Even with all of Prior’s encounters with the Angel, an active character in the play, his favorite stands as a statue in Central Park: the angel Bethesda.
Two scenes take place at Bethesda Fountain, and in each we are given some background on the fountain itself and the angel Bethesda. During the scene where Louis and Belize meet at the fountain, we learn that the statue was built to commemorate the Naval dead of the Civil War. Its connection to the past is a painful one – one of death and destruction.
Later, in the play’s epilogue, more is said about the angel herself. Prior, Louis, Belize, and Hannah all describe Bethesda story: Bethesda landed in the Temple square of Jerusalem, and where her foot touched the ground, a fountain sprung. The flow eventually stopped when the Romans destroyed the Temple, but before its end, it was said that anyone who bathed in its water would be “washed clean of pain” (279). Legend has it, the fountain will flow again when the Millennium comes. Hannah promises Prior that once it flows again, they’ll all go and bathe themselves clean. This remark seems to transform the dark and painful past of the statue to a symbol of hope, promising a new beginning for the unfortunate quad.
The contradictory symbolism of a painful past and a hopeful future is reconciled by Prior description of the Angel:
PRIOR (Turning the sound off again): This angel. She’s my favorite angel.
I like them best when they’re statuary. They commemorate death but they suggest a world without dying. 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.
In a sense, Prior identifies with the statuary form of the angel, or at least aspires to become what it symbolizes. Prior, as every other human being, walks with an expiration date, but even with his predicament, he is brimming with life. And even with the weight of his disease and other burdens of life, he believes in hope and change. It could even be said that it symbolizes humanity.
Queue pop culture reference: Analyzing Bethesda’s symbolism actually made me reevaluate one of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who. In the episode, titled The Angels Take Manhattan, the main character, a time traveler called the Doctor, loses his companion in the past. As it turns out, however, the loss of the companion was actually the event that allowed the Doctor to meet her in the first place. Her ending was her beginning. Lost in the past, the time she had spend with the Doctor had technically not yet begun.
Many of the episode’s scenes were actually filmed at the Bethesda Terrace in Central Park. I feel like the symbolism of Bethesda applies here as well: an unfortunate and painful event in the past is eventually transformed into a hopeful future.