Angels in America
The Supernatural in Kushner’s Play Angels In America
The supernatural is defined as manifestations or events that are beyond scientific understanding and that cannot be explained by man. Some examples of supernatural beings are ghosts, gods, angels, visions, and auras. They can also be figments of people’s imagination due to an extreme amount of trauma or stress. This can be seen quite clearly in the Aids epidemic in the 1990s. According to http://treatmentactiongroup.org/, in 1994 up to 60 percent of gay men had reported losses of loved ones or other important people in life annually. By 1998 gay males had, on average, lost six lovers, friends, and/or family members. A Lot of these men have gone through mental health issues, such as PTSD, general anxiety and depression.
In the play Angels In America, many of the characters described are experiencing trauma, since they are seeing hallucinations and are in different situations that are not happening in real life. Some of these characters have interactions with spirits that reflect different aspects of their fears, or what they would like to do. The two main characters that experience supernatural occurrences in the play are Roy, and Prior. Other characters experience this as well, but it does not relate to the topic of AIDS. These spirits cause the characters they are affecting with sadness, guilt, and may even torment them from time to time. Mostly, however, they are there to reveal truths of death and send messages to inform them that big changes are occurring and that they should be ready for whatever hits them. This provides a small amount of comfort due to the fact that both Roy and Prior have AIDS.
The aspects of the supernatural in Kushner’s play speak more towards the extensive, rough, and traumatic instances that the characters in this play have witnessed or been victim to, as well as people who have lived and experienced the AIDS epidemic that occurred in the 1980s. Many of these men have developed trauma, and have participated in drug use, self-mutilation, violent behaviors, and suicide during this difficult time. In Angels in America, we can also see these symptoms of trauma on the characters who loved or have loved people who currently have this illness, also with the few characters that we know have contracted this disease and are quite ill.
For example, Prior, who is one of the characters who experience most of the supernatural activity in the play and, one of the characters who also has AIDS. Many instances and confrontation occurred during the period of the first play after Prior was diagnosed by AIDS. As prior is being treated for his illness, he is visited by two spirits Prior #1 and Prior #2, who claim that they are Priors ancestors, are spirits that reveal to us that Prior, who is the main protagonist of the play is afraid to die, and is even more afraid to die alone. They are giving Prior a lot of honesty saying that he might die, and possibly die alone. He then sees an angel stating that he is a prophet and has a destiny awaiting him. We then move to a lot of betrayals. First off, with Louis breaking up with Prior because he was afraid that he might catch the disease, to his body which is slowly shutting down, to his mind, which appears to be deteriorating slowly. He struggles to hold on to sanity, and we see that at some points, we almost see him lose this last bit of reality he has. </p><p>In the play, Prior #1 and Prior #2 both stated that they have passed away, due to disease, which seems to give Prior some comfort that he is not alone in the situation anymore. These spirits are also someone for him to talk to since he feels quite lonely. In the play, Prior asks the two spirits after recovering from a severe reaction from his illness, “Am I going to die?” (Kushner 2014, 3. 1. 91-92). Prior #2 responds by saying “When you do, you do not get ancestors to help you through it. You may be surrounded by children, but you die alone.” (Kushner 2014, 3.1. 92). Prior responds to Prior #2 with the statement, “I’m afraid.”(Kushner 2014, 3. 1. 92). These spirits not only tell him the truth and are honest, but they help alleviate these concerns by saying that there is good news for him ahead and something big is going to happen which will benefit him and give him some hope for the near future. This shows the reader that the ghost/ hallucination is hinting or explaining to Prior that the end of life is inevitable, and that this may be Priors thoughts and emotions of what he is currently experiencing or thinking about what might happen to him, in one big hallucination. It could also indicate that something much bigger is going to take place and that these figments of his imagination might be giving him the hope that he really does need.
The spirits reveal some of the regrets or poor decisions that some of the characters have gone through in the past and have guilt towards, as well as showing them that they need to end their life in a more positive way. An example of this is the main character of the play, Roy Cohn, and the spirit that pays him a visit, Ethel Rosenberg. Roy had played a prominent role in the trials and he had originally addressed the Rosenberg’s for execution due to their supposed treason of their country by spying on the Soviet Union and failed to commit to this. In Angels In America, Roy just finishes his altercation with Joe and doubles over in pain, since he was hiding that he was ill from Joe throughout the whole conversation. The ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, an American citizen who spied with others on the Soviet Union and eventually got caught, arrested and executed for this crime, comes in, and a long conversation occurs with Ethel telling Ron that he got what he deserved for doing what he did to her. She indicated that he could possibly do better and Ron basically saying that he is not afraid of her and that she can basically “fuck off”. When his abdominal pain becomes too much to bear, Ethel calls 911 and Roy Reluctantly takes her help and his demeanor changes from angry, to a more calm and collected version of himself. This may be because, since Roy found out he was sick earlier on in the play, he may be reflecting on what he did with his life, and possibly felt guilty for some of the things he had done, especially with Ethel, causing him to feel some sort of guilt towards his actions causing him to hallucinate or see someone that he had done wrong too. This is the first hallucination Roy sees in the play and this is quite a significant one due to the fact that he sentenced the spirit to execution in the past and now his time is growing nearer since he now has Aids. Ethel mentions that millennium is approaching and that history is about to crack, signifying that something quite big is going to happen to Roy, or the world, signifying that Roy states he is immortal and has forced his way into history, meaning that he is never going to die. This may become unclear since the millennium of the 2000s is slowly arriving since this story takes place in the 1990s.
In conclusion, the supernatural in Kushner’s play is a big piece of the characters emotions and trauma from having AIDS, helping them get back on their feet and move forward in a more positive way. The supernatural represent their emotions and thoughts that the individual is experiencing and they give the realization of what they may have done, right or wrong, in the past. The supernatural creatures are a result of trauma, most likely not real and are instead hallucinations from the character’s minds. Though this may be true, they played a big part in Prior and Roy’s role similarly but differently, by giving them confidence, support, and in some cases, a chance to make things better. These two characters, Roy and Prior, are the only ones that experience AIDS-related supernatural visions. Even though they were not too fond of them when they first met, these entities actually helped the two characters see who they were for who they really are. These were the characters that we’re dealing with the most amount of stress and trauma from the AIDS epidemic, which caused their behaviors and emotions to become more overwhelming for them. these entities although they may not be real, gave them the comfort that they needed to become stronger and more confident giving and gave them a sense of hope, and a better understanding of who they really are on the inside and the outside.
Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: The Consequences Of Following Ideals
There are various factors working together to encourage people to change. Tony Kushner describes a character’s behaviour that underlies the consequences of homosexuality and religion. Angels In America: a Gay Fantasia on National Themes is a two-part play that holds a strong focus on values and morals that inspire change. Kushner discusses aspects of religious and personal values and whether they have a certain significance or lead to difficulties. This essay discusses the potential standard of questionable values proposed in the play by Joe Pitt and Roy Cohn.
Kushner implies that for those who obey religious ideals, the standards act as guidelines. He brings this point across with Joe. A Mormon who used religious standards to fight against the ‘wrong or ugly’ (Kushner 40) and adjusted his behavior to seem ‘decent’ and “Correct” (Kushner 41) Further on, Joe also speaks about a photograph in which ‘Jacob wrestles with the angel’ (Kushner 51) Kushner discusses this to indicate that Jacob is Joe’s projection. Fighting the flesh that does not adhere to his religious ideals. Joe goes on to say that “losing means your soul is thrown down in the dust, your heart torn out from God’s” (Kushner 52) which means that losing or, in other words, being tempted goes against one’s ideals.
Kushner argues that while religious values help guide people the right way to live happier lives as a sort of road map. However, he suggests that those same individuals who live up to these religious standards of perfection are most susceptible to temptation and change, leading to them living miserable lives. Kushner illustrates this very closely with Joe who followed these exact ideals and although he is a respectable man he is not happy. “I graduated fourth in my class and I make less than anyone I know.” (Kushner 23) Joe who’s been working extremely hard and doing everything right to get where he’s now, but he’s not happy because he feels he’s missing a big part of his life.
Joe’s internal struggles over what is wrong on the inside is shown: “No matter how wrong or ugly that thing is, so long as I fought, with everything I have to kill it […] As long as my behaviour is what I know it has to be” (Kushner 40) Kushner’s specific word use suggests that he is battling the ‘wrong’ inside him, but only because of the religious ideals that dictate that he should do so. Joe seems to hide the fact that he’s a homosexual. When his wife Harper asks him, he responds; “what if I… No. I’m not. I don’t see what difference it makes” (Kushner 38) This is a persistent problem with his wife Harper. The struggle to suppress his sexuality reveals verbal conflicts with his wife and mother. Kushner is providing an example of how religious principles not only cause challenges in how a person lives, but also in the struggle and difficulty for others around the individual.
In addition, Kushner promotes consideration of highly desirable personal goals. He introduces this concept with Roy Cohn. Roy, who is a character in the play, but served in the Regan administration in the eighties was also a real person. Despite being extremely homophobic and working consciously under a homophobic administration.
Roy Cohn was a closeted homosexual and subsequently died of AIDS. Roy agrees with the view that politics is one of the driving factors that affected all aspects of religion and homosexuality. When explaining his intentions to Joe, Roy suggests that relying on himself alone is the great amount of power he has achieved: “Learn at least this: What you are capable of. Let nothing stand in your way” (Kushner 61) Roy advises getting rid of everything that holds him back is essential in order to achieve his goals of power, expressing that: “Life is full of horrors: nobody escapes, nobody: save yourself whatever pulls on you, whatever needs from you, threatens you. Don’t be afraid; people are so afraid; don’t be afraid..” (Kushner 61) Roy is both entirely accurate and off base. He’s correct in his interpretation of American life’s specific tragedies in the 1980s. Roy has gained wealth and power, but only to the detriment of certain elements of his identity. Roy is conscious that he is out of the spotlight after being diagnosed with AIDS and fell ill, and all his ‘colleagues’ have disappeared together with his real power. He’s courageous in his ability to deal with this. However, in his advice to Joe, he encourages intense selfishness. Roy believes that a person just needs to look out for himself and be alone rather than connected to others. This unreasonable at-all-cost attitude of individualism characterized much of the 1980s and is part of the overall decline of the social network, government security network, and community.
Kushner deliberately reveals Roy’s understanding of the world in the scene where Roy confronts his doctor. Roy explains that he has no interaction with other homosexual men as he sits on the right hand of the president and his wife. Values such as love, honour and trust are irrelevant from Roy’s perspective. All human relationships can be measured by granted favours. Roy believes that since he has a social position that grants him power, he can’t be called homosexual. “Now to someone who does not understand this, homosexual is what I am because I have sex with men. But really this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through city council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout.” (Kushner 46) This quotation shows how homosexuals are generally considered by American society. Homosexuals were not even regarded as human beings for the general population, they were considered nobodies or indicators of morally corrupt behavior. They were human beings who had no power or influence and are ignored or despised by those around them. Due to this indifference, hatred, and discrimination, Kushner acknowledges that homosexuals often have to live on the margins of society or choose to remain hidden, fearing how those around them would react. Roy doesn’t want any part of this and refuses to fully accept his identity.
Additionally, Roy displays a strong masculine character with “clout” (Kushner 46). He claims he’s a strong powerful man. The concept of how a male will behave with strength, confidence, and fearlessness. As a politician, Roy attempts to live up to the standard of what society thinks a strong man should be and how he should act. Roy refuses to admit that he has AIDS and is a homosexual when he is informed by his doctor’s description, Roy tells his doctor, “You think these are names that tell you who someone sleeps with, but they don’t tell you that.” (Kushner 46) He argues that his identity is not homosexual due to their lack of ‘clout”. (Kushner 46)
Roy, similarly to Joe attempted to live up to society’s standards, Joe followed a deeply religious path while Roy remained on the track of being a hard-headed and courageous man. Roy dies in his final scenes, bringing to his death bed his lack of humanity. Belize explains “[Roy] was a terrible person. He died a hard death. So maybe… A queen can forgive her vanquished foe. It isn’t easy, it doesn’t count if it’s easy, it’s the hardest thing. Forgiveness.” (Kushner 265) . Roy sought the American dream of wealth and power, consequently, he was exposed to temptation and corruption. Roy dies understanding, although he has achieved all his personal goals of power, he has led an unconditionally miserable life.
In both cases, Kushner writes about the flawed homosexual character, while establishing a correlation between religious and personal interests and articulating to the audience that the suffering that follows is not worth living up to the values of society.
- Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: a Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Nick Hern Books Limited, 2017.
Angels in America as a Projection of American Society
In my theater class, I read ‘Angels In America,’ and I was able to watch it on Youtube and HBO GO on my own time, alongside with a lot of the analysis videos for this play. This play uses a multi-line narrative approach to deeply describe the lives of gay men with HIV / AIDS and their loved ones in the 1980s. There are both entirely fictional characters and ‘devils’ created based on real characters. Several major characters have quite the opposite personality. The destiny of many characters is intertwined by their relationships, emotions, orientation, and disease, forming a web network. At the same time, each character is highly representative. Their communication usually not only carries the function of advancing the plot, but also represents the issues of different races, political ideas, and religious beliefs. It is a projection of America’s society in my point of view.
In the play, I think the most interesting character was Prior Walter because he seems to appear to be a real psychic. Andrew Garfield (the actor for Prior Walter) made this character alive. I still recognize his movements on stage, and it was soft and firm during the scene when he was being ‘visited’ by the angels and the ghost. Walter approached himself to the audience as a lonely and scared boy but also showed us that tiny bit of hope that he still held for Louis Ironson. Even during the scene where Walter told Louis how big of a disappointment he had, It just seems like a normal girl in a relationship that is getting mad, seeking for comforts.
Also, Roy Cohn, I think, is the most straightforward but most thought-provoking character in the whole play. He was an adaptation of a real person: he is a lawyer and a determined conservative; he tries to manipulate politics in the play. He tried to replace the district court clerk Joe Pete (Russell Tovey). He hated black people and hated the Communist Party. In the 1960s, when McCarthyism prevailed, he concocted the trial of Communists and handed the Rosenberger’s to an electric chair. But it is incredible that he was also gay and died of AIDS.
Even until the moment before his death, Roy Cohn was still teasing Mrs. Rosenberg’s ghost. He asked her to sing for him, thinking to achieve a different kind of ‘victory.’ However, I think he died due to the political and ideological paradoxes, becoming the only sacrifice that human beings offered to “God” in the play. Since Roy Cohn is a right-winger, we can also think of him as a virus that ruins everything. Because of his conflicts with serval characters representing the typical groups in American society and also the issues that directly relate to the main characters.
I think this was the reason why the same actor played the mother, the doctor, the speaker, and Mrs. Rosenberg. It is to show the audiences how the issues are existing in different times and spaces. Therefore, ‘Angels in American’ is complicated, and this highlights the complexity of American cultures. Not only the characters are manifesting the complexity. It is also the fantastic scheduling by Marianne Elliott (director), who also won the Tony Award for Best Director for her work ‘War Horse.’ As a whole, the stage schedule of the play gradually transitions from a point to a plane, then from plane to depth. The mixing of two scenes symbolizes that the individual destiny goes from nothing to the intersection to the end of the interactions. For example, when Prior Walter and Louis, and Joe Pitt and his wife had to leave each other. The stage was Presenting a staggered state which seems to be summarizing the love tragedy in the society at that time.
I think Louis Ironson was most of the dramatic, showing his contradicted feelings to Walter. When he knew that Prior Walter got AIDS, he was afraid because he was afraid he would be infected. He panicked because he didn’t know how to take care of Prior Walter; because he got lost in mixed-up feelings. He couldn’t express himself thoroughly — simply telling Prior Walter that they couldn’t be together anymore and left. Seemingly rude, but he was tangled up. At this time, Louis was like an anxious child who was unsure about things. Although he chose to escape, his heart never did. He knows that he still loves Prior Walter. He has been tearing away from his real emotions and not being able to think other stuff. This is actually his painful psychological construction process. In the end, after he had questioned himself several times, he understood what he wanted, what he could take in mentally. If he could do anything, he finally returned to Pryor Walter.
About Louis Ironson, I can’t say much about it because I haven’t encountered any problems with my friends or family being gay or have AIDS. I can simply understand the play’s main point and its thinking in these areas, but I won’t feel the depth. What strikes us deep inside must be something we feel related to, something that we have experienced on our own. For example, we were also exposed to the situation of the acceptance of homosexuality and the awareness of AIDS in our society at this time but do our lovers have AIDS? I guess another common question for my age will be, Do you have a lover? Even though what happened on Louis Ironson reflects on our modern culture, we can’t say if he’s was doing the right things or the wrong things. We all have our own desire and everyone is selfish. There are a lot of things that were inherent in us by our living environment and our family situation, and it is difficult to surpass them. It should not be acceptable to take judge others with your own standards; therefore, it is also not reasonable for you to change yourself based on other people’s actions, but it’s always good to reflect on yourself.
Moreover, the angels on the stage were also a big part of the play. I don’t think that they are the ‘angels’ that we are familiar with in the bibles. They are the people that were abandoned by God, which shares similar fears and desires as human beings. I think that it symbolizes the people that were not contributing to the society at that time, people that bring sadness and depression to others to seduced their desire to survive. It is interesting to see the two parts of the play begin with American Jewish funerals and Soviet communist speeches. I think it is symbolizing the collapse of the two civilizations of the American-style society and the Soviet communist society due to the close of the Cold War. In the 1990s, when the disease was raging, and people’s hearts were upset, and Christianity’s prophecy was about to come. God was furious, and human beings are not able to rely on God anymore. What “Angels In America” explored was actually what humans should do as a community to self develop. Looking back from our history, we did a great job of transitioning from God to technologies, but is technology another trap? It is hard to tell, but it’s at least we all have a chance to be educated in a neutral way.
At the end of the play, Prior Walter understood that human beings must save themselves during the fight with angels. The ways to protect ourselves is to keep on advancing on technologies; human beings must find a new way of life in a world that God doesn’t exist. What we must do is to face the challenges of life positively and fearlessly. Seeing it from a recent point of view, we did a fantastic job without God, scientists have made so many smart devices for us and technologies are becoming part of our lives.(just like how God was part of almost everyone’s life) Nonetheless, at the end of the play, Prior said something really amazing ‘: I wish you,’ not ‘God bless you.’ Which I think is a head start for transformations from the old world into a new world. The Bethesda Fountain is a symbol of miracles and healing in the Bible also appeared in New York. The bronze statue of Bethesda in New York not only implies Prior Walter might be a surviving individual, but it also implies the new life and hopes that humanity will arrive in the new world.
Fast forward from Angel in America’s timeline in 1985; the United States has conducted several presidential elections. We finally have some controls over the theme of the play. Gay marriage is legal in the United States. It is moving forward, but some aspects seem to be coming back from the starting point. I think ‘Angels in America’ covers both Kushner’s retrospective and political issues, also the reflections from the playwright about his dissatisfaction with American society in recent years. I think the showcase of this play will encourage many other playwrights to discuss the problem with our society and slowly bringing up our other big problem in the United States, racial problems. However, with Donald Trump being our President, I have concerns about the hopes that this play gave us. Are gay men actually free in this country? What will Trump do next to our society? His speech about building a wall is inscribed inside my heart.
Accepting sexuality both by society and by one’s self in Kushner’s Play Angels in America
In today’s world, the topic of sexual orientation is a very sensitive one. Even though society has made huge strides towards accepting homosexuality, it still is a delicate topic to many people. When you are getting to know someone, your first questions probably would not be about the sexual orientation of the person. Tony Kushner, however, is not afraid to explore the topic of sexuality in his 1993 play, Angels in America. In the play, Joe and Roy each struggle with their sexual identities, and they both have a hard time accepting who they truly are.
Joe struggles with identity because he attempts to live as someone he is not sexually. For starters, Joe is a gay man in a heterosexual marriage with his wife, Harper. He tries to convince his wife that he is okay with it, but deep down he really isn’t. In scene nine of Act 9 in “Millennium Approaches,” Joe tells Harper, “I knew this when I married you. I’ve known this I guess for as long as I’ve known anything, but…I don’t know, I thought maybe that with enough effort and will I could change myself…but I can’t…” (83). Joe struggles with his sexual identity because he knows deep down he can never change who he is, but he still loves Harper dearly. After Harper, Joe moves on to a relationship with Louis, who just broke up with Prior because he contracted AIDS. With Louis, Joe finally feels like he has found someone who will truly understand him. Even with Louis, however, Joe still struggles with his identity throughout the play, as he tells Harper he loves her even though he would rather be with Louis. Joe is a very troubled character, and he is one of the main characters who struggles the most with identity.
Roy Cohn, Joe’s boss, is deeply smitten with his ego, which causes him to struggle with his true identity as well. Roy’s issue is that he cannot fully come to grips with the fact that he is homosexual, and he tries to hide the fact that he is. When he goes to visit his doctor in scene nine of Act 1 in “Millennium Approaches,” he is told that he has AIDS. Henry, his doctor, tells him this happened because he has slept with men and one of them gave him the disease. Roy, infuriated that Henry would propose such an accusation, tells Henry, “Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men…Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows” (51). Roy is angry because AIDS is forcing him to defend his identity. The last thing he wants to be known for is his homosexuality. He goes on to tell Henry, “Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man, Henry, who fucks around with other guys” (52). Not only does speaking in the third person make him sound egotistical, but referring to himself as a straight male who messes around with other guys just makes him sound foolish. You don’t “fuck around with other guys” and still refer to yourself as heterosexual. He is ashamed of his sexual orientation, obviously, and he tries to play it off to Henry as casual frolicking with men. Roy’s ego is off the charts, and this causes him to struggle with his true identity: a homosexual man.
Even though they are both homosexual, Roy does not approve of Joe’s sexuality. In scene one of Act 4 in “Perestroika,” Joe visits Roy in his hospital room where Joe reveals that he has been cheating on his wife with a man. Roy, disgusted, tells Joe, “I want you home. With your wife. Whatever else you got going, cut it dead…Do what I say. Or you will regret it. And don’t talk to me about it. Ever again” (219). Roy is completely against the idea of Joe being in a homosexual relationship, especially since he already has a wife. The interesting part about this scene is that when Joe tells Roy he left his wife, all Roy says is, “It happens” (217). But when Joe goes into detail and reveals that he left his wife for a man, Roy becomes outraged and doesn’t wish to ever speak about it again. Perhaps Joe’s homosexuality has made Roy feel even more embarrassed by his own. You can see a glimpse of Roy’s fatherly advice when he tells Joe he will regret it if he doesn’t go back to his wife. Roy does not want Joe to contract AIDS like he did, so he is telling him to go back to his wife and forget about his relationship with Louis. Both Joe and Roy have a hard time accepting their true identities as gay men, and even with each other, it is not welcome to openly speak about their shared sexual orientation.
In Angels in America, Joe and Roy struggle with their gay identity and cannot open up to one another about their sexual orientation. Joe lied to Harper throughout their marriage and faked being attracted to her. He just wanted to fit in, but he also claims to love her. Joe knows deep down of his homosexual nature, but he desperately wants a heterosexual relationship because of how homosexuality is looked down upon in the 1980s. Roy, on the other hand, truly struggles with identity, especially when he becomes aware the AIDS virus he contracted. Because of his stature in the justice system, Roy believes he is invincible and that it is okay to fool around with other guys. He doesn’t truly accept his nature as a gay man and instead becomes infuriated with the idea. In the play, he acts as a father figure to Joe by wanting to see him succeed. However, he cannot truly act as a father figure when Joe reveals to him that he has left Harper for Louis. Instead of defending Joe’s decision and telling him he’s glad he has truly accepted himself, he goes off on Joe and tells him he will never speak about the matter again. Roy wants nothing to do with homosexuality. He lies to himself to cover up his sexual identity, and he is quick to let Joe know how wrong homosexuality is. One of the major themes of the play is sexual identity and how it was very hard for people to accept their homosexuality in the 1980s.
Artwork or sketchy political statement: Lee Siegel’s criticism on the play Angels in America
Angels in America: Second-Rate Work or Masterpiece?
It’s nearly impossible to name an HIV/AIDS related work that hasn’t been met with unanimous praise by those outside the religious right wing. Lee Siegel’s review of Angels in America, however, takes a strong stance against both the play and its HBO production. While he raises many valid points throughout his article, the criticism presented is somewhat two-dimensional, ignoring the play’s artistic merits through contrarianism.
Siegel describes Angels in America as “a second-rate play written by a second-rate playwright who happens to be gay.” He argues that the play’s focus on AIDS “repels criticism.” While the first half of this statement is based purely on his own personal opinions, the latter half is somewhat grounded in truth. Exploitation of marginalized groups and real-life tragedies can be very lucrative, and Kushner himself has made quite the career off of this, as Siegel explains throughout the review. As a homosexual who lived during the AIDS pandemic, Kushner has a personal investment in this chapter of history that entitles him to write on the topic. But Siegel points out some of Kushner’s other works that exploit minorities in a trite manner. Kushner’s musical, Caroline, or Change as presented as an example. He argues that there’s “not a single black character in Caroline [sic] who is not a mammy, a pickaninny, a schvartze, or an entatiner with lots of rhythm.”
This critique of Caroline, or Change, illuminates one of the more problematic aspects of Angels in America. Because AIDS is featured so prominently throughout the play, one might overestimate how progressive it really is. Several characters in the play are written as stereotypes, and Belize is a perfect example of this. Belize is the play’s token black character who provides comic relief through sassy one-liners. He’s witty and fabulous, but that’s about all Kushner writes him to be. A supporting role in several of the play’s interwoven subplots, he has no subplot of his own. And for a play that explores national themes such as prejudice, it’s ironic that its only black character is among the shows least developed. Still, Belize is not the only character portrayed stereotypically. Hannah is devout Mormon, stereotypically portrayed as homophobic. But what gives her character depth is her ability to overcome this prejudice, when she takes Prior to the hospital and comforts him. Belize is never portrayed in a negative light. But he’s still a flat character, despite his prominence and flamboyance.
But what Siegel fails to recognize is how Angel’s in America is a well-crafted work, focusing primarily on its flaws. He describes the play as formulaic, and unoriginal. This is an unwarranted criticism, as Kushner’s play features a plot unique from the AIDS literature that preceded it. Prior to Angel’s in America, hardly any AIDS-related fiction existed. Writers such as Larry Kramer would sometimes write fictionalized accounts of true stories, but Kushner was among the first to produce something entirely new.
His views on the HBO production are even more negative. He argues that its director, Mike Nichols has made a desperate attempt to make his adaption relevant in 2003. He sees the digitally-inserted World Trade Center as a gimmick to keep the play topical, by drawing a parallel between Harper’s speech of apocalypse, and the apocalyptic day of September 11th, 2001. But the World Trade Center is a relevant image in 1980’s New York. It was clever for Nichols to feature this image, because it makes the film resonate even more with its 2003 audience. It doesn’t change Kushner’s plot at all. It’s used instead as a subtle nod, allowing the HBO mini-series to reference another national theme that would become prominent after the play’s events. And contrary to Siegel’s remark, the film was not “made long after 9/11.” It premiered only two years later.
Gretchen Minton and Ray Shultz argue that the play became even more relevant after the events of 9/11. In their article, “Angels in America: Adapting to a New Medium in a New Millennium,” they note how the “current political and aesthetic context in which the adaption has been created offers a significantly different Angels than both Kushner’s published play” and “earlier performance texts.” Parallels between Roy Cohn’s McCarthyism and a fear of terrorism after 9/11 can easily be drawn. In addition to this, their article mentions that “a fear of terrorism” could “potentially lead to a McCarthy-like hunting of suspected criminals,” making “the themes and philosophies of Angels seem relevant as ever.”
That’s the genius of Kushner’s play and Nichol’s adaption. They bring the AIDS crisis into the broader scheme of American history, proving its continued relevance as more than just a period piece. It may not be a perfect play, but it perfectly fulfills its role of exploring national themes.
Angels in America Play exposes faulty politics regarding AIDS and Homosexuality during the Reagan administration
Reaganomics in Angels in America
The Reagan era had a huge impact on American politics in the 1980’s (during the AIDs epidemic.) President Reagan shaped the political scene in his own image, adopting a conservative stance on many issues, especially homosexuality. To this day, many believe Reagan’s policies persist, with the ongoing debates of legalizing gay marriage. Tony Kushner’s modern play Angels in America examines the complexity of AIDs and homosexuality in the midst of the Reagan administration. Through the use of medical vocabulary and imagery Kushner prompts the reader to think about the political immune system in the United States as a negative influence on social freedom.
Reagan’s terms were often received with great optimism. During the Cold War, he hoped America would be seen as a beacon of light in the world. The United States was supposed to be the “good guy” in world politics. Often times Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire.” To Reagan, America’s role was that of a democratic superpower, directly contrasted with the Soviets. Therefore, its internal system had to be completely free of the “evil disease.”
The virological/immune diction in the play allowed the audience to draw connections to the American political body and actual illness. Throughout the play, words such as “disease” and “infection” were used often. Although there were many actual diseases and disorders in the play, the only times the words were used were in relation to homosexuality and AIDs. In a split scene between Prior and Harper, Prior said. “I don’t think there’s any uninfected part of me. My heart’s pumping polluted blood. I feel dirty” (Kushner.II.34.) Because of AIDS, Prior does not have any self-esteem, loses his human dignity, and feels guilty about his infected body. The reason he feels his whole body is infected is also because of his homosexuality. When he said that “my heart’s pumping polluted blood” he implies that the disease goes beyond AIDs and has something to do with his actual heart, which could mean his love interests. Even Prior, who is comfortable with his sexuality, is wired to link it with disease. This is resonant with Reaganite beliefs because it views homosexuality as an infection, ready to infiltrate American society.
AIDs is also a disease associated with homosexuals which is why Roy Cohn denied having it. Even after his doctor Henry told him he was infected because he was a homosexual, Roy claimed, “No Henry, no. AIDs is what homosexuals have. I have liver cancer” (I. 46.) As such a highly influential Republican in the midst of the Reagan-era, Roy must deny his own sexuality to avoid being seen as the virus. He believes homosexuals have no power and are on the same level of treacherous as communists and Jews. Roy Kohn is an important character because he is a living extension of the Reagan administration even though he himself is Jewish and gay. He is best portrayed as anti-Semitic when he brags about his involvement in Ethel Rosenberg’s execution. He referred to the judge ruling her case as a “timid yid Nebbish,” which is also derogatory for Jews. Even Roy, who seemed to be such a strong character was brainwashed by the Reagan administration into thinking homosexuals and Jews were invasive to the “American body politic.” The ghost of Ethel Rosenberg however, reminds him that he is “a very sick man” (III. 112.)
In the eyes of the law, (religious and social) homosexuality was seen as an offense and a result of being a sinner. Joe felt ashamed of his sexuality and often tried to repress it in order to live up to societal and religious standards. He and Roy were both major Republicans, which meant they were automatically anti-gay. Even though they were both gay, they saw homosexuality as being a disease that had to be eliminated if they wanted to remain in their line of work. Joe loved Harper because he felt she was the one who was sick, and that if he couldn’t save himself at least he could save her. But Kushner portrays Harper as being truly sick. She was a valium addict and often experienced hallucinations. Addiction and mental illness are actual diseases. Perhaps this juxtaposition was to show the reader the difference between an actual disease and the one Reaganomics wanted everyone to believe was a disease.
Moreover, Roy Cohn’s character prompts the audience to think about the relationship between law and individual freedom. Cohn spends his whole life thinking he has the freedom to do as he pleases. He brags about how he can have the President’s wife on the other end of the line with the press of a button. Of course, his power comes from his position as a popular lawyer who was present in many famous cases such as the Rosenberg trials. He says he fears no one but at the end of the day he hides in the closet. He is not free to accept his sexuality and actually denies it constantly. He is perhaps the character most closely associated with Reaganomics and he seems to lack the most morale. His character seems to lack empathy and sincerity because he always has to play up to his façade. This, Kushner prompts, is not freedom. He is socially shackled and also attempts to infect Joe by feeding him his ideas.
Roy Cohn was also known famous for his influence in the second Red Scare during Senator Joseph McCarthy’s investigation into the Communist activity in the United States. During this time, everyone was under surveillance by the government and consequences would include imprisonment and sometimes even death. Daryl Ogden, a professor at John Hopkins, claims that, “The American body politic… operated as a kind of large-scale human immune system, placing under surveillance and effectively eliminating citizens suspected of foreign sympathies that might weaken internal American resolve” (Ogden, 2000.) Reagans term continued the belief that America had a civic responsibility to remove infectious outsiders. Among these outsiders, were any misfits to society that did not meet Christian standards of model citizens. There was no separation of church and state which led to the conclusion that homosexuals too could be viewed as “foreign sympathies that might weaken internal American resolve.”
Gay men were also ostracized in American society because the introduction of AIDs gave rise to a double meaning that just because one contracted the disease he had been excessively promiscuous, and that the body was pushed to its limit with unnatural intercourse (Ogden, 2000.) In the 1980’s men who had tested positive were treated like and felt, like the “expendable cells” the human body rejected in response to disease. Kushner prompted the reader to think about American politics as a sort of response system to the “threats” imposed by anyone who did not fit the schematic Republican model. It was obvious however, that Kushner felt it was the conservative Republicans who played the villainous role in the play. For instance, he often gave subtle criticisms of President Reagan himself. In the play Louis states, “What’s it like to be the child of the Zeitgeist? To have the American Animus as your dad?” (II.71.) During the 80’s Ronald Reagan was highly accepted by the American people. Even Joe, who struggled with his own sexuality and had suffered a great deal because of Reagan’s views defended him by saying, “The truth restored. Law restored. That’s what President Reagan’s done, Harper. He says “Truth exists and can be spoken proudly” (I.38.) Although Joe’s own truth had to be hidden and contained. Kushner then allowed his own political voice to be heard through Louis’s character that isn’t very fond of Reagan.
In particular, Louis resents Reagan for his political inaction during the AIDs epidemic. When the disease was first introduced, the Reagan administration did nothing to address the issue. In fact, Reagan spoke on the issue of gay rights by saying, “my criticism is that [the gay movement] isn’t just asking for civil rights; it’s asking for recognition and acceptance of an alternative lifestyle which I do not believe society can condone, nor can I.” Ronald Reagan was against homosexuality not only on a political scale but a societal scale as well. Accepting this different lifestyle would impede on his vision of a model American society. Kushner’s political interjections allow characters like Louis to speak more fervently on the issue.
Louis is especially critical of the idea of political tolerance towards the gay rights movement. He rants, “that’s just liberalism, the worst kind of liberalism, really, bourgeois tolerance, and what I think is that what AIDs shows us is the limits of tolerance, that it’s not enough to be tolerated, because when the shit hits the fan you find out how much tolerance is worth. Nothing. And underneath all the tolerance is intense, passionate hatred” (III. 90.) Louis hates tolerance because to be tolerant of something does not mean one accepts a notion much less considers it as being equal. Tolerance in itself is such a cold word. According to the Oxford dictionary it means, “allowing some freedom to move within limits.” However, as Louis claims, to be simply tolerant of gay rights is not enough. There must be social acceptance and a desire to promote true freedom and equality.
Overall, the play shows that the disease does not lie within the realm of homosexuality. In the split dream scene, Harper tells Prior, “Deep inside you there’s a part of you, the most inner part, entirely free of disease. I can see that” (I. 32.) The disease is among those who refuse to take social action and refuse to act based on honesty and selflessness. Reagan-era influenced so much of the way society thought about certain issues. The conclusions republicans reached at this time however, were so inaccurate. It is so plain in the novel how skewed these views actually were. The two biggest Republicans in the play, Roy and Joe, ended up being the most discredited characters. The reader, whether religious or political, is prompted to look at these issues from a different standpoint. It causes Americans to question the social construct we have been taught to believe and perhaps challenge them because they are not the whole truth.
Central Park: A Setting Central to Angels in America
Seven-hundred and fifty acres of preserved greenery in the heart of New York City, Central Park has long been a refuge for those wishing to escape their hectic Manhattan lives and is arguably one of the most famous parks in the world, enjoyed by millions every year. In his two-part epic about the 1980s HIV-AIDS epidemic sweeping numerous gay communities across the United States and its effects, Angels in America, playwright Tony Kushner anchors much of the thematic elements of the story within the park and, in doing so, uses Central Park as a stark reminder of how close to home the AIDS epidemic was to citizens. Characters spend various scenes strolling through famous and recognizable landmarks within Central Park, including an area known as the Ramble, and the Bethesda Fountain. Thus, Central Park in the play Angels in America represents not just a place where characters can cope with difficult news, and take a momentary leave from their busy lives, but as a place of forming character relationships and, much like the biblical Bethesda Fountain, of healing and rejuvenation.
Perhaps the most plot-advancing role Central Park plays in the story is how it acts as an area where inter-character connections are made. At the heart of the story about how the HIV-AIDS epidemic affects several seemingly-distant people greatly, an intricate nexus of character relationships, some already formed before the commencement of the narrative and some formed during the story, demonstrates the far-reaching implications of the public health crisis. Central Park serves as an area where these seemingly distant characters interact and where much of their relationship-forming takes place. Central Park is first introduced to us in Act Two, Scene 4 when Louis, visits “the Ramble in Central Park” (55). Probably to relieve the significant stress of Prior’s infection and constant sickness, Louis visits the Ramble, implied as a place where gay men find sexual encounters, and meets a character known only as the Man in the Ramble. Louis and this mysterious Ramble-man engage in protected intercourse right in this wooded portion of Central Park. The concealed identity of Louis’ partner, when taken with the context of their location within the park, represents a degree of anonymity that can be associated with the time period. Furthermore, the fact that HIV-AIDS is a sexually transmitted disease brings about the implication that the HIV virus has probably been transmitted within the park. Evidence of this can be seen when Louis, during intercourse with the Man, asks, after the condom potentially breaks, for the man to infect him. Secondly, the reputation of the Ramble being a location where gay men look for sexual encounters is further corroborated when it is learned that Joe, another gay character, has frequented the Ramble himself.
The use of Central Park as a locus where gay men can search for sexual partners serves as the first textual anchor to Central Park and sets the tone for future character connections that take place within the park. Although brief, this relationship, something facilitated by the existence of Central Park, serves to greatly reveal Louis’ character and his mechanisms for coping with his lover’s illness.The second relationship formed in the park was between Louis and Joe after Joe follows Louis to the Park. In this scene Louis, sitting “on a bench in Central park” (121), is approached by Joe, and Louis asks “do you know the story of Lazarus?” (121, Louis) and whether or not Joe believes in the biblical story wherein Jesus breathed life into Lazarus and “brought him back from the dead” (121, Joe). Throughout this meeting, the beliefs of the über-religious Joe are challenged as he extends beyond his comfort zone to a fledgling relationship with Louis. For instance, Joe asks Louis “can I please just touch you … um, here” (123, Joe) and, after touching Louis’ face, states “I’m going to Hell for doing this” (123, Joe). Next, Louis reveals his weariness of “the Republican stuff” (123, Louis) in Joe’s beliefs, representing his insecurity with a group of people vocally denouncing his sexual orientation, yet also revealing deep conflicting emotions with Joe and ultimately strengthening their relationship. Following this, Louis invites Joe “home with [him]” (123, Louis), further deepening their relationship. Here, Central Park helps form the relationship between Louis and Joe as well as push both beyond their respective comfort zones: Joe’s religious aversion to gay relationships and Louis’ weariness of Republicans.
Unbeknownst to Louis and Joe who are engrossed in their dialogue, Prior, alone in his apartment, is being tormented by the Angel of America because “the Great work begins” (125, Angel). Thus, in this scene, Central Park also represents a place where Louis is sheltered from the reality of Prior’s suffering and the distress of his tormentation by the Angel. Another important character encounter that takes place in Central Park is a rekindling of relations between Louis and Prior much later in the story. After realizing he wants to see Prior, Louis decides to meet a recalcitrant and hostile Prior in the neutral zone of a Central Park bench, thrusting Central Park into the role of mediator between the warring parties of Prior and Louis. Throughout their meeting “trying to arrive at a resolution” (217, Louis), Louis maintains that he is afflicted inside because he was never given a chance to “find [his] footing” (218, Louis). However, Prior insists that he doesn’t “see any bruises” (217, Prior) and that “[he] wants to see blood” (220, Prior). His desire to see visual examples of Louis’ suffering is revealed “because [he] can’t believe [Louis] even [has] blood until [Louis] shows it to [him]” (220, Prior). In this scene, Central Park becomes a neutral zone where Prior and Louis can rekindle the relationship they used to have.
The next day, a similar scene takes place between Louis and Belize at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. Seeing Louis “sitting on the fountain’s rim” (227), Belize comes in and commences their conversation with a comment regarding the Bethesda Angel on the fountain Louis is sitting on. Asking what the Angel commemorates, Belize reminds Louis of Prior and his affection for obscure history and sets an emotional tone for the rest of the conversation. Belize continues by revealing that “Prior and me, we went to the courthouse. Scooped [Joe] out” (227, Belize). Believing that their sleuthing is all in an attempt to extract pain out of him, Louis states “you had no right to do that” (227, Louis) and they have “extracted every last drop of, of schadenfreude” (228, Louis). Belize reveals his motive for confronting Louis by stating that Louis dating Joe “is a record low: sharing your dank and dirty bed with Roy Cohn’s buttboy” (228, Belize). Belize’s warning, phrased as Belize being disappointed at Louis, is met with incredulity from Louis; he states “Not…Roy Cohn. Joe wouldn’t – Not Roy Cohn. He’s like the polestar of human evil, he’s like the worst human being who ever lived, the, the damage he’s done, the years and years of, of…criminality” (229, Louis). His attitude changes midway through his reassurance rant when “he stops himself” (229) and Belize states that Louis doesn’t “even know Thing One about [Joe]” and that Louis was incorrect in his assumption that Prior left Belize for him. Belize summarizes the tension within Louis by stating that “big ideas are all that [Louis] loves” (230, Belize) because Louis overlooked his new beau’s other alignments and the fact that racially-motivated prejudice exists daily in the United States. In this scene, Central Park and the Bethesda Fountain serve as the metaphorical fuse of the informational bomb of Joe being “Roy Cohn’s buttboy” (228, Belize) as the fountain’s angel gave Belize an adequate conversation starter. Secondly, the city of Bethesda Maryland was where the real Roy Cohn died – further deepening the level of allusions Kushner uses in the work. Lastly, the approaching storm represents a significant foreshadowing of events to come – especially the brawl between Louis and Joe, where Louis confronts Joe about his dealings with Roy Cohn and receives the visual elements of suffering that Prior wishes to see in him.
Closing out the play, Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain hosts the play’s epilogue where Prior, Belize, Louis, and Hannah converse on the rim of the Bethesda Fountain, much like Louis and Belize did in their earlier scene, overlooked by the Bethesda Angel on a sunny day just following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Prior states, referring to Central Park, that “this is my favorite place in NYC. No, in the whole universe. The parts of it I have seen. ” (288, Prior). From someone who has seen heaven, typically considered to be paradise, the admission that Central Park is more special to Prior reveals a great deal about his character and his decision to remain among the living in the mortal world, rather than in the heavenly world as the Angel of America had previously offered. Next, Prior mentions that the Bethesda Angel is his “favorite angel” because she is stationary and because of her many contradictions: “they commemorate death but they suggest a world without dying” and “they are made of the heaviest things on earth, stone and iron, they weigh tons but they’re winged, they are engines and instruments of flight” (289, Prior). Prior’s statement about this preferred angel’s stationary position most probably refers to his terrifying account of his experience with the Angel of America. After Prior describes why he likes the fountain’s angel, Louis recalls the story of the original Bethesda Angel, who “landed in the Temple Square in Jerusalem, in the days of the Second Temple, right in the middle of a working day she descended and just her foot touched earth. And where it did, a fountain shot up from the ground” (289, Louis). Belize then adds that “if anyone who was suffering, in the body or the spirit, walked through the waters of the fountain of Bethesda, they would be healed, washed clean of pain” (289, Belize). This allusion to the healing power of the biblical fountain can be cross-applied to Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain where significant healing of relationships, Louis and Prior’s relationship for example, took place.
Ultimately, Central Park, a zone of pastoral stasis within the heart of New York City, represents, in the play Angels in America, a place where characters can escape significant stress in their lives – evidenced by Louis in the Ramble, a place where relationships are formed – evidenced by Louis and Joe, a place where identities are pondered – evidenced by Belize’s confrontation of Louis, and as a place where religious ideas are thoroughly contrasted with earthly actions – evidenced by the political banter in the epilogue.
The Unstoppable Forces of Change in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America
There are many factors that work together in motivating human beings to take action or to remain stagnant. Tony Kushner, a gay, Jewish playwright, often displays the underlying effects of homosexuality and religion on a character’s actions. Kushner’s two-part, seven-hour play Angels in America features a heavy emphasis on belief systems and ethics that motivate change. His characters experience major life alterations that are prompted by both the sociopolitical environment of the Reagan era and their own personal sets of values. Tony Kushner combines politics and oppositional belief systems, as well as inevitable change, in Angels in America that force characters to evolve within the context of queer New York in the 1980s.
In Angels in America, certain characters portray politics as the driving force of everything in America. Louis Ironson, the Jewish ex-lover of Prior Walter, whose case of AIDS slowly renders him more and more ill, is one of these believers. In one of Louis’ argumentative dialogues with his friend Belize, he explains his view: “There’s only the political, and the decoys and the ploys to maneuver around the inescapable battle of politics” (Kushner, Millennium 96). Kushner spends the majority of the play proving this statement wrong in saying that Americanism is comprised of so much more than just politics; it is an identity, and its people and history must be included in it. The play occurs within the context of the 1980s, when two movements defined societal change: the AIDS epidemic and increasing openness of homosexuality. In the eighties, the Reagan administration reigned over the American people. Ronald Reagan, the President from 1981 to 1989, was incredibly conservative, religious, and virulently anti-gay. Reagan responded to the question of gays having equal rights and being properly represented by stating that it was an “alternative lifestyle that I do not believe society can condone, nor can I” (qtd. in Carpenter). The Reagan administration is well-known for having completely ignored the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s. It was five years into his presidency before Reagan even said the word “AIDS” in public. It was almost seven years before he made a speech about the illness, which, by that point, had killed over 650,000 Americans (La Ganga). In 1982, Press Secretary Larry Speakes held a press conference in which a reporter asked about AIDS for the first time. Government officials responded with laughter and joking responses such as, “I don’t have it…do you?” (qtd. in Lawson). The Reagan administration’s beliefs caused a lack of motivation to act.
Certain characters in Angels in America are imbued with this same sense of complacency. Roy Cohn is a character in the play, but he was also a real person in the eighties who also worked in the Reagan administration. Despite being extremely homophobic and consciously working under a homophobic administration, Cohn was a closeted homosexual and eventually died of AIDS, as he does in the play. Cohn agrees with the belief that one motivational force has influenced everything, in some way or form: politics. While explaining his plans for Joe, a Mormon and closeted gay man, to move to Washington and work under Reagan, Cohn says, “This stinks, this is politics, Joe, the game of being alive” (Kushner, Millennium 71). Cohn believes that every aspect of Americanism can be traced back to political influence; he even equates politics to life itself. Louis later unconsciously agrees with Cohn by stating, “There’s only the political, and the decoys and the ploys to maneuver around the inescapable battle of politics” (Kushner, Millennium 96). Though political liberalism is a value explored by Kushner, it does not prove to call the characters to arms. For instance, Louis knows and understands that the Reagan administration is unjust, and that the modern world of politics persecutes queer men such as himself. Yet, he and Joe both work in a courthouse where Cohn is their boss, and take no action against him. This “complacent political attitude” perpetuates lack of action within the audience, according to critics (Norden 92). Kushner demonstrates how politics can motivate action, yet can also cause a lack thereof. All the same, politics clearly play a large part in the events that unfold within the characters’ respective lives, thus representing their importance in modern-day, real life change.
The characters’ insistence on the importance of politics even surpasses that of religion; Louis is one such character. He demonstrates his opinion by saying: “There are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past” (Kushner, Millennium 96). Kushner attempts to invalidate this statement as well; he consistently demonstrates that there are angels in America, literally and figuratively, and that religion is an invisible force that drives much of the world’s action. To his story, faith is an equally powerful motivating force as politics. Two religions, Mormonism and Judaism, both strongly influence characters’ attitudes towards change; Joe and Harper are Mormon, and Prior and Louis are Jewish. Both religions provide a system of ethics for their believers. Even if the characters are not devout, they share these value systems and, knowingly or unknowingly, draw upon them in times of need. The play’s very first scene is at a Jewish funeral led by an ancient rabbi, Isador Chemelwit. Immediately there is a discussion of Jewish values. After discovering that Prior has AIDS, Louis asks the rabbi if it would be unjust to leave Prior, hypothetically. The rabbi responds by rejecting his Catholic-seeming confession: “Catholics believe in forgiveness. Jews believe in guilt” (Kushner, Millennium 25). There is also a recurring allusion to the biblical story of Jacob. At one point, Joe looks back on a childhood memory of reading this story: “Jacob wrestles with the angel…Jacob is young and very strong. The angel is…a beautiful man, with golden hair and wings, of course” (Kushner, Millennium 51-52). For Joe, this parable represents his years of battling with his homosexual identity. Growing up Mormon, Joe was consistently taught that homosexuality is a sin.
Because of his religion, Joe keeps this part of himself hidden from the outside world. Upon reflecting on his youth, Joe realizes that he read this parable so often because it was his own way of admiring masculine beauty in an accepted way. Thus, these pictures eventually sparked his cognizance of being homosexual. The allusion to Jacob foreshadows a later scene where Prior literally wrestles with the Angel. Prior must fight this huge, winged angel in his hospital room. At one point, the Angel actually calls Prior “Jonah” (Kushner, Perestroika 173). Jonah, according to the Bible, was a prophet who rejected his role and religious duties. Prior does the same once he is in counsel with the Angels; he refuses to use the text they gave him, and defiantly says, “I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do…I’ll take my illness with me and. And I’ll take my death with me, too. The earth’s my home, and I want to go home” (Kushner, Perestroika 278-279). Thus, Prior is fated by the title that the Angels give him to make the choice of living life as a weak and sick mortal rather than acting through Angels and God as a messenger. He turns his back on the offer of immortality and greatness, just as Jonah did. He may then be doomed to Jonah’s fate, of being punished until he repented to God, but he still chooses to take fate into his own hands. Unknowingly, Prior follows the path that his religion has set for him, the path that ironically inspires him to choose himself over religious duty.
Though religion is depicted as an important motivator in this play, change often occurs without a clear reason. Kushner’s belief that change occurs as a storm that cannot be fought off can be inferred from his works; this view was inspired by the writing of Walter Benjamin. His essay describes the angel in the painting Angelus Novus caught up in the wind of progress which “irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward” (McNulty 135-136). Kushner uses Benjamin’s description of Angelus Novus as inspiration for his Angel and reinterprets it in Angels in America; Kushner demonstrates that, even as people look constantly towards the past, they are thrown into the future simply because of the inevitability of time passing. The title of the third act of Millennium Approaches is “Not-Yet-Conscious, Forward Dawning.” This is a direct quotation from Ernst Bloch’s “The Principle of Hope.” Bloch says that humanity is gifted with “a Not-Yet-Conscious, one that has never been conscious and has never existed in the past, therefore itself a forward dawning, into the New” (qtd. in Chambers-Letson and Takano 267). Like Benjamin, Bloch held the view that change is an unstoppable force, and that the realization of this conscious is contingent upon change. Though much of the change experienced by Kushner’s characters seems to be instigated by politics or religion, some of their experiences are not prompted by any specific cause; they simply change, as all people do, over time. Kushner argues that, regardless of how unexpected or painful change can be, it keeps happening. At one point, he comments on this in an interaction between Harper and one of her delusions. The apparition explains that change can sometimes feel quite literally like being gutted and disemboweled. Yet it also says “it’s up to you to do the stitching. And then get up. And walk around” (Kushner, Perestroika 200). Although the pain that change inflicts often cannot be stopped, the storm of progress constantly pushes onwards, forcing people to move on.
Tony Kushner incorporates politics and religion as forces that drive change and action within Angels in America. Yet, he also explores the idea that change often just happens, without any clear motivator. Its occurrence is one of the few constants remaining in modern life. Though most of the characters’ actions are driven by such forces, many of them are also subtly motivated by self-interest. For instance, Louis abandons Prior because he refuses to face his fears of illness and death. He then leaves Joe because he knows that he must choose love for Prior over lust for his replacement. Harper leaves Joe because she must stop waiting for him to reciprocate her affection. Thus, Kushner presents another value; eventually, the only person’s feelings and wellness that matter are one’s own.
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Bible. New International Version, Bible Gateway. Bible Gateway, www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+32%3A22-31&version=NIV. Accessed 5 Feb. 2017. Butler, Isaac, and Dan Kois. “Angels in America: The Complete Oral History.” Slate, Slate Group, 28 June 2016, www.slate.com/articles/arts/cover_story/2016/06/oral_history_of_tony_kushner_s_play_angels_in_america.html. Accessed 10 Jan. 2017.Krebs, Albin. “Roy Cohn, Aide to McCarthy and Fiery Lawyer, Dies at 59.” New York Times, 3 Aug. 1986, Science sec. New York Times, partners.nytimes.com/library/national/science/aids/080386sci-aids.html. Accessed 1 Feb. 2017. Lawson, Richard. “The Reagan Administration’s Unearthed Response to the AIDS Crisis Is Chilling.” Vanity Fair, 1 Dec. 2015. Vanity Fair, www.vanityfair.com/news/2015/11/reagan-administration-response-to-aids-crisis. Accessed 10 Jan. 2017.Mahler, Jonathan, and Matt Flegenheimer. “What Donald Trump Learned from Joseph McCarthy’s Right-Hand Man.” New York Times, 20 June 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/06/21/us/politics/donald-trump-roy-cohn.html. Accessed 10 Jan. 2017.Reagan, Ronald. “Remarks at a Conference on Religious Liberty.” 16 Apr. 1985. The American Presidency Project, edited by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, American Presidency Project, www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=38486. Accessed 1 Feb. 2017. Speech.
The Past in 20th Century Drama
George Santayana’ s oft-quoted aphorism—“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”—has entered cultural ubiquity and become a cliché, paraphrased ad nauseam by politicians and philosophically-inclined college students. Still, the over-saturation of this sentiment does not make it any less true, and American playwrights working in the last quarter of the twentieth century seemed to know that. For example, the most representative artistic movement of the era—postmodernism—is characterized by an interest in representing and reinterpreting history on the stage. Unlike the Modernists of the first half of the century, postmodernists did not view their forbears as artists to transcend. Instead, they innovated by broadcasting their influences and interpolating them into new material. These playwrights knew that to adequately comprehend the present—the increasingly complicated contemporary world—they needed a deep understanding of the past. More importantly, they recognized the power of history and memory, acknowledging that nostalgia can quickly spiral into a corrosive delusion and warp one’s view of the present. These characteristics are best exemplified by David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, and Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog. While none of these plays can be definitively labeled as postmodern, their characters embody a postmodern understanding of the past, recalling events differently and tailoring history to their own needs in order to imagine better lives for themselves. In Topdog/Underdog, Lincoln’s analysis of history can apply to most of the characters in these plays: “People like they historical shit in a certain way. They like it to unfold the way they folded it up. Neatly like a book. Not raggedy and bloody and screaming” (Parks, 52). Ultimately, these plays suggest that while history is fungible, it cannot be outrun.
In Glengarry Glen Ross, Shelly Levene is caught up in a romantic vision of his past self, a salesman who could land big clients and big commissions. At the start of the play, however, he is older and washed-up, begging Williamson for the more promising leads. Characteristically, he references his past sales numbers, trying to pass them off as a barometer of his current capabilities: “April, September 1981. It’s me,” he says, “[…] Sixty-five, when we were there, with Glen Ross Farms? You call ‘em downtown. What was that? Luck? […] My stats for those years? Bullshit… over that period of time…? Bullshit. It wasn’t luck. It was skill” (Mamet, 17-18). Going further, Shelley operates under an anachronistic understanding of the world. At the beginning of the play, he is still holding on to the idea—however lightly—that his age gives him a hierarchal advantage and commands respect; he does not realize that his age has had the opposite effect, and has essentially made him obsolete. For example, he tries to invoke his age when bargaining with Williamson, saying, “I’m older than you. A man acquires a reputation. On the street. What does when he’s up, what he does otherwise…” (Mamet, 24). His reasoning is also outdated; Levene does not realize that Williamson does not care about antiquated notions of “reputation.” Although Levene is convinced that he is a competent salesman who has been stained by a streak of bad luck, there is nothing in the text to indicate that Williamson is wrong to deny him the leads. In fact, Levene’s nostalgia—his romanticization of past sales—is arguably grounded in more fiction than reality. In the beginning of the play, Levene asks Williamson, “Nineteen eighty, eighty-one… eight-two… six months of eighty-two… who’s there? Who’s up there?” (Mamet, 17). Williamson responds curtly and with confidence: “Roma, [followed by] Moss” (Mamet, 17). Levene’s conception of the past—the aspect of his character that gives him his self-confidence—compels him to steal the leads from the office. This, of course, causes his tragic downfall.
Angels in America: Millennium Approaches—first performed in 1991—is steeped in history: the play is set during the Reagan-era, partly as a means of understanding the significant effect that the 1980s had the on the gay community; Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg—two real-life historical figures—are characters in the play. Further, Kushner makes it clear that Angels in America rehashes the past as a means of understanding the present and the future. The hole in the ozone layer—one of the physical causes of Harper’s anxiety—is an objective correlative for the anxiety that the gay characters feel for immediate future: in 1985, when the play is set, Reagan had not even acknowledged the AIDs crisis, a disease of plague-like proportions that made homosexuals feel even more alienated from and rejected by the contemporaneous American society. Roy—a closeted homosexual, or at the very least, bisexual—articulates this feeling in a conversation with his doctor. He denies his sexuality because he thinks it would tarnish his legacy: “‘Gay,’ ‘homosexual,’ ‘lesbian;’ you think they tell you who a person sleeps with, but they don’t tell you that. Like all labels, they refer to one thing and one thing only: Where does a person so identified fit in the food chain? […] To someone who doesn’t understand this, homosexual is what I am because I sleep with men, but this is wrong. […] They are men who know nobody, and who nobody knows” (Kushner, 51). With this, he is trying hard to rewrite history. Later, Roy brags to Joe about how he finessed the legal system to ensure that Ethel Rosenberg was sentenced to death. He says to Joe, “Was it legal? Fuck legal!” (Kushner, 114). This immorality comes to haunt Roy in the form of Rosenberg’s ghost, reminding the audience the importance of the past, and that it is impossible to escape.
The importance of history is most obviously present in Topdog/Underdog, the two-person drama that centers around African-American brothers named Lincoln and Booth. Although Parks insists that the play is entirely bereft of symbolism, it is hard to overlook the significance of the two characters’ names. John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Abraham Lincoln is one of the most important events in American history. In the beginning of the play, Lincoln is looking toward the future, happy to be finished hustling three card monte. Eventually, he falls back into the game—back into his past—and history repeats itself, with Booth shooting Lincoln. Booth, meanwhile, is another character that tries to rewrite history. For example, in the first scene, he tells Lincoln, “My new names 3-Card. 3-Card, got it? […] Call me 3-Card from here on out” (Parks, 19). They also interpret the past differently, viewing their parents’ abandonment on distinct, opposing terms. When Lincoln says, “I dont think they liked us,” Booth immediately responds, “Naw. That aint it” (Parks, 67). They interpret the past differently because they need to interpret it differently. They thrive on their individual interpretations: Booth stays positive by imagining that their parents loved them; Lincoln, on the other, stays grounded by knowing that they did not.
The past is essential: it both informs and directs our present; people are constantly grappling with the implications of the past. These three plays show the complicated relationship that most modern people have with both American history and their own personal histories. The past is inescapable, yet, in order for growth, it needs to be transcended.
The World Only Spins Forward: An Analysis of Irony, Character, and Ending in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes
Embedded deep within American culture is a multitude of internalized subjects that, for a time, seemed to be tearing individuals apart; examples of these topics are religion, sexuality, race, gender, economic class, and far more. Tony Kushner’s magnum opus, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, throws all of these matters onto a stage, analyzes them, humanizes them, and ultimately brings his characters into a unified coexistence despite the forces keeping them apart. This unified coexistence, Kushner argues, is progress, and the audience grows to understand Kushner’s hypothesis: that progress can be achieved by the fundamental act of forgiveness. The play is set in the 1980s, one of the most dividing ages in American history, and contains characters who are forced to overcome this age of internalized irony in order for the world to survive chaos. The endings of both parts of the play are crucial to this idea, as they shape the actions of the play’s events into Kushner’s aforementioned thesis of progress and growth. The analysis of character in the age of irony and the importance of the ending parallel each other through the play before amalgamating in the epilogue. The final scene exhibits for the audience four characters (Prior, Louis, Belize, and Hannah) who specifically triumph over previously restrictive ironies and brings the activity of the play into summation in order to convey Kushner’s true point: individuals must keep the world in it’s state of “painful progress” by forgiving themselves and each other.
In order to discuss the importance of the triumph over irony, it is necessary to divulge on the age the play is set in: the 1980’s, sometimes called the “Me Decade”. It is the age of consumerism, with the rise of the “yuppie” character and cultural emphasis on flaunting wealth and status, seemingly supported by the economic policies of Ronald Reagan. It is an economically ironic time, with the rich becoming very rich and the poor are still, if not more, poor. Thus, the country is in an economically polarized state of being, drawing the ire of many who recognize the inequality. Abroad, communism remains the perennial threat held over American capitalism, despite its apparent victory in parts of the American experience. Meanwhile, the discovery of AIDS in 1981 turns a national ambivalence toward homosexuality into a full-blown war between heterosexuals and homosexuals, thus dividing the country into an even more divided state of being. In summation, the 1980s was a decade that characterized itself by deepening rifts between all types of people. The characters of Angels in America are confronted with these issues head-on, and slowly discover that unity is the only way to survive what could potentially be the death of American society.
Prior Walter is one of the many characters forced to face the irony within him in order to survive the time he lives in. He describes himself as a WASP, a societal group usually connected to heterosexuality, and is so well bred that his family goes, “Back to he Norman Conquest…there’s a Prior Walter stitched into the Bayeux Tapestry” (Kushner I, 135). Despite this apparent social distinction, Prior unknowingly separates himself from it by living as a gay man, and even more so by living as a gay man with AIDS. This description of Prior is solidified in Millennium Approaches, where the ravages of his disease, his heartbreak when Louis leaves him, and eventually his call from the Angel shown him being acted upon. This serves only to isolate himself from the things that characterize him other than his disease and his sexuality, such as his breeding and economic status. Prior becomes a fighter throughout Perestroika in many ways, such as learning to curb the effects of his disease and making amends with Louis. By coming to terms with the realities of his life and making the best of them, Prior reconciles the themes that divided his inner self in Act I. The Angels have asked Prior to be their voice in the world and to tell the world to stop moving. In reclamation of his own self, Prior tells them after rejecting their request, “Bless me anyway. I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do” (Kushner II, 135). Prior has forgiven his inner ironies and resolved that to live with them is better than not living at all, and this is brought into universality in the epilogue.
Louis, a cappuccino intellectual with endless views on everything from his left wing politics to philosophy, is ironic in two aspects: his attraction to a closeted republican and his disconnected relationship with Judaism. While he and Joe attempt to be happy despite their differences, their differences prove to be their inner-foundations, thus barring them from a life of coexistence. The irony of their relationship is something that neither of them can work through; it’s seen when Louis confronts Joe with his homophobic ghost writings and Joe can only yell back “WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME! I LOVE YOU. I LOVE YOU” (Kushner II, 110). With Joe unable to face the contradictions he lives by, the relationship ultimately fails because it is fundamentally paradoxical to Kushner’s idea of progress and growth. Meanwhile, Louis’ disconnection from Judaism is symbolized by the death of his grandmother, about whom he says, “I pretended for years that she was already dead…I abandoned her” (Kushner I, 24). The quote is a metaphor of his abandonment of Judaism; a religion that Rabbi Chemelwitz says advocates “guilt” (Kushner I, 25). Louis finally understands this idea of guilt after abandoning Prior, but in the end of Perestroika he reconciles himself with Prior and finally with Judaism by reciting the Kaddish with Ethel Rosenberg over Roy Cohn’s body. In this scene, Louis symbolically takes responsibility for abandoning his lover (who was temporarily in the afterlife at the time) and his religion, displaying a major growth in moral character. Though Louis cannot fix what he has done, his inner development is a progressive journey that leads to his placement in the epilogue.
Hannah’s presence in the play is one characterized by rebirth, first by her initial call to purify her son and instead renewing herself. Hannah is shown to believe that her purpose is to help other people, regardless of whether they ask or not. Ironically, she is entirely unable to “straighten out” her son despite her intentions, and inadvertently becomes the protector of Prior. Even though her first words to him are, “We’re closed. Go away” (II, 98), Hannah finds herself helping him within a matter of sentences when he has a fever and she helps him to the hospital. Not only does the sequence reflect on Hannah’s naturally altruistic nature, it is completely ironic that she is helping a homosexual (a way of being she doesn’t condone or understand) and that it was purely by accident, never by intention. The acceptance of the irony of their relationship, rather than the rejection of it, is what causes Hannah’s rebirth, put into action during her lesbian encounter with the Angel, which is made possible by her companionship with Prior. Their relationship leaves Hannah a reawakened person, which is elaborated upon in the epilogue.
The character of Belize is remarkably different from the rest of the characters, even the other three who appear at the end. He is at odds with the world racially as a black man, sexually as a gay man, and gender-wise as a former drag queen. Despite these themes that isolate him, Belize has already resolved his inner ironies and instead acts to resolve the ironies within others. As a nurse at New York Hospital, he must care for Roy Cohn, despite their obvious hatred for each other and Roy’s unwillingness to admit his true self. He plays the confidant and adversary to Louis, even though the two disagree constantly and as Prior’s former lover, Belize should be on Prior’s side of the argument. Belize’s constant efforts to heal others are summed up in his request that Louis recite the Kaddish for Roy, saying, “He was a terrible person. He died a hard death. So maybe…A queen can forgive her vanquished foe. It isn’t easy, it doesn’t count if it’s easy, it’s the hardest thing. Forgiveness. Which is maybe where love and justice finally meet. Peace, at last. Isn’t that what the Kaddish asks for?” (II, 124). Belize’s role in the age of irony is not for him to reconcile himself; his character’s purpose is to help others mend the rifts that tear people apart, which he says is only achieved through forgiveness. Belize’s presence as a guiding light to the other characters is a crucial mechanism of Kushner’s to prepare the audience for the play’s conclusion, and thus the stating of its purpose.
Kushner gives the audience two scenes preceding the epilogue to signify the conclusion of the play. In the first scene, Prior descends from Heaven and wakes up with his fever broken, to which Nurse Emily exclaims, “Well look at this. It’s the dawn of man” (II, 139). The scene, and this quote specifically, let’s the audience know that all of the action in the play has drawn to a close and that man finally has the foundation to rebuild society. To conclude Harper’s storyline and show the inevitability of this progress, Harper is shown on a night flight to San Francisco, where she remarks that, “In this world, there is a kind of painful progress” (II, 144). To show a character like Harper, who has been terrified of movement throughout the play, embarking on a major journey forward in her life is symbolic of the unavoidable progression humanity must take on in order to rebuild their lives and their world. Because neither scene fully shows the ideal society that Kushner attempts to convey, an epilogue is necessary to wrap up his argument. However, both sequences are crucial to the plot as they conclude the action of the play and make way for the epilogue to reveal Kushner’s speculative world.
The epilogue is set at a pivotal time in world history, in January of 1990; as Louis describes, “The Berlin Wall has fallen. The Ceausescu’s are out. He’s building democratic socialism. The New Internationalism…Remember back four years ago? The whole time we were feeling everything everywhere was stuck, while in Russia! Look! Perestroika! …The whole world is changing!” (II, 145). Louis’ explanation addresses what Kushner believes to have been the overarching problem of the 1980s; that it was stagnant, that nothing was moving. Millennium Approaches addresses this issue, as the main characters were (mostly) succumbing to the perils of the age, and if they were to move in any direction, it would almost certainly be downhill. This is what the Angels want, the stop of progression in the world so that God can be found once more. But what Kushner has proven in Perestroika is that, as Prior puts it, “We’re not rocks- progress, migration, motion is…modernity” (II, 132). It isn’t possible to live in a world that doesn’t move, a world that encompassed the 1980s, in Kushner’s view. For the characters and for Kushner, that first month of 1990 marks the beginning of this modernity, this embracing of migration. For the audience, a scene that takes place in a new era signifies not only the end of the play, but also the beginning of a new world.
The end of the play is a pivotal moment in the piece; it is the moment where the audience is given the achievement striven for in the action. The achievement in Angels in America is the embodiment of Kushner’s “Gay Fantasia on National Themes”, the embodiment created by these four characters. This “fantasia” is what Kushner believes should be America’s future, a future where the gaps between sexualities, religions, genders, and races should be mended, and Kushner presents the audience with characters who represent all four of these things. They are able to meet at the fountain that day because for those characters, those boundaries that once pulled themselves and each other apart have been mended and transcended.
Prior, Louis, Hannah, and Belize have all survived the age of irony and they are reunited in the epilogue, set at Bethesda Fountain. Prior has remained alive because of his overarching desire to live, despite the limitations his disease has given it. Louis, in his abandonment of Prior, relationship with Joe, and reconciliation with religion, has grown into someone who lives by the morals he once could only talk about rather than live by. Hannah, despite the teachings of her religion against movement, has embraced progression so much that she is a completely different person, dressing as a New Yorker. Belize, whose inner conflicts were resolved long ago, nevertheless appears at Bethesda Fountain, still working as a moral guide for the characters. These specific characters come together at the end for the same purpose: to validate the actions of the past and to reveal what Kushner hopes will be America’s future.
An important element of the epilogue that is necessary to address is the nature of homosexuality within the characters that appear, their relevance to Kushner’s Fantasia, and their relevance to the audience. Prior and Belize are the most un-closeted characters, as they have been throughout the play. It is easy to assume that Louis is still living as an openly gay, yet partially closeted man. Hannah’s orientation is harder to tell, as she is presumably still a Mormon. However, her experiences with Prior as well as her lesbian encounter with the Angel suggest that her views have evolved from what her religion initially told her. Moreover, Hannah seems to be completely comfortable with this fact. What Kushner is suggesting with the homosexuality of the epilogue is that wide acceptance of gay rights is an inevitable thing that will come with time as well as progression. As Prior valiantly proclaims, “…we are not going away…We will be citizens. The time has come” (148). For Kushner, the time has come for the world to accept homosexuals and to achieve peaceful coexistence, because they “are not going away”. Because these lines are said to the audience, Kushner bridges the divide between the stage and the seats, and puts it upon the audience to believe in the progress that is gay civil rights.
In a final analysis the epilogue, the scene itself is not a break, but a shattering of the fourth wall. Kushner is invested so heavily on the concept of progression that he makes sure that the experience of the characters become the experience of the audience, and that when they leave the audience, the action of the play is in their past as well as the pasts of the characters. But what so deeply conveys his understanding of the concept is that he knows that a play about progression should never really end at all. Because of that, Prior blesses the audience with the message of “The world only spins forward…You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More life. The Great Work Begins.” (II, 148). Thus, the end of the play isn’t really the end, at least where the audience is concerned. Just like how Prior was asked by the Angel to give what was ultimately the wrong message to the world, Prior gives the audience the right message to the world: “More life”. And by ending with the same words as the Angel’s in Act I, the audience is thus commissioned to embrace the natural, “painful” progress of the world, including especially the acceptance of gay rights.
The victory over irony combines with the significance of the ending in the play’s epilogue, as the two ideas have paralleled each other through the play up until that final scene. The four characters are analyzed in depth because the audience needs to understand why their triumph over their ironies are crucial to the ending; it is each person’s journey to forgiveness of themselves and of each other that allows for the epilogue to happen. The epilogue itself is Kushner’s mechanism to end the play itself yet bestow its message upon the audience. Those characters have resolved their issues, and that resolution is put on direct display so that the audience can see what Kushner’s ideal society needs ultimately: forgiveness. That is what the audience is left with when they leave the theatre; in order for the world to move forward in the natural way it must, we must forgive each other and ourselves. Our “Great Work” begins when Angels in America ends.