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 that he can no longer repress his homosexuality. Cohn tries to enlist Joe’s help in stopping the disbarment process by getting Joe a job in the Reagan Administration, but Joe refuses.
Prior, the protagonist, is the character who suffers most. As AIDS-related complications jeopardize his health, he becomes more panicked. He also becomes a prophet after being visited by an angel at the end of part 1, Millennium Approaches. With the help of Hannah Pitt, Joe’s mother, he learns how to resist the Angel and how to make the Angel bless him. In spite of his failing health, Prior tells the Angel: “We live past hope. If I can find hope anywhere, that’s it, that’s the best I can do. It’s so much not enough, so inadequate. . . . Bless me anyway. I want more life.”
This message of hope, near the end of part 2, Perestroika, affirms the movement of the play toward the interconnectedness of people across boundaries of race, religion, sexuality, or ideology. Julius Rosenberg and Ethel Rosenberg say kaddish over the dead body of Cohn. Hannah, a devout Mormon, nurses Prior, a stranger to her. Belize, a black, gay nurse, advises Cohn on his medical treatment. Louis and Prior get back together, as the epilogue reveals.
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,...
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