Study Guide

Angels in America

by Tony Kushner

Angels in America Summary

Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

A two-part, seven-hour play, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is an epic of life in America in the mid-1980’s. In the play, self-interest has overtaken love and compassion, acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is decimating the gay male population, and victory in the ideological battle between liberals and conservatives seems to be going to the conservatives. Tony Kushner’s leftist politics are unmistakably present in his play, but Angels in America is not a polemic. Instead, it is a fantastic journey through the lives of two couples. One couple is Louis, a Jewish word processor, and Prior Walter, a former drag queen who has AIDS. The other is Joe Pitt, a Mormon republican and lawyer, and his wife, Harper. Another key player is the ethically questionable lawyer Roy Cohn, a dramatized version of the real person. (Cohn was counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy during the “Communist witch-hunts” of the 1950’s.) Cohn is dying of AIDS and is in the process of being disbarred.

Angels in America uses AIDS as a metaphor for an investigation of life in the 1980’s. Kushner views the greed of that era as having frightening implications for personal relations. Louis spouts grand ideas in bombastic speeches but flees when faced with a lover who has AIDS. Louis is unable to face the responsibilities associated with caring for a person with AIDS. Joe, who becomes Louis’ lover, abandons his wife, deciding...

(The entire section is 450 words.)

Angels in America Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Conservative attorney Roy M. Cohn offers court clerk Joe Pitt a job in Washington, D.C., with the U.S. Justice Department, but Joe has to discuss the job offer with his wife, Harper. Often consumed by fantasies and fears, Harper hides in her home. When she wants to travel, a travel agent named Mr. Lies magically appears to her and offers to take her anywhere she wants. After Joe returns home, he and Harper fight about going to Washington. They also fight about her emotional problems and about the secrets he keeps from her.

Prior Walter reveals to his lover, Louis Ironson, that he has a cancerous lesion, a sign of advancing complications from acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS. Prior jokes about it, but he fears that Louis might leave him. In truth, Louis does not know if he can stay with Prior to watch him die. One day, Joe finds Louis crying in the men’s room at the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse. Louis thinks Joe is gay and is surprised when Joe denies it.

Prior and Joe’s wife, Harper, are in each other’s dreams. In the dreams, Prior tells Harper that her husband is gay, and Harper tells Prior that deep inside, he is free of disease. For the first time, Prior hears a mysterious angelic voice call to him. Later, Harper asks her husband, Joe, if he is gay, but Joe insists he fights all his “indecent” desires. His behavior is correct, and that is all that matters.

Told that he, too, has AIDS, Roy threatens to destroy his doctor if he says “Roy Cohn is a homosexual.” For Roy, “homosexual” does not mean what it seems to mean. It does not explain who has sex with whom; rather, it describes one’s status and one’s power. Homosexuals have no clout, but Roy has clout. He could talk to the president or the president’s wife at any time. Roy has sex with men, but he reasons that because he is not homosexual, he does not have AIDS. The doctor advises Roy that an experimental drug called AZT might help him, but the drug has a two-year waiting list. Roy will have to call the president for help.

Prior becomes violently ill, and Louis, hysterical, takes him to the hospital. Afraid, Louis leaves him there. Joe tells Roy about his marital problems. Roy, who reveals that he is dying, passes this wisdom to Joe. Roy says that love is a trap, that responsibility is a trap, and that Joe should not be afraid to live alone.

Roy, who has been threatened with disbarment, wants Joe to take a job at the Justice Department so that he might protect Roy from his enemies. Roy’s enemies include the fancy lawyers with corporate clients who need the goodwill of the department. If he worked at the department, Joe could pressure these lawyers to leave Roy alone. Joe knows that this is unethical. An angry Roy tells Joe that ethics does not matter in the world of politics.

Joe and Louis fall in love. They feel that they are caught between their duty to love and their duty to themselves. Both fear and want freedom. They are children of the age: selfish, greedy, loveless, and blind. They become lovers, and Louis leaves Prior, saying he has to be free. Joe tells Harper that he has no sexual feelings for her. Harper, who is now heartbroken, asks Mr. Lies to take her to Antarctica.

Late at night, Joe calls his mother, Hannah Pitt, who lives in Utah, and tells her he is gay. Angry, she tells him to go home to his wife. Hannah sells her house and travels to New York. In a vision, two of Prior’s dead ancestors tell him that he has been chosen by the Angel. He then sees a huge book drop from the heavens and, more and more, feels doomed, as...

(The entire section is 1473 words.)

Angels in America Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes consists of two plays: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. Millennium Approaches opens with a funeral service for Louis Ironson’s grandmother, who represents all of the horrendous experiences and hard-won values of immigrants to the United States.

Kushner elucidates two contrasting relationships that are at turning points: Mormons Joe and Harper Pitt (a married couple) and Louis Ironson and Prior Walter (a gay couple). The Pitts, who have moved from Utah to New York so that Joe could work as a law clerk, are barely communicating, each fighting inner demons: Joe’s inner battle is repressed homosexuality, and Harper’s is deep depression about her empty life and marriage. Prior confesses to Louis that he is HIV-positive and is frightened that Louis will leave him. The major theme of loss and abandonment is introduced.

Joe’s life is the first to intersect with Roy Cohn, the only character based on a historical figure. Cohn (a closeted homosexual who spoke out against homosexuality and died of AIDS in 1986) became famous when he obtained the death penalty for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on flimsy spy charges. Then Cohn assisted Senator Joseph McCarthy’s purge of alleged communists in the early 1950’s, ruining many innocent lives and careers.

With the cool, amoral calculation of an animalistic predator, Cohn, in order to protect himself from government intervention, tries to illegally manipulate Joe into working for him in the Reagan administration. Meanwhile, Harper, in a Valium-induced hallucination, encounters Prior, and these seeming opposites understand each other’s feelings of loss, sadness, and loneliness.

The theme of physical and emotional abandonment continues when Louis gets Prior to the hospital but leaves because he cannot endure the stress of Prior’s illness. Concurrently,...

(The entire section is 790 words.)

Angels in America Summary

Millennium Approaches: Act I

Millennium Approaches: Act I, scene 1
It is late-October, 1985, and Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz stands alone next to a small coffin,...

(The entire section is 1260 words.)

Millennium Approaches: Act II

Millennium Approaches: Act II, scene 1
A month has gone by, and Prior is deteriorating rapidly. In the middle of the night, late...

(The entire section is 964 words.)

Millennium Approaches: Act III

Millennium Approaches: Act III, scene 1
Alone in his apartment, Prior wakes from a nightmare to find an apparition dressed in...

(The entire section is 863 words.)

Perestroika: Act I

Perestroika: Act I, scene 1
The second part of Angels in America begins in Moscow at the Soviet Kremlin, where Aleksii...

(The entire section is 656 words.)

Perestroika: Act II

Perestroika: Act II, scene 1
Prior accompanies Belize to the funeral of a mutual friend, who happened to be a well-known, New...

(The entire section is 300 words.)

Perestroika: Act III

Perestroika: Act III, scene 1
It is February, 1986, a week later. Roy is in his hospital room, trying to manage his disbarment...

(The entire section is 519 words.)

Perestroika: Act IV

Perestroika: Act IV, scene 1
It is the next day, and a split scene shows two attempted reconciliations. At the hospital, Joe is...

(The entire section is 817 words.)

Perestroika: Act V

Perestroika: Act V, scene 1
The Angel returns. It is much later the same night in Prior's hospital room, and Hannah has fallen...

(The entire section is 866 words.)

Perestroika: Epilogue

Prior, Louis, Belize, and Hannah are gathered at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, Prior's favorite spot, four years later. The world...

(The entire section is 128 words.)