The Great Work Begins

From the original production of Angels in America

“America, when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?”

America, Allen Ginsberg (1956)

Kushner’s “Angels in America” is a spectacle of diverse characters. The entanglement of individuals living and imaginary, along with deliberate choices in production such as having one actor play multiple characters, create a representative cohort to inhabit his depiction of America. 

A Character Map of the main characters in the play

At the beginning of the play, Kushner is detail oriented in his description of characters. What attributes of character backgrounds does he emphasize, why? Alongside pointing out relationships between characters, there is a focus on occupation, where they are from, and a re-casting of actors for sub-characters. How do these details influence your reading of and, from the perspective of a production, the portrayal of the play?

Each component of the characters plays into the threads that are discussed in this convener’s post and perhaps remind you of prior readings as well: the focus on Mormon and Jewish religious minorities, AIDs, intergenerational politics, LGBTQ issues and power dynamics. These labels and personality traits have a particular function and continually raise questions about identity.

For instance, Belize, “a registered nurse and former drag queen whose name was originally Norman Arriaga” is a black gay man whose character pays homage to the ball and voguing culture of mid to late 80s in New York. Jennie Livingston’s documentary “Paris is Burning” explores this scene through a similar lens as Kushner, focusing on gay and drag subculture and its importance in tackling AIDs, homophobia and racism and defining the modern LGBTQ movement.

The production history of the play is a story in its own right. Since its first performance in May 1990, the play has been re-invented by theatres all around the world and adapted to film and new media. Kushner also informs specific staging choices, like split view, where he does not encourage the use of freezing characters, but rather recommends that ‘active choices’ be made to stay silent to shift between the two simultaneous threads. What are the roles of these details in staging? What is lost when more artistic agency deviates from these instructions? 

Angels in America unfolds against the backdrop of intersecting historical moments in 20th century America. There is the era of the Reagan administration, characterized by significant political polarization and a heightened “conservative revolution.” There is the Cold War, with references throughout the play alluding to McCarthyism and Russian espionage— the title of the second part itself, “Perestroika,” a reference to the reformation policy promoted by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 70s. There is the post-WWII era, characterized by the influx of Jewish migrants from Central and Eastern Europe into the United States. And finally, there is the U.S. AIDS crisis, which was also historically defined with severe undertones of homophobia.

It is through such a potent intersection of historical eras that issues of politics, race, and gender come to a head in Angels in America. Tensions between progressivism and conservatism play out vis-à-vis the contrasting political beliefs of the characters. The conservative views of Joe (despite his closeted homosexuality), for example, starkly contrasts the more progressive views of Louis. But the play does not necessarily shy away from complications to this central tension, either. Issues of progressivism versus conservatism are over time complicated by the nuances of socio-economic privilege. Louis, for example, is more concerned with the notion of America as a political arena between the conservatives and the progressives: “there are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political.” Yet in doing so, he fails to acknowledge the significance of America’s race problem, and his own privilege as a white man.

It is, of course, impossible to talk about a play entitled Angels in America without discussing its heavy religious motifs. Kushner’s play is brimming with Judeo-Christian imagery. This includes everything from references to Biblical stories like Jacob wrestling an angel (51) and Louis finding the Mark of Cain on his forehead (104) to larger overarching themes of prophecy, divinity, and sin. At the center of these religious themes is Prior who is visited by an Angel and chosen to become the prophet of America. Prior himself is not associated with either of the two main religions surrounding his visitation. He is not Jewish and does not understand the Hebrew spontaneously being spoken around him. He is also not Mormon, yet he is visited by the angel in the same way Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion, was visited by the Angel Moroni in 1820. If anything, Prior is the non-religious descendant of WASPs who were most likely Protestant or Catholic. The deliberate choice to make him the chosen prophet both speaks to the implied universality of the religions and the redemptive narrative of the angel’s appearance. Prior is dying of AIDS and abandoned by his lover. He has lost all hope, therefore the appearance of an Angel is almost Messianic.

But for all its metaphors and references, religion in Angels in America is a cultural presence more than a spiritual one. We as readers encounter religion most in Jewish funerals and Mormon visitation centers. The choice to focus on Mormonism and Judaism specifically is interesting since both religions seem incredibly different at first glance. One is ancient while the other is barely a hundred years old. One is liberal New York the other is conservative Utah. Yet they are also the same in their separation from society, the prejudice and ignorance they face, and the strict moral rules they impose on their adherents. Religion casts a long shadow over Louis and Joe for example, as religious values of loyalty condemn their abandonment of their partners. It begs the question, how much of the characters’ beliefs and views are influenced by their religious upbringing? And also, what is religion really beyond a set of cultural practices and moral values?

Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout. Does this sound like me, Henry?

Roy Cohn (page 46)

Roy’s rather short interaction with Henry shows a lot about his character: to Roy, everything is about power and it is also ever present throughout Angels of America. Even in hearing about his condition, he dares Henry to tell him that he is gay, but threatens to destroy him if he tries. He differentiates himself with homosexuals, saying labels are not about sexuality but rather power, and that he, Roy Cohn is a “heterosexual man, who fucks around with guys.” Ironically, he is stripped of his power before his moment of death in which he becomes a “little faggot” and his excess supply of AZT is not enough to save him.

But labels and words themselves seem to have power throughout the play with characters unable to speak out about homosexuality. Louis at the hospital responds to Emily’s inquiry that he is in fact Prior’s “uh”. The conversation is casual but ultimately incomplete. The same lack of acknowledgment of the AIDS epidemic from the Reagan administration can be found here. The lack of acknowledgment and reaction And there is constant struggle from characters due to the stigmas, even more so when they and their loved ones are faced by fatality, highlighted by Louis and Prior.

A power shift also appears towards the end of the novel with Harper. Initially she is the first to fight for no change, she is already so alone and frightened that it seems that any change would break her. In the real world she is both sexually and ideologically suppressed and finds herself escaping from it. Towards the end, she overcomes her fears, realizes that loss is needed for change and finally leaves Joe, who “[doesn’t] know what will happen to [him] without [her]”, slapping and handing him some Valium in the process. The second play ends with her on real trip, as she flies to San Francisco.


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  1. You guys I am not kidding this morning I woke up and thought to myself “I wish there was a scene in Angels where Allen Ginsberg was teaching a class at Brooklyn College and read those lines from ‘America,'” and BOOM, your post delivered. 😍

  2. The production history that the conveners’ post mentions can’t escape the mention of HBO adaptation, which is ample with references to art history.

    For instance, the poster(?) for HBO version recalls The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, where the fingers of man and God are touching. However, while the painting of potential reference is about God’s creation of humans, the angels in the play resent such decision and God has left the humans in ‘Angels in America,’ which means that the particular reference to the work I was reminded of might not have been the case for the show’s Art Direction.

    The miniseries contain an ample amount of references to art history and actually use artworks, which include the following:

  3. “What are the roles of these details in staging? What is lost when more artistic agency deviates from these instructions?”

    The split-view detail in staging where characters of both scenes are alive and moving at all times is probably one of my favorite things about this book. Not only does one scene potentially parallel/contrast another scene as they co-exist, but I think this also alludes to the larger idea of the interconnectedness of the characters (which can also be alluded to through having the same person play different characters) and how they all represent a larger theme or image of America, American values, and the AIDS pandemic.

    I think that it is not about what is lost in this artistic freedom, but about what is gained. I’ve always been mesmerized by the idea that a piece of text can exist in people’s bodies and on different stages with so much variance. I believe that this artistic freedom consequently brings forth the possibility of certain themes highlighted by this book to arise in different forms, and for different interpretations by the directors, actors, and audiences to also arise. I wish I had watched this play.

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