Roy Cohn’s Camp Aversion

Camp is a form of expression often defined as overdramatic, excessively theatrical to the point of bordering on parody. Camp exists, in many ways, to mock common ideology of the mainstream while providing a space for the counterculture. A certain degree of allusion to camp is expected in most modern queer works. What sets apart Angels in America is the degree to which camp and campiness is employed, given the subject matter. It is common for stories about the AIDs crisis to narrow the lens and focus purely on the tragedy of the epidemic, on the wrongs done to queer individuals by their peers, their families and their governments. Angels in America turns this idea on its head with the extensive use of camp, as seen with Prior’s angel, Harper’s visions and the character of Belize.

But what’s worth noting more than where camp is used is where and when camp is not used in Kushner’s play. Most characters encounter camp early on in thee show. Belize and Prior are both former drag queens and often use “girl-talk” (a mixture of French and English) when talking to one another. Prior and Harper see visions. Harper’s visions are often more doom-and-gloom: she sees herself alone in the Arctic or imagines her husband Joe as a dummy in the Mormon Visitor’s Center. Prior, on the other hand, has visions of the Angel of America: a creature who trys to be terrifying, but only comes off as ridiculous. Even Louis encounters camp through his exaggerated “Jewish guilt”. The only character who does not encounter any form of camp is Roy Cohn, the closeted lawyer dying of AIDs. Roy has plenty of opportunities to encounter camp; like Prior and Harper, he sees visions and with Belize as his nurse, he has direct contact to drag culture.

I think that the reason the character of Roy avoids camp and instead carries the mantle of the ‘traditional AIDs story’ is because of his refusal to admit that he’s a homosexual. When Roy first receive his diagnosis, he tells his doctor that “Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man, Henry, who fucks around with guys” (Kushner, act one scene nine). Roy remains in denial of who he is, refusing the align himself with the rest of the queer community. Roy is not the only closeted character in the story. Joe, a Mormon clerk starts the play deep in the closet, but comes to terms with his identity and comes out. After his coming out and affair with Louis, Joe finds himself confronted by camp through Harper’s visions and an interaction between Belize and Prior, where both men speak using their drag queen slang. It is because of his denial of self that keeps Roy from being able to be embraced by camp and confines him to the traditional, tragic narrative of the AIDs crisis.

One thought on “Roy Cohn’s Camp Aversion”

  1. I like how you identified and then described the fact that Roy is one of the only characters for whom the general campiness of the novel seems inaccessible. This point was addressed as well in a Slate article by J. Bryan Lowder (not the one we read for class but another one about camp). In this article, he talks about how, despite the similarity of Prior and Roy’s situations (they are both dying of AIDs, both in the AZT trial), Prior lives while Roy dies. Lowder suggests that Prior’s campiness is what saved him. While he recognized and was aware of the tragedy of his situation, he was able to make light of it and laugh at his own misfortune.

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