The case for reading Perestroika in first year studies

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Lawrence students love to do our little activisms about the First Year Studies curriculum. As well we should: if we’ve got to read these books, they ought to be good. As a noted First Year Studies enthusiast and two-time taker, I’ve got my complaints. Mostly I hold them lightly: like, let’s get rid of Plato’s Republic. Just for giggles. I would enjoy the alumni firestorm.  

There is a First Year Studies platform I care about very much. Currently First Year Studies teaches Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches. I think they should teach “Angels in America Part 2: Perestroika” along with “Millennium Approaches.” Unfortunately this silly issue is close to my horrible little heart. 

Angels in AmericaPart 1 is very sad. When you open the first page of Part 1 you see: “In a murderous time, the heart breaks and breaks and lives by breaking.” Then you read on, and find a story about AIDS. The characters’ hearts break, their relationships break, and, watching them, your heart breaks too. On the last page, when the breakups are complete and the whole world begins to seem irreparably broken, the literal ceiling breaks too. An Angel crashes in and speaks to the main character Prior: “Greetings, Prophet. The Great Work begins. The Messenger has arrived.” 

And that’s the end of the book, according to the First Year Studies committee! The Great Work begins, but unfortunately our work is at an end. We’re wrapping it up now. The Messenger has arrived, but what is the message? Sorry kids. Caring about cliffhangers is for chumps. In order to learn the important college-level skills of textual analysis, we must focus on only Millennium Approaches.  

This strips the wildness and the hope from the work. We’re reading Angels without the Angels.  

I first read “Angels in America” in winter term 2020. Pre-pandemic, when First Year Studies was still Freshman Studies. It was the work’s debut year on the syllabus, and our class tackled both parts, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika” alike. I remember pre-class chatter, uneasily laughing about reading this work about a horrifying new plague of history just as news trickled in daily of a horrifying new plague. I remember my Freshman Studies professor, a historian, cautioning us against reading “Angels” as a historical document on the AIDS crisis. That does the work a disservice, she reminded us. “Angels in America” is literature.  

Because we read “Perestroika,” we knew that. “Perestroika” is chock-full of prophecy and visions and heaven. It is a phantasmagoria, a dream-sequence. You cannot possibly treat Angels in America as a historical document if you are reading “Perestroika.”  

Two years later in First Year Studies, we only read “Millennium Approaches.” Kushner’s first act is such a tidy play that it’s possible, even tempting, to teach as a historical document on the AIDS crisis. Kushner says “Millennium” has a “taut, efficient narrative”: that’s true. If you give the text a thwack, you’ll hear it sing a perfect chord. You separate out the notes in the chord. You can walk amongst them as if it were a perfectly planted garden.  

“Perestroika” is “Millennium Approaches’” evil twin. It’s the problem child. Reading Perestroika is like hearing a vast discordant crash and knowing no names for the notes you heard. When you read “Perestroika,” you grapple with a text too unruly to want to be pinned down. In fact, “Perestroika” herself provides a neat little metaphor on grappling. At the end of Part 1, Prior is hailed as prophet. In Part 2 he wants to reject the prophecy, and so he wrestles with the Angel. This unambiguously presented as him wrestling with his beliefs.  

It’s a resonant image. In order to understand this scene, you’ve had to tackle the beast of Kushner’s Angel too. Tackling understanding, tackling belief: This is what First Year Studies wants to achieve. Read Part 2, and students get to see it acted out.  

It’s worth the mess, I think. Taken in both parts, “Angels in America” becomes simultaneously one text and two texts, a multiplicity folded into unity, just like the Angel herself (but of course you won’t know that unless you didn’t read both parts). Holding it together teaches you something.  

You can believe in the death of the author all you want, but sometimes the author is alive and won’t shut up. Tony Kushner is famously pushy. Here’s what he has to say on “Perestroika”: “Some plays want to sprawl, some plays contain expansiveness, roughness, wildness and incompleteness in their DNA. These plays may, if not dismissed as failed attempts at tidiness, speak more powerfully about what’s expansive, rough, wild and incomplete in human life.” Sure, Tony. I also think “Perestroika” speaks about what is hopeful.  

The characters who end “Millennium Approaches” in devastation get to live on. They get a second part. For one more night they live and breathe and love each other. I want people to see how they live on. The end offers no easy comfort: it makes no repairs. What it offers is restructuring. What it offers is Prior Walter’s closing benediction: “We won’t die secret deaths anymore. We will be citizens. And I bless you: More Life.” 

If we must read “Angels in America,” let us receive this blessing. Otherwise… I don’t know. Maybe bring back “Fun Home.”