‘You know that you’ve hit rock-bottom when even drag is a drag’

It is true that one if the main themes of Angels in America is the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. However, the tone that Tony Kushner uses to introduce the issue is neither tragic nor serious in every scene. The seventh scene from the first act of Millennium approaches is a good example of an existing alternative point of view, heavily influenced by Camp sensibility. This scene is Camp because of various reasons : Prior gives tremendous importance to aesthetics and style, he acts in an exaggerated way and he is aware of his own lack of originality.

As he states, the hallucination starts when he is getting ready :  ‘I was in the process of applying the face, trying to make myself feel better— I swiped the new fall colors at the Clinique counter at Macy’s’ (32). Prior pays a lot of attention to aesthetics, even if his physical features are not conventionally feminine.  He reinvents himself starting by his own image, because it is the territory where he has power and he is able to make his own decisions. Drag is seen as a means to transform himself. Make-up and clothes make Prior artificial. Hence, campy :  ‘the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization’ (Sontag, 1).

Moreover, Prior focuses on sumptuous decorative elements, but he combines them with other that are not considered elegant at all, like the stretch pants that he mentions on page 34. These luxurious dresses usually give the play an over the top feeling, emphasized by the self- deprecating jokes that Prior tells. For example, when he looks at his own reflection, he states :  ‘I look like a corpse. A . . . corpsette ! […] Oh my queen; you know you’ve hit rock-bottom when even drag is a drag’ (30). He does not take himself seriously, and he acknowledges the ways in which his demeanor is laughable. He is a parody of himself.

In this vision, Prior is terribly dramatic and dramatic : ‘He looks in his mirror, SCREAMS!, mimes slashing his throat with his lipstick and dies, fabulously tragic’ (31). However, there is still a hint of self-awareness : ‘It’s something you learn after your second theme party: It’s All Been Done Before’ (35). He knows that even if he tries to change himself, he will not be completely original because of the inspiration that he gets from others.

In conclusion, Kushner uses these Camp elements to make the theme of death and loss less grave and more approachable. However, this campiness does not equal frivolity, since including elements of gay and drag culture gives the community more visibility. Showing an alternative point of view is important because it contributes to take the stigma away from the AIDS crisis, and it proves that the characters affected by HIV are much more than sick people.




3 thoughts on “‘You know that you’ve hit rock-bottom when even drag is a drag’”

  1. I think that your connection is an extremely important point. People who contracted AIDS were not only on a path that they were paving for themselves, but they were also shunned and shamed just like Jeanette was. Their stories, while not obviously similar, draw many parallels.
    While Jeanette, Prior and Roy were all prophets because of their sexual orientation, Jeanette chose to make her own path while Prior and Roy came out because of their health, and then condemned for their identities. This brings out the idea of choosing to become prophets, or being forced to follow one’s own path. Do you think that Prior or Roy would have chosen to be ‘out’ in public, if they didn’t have to be because of their illness? How would this have altered the idea of people being prophets?

  2. I agree with your statement that Kushner uses the element of camp in his play to downplay the seriousness of the AIDS crisis. If he chose to omit camp and view the crisis in a more serious way, he would be left with a play that is very depressing and has a similar point of view to that of Roy. Prior’s focus on the dramatic and the very stylized way in which he lives his life make the play more interesting and real and makes the reader more immersed in the characters as a whole. The use of camp and the culture of the LGBTQ community, especially during this time of grief and fear, makes the play more approachable and entertaining while still getting across a very serious message.

  3. I find it interesting how you describe Prior as being artificial due to his clothes and makeup, then make the connection of that to Camp. Additionally, describing Prior as dramatic and connecting that to Camp really made me consider just how broad Camp is and the definition thereof, as well as think about placing the character of Prior in conversation with the things that his character represents, such as concepts of masculinity and feminity, Camp, drag, and all of the things the author makes bold statements about through Prior’s character.
    Then, your final analysis that “Kushner uses these Camp elements to make the theme of death and loss less grave and more approachable” truly made a metaphorical lightbulb go off in my head. Kushner’s true purpose in the novel was to pull in elements of humor and Camp and satire to lessen the melancholy tone and turn the focus to the actual AIDS crisis and the individuals affected.
    Your analysis of the text is very well thought out and pushed me to further consider certain elements. 🙂

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