Set during the AIDS crisis in the U.S. in 1985, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches conveys two paralleled stories of a gay couple, Louis Ironson and his lover Prior Walter, and a married couple, Joe Pitt and his wife Harper, as they all go through a troubling period to deal with issues surrounding homosexuality and AIDS. Through this play, Kushner poses question on the concepts of identity and social division. In the face of a political idealism that restrains homosexuals from being open about their sexuality, the characters are struggling to find a common ground where their identity and their social expectations are not at odds with each other. This struggle becomes particularly visible in Joe’s Pitt case, where he has to hide behind the facade of his marriage and lie to his wife. In Act 2 scene 2, he tells his wife a biblical story of Jacob wrestling with an angel. He does this because he so desperately wants to say that he has had homosexual feelings since he was a child, and yet his faith in his religion prevents him from admitting it. His sexuality and faith are intrinsically connected, and it is interesting to note this as it poses an important question: Is it possible for someone to be religious and gay at the same time? Are the paths to God and self-acceptance always diverge from each other in this context? The ‘issue’ of being religious and gay also connects seamlessly with the ‘issue’ of being a gay republican: Joe Pitt. I personally don’t know too much about American politics but republicans are described as having strong traditional, conservative and religious values. The terms ‘gay’ and ‘Republican’ are almost antithetical to each other as being gay stands against the very basic and core Republican beliefs. How exactly does Joe Pitt embody the contrasting ideals of a gay Mormon Republican lawyer? Has he also created a fantasy space for himself where these competing ideals seem to coexist?
In this play, the characters are categorized by their religious beliefs and their sexuality: Jewish, Mormon, straight, and gay. Even AIDS is served as an identity type written on the skin. An example is Roy Cohn, who says: “I don’t have AIDS I am not a homosexual man. I am a heterosexual man… That’s what homosexuals have. I have liver cancer.” What are the grounds for identity in this play? Why do religion and sexuality seem to play a stronger role than race, for instance?
The most fascinating part of the play is perhaps the merged worlds of fantasy and reality that Kushner introduces. The two worlds intertwine in a way that they sometimes can hardly be distinguished from each other. In Act 1 scene 7, both Prior and Harper meet in a strange hallucination. Kushner uses this scene in order to show how reality does not only cut people off from each other, but it also summons them together in an interesting way. Kushner also introduces the idea that fantasy is vain in a sense that it also roots from whatever happens in reality. This makes us wonder: if fantasy is so attached to reality, does this mean that there is no true escape from life’s realities? This reminds us of a line from Harry Potter’s wise headmaster Albus Dumbledore: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” Harper dreams up Mr. Lies who whisks her away to Antarctica, and Prior and Roy receive visitations from the dead. Are these hallucinations or are they “real” ghosts in the play?
Speaking of Harper’s hallucination/Prior’s dream, in Scene 7 of Act 1, Harper’s statement about imagination in Scene 7 of Act I is a statement worth noting. In the discussion, she takes a moment to discuss the unoriginal and recycled nature of imagination, that it is “really only the same old ordinariness and falseness re-arranged into the appearance of novelty and truth.”
This is a point of realization for both Harper and Prior, as they realize what they believe is fictitious is rooted in the reality of their situation. For Harper, the daydreams and hallucinations revolve mostly around leaving, and hence convey her desire to escape, and that it may have happened before.
However, there is a note of contradiction between Harper’s desires and the reality; particularly when Roy offers her to leave for Washington, DC, and she offers a defensive response. It is evident that there is a psychological barrier or restraint that constrains her from pursuing what she wants, a barrier of uncertainty that deprives her from her sense of freedom. Yet this is due to the contradictory nature of her approach in dealing with this escape. Moreso, the theme of travel or movement is preeminent in this Act. Sarah Ironson, a Jewish woman of Russian and Lithuanian descent, was said to have moved to America in search of something better. Joe wants to move to Washington because “I’m tired of being a clerk. I want to go where something good is happening” (Kushner 23). There’s even mention of a travel agent. These characters chose to move in and around America in search of something better. How truly different can things be? Have things really changed for the good in America? Has the country truly attained “its sacred position among nations”? (Kushner 26)
For Harper, the escape of a psychological barrier is not as much of an escape as it is a holiday, a break from everything. The reality of escape is coated with the notion of travel and exploration which will allow her to heal and gain insight. From here one can see Harper’s need to discover herself, an element of postmodernism which was present throughout the second half the 20th century, including the play Angels in America.
The postmodernist traits are once again present in the illusions that Harper has created without any confrontation of the issue itself: only she is capable of healing herself, and there is not a place or person that could that for her.
There are many betrayals throughout Angels in America. Louis betrays his lover, Prior, with the excuse that he needs some time alone. Also, Roy feels betrayed when Joe refuses to take a job he’s arranged for him in Washington, DC. Of course Joe might very well feel betrayed when he learns that Roy wants him to take the job for his own selfish reasons. And then there’s Harper who feels betrayed because her husband admitted that he is gay. Can you betray someone and still love the person? Is it worse to betray someone else or to betray yourself?
Noora, Nada, Odera, and Dayin
Great work on the post guys!
This book is by far my favorite read! I was really interested in the blurring lines between reality, dreams, and hallucinations.
Another interesting aspect of this text is the idea of addiction. Addiction makes Harper believe that she is not a good Mormon. Roy Cohn is addicted to his love for power and superiority. The idea of addiction plays an interesting role in the theme of ‘consent and descent’ of one’s identity.
Harper was already ill. Her addiction was in fact, not the illness itself. She suffered from agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder. It is and intense fear of interacting with new people and places. Valium is a common prescription for this disorder. Does her agoraphobia act as the reason why she was reluctant to move to Washington?.
Very thought-provoking insight into the reading!
The concept of addiction is indeed one I was able to pick up on whilst reading the play. It is also important to note that the majority of the characters who have the ability to see angels or visions or the gift of prophecy are addicted to some form of drug (whether in the literal sense or figurative sense). Harper the first character is indeed addicted to Valium. I agree that it is a prescription for anxiety but I sincerely believe she abused her prescription and took her pills way more than necessary. Being on valium, she’s able to see men with knives and hear strange things. Prior, who’s able to see his ancestors (the Ghosts of Priors Past or the Priors prior to Prior-if you will) and the angel, is taking high doses of medication for his AIDS. I also believe he’s weirdly addicted to sex. That’s probably the reason he keeps having unnecessary erections as a result of his sexual withdrawal.
So, it’s nice that you touched on that theme.
I believe her agoraphobia is indeed the reason she is initially reluctant to move to Washington when assessing her agoraphobia in terms of reality. As a result of her real-life phobia, she is unable to leave the confines of her home. But, her agoraphobia has no sort of hold over her in her dreams and hallucinations. Her mind is able to wander far beyond the existential. She is even able to have a full conversation with Prior, a man she had never met while existing in her dreams. I feel like her dreams gave her a sort of safe space to explore beyond her fears as long as she was certain she didn’t have to have such conversations and interactions in reality.
I hope this helps.
Chiamaka Odera Ebeze.
Dear Noora, Nada, Odera, and Dayin,
Thanks for bringing up these thought-provoking questions!
The identity issue we discussed in class interested me and reminded me of the social psychological concept “looking-glass self” created by Charles Horton Cooley.
“A person’s self grows out of society’s interpersonal interactions and the perceptions of others. The term refers to people shaping their self-concepts based on their understanding of how others perceive them.” (excerpted from Wikipedia)
We imagine what others see us just like looking into the mirror at ourselves, and then, judges and identity of ourselves form. In the play, homosexuality is a taboo, a phenomenon that is regarded as a disease, that the society won’t accept. That’s why Roy said “I don’t have AIDS. I am not a homosexual man. I am a heterosexual man…That’s what homosexuals have. I have liver cancer.” With such deep social stigma stick to homosexuality, homosexuals imagine how the society will discriminate them, and thus, try to hide their true identity.
Something also worth noting is the relationship between Tony Kushner and the play itself. Kushner is brought up in a Jewish family and he is also a homosexual. In fact, Kushner and his spouse Mark Harris held a commitment ceremony in April 2003, which was the first same-sex commitment ceremony to be featured in the Vows column of The New York Times. (Information from Wikipedia) It seems that part of the play stems from his personal experience. Do you think there is anything Kushner highly concerns which he intends to express to the audience?