Progress and Dreams in Kushner’s Angels in America: Perestroika

Perestroika begins with a warning against change and progress by the oldest living Bolshevik. However, the rest of the play argues against this mindset. At the end of Millennium Approaches, an angel descended and presented Prior with “the Great Work” to stop humans from moving, changing, and migrating so that they will no longer cause destructions in heaven. Yet Prior gradually realizes that moving and progress are inevitable, and even necessary, for humans. Throughout the play, for instance, each character progresses emotionally. Prior and Harper gain strength from being abandoned and are able to reject or leave Louis and Joe. Joe finds the courage to come out as a homosexual to his mother and Roy. After betraying Prior and realizing he has been in a relationship with a man whose acts he abhors, Louis comes back to Prior for his forgiveness. Perhaps we should ask if individual progress represents humanity’s progress in general? The play also takes a stance against conservatism when characters who are more liberal end up finding new directions for their life: Harper leaves for real to San Francisco, and Prior finds hope in life, while Roy Cohn, a conservative, suffers a tragic death. It’s interesting that even in his last moments, the final word he uttered was “Hold.”

Change is the central theme in Perestroika, as each character, with his or her own manifestation of “illness” has individual character growth. The angel rejects the idea of change, insinuating that change and movement will cause the destruction of heaven, and therefore of humanity. However, it is interesting to compare this connection between destruction and change with a similar, yet different connection in Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History. Benjamin claims that “The storm is what we call progress.” Is the destruction and turbulent storm that is being wrought upon heaven in Kushner’s play a sign of the progress and forwardness of humanity? Is it necessary to have that storm because it is the only way our society will progress or move forward, creating a better life and finding a satisfying meaning in it while doing so?      

Reality in Part Two becomes even more distorted with shared dreams, hallucinations, alternate realities and even ascent to and descent from heaven. It appears that the characters share a bond on a mystical or spiritual level through which they are able to connect and know things about each other that are secret or otherwise unrevealed. For instance, there are several times when Harper and Prior come to share the same dream, to the extent the audience is unable to recognize whether these encounters are dream or reality. As the play progresses the distinction between what is real and what might be a dream or a hallucination becomes even more blurred. For example, in this scene Harper is able to interact with reality and Louis acknowledges her as if she was real.

“(Harper puts her hand under Louis’s head, and pushes up; Louis startles awake.)

Louis: Who are you…?

Joe: (To Louis) I – It’s nothing, just…

     (To Harper) Go.

(She vanishes)” (182)

Even though they have never met each other, characters begin to see visions of each other and even hear each other’s voices. As a result, this raises the question, what does it mean to have this shared connection? Are there political meanings behind this?


 Add your comment
  1. One idea that is brought up in the converse post is that of ‘progressivism’ or change in general. This is a concept worth discussing because the book does not necessarily advocate for a definitive way forward. However, there is no sentiment in play that suggests that balance of both the past and the future. Instead, Kushner through Harper’s ‘change’ scene and the opening of ‘Perestroika’, suggests that moving forward is an agonizing process. This is not to say that it is not necessary, but how can people be expected to move from one reality to the next with no clear indication of what is to come, no “theory” about the future.

    Despite the processes of a slow, gradual change- Kushner suggests that any change worth having is difficult. This is clear during Mormon Mother’s lines on how change takes place. However, the community that the characters live in is one that requires much turn over, and this will defiantly not come with ease, and perhaps should cause some disruption (as anticipated by the angels). Change, in this play, mirrors the scene in which Roy Cohn finds out about his illness. Ignoring change, dismissing it and avoiding its very utterance does not stop it from running its course- in this way, Kushner shows us just how inevitable change is.

  2. In my opinion, while Kushner is not explicit on whether changes are always accompanied by “storm”, he does make a clear stance in Perestroika that “the world only spins forward” (290). Throughout the play, we observe concerns from different characters regarding the speed and nature of changes. Specifically, Aleksii uses the metaphor of “skin-shedding snake” to illustrate the vulnerability of the world when it forces itself for unprepared changes (138), while the Mormon Mother associate changes with a graphic, gory transformation (200). Nevertheless, as we observe in the character development of Harper and Prior, the heartbroken abandoned by their partners, have grown stronger and found new direction in life after accepting the painful isolation suddenly imposed upon them. Through Prior’s conversations with the angels in the heaven, “We can’t just stop. We’re not rocks. Progress, migration, motion is … modernity… Even if we go faster than we should. We can’t wait.” (275), Kushner suggests that, we human beings innately desire for changes and progress, for better or for worse. Connecting with the drastic changes society was going through when Perestroika was written, Kushner seems to advocate for a wholistic embrace of progress while acknowledging potential downsides that may follow along.

  3. I keep thinking about progress in relationship with Angels in America, and I think that while the play does encourage a certain amount of moving forward, this movement is not “progress” in our liberal definition of progress: events build up on past events to continuously improve. I think the nuance to the progress which is argued for in this play (and in Benjamin’s definition of time), is a call for not living an empty life. So what I am trying to say is that in order to actually try to “move forward” and “progress”, I think the play calls for a disruption of time, and an awareness of past and present. The play, particularly through Prior, call people to be animate and to desire, as Benjamin asks for passion and engagement. So yeah, I think it is interesting to keep in mind how we define “progress” and how the play attempts to work with the concept, particularly because it is a very important part of “Perestroika”.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.