Angel of the Bethesda Fountain
We attended the second part of Angels in America, Perestroika. The action picks up where the first half ended. It is the 1985. Gorbachev is attempting to reform the USSR through an economic restructuring or perestroika. The aids epidemic is raging, with only one ray of hope on the horizon, a new miracle drug, AZT. While the first half of the play, basically setup the plot and introduced the characters, the focus of this second half is the death of Roy Cohn.
The play’s one historical character is vilified by all and does everything he can to justify that vilification. Using his political connections, he appeals to Nancy Reagan and acquires his own private stash of AZT, hoarding for himself enough medicine to treat eighty aids patients of this very rare and much sought after drug. It is all to no avail though, because while AZT was effective with some patients, it does not staunch the advancement of Cohn’s “liver cancer”.
Near the end, in combination with the morphine drip that he takes to ease his pain, visitations from the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg become more frequent. Cohn was the Federal prosecutor who secured the convictions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and insured their execution, even going so far as judge tampering. One time he asks her to sing him asleep. While reluctant, she eventually complies and sings a Jewish lullaby. Finishing, she becomes concerned that she sang him more than just to sleep, only to be startled when he gleefully gloats, “I finally made Ethel Rosenberg sing!”
During intermission, I spoke to a man whose father was investigated by Roy Cohn. After the Rosenbergs, Cohn joined Senator Joe McCarthy and his un-American activities subcommittee and became his chief deputy. McCarthy’s witch hunt, to turn a phrase, was ruthless in its search for communists, first in government, but then McCarthy turned his fire on the US Army. This led to a confrontation with Joe Walsh, an attorney hired by the Army. After McCarthy launched a particularly brutal attack on a young soldier, Walsh famously asked, “Have you no sense of decency?” The man who I spoke with, his father had been in the Army. He had been serving at Los Alamos, when called before the un-American activities committee. I asked the man what had happened to his father. “Not much, he was transferred to Fort Leonard Wood,” here in Missouri.
That confrontation with Walsh marked the end of both McCarthy and Cohn’s political careers. Cohn returned to NYC and private practice, where for thirty years he hobnobbed with the rich, while doing their dirty work too. One up and coming lad who Cohn helped out and who was later described as what Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn’s love child would look like, was Donald Trump. It has been an interesting week, what with scandal erupting into impeachment proceedings. In conjunction with this play, I am reminded of the quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
The play ends in 1989. The Berlin Wall has fallen and the Soviet Union is no more. With the help of Cohn’s cache of AZT, Prior is still living with AIDS after five years. The play ends at the Bethesda fountain in Central Park, where Prior promises that the great work begun will continue.