Ghosts and hallucinations are a recurring feature of the play. We see that Harper becomes slightly deranged (most probably as a result of her excessive pill-taking), developing an imaginary friend named “Mr. Lies” and becoming convinced that there are men with knives lurking in the shadows. Her hallucinations progress to the point where she is convinced she has travelled to Antarctica via her fridge.
Prior Walter is also subject to various apparitions (most likely due to his sickly state and the consequent medication he is placed on). Prior is visited by two Prior Walters of the past. Furthermore, he begins hearing a certain the voice of an angel and witnesses the gradual breakdown of reality around him. One should note that the “hallucinations” he has are often linked to heaven and the impending descent of the angel.
Roy is the third character that goes through a hallucination of sorts. Similar to Prior Walter, Roy sees a ghost. In his case he encounters the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg; an American citizen who, along with her husband Julius, was sentenced to death in 1953 for committing espionage by attempting to leak information regarding the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. It is made apparent that Roy had a decisive role in convicting Ethel and sentencing her to death.

In examining the role of apparition in Angels of America it is important to note the one commonality between those that are subject to the appearances of ghosts or members of the “International Order of Travel Agents”. The one factor that ties these characters together is sickness and, perhaps more importantly, the consequent medication they are prescribed. Realising that each of these characters are fairly sick, one is inclined to attribute their tendency to encounter “ghosts” to their general delirium (as a result of their illness or medication).
However, could we be too hasty and unimaginative in tying the hallucinations to sickness? The apparitions obviously hold significance. Could the world of Mr. Lies, the Angel, the prior Prior Walters, and Ethel Rosenberg symbolise a single, alternate universe? Are these ghosts “real” in the sense that they aren’t merely the product of sickness and heavy medication? The scene with Ethel Rosenberg and Roy is oddly similar to scenes in A Christmas Carol where Ebenezer Scrooge is forced to confront his past. In depicting the appearance of these ghosts, Kushner is effectively blurring the line between the real and the not.



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  1. I really appreciate this line of questioning as it calls out a larger thematics of haunting we’ve been talking about. Are these ghosts personal or cultural (a la Ibsen)? Both? They seem to be both in Ibsen and in Kushner — but in the same ways? Do the plays have the same definition of “culture”?

  2. On the subject of “blurring the lines between what’s real and not”, another evidence from the text on this matter is when Ethel dials the emergency services when Roy is too sick to call; this could indeed be an example of the unstable division between reality and imagination, or how the excruciating pain, medications and general delirium made Roy attribute his salvation to Ethel’s intervention (ironic, considering he killed her). However, there are other examples of her actions that have significant and long-lasting effects on our physical world: how she knows about the panel’s decision to revoke his status as lawyer, or how she begins reciting in Hebrew for Louis to follow and pray for Roy. These examples could be given more rational explanations (Roy’s subconscious knew the panel would end up punishing him, for example), but together they raise the issue of the relationship between the living in the dead, a connection that this play seems to suggest as a strong one.

  3. I find this quite an interesting post, as it does call to attention the foundation upon which the play is based. Like you mentioned above, the hallucinations and apparitions hold much more significance than the mere fruits of imagination, as they are driving forces in the plot and in the characters’ growth. How do these apparitions work so effectively on both the characters and the audience?

    One more question that I wanted to bring up: Why are some of the apparitions played by actors with existing roles in the play? Does this suggest a commonality between the “real” character and the “imagined” one? Is there a significance of role between these multi-character people? Or is this simply a decision made in interest of decreasing costs?

    For example, Hannah Pitt (Joe’s mother) and Ethel Rosenberg are played by the same actor, which holds true in the HBO Film Adaptation that we watched in class. Both characters have an integral role in helping the sick, as Hannah accompanies Prior to the hospital while Ethel guides Louis in reciting the Kaddish (the Jewish prayer for the dead) for Roy. Neither of the female characters have an obligation to help the ill – and certainly not Ethel – but they both perform kind-hearted acts as well as providing religious guidance/reference (although Hannah is Mormon and Ethel is Jewish).

    Could the multiple roles indicate there is a “blur between the lines” of reality and an ultimate universe? What does this mean for the individual in today’s world? Do we have a quasi alter-ego that has the same essence of our individuality? Do we act differently in different situations/places but essentially perform the same role?

  4. Hi, Sharon. I think the doubling up of roles does multiple things. For one it puts pressure on the idea that actors have to play characters who correspond to their “real” traits: can men play women? vice versa? Can gay actors play straight roles? Vice versa? Kushner once again seems to be using conventions of stage acting to comment on social “roles”: in what way is acting like — or part of — life? And how is acting related to the topic of imagination, which we spent so much time on today. These elements of the play — its metatheatricality — are some of the areas in which I think its asking the biggest questions.

    Anyway, I really like the way you asked this question — does that help point toward some satisfying answers?

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