Significance of Camp

The play Angels in America by Tony Kushner details the AIDS crisis in America that dramatically affected the gay community and left it in a vulnerable position.  In this vulnerability, however, resistance emerged.  Specifically, resistance against the looming presence of death and homophobia in the form of what can best be defined as “Camp”.

“In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness that fails.  Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp.  Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.”  -Susan Sontag

The AIDS crisis and how it impacts the characters in Tony Kushner’s play are two incredibly serious concepts that underlie every action and plot development.  However, the destitution of it all is often balanced out with Kushner’s own style of “exaggerated” and “fantastic”.  In essence, Angels’ saving grace is not its moral lessons or the characters’ complexities, but rather the authentic Camp style that preserves the same resistance that emerged in the real life version of the crisis that Kushner fictionalizes.

One of the most absurd, campy scenes that occurs is when Prior encounters Harper.  They meet in the diorama room of a Mormon center, Prior’s fantasies and dreams fueled by his decaying physical state, and Harper’s hallucinations and delusions fueled by a pill addiction and mental illness.  This combination leaves a wild spectacle where the diorama becomes “real” to them, and they tell each other,

PRIOR: Dreaming used to be… so safe.

HARPER: It isn’t, though, it’s dangerous, imagining to excess. It can blow up in your face. Threshold of revelation. (199)

The irony of Harper warning Prior against dreaming is not lost in this scene, since their imaginations are what primarily fuels the Camp-ness of the play.  Deeper than that, the tragedy in their visions is reminded in the fact that neither can control them, and that they’re fueled by illness and heartache.  In this duality, Kushner’s utilization of the Camp motif truly shines.  Sontag implies that the point of camp is to disrupt and satirize the serious, without actually erasing its significance.  In the diorama scene, and the play as a whole, the larger than life characters and plot devices serve as a way to enforce the idea that amongst tragedy, it is important to hold onto lightness in order to preserve humanity, and this greatly reflects the significance Camp held during the AIDS crisis, and continues to have in the Queer community today.