Angels in America

by Tony Kushner

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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.


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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...

(This entire section contains 1473 words.)

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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 if something is following him.

Roy calls Joe a sissy when he refuses the Washington job. Joe wants to be nice, but he has to choose between being nice and being effective, as Roy had been in getting spy Ethel Rosenberg executed for treason. As Roy collapses in pain, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg appears to watch him suffer. Roy rages at her, refusing to give in.

With great fanfare, the Angel appears to Prior. God, fascinated by humanity’s ability to evolve, change, and progress, had become bored with angels and had abandoned Heaven on the same date as the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Prior is to tell humanity to stop moving and changing, so that God might perhaps return.

Harper’s fantasy of Antarctica eventually ends and, back in reality, she is rescued by Hannah Pitt. Hannah, after being lost in the Bronx, has found Harper’s apartment.

A hospitalized Roy insults a nurse, Belize, but she fights back. Belize gives Roy medical advice, and when Roy asks why he should trust Belize, the nurse answers that unlike Roy’s doctors, Belize knows that Roy is gay. When Roy gets his AZT, he shares it with Belize, but only after goading the nurse into insulting him.

At a local Mormon center, Prior and Harper watch a diorama of a pioneer Mormon family. The father looks just like Joe. When they see Louis enter the diorama and take Joe away with him, Harper and Prior feel they are going crazy. Harper asks the Mormon woman in the diorama how people change; she answers that God slits them open, squeezes their insides, and leaves them to heal themselves.

At Jones Beach, Louis tells Joe about gay life and sex before AIDS. Although Joe says he loves Louis, Louis misses Prior and Joe feels guilty about Harper. Louis admits that he never accounts for love in his theories. Joe suggests that being selfish is sometimes the most generous thing one can do.

Louis asks Prior for forgiveness, but Prior refuses. Angry that Louis has abandoned him and betrayed him with a Mormon Republican, Prior tells Louis to come back when he has visible wounds. Roy, remembering the Bible stories his mother told him, gives Joe his blessing. When Joe confesses his homosexuality, Roy orders him to go back to his wife and never speak of it again.

Belize tells Louis that Joe is Roy’s protégé. Louis cannot accept it: Roy is, to Louis, the most evil man in the world. Belize hates Louis’ idealistic notions about America. For him, Roy Cohn is America: terminal, crazy, and mean.

Hannah has no sympathy for her son. Joe has been running away all his life, and he is still running. Joe and Harper try to reconcile, but Joe cannot hide his sexuality. Harper knows that she will leave Joe. Meanwhile, Joe tries to return to Louis, but Louis, who has researched the legal decisions Joe has written, attacks him for the immoral way he manipulates the law. Joe tries to defend his politics but finally becomes so angry that he beats Louis.

The ghost of Ethel Rosenberg brings Roy the news of his disbarment. Having long hated him, Ethel relishes his defeat. Roy, pretending to be delirious, tricks Ethel into singing him a Yiddish song. Mocking her, Roy claims victory even as he dies.

Prior, on Hannah’s advice, wrestles the Angel. When he wins, the Angel takes him to Heaven, to the council of angels. Prior tells them that humanity cannot stop changing, for that is what living things do. He cannot bring God back. Prior believes that if God does come back, then humanity should sue him for abandoning them and for all the horrible things that had happened in the terrible twentieth century. Although the angels say that the future will be terrible, Prior wants more life. Humanity is addicted to life, no matter how painful.

Belize insists that Louis say the Kaddish for Roy, that their enemy be forgiven. Louis does not know the Hebrew prayer, but Ethel gives him the words. Roy, in the afterlife, offers to defend God, who is being sued, although God is guilty and has no case. Prior wakes up wondering if all that has happened is a dream. Louis again asks if he could come back, even though he has failed at love. Prior loves Louis but can never take him back.

Harper, on a flight to San Francisco, has a vision. She sees the souls of the dead rising, hands clasped together, forming a protective shield for the earth. Four years later, Prior, Louis, Belize, and Hannah are in Central Park in New York City, beneath the statue of the angel Bethesda. Prior is still living with AIDS. Many have died, but gays are not going away, nor will they die secret deaths anymore.