Exploring Outcast Identity Through Fantasy: Angels in America and The Archive of Alternate Endings
Queer and disabled identities are not intrinsically linked, yet both fields challenge and deconstruct the dominant societal concepts of what is “normal.” Ableism and homophobia ultimately operate on similar principles: any deviation from this asserted norm, whether in terms of personal identity or health and ability, is condemned and villainized. As scholars in both fields emphasize, however, concepts of normalcy are entirely subjective, requiring deliberate reinforcement. As Lennard J. Davis states in his 1999 essay “Crips Strike Back: The Rise of Disability Studies,” disability studies “interrogates the formation of bodies, the signification of bodies, and the national interests in producing templates for bodies and souls” (Davis, 510). Similarly, queer theory challenges similar societal templates, instead in the context of sexuality and gender. As previously stated, queerness and disability do not always go hand-in-hand—however, as Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America and Lindsey Drager’s novel The Archive of Alternate Endings demonstrate in their explorations of the AIDS crisis, these identities can certainly overlap. Queer and disabled individuals will thus often find themselves doubly outcast, pushed to the fringes on the basis of two perceived transgressions against the concept of normal, and popular fantasy media reflects this. One example, of course, is the way that even in a certain popular world full of wizards and dragons, queer identity is too controversial to discuss directly in the text—though that’s a topic for another essay entirely.
Currently, the specific relationship between fantasy on one hand and queerness and disability on the other remains largely uncharted territory, but recent queer adaptations and scholarship on fairy tales serve as one example of this intersection. In “Introduction: Queer(ing) Fairy Tales,” Lewis C. Seifert argues that the “enchanted worlds of fairy tales are at once real and unreal, and this paradox opens the door to queerness, to an unsettling of our conceptions of what is normal” (Seifert, 18-19). Thus, as Seifert implies, fantasy holds the potential to provide a unique platform for the stories of those excluded from society based on a failure to conform—whether in sexuality and gender or ability and wellness. By analyzing Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and Lindsey Drager’s The Archive of Alternate Endings, I will further explore the concept of fantasy as a unique and useful lens for both reconceptualizing and communicating these outcast perspectives.
Angels in America crosses the line into fantasy with its integration of religious symbolism and fantastical elements within the backdrop of a nonfiction crisis—Prior’s status as a modern prophet stands as the key example of this merger between fantasy and outcast experience. When his ghostly relatives arrive to inform him of his new role, Prior’s current situation is grim: his mental and physical state are both rapidly deteriorating due to AIDS as well as the isolation his condition has triggered. Prior 2, a previous family victim of a different era’s “plague,” directly acknowledges the juxtaposition of Prior’s current social status and his new fantastical role. He first dismisses Prior’s condition as “the lamentable consequence of venery,” then proceeds to identify him as “Prophet. Seer. Revelator. It’s a great honor for the family. […] for the Walters” (Kushner, 91-92). Notably, in the context of the play, this brief condemnation of Prior’s sexuality and condition is not an isolated, anachronistic slip. Homophobia, both internal and external, largely drives the play’s conflict — one example is Roy Cohn’s vehement denial of his own AIDS diagnosis, based on the deprecation of queer identities: “Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. […] Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. […] AIDS is what homosexuals have. I have liver cancer” (Kushner, 46-48). Even Prior himself acknowledges this ostracization when reflecting on the funeral of a gay friend, describing it as “just a parody of the funeral of someone who really counted. We don’t […] we’re just a bad dream the real world is having” (Kushner, 158). This is where the role of divinely-ordained modern prophet transforms into something subversive, because the play’s divinely-ordained modern prophet is not heterosexual, healthy, and able-bodied. Instead, the position falls to this homosexual with AIDS, shunned by American society at large on account of his sexuality and his illness, abandoned even by his own long-term partner. Prior, the outcast, becomes the link to the fantastical; his illness and isolation, his queer identity and condition, pave the road to this connection and allow him to connect with his ultimate purpose.
One more key note regarding this link between the outcast and the fantastical is that Prior only comes into his role as prophet after becoming fully outcast. In the dramatis personae of the first act, Kushner establishes Prior as someone without a clear purpose: he “Occasionally works as a club designer or caterer, otherwise lives very modestly but with great style off a small trust fund” (Kushner, 3). He has no set vocation or aspirations, or previous qualifications for such a lofty role—instead, his transformation into a prophet begins after he has hit metaphorical rock bottom, when he receives a terminal AIDS diagnosis and finds himself abandoned by his long-term partner Louis. Prior gives this context in his explanation to Belize in Act Two of the second part of the play, Perestroika, saying, “I’ve been given a prophecy […] It was after Louis left me. Every night I’d been having these horrible vivid dreams. And then… […] And then [the angel] arrived” (Kushner, 159-160). The timing of this metamorphosis is significant in that it explicitly links Prior’s struggles as an outcast—as a gay man, as someone with AIDS—to his divine, fantastical role. He is not an outcast and a prophet; he is a prophet because he is an outcast, in a grim position abandoned by American society at large and even the perceived core of his personal support system. When the connection shifts from an “in spite of” to a “because,” it directly challenges traditionally heteronormative and able-bodied conceptions of fantasy by situating queer and disabled identities at the forefront of the genre—a figurehead, rather than a footnote.
Prior, however, is not the only character to exemplify this bridge between the outcast and fantasy: even the Angels themselves—literal divine beings!—occupy similar uncertain, outcast roles. The specific casting of the play becomes a key point, as it is the first factor to highlight this overlap. The Angels are played by the same actors who depict other human characters, from major to minor roles—including gay and disabled characters. The deliberate overlap in casting emphasizes a unity between the outcast and the fantastical, elevating the outcast to a higher status and importance while also humanizing the divine. Fantasy elements are not removed from the experiences of queerness and disability—rather, they are intrinsically linked. Furthermore, even in the context of the play, the Angels find themselves as lost as the humans in the face of the modern world’s conflict. While Prior is in Heaven and asking the Angels to end the current plague, the Angel representing Australia admits, “Oh We have tried. We suffer with You but We do not know. We Do not know how” (Kushner, 276). They, too, have been abandoned by God, left alone to puzzle over their relationship to the world and the resolution of conflict, something that terrifies them as “[they] cannot solve Conundrums,” left only to lament, “If only He would return” (Kushner, 274). By depicting the Angels as equally outcast, Kushner challenges the conception of fantasy that excludes supposedly controversial narratives and marginalized groups. Instead, they exemplify the connection between fantasy and the marginalized—not separate but, like Prior, truly linked.
Similar to Kushner, Lindsey Drager also experiments with the repetition of actors in The Archive of Alternate Endings; in her novel, she deconstructs the “Hansel and Gretel” fairy tale and the genre as a whole to connect queer and disabled identities to a larger, communal fantasy narrative. The fairy tale provides a unique template to explore “outcast” stories in the sense that the fairy tale format itself is defined by flatness and abstraction. As Kate Bernheimer explains in her essay “Fairy Tale Is Form, Form Is Fairy Tale,” “Fairy tale characters are silhouettes, mentioned simply because they are there. They are not given many emotions […] it allows depth of response in the reader” (Bernheimer, 66-67). Thus, Drager uses a unique opportunity to extend the original flat narrative to directly encompass marginalized experiences instead: “The story, she says, is about a sister who wants to save her brother […] The story is about a boy who loves boys and the parents who abandoned him because of it” (Drager, Kindle Locations 72-74). The silhouettes of Hansel and Gretel and their relationship as siblings take on new meaning in the context of homophobia and, later, the stigma surrounding AIDS. At its core, the story is still about the love and loyalty between siblings, protecting themselves and each other when faced with a lack of familial support. In this recasting of familiar actors, however, the threat shifts from hunger to the complications of navigating a hostile world as a queer and disabled person. In Drager’s recasting, the traditional antagonist of the fairy tale also appropriately changes from a simplified witch to the greater evils of an uncaring society and parents who turn away their children in need, instead “sending [them] to The Woods” (Drager, Kindle Location 750). The witch’s house is reframed as a place of stigmatized respite rather than a trap, as in this iteration, the witch does not cook children but rather houses and cares for men dying of AIDS when no one else will. By utilizing recognizable fantasy molds and symbolism, Drager connects outcast stories with a broader narrative, creating space for the queer and disabled in fantasy when the real world proves uninhabitable. Like Kushner, she does not leave any room for the link between fantasy and outcast identity to be merely coincidental or perhaps interpreted as ironic. Instead, Hansel’s queer identity—and thus later illness within the context of the AIDS epidemic—is “the element on which the narrative’s crux rests” (Drager, Kindle Locations 72-74). The outcast becomes inseparable from the story’s fantasy elements and roots, included and rejuvenated in fresh context.
The Hansel and Gretel fairy tale as its own entity therefore becomes a symbol; it stands as one example of many potential stories that can and do stretch to encompass the life experiences less commonly acknowledged in literature. Drager directly acknowledges this role of fantasy and stories as formulas to encompass multiple experiences, including the marginalized: “The formula for siblings is the same […] The distinction is genetic time. Same orbit, different lap” (Drager, Kindle Locations 562-564). The fairy tale itself becomes both symbol and extended metaphor, applicable across different eras and situations, yet ultimately circling back to the same core factors. These core factors and themes around family, love, and sacrifice do not inherently exclude the outcast; rather, they become uniquely relevant to the marginalized experience. In both the novel’s reinterpretation of the original fairy tale and the tie-in to the 1980s AIDS epidemic, the focus is on two siblings, isolated yet supporting each other while traversing the dangers of a harsh world. Whether the Woods are a literal or metaphorical obstacle is less important than the common themes and experiences depicted, tying different “outcasts” to fantasy. However, by specifically interpreting the fairy tale in the context of queer and disabled experiences, Drager opens a traditionally “flat” (Bernheimer, 67) mode of fantasy into a more inclusive space. Fairy tales become a particularly effective branch of fantasy through which one can explore marginalized experiences, as the original templates remain simplified and therefore more open to speculation and reinterpretation. Furthermore, Drager’s versions of the Hansel and Gretel story depicted throughout the novel centering queer experiences as well as ill ones prompt a further line of questioning for the reader: is this truly a reinterpretation for Drager to focus on the impact of homophobia on both siblings, when it was never acknowledged one way or the other in the original text?
To conclude, by integrating queer and disabled stories into fantasy—and, specifically, the traditional contexts of religious imagery and classic fairy tales—Tony Kushner and Lindsey Drager emphasize the genre’s unique capacity to not only showcase but also celebrate these stigmatized experiences. The integration of powerful, familiar imagery and symbolism with controversial characters and subject matter deemed controversial by heteronormativity and ableist ideas bridges the gap so often left by a lack of marginalized representation and the misconception that fantasy must focus on escapism rather than engaging genuine issues around queer and disabled identities. Further research in this area can be invaluable insofar as it contributes to the canonization of queer and disabled narratives in the mainstream body of literary research.
Bernheimer, Kate. “Fairy Tale Is Form, Form Is Fairytale.” In The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House. Tin House Books, 2009, pp. 61-73.
Davis, Lennard J. “Crips Strike Back: The Rise of Disability Studies.” American Literary History, Vol. 11, No. 3, Autumn 1999, pp. 500-512.
Drager, Lindsey. The Archive of Alternate Endings. Dzanc Books, 2019.
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Revised and Complete Edition. Theatre Communications Group, Inc., 2013.
Seifert, Lewis C. “Introduction: Queer(ing) Fairy Tales.” Marvels & Tales, vol. 29 no. 1, 2015, p. 15-20. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/577007.
About the Author
Madalyn Spangler is a disabled lesbian and writer from Southern California, and a recent graduate of the Comparative World Literature BA program at California State University, Long Beach. She finished her degree amidst the excitement of grappling with lifelong OCD and a new diagnosis of PTSD, two diagnostic surgeries for chronic illness, the global pandemic, and a broken spine and eventual spinal fusion at 21. Her research interests include queer interpretations of folklore and mythology, diverse fantasy, and the health humanities. When she isn’t writing, she’s likely falling down niche research rabbit holes, drawing, or trying to keep her chicken Rosie out of trouble.