full title · Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes; Part One is entitled Millennium Approaches; Part Two is entitled Perestroika
author · Tony Kushner
type of work · Play, in two parts
genre · Political drama (preoccupied with themes of democracy, community and personal responsibility)
language · English (although some characters intermittently speak in French)
time and place written · Begun in 1989; Part One was first presented in workshop form in 1990 and had its world premiere in 1991, while Part Two was workshopped in 1991 and premiered in 1992, though Kushner continued to tinker with both scripts; written primarily in New York City
date of first publication · 1992
publisher · Theatre Communications Group
narrator · None
climax · The main climaxes come late in Perestroika, with Louis’s confrontation of Joe in Act Four and Belize and Louis’s recitation of the Kaddish for Roy in Act Five. Other, lesser climaxes include Joe and Louis’s abandonment of their lovers in Act Two, Scene Nine of Millennium; the Angel’s first appearance at the end of Part One; and Prior’s visit to Heaven and his rejection of his prophecy at the end of Part Two.
protagonist · Four main characters can be considered the protagonists: Louis and Joe, who abandon their partners and then repent, and Prior and Harper, who are abandoned and learn to assert themselves
antagonist · Most importantly, Roy Cohn and the Angel; more generally, homophobia and intolerance, lack of community, and the ravages of AIDS
setting (time) · October 1985 to February 1986, with an epilogue in February 1990
setting (place) · Mostly New York City, with a few scenes in Salt Lake City, Moscow and an airliner flying to San Francisco, along with others in Heaven, Hell, dream sequences and places imagined by the characters
point of view · The play focuses equally on all the main characters (Joe, Harper, Louis, Prior, Roy), giving us access to their thoughts in the form of lengthy speeches to others and sometimes monologues; some scenes focus on other characters who seem unrelated to the plot (e.g. Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov)
falling action · Prior returns from Heaven to his hospital room, where his friends are asleep; Louis asks Prior if he can come back to him, but Prior says no; Harper leaves Joe forever, and boards a flight to San Francisco; Louis, Prior, Belize and Hannah reconvene at the Bethesda Fountain four years later, as Prior defiantly proclaims his desire to keep living
Character List: Louis Ironson
A “word processor” who works at the federal appeals court in Brooklyn. Louis embodies all the stereotypes of the neurotic Jew: anxious, ambivalent and perpetually guilty. Yet that guilt does not prevent him from leaving his lover Prior when he contracts AIDS. Louis’s moral journey, from callous abandonment to genuine repentance and sorrow, is one of the key maturations in the play; his awakening of responsibility parallels the awakening that the play seeks to awaken in its audiences. Louis’s idealistic faith in American democracy, while often naive or self-absorbed, is similar to the faith Kushner himself manifests, so much so that some critics call Louis a stand-in for the playwright.
Character List: Prior Walter
The boyfriend Louis abandons after Prior reveals that he has AIDS. Prior becomes a prophet when he is visited by an Angel of God, but he eventually rejects his prophecy and demands a blessing of additional life. The Angel is drawn to Prior because of his illness, which inscribes a kind of ending in his bloodstream, and because of his ancient Anglo-Saxon lineage, representing the notion of being rooted and stable. But he proves wiser than the Angels in rejecting their doctrine of stasis in favor of the painful necessity of movement and migration. Prior is as genuinely decent and moral as Louis is flawed. His AIDS infection renders him weak and victimized, but he manages to transcend that mere victimhood, surviving and becoming the center of a new, utopian community at the play’s end.
Character List: Joe Pitt
A Mormon, Republican lawyer at the appeals court, Joe grapples with his latent homosexuality, leaving his wife Harper for Louis and being left in turn by Louis. Louis is at first drawn to Joe’s ideology but ultimately turns on him because he is a conservative and an intimate of the hated Roy Cohn. His initial naiveté is challenged by Roy’s unethical behavior and his painful love affair. Joe’s path in the play (from self-sufficient and strong to helpless and dependent) is in some ways the opposite of Prior’s trajectory. The play finally seems to abandon Joe, excluding him from its vision of the good society because of his ideology—an omission that comes off as uncharacteristically narrow and intolerant.
Character List: Harper Pitt
Joe’s wife, a Valium-addicted agoraphobe trapped in a failing marriage who hallucinates and invents imaginary characters to escape her troubles. The perpetually fearful Harper obsesses about knife-wielding men and the ozone layer as a subconscious stand-in for her own difficulties. But through an inexplicable dream encounter with Prior, she learns that her husband is gay and begins to take control of her own destiny. Of all the major characters, Harper ends the play the farthest from where she began: as an independent, confident woman newly in love with life and setting off to build her own life in San Francisco.
Character List: Roy Cohn
A famous New York lawyer and powerbroker, Roy Cohn was a real-life figure whom Kushner adapted for his play. Roy is the play’s most vicious and disturbing character, a closeted homosexual who disavows other gays and cares only about amassing clout. His lack of ethics led him to illegally intervene in the espionage trial of Ethel Rosenberg, which resulted in her execution. Roy represents the opposite of community, the selfishness and loneliness all too endemic to American life. However, his malevolence goes beyond mere isolation to actual hatred and evil. He is forgiven (though not exonerated) in the play’s moral climax, after his death (from AIDS) unwittingly reconnects him to the gay community from which he always distanced himself.
Character List: Belize
A black ex-drag queen and registered nurse, Belize is Prior’s best friend and—quite against Belize’s will—Roy’s caretaker. He is the most ethical and reasonable character in the play, generously looking out for Prior, grappling with Roy and rebutting Louis’s blindly self-centered politics. At times Belize feels less like an individual than a symbol of marginalized groups, particularly since most of his history and personal life are hidden from the audience. But despite these omissions he remains complex—full of hatred for Roy, yet possessing sufficient character and morality to forgive him.
Character List: Hannah Pitt –
Joe’s mother, who moves from Salt Lake City to New York after Joe confesses he is gay in a late-night phone call. Hannah tends sternly to Harper but blossoms after she encounters Prior, becoming his companion and friend. Her chilly demeanor is melted by Prior and by a remarkable sexual encounter with the Angel.
Character List: The Angel of America
An imposing, terrifying, divine presence who descends from Heaven to bestow prophecy on Prior. The Angel seeks a prophet to overturn the migratory impulse of human beings, believing that their constant motion and change have driven God to abandon creation. Her cosmology is disturbingly reactionary, even deadly, and Prior successfully resists it in a visit to Heaven. This reactionary nature is rather surprisingly blended with a dramatic, Whitman-esque speaking style and an overpowering, multigendered sexuality.
Character List: Ethel Rosenberg
A real-life Jewish woman who was executed for treason during the McCarthy era. The Ethel of the play returns as a ghost to take satisfaction in the death of her persecutor, Roy. Ethel hates Roy with a “needlesharp” passion, yet on his deathbed she musters enough compassion to sing to him. Her recitation of the Kaddish with Louis indicates her forgiveness.
Character List: Rabbi Isador Chemelwitz
An elderly rabbi who delivers the eulogy at the funeral of Sarah Ironson, Rabbi Chemelwitz describes the conservative process by which Jewish immigrants resisted assimilation. Louis seeks spiritual guidance from him, and Prior later encounters him in Heaven on his way to confront the Angels.
Character List: Mr. Lies
A travel agent who resembles a jazz musician, Mr. Lies is one of Harper’s imaginary creations. She summons him whenever she wants to escape from her present surroundings, though Mr. Lies cautions her that there is a limit to her ability to flee from reality.
Character List: Henry
Roy’s doctor, whom Roy threatens with destruction lest he refer to him as a homosexual. Henry recognizes the folly of Roy’s self-delusion but ultimately gives in to it, agreeing to set down his official condition as liver
Character List: Emily
A nurse who attends to Prior in the hospital. Emily is one of several characters who give voice to the same anti-migratory impulse as the Angel, she tells Prior in no uncertain terms to stay put.
Character List: Martin Heller
A Justice Department official and political ally of Roy’s. Martin is fundamentally spineless, allowing Roy to manipulate him in order to impress Joe and then taking the abuse that Roy heaps on him along with a blackmail threat.
Character List: Prior I and Prior II
Prior’s ancestors who are summoned from the dead to help prepare the way for the Angel’s arrival. Prior I is a medieval farmer, Prior II a seventeenth- century Londoner who is more sophisticated and cosmopolitan in outlook. Both men died of the plague.
Character List: Sister Ella Chapter
A real estate agent who handles the sale of Hannah’s house in Salt Lake. Like Emily, she urges her friend to settle down and remain at home.
Character List: Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov
The World’s Oldest Living Bolshevik, who delivers the tirade that marks the beginning of Perestroika. Prelapsarianov criticizes the pettiness of modern American life, the pointless quality of life in the absence of a governing theory.
Character List: The Mormon Mother
A dummy from the diorama at the Mormon Visitor’s Center who is silenced while her husband and son speak. The Mormon mother comes to life, however, and accompanies Harper while sharing painful truths about life and change.
Character List: Sarah Ironson
Louis’s grandmother, Sarah’s funeral takes place in the first scene of Millennium. Prior encounters her in Heaven, playing cards with Rabbi Chemelwitz.
Angels in America focuses on the stories of two troubled couples, one gay, one straight: “word processor” Louis Ironson and his lover Prior Walter, and Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt and his wife Harper. After the funeral of Louis’s grandmother, Prior tells him that he has contracted AIDS, and Louis panics. He tries to care for Prior but soon realizes he cannot stand the strain and fear. Meanwhile, Joe is offered a job in the Justice Department by Roy Cohn, his right-wing, bigoted mentor and friend. But Harper, who is addicted to Valium and suffers anxiety and hallucinations, does not want to move to Washington.
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The two couples’ fates quickly become intertwined: Joe stumbles upon Louis crying in the bathroom of the courthouse where he works, and they strike up an unlikely friendship based in part on Louis’s suspicion that Joe is gay. Harper and Prior also meet, in a fantastical mutual dream sequence in which Prior, operating on the “threshold of revelation,” reveals to Harper that her husband is a closeted homosexual. Harper confronts Joe, who denies it but says he has struggled inwardly with the issue. Roy receives a different kind of surprise: At an appointment with his doctor Henry, he learns that he too has been diagnosed with AIDS. But Roy, who considers gay men weak and ineffectual, thunders that he has nothing in common with them—AIDS is a disease of homosexuals, whereas he has “liver cancer.” Henry, disgusted, urges him to use his clout to obtain an experimental AIDS drug.
Prior’s illness and Harper’s terrors both grow worse. Louis strays from Prior’s bedside to seek anonymous sex in Central Park at night. Fortunately, Prior has a more reliable caretaker in Belize, an ex-drag queen and dear friend. Prior confesses to Belize that he has been hearing a wonderful and mysterious voice; Belize is skeptical, but once he leaves we hear the voice speak to Prior, telling him she is a messenger who will soon arrive for him. As the days pass, Louis and Joe grow closer and the sexual tinge in their banter grows more and more obvious. Finally, Joe drunkenly telephones his mother Hannah in Salt Lake City to tell her that he is a homosexual, but Hannah tells him he is being ridiculous. Nonetheless, she makes plans to sell her house and come to New York to put things right. In a tense and climactic scene, Joe tells Harper about his feelings, and she screams at him to leave, while simultaneously Louis tells Prior he is moving out.
The disconsolate Prior is awakened one night by the ghosts of two ancestors who tell him they have come to prepare the way for the unseen messenger. Tormented by such supernatural appearances and by his anguish over Louis, Prior becomes increasingly desperate. Joe, equally distraught in his own way, tells Roy he cannot accept his offer; Roy explodes at him and calls him a “sissy.” He then tells Joe about his greatest achievement, illegally intervening in the espionage trial of Ethel Rosenberg in the 1950s and guaranteeing her execution. Joe is shocked by Roy’s lack of ethics. When Joe leaves, the ghost of Ethel herself appears, having come to witness Roy’s last days on earth. In the climax of Part One, Joe follows Louis to the park, then accompanies him home for sex, while Prior’s prophetic visions culminate in the appearance of an imposing and beautiful Angel who crashes through the roof of his apartment and proclaims, “The Great Work begins.”
In Part Two, Harper indulges in the fantasy that she is in Antarctica with her imaginary companion Mr. Lies. But Antarctica turns out to be Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and she is picked up by the police. With Joe nowhere to be found, Hannah comes to her rescue, tending to her in the depths of depression. She finally insists that Harper join her at the Mormon Visitor’s Center, where she has begun to volunteer. Meanwhile, the increasingly sick Roy checks in to the hospital where Belize works as a nurse. Roy insults him with cutting, racist remarks, but Belize, angry but filled with involuntary respect, gives him valuable advice on his treatment. Their relationship is always bitter but heated and icy by turns. Belize, however, demonstrates his considerable compassion for Prior, who tells him the full story of the Angel’s visit. After her dramatic arrival, she gives Prior a prophetic book and explains that she seeks his help to halt the migratory tendency of human beings, which the Angels in Heaven believe tempted God to abandon them. God, she explains, left Heaven forever on the day of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, and since then his Angels—whose vast powers are fueled by constant sexual activity—have been rudderless and alone. To reverse the trend, the Angel says humans must end their constant motion, their addiction to change. Not surprisingly, Prior is aghast at her words and vows to flee from her at all costs.
Roy learns that his political opponents plan to disbar him for an ethical lapse, but he vows to remain a lawyer until he dies. In a friendly rapprochement, he gives Joe his blessing, until Joe reveals that he has left Harper for a man—he has been living for a blissful month with Louis. Stunned and angry, he demands that Joe end his gay relationship at once. Ethel comes to observe him in his misery. Joe’s wife, on the other hand, spends her days at the Mormon Visitor’s Center watching a diorama of the Mormon migration featuring a father dummy who looks suspiciously like Joe. When Prior drops in to conduct research on angels, a fantasy sequence ensues in which Louis and Joe appear in the diorama. The formerly silent Mormon mother comes to life and leaves with Harper, giving her painful but valuable advice on loss and change.
Louis and Joe’s idyll draws to an end when Louis says he wants to see Prior again. At their meeting, Prior coldly insists that he must present visible proof of his internal bruises. Belize later tells Louis about Joe’s relationship with Roy, whose politics and personal history Louis despises. When Louis angrily confronts Joe, their fight turns physical and Joe punches him. He apologizes, horrified, but they never speak again. Roy nears his end as well, reeling from Joe’s disclosure and from Ethel’s news that he has been disbarred. He dies, but not before tricking Ethel into tenderly singing for him. After his death, Belize summons Louis to recite the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, to demonstrate thanks (for his stash of AIDS drugs) and forgiveness. Ethel leads Louis in the prayer, the play’s emotional and moral climax.
After Prior suffers an episode at the visitor’s center, Hannah takes him to the hospital. There, the Angel descends, and Prior wrestles her. He succeeds, and is granted entry into Heaven to refuse his prophecy. In Heaven, which resembles San Francisco after the great earthquake, Prior tells the Angels that despite all his suffering he wants them to bless him and give him more life. The Angels sympathize but say they cannot halt the plague. He tells them should God return, they should sue Him for abandonment. Back on earth, his fever broken, Prior tells Louis he loves him but that he cannot ever come back. Harper leaves Joe for the last time and sets off on an optimistic voyage to San Francisco to begin her own life.
In 1990, four years later, Louis, Prior, Belize and Hannah appear in a moving epilogue. Prior says that the disease has killed many but that he intends to live on, and that the “Great Work” will continue.
Discussing his play, Tony Kushner has said, “The question I am trying to ask is how broad is a community’s embrace. How wide does it reach?” “Community” refers both to personal bonds between individuals and the political bonds we might call democratic citizenship. In simplified form, the plot of Angels in America focuses on the fact that both kinds of community are destroyed and then recreated. In Millennium, relationships end, Roy stretches and contorts the law, the characters slide further into isolation and loneliness. All this wreckage is symbolized by the physical destruction caused by the Angel’s appearance at the end of Part One. But Perestroika reconstitutes community in new and unlikely ways, forging bonds between seemingly unconnected characters (Hannah and Prior, Prior and Harper) and repudiating those, like Joe, who see law as unconnected to morality. Louis’s optimism for democracy is naive but not invalid—democratic community is even able to withstand the crisis of AIDS. Even Roy, the play’s most difficult character, is not abandoned to the wilds of isolation: his death unwittingly links him to communities he had abandoned—gays and lesbians, people with AIDS, Jews—and he is reclaimed, albeit with difficulty, by those with whom he had tried to sever all connections.
Major Themes: Identity: ethnicity, race, homosexuality
The theme of identity is closely tied to the play’s notion of community, since identity groups are one of the types of connection around which communities form. Although we are accustomed to thinking of white people as lacking an identity, in this play all the characters are marked by ethnicity: WASP, Jewish, Mormon, as well as black; in addition, the male characters are defined by their homosexuality. Even AIDS infection serves as an identity type, written into the skin as visibly as race.
Identity can certainly have a divisive power: Louis’s callousness about race and his suspicion that Belize is anti-Semitic drive a wedge between them, while Prior’s AIDS infection is too great a barrier for Louis to overcome. Nor is Kushner sentimental about the ability of identity to connect people automatically, since characters like Roy do their best to deny their membership in oppressed groups (though that denial is erased by his death). But one lesson of Angels is that identity need not be discarded for communities to form—the melting pot need not melt. Despite Prior’s misgivings, for instance, Hannah accepts him as a gay man even though she is a Mormon. In the epilogue, the characters are not required to paper over their differences. Quite the contrary: those differences serve as a kind of glue that welds them together. They are diverse yet mutually dependent.
Major Themes: Stasis versus change
From the first scene of the play, the opposition between stasis and change is Kushner’s favorite theme. In a world filled with despair, the desire to halt change—to preserve the past and ignore or suppress the future—is a natural reaction. This anti-migratory impulse is voiced by Rabbi Chemelwitz, Emily the nurse and Sister Ella Chapter, and most spectacularly by the Angels, who order Prior to make humanity stop its ceaseless motion. The Angel chooses Prior as her prophet because of the ancient, rooted history of his family and because (as Belize detects) he secretly shares their reaction. But as events make abundantly clear, that desire is literally reactionary—destructive, and at odds with the progressive values of the play. Migration, which brought Prior’s family to America as well as Belize’s slave ancestors and Louis’s immigrant ones, and which carried the Mormons across the continent to Utah, is an inevitable and inerasable human drive. More broadly speaking, Kushner implies that our democracy and our national politics must resist this reactive impulse. Rather than seeking a haven in an idealized 1950s past, America needs to embrace even those changes that frighten some people—especially the growth of a politically active and culturally accepted gay and lesbian minority.
In addition to its overarching story about angels, God and Heaven, Angels in America is studded with specific references to the Bible. Louis asks Rabbi Chemelwitz what the Scriptures say about someone who abandons a loved one; Joe tells the story of Jacob wrestling the Angel; Louis compares a wound on his forehead to the Mark of Cain; Roy mentions the story of Isaac and Jacob and the Book of Isaiah. Partly, these references help establish a sacred atmosphere—by linking modern America to the world of the Bible, they help convince us that prophecy is indeed feasible in secular times. The skeptical audience member is like Prior listening to Hannah describe the appearance of an angel to Joseph Smith: disbelieving but gradually convincible. Moreover, the Biblical allusions foreshadow the real events of the play, so that Joe’s description of Jacob’s encounter with the angel lays the groundwork for Prior’s—like Jacob, he wrestles the Angel into submission and discovers a ladder leading to Heaven. In another instance, Roy tells Joe that unlike Isaac, he gives his blessing freely—but the comparison proves more apt a moment later when Joe reveals he is living with a man, and Roy feels the pang of a father at what he perceives as the missteps of a wayward son.
In as opinionated a profession as writing, Tony Kushner stands out for the vehemence with which he voices his politics and the directness with which he incorporates them into his work. One early play, A Bright Room Called Day, stirred controversy with its direct comparisons between the Ronald Reagan and the Nazi Party. Although it is always dangerous to equate a writer with the opinions expressed in his or her works, in the case of Angels the play’s (if not Kushner’s) political platform is unmistakable. The most villainous characters are conservative Republicans, the heroes tolerant and left-wing; and throughout figures like Reagan, George Bush and Newt Gingrich are subjected to continuous rhetorical assault, only incompletely parried by Joe—who is himself discredited near the play’s end. The intention of these political interjections does not seem to be the advocacy of a particular party or candidate, or even broader ideological persuasion—merely promoting Democrats over Republicans would be far too parochial an aim for a work of literature, and besides, it is safe to assume that most of the play’s audiences shared Kushner’s point of view. The larger purpose is to exhort well-meaning liberals like Louis to shed their blinders and work more fervently for political change. Beyond exhortation, though, the politics of Angels remain inseparable from its morality, philosophy and vision of community.
Religion, especially Mormonism and Judaism
In some ways, the two religions that recur again and again in Angels seem irreconcilably different—Jews and Mormons, after all, are rarely linked in the popular imagination or indeed in real life. Jews tend to be leftist urbanites, while Mormons are concentrated in the conservative precincts of Utah; Judaism is one of the world’s oldest religions while Mormonism is even younger than the United States. Louis’s shock at encountering a Mormon in New York and his unconcealed derision for the church—he calls it a “cult”—reflect this apparent incongruity. But the play symbolically joins Mormons and Jews with one another and with America itself. Both religions are separated from the wider society by their own inward focus as well as by prejudice and lack of understanding. That prejudice compelled both peoples to make epic migrations, which Rabbi Chemelwitz calls the world’s Great Voyages. And both faiths make moral demands on their adherents, legitimate and illegitimate. The religious commandment to loyalty overshadows both Louis and Joe after they leave their partners, and their beliefs add to their feelings of guilt. More problematically, the two religions traditionally frown on homosexuality, adding to the characters’ lack of self-esteem.
The play values Mormonism and Judaism for their cultural connotations, the way in which they are separate from the mainstream yet entirely and distinctively American. At their best, they are both caring and valuable communities. But their particular religious doctrines are rarely invoked or examined, except as literary allusions. For all the visibility of religion, this is not a particularly religious play—the secular faith of democracy and civic idealism is ultimately what binds the characters together in the utopian epilogue.
The city of San Francisco symbolizes both the failed society that the Angels try to perpetuate as well as the promise of an ideal, gay-inflected community that the play’s ending promises. Heaven resembles San Francisco after the huge earthquake of 1906, the day on which God abandoned his people forever. His departure is as devastating to the Angels as the quake was to the city. But while Heaven remains in a state of permanent rubble and decay, the real San Francisco was almost immediately rebuilt, becoming, as Prior tells Harper, a place of “unspeakable” beauty. The San Francisco metaphor thus contrasts the untenable stasis of the Angels with the ceaseless energy and determination of human beings. The city also represents the longed-for ideal society the characters attempt to build in the epilogue. Westward migration has always represented hope in America, but earlier migrations like that of the Mormons only replicated the emptiness and isolation they sought to leave behind. Now, in the last scene, Harper is migrating even farther west, as far west as she can go in America, to a place famous for its tolerance, loveliness, and left-wing politics, a city that is not coincidentally America’s gay capital. The gathering on the rim of the Bethesda Fountain could have easily been staged in San Francisco’s Castro District—both locations represent voluntary community, inclusion, civic participation, and personal promise.