Playwright Tony Kushner’s HBO mini-series (2003), “Angels in America” is one of the best things I’ve ever seen on television. Starring Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and Emma Thompson it was a poignant portrayal of 1980’s gay culture in America as it dealt with the AIDS issue. It was beautifully written and acted.
One of my favorite lines has to do with the question, “How do people change?” The question is posed rhetorically in a museum and a pioneer woman mannequin comes to life and answers:
Well, it has something to do with God so it’s not very nice. God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge filthy hand in, he grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they slip to evade his grasp but he squeezes hard, he insists, he pulls and pulls till all your innards are yanked out…and the pain! We can’t even talk about that. And then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled and torn. It’s up to you to do the stitching. And then you up you get. And walk around. Just mangled guts pretending.
The point is, change is difficult. And Kushner writes poetically and thus overstates the issue. We all find change painful but, mercifully, not that painful! But we prefer be-bopping through our life, mindlessly following some script that we subscribed to in early childhood, not deigning to apply “mindfulness” to our lives. To do so inevitably exposes themes in our lives, basic assumptions, that are maladaptive to say the least. As Adrienne Rich noted once, “Until we know the assumptions in which we are drenched, we cannot know ourselves.”
And for some, gut-wrenching change is in the cards. “Just mangled guts pretending” is their lot. By this, I think Kushner wrote of the excruciating pain of acting purposefully when their lives have been torn asunder by “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” (Shakespeare, Hamlet) or some particular devastating “shock.” It takes real to courage to act, and to act purposefully, when our lives have been torn apart.
I now have a youtube clip of the above scene: