Fallen Angels

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?

One of two quilts memorializing Roy Cohn on the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

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)

A second quilt memorializing Roy Cohn, referring to his anti-communist work with Mccarthy which turned into a homophobic hunt of gay men in government.

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


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  1. If you have not been on the screening on December 1st, you missed out, BIG time, it was a lot of fun and we had delicious snacks 🙂

    This play is…. a lot to be honest. I don’t know about others, but for me it was A LOT to process. Thankfully, convener’s picked out specific questions that help to somehow structure the ideas in my head.

    I especially liked the connection drawn between ghosts from well… Ghosts and Angels from well… Angels in America. In the play Ghosts the image of what ghosts are is revealed upfront through (if I am not mistaken) the word of Miss Alving.

    “Ghosts… I’m inclined to think that we are all ghosts….. It’s not just what we inherit from our mothers and father that haunts us. It’s all kinds of old defunct theories … and things like that. It’s not that they actually live on in us; they are simply lodged there, and we cannot get rid of them.”

    I wonder what would be a quote from Angels in America that is equivalent of the one above. What is something that haunts each character? And how would it play out with the network each one is them is involved in? Because it is certain that there are correlation or similarities between the fears everyone face. And if not similarities, then there are some links/causal relationship between the angels that haunt everyone. Homesexuality is something that haunts Roy (one of many MANY things that haunt him) and Mormon lawyer Joe. But the reasoning might be different, because for Roy homosexuality is an insult, for the reason it is a sign of weak that get tossed around by everyone. He is not one of those (the quote about clout in the convener’s post demonstrates that).

    For Joe, homosexuality is a sin. Something that goes against the teaching of everything he has known and grown up with. And unlike Roy, he at the end accepts that by coming out to his mother and readily sacrificing all the beliefs he held (his second skin) as a Mormon for Louis.

    Yeah, i am not sure where I am going with this, but the point is ——> trying to identify what haunts who and what that says about the network of relationship within the play? Or what does it say about the characters of the play? About their personality and their angels?

    Btw, question out of curiousity, what haunts Harper? Joe?

  2. The theme of interconnectedness is really interesting. Kushner goes out of his way to bring some characters together (ex. Harper and Prior in their dreams or in the Mormon visitor’s center) and juxtapose them in really interesting ways to illustrate how pervasive and deep rooted sentiments like homophobia are. Harper and Prior are struggling with two sides of the same coin; Harper is dealing with the loss of her husband as she knew him and Prior is coming to terms with the plague ravaging the gay community.

    Another interesting set of connections was between Roy Cohen and Belize. They are both gay (although not according to Roy) but otherwise, share incredibly little in common. Positions of power are briefly flipped as Roy lies sick and dying in a hospital room and Belize reminds him that he can cause pain by putting in the IV. I read a review of the play in which the author argued this scene could never have actually happened: a Black working-class nurse having the courage to speak to someone as well connected as Roy Cohen. Perhaps the beauty of the play is that it does bring together all these characters which otherwise would have likely never interacted as honestly as they do .

  3. Hope everyone is having a good national day holiday and happy 50th bday to the UAE! I was wandering at the Louvre over the weekend and walked right into this picture that I suddenly realized was adapted as a scene in our book: http://www.thearttribune.com/spip.php?page=docbig&id_document=1801

    The title of this work is “Jacob’s Dream”, a biblical scene from Genesis 28:10-22. Just wanted to share this and also an observation that a lot of the plague literature we talked about during this semester all wandered back into biblical similarities and references to the Christian divinity.

  4. Re: societal conditions shaping our understanding of self and others. While I agree with Taman for pointing out that the individual is haunted by the ghosts created by the network, I want to deviate from this collective concept to focus on the individual level effects in this play (which, to some extent is the other side of force tugging our character away from the societal influences).
    In Perestroika, there is this scene of the Angel visiting Prior and morphed a book into him. The conversation that stuck with me was the one where the Principality of America demanded Prior to go and stop the progression of modernity, to which Prior responded: “We can’t just stop. We’re not rocks. Progress, migration, motion is … modernity. It’s animate, it’s what living things do. We desire. Even if all we desire is stillness, it’s still desire for…Even sick, I want to be alive” (275-77).” Societal conditions may shape our belief systems and define our ghosts, but humans don’t just sit around and get affected. Revolution starters, or anti-vaxxers, both started their actions against mainstream societal beliefs. One could argue that they are instead affected by an echo chamber that exploit their anti-beliefs, but how big of a portion does a group belief have to be for us to qualify it as a society? Or could we argue that the disbelief of societal thoughts ARE actually the effects of societal conditions too? What motivated the characters in our play fight back against their ghosts?
    I remember reading a research a few years back that studied the tax evasion behaviors within a society. The key result I remember was as follows: in societies where there is an understanding of “a norm that everyone pays taxes”, individuals would be less likely to evade taxes. As someone born in the 2000s and not in the States, I gained my contextual knowledge for the play (and Roy Cohn) mainly through the dialogues and the disgust expressed towards Cohn. What exactly was the norm for the scene of the play? If I was born closer when the play premiered, would I have understood it differently? What norms did Prior and Roy faced that led to their decisions and pushbacks and lies?

  5. the post was amazingly put!!! what really grabbed my attention was Roys cloth that was put in display reffering to his anti-communisit belifes which the convers used to talk about the broken personality of Joe a Gay Mormon that felt obliged to vote for Reagan. To me joe is the character that resolves his matters the least by the end of the play. We don’t see a “good ending” for his character. I question why Kushner decided to do so? Why is it that the character of joe is very broken and cannot even be attempted to be resolved? As the conveners put it “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.” Which begs the question if and how Joe will end up happy.

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