Who are these angels?
And what the hell are they doing in America?
Prior Walter first encounters an angel when he hears a commanding voice in his dream (which overlaps with Harper Pitt’s Valium trip), and again hears the same voice while being treated at the hospital for infections. He at first attributes it to his prescribed medication, telling Belize, “[T]his drug she is serious poisonous chemistry, ma pauvre bichette. And not just disorienting. I hear things. Voices” (66). The hallucinations culminate with the messenger angel smashing through his roof, convincing Prior that he’s caught the “virus of prophecy”, and that the angel actually exists. Belize remains unconvinced, though, and he tries to persuade Prior, “This is not dementia. And this is not real. This is just you, Prior, afraid of what’s coming…Even if you’re hurting, it can’t go back. There’s no angel. You hear me?” (181).
So is it real? Another clue about the angel’s genesis can be found by inspecting the author’s notes on the casting of the characters. At the hospital Prior meets “Emily, a nurse, played by the actor playing The Angel”. The woman who Prior envisions as the angel is the very same woman who has been taking care of him at the hospital. Further entwining the images of the angel and the nurse, Harper tells prior in their mutual dream scene, “[I]n my experience the mind, which is where hallucinations come from, shouldn’t be able to make up anything that wasn’t there to start with…It only recycles bits and pieces from the world and reassembles them into visions” (38). The angel is so shrouded in drugs and dreams that it’s unclear whether it is real or a product of Prior’s imagination. According to Harper’s understanding of the brain, she, like Belize, might argue that the idea of the angel came from somewhere in Prior’s experience. Being infected with HIV caused so much stress and fear in his life that his subconscious gave him a vision that his sickness was part of a greater problem in the world, that everyone must bear some of the burden for the ill.
The idea of infection plays a very important role in the storyline. Not only are people infected with HIV, but additionally the angel refers to humans with “the Virus of TIME”, Prior suggests his disease is “the virus of prophecy”, and Belize accuses Louis of having the “GOP germ”. The pioneering American expansion westward (epitomized by the Mormons in the diorama scene) can also be read as virus-like, and Belize calls America “Terminal, crazy, and mean”, as if it were experiencing the last days of a drawn out infection. However, the act of pioneering can also be seen as something productive, as homosexual males in the time of the play are pioneers in social justice. They are only just beginning to be accepted by American society.
Belize’s ideas of America could help make a crucial connection between the angels and America. He calls Louis Ironson “like an angel” because he can only see big ideas like America, and is blind to details. He iterates, “Well I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you” (228). In this sense America and angels are similar because they only care about grand ideals while failing to acknowledge the reality full of problems which makes ideals impossible. Their failure, if not addressed, will lead to the terrible consequences that Prior prophesied.
-Connor, Christy, Caroline
The play ends on a promise of hope for change. In the rise of Gorbachev, there is an ignited, excited hope for the Russian state, a “thawing”. This parallels Prior’s situation, there is a change on the horizon, “we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens.” (280) The connection between the two movements of change is unmissable. Situated alongside Bethesda fountain, Prior feels an intense connection, particularly in the fact that the angel is both grounded but also representative of flight, maybe symbolising both the pragmatic struggles but also the weightless dreams and hopes for change. This binary of being weighed down but also in a dream state features throughout the play, if not least in the staging. Kushner emphasises that it is important to create magic on stage while simultaneously not being afraid for the wires and staging to show. The magic feels more real when there exists a point of comparison, in this case, remnants of clumsy human actions.
On the hope, I wonder if we think back to Millennium Approaches and Roy illustrates a bright picture moving forward, an awakening of conservative America that is on the verge of reshaping American politics, if not permanently, at least in the long term. This turns out to be a futile hope. Is this hope similarly amiss, premature? Is the difference that Kushner knows the outcome of the elections in the US as he writes from a retrospective standpoint but has no idea about the future of the Russian political sphere? Or does it even matter at all?
I would like to pick up on something Tom and the class mentioned… comparisons. Throughout Angels in America, Kushner gives contrasting or different ideas for the reader to then compare and try to identify meanings. For example, Tom’s comment on how an angel is both representative of flight in the air and coming to be at ground level – here there is a contrast in the environments represented by the angel. One of the main comparisons is of imagination and reality. Does imagination have the ability to think of new things outside of one’s experiences? Whilst in a dream, can facts of reality come to light? As mentioned in class, this is perhaps most evident in Harper and Prior’s dreamlike meeting (37-39), with Harper questioning how she could see this person she doesn’t know and him revealing to her that her husband is gay, which is true in reality. The borderline between imagination and reality is blurred as it is compared. What difference does it make for this encounter to be in a dreamlike place, why does Kushner not just write that they met in a street and had a discussion!?
The other contrast is of identity being inherited and identity being chosen, With the obituary of the Jewish lady (16), the rabbi tells the children of their relatives journey, which they themselves are a result of but could never take. He then references “Last of the Mohicans”. It seems an odd reference and I wonder what the convenors think the purpose of the references in the book are, particularly at this passage? Is it just because the book wants to link with other books, or wants to share the theme of reality/dreams with the Wizard of Oz?
These are more the unanswered questions from class, but I feel the idea of contrasting ideas and characters is valuable throughout the book. Even characters such as Louis and Joe contrast in their confidence of their own sexuality, which is highlights this taboo subject. The taboo causing people to view the contagion in a particular way, “Roy: No. AIDS is what homosexuals have. I have liver cancer” (52).
Tom, I think on the issue of hope and change we can also look back to the old Bolshevik’s speech around page 148. He brings up the point that change is vital, but “If a snake sheds his skin before a new skin is ready, naked he will be in the world”, which relates to Hannah’s point on page 278 in the epilogue, “You can’t wait for a theory, but you have to have a theory”. Perhaps the difference then between the conservative revolution’s future and future of those with AIDS is that the conservatives did not have a new “skin”, or a new theory. They were trying to move too quickly in upending the current balance of the political system. Those associated with AIDS, however, went through a long period of suffering, during which time a new “skin” could grow and they would become more welcome in society once the epidemic subsided.
I really like how the metaphor of angels is explained in the post. As the book is very much about disease and prejudice, I also see angels as hope to characters, creatures who support individuals to stop living in fear. A good example for this is when Joe says to Luis: „You ought to think about…what you’re doing to me. No, I mean…What you need. Think about what you need. Be brave.” This issue of „need” is also interesting, as Prior mentions at some point that he „needs” the ’voice’ he hears because that is what keeps him alive. Joe encourages Luis to be brave, to be who he is and thus have what he needs. Joe was just then learning to be brave as he starts to feel less ashamed of his identity; he was starting to really accept who he was. So angels are not only ’angels’ but they are motives with a meaningful message of courage, I believe.