Angels in America: Can camp help us deal with a tragedy on the level of AIDS?

Can camp help us deal with a tragedy on the level of AIDS?

Though the overwhelming majority of writing on camp, including this series, has focused on the predominant British/American (with a dash of French decadence) tradition, it’s worth glancing all-too-briefly toward another cultural milieu blessed with its own rich camp heritage. I’m speaking of Spain, as viewed through the lens of Pedro Almodóvar, a director who has a particular knack for orchestrating rendezvous between camp and the tragic over tapas and fino. Consider, for instance, La Agrado, the transgender prostitute who is the soul of Almodóvar’s masterpiece All About My Mother. In a film shadowed by tragedy—the hit-and-run of the protagonist’s angelic teenage son being only one among many—Agrado (known for making people’s lives “agreeable”) acts as something of a camp chorus, standing just outside the dramatic tumult in such a way that she’s able to really see it in all its nuance.

One example: Agrado takes the stage to deliver an impromptu monologue. She promises to share with the crowd her “life story,” which consists of naming and pricing each of the cosmetic surgeries she has undergone to become an authentic woman. (“It costs a lot to be authentic,” she sagely observes.) But the nuance that matters to me, that elicits that twinge of camp recognition, is when she gets to her nose: “Nose: 200,000 [pesetas]. A waste of money. Another beating the following year left it like this. It gives me character, but if I’d known, I wouldn’t have touched it.”

All About My Mother makes no attempt to disguise the danger of Agrado’s profession, but to its great credit, it doesn’t stop there. Instead of focusing on the overwhelming violence she has experienced in her life, Agrado seizes on the most unlikely detail—that getting punched in the face by a john for free was a more effective cosmetic procedure than an expensive nose job. This kind of maneuver is crucial to understand: Just as camp can undercut and disenchant innocence, so too can it temper tragedy, fracturing a monolith of pain into manageable pieces.

Indeed, though it has not always been appreciated as such, camp is one answer to that terrible question originally asked by gay men and now on the lips of entire continents: How do you survive a plague?

In the first half of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, the protagonist, Prior Walter, is dying of AIDS. As Almodóvar did with Agrado, Kushner spares us nothing of Prior’s suffering: We see him moan with cramps, sweat with fever, even uncontrollably pass blood into his horrified lover’s hands. The terrible pain of the infection is made visceral; we cannot help but understand it as the totalizing fact of Prior’s seemingly curtailed existence. Yet, there is something else here, too; another force that permeates the play with an energy just as powerful as that of the virus.

Prior Walter camps his tragedy.

Angels in America still courtesy of HBO

One wants,” Prior says idly, applying drag makeup in a fever dream. “One wants to move through life with elegance and grace, blossoming infrequently but with exquisite taste and perfect timing. Like a rare bloom, a zebra orchid. One wants, but one seldom gets what one wants, does one? No. One does not. One gets fucked. Over. One … dies at thirty, robbed of … decades of majesty. Fuck this shit. Fuck this shit. I look like a corpse. A corpsette. Oh my queen; you know you’ve hit rock bottom when even drag is a drag.”

One wants to build one’s life out of rare blooms, exquisite nuances; but can one? Can camp really help us deal with a tragedy on the level of AIDS? In the lines above, and throughout much of the play, Prior weighs two approaches for dealing with his predicament: One is self-pity and the other is camp. He cringes at himself wasting away in the mirror and mourns the loss of his youth, and yet he can’t help but also attend to a detail like the proper gender of his new look as a corpse. Later, while speaking to Harper, a woman on valium who has inexplicably found herself in his dream, Prior admits to being in the midst of an “emotional emergency,” but is not so beset that he didn’t think to shoplift not just any makeup, but the “new fall colors at the Clinique counter at Macy’s.”

You could call this gallows humor, and it does function on that level. But Prior’s camp habit of clinging to the details (noun genders, make-up shades) is not merely funny; in the black sea of his illness, they are little buoys, lifelines that keep him from drowning entirely. And more than this, Prior’s appreciation of “taste” and “timing,” his openness to what the play calls “revelation”—what we’re calling nuance—leaves him receptive to visions instead of dementia, to prophecy instead of prognosis, to miracles instead of mundane suffering. While Roy Cohn, a man who might generously be described as blunt, dies from AIDS haunted by ghosts, Prior Walter, a man of nuance, sees heaven—and survives.

Angels in America is clear about the difference perspective can make. To be sure, camp does not cure Prior’s disease, but it does, like some kind of metaphysical cocoon, shelter him through it until the AZT arrives.

We’re beginning to see that camp, at least when applied to certain categories like innocence and tragedy, can do a lot more than merely entertain. In the next set of posts, we’ll ponder why camp is particularly useful in understanding the lives and work of certain individuals. Or sometimes, 3.5 billion individuals: tomorrow, a humble disquisition on camp’s storied and complicated relationship with the fairer sex.