Angels in America consists of two plays, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. The two plays are based on the very real AIDS epidemic that ravaged the United States during Reagan era America. Millennium Approaches focuses on three sub-stories interconnected in their own way—the love shared by Louis and Prior, which is cut short by Prior contracting AIDS; Joe and Harper’s very dysfunctional marriage, and Roy Cohn’s narcissistic life. Roy Cohn is (very heavily) based on the lawyer in real life of the same name, who, similar to the Roy Cohn in the story, denied his homosexuality while still engaging in sexual acts with men, and who, similar to the Roy Cohn in the story, perished of AIDS. In Angels in America, Tony Kushner explores identity (especially relating to sexuality), religious beliefs, and death. When Kushner was writing the play, he visited the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and upon seeing the quilt memorializing Roy Cohn, he mentioned how he wanted Cohn’s character in the play to be similar to how he is represented in his quilt: “dialectical.” The quilt is a glimpse into just how despicable Roy Cohn was, as well as how complex his character is—in the play as well as in real life. What made Roy Cohn into the ball of hatred he is in the play (and was in real life), denying his own identity while engaging in its pleasures? And what made Joe feel he had to “kill” and suppress his homosexuality?
A previous convener post presented a character map of the main characters in the play. This map places Prior Walter in the center of 7 other circles containing the names of the other characters in the play and a brief description about them. These circles are linked by arrows explaining how each character is related to Prior Walter (lover, friend, etc.) and how those characters relate to each other (patrons, spouses, family). What’s particularly useful about a character map like this is that it places a single character as a node in a network – a very complex network with multiple layers and a lot of overlap. We started the course with a very broad and open question: are we too connected? We’d like to point us back to that inquiry and use it as one of many possible lenses to read Angels in America. Who was connected to whom and on what levels (religious, political, interpersonal relationships, spousal, friendships, doctor-patient, mother-son, and even supernatural or spiritual)? And then how did those connections and choices influence the other characters in the story? What is Kushner trying to say about the level of interconnectedness at the time ?
Rather than attempting to trace where a disease came from (as Oedipus and Ghosts do, each in their own way), Angels in America traces the origins of the belief systems that structure life in 1980s America. (References to “America” in the play sometimes gesture vaguely towards the continent as a whole, but seem to mainly be speaking about the US.) The play opens with a funeral scene, presided over by a Rabbi with limited understanding of the particular person he is burying, but a detailed theory about the social group she fit into: “a whole kind of person, the ones who crossed the ocean, who brought with us to America the villages of Russia and Lithuania …” (10). Through the Rabbi’s monologue, audiences are immersed in a conversation about inheritance and tradition before any of the central characters even speak. The instantly recognizable ritual of mourning carries the first scene, superseding the audience’s need for specificity about characters and context, and allowing Kushner to open the play with the striking warning that “soon … all the old will be dead” (11).
From the very first acts in the play we can observe how Kushner raises questions about stasis and change through the voices of his characters. As we continue reading Perestroika, it might be interesting to compare Kushner’s use of the angels in this play, with Ibsen’s use of ghosts in -well…- Ghosts. Both the angels and the ghosts can be seen as barriers between the characters, pulling them back from a changing future.
In this text, there is no apparent belief system that unites all of the central characters. They have different sexualities, political parties, and religious affiliations. They each have individual, complex relationships with their faith and family histories. The pattern that unites them is that these relationships tend to break down when exposed to the realities of both the AIDS epidemic and the political, social climate surrounding it. Louis begins the play feeling comfortable with his own concept of an afterlife based on his Jewish belief system. But he finds that this doesn’t hold up in the presence of Prior’s actual imminent death (“not at all like a rainy afternoon in March…”) Joe has clung to his Mormon ideals of good and evil to the point of suppressing his own sexual identity, but he begins to lose his grip on them in the midst of political pressures from Roy and family tensions from Harper’s pill addiction. Though Kushner inserts plenty of critiques of the specific systems the characters inhabit, his greater focus seems to be on the way these systems clash with each other and with the realities of modernity in the US.
And boy, these belief systems are pervasive, to the point where they forcefully shape our very perceptions of ourselves. The play touches on how society’s views can influence our self-perception through Roy Cohn’s passionate inability to accept his homosexuality. In the striking diagnosis scene with his doctor, Roy refuses to identify with the label, painting us a picture of the deep stigma Roy associates with being gay. To Roy, homosexuality is the real disease, to be avoided like the plague. As someone obsessed with power (he is described as a ‘power broker’ in the opening character list) and his position in the world, being gay is a weakness he cannot afford.
“Like all labels, they tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified, in the pecking order? Not ideology, or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout…Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout. Does this sound like me, Henry?” (46)
Roy’s raging hatred of his own homosexuality is a manifestation of society’s perception towards gay people at the time. We see a similar internal conflict manifest itself in Joe, a closeted homosexual Mormon man, who votes for Reagan. We see Joe torn between upholding the beliefs of a ‘good’ Mormon versus his personal sexual liberation. His truth is unspeakable to him, so he chooses to live in denial, spending a large part of his life suppressing his identity. Even so, his truth comes to speak to him through dreams, as he describes to his wife:
“The angel is a beautiful man with blonde hair and wings, of course. I still dream about it. Many nights I’m…It’s me. In that struggle. Fierce, and unfair. The angel is not human, and it holds nothing back, so how could anyone human win, what kind of a fight is that? It’s not just. Losing means your soul thrown down in the dust, your heart” (52)
We similarly see Joe depict his refusal to self-identify as a violent battle, when Harper questions his sexuality directly:
“Does it make any difference? That I might be one thing deep within, no matter how wrong or ugly that thing is, so long as I have fought, with everything I have, to kill it…As long as my behaviour is what I know it has to be. Decent. Correct.” (40)
However, even speaking the truth isn’t liberating for Joe. When Joe attempts to accept his identity, such as in the scene where he calls his mother at 4am and confesses his sexuality, he is met with flat denial.
This brings up a question we have been returning to throughout the semester: how do we know which beliefs are actually originally ours, versus what have been inherited from our ancestors, environment or social circumstances? How much of the character’s beliefs and views are influenced by their religious upbringing, or the politics of the time? Angels in America suggests that our inherited belief systems are deeply tied to our sense of self, yet not always sufficient means of navigating the many contagions of the modern world—whether it be physical contagions such as AIDS or other forms of contagion plaguing society, such as homophobia and greed for power.
Asma, Maja, Mary, Saideep