The second part of Angels in America is entitled Perestroika for a reason. The first part mainly introduced the AIDS epidemic in America in the 80s, and thus generated a lot of debate about identity, sickness and imagination. This section focuses on progress, what is progress and different definitions of it. Following the characters in the play, we identified multiple perspectives when talking about progress.
Harper believes that new things we create are made from combinations of different informations we had and known before, a.k.a Fantasia. It’s the same with the progress too. We do not just progress into a new future, we progress into a future that is a combination of the past and our dream future. In page 285, when she is traveling in a plane, she says “Nothing’s lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of a painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead.”. She sees the future that is painful because the future is neither the one we want or the one we had previously in the past. It’s the combination of both. Does progress have to be a radically, completely new change, or can it be more like fantasia?
In the play Prior and Harper are the ones that talk about progress and future. However, it is Louis and Joe who make progress. Joe leaves Harper to fulfill his sexual attraction and Louis leaves Prior. We don’t hear anything about progress from Joe and Louis but they are the making progress. Is progress only action, or can it be a change in thought instead? Also just because Louis and Joe do something “different”, does that constitute as “progress”?
Harper in page 263 says that “Devastation. That’s what makes people migrate, build things.” According to her, progress and change comes only after devastation. So, progress is not actually a good thing because before progress there is devastation. She talks about ozone layer depletion and ice caps melting. These are the symptoms of devastation. Progress and change will be followed by it. Similarly, progress also has a negative connotation in Prior’s dream. It makes the God flee. God does not like progress and change. Why do you think the God fled when people moved and progressed? What is the relationship between progress and their version of God?
Prior, on the other hand, argues progress with the Assembly of the Continental Principalities. The Assembly is concerned about the upcoming Chernobyl disaster, the largest nuclear disaster in human history up to date, forecasting the Millenium, “[n]ot the year two thousand, but the capital-M Millenium” (page 289). The approaching of the Millenium is a belief held by some Christian denominations (including Mormons) that there will be Golden Age or Paradise on Earth in which “Christ will reign” for 1000 years prior to the final judgment and future eternal state. However, it is believed the Millenium will be forecasted by man-made catastrophes, thus the concern for the upcoming Chernobyl disaster. The Angels are afraid of the deaths to follow, and are shocked by Prior’s demand for more life. His “addiction to being alive” is unknowable to the seven Angels who cannot understand how does one desire more life when only death is to follow? Why are the Angles scared of death? Why do they demand cessation instead of progress? Should we lay our future in God’s hands or make the progress ourselves? Prior, the Prophet, presents them with the idea behind modernity and progress:
“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. (On “for” he makes a motion with his hand: starting one place, moving forward) Even if we go faster than we should. We can’t wait. And wait for what. God–“ (page 275)
Prior’s conversation with the Angel on page 172 and 278-279 reveals the conflicting attitudes between man and entity. The Angel wants humans to stop “moving forward” and “progressing” because it believes that this is why God left the heavens and earth. Prior initially resists very timidly, saying he does not want the prophet job. Later when Prior is in heaven, he humbly rejects the angels’ offers of cure and instead states he “wants more life.” He lauds the “addiction to being alive” and the idea of “hope” in staying alive. Through these passages, it seems like Kushner is criticizing Republican ideals. 20th century Republicanism generally is conservative, which means it wants to retain old ideals/methods and is usually against change. 20th century Democrats generally are supporters of liberalism, usually advocating what they call “progress” and “change.” Throughout the last century in US history, the Democrats mostly were the first ones to support the gay community and gay rights (which might explain why Kushner in his introduction was relieved that Obama won the 2012 election). If we are to attribute this Angel as the Angel of America, then one can see how America is still chained to stagnation. The Angel’s goal is to stem growth and progress but it is up to people like Prior to break free from these restraints and actually create change. Yet what constitutes change? What does it mean to be civilized? If we have freedom of thought and ideas, then why is Kushner bashing on Republicans? Even if it is not a popular chain of thought wouldn’t attacking the Republicans be a contradiction to the free thought that Kushner is preaching here?
What is progress for you readers?
Love, प्रेम, co љубов,
Wes, Krishna and Evgenija
Great questions. I’m looking forward to discussing today.
Hi Wes, Krishna, and Evgenija,
Such an insightful post and great questions! You have mentioned many important topics/themes of the play in your post, and I am especially interested in Prior’s speech for more life in front of the angels. Progress here, in my opinion, simply implies human lives and the earthly world which may be filled with dirt, suffer, disappointment, and unfairness. However, though earthly lives in the turbulent society may sound miserable, Prior still believes that these lives are better than the stasis in heaven because. Instead of passively standing sill to wait for the unknown power to determine their future, people are actively managing their own lives. In the other word, they are making progress. Though these progresses may not be delightful or expected, there are always hopes and possibilities lying in this progresses.
The contradiction between heavenly stasis and earthly progress reminds me of Prior’s relationship with Lou. At first, Lou leaves Prior because of Prior’s disease. Lou is the one who makes progress and Prior suffers by standing in the same place and keep looking back to their four years together. However, in the end of the play, Lou comes back but Prior does not stay in the same place waiting for Lou any more. He calmly claims that “I love you, I really do. But you can’t come back. Not ever. I’m sorry, but you can’t.” Lou cannot come back, because Prior is not in his original spot any more. Progress is irreversible and Prior can do nothing to fix the situation except for saying sorry. Lou had abandoned Prior. Then, Prior abandons Lou.
In the play, characters keep saying that it is God who abandons humans. However, this claim seems to be suspicious and biased to me. God may abandons humans at first, but it seems that humans also abandon God after God’s leave. Humans are heading to the future without God’s blessing or instructions. They are looking for the right paths in darkness and they frequently steps into the wrong ways. Though one day God may wants to come back and find humans again, can God be able to find humans? Have humans gone so far already? From this perspective, the angels who are still waiting in the ruins are the minorities who still guard their garden to wait for God’s return. The question is, do they really stay unchanged? Do they successfully manage to stick to the same place in the progressive world? Or, have they already been unconsciously changed by the world but they still live in their fantasy to pretend nothing has changed? Have people… abandoned God?
Hi Wes, Krishna and Evgenija,
Thanks for bringing up the central theme of progress! There’s so much to say about it and your questions are really insightful.
Towards the end of Perestroika, Kushner’s characters start to share their opinions on the way the world is changing, if it is changing at all. The epilogue is particularly interesting. ‘Angels in America’ is a complicated, opinionated play however, the epilogue presents Kushner’s views on certain aspects: notably politics and what progress entails.
The latter parts of the 1980s brought with them the end of the Cold War. The ‘Perestroika’ (a word that literally translates to reform or restructuring), which was a political movement in Russia, was a contributing factor to this massive political change that had global repercussions.
There’s so much going on in the aptly named epilogue. The discussion centered on Bethesda (yet another angel) and the fountain in Jerusalem, a symbol of the Israel-Palestine conflict, leads to further political dialogue.
It seems as though Kushner has hope. Prior blesses life into his companions, and claims that “the world only spins forward”. The dialogues are purposeful, and Kushner intends to send home a message of optimism as the world undergoes inevitable change. Throughout the play, I’ve been faced with several unanswered questions about progress, but I think the epilogue is when some of them begin to get answered.
I really like Yan’s idea about “Have we abandoned God?”. The characters in the play repeatedly say that the God abandoned the human kind. But the question is why did he do so? Was it entirely the fault of human kind that God abandoned them or human kind is not to be blamed? May be, people progressed so much that they start forgetting about the God. In the name of progress, they moved ahead without God. They abandoned God first and the God abandoned them.
In continuation of Yan’s argument, to depart is to take the risk that if once you do return, things might not be in the place you left them. However, rarely those who depart think of the consequences of their actions, as happened with Louis and Prior. To progress in this sense is to take the risk, that it is not only you that is progressing. “The world only spins forward” and progress cannot be reversed.
As to why God abandoned humans, it might be a suggestion that religion does not hold as strong position in global politics as it did in previous centuries.
Thanks for the comments guys and keep reading 🙂
Sorry I’m commenting so late on this incredibly well-written post! I’m glad you provided such a great starting point for the discussion of this very dense play. It’s so difficult knowing where to start analyzing it, but I think progress is a central theme worth examining. It is something that Kushner makes out to be so truly human, and that is what sets mankind apart from the angels. Like Harper says, progress is “painful,” but one thing that got me thinking was your questions on the nature of progress. Is progress solely moving forward or must it necessarily be moving forward towards a general “good”? After all, Joe does make progress throughout the play, but from what we know he does not necessarily end up in a good place, the way we know the rest of the characters do. I would argue that progress is not necessarily about the final destination, but rather about the tireless, ceaseless nature of it – what is important is that we don’t stop.
Another thing that intrigued me is the absence of God and his abandonment of his angels. I don’t believe it was because God does not like progress. In Perestroika Act 2 Scene 2, the Angel says:
“Bored with His Angels, Bewitched by Humanity, in Mortifying Imitation of You, His least creation, He would sail off on voyages, no knowing where.” (170)
I read this less as God’s distaste of progress and more of his admiration of it, in comparison to his other creations, the Angels who lack imagination. God being the creator, he would be expected to respect and admire creatures who always strive to make, move forward and create, even if everything we come up with is a recycled Fantasia. I liked Evgenija’s comment on how “religion does not hold as strong a position in global politics as it did in previous centuries.” It seems close to the play’s message, considering how powerless the angels are eventually portrayed to be.
Thank you guys for this great post, and see you tomorrow!
I’ve sometimes thought that God abandons human here because they don’t engage “him” more forecfully. Remember that the Angels want humans to stop moving because it was their movement and imagination that shook God, “bewitched” him. Then he imitated them and set out on his own adventures. If I follow things correctly, though, the Angels really misunderstand the situation if they think He will come back when humans stop moving. It’s in response to this message that Prior wrestles the angel, demands a blessing (“more life”), and advises the angels to sue God for abandonment.
There seems to be a check here on the idealization of movement: movement and abandonment can’t be the same thing — what happens if one leads to the other?
You could say that the lawsuit in the end, for which Roy is enlisted as a lawyer, is another form of wrestling, trying to bring God back into the picture — something Kushner’s play itself seems to attempt.