In a murderous time
the heart breaks and breaks
and lives by breaking.
–Stanley Kunitz, "The Testing-Tree"
The epigraph of the first part of Angels in America is from a poem by Stanley Kunitz called the "The Testing Tree." Not that Kushner needs our approval or anything, but we think he did a great job picking out an epigraph. (Good work, Tony. Can we call you Tony? Probably not.)
The epigraph totally fits the play. America in the 1980s could be considered a "murderous time," especially when you think about the AIDS epidemic. Thousands of people were dying of the disease; you might even say they were in a way being murdered by the virus. President Reagan was harshly criticized for his long silence on the epidemic. Some have even gone so far as to say that the president's perceived lack of concern led to more deaths than were necessary.
Now if you're an unabashed left-wing liberal, like Tony Kushner, you might also see the 1980s as a "murderous time" time because the agenda of the left was being all kinds of stomped on by Reagan and his buddies on the right. In the play, Martin, one of Roy Cohn's allies, probably says it best:
It's really the end of Liberalism. The end of New Deal Socialism. The end of ipso facto secular humanism. The dawning of a genuinely American political personality. Modeled on Ronald Wilson Reagan. (2.6.2)
To conservatives like Martin and Roy, this is all great news. To liberals, however, it may have seemed like the Reagan Administration was systematically murdering many of the policies that they most believed in.
Okay, let's check out the next line: "the heart breaks and breaks." Those afflicted with AIDS and those feeling attacked by Reagan's policies might very well feel like their hearts were breaking in the 1980s. There's no doubt that all of the main characters in Angels suffer some pretty major heartbreak.
What about the last line? Is a heart that "lives by breaking" a good or a bad thing? You could see it as a sad little heart that thrives on pain. Or you could see it as a heart that's gained wisdom and toughness from the hard life it's led. You could probably see it another way too. What do you think?
You can find the full text of "The Testing Tree" and learn more about Stanley Kunitz here. Check it out; it's an awesome poem.