backwards and was peering through the wrong end. I was acutely aware, as one usually is not, that I was looking through two different eyes.

The play began. Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, alone onstage, addressed invisible mourners in a speech that has always thrilled me, invoking “the clay of some Litvak shtetl, your air the air of the steppes.” I could hardly take it in. How was I going to watch the damn play if I couldn’t see it?

Then Roy Cohn took center stage declaring,“I wish I was an octopus, a fucking octopus” and hitting the hold buttons on his phone like punching life in its face, pay attention to ME! And Joe, the lost and closeted acolyte, who sits and watches Cohn in wonder, mistaking this terrible man, so alive, for a father. What was I hearing, what was I seeing, what was Kushner trying with furious intent to tell me? I was at war with myself. I took off the glasses, trying to scold myself into sight, and the scene dissolved into a smeary blur. Back on the glasses went. I’d have to watch the whole thing, and the next part tomorrow, doing battle with the multiplicity jostling in my head.

coverAround the same time, I’d been reading the novel Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday. Like a play, it’s told in three acts. Part One is about a young woman, tentative and bright, who has a love affair with a brilliant and famous writer some 40 years older. She’s an editorial assistant living in New York, and the action mostly takes place in apartments, on city benches, and at the famous writer’s country house. The narrator is offstage; the tone is direct and often funny, made poignant by resonating sadness. There’s an unlikely sweetness to the affair though trouble finally occurs, as in, something just occurred to me, a woman might say to her lover. The thought held back for a long time—months, even years—either unconsciously or with glad cooperation, the woman complicit in her own constraining, until truth inevitably rises. At just that moment, Part One ends.

Part Two, entirely different, proceeds without introduction or explanation. An Iraqi-American man, an economist, is speaking to us directly while detained by security officers at a London airport on his way to see his brother, a doctor living in Sulaymaniyah, a city in Iraqi Kurdistan. Forced to wait for hour upon hour, deprived of liberty and agency, and suspended between boredom and the agony of not being able to find out what he desperately wants to know, the narrator, Amal Jaafari, travels the stunted pathways of his past as he exactingly recounts his memories of his brother, parents, friends, and a love affair. Intelligent, darkly humorous, and possessed of an enviably even temperament, Amal comes alive to us—a sensitive individual trapped in a maddening world.

Parts One and Two are seemingly unrelated until we read Part Three. I won’t describe what we learn—you’ll want to experience for yourself Halliday’s gifts. In any event, it isn’t critical to appreciating the multiple ways in which the novel focuses our inquiry, and wonder, not on sameness, that usual balm—the similarities between us, the universal truths that bind together the family of man—but on stark difference. The affair between the young editor, Alice, and the famous writer, Ezra, is a study in ludicrous imbalance. He’s rich and celebrated; she doesn’t have the money to buy herself a winter coat. He has a commanding knowledge of literature, history, film, music; she mispronounces Camus. “I’ll show you what to read,” he tells her, and does. But Alice has the one thing he’s already exhausted: a whole life ahead of her. “Oh, Mary-Alice. Sweet Mary-Alice! I want you to win. Do you know?” Ezra tells her.

“Why wouldn’t I?” Alice says, with the breathtaking assurance of youth. His fingers tremble; so do our hearts as we look straight down into the chasm between them.

My daughter and I argue about the book. She’s in her mid-20s, also a writer, and a voracious reader whose tastes often coincide with mine. Ever since she was a child steeping herself in books, she and I have spent many hours comparing notes on what we’ve read. Soon she’ll be moving across the country to set upon a new path and our time together will change, but for now we carry on as always—debating, discussing, buying each other our favorites and carrying volumes back and forth between her apartment and my house. I’m taken by surprise at how strongly we disagree over Halliday’s novel. It’s as though we’ve read two different books. She says it’s about how, when you’re young, you look to others—older others—for instruction on how to live, but later, you don’t need the guidance. You discard those teachers and make your own life.

It’s true that Alice, like Joe in Angels, is an acolyte of sorts. She reads the books that Ezra gives her, orders the whiskey he first pours her, and watches and absorbs how hard he works. She underlines a passage by Camus in a book that he selected for her: “when I was very young, very foolish, and very much alone…you paid attention to me and, without seeming to, you opened for me the door to everything I love in the world.” And so, I see my daughter’s point, that Alice is looking to Ezra to teach her how to live, in anticipation of someday making her own life.

But that isn’t the main point, I insist. To me, the book is a brilliant exercise in imagination. How far can a writer stretch herself to think the thoughts, speak the words, dwell in the past of someone with whom she has nothing in common other than human life? This is a novel about empathy, I say. About how writing a novel is itself an act of empathy, to be attended to and emulated. That’s what Alice is learning from Ezra. And though we’re often told that evoking empathy is the purpose of the novel, it’s rare that one does it so well.

coverMy daughter scoffs. She points out that Ezra is loosely based on Philip Roth. “All he ever wrote about was himself,” she says. Her words sting. Wasn’t I, after all, the person who urged her to read Philip Roth? For despite the malice he gleefully spread, I’m in awe of his audacity and language. She knows I revere his masterpiece American Pastoral, a towering work of immigrant fiction, though nobody calls it that. I’d pressed that novel into my daughter’s hands, later gratified that she read and liked it. “He writes about other people too,” I say weakly. She gives me a skeptical look. “Well, different versions of himself,” I explain. “Anyway, we’re talking about Halliday, not Roth.”

Polar opposites, chalk and cheese, left versus right, combatants. This is what I’m thinking as I struggle to watch Angels. Almost all the scenes in Part One: Millennium Approaches and many in Part Two: Perestroika are between two profoundly mismatched characters—either two people, or one person and a figment or a supernatural force. Split scenes have two people on one side and two on the other. The pairings at the start—the lovers Louis and Prior; Joe and Harper, husband and wife; power broker Roy Cohn and his wide-eyed protégé, Joe—soon begin to break apart. Prior and Harper inhabit each other’s dreams, and Mr. Lie, travel agent to the Valium-kissed, whisks Harper off to Antarctica, hints of the chaos to come. Prior, in a fever state or not, finds himself talking to the Voice, and the terrifying Angel crashes through his bedroom ceiling. “Millennium,” Kushner tells us, “is a play about security and certainty being blown apart, while Perestroika is about danger and possibility following the explosion.”

The pairings come apart and newer, weirder relationships are formed, rife at first with suspicion and misunderstanding. Joe, the closeted husband whom we met at the start, has a love affair with Louis, and Joe’s stringent Mormon mother comforts AIDS-stricken Prior, the man Louis has abandoned. Most ironically, Roy Cohn, now dying of AIDS though he calls it liver cancer, is visited bedside by Ethel Rosenberg, whose execution by electric chair Cohn helped assure. Connections are made, sympathy is stirred. Questions are pleadingly put to figments and forces who leave the answering to us.

“I I I I,” the Angel says. Eye eye eye eye is what I hear. “I PROPHESY I HAVE SIGHT I SEE” Prior tells Joe when he goes looking for his ex-boyfriend’s new lover. It seems a taunt, all these proclamations about sight and vision, as I sit there, crazed. But now the mismatched are listening to each other, with suffering the bridge between them. The “blue streak of recognition…Like you knew me incredibly well” that Harper saw when she first looked at Prior has maybe, momentarily, fused these characters into a state of understanding. Against all probability, given where they started, they are seeing the world through another person’s eyes.

The Angel withdraws. “More Life,” Prior tells us. “The Great Work Begins.”

I emerge into daylight, my thoughts swimming as well as my sight. Everyone around me is stunned and exhausted. Kushner would be pleased, I think. It is a play “meant to stagger the people who are producing it,” he once told Terry Gross. It staggers the people watching it, too. Perhaps he’d be satisfied that I had to struggle to see it, that because of my blighted eyesight, I remained the whole time all too conscious of the artifice onstage. He wanted the audience to see the Angel’s wires, to put us “right on the edge of belief and disbelief.”

I go home, happy at last that I’ve had my cultural moment. Angels has confirmed what Halliday’s novel showed me: empathy is an act of imagination. The more different one person is from another—the more asymmetric—the greater the act of empathy that’s required. And the writer who can fully imagine the life of someone far different is especially worthy of our praise.

My daughter is ready to go. In a couple of days, she moves away. I’d hoped we’d have time for more meals together, another conversation or two about the books that we’re reading, but she’s busy packing and saying farewell to her friends. I’ll have to settle for a rushed good-bye. I think again of our argument and how she missed the crucial theme of Halliday’s book. Alice grows up, she’d told me. She doesn’t need Ezra to guide her anymore. No, I’d said, and argued for my better, wiser reading.

But doesn’t her view of the book, in fact, describe my daughter? And pinpoint the moment at which she has arrived? She’s making her own way in the world. Shedding the ministrations and models of her elders, namely: me. She doesn’t need me anymore to guide her. She’s more than equipped to leave me and step through the door to everything she loves in the world. Not the Millennium but empathy approaches, and not across a gulf of vast difference between us, but across a narrow divide. At last I see her clearly, if only for a fleeting minute, and what have I discovered? That it’s blindingly difficult to imagine the life of another, whatever the circumstance. We blunder our way in darkness, our vision sharpened by pain.

Image credit: Unsplash/Sharon McCutcheon.

is the author of the novel The Year She Left Us and the short story collection All That Work and Still No Boys, winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award. Find her online at kathrynma.com.

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