Not A Person But A Whole Kind of Person

This morning, knowing I was nearing the end of my re-read of Dennis Miller’s The Rants, I picked up my two-volume edition of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America and tossed it into my backpack. It’s been a little over seven years since I first read the play, and the rabbi’s monologue still strikes me as one of the most moving and profound opening passages I have ever read.

Here’s a bit from the middle to the end of the speech. These are the last days of October 1985. Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz is standing alone onstage with a small coffin, a rough pine box draped with a prayer shawl and kept closed by two wooden pegs. A candle burns by the head while the rabbi speaks with a heavy Eastern European accent.

(He looks at the coffin)

This woman. I did not know this woman. I cannot accurately describe her attributes, nor do justice to her dimensions. She was….Well, in the Bronx Home of Aged Hebrews are many like this, the old, and to many I speak but not to be frank with this one. She preferred silence. So I do not know her and yet I know her. She was…

(He touches the coffin)

...not a person but a whole kind of person, the ones who crossed the ocean, who brought with us to America the villages of Russia and Lithuania—and how we struggled and how we fought, for the family, for the Jewish home, so that you would not grow up here, in this strange place, in the melting pot where nothing melted. Descendants of this immigrant woman, you do not grow up in America, you and your children and their children with the goyische names. You do not live in America. No such place exists. Your clay is the clay of some Litvak shtetl, your air the air of the steppes—because she carried the old world on her back across the ocean, in a boat, and she put it down on Grand Concourse Avenue, or in Flatbush, and she worked that earth into your bones, and you pass it to your children, this ancient culture and home.

(Little pause)

You can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not any more exist. But every day of your lives the miles that voyage between that place and this one you cross. Every day. You understand me? In you that journey is.

So…

She was the last of the Mohicans, this one was. Pretty soon…all the old will be dead

No other opening I’ve read so perfectly captures the tone, the story, and the journey of the piece to follow. Here we have both humor and seriousness. We have a sense of time and place. Most of all, we have a sense of weight. This is happening in the real world, in a world with centuries of history behind it. There is gravity here. This opening helps to ground a play which later on must live up to its billing as a “gay fantasia on national themes.” When the eponymous Angel of America arrives at the end of part one, we actually believe that she is real, or that she could be, and that is in no small part thanks to this opening.

I received these two volumes as a Christmas present from my parents in 1998. I had asked for them so that I could read through them in preparation for my upcoming senior project. I was still writing the piece at the time that I was reading this play, and I think the scope and gradeur of Angels in America was part of the reason that I was always pushing the limits of my artistic ability. I wanted an opening like this. I wanted to say something this big, with this much weight to it.

Though my senior project (a stage play I wrote and directed) did turn out to be a moderate success, the story I was trying to tell then is one that I am still struggling to finish seven years later. The novel I am working on now, which I began during my time in the Lesley MFA program, is a direct descendant of that play I wrote seven years ago, that play I wrote with the shadow of Kushner hanging over me. It was only when I forgot about trying to create something grand in scale that I was actually able to produce something grand in scale that actually worked. I have an opening now that I am very proud of. I’m proud of the whole novel, in fact. And while trying to live up to Kushner got in my way in the early days, I feel confident saying that his words eventually helped me to become a much better writer, a writer who was (and still is) never satisfied with where he is, and is always striving to go farther than he should be able to go.

If you want to be a writer, you have to have a passage like this, something so good that you know you’ll never be able to write anything of equal quality. And then you have to keep trying to do the impossible, to write something as good as what you’ve read, no matter how many times you stumble and fall.