Angels in America
TONY KUSHNER 1991
- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
Angels in America is the first major work of playwright Tony Kushner, and its astounding success has turned the man and his writing into cultural icons of the late-twentieth century. Referred to by scholar John M. Clum in Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama as “a turning point in the history of gay drama, the history of American drama, and of American literary culture,” Angels has received numerous awards and critical accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for best play. It has been produced in dozens of countries around the world and translated into several languages, including Chinese.
Interestingly, Angels in America began as a work made for hire. After writing only a handful of plays, and experiencing only one major production, Kushner was approached by Oskar Eustis, a resident director at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, who had been impressed by the playwright’s first drama, A Bright Room Called Day. In 1987, Eustis asked Kushner to write a play about the impact of AIDS on the gay community in San Francisco for the Eureka Theater. The two applied for grants, conducted workshops, and developed the work, which became Angels in America, at the Mark Taper Forum. The play then went on to the Eureka and later to the National Theatre of Great Britain, where it began to attract its global following.
Angels in America is an “epic” drama, which means its plot unfolds over great distances of time Page 2 | Top of Articleand place, involves many characters, and more than one story line. Two complete plays form the entire plot: the first part, Millennium Approaches and its second installment, Perestroika. Together, they present more than thirty characters in eight acts, fifty-nine scenes, and an epilogue.
Kushner subtitled his play “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” Like a “fantasia,” which is a medley of familiar tunes with variations and interludes, the play’s scenes often seem musical, like operatic arias, playful duets, or powerful trios. Characters move in and out of conversations with each other, sometimes even overlapping other vignettes, which occur onstage at the same time, and the settings change rapidly from offices to bedrooms, from hospital wards to the imaginary South Pole.
For all its intricacies, however, the plot of the play is quite simple. It is the story of two couples whose relationships are disintegrating, set in America in the 1980s against a backdrop of greed, conservatism, sexual politics, and the discovery of an awful new disease: AIDS. It is this backdrop that provides Angels in America its magnitude and sets it apart from other love stories. In this play, the plot is largely driven by its themes, which are viewed from different characters’ perspectives, as through a kaleidoscope, as the story unfolds.
Tony Kushner was born in Manhattan, New York, in 1956. While he was still an infant, his musician parents moved the family to Louisiana, where they played with the New Orleans Philharmonic. He developed an appreciation for opera and literature from his father and learned a passion for theatre from his mother, who acted in local plays. Kushner’s views on religion, politics, and sex, hallmarks of his later work as a playwright, began to take shape during his early childhood. He attended Hebrew school, where he developed an attraction toward his teacher but would struggle to hide his homosexual feelings for several years. He felt further isolated as a Jew in the American South, where he regularly encountered anti-Semitism. When he left Lake Charles to attend Columbia University in New York he was, by his own estimation, liberal, ardently Zionist, and extremely closeted.
While at Columbia, he discovered new intellectual influences that changed his perspectives and would later shape his writing. He delved into the Middle Ages, found his own fantastical, spiritual side, and thought for a time he would become a medieval studies professor. It wasn’t until after he received his B.A. that Kushner “came out” and began to live as an openly gay student and artist. He went on to study directing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Kushner read Bertolt Brecht and Karl Marx and realized the awesome potential of a politically charged theatre. He credits Brecht, particularly the German’s play Mother Courage and Her Children, with guiding him toward a career as a playwright.
A Bright Room Called Day (1985) was Kushner’s first foray into professional theatre. The play, which initially received only a brief run at London’s Bush Theatre, concerns a group of friends in pre-World War II and their responses to Hitler and Nazism. Critics were not kind to the work, especially in the United States where it was called “fatuous” and “an early front-runner for the most infuriating play of 1991.” Kushner himself called the production a “catastrophe.” The writer’s next efforts were adaptations: The Illusion (1988), taken from Pierre Corneille’s play L’illusion comique; and Widows, adapted from a book by fellow playwright Ariel Dorfman (Death and the Maiden) and produced in Los Angeles in 1991.
Kushner’s next work would catapult him to the forefront of the American theatre and earn him praise on stages around the world. More than one critic labeled the AIDS drama Angels in America a spectacular, monumental achievement, and marveled at Kushner’s ability to capture the mood of an era. As a result of his success the playwright emerged as a widely respected spokesperson for many marginalized groups, including not only gays and lesbians but blacks, Jews, agnostics, socialists, and artists, all of whom he depicted in a struggle for dignity, respect, and survival in his play.
Since Angels in America took the theatre world by storm in 1992, Kushner has continued writing and adapting plays, including Slavs! and his version of the popular Yiddish drama The Dybbuk. He has also become a prolific and highly respected essayist and lecturer, articulating his views on politics, race, class, and the arts in books and magazines and at conferences and college campuses around the country.
Millennium Approaches: Act I, scene 1
It is late-October, 1985, and Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz stands alone next to a small coffin, conducting the funeral service for Sarah Ironson. In his eulogy for the deceased, he describes her as a caring, devoted wife and mother who traveled from Eastern Europe to America to make a home for herself and the Jewish people in “the melting pot where nothing melted.” Rabbi Chemelwitz says Sarah was “the last of the Mohicans,” and warns that soon, “all the old will be dead.”
Millennium Approaches: Act I, scene 2
The same day as the funeral, Roy Cohn is visited in his office by Joseph Porter Pitt. Roy is a vulgar man, who screams and swears as he juggles three different conversations on his office phone. Joe is a Mormon, sensitive to Roy’s foul language but eager to advance his career. He is an attorney who has been working as a law clerk in the Court of Appeals, and Roy is ready to give him his big break: He wants the younger man to go to Washington and work for the Justice Department, where he can be Roy’s eyes and ears. Joe is stunned, appreciative, and agrees to discuss the opportunity with his wife.
Millennium Approaches: Act I, scene 3
Joe’s wife, Harper, spends her days alone, often in a haze from sedatives she takes, and longing for a closer relationship with her husband, who is drifting further and further away from her. This scene begins with Harper sitting at home, listening to the radio, and talking to herself. She fantasizes about the ozone layer, and what it must look like from space, where “guardian angels, hands linked, make a sort of spherical net, a blue-green nesting orb, a shell of safety for life itself.” Alternately paranoid and visionary, Harper is like the canary in a coal mine. She is more sensitive to danger than ordinary people, yet unable to save herself from the trouble ahead.
She is caught in the midst of her reverie by Mr. Lies, an imaginary travel agent who offers to take her on a vacation away from her worries—perhaps to Antarctica or the ozone layer. Harper complains to Mr. Lies that she is worried about the coming third millennium, when all sorts of strange things could happen.
This time, her fantasy is interrupted by the abrupt appearance of Joe. Once again late coming home, Joe claims to have been “out walking” and pitches his news to Harper: Would she like to move to Washington?
Millennium Approaches: Act I, scene 4
Back at the funeral, Louis and Prior are sitting outside the funeral home, waiting for the service to continue at the cemetery. Louis is Sarah Ironson’s grandson, though he hadn’t visited her much since she moved into the Bronx Home of Aged Hebrews ten years earlier. The two men have been in a committed relationship for four years and banter with each other about their cat, who has run away, and Louis’s closeted homosexuality at family gatherings, where he insists on calling himself “Lou” (to avoid the sibilant S, Prior jokes).
As the couple reflects on life and loss, Prior reveals something startling: He has developed a purple lesion on his arm. It is Kaposi’s sarcoma, “the wine dark kiss of the angel of death,” and an early visual sign of the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). He has been hiding the mark for awhile, afraid that Louis might leave him when he found out. Louis reacts angrily.
Millennium Approaches: Act I, scene 5
This scene is split between Joe and Harper at home and Louis at the cemetery with the Rabbi and his grandmother’s coffin. It is at this point that the relationships of the central couples—Joe and Harper, Louis and Prior—begin to disintegrate.
Joe pursues the subject of his new career opportunity with Harper, trying to convince her that Washington, D.C., would be a fine place to live. Harper is afraid of more change, however, and insists on staying put. Joe observes that her medication may be the cause of her anxiety.
Meanwhile, in the cemetery, Louis quizzes the Rabbi on the church’s view of someone who abandons a loved one in great need. He is planning to leave Prior because he cannot face life with Prior’s disease. The Rabbi, however, is more concerned with getting himself home, across town, than with counseling the confused Louis.
At the Pitt house, Joe speaks idealistically about the new America, led by the Republican conservatism of Ronald Reagan, a chord struck again later in the play by Roy and his assistant, Martin. Harper has no room for political idealism in her life. She is suspicious of Joe’s “walks” and tries to rekindle desire between them by offering him sexual favors and asking for a baby. Joe turns away, obviously uncomfortable with her suggestions, and Harper drifts back into her troubled delirium, mumbling, “The world’s coming to an end.”
Millennium Approaches: Act I, scene 6
Joe finds Louis crying in the men’s room of the offices of the Brooklyn Federal Court of Appeals, where they both work. Louis is mourning the sickness of his companion and upset about his decision to leave the AIDS-stricken Prior. Joe tries to comfort him and is “outed” by Louis, who recognizes immediately that the self-proclaimed Reaganite attorney is gay. On his way out the door, Louis playfully kisses Joe on the cheek.
Millennium Approaches: Act I, scene 7
Sometime after Joe and Louis meet in the men’s room, Harper and Prior find each other in a mutual dream scene. In his dream, Prior is seated at a table, applying drag makeup and musing about the distance between the life he longs to lead and the one his sickness has handed him, when Harper appears in a valium-induced hallucination. They confront each other with “revelations.” She sees the disease in him but insists there is a part deep inside that is still clean and healthy. He drops the news that her husband, Joe, is a homosexual, something she has been suspecting for a while.
After Harper leaves the dream, a feather floats to the ground and a voice from above calls to Prior, telling him to “prepare the way” for the “infinite descent.”
Millennium Approaches: Act I, scene 8
In another split scene, the two couples are back with their respective partners—Harper and Joe at home, Louis and Prior in bed. Harper summons the courage to confront her husband with the truth they have both been denying. She begs him to confess to her that he is a homosexual, that their marriage has been a facade and a sin against their Mormon religion. Still, given the opportunity to reveal his secret, Joe resists and will say only that he is “a very good man who has worked very hard to become good.”
In the other part of the scene, Prior’s illness is getting worse, his symptoms more severe, yet Louis cannot even bear to hear him talk about it, let along comfort his lover. Looking for an opportunity of his own, Louis asks Prior if he would hate him for walking out. “Yes,” Prior responds.
Millennium Approaches: Act I, scene 9
In a doctor’s office, Henry, Cohn’s physician, breaks the news to his patient that Roy has AIDS. The lawyer, however, refuses the diagnosis. He does so not because he is afraid of death or disease but because of the social stigma attached: “Roy Cohn is not a homosexual,” he tells Henry, “Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man who fucks around with guys.”
Millennium Approaches: Act II, scene 1
A month has gone by, and Prior is deteriorating rapidly. In the middle of the night, late in December, Louis finds him on the floor, incontinent and in terrible pain. Louis wants to call for an ambulance, but Prior is afraid if he goes to the hospital he won’t return. He faints in Louis’s arms.
Millennium Approaches: Act II, scene 2
The same night, a similar crisis occurs at the Pitt home. Harper’s mental anguish is beginning to match Prior’s physical suffering. She tells Joe that Page 5 | Top of Articleshe feels herself “going off again,” slipping away into her pills and troubled dreams. She even suggests it is time for him to leave her, to go off to Washington alone, but he refuses.
Millennium Approaches: Act II, scene 3
It is one in the morning the next day and Louis is sitting near Prior’s bed in a hospital, discussing his condition with Emily, a nurse. He tells her about the significance of Prior’s name. It is an old, respected name in the Walters family, which dates back to the Norman Conquest (the overthrow of the government of England in 1066 by the forces of Normandy).
Louis’s musings on Prior’s family history agitates his despair. While Prior’s ancestors have been clinging to each other for generations, through wars, death, and the long march of history, Louis can’t stand the suffering he sees now. On his way out the door, for a walk in the park, he asks the nurse to tell Prior goodbye for him.
Millennium Approaches: Act II, scene 4
An hour later, Louis is in Central Park, having sex in the bushes with a stranger. When their condom breaks, the harried Louis tells the man, “Keep going. Infect me. I don’t care.” But the man is frightened away by Louis’s strange behavior.
Meanwhile, in a scene that overlaps Louis’s park misadventure, Joe is at a bar with Roy, seeking some solace of his own. He is torn between the sense of duty he feels as a Mormon and as a husband to Harper and the sense of dedication he has, to his work and to Roy. The elder attorney goads him, telling him that, “Everyone who makes it in this world makes it because somebody older and more powerful takes an interest.” Roy would like to be that somebody for Joe, helping him establish himself in the big time politics of Washington, D.C. To further leverage his position, and take advantage of Joe’s sensitivity, Roy admits that he his dying, though he tells Joe it is cancer that is killing him.
Millennium Approaches: Act II, scene 5
A few days later, Prior is still in his hospital bed, sick but improving. He is visited by Belize, the duty nurse, who is a black former drag queen and, coincidentally, former lover of Prior’s. Belize tries to comfort him with an assortment of herbal “voodoo” remedies and a listening ear. Prior is distressed about Louis’s absence and confused about a voice he keeps hearing—a voice that is a little frightening but strangely comforting and arousing. After Belize leaves, the Voice is heard. It tells Prior to prepare for a marvelous work that must be done, then disappears.
Millennium Approaches: Act II, scene 6
It is January, 1986, a few weeks later, and Joe and Roy are meeting Martin, a Reagan Administration Justice Department lawyer in a Manhattan restaurant. The purpose of the rendezvous is to give Joe the hard sell. Because he borrowed half a million dollars from a client (and failed to repay it), Roy is being threatened with disbarment by the New York State Bar Association, and he desperately wants Joe to take a job with the Justice Department, where he can help Roy’s case. Joe is disturbed by the ethics of the situation and still concerned about Harper, but he agrees to think about it some more.
Millennium Approaches: Act II, scene 7
Joe and Louis run into each other during lunch on the steps of the Hall of Justice building in Brooklyn. Both men are feeling extreme anxiety, which shows itself in different ways. Louis jokes about Republican politics and his spontaneous behavior. Joe admits to feeling overwhelmed and wishing sometimes that everything he was obligated to, including justice and love, would just go away. For a moment they connect and Louis offers to keep Joe company, but Joe retreats and they go their separate ways.
Millennium Approaches: Act II, scene 8
That night, drunk and desperate, Joe stands at a payphone in Central Park and calls his Mormon mother in Salt Lake City to confess that he is a homosexual. Confused and angry, his mother tells him he’s being ridiculous, drinking is a sin and he should go home to his wife. She hangs up on him.
Millennium Approaches: Act II, scene 9
The next morning, Joe nearly confesses the truth to Harper. He admits he has never been attracted to her and that he is the source of many of her problems and hallucinations. She gets more and more agitated by his confession and finally calls for Mr. Lies to take her away. He shows up, dressed in Antarctic explorer’s gear, and they promptly disappear. At the same time, Louis breaks the news to Prior that he will not be coming back; as much as he loves Prior, he can’t cope with his disease.
Millennium Approaches: Act II, scene 10
Nearly a continent away, in Salt Lake City, Utah, Joe’s mother, Hannah, stands in front of her house with Sister Ella Chapter. Hannah has decided to sell the house and move away and has enlisted her friend Sister Ella to help with the sale. They discuss the Mormon life in Salt Lake, and Sister Ella warns Hannah that the world outside is a dangerous place.
Millennium Approaches: Act III, scene 1
Alone in his apartment, Prior wakes from a nightmare to find an apparition dressed in the clothes of a thirteenth-century British squire seated next to his bed. The ghost introduces himself as another Prior Walter (Prior 1)—the fifth in the Walter family line. He is soon joined by another Prior Walter (Prior 2), a ghost from seventeenth-century London. Both men died young from plagues—as it seems Prior will as well—and they have been sent to prepare the way for “the messenger.” They call Prior a prophet and seer, chant mysteriously, and disappear, echoing the same words as the Voice from earlier scenes: “Prepare, prepare, The Infinite Descent, A breath, a feather, Glory to. . . .”
Millennium Approaches: Act III, scene 2
In a split scene, Louis and Belize sit in a coffee shop, passionately discussing race, sexual identity, and politics, while, at the hospital, Emily delivers a medicated IV drip to Prior. In the middle of a frenzied tirade, Louis tells Belize that one of America’s problems is its lack of spirituality. “There are no angels in America,” he rants, “no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political.” Louis’s contradictory opinions, particularly his views on the importance of race, anger Belize, who is running out of patience with Louis’s hysterics. Although Louis calms down, expresses his love for Prior, and asks about his condition, he is still afraid to be near him. Belize leaves Louis behind, frustrated and confused.
Meanwhile, Prior describes the current state of his illness to Emily. Many of his physical symptoms have receded, but he fears he is losing his mind. In the middle of their conversation, he imagines she is speaking Hebrew to him. Then, while she is writing her report, he sees a giant book with a flaming Aleph (the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet) rise up through the floor, slam shut, and disappear. Emily notices nothing, and Prior runs away.
Millennium Approaches: Act III, scene 3
Fleeing a reality she cannot confront, and caught up in her own hallucination, Harper appears in Antarctica with Mr. Lies. A light snow is falling, and she is imagining how she can build a city of her own in the ice, befriend an Eskimo, and give birth to a baby girl with thick white fur and a marsupial pouch. Mr. Lies observes that what she is experiencing is “a retreat, a vacuum, its virtue is that it lacks everything; deep-freeze for the feelings.”
Millennium Approaches: Act III, scene 4
Hannah Porter Pitt, Joe’s mother, arrives in New York after selling her home in Salt Lake City. She waited several hours at the airport for her son to meet her, then took a bus in search of Brooklyn, and ended up being deposited at the final stop on the driver’s route: the Bronx. She meets a homeless woman, mumbling to herself and warming her hands by a trash fire in an oil drum. The Woman gives her directions to the Mormon Visitor’s Center and sends her on her way with the suggestion that, “In the new century I think we will all be insane.”
Millennium Approaches: Act III, scene 5
While Hannah is in search of Joe, he is across town at Roy’s house, breaking some bad news to the ailing attorney: Joe will not be going to Washington on Roy’s behalf. He explains to Roy that his wife is missing, his mother is on her way, and he finds himself unable to break the law, even for the mentor he claims to love as a father. Angry and toying with Joe, Roy smiles at first, accepting his decision, then shouts insults at him and pushes him across the room. After Joe leaves, Roy collapses on the floor. His own illness is beginning to overtake him. In his delirium he sees the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg—the woman he sent to the electric chair years before as a traitor to her country. She warns Roy that she will be seeing him soon, in death, then calmly picks up the phone and dials an ambulance for him.
Millennium Approaches: Act III, scene 6
Prior is in his bedroom with the ghosts of his ancestors—Prior 1 and Prior 2. They are trying to help him prepare for the mysterious arrival he has been warned about. To help him relax, they conjure a spectral image of Louis for him to dance with. As Page 7 | Top of ArticlePrior and the imaginary Louis dance, the two ghosts disappear. Then, suddenly, Louis vanishes and the sound of wings fills the room.
Millennium Approaches: Act III, scene 7
Louis and Joe meet in the park. Each man is desperate for some kind of meaningful contact but filled with doubt and self-hatred for their recent actions. Finally, they kiss, then walk away together, as the scene’s focus changes to Prior’s apartment. The sound of the wings is getting louder and louder, until finally a deafening din fills the room, the lights flicker, change colors, then plunge into darkness. There is a tremendous crash, followed by a brilliant white light, and the Angel of America appears, floating over Prior’s bed. “Greetings, Prophet,” she addresses him, “The Great Work begins: The Messenger has arrived.”
Perestroika: Act I, scene 1
The second part of Angels in America begins in Moscow at the Soviet Kremlin, where Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, the world’s oldest living Bolshevik, is delivering a passionate speech about the need for a practical political theory to guide his country. Near the end of his oration, a great crashing sound is heard, and the scene changes to reveal the tableau at the end of Millennium Approaches: Prior cowering in his bed with the Angel of America hovering in the air above him. Once again she tells him, “The Messenger has arrived” Prior replies, “Go away.”
Perestroika: Act I, scene 2
Louis and Joe appear at Louis’s apartment. There is an initial awkward moment, as Joe nearly loses his resolve and leaves; but Louis manages to seduce him with kindness and tenderness. As the two men begin kissing and caressing each other, the scene changes to Harper’s imaginary Antarctica.
Perestroika: Act I, scene 3
Mr. Lies is sitting by himself, playing the oboe, when Harper appears with a small pine tree. The sounds in the background keep changing from the sea and the wind to the din of city traffic, as Harper begins to fade in and out of her fantasy. In her dream, Joe appears, wrapped only in Louis’s bed sheet. She accuses him of falling out of love with her and begs him to come back. He refuses and vanishes, leaving her alone in the park with the flashing lights of a police car.
Perestroika: Act I, scene 4
Hannah has managed to find Joe and Harper’s apartment in Brooklyn. As she walks in the door, the phone rings. The call is from the police, who have found Harper in Prospect Park with the pine tree she apparently chewed down. Hannah asks the caller not to send Harper to the hospital and agrees to come and collect her “peculiar” daughter-in-law.
Perestroika: Act I, scene 5
Back in his apartment, Prior has turned a corner in his battle with disease. His encounter with the Angel, which he now thinks was a dream, caused him to have an orgasm in his sleep, and for the first time in months he is feeling exhilarated. He calls Belize at the hospital to tell him the good news. Shortly afterward, Belize calls him back with some news of his own: Roy Cohn has just checked in with AIDS.
Perestroika: Act I, scene 6
Lying in his hospital bed, sick and scared, Roy is as irascible as ever. When Belize comes in to administer an IV drip, Roy hurls a string of foul-mouthed, bigoted epithets at him that causes Belize to bristle and threaten the dying man. As offensive as Roy is, and as much as Belize hates him for what he represents, the nurse can’t help but feel sorry for the patient. He warns Roy not to accept the radiation his doctor will surely prescribe and suggests he use whatever contacts he has to secure a trustworthy supply of azidothymidine (AZT), the only drug being prescribed that seems to have some effect on the AIDS virus. After Belize leaves, Roy phones Martin and blackmails him into finding the AZT he needs.
Perestroika: Act I, scene 7
A split scene between Louis’s bedroom in Alphabetland and the Pitt apartment in Brooklyn shows three weeks in the lives of Joe and Louis, Harper and Hannah. After finally breaking through to one another, Louis and Joe are spending as much time as they can in bed, in each other’s arms. They have sex, argue politics and religion, and try to forget the relationships they have left behind. At the same time, Hannah is working on Harper, trying to retrieve her from her madness by getting her to go to Page 8 | Top of Articlework at the Mormon Visitor’s Center. Though he claims to be happy and sleep peacefully through the night, Joe is haunted by visions of Harper, who appears to taunt him for being in love with Louis.
Perestroika: Act II, scene 1
Prior accompanies Belize to the funeral of a mutual friend, who happened to be a well-known New York City drag queen. Prior’s appearance and demeanor have changed. He is dressed all in black, wearing a long coat with a fringed scarf wrapped around his head, and he has become very introspective. He explains to Belize that the Angel he thought he dreamt was actually real and that he has become a prophet of some kind.
Perestroika: Act II, scene 2
To illustrate Prior’s story, the scene changes to his bedroom three weeks earlier and the arrival of the Angel. While Belize stands nearby and watches, Prior replays his encounter with the celestial being. She has come to instruct Prior in the ways of prophecy, to reveal to him the hidden location of the implements of divination (under the tile near his kitchen sink). She explains to him that God created the world for His pleasure, then split it into two parts—men and women—in order to release the potential for change. As people evolved and sought more and more change, God grew fascinated with his creation’s curiosity and eventually left Heaven to pursue the experience for himself. Prior has been charged with spreading the word to humanity: They must stop moving, stop changing, in order to restore God to Heaven and put the universe right again.
The flashback disappears, and Prior rejoins Belize in front of the funeral home. Belize thinks Prior’s vision is simply a reaction to his illness and the loss of Louis, but Prior is nearly convinced. “Maybe I am a prophet,” he tells his friend, “Maybe the world has driven God from Heaven, incurred the angels’ wrath.” And it has been left to Prior to run away or help find God again.
Perestroika: Act III, scene I
It is February, 1986, a week later. Roy is in his hospital room trying to manage his disbarment hearing by telephone, with the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg standing a deathwatch over him. Belize appears with Roy’s prescribed medication and learns the conniving lawyer has secured his own private stash of AZT—more than he could use in fifty years. Roy refuses to share any of the coveted drugs. He and Belize exchange racial insults, and Belize simply takes a few bottles, leaving Roy alone with Ethel and convulsed with pain.
Perestroika: Act III, scene 2
The same day, across town, Prior pays a visit to the Mormon Visitor’s Center, where Hannah and Harper have become volunteer caretakers. He tells Harper he is an “Angelologist” conducting research on Angels and his fieldwork has led him to the Mormons. The principal attraction at the Center is the Diorama Room, where mannequins arranged in a wagon-train tableau on a little stage depict a Mormon family’s trek from Missouri to Salt Lake. Together, they listen to the recorded reenactment.
Fantasy and reality blur as the mechanical figures relate the history of the Mormons’ westward journey. The real Louis walks into the scene and argues with the Mormon father, who looks like Joe. It is a hallucination shared by both Prior and Harper, and it ends when both figures walk off the stage together. Harper pulls the curtain closed as Hannah returns to check on her guest. Not understanding Harper’s dementia or Prior’s visions of angels, she tells them the diorama is closing for repairs and it is time to leave. Left alone, Harper talks to the Mormon Mother in the diorama, who comes to life and escorts her away.
Perestroika: Act III, scene 3
That afternoon, Joe and Louis are sitting in the dunes at Jones Beach, a once-popular spot for homosexual encounters. They are watching the waves roll over the sand. Joe swears his love for Louis and offers to give up anything for him, including his religion. Louis, however, longs to see Prior again and is beginning to realize his love for his sick companion is greater than his fear of Prior’s disease.
Perestroika: Act III, scene 4
Joe and Louis remain on stage as the scene splits to include the New York Hospital. It is late at night, and Belize enters Roy’s hospital room to administer his medication. The morphine in Roy’s IV drip is causing him to hallucinate, and he mistakes the nurse for the incarnation of Death, coming to take him away.
Perestroika: Act III, scene 5
The scene splits again, as Harper and the Mormon Mother from the Visitor’s Center diorama appear at the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Harper is seeking advice from the Mother. She wants to Page 9 | Top of Articleknow how people change. While the women discuss the pain and suffering change causes, the scene splits a final time to reveal Prior at home, removing his prophet attire and taking his medication. The four separate scenes now include all the major characters in the play. Louis leaves Joe sitting on the beach, walks to a phone booth, and calls Prior.
Perestroika: Act IV, scene 1
It is the next day, and a split scene shows two attempted reconciliations. At the hospital, Joe is visiting Roy, whose condition is deteriorating rapidly. At first the forgiveness Joe seeks seems at hand: The dying Roy offers his blessing of life to his protege. Then Joe, trying to win more approval, tells Roy about his new relationship with Louis. Roy is enraged and leaps from his bed to attack Joe. Belize rushes in to restore order, forcing Roy back into bed and sending Joe away.
At the same time, Louis and Prior meet on a park bench. Prior, who is ready to make Louis’s reunion as difficult as possible, is further hurt and angered to discover that Louis does not want to return to him; he merely wants some understanding between them. Prior surprises Louis by telling him he knows about his new lover and even knows he is a Mormon. Louis’s defense is that he needed companionship. Disgusted, Prior walks away, leaving Louis alone on the bench.
Perestroika: Act IV, scene 2
In an attempt to face his frustration, Prior drags Belize to the Hall of Justice in Brooklyn to find Joe and confront the man who has replaced him in Louis’s life. The duo stumbles into Joe’s office, then promptly lose their resolve. Prior sees a handsome, healthy man he can’t compete against; Belize recognizes Joe as the law clerk from Roy’s hospital room. They scramble away before Joe can catch them.
Perestroika: Act IV, scene 3
The next day, Louis and Belize meet at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, one of Prior’s favorite spots. Louis wants Belize to help him communicate with Prior, but the nurse is too frustrated with Louis’s antics. He tells Louis about their visit to Joe and shocks him with the news that Joe is connected with the villainous Roy Cohn.
Perestroika: Act IV, scene 4
At the same time, in the Mormon Visitor’s Center, Joe and his mother, Hannah, appear together for the first time. Like Louis, Joe is hesitantly searching for his mate, seeking some kind of absolution for his terrible behavior but not knowing exactly what he wants. Hannah is stern with him but still wants to help somehow. Between them, they realize that Harper has run away, and Joe leaves to find her.
Prior appears at the Center, passing Joe on his way out. He has come to warn Joe about Louis, that he is weak and unfaithful, but turns to Hannah instead. As he tries to deliver his message, his illness overtakes him and he collapses. Hannah helps him up and they head off to the hospital.
Perestroika: Act IV, scene 5
Late that afternoon Joe finds Harper, barefoot and without a coat, standing in the freezing rain at the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights. She is staring at the Manhattan skyline and trying desperately to come to terms with her scattered life. Joe collects his wounded wife, and they head toward home.
Perestroika: Act IV, scene 6
At the hospital, Emily examines Prior and scolds him for ruining his condition, just when he was getting better. Prior tries to explain his encounters with the Angel to Hannah, who tells him he had a vision like the one the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith had. The two are trying to come to terms with each other, when a roll of thunder warns Prior that the Angel is returning for him. Hannah promises to stay by his side and watch over him.
Perestroika: Act IV, scene 7
Joe and Harper are lying in bed. Apparently, they have just had sex, and Harper tries again to get Joe to admit his homosexual urges to her. They are right back where they were before, which is too much for Joe to handle. He rises, dresses, and again leaves her behind.
Perestroika: Act IV, scene 8
Later that night, Joe visits Louis at his apartment. On Belize’s advice, Louis has been researching Roy Cohn and the legal decisions Joe has ghost written for the judge he serves. Many of the decisions have been extremely conservative and, in Louis’s estimation, unethical. They argue about the cases, Joe’s scruples, and his relationship with Roy Cohn. Their debate turns into a brawl, and, in his rage, Joe beats Louis severely. He tries to apologize, but Louis sends him away.
Perestroika: Act IV, scene 9
Back in Roy’s hospital room, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg has arrived with some terrible news for the near-dead man: he has been disbarred. For all his struggles, he will not be a lawyer when he dies. As his final act of petty revenge, Roy tricks Ethel into singing him a lullaby. When she is finished, he brags that he finally made Ethel Rosenberg sing (to “sing” is slang for a confession; this is a reference to the confession the historical Roy Cohn never won from Rosenberg during her trial). Cohn dies.
Perestroika: Act V, scene 1
The Angel returns. It is much later the same night in Prior’s hospital room, and Hannah has fallen asleep in a chair near Prior’s bed. An eerie light appears, then blackness and thunder, and the Angel materializes. Although terrified, Hannah manages to offer Prior advice: wrestle with the Angel and demand to be released from his role as Prophet. Prior grapples with the Angel, and the two wrestle around the room amidst screeching voices, blasts of music, and strange flashes of light. Finally the Angel relents. A ladder appears, leading up to Heaven, and the Angel invites Prior to climb it and return the Book of Prophecy he has been given.
Perestroika: Act V, scene 2
Prior appears in Heaven, dressed in robes like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments. Heaven looks like San Francisco after the earthquake of 1906. He meets Harper, who is not dead but merely visiting after her sexual encounter with Joe. Harper disappears and the scenery changes to the Hall of the Upper Orders. The Angel appears to escort Prior to a meeting with the rest of the angelic Continental Principalities.
Perestroika: Act V, scene 3
Down on earth, Belize has called Louis to Roy’s deathbed. He wants him to say the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, over Roy’s body, then take the dead man’s stash of AZT. Louis refuses at first, objecting to prayer for such an evil man and protesting that he doesn’t remember any Jewish rituals. Guided by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, however, Louis manages to recite the entire ceremony.
Perestroika: Act V, scene 4
Joe returns to his apartment in Brooklyn, looking for Harper. Instead he finds the ghost of Roy, who witnessed the fight he had with Louis. Roy commends Joe on his viciousness, kisses him, then vanishes, just as Harper walks through the door.
Perestroika: Act V, scene 5
The scene changes quickly back to Heaven, where the Continental Principalities are gathered in their Council Room. They are huddled around a damaged 1940s model radio, listening to news from earth that tells them what the future holds for God’s creation below. A crackling report tells them about a disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant that will occur in two months. The Angel of Antarctica remarks that he/she will be happy to watch the humans suffer, since they are responsible for the misery in Heaven since God left. The group begins arguing about technology, like their radio and nuclear power, and the course of human events, when suddenly the Angel of America appears with Prior.
Prior informs the Angels that he wants to return the book he has been given, abandon his role as prophet, and go back to living his life as before, miserable as he might be. The Angels try to convince him that everyone on earth would be happier if he would help convince them to stop moving and changing, but Prior is determined not to cooperate. Regardless of the suffering it entails, ‘I want more life,” he tells the assembly. He adds that, if God returns, they should sue Him for abandoning everyone. Prior exits.
Perestroika: Act V, scene 6
Out on the streets of Heaven, Prior encounters Sarah Ironson, Louis’s dead grandmother, and Isidor Chemelwitz, the Rabbi who performed her funeral service at the beginning of Millennium Approaches. They are seated on wooden crates playing cards. The Rabbi helps Prior conjure the ladder back to earth, and Sarah encourages him to struggle with the Almighty, because after all, “It’s the Jewish way.”
Perestroika: Act V, scene 7
In a quick scene, Prior passes Roy on his journey back to earth. Roy is standing waist-deep in a smoldering pit, seemingly talking to God about the abandonment suit the Angels are bringing against him. As the slickest lawyer in Heaven or Hell, Roy agrees to represent God, even though, he tells his holy client, “You’re guilty as hell.”
Perestroika: Act V, scene 8
Back in his bed in the hospital, Prior wakes from his adventure in Heaven like Dorothy in the Page 11 | Top of ArticleThe Wizard of Oz. He tries to tell Belize, Emily, and Hannah about the Angels and how he only wanted to go home again, but they are interrupted by the arrival of Louis. Emily leaves to finish her rounds of the hospital wards, Hannah goes to put her life back in order, and on his way out, Belize offers Prior Cohn’s AZT horde. Louis tells Prior he wants to come back.
Perestroika: Act V, scene 9
The two troubled couples go their separate ways. Harper confronts Joe in their apartment and demands his credit card so she can go off and start a life of her own. As consolation, she offers Joe her valium and suggests he goes exploring. At the same time, in the hospital room, Prior tells Louis he still loves him, but he can’t come back.
Perestroika: Act V, scene 10
The scene splits to include Harper on board a jet plane, headed for San Francisco. She describes a dream she had in which the souls of the dying on earth floated up in the sky, where they took the place of the angels and repaired holes in the ozone.
Prior, Louis, Belize, and Hannah are gathered at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, Prior’s favorite spot, four years later. The world has changed somewhat—the Berlin Wall has fallen and through the Russian leader Gorbachev’s policy of “Perestroika” the Cold War seems to be over. Prior is living with his disease and plans to live longer still. Together, the group relates the story of the angel Bethesda, who appeared in the Temple square in Jerusalem long ago. Where the angel landed, a fountain appeared that could heal anyone who walked through its waters. Hopefully, they say, the fountain will appear again when the Millennium comes and everyone will be healed and purified. Prior blesses the audience, wishes them “More Life,” and tells them: “The Great Work Begins.”
Angel of America
The Angel is one of seven celestial beings who form the Continental Principalities, one representative in Heaven for each continent on Earth. She is the Continental Principality of America, a beautiful being with magnificent gray wings. In Millennium
Approaches her appearance is preceded by strange lights, music, voices, and ghostly messengers. She crashes through Prior’s ceiling at the end of Millennium Approaches to tell him he has been chosen as the Prophet who will help the world stop changing and return God to Heaven. In Perestroika she loses a wrestling match to Prior and is forced to take him up to Heaven, where he confronts the Continental Principalities and demands to be released from prophecy.
Belize, whose real name is Norman Arriaga, is a former drag queen and a former lover of Prior’s. He is a nurse at New York Hospital who cares for Roy Cohn when he is admitted with AIDS. Throughout the play he acts as friend and counsel to Prior and adversary to Louis. When Louis abandons Prior it is Belize who visits the sick man, comforts him, and even secures drugs for him (Cohn’s stash of AZT). Each time they meet, he and Louis argue over politics, race, religion, and the meaning of love. Belize is smart, witty, and capable of being dismissive and offensive, but his actions speak louder than his words. In one way or another, he helps everyone he meets, like an angel on earth.
Sister Ella Chapter
Sister Ella Chapter appears only once, briefly, in Millennium Approaches. She is a friend of Hannah Page 12 | Top of ArticlePitt’s in Salt Lake City, as well as a real estate saleswoman who helps Hannah sell her house for her move out East. Sister Ella, like the angels, believes people should stay put, and in her mind Salt Lake City, the home of the Mormons, is the best place to put down roots.
Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz
The Rabbi appears twice, once at the beginning of Millennium Approaches, when he conducts the funeral service for Sarah Ironson, and once in Perestroika, where he plays cards with the dead woman in Heaven and helps Prior find his way back to Earth after his confrontation with the angels. Rabbi Chemelwitz sets the tone for the entire play in his eulogy when he warns that, “Pretty soon. . . all the old will be dead.”
Roy M. Cohn
The character of Roy M. Cohn is based on the real-life lawyer who prosecuted Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for treason in 1951 and died of AIDS in 1986. Like the real Cohn, he is loud, vulgar, mean, and treacherous. He is a closeted homosexual who flatters, bribes, and threatens people to get what he wants, both in and out of the courtroom. In the play he is fighting for his professional status and his life, both of which he loses. In spite of Roy’s efforts to plant a friend on the inside, the New York Bar Association revokes his license to practice law because of his unethical behavior. At the same time, he is stricken with AIDS, which he tries to pass off as liver cancer. He dies in a hospital bed with the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg watching over him.
Later, in the afterlife, Roy becomes God’s attorney, defending the Almighty against the abandonment lawsuit brought by the Continental Principalities. Although Cohn existed in history, Kushner is careful to note that he has invented his character’s words in the play and taken liberties with his actions.
The Continental Principalities are a group of seven powerful angels who represent each of the continents of Earth. They appear in the play only once, as a group, assembled in their Council Room in Heaven, where they have convened a “Permanent Emergency Council” and stand perpetual watch over the dismal state of human affairs below. They bicker and fight and are easily distracted. For all their splendor and power they seem oddly human. When Prior arrives in Heaven, escorted by the Angel of America, they try to convince him to be their Prophet who will instruct the world to cease its constant change, but they are unsuccessful. When Prior leaves, he suggests they should sue God for abandonment, which, with Cohn as their lawyer, they do.
Emily is a nurse at Saint Vincent’s Hospital who cares for Prior each time he is admitted. She is tender and sincere and has seen many cases of AIDS in the last few years. She offers hope that Prior’s condition is better than many and tries to help him learn ways of living with his illness.
Martin is a lawyer in the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., and a friend of Cohn’s. He appears briefly in Millennium Approaches to help Roy convince Joe to move to Washington and take a job in the Justice Department, where he can watch out for Roy’s best interests. Appearing in a Manhattan restaurant, Martin is the voice of extreme right-wing Republicans in the play. He boasts about the Republican revolution in Washington and predicts “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.”
Henry has been Roy’s doctor for nearly thirty years and has treated him for a variety of sexually transmitted diseases. He knows Roy is a homosexual in denial, but he has to break the news to him that he has contracted AIDS and will likely die soon. Under threats from Cohn, Henry attempts to cover up the real nature of the lawyer’s disease. The doctor gets Cohn admitted to the hospital as a patient with liver cancer.
Louis is a word processor for the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York and the lover of first Prior then Joe. He is a semi-closeted homosexual, openly gay around his friends but reserved and “butch,” as Prior describes his exaggerated Page 13 | Top of Articlemacho behavior, around his family and coworkers. Louis’s political ideology, religion, and philosophy of life seem as complicated as his sexual identity. In the course of the play he claims that God and angels don’t exist yet later finds himself saying the Jewish prayer for the dead in Hebrew over the body of Cohn. He detests bigots and hypocrisy and admits to voting for Jesse Jackson, then claims race is unimportant in America and finds himself in bed with a right-wing Republican Mormon. Louis desperately searches for the underlying, defining meaning of life and continually finds confusion and disappointment.
At the beginning of the play, he has been in a serious, monogamous relationship with Prior for four years, when Prior reveals a terrible secret: he has contracted AIDS and will soon begin to suffer the disease’s worst symptoms. Wracked with guilt but panicked that his comfortable, somewhat predictable world is changing, Louis abandons his lover and runs straight into the arms of Joe, who is facing an identity crisis of his own. Louis spends the rest of the play sparring with Joe about his conservative politics and trying to reconcile his love for Prior with his fear of disease and decay. Near the end, when he has finally summoned the courage to ask Prior to let him return, it is too late. Although they remain in love with each other, Prior can’t forgive him for the pain he has caused.
Sarah is Louis’s grandmother. Although she doesn’t appear until late in Perestroika, her presence is known from the beginning of the play, when Rabbi Chemelwitz eulogizes her as “the last of the Mohicans.” On Earth, she was a Russian-Jewish immigrant who raised a large family in New York before retiring in her old age to the Bronx Home of Aged Hebrews. In Heaven, she plays cards with Rabbi Chemelwitz and tells Prior, “You should struggle with the Almighty! It’s the Jewish way.”
Mr. Lies is Harper’s imaginary friend, who appears each time she retreats into fantasy or hallucination. He takes the form of a travel agent dressed like a jazz musician and alternately leads Harper away from her worries and directs her back to them.
Man in the Park
The Man in the Park is a stranger Louis meets after fleeing Prior’s hospital room. He lives with his parents, so he tries to get Louis to invite him home. When Louis refuses, he agrees to sex in the park but runs away when their condom breaks and Louis starts acting strangely.
The Mannequins are the principal attraction in the Diorama Room of the Mormon Visitor’s Center in New York City. They represent a Mormon family, arranged in a wagon-train tableau on a little stage, trekking westward from Missouri to Salt Lake. The Father Mannequin looks like Joe, and while Prior and Harper are watching the reenactment he comes to life and talks to Louis, then leaves the stage with him. Afterward, Harper strikes up a conversation with the Mother Mannequin, who also comes to life and escorts Harper to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade.
Hannah Porter Pitt
Hannah is Joe’s Mormon mother. After her son calls her late at night from a payphone to confess he is a homosexual, she sells her home in Salt Lake City and flies to New York to help him. Her culture shock is traumatic at first, as she encounters the homeless and the eccentric on the streets of New York City, but she summons her inner strength and quickly adjusts to her surroundings. Abandoned by Joe, she takes a job at the Mormon Visitor’s Center and tries to help Harper, her daughter-in-law, cope with the crisis.
When Prior wanders into the Center, she thinks his talk about angels is crazy and dangerous, in spite of what her own religion tells her, but later she becomes his protector. When Prior collapses in her arms, she takes him to the hospital and sits near his bed as the Angel approaches. It is Hannah who remembers Jacob’s mythical bout with his angel, and she tells Prior if he wants to be free from the burden of Prophecy, he must wrestle the Angel into submission. At the end of the play she has been absorbed into the New York landscape and sits near the Bethesda Fountain with the others, reading the New York Times.
Harper Amaty Pitt
Harper is Joe’s wife and a link between the real and imagined worlds of the play. In the playwright’s words, she is “an agoraphobic with a mild Valium addiction and a much stronger imagination.” Her Page 14 | Top of Articlepills and her imagination are her defense against the real world, which she finds overwhelming. Much of her frustration and anger comes from her relationship with her husband. Harper thinks she loves Joe, but he has grown less and less affectionate toward her and spends more and more time away from home. Although she finds it hard to admit to herself, she suspects Joe’s homosexuality and is desperately trying to find a way to live her life contentedly, either with or without him.
When the stress of the world becomes too much for her, Harper calls upon her imaginary friend, Mr. Lies, to take her away to some imaginary realm where she can be free and happy. In her mind, she travels to Antarctica, to Heaven, even into other people’s dreams. Her journeys have made her one of the more perceptive and poetic characters in the play. She thinks of the ozone layer as “a kind of gift, from God, the crowning touch to the creation of the world: guardian angels, hands linked, [making] a spherical net, a blue-green nesting orb, a shell of safety for life itself.”
Joseph Porter Pitt
Joe is the chief clerk for Justice Theodore Wilson of the Federal Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, New York. He is a Mormon, married to Harper, and a completely closeted homosexual. For most of his life he has not admitted his homosexuality to his family, friends, wife, or even himself, but a turning point is near. He has been chosen by the great Roy Cohn to be his right hand man in Washington, and Joe now faces a tremendous crisis of conscience: He must decide whether he can transplant his paranoid, delusional wife, who he is growing less and less fond of, from her relatively familiar surroundings in New York to the politic world of Washington; and he must determine whether his own principles will allow him to work for a man as dangerous and unethical as Roy Cohn.
As if to compound his troubles, Joe meets Louis in his self-imposed exile from Prior and is seduced by him. He is both terrified and invigorated by the experience, still unsure of his life’s direction but starting to sense his true identity. He turns down Cohn’s offer and stays in New York. He admits to his mother, to Roy, to himself, to everyone but Harper, that he is gay. He spends several weeks completely absorbed in his new boyfriend. Still, like Louis, Joe is continually plagued with guilt and drawn back to the relationship he left behind. Also like Louis, he returns to his mate too late. By the end of the play Harper has found enough resolve, and stability, to leave Joe behind.
Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov
Introduced as “the World’s Oldest Living Bolshevik,” Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov appears briefly at the beginning of Perestroika delivering an impassioned speech in Moscow at the Soviet Kremlin. His topic is the need for a practical political theory to guide his country, and the most important quality he asks for in this new theory is one the Angels abhor: Change.
Prior 1 is the ghost of one of Prior’s ancestors from the thirteenth century. In life, he was an English farmer, from near Yorkshire. In death, he appears in Millennium Approaches as a messenger on behalf of the Angel, come to prepare Prior for her arrival. He recognizes Prior’s illness as a form of the pestilence that ravaged England in his day and caused his own death.
Prior 2 is another of Prior’s ancestors—a sophisticated seventeenth century Londoner. He also appears in Millennium Approaches to prepare Prior for the Angel’s arrival and, like Prior 1, he, too, was killed by a form of the plague that wiped out half the city of London. Just before the Angel’s arrival, when Prior is deep in despair, the two apparitions summon a vision of Louis for Prior to dance with, then they disappear.
Like Roy Cohn, the character of Ethel Rosenberg is based on an actual historical person. Ethel Rosenberg and her husband Julius were convicted of atomic espionage in 1951 and sentenced to death as traitors to the United States. Roy Cohn was instrumental in their prosecution. In the play, Ethel’s desire for revenge compels her to haunt Roy from the time he is admitted to the hospital, dying of AIDS. She appears from time to time to taunt him with death and bring him bad news from the outside, where the New York State Bar Association has decided to disbar the treacherous attorney. Just before his death, Roy tricks her into singing him a lullaby.
As much as any other character in this large ensemble work, Prior is the protagonist of Angels in America. He is also the only principal character whose personality seems to be forged by the events of the plot. Early in the play, Prior reveals his illness: He has AIDS and will soon become very sick and probably die. Soon afterward, he hears the first Voice, announcing the impending arrival of the Angel. From that point forward, everything Prior is, and everything he does, is related to his disease and his role as unwilling Prophet.
Prior also faces what may be the most difficult choices in the play and, in the process, grows stronger. He spends most of Millennium Approaches as a victim, being acted upon. He is battered first by his disease, the physical effects of which are beyond his control. Then he is abandoned by his lover, Louis, and left in mental anguish. Finally he is spiritually assaulted by the ghosts of his ancestors and the arrival of the Angel, who has come to burden him with a task he doesn’t want.
The choices he must make define his new personality in Perestroika, when instead of being a victim, he becomes a fighter, someone who acts. He learns that, although he cannot cure his disease, through discipline and careful care, he can limit its effects on his body. Next, he comes to terms with Louis, who he still loves deeply. Although Louis returns, seeking reconciliation, Prior has found the strength to live by himself and reject Louis for abandoning him in his time of need. Finally, and perhaps most important to the universal scheme of the play, Prior successfully battles the Angel, gains admittance to Heaven, and refuses to serve as Prophet for the Continental Principalities, who wish to stop the forward progress of the world and find God again. It is this encounter with the celestial figures of the play that stands as a metaphor for all of the characters’ conflicts, including Prior. In a moving speech to the Angels he sums up the spirit of his own struggles, and all of humankind, when he says, simply, “We live past hope.”
Woman in the South Bronx
The Woman in the South Bronx appears once, near the end of Millennium Approaches. She is a schizophrenic, homeless woman who meets Hannah, fresh from Salt Lake City, getting off the bus at an abandoned lot in the South Bronx. After some uncontrollable, disturbing outbursts, she gives Hannah directions to the Mormon Visitor’s Center and tells her, “In the new century I think we will all be insane.”
Change and Transformation
Change and transformation are at the center of Angels in America. In one way or another, each strand in the plot is related to change of some kind, and every major character faces some manner of transformation. Some characters are frightened by change and prefer the comfort and familiarity of the world they know.
Harper, for example, begins the play terrified by the changes she sees, or thinks she sees, around her. She fears she is losing her husband, her home, and her sanity, and it is all overwhelming. She finds a metaphor for her fear in the ozone layer, high above the earth, which she likens to protective, guardian angels surrounding the planet. “But everywhere,” she says, “things are collapsing, lies surfacing, systems of defense giving way.” Through the course of the play, Harper does indeed lose everything she held dear, and in the process finds a new perspective on change and transformation. As she sits in a plane, bound for San Francisco and a new life, she suggests, “Nothing’s lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind and dreaming ahead.”
Other characters are encouraged by change, even thrive in it. Louis’s view is somewhat Darwinian. He tells the Rabbi that his sense of the world is that it will change for the better with struggle, which is why he can’t accept Prior’s sickness into his philosophy of life. Instead, Louis runs away, immersing himself in change to avoid deterioration. He finds Joe, who earnestly echoes the sentiments of his newfound right-wing Republican friends, Roy and Martin. Joe tells Harper that things are starting to change for the good in the world. “America has rediscovered itself,” he insists, “Its sacred position among nations.” To Joe, the country has been reinvented, for the better, during the Reagan years. Interestingly, though, by the end of the play both Louis and Joe are longing to return to the way things were, but both are denied this homecoming.
Prior and the Angels are caught up in the play’s biggest struggle over change. On a personal level, Prior is having change after change thrust upon him. First, his disease attacks, changing his body. Then, Louis abandons him, changing his world. Finally, the Angel calls upon him and asks him to become a Prophet on behalf of the Continental Principalities. Stasis, the opposite of change, is what the Angels seek. Prior thwarts their plan, however, and tells them, “We can’t just stop. We’re not rocks—progress, migration, motion is . . . modernity. It’s animate, it’s what living things do.”
A search for identity is underway, beginning with the opening monologue of Angels in America, and each of the characters becomes involved, whether they intend it or not. In his eulogy for Sarah Ironson, Rabbi Chemelwitz describes the deceased as one of a special breed of immigrants who crossed the ocean and established a new homeland in America, carrying along bits of the Old World and passing them along to her children. To the Rabbi, Sarah Ironson is part of America’s identity; she was an essential ingredient in “the melting pot where nothing melted.”
On a more personal quest, Joe seeks a different kind of identity. All his Mormon life he has tried to deny the nature of his sexuality: He is attracted to men. In an attempt to change his true identity, he went so far as to marry Harper. Contrary to his beliefs, he helps write decisions in court cases that deny the rights of homosexuals. Through the short Page 17 | Top of Articlerelationship he finds with Louis, he is nearly liberated. He admits his longings to himself, and to Louis, but stops short of coming out to the world. At the end of the play he is still torn between his life as a heterosexual, married, Republican law clerk and the fleeting glimpse of happiness he found in Louis’s arms.
In keeping with his character traits, Louis’s search for identity is more abstract. Though he thinks he has come to terms with the world, and has developed opinions and answers for any situation, his philosophies are constantly being tested, and he, like Joe, lives a life of contradictions. He criticizes Joe for hiding his sexuality, yet he has a “butch” side himself, an overtly masculine, heterosexual facade that he assumes around his family. He is a tortured agnostic who was raised Jewish but can’t find a religion that accepts him for what he is. Politically, he is an extreme liberal but is attracted to a confused right-wing Republican. Louis’s quest for identity does not end with the play: During the Epilogue, he is still arguing religion and politics with Belize (who, as a black ex-drag queen and confidant to both Prior and Louis has an identity crisis of his own).
Kushner suggests that his play is “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” and the concept of America—its social dynamics, political identity, and uncertain future—are prominent themes in the play. Set in the 1980s, a decade of greed and conservatism, Angels in America can not avoid exploring the impact of Republican politics on the country. Roy Cohn represents the worst the right wing has to offer: political monopoly, economic disparity, discrimination, and censorship. His henchman, Martin, crows, “It’s a revolution in Washington, Joe. We have a new agenda and finally a real leader” and brags that soon Republicans will control the courts, lock up the White House, regain the Senate, and run the country the way it ought to be run.
In contrast to these conservative combatants, Louis and Belize despair over America’s future, each for different reasons. Louis complains that nothing matters in America except politics and power, the very things Roy and his associates covet. “There are no gods here,” he rails, “no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political.” To Belize, however, there is a distinct spirit to America, and he doesn’t like it. “I hate this country,” he counters, “It’s just big ideas and stories and people dying and people like you.” To Belize, there is precious little freedom in the land of the free.
These extreme views of America are left unresolved at the end of the play. The Epilogue, which occurs in 1990, four years after most of the play’s action, explains that in the intervening years the Berlin Wall has fallen, the Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s vision of “Perestroika” or “radical change” has helped bring an end to the Cold War, and America has emerged as a leader of nations. Still, the ragged band of survivors gathered around Bethesda Fountain in Central Park are both champions and victims of the American Dream.
Hannah left her comfortable Mormon life in Salt Lake City and, like her ancestors before her, migrated to a new land (New York City) to be reinvented. Her struggle will continue. Louis and Belize remain, at best, marginal members of society, still misunderstood, still mistreated, and still struggling for the rights enjoyed by society’s heterosexual majority. And Prior, though he has survived his disease much longer than he expected, knows his story is not the end but only a beginning for homosexuals with AIDS in America. “We won’t die secret deaths anymore,” he warns, “The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. . . The Great Work Begins.”
Angels in America is built with an epic plot construction. In early storytelling, epic referred to the kind of tale Homer told in the Odyssey and Iliad: stories that cover long periods of time, perhaps months or even years; involve many locations, ranging from small rooms to forests and battlefields; follow many characters through multiple plotlines; and alternate short and long scenes, with a series of crisis points, rather than a single strong climax near the end. Many of Shakespeare’s plays follow in the epic tradition, and other notable modern examples include the plays of Bertolt Brecht (Mother Courage and Her Children), and Robert Schenkkan’s Kentucky Cycle, a six-hour, nine-play saga covering two hundred years of history in the lives three eastern Kentucky families.
Kushner’s massive undertaking with Angels in America is divided into two complete plays: Millennium
Approaches and Perestroika. Together, they span more than four years, from October, 1985, to February, 1990. Settings range from living rooms, offices, and hospital wards to New York City streets, Antarctica, and even Heaven.
Scenes in Angels in America are both long and short and often overlap each other, occurring on the stage simultaneously. This provides two qualities that are important to epic plots: juxtaposition and contrast. In climactic plots, the story moves forward in a cause-and-effect fashion, with the action in one scene influencing the action in the next. In epic plots, however, the action may alternate between the plot and subplot, with little connection between the two. The effect of two seemingly unrelated scenes placed next to each other is juxtaposition of action, characters, and ideas, which often produces a contrast that makes the play more meaningful.
For example, Act II, scene 9 of Millennium Approaches, is a split scene involving Joe and Harper at home, and Prior and Louis in Prior’s hospital room. The two scenes, juxtaposed together, each present someone abandoning a loved one. Joe has already drunkenly confessed his homosexuality Page 19 | Top of Articleto his mother on the telephone and now seeks a way to escape his wife, who needs him desperately. Louis, on the other hand, still loves Prior but can’t stand living with his sickness. Playing the two scenes simultaneously amplifies the confusion and agony each man feels and makes it difficult to simply dismiss their actions as heartless. Similar juxtapositions occur throughout the play.
Perhaps most importantly, the overall effect of an epic plot is cumulative rather than catastrophic. In a climactic work, such as Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex or the plays of Henrik Ibsen (A Doll’s House) and Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman), events are compressed and occur quite near the end of the story, making an explosive confrontation inevitable. Epic plots allow events, circumstances, and emotions to pile up, one on top of the other, overwhelming the characters and audience alike. Rarely does a single event—a character’s error in judgment or an antagonist’s vile deed—decide the outcome. Accordingly, Angels in America ends in uncertainty. The ultimate fate of the characters is unknown, but the events and emotions that have accrued impart a sense of enormity and importance to the play’s ideas—progress, identity, community, and acceptance.
Theatre has been a forum for political ideas and agendas for as long as audiences have been attending plays. In America, the Federal Theatre Project of the depression-era 1930s mounted “Living Newspapers,” short plays integrating factual data with emotional, often melodramatic vignettes. Topics usually addressed some kind of social cause, such as slum housing for the urban poor or the plight of the American farmer. During the radical 1960s, several black theatre groups, such as Imamu Amiri Baraka’s (formerly LeRoi Jones) Spirit House and the Negro Ensemble Company, were organized with the goal of producing plays written by, and for, blacks in America, often with anti-white themes. Whatever the cause, political theatre is often driven by the themes, or ideas, in the play, as much as by the plot or characters.
Kushner follows in the tradition of large, important, political dramas, influenced mainly, he claims, by Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright who is credited with the creation of a unique brand of Epic Theatre. Brecht’s theories for his Epic Theatre contain many of the qualities of epic plot structure but also assume a strong political aspect; he was a staunch communist and held virulent anti-war beliefs. His plays were didactic, which means he wanted to teach his audiences something, and his lessons were usually stated strongly and openly. Furthermore, Brecht wanted his spectators to be active participants in the theatre and think critically while watching his plays, rather than become absorbed in emotion as passive witnesses. To manage this, he attempted to “alienate” his audiences by exposing theatrical devices (lighting, scene changes, etc.). He also broke up the action of his plays—with disruptive elements such as ironic songs and placards that explained forthcoming plot points—so spectators were not allowed to become absorbed in the story but were instead constantly forced to reevaluate characters and their actions. Through this process, Brecht felt, audiences would better understand and appreciate a play’s political messages.
Like Brecht, Kushner strives for a very theatrical presentation that doesn’t attempt complete illusion. He recommends a minimal amount of scenery for Angels in America—with all the rapid changes of location, realistic scenery would be quite cumbersome to a production. Furthermore, Kushner suggests the scene changes be handled quickly, in full view of the audience (without blackouts) using both stagehands and actors, a very Brechtian technique. As for the moments of magic in the play, such as the appearance of the Angel, the ghosts, Mr. Lies, and other fantastic occurrences, the playwright says in his introduction, “It’s OK if the wires show, and maybe it’s good that they do, but the magic should at the same time be thoroughly amazing.”
Kushner is also extremely political, and he, too, wants his audiences to learn something, though he allows more subtlety of expression than Brecht. In Kushner’s play, the strong political ideas are woven into the fabric of the plot and sub-plots, and the audience is left with an impression rather than an obvious message. Controversial ideas are usually presented from both sides, leaving the audience free to draw their own conclusions. While Brecht strongly advocated communism and often hit audiences on the head with his overt pacifist rhetoric, Kushner lets his characters and their philosophies speak for themselves.
The concept of the American Dream, for example, is viewed from several perspectives, none of which is presented as “right:” Roy and Martin find the American Dream in the struggle for political power; Joe harbors an idealistic, perhaps naive vision of America as a land of freedom, opportunity, and justice for all; embittered Belize and Louis, Page 20 | Top of Articlescorned by mainstream society for their openly gay lifestyles, find America oppressive and hypocritical, yet they continue their struggles for rights and recognition. By presenting political ideas in this kaleidoscopic fashion, Kushner opens a political dialogue with his audiences, rather than simply shouting messages at them.
History, both the near and distant past, echoes throughout Angels in America. Prior’s ancestors from the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries return to herald the arrival of the Angel. The complex evolution of philosophies, political systems, and religions (such as the Jewish and Mormon faiths) over the years are discussed and debated in the context of the characters’ current struggles. The most important era to the play, however, is the one in which it is set: the 1980s.
Often characterized as a decade of greed, conservative politics, and negligent middle-class social policies, the 1980s are an indelible imprint on the plot and characters of Angels in America. From Roy, Martin, and Joe, who directly serve the Republican tide that washed across the country during the “Me” decade (so named for the self-centered behavior that was tolerated, even encouraged, by 1980s American culture), to Prior, Louis, and Belize, all somehow victims of straight, white America and the AIDS crisis, Kushner’s work is an unmistakable product of its time.
The Political 1980s
Angels in America is steeped in politics, particularly influenced by the platforms of the Republican party. Ronald Reagan, Republican President of the United States from 1980-1988, is mentioned often in Kushner’s play. He is the era’s most recognizable political icon, and the success or failure of economic and political policies from the 1980s is usually attributed to his administration. Reagan’s far-reaching economic policies, termed “Reaganomics,” were an attempt to correct many of the economic and social problems Americans had been experiencing since the 1970s, when many felt the country had lost its confidence.
During the 1970s and early-1980s, Americans found renewed interest in ecological awareness and demanded that industry take steps to save the imperiled environment. This led congress to pass strict measures that forced American companies to divert profits to environmental controls and cleanup, reducing their ability to modernize and compete with less regulated foreign companies. At the same time, the cost of gas and oil was skyrocketing, unemployment reached 7.1 percent, and the inflation rate soared to 12.5 percent.
America was not doing any better abroad, where the Cold War seemed to be favoring the communists and the Middle East was rapidly becoming a foreign policy embarrassment. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan and installed a communist leader in 1979 and the communist power was also gaining leverage in Africa and Central America. Terrorists from the Middle East hijacked U.S. aircraft, and fifty-three Marines and civilian personnel in the American embassy in Iran were held hostage for more than a year, from November, 1979, to January, 1981.
Amidst all this chaos, Reagan was swept into office on a platform promising a strong national defense and a tough stance against the communist Soviet Union. He also vowed to reduce the size and cost of government, lower taxes by 30 percent, reduce spending, and curb inflation. With the help of a largely Republican senate, Reagan’s foreign policy and “supply-side economics” met with a mixture of success and failure. On the positive side, inflation and interest rates fell. Between 1983 and 1989, 18 million new jobs were created, and the average price of stocks nearly tripled in value. A lot of Americans grew very rich, and the country experienced what has been called the longest period of peacetime economic growth in the nation’s history.
Growth had its downside, however. The national debt tripled, the nation’s trade deficit quadrupled, and much of the credit for economic growth was attributed to the burgeoning defense industry. In his first year in office, Reagan convinced Congress to budget nearly $200 billion in defense spending, creating an economic windfall through the largest peacetime defense buildup in American history.
Still, the buildup had its payoff. Kushner took the title for the second part of his epic, Perestroika, from the policies of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev who, faced with America’s tremendous military might and economic boom under Reagan, chose to radically change the direction of Russian society. Gorbachev sought to reform the Soviet economy through perestroika, a Russian word for “restructuring,” and he introduced glasnost, or “openness,” into political and cultural affairs. Within a
few short years the spread of communism around the world, a threat once characterized by Reagan as the “Evil Empire,” had reversed itself. The Berlin Wall, a longtime symbol of the division between the communist east and the capitalist west, was dramatically dismantled in 1989. Two years later, in December, 1991, the Soviet Union’s communist dictatorship collapsed; the Cold War was over.
AIDS in America
The other “war” that really matters to Angels in America was a domestic one that was being fought between an outnumbered, marginalized, terrified homosexual community and the rest of America, which was largely heterosexual. The discovery of the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in 1981 threw both sides into a feverish struggle over rights, recognition, and morality in America.
Americans have always been, at best, ambivalent about homosexuals in their midst. It wasn’t until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders; and the U.S. military continues its “don’t Page 22 | Top of Articleask, don’t tell” policy for gays in the military. For a time, AIDS was used by some as justification for anti-gay sentiments (some made outrageous claims that the disease was a biblical curse sent down by God to eradicate homosexuality). In the early-1980s, the disease became known as the “gay plague,” in spite of the fact that other groups of heterosexuals—notably Haitians, drug addicts, and hemophiliacs—also suffered the syndrome’s debilitating symptoms. The government—and President Reagan in particular—seemed disinterested in the suffering of gay Americans. Serious research at the National Institutes of Health did not begin until early-1983, eighteen months after AIDS had been declared an epidemic in the U.S. Gay rights activists compared their treatment by the United States government to the suffering of Jews in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.
While there are a great many important themes in Angels in America, it is this crisis, at once historical and timely, that Kushner chooses to return to at the end of the epic. Prior closes the play’s Epilogue with a direct address to the audience, during which he tells them, “This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away.” In many ways, the struggle that began for homosexuals in America with the AIDS crisis in the 1980s defined the relationship between gay and straight America in subsequent decades.
Angels in America followed a rapid, if circuitous, route to success. The first part of Kushner’s epic work, Millennium Approaches, was originally commissioned and planned for San Francisco’s Eureka Theater in 1989. The play actually premiered in a workshop production in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum in 1990, then landed briefly at the Eureka Theater in 1991 before getting its first major production at the Royal National Theatre in London in 1992. Later that year, Perestroika was added, and the full production was performed for the first time back in Los Angeles. By the time the play reached Broadway in 1993, it had already garnered numerous awards and accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the adoring praise of critics around the world. As expected, it won the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for best play in 1993.
Sometimes success draws detractors, and many a critic has made his reputation by savagely criticizing what all his colleagues seem to adore. Angels in America, however, seemed to carry a special blessing—in spite of what were seen as a few minor flaws, most reviewers agreed that its greatness couldn’t be denied. Shortly after the Broadway opening in 1993, and long after the play had already been praised and canonized by writers everywhere it had appeared, Jeremy Gerard wrote in Variety, “Believe the hype: This smartly ambitious, unabashedly sprawling, glintingly provocative, frequently hilarious and urgently poignant play is as revelatory as the title suggests, both in its kaleidoscopic account of life in the Reagan ‘80s and its confirmation of a young writer’s dazzling, generous vision.”
Reviewers found a lot to like in Angels. Hal Gelb, writing for the Nation, suggested, “Tony Kushner has written an enormously entertaining play while at the same time treating important matters seriously.” Gelb also praised the balance Kushner found in his political stance, noting, “Unlike many playwrights on the left, Kushner does a good job of allowing the characters on the right their humanity.” In the New Republic, Robert Brustein, a critic and scholar known for his rigorous standards and candor, admitted, “Kushner is that rare American thing, an artist-intellectual, not only witty himself but the gauge by which we judge the witlessness of others. His very literate play once again makes American drama readable literature.”
For many commentators, Kushner’s characters, and the opportunity they provide performers, were the most appealing aspect of the play. In the New York Post, veteran critic Clive Barnes observed, “Kushner peoples his phantasmagoria with great, sharply realistic characters—the savagely comic Roy Cohn, played with expectorating, explosive bile by Ron Liebman, Steven Spinella’s whimsically wicked, spindly, long-dying prophet and Jeffrey Wright’s raw and motherly nurse, are luminously wonderful.” Audiences and critics alike are often drawn to villains. A good villain, like Shakespeare’s Richard III, is articulate, charismatic, and wickedly appealing. Accordingly, much praise was lavished on Kushner’s depiction of Roy Cohn, the historical epitome of right-wing conservatism in the 1950s and hypocrisy in the 1980s. In the New Yorker, John Lahr asserted, “As written, Cohn is one of the great evil characters of modern American drama. In him Kushner personifies the barbarity of individualism Page 23 | Top of Articleduring the Reagan years, and also the deep strain of pessimism that goes with the territory.”
Other reviewers appreciated the remarkable humor the play contains, in spite of its deadly serious subject matter. “The big surprise is how funny it is,” wrote David Patrick Stearns in USA Today,“Hysteria and humor flip back and forth in Marcia Gay Harden’s portrayal of the mousy, Valium-addicted Mormon housewife who hallucinates herself into a vacation to Antarctica.” Referring to Perestroika in New York magazine, John Simon said, “Kushner is a funny fellow, and there is both nicely elaborated humor and rapid-fire wit throughout much of the three-and-a-half hour span.”
Perhaps the most complimented aspect of Kushner’s play was his ability to create a monumental work of art that deftly handles so many important ideas. In New York Newsday, Linda Winer wrote, “Kushner uses a huge canvas, but a very delicate brush. This is a play of big ideas—politics, religion, love, responsibility and the struggle between staying put and our need to move, preferably forward.” It’s a lot to take in, Winer suggested, “And, yet, this heretofore almost unknown playwright is such a delightful, luscious, funny writer that, for all the political rage and the scathing unsanitized horror, the hours zip by with the breezy enjoyment of a great page-turner or a popcorn movie.”
Criticism has been leveled at Angels in America—though usually leavened by compliments for the play’s literary ambition and stage production. Gelb’s review in the Nation, for example, which was mainly glowing, still noted that, “despite Kushner’s daring theatricality, endlessly fertile imagination and ambitious sense of form, Angels in America has its problems, some of them serious. The ‘angels’ plot itself, for one, isn’t as fully imagined or its tone as clear as the earthbound narratives, and the angels’ cause—anti-migration, cessation of relentless human movement—isn’t compelling.” Gelb also found parts of the play redundant, noting, “A still more obvious flaw is the way Kushner hits the same points over and over. For a good long stretch in the middle section, you feel he’s taken the angels’ enjoinder to heart: Nothing moveth.”
Kushner’s epic American drama also managed to raise moral objections in more conservative publications and on some college campuses. In the Christian Science Monitor, critic Ward Morehouse III wrote, “The play, which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama, has a power and boldness seldom seen on Broadway, but its homosexual themes may eliminate it from some theatergoers’ agendas.” Morehouse also warned his readers about the nudity and sexual situations in Angels in America, suggesting that director George C. Wolfe may have gone too far, including some scenes the critic felt were inserted solely for shock value. Objections turned into actions at the Catholic University of America, where campus administrators refused to allow advertisements to be posted for a planned production of the play in 1996. The administrators forced a student group to move to an off-campus location for the performance.
Lane A. Glenn
Glenn is a Ph.D. specializing in theatre history and literature. In this essay he explores the changing nature of faith and spirituality in the twentieth century and the way these changes are reflected in Angels in America.
The characters in Tony Kushner’s magnum opus Angels in America are reflections of the modern, millennial age. Like so many of us, they are on a quest for spirituality, for some kind of inner fulfillment, and their search seems to have taken on a desperate significance in the closing years of the second millennium.
Philosophically, the twentieth century has been called an “age of uncertainty,” of individuals seeking meaning for their lives and order in an increasingly chaotic universe. Traditional beliefs are being altered or ignored, while new faiths and new icons appear daily. Some people continue to enrich their lives with the religious doctrines of their ancestors—Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism—while others explore direct experiences through mysticism or paganism. Some find comfort and meaning in newly created, “cult” religions or abandon the search entirely and call themselves atheists or agnostics. In America, “Materialism,” the quest for money and goods, has often been called a new religion of the age. This sense of anxiety and uncertainty, so prevalent in Angels in America, is rooted in the not-so-distant past—the changes in science, philosophy, and technology wrought by the nineteenth century.
The nineteenth century taught the western world uncertainty, and the lesson—as much as any discovery,
war, or disaster since—has shaped the identity of the modern age. Charles Darwin published his famous Origin of Species in 1859, presenting the world with revolutionary, and troubling, ideas. In suggesting that all forms of life evolved from a common ancestry, and that the evolution of species continues through the “survival of the fittest,” the British naturalist pulled the rug out from under many of the world’s most cherished faiths. If true, Darwin’s theories reduce human beings to the status of natural objects, no more spiritual or glorious than animals, plants, or any other living organism. Origin of Species also suggests that humans are shaped primarily by their heredity and environment. The spiritual concepts of fate and destiny, central to many religious faiths, play no part in the drama of human existence: People have free will, make their own decisions, and are responsible for their own actions.
By the turn of the century, other great thinkers had also widely influenced the way people view the world and their existence in it. The French philosopher Auguste Comte suggested in his Course of Positive Philosophy (translated into English in 1853) that only primitive or partially evolved groups of people base their societies on religions or hopeful political theories, and that the ideal society is one governed by the principles of scientific observation. Renowned psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud reinforced some of Darwin’s ideas about the primitive origins of human beings when he suggested that many of our actions are guided by deeply-rooted subconscious thoughts. The nineteenth century scientific and political notions of Darwin, Comte, Freud, and others have had a deep and lasting impact on how we view the world today.
Faith shaken by the rigors of science and the heartlessness of politics in the twentieth century Page 25 | Top of Articlefills Angels in America. Kushner’s epic drama encompasses a variety of beliefs, including Judaism, Mormonism, and Agnosticism, and incorporates supernatural elements such as visions, ghosts, and angels. The play never claims the superiority of one belief over another but suggests that all faiths may be important to the progress of humankind at what is perhaps a crucial moment in history: the dawn of a new millennium.
In a 1991 interview with Theatre Week magazine, Kushner suggested, “There are moments in history when the fabric of everyday life unravels, and there is this unstable dynamism that allows for incredible social change in short periods of time. People and the world they’re living in can be utterly transformed, either for the good or the bad, or some mixture of the two. . . . During these periods all sorts of people—even people who are passive under the pressure of everyday life in capitalist society—are touched by the spirit of revolution and behave in extraordinary ways.” Kushner’s belief in climactic moments in time is echoed by Ethel Rosenberg, a character in Angels in America, who warns: “History is about to crack wide open. Millennium approaches.”
Although Kushner didn’t intend it, Judaism is one of his play’s most important religious motifs. The playwright himself is a third generation Jew, though he claims he is deeply ambivalent toward his faith and is actually a “serious agnostic.” In a 1995 interview with a Rabbi at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, Kushner described his own family, the generations after his grandparents, explaining, “We didn’t know Yiddish, we didn’t know Hebrew, we didn’t know prayers. We went to a very, very Reform—I mean sort of reformed out of existence—Jewish congregation.”
Angels in America suggests that Kushner’s experience growing up Jewish in the American South is shared by many Americans—the children and grandchildren of immigrants who packed their faiths along with their suitcases for their voyage to America. As younger generations make their own way in this “melting pot where nothing melted,” they may turn their backs on the traditions and beliefs of their ancestors, but the human spirit, like nature, abhors a vacuum. The empty space left behind must be filled with something—the soul requires it.
Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz is the first character who appears in Angels in America. He stands alone onstage, conducting the funeral service for Sarah Ironson. In memorializing Sarah, he appeals to the assembled mourners to remember their Jewish heritage:
She was. . . not a person but a whole kind of person, the ones who crossed the ocean, who brought with us to America the villages of Russia and Lithuania—and how we struggled, and how we fought, for the family, for the Jewish home, so that you would not grow up here, in this strange place, in the melting pot where nothing melted. Descendants of this immigrant woman, you do not grow up in America, you and your children and their children with the goyische names. You do not live in America. No such place exists. Your clay is the clay of some Litvak shtetl, your air the air of the steppes—because she carried the old world on her back across the ocean, in a boat, and she put it down on Grand Concourse Avenue, or in Flatbush, and she worked that earth into your bones, and you pass it to your children, this ancient, ancient culture and home.
Yet already Sarah Ironson’s own grandson Louis, present at her funeral, has strayed far from his Jewish roots. Kushner has called Louis the closest thing to an autobiographical character he has ever created. Like his creator, Louis is Jewish, gay, and deeply ambivalent toward the faith of his family. He finds no comfort in a religion that rejects him for his sexuality, and he doesn’t hesitate to criticize the shortcomings of Judaism. “Jews don’t have any clear textual guide to the afterlife; even that it exists,” he tells Prior. ‘I don’t think much about it. I see it as a perpetual rainy Thursday afternoon in March. Dead leaves.” Instead of the organized, traditional faith of his family, Louis has embarked on a lifelong quest to develop his own philosophy of life, one that doesn’t demand purity or pass judgment and encompasses his unique experiences and allows for all the political and social vagaries of the world in which he lives. He doesn’t believe in God and insists, “It should be the questions and shape of a life, its total complexity gathered, arranged, and considered, which matters in the end, not some stamp of salvation or damnation which disperses all the complexity in some unsatisfying little decision—the balancing of the scales.”
Traveling a spiritual path alone is difficult, however. Louis is criticized throughout the play for his unorthodox views on relationships, politics, and religion. Furthermore, like Kushner, who has never completely shaken his Jewish roots, Louis keeps returning to the faith of his ancestors subconsciously or against his will. In one of the play’s more haunting scenes, Louis visits Roy Cohn’s hospital room and, possessed by the spirit of Ethel Rosenberg, Page 26 | Top of Articlechants the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, over Roy’s body.
Cohn, while alive, is the play’s other prominent Jewish figure, and he, too, has his own unique way of identifying with his faith. For Roy, everything in life is a tool to use to his best advantage. The telephone and the law are equal extensions of his ambitious personality, and he uses and discards people like newspapers. When it comes to his Jewishness, Roy recognizes faith can get in the way of political aspirations. “I’m about to be tried, Joe, by a jury that is not a jury of my peers,” he complains. “The disbarment committee: genteel gentlemen Brahmin lawyers, country-club men. I offend them, to these men. . . I’m what, Martin, some sort of filthy little Jewish troll?” Even on his deathbed, salvation and the afterlife are an afterthought. The ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, a restless spirit who has been haunting Roy like a “dybbuk” (from Jewish folklore; a disembodied spirit that possesses the living) materializes to forge some sort of absolution between them, but the cantankerous lawyer chooses a practical joke as his last act on earth. He tricks Ethel into singing him a lullaby, then promptly dies.
The other important faith presented in Angels in America is Mormonism. Appropriately enough for the play, both Judaism and Mormonism have histories of dislocation, of rootlessness seeking a physical and spiritual home. Judaism began with God’s command to Abraham to remove himself and his family to a new land, while Mormonism started with a westward movement across America, revealed by an angel to the sect’s founding prophet, Joseph Smith. In a 1992 discussion at the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain, Kushner told interviewer Adam Mars Jones, “Mormonism is a theology that I think could only really have come from America. . . . The theology is an American reworking of a western tradition that is uniquely American: the notion of an uninhabited world in which it’s possible to reinvent.”
Like the founders of their faith, the Mormons in the play are constantly on the move, seeking their destinies. Early on, Joe Pitt tries to convince his wife, Harper, to move to Washington to better his career in politics. Harper, who describes herself as a “Jack Mormon,” someone who is flawed in her faith, has already followed Joe from Salt Lake City to New York and is afraid of more geographical dislocation. Instead, she travels the world in her mind, ranging as far as Antarctica in her struggles to escape her troubled life at home. After receiving a phone call in the middle of the night from her son, during which he drunkenly confesses his homosexuality, Hannah Pitt sells her house in Utah, the Mormon homeland, and travels to New York to set him “straight.”
Kushner illustrates both the positives and negatives of the faiths represented in the play when he juxtaposes them on top of one another and characters with clashing ideologies meet. For example, when Harper and Prior find each other in a mutual dream, Harper asserts, “In my church we don’t believe in homosexuals.” Prior, patient and tolerant, even in the face of death, jokingly retorts, “In my church we don’t believe in Mormons.”
The divisions run deeper, however, among some of the play’s more serious-minded characters. When Louis discovers Joe’s religion, it signals the beginning of the end of their relationship. “I don’t like cults,” he tells his Mormon lover. “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is not a cult,” Joe insists. Louis becomes unusually conservative and angrily replies, “Any religion that’s not at least two thousand years old is a cult.”
In spite of all the contrasting views of faith presented, from agnosticism to mysticism to Mormonism to Judaism, one of the most important conflicts in the play occurs on a higher plane, largely unconcerned with categories of belief. The Continental Principalities are one of the play’s principal motivating forces. This group of seven angels, representing each of the continents on earth, is a significant spiritual symbol, though they are not allied with any particular faith. Instead, these angels represent history and the unstoppable evolution and progress of human events. Kushner has alluded to the influence of the political theorist and philosopher Walter Benjamin on his work, and it has been noted that a particular passage, from Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History, significantly shaped Angels in America:
A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. The angel of history must appear in this way. He has turned his face toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, there he sees one single catastrophe, which incessantly piles ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and join together what has been smashed apart. But a storm blows out from Page 27 | Top of ArticleParadise, which has captured him in his wings and is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. That, which we call progress, is this storm.
Like the angel of history in Benjamin’s description, the Continental Principalities feel battered by the course of human events, particularly in the twentieth century as the pace of change has accelerated to a manic rate. They believe that God has abandoned heaven in pursuit of the thrill that change and progress has provided his creation, which is why they have called upon Prior to be their Prophet. The job he has been given is to convince humankind to stop moving, to cease their progress. As the chosen spokesman for creation, however, Prior has other ideas. “We can’t just stop,” he tells the Angels. “We’re not rocks—progress, migration, motion is. . . modernity. It’s animate, it’s what living things do. We desire. Even if all we desire is stillness, it’s still desire for. Even if we go faster than we should. We can’t wait. And wait for what? God. . . . He isn’t coming back.”
If there is an ultimate message within the exploration of twentieth century spirituality in Angels in America, it is the concept of inclusion. While different faiths, ideologies, and political stances are debated throughout the play, there are no clear victors. For every champion of a cause, whether it is Republicanism, Zionism, or free will, there is an opponent, equally armed and, at least in his own experience of the world, justified. The former prophet Prior Walter’s final words suggest just such a common bond:
You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.
And I bless you: More Life.
The Great Work Begins.
Source: Lane A. Glenn, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.
In this review of a production encompassing both parts of Kushner’s play, critic Gelb praises the playwright’s ability to fuse entertainment with important social issues while maintaining an epic scope.
In Angels in America (most recently at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles), a two-part, seven-hour workup of the nation’s fin-demillennium health, Tony Kushner has written an enormously entertaining play while at the same time treating important matters seriously. Kushner de-ghettoizes the AIDS play, placing the disease, like the destruction of the ozone layer or Americans’ flight from mutual responsibility in the Reagan era, at the heart of a national and planetary collapse. Mixing realism, fevered hallucination and otherworldly theatrical effects, he pulls back from the tight close-up of so much American drama to underscore a connection between public destiny and love and responsibility in personal relationships. Angels in America stands as a kind of lighthouse on the coast of a new era, signaling renewed feelings of hope and longing for community.
The characters—who are both types and not types, and that’s the point—include the revenant Ethel Rosenberg (Kathleen Chalfant), a saintly gay black nurse (K. Todd Freeman) and a Jewish cappuccino intellectual named Louis (Joe Mantello) who is endlessly opinionated about democracy, revolution and other big topics but falls apart when illness and death strike close to home. Early in Millennium Approaches, Prior Walter, his lover—so well-born he can trace his roots to the Bayeux Tapestry—announces he has AIDS, and Louis flees.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the political spectrum, a repressed Reaganite attorney, Joe Pitt, also struggles with responsibility. He wavers between accepting his homosexuality and conforming to his Mormon upbringing by remaining with his wife, Harper (who, suffering Joe’s indifference, has turned into a Valium visionary). The play’s paradigm of Reaganesque evil is Roy Cohn, who denies he’s subject to the same laws of nature and society as everyone else, and who crows, “They say terrible things about me in The Nation. Fuck The Nation.” Strangely, considering Kushner’s condemnation of Reagan-era selfishness, his conservatives are intent only on social order and moral decency. They don’t talk about deregulation or keeping more of what they’ve got.
Cohn, who views responsibility and love as a trap—and is represented here without his real-life loyal-to-the-end lover, Peter Fraser—attempts to install Pitt in the Justice Department so he can influence Cohn’s disbarment hearing. During the course of the play, Cohn also discovers he has AIDS. These events, along with the disintegrating relationships, Joe and Louis’s affair and an attempt to check the unraveling of God’s grand design by an angel who flies in, Mary Martin-style, are the play’s core.
Yet, despite Kushner’s daring theatricality, endlessly fertile imagination and ambitious sense of form, Angels in America has its problems, some of them serious. The “angels” plot itself, for one, isn’t as fully imagined or its tone as clear as the earthbound narratives, and the angels’ cause—anti-migration, cessation of relentless human movement—isn’t compelling. A still more obvious flaw is the way Kushner hits the same points over and over. For a good long stretch in the middle section, you feel he’s taken the angels’ enjoinder to heart: Nothing moveth. And in Perestroika, particularly, Kushner generates enough irrelevant material to keep what he’s talking about from standing out clearly. The play also conflates different kinds of self-interest. Louis’s abandonment of Prior comes from his gut fear of mortality; he can be faulted for spinelessness and betrayal, but not selfishness in the same sense as Reaganite greed. Yet his action comes in for the play’s greatest moral heat.
But as Woody Allen movies used to, Angels in America generates so much good will that you don’t care about its flaws. When it flies—which is much of the time—it flies. That has a lot to do with the play’s attempt to heal divisions and its penetrating description of the gulfs between us. Kushner’s dialogue is remarkable in the way it reveals the love the characters are requesting, requiring, giving and withholding, and I found myself hurting for them in a way I don’t for characters in other plays. He also supplies them with a flood of laugh lines.
The writing is complemented by fine ensemble acting under the direction of Taper resident director Oskar Eustis and Tony Taccone. To mention just a few of the wonderful performances, there’s Jeffrey King’s beautifully revealing portrait of the tortured self-hatred behind Joe Pitt’s square-jawed strength; Kathleen Chalfant’s dry-as-dust rendering of Joe’s constantly surprising Mormon mom; Ron Leibman’s ferocious Cohn, a dog who’s sunk his teeth into life and won’t let go; and hovering over it all, Stephen Spinella’s Prior Walter, an enormously compelling mixture of feistiness and fragility, bitchiness and childlike wonder. The only weakness is Cynthia Mace, who suffers by comparison with Anne Darragh, who in the original San Francisco production played Harper’s mental problems as though they could be overcome.
That production in the spring of 1991, at the Eureka Theater, where Eustis and Taccone commissioned the play, offered a fully mounted Millennium Approaches and a staged reading of Perestroika. (The Taper’s was the first full-scale production of both.) At that time, with Reagan/Bush still apparently invincible, the play’s apocalyptic vibrations were more than a little disquieting, particularly in the scene where Cohn and a crony picture a conservative dominion lasting well into the next century. Whether it’s the new context or rewrites that reshaped the play’s outlook, Angels in America now seems more optimistic. In front of John Conklin’s Federalist facade with its enormous, jagged fault line, Kushner reasserts the interconnectedness of our multicultural, sexually and politically diverse populace. And in an ending that, unfortunately, probably says more about the sweetness of Kushner’s heart than about the future, he points to a metaphorical perestroika of our own, a passing away of old enmities (well, sort of) and the disappearance of old divisions, with tolerance not just for gays but for Mormons too. Unlike many playwrights on the left, Kushner does a good job of allowing the characters on the right their humanity—except for Cohn, whom he uses for the most part as a focus of conservative evil. But he needs to address the further prejudice of the left—the one that makes the black nurse saintly and the Jewish intellectual the object of greatest moral heat—if the old divisions are to be dealt with.
Source: Hal Gelb, review of Angels in America in the Nation, Vol. 256, no. 7, February 22, 1993, pp. 246-47.
Lahr is a noted theatre critic and biographer. In this essay, he reviews a complete production of Angels in America marking the debut of Perestroika, the work’s second segment. The critic praises the breadth of the play and lauds both Kushner and the cast of this production. Lahr terms the performance a victory for both the playwright and for the dramatic Page 29 | Top of Articlegenre, proving “the transforming power of the imagination to turn devastation into beauty.
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Source: John Lahr, “Beyond Nelly” in the New Yorker, Vol. LXVIII, no. 40, November 23, 1992, pp. 126-30.
Barnes, Clive. Review of Angels in America in the New York Post, November 24, 1993.
Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translation by Harry Zohn, Schocken Books, 1969, pp. 257-58.
Brustein, Robert. Review of Angels in America in the New Republic, May 24, 1993, pp. 29-31.
Cohen, Norman J. “Wrestling with Angels” in Tony Kushner in Conversation, edited by Robert Vorlicky, University of Michigan Press, 1998, p. 220.
Gelb, Hal. Review of Angels in America in the Nation, February 22, 1993, pp. 246-48.
Gerard, Jeremy. Review of Angels in America in Variety, May 10, 1993, p. 243.
Jones, Adam Mars. “Tony Kushner at the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain” in Tony Kushner in Conversation, edited by Robert Vorlicky, University of Michigan Press, 1998, pp. 24-25.
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, Theatre Communications Group, 1992, p.5
Lahr, John. Review of Angels in America in the New Yorker, May 31, 1993.
Morehouse III, Ward. Review of Angels in America in the Christian Science Monitor, May 17, 1993, p. 12.
Simon, John. Review of Angels in America in New York, December 6, 1993, p. 130.
Stearns, David Patrick. Review of Angels in America in USA Today, May 5, 1993, p. ID.
Szentgyorgyi, Tom. “Look Back—and Forward—in Anger” in Theatre Week, January 14-20, 1991, p. 16.
Winer, Linda. Review of Angels in America in New York Newsday, May 5, 1993.
Adelman, Deborah. The ‘Children of Perestroika’: Moscow Teenagers Talk about Their Lives and the Future, ME Sharpe, 1992.
Interviews with Moscow teenagers that describe their views on the former Soviet Union, socialism and Page 33 | Top of Articlecapitalism, the culture of the West, and how they view the future of their society after the Cold War.
Barlett, Donald L., and James B. Steele. America: What Went Wrong?, Andrews & McMeel, 1992.
A critical view of the 1980s that faults corporate greed, government short-sightedness, and the social and economic policies of President Ronald Reagan with undermining the American Dream.
Brask, Per, editor. Essays on Kushner’s Angels, Blizzard (Winnipeg), 1995.
An early collection of essays about Angels in America, published shortly after the play was produced, that attempts to view the work from North American, European, and Australian perspectives to see how Kushner’s brand of political drama fared around the Western world.
Christie-Dever, Barbara. AIDS: Answers to Questions Kids Ask, Learning Works, 1996.
Informative question-and-answer style approach to AIDS awareness and education for teenagers. Includes biographical sketches of Ryan White, Magic Johnson, and other notable AIDS figures.
Geis, Deborah R., and Steven F. Kruger, editors. Approaching the Millennium: Essays on Angels in America, University of Michigan Press, 1997.
An anthology of essays about Angels in America, written by theatre and film directors, scenic designers, professors, and critics. Topics range from perspectives on racial and sexual politics in Kushner’s work, to explorations of religious imagery and postmodern theoretical analysis.
Mann, Jonathan M. AIDS in the World, Harvard University Press, 1992.
An analysis of the spread of AIDS around the world, including the effects of the disease on different populations and the response to the pandemic in different geographical locations.
Pemberton, William E. Exit with Honor: The Life and Presidency of Ronald Reagan (The Right Wing in America), ME Sharpe, 1998.
A biography of Ronald Reagan, the iconic president of the 1980s. Describes the life of President Reagan and explores his presidency in detail, along with critiques of his political successes and failures.
Shilts, Randy. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, St. Martin’s, 1987.
An in-depth examination of the genesis and spread of the AIDS virus that views the disease from cultural, political, and popular perspectives. Shilts was a homosexual journalist and gay-rights activist who died of AIDS in 1994.
Stine, Gerald J. Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome: Biological, Medical, Social, and Legal Issues, Prentice Hall, 1998.
Informative look at the history and current state of the AIDS/HIV pandemic, including statistics, social reactions, economic costs, recent medical findings, and references.
Twist, Clint. 1980s (Take Ten Years), Raintree, 1993.
Examines the most important news events of the 1980s, including AIDS, the Cold War, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Vorlicky, Robert, editor. Tony Kushner in Conversation, University of Michigan Press, 1998.
A collection of accessible, entertaining, and extremely informative interviews and conversations with Kushner, documented by journalists, teachers, directors, and other playwrights. Also includes an afterword by Kushner, in which he wryly describes “the Intelligent Homosexual.”
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693000012