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.