In Angels in America, the author of the play, Tony Kushner, explores many issues such as homosexuality, identity, religion, politics and ghosts. Part One of the play, “Millennium Approaches,” deals specifically with how people, especially those in America, react to homosexuality. Generally, the response is quite negative. While we all know that Joe is a homosexual, in the initial part of the play, he denies that he is gay. This first scene of denial is seen when Joe and Louis talk about Republicanism. When Joe says, “I voted for Reagan,” Louis calls Joe, “A Gay Republican” (Act I, Scene 6). In response, Joe quickly says, “I’m not—,” thereby showing that he’s denying his true self. He continues to deny whenever the topic of him being gay comes out. When Joe declines to have sexual intercourse with Harper, Harper asks, “Are you a homo?” (Act I, Scene 8). At first Joe hesitates but then replies that he isn’t. These two scenes show that there’s a possibility of Joe being gay. While he denies the fact that he is gay because such an idenity is degraded and discouraged both by his religion, Mormonism, and American society at large, in both scenes he shows hesitation before denying: “I’m not—” and takes some time before replying to his wife, Harper. The reactions in these scenes bring up specific questions. How do people generally act or react toward homosexuals? Is it right to criticize them? What is the right or moral way to react or respond to homosexuals? How is the idea of homosexuality explored in the play? Did the play change your mind about homosexuality?
The inner or identity struggle that Joe faces is clearly depicted in Act 2 Scene 2, in which he describes Jacob wrestling with an angel:
I had a book of Bible stories when I was a kid. There was a picture I’d look at twenty times every day: Jacob wrestles with the angel. I don’t really remember the story, or why the wrestling—just the picture. Jacob is young and very strong. The angel is … a beautiful man, with golden hair and wins, 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 torn out from God’s. But you can’t not lose. (Act 2, Scene 2)
Through the metaphor of the angel, Joe implies that he is struggling with homosexuality. Because he is a devout Mormon, his religious beliefs repress his homosexuality. In this metaphor, the angel symbolizes Joe’s difficulty in understanding God’s will or purpose. The battle seems to represent his struggle to overcome or deny his character or the nature of his homosexuality. Losing in this battle also seems to foreshadow that he will eventually accept his sexuality. What do you guys think of this wrestling scene? What’s the significance of this scene? What do you think the losing of the battle symbolizes or suggest?
Eventually, in Act 2, Scene 8, when Joe talks to Hannah, his mother, Joe faces and admits that he is gay: “Mom. Momma. I’m a homosexual, Momma” (Act 2, Scene 8). Unfortunately, his mother’s response is negative and quite hurtful. At first she does not say anything. Afterwards she says, “You’re old enough to understand that your father didn’t love you without being ridiculous about it… You’re ridiculous. You’re being ridiculous” (Act 2, Scene 8). The repetition of the word “ridiculous” emphasizes that the mother does not accept Joe being gay and that it is something very wrong and against the rules or laws in both Mormonism and the larger society. The stage directions also show that Hannah was quite upset and she warns him saying, “Drinking is a sin! A sin! I raised you better than that.” While she was referring to drinking, she was also referring to his confession. Once again, through his mother’s response, we can see that homosexuals are degraded and looked down upon in American society. If you were the mother, how would you have reacted?
Through homosexuality, Kushner also introduces one of the greatest health issues from the 1980s to the present, AIDS. The disease is first introduced in the play as Kaposi’s sarcomas in Act I, Scene 4. During the conversation between Prior and Louis, Prior says, “K.S., baby. Lesion number one. Look it. The wine-dark kiss of the angel of death” (Act I, Scene 4). The angel of death signifies that K.S. is detrimental. But, what does wine-dark kiss suggest? Why was the disease compared to a wine-dark kiss? Does the color of red wine suggest blood, signifying death? We find this comparison quite interesting. What do you guys think? Moreover, how does the disease, AIDS, affect the lives of the characters in the play?
Another theme which the play outlines is movement. Movement, whether it is physically from one location to another or psychologically from one state to another usually symbolizes new beginnings. It provides a second chance, a new beginning with nothing from the past to hold you down. In Angels of America, we see that Harper is struggling with her life and when Joe asks her to move with him to Washington she refuses. A new place, new job and a new neighborhood would give her a chance to start again. Yet,with change and new beginnings also comes fear. That is the reason Harper decides to stay. At the very beginning of the play we witness the funeral of an old lady called Sarah, who has moved from Eastern Europe to America for a better life. Despite her fears, she was capable of building new future for her sons. Is movement always a positive change? Does movement always symbolize new beginnings? At this stage in the play America is portrayed to be the land of freedom, equality and new beginnings. It is the land where dreams come true. Is this how America will be portrayed throughout the play? Or is the ‘American Dream’ merely propaganda?
Similar to Ibsen’s Ghosts, Millennium Approaches also addresses the idea of ghosts. In the play, Prior is confronted by two ghosts also called Prior Walter. In conversation, Prior 1 and Prior 2 explain that they both die of the same plague that the resent Prior is about to die from. They explain the process of their death but tell Prior that they had their wives and children with them because they were married. Prior explains however that he will die alone because he has no wife and children since he is gay. The idea that Prior is dying of the same disease as his predecessors coincides with Mrs. Alving’s claim that ghosts haunt us. These ghosts that are the behaviours of our those that came before us. Prior could not run from his fate, he was going to die of the plague. None of the previous Prior Walter(s) could have escaped their fate just as Oedipus could not escape his. Do you think that if Prior had met his ghosts earlier he could have saved himself from his fate? What is the significance of the ghosts in the play?
The themes discussed in this play are still topics discussed today. The idea of giving human rights to gay people is a topic debated by politicians, church congregations, and the average man across the world. The topic of AIDS and finding a cure is mentioned in every medical conference. Issues of democracy, racism and religion are debated everywhere. They all promised us that change was coming. How much have we really changed?
While thinking about these questions, perhaps you may enjoy this trailer for Angels in America as presented by Signature Theatre Company.
Rhoshenda, Jenny, Shereena.
You guys posed many provoking questions, really makes people think! 😀
I liked how you guys highlighted the passage where Joe talks about his fascination with the biblical story of Jacob wrestling the angel. I went and looked up the bible passage and in most versions, it actually says Jacob is wrestling a “man.”
(Genesis 32: 24-28 Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,[b] for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”)
So Jacob wrestled with God! I think God is a much tougher opponent than an angel don’t you think? I do agree that Joe’s biblical reference symbolizes his struggle with his homosexuality but if we Joe sees himself as Jacob (and Jacob in the Bible does not lose to the “man”) then that means Joe does not lose or give in to this “angel” or God. If God wants him to be something else but Joe wants to be a homosexual, then by this biblical reference, Joe ultimately wins out as he keeps his choice of being homosexual rather than conforming to “God’s” plan for him. We can see this in the rest of the play as Joe transitions from a closeted homosexual to an open practicing one with Louis.
Also to answer your question about what I would do if I was the mother of Joe, I think I would have responded with love and understanding first, even if his actions contradicted my personal beliefs. I think the key to human understanding is to try to listen to the other person’s perspective first and ask thoughtful questions to understand why people made that choice. Even if I did not agree with Joe’s actions, I would have welcomed him and talked to him rather than condemning him right away and avoiding the issue.
Thanks for wonderful questions guys.
Hey Wes! Thanks for the comment! :))
Actually, I did not know that Jacob was wrestling with God. This is an interesting point! And I also think that your analysis makes sense. While he experiences identity struggle, which is seen through the wrestling with God/angel, referencing to the Bible, eventually Jacob wins the wrestling, suggesting that Joe ultimately keeps his belief and accepts his homosexuality. But, I wonder why Kushner changed God to angel. Why do think the author purposely changed from God to angel? While I believe that the wrestling with the angel symbolizes Joe’s difficulty in understanding God’s will in regards to his sexuality and identity, is there a particular significance in using the angel instead of God? If yes, what do you think the reason is? Maybe it has something to do with the angel motif throughout the play?
I also agree with you in regards to the reaction to Joe as his mother. I would also have listened to him first and talked to him rather than criticized him for his homosexuality. Thanks for sharing your personal opinion. It’s great to know how you think about it! :)) I really liked the Bible reference you specifically pointed out!
Interesting opinions have been presented about the wrestling scene. Let me contribute as well 😀 I personally read the scene as highlighting the struggle faced by not just homosexuals, but all individuals not falling under the amatonormative or heteronormative framework. It is not the fight against society’s ignorance and discrimination, but the struggle with oneself. Because, before coming out to the world one must come out to oneself, and that is usually more frightening and difficult than telling the rest of the world. Joe struggles to accept that his sexual identity might not be what he thought it was, and this fight to accept his true self is like fighting a non-human being (angel or God) “fierce and unfair”. It is a fight where “losing means your soul thrown down in the dust” because losing he ends up confused between what he truly is and what society expect him to be. And it is a fight that “you can’t not lose” because he cannot escape his identity. However, even after accepting his identity and forming a romantic relationship with Louise, Joe finds himself trapped in the paradox of “coming out of the closet into a box” (an excellent talk was held on this topic last semester at NYUAD). He finds himself into a situation where as being gay he has to represent a sort of stereotypical gay behaviour that he does not do. In short, he is not “gay enough”. Thus, he ends up rolling back and forth between Harper and Louise, as Jacob is in an unfair fight with the angel. Well, at least that is my reading of the scene. 🙂
About the promised change, public opinion might have changed about homosexuality, but there is still an ongoing fight about all other identities of queerness. Many many other identities are still repressed and neglected by society today, hurting many individuals much more that they hurt homosexuals back in the 80s. The world is still to learn and change, small steps at a time.
How much have we really changed? This question provoked some thinking in me. Other question to ask would be “Have we changed at all?” Although it might be more easier to introduce yourself as gay in 2010s than in 1980s, there are still troubles with the legality of being gay or gay marriage and people still have doubts about it. It is still a controversial issue and it has become more of a political agenda nowadays.
Being gay was seen as a weakness in 1980s. So, Joe and Roy tried to hide it from other people. However, they could not hide it from themselves. The homosexual feeling in Joe made him to leave Harper and live with Louis for few weeks and Roy became diagnosed with AIDS. All of the gay characters of the play are also in deep trouble. Being gay in 1980s was itself a big trouble. Society viewed them as unwanted and sick. I think showing that all gay characters with problems, Kushner is trying to depict the usual scenario of gay people in 1980s-unwanted and sick.
Interesting point. The questions you have posed are strongly linked to the idea of change discussed in class. If we are talking about the perception of homosexuality in a global perspective, then yes, it has changed. Yet, there are specific states that do not allow or acknowledge gay marriages. Some countries, perceive homosexuality as a crime.
You have also mentioned how the play depicts gays during the 1980s to be (“unwanted and sick”). I do not believe the play portrays the characters in this way, at least not by the problems they are facing. The play, perhaps, pushes the reader to see the characters in a way they could connect to.