Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 718
Prior Walter, a thirty-one-year-old man with AIDS. When his illness becomes serious, he is abandoned by his lover, Louis Ironson. A member of a very old American and British family, he is chosen by the Angels to become a prophet and tell humankind to stop changing and progressing, to give up trying to answer impossible questions. After wrestling with the Angel, Prior is allowed to visit heaven, where he tells the angelic counsel that he will not be their prophet and that humankind cannot stop striving. He asks the Angels to let him live, for no matter how painful life is, he wants more of it.
Louis Ironson, a word processor for the Second Court of Appeals in Brooklyn and Prior Walter’s lover. Devoted to Marxism and idealistic leftist politics, Louis tends to intellectualize things. He cannot face Prior’s illness and abandons his lover. He has an affair with Joe Pitt and tries to accept Joe’s justification for selfishness. When he learns that Joe has been the power behind a number of right-wing court decisions, he goads Joe into attacking him physically and beating him. He returns to Prior begging for forgiveness, but even though Prior loves Louis, he will not take him back.
Roy M. Cohn
Roy M. Cohn, a character based upon the actual lawyer of the same name. He is a powerful figure in conservative and right-wing politics. Cohn is an aggressive, ferocious, and sometimes charming man who is not afraid of anything, including breaking the law. Cohn was a prosecutor in the 1950’s treason trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were found guilty of selling secrets to the Soviet Union. Cohn illegally lobbied the judge to give Ethel Rosenberg the death penalty. Cohn is dying of AIDS, though he keeps his illness and homosexuality secret. Because of his unethical acts, the New York State Bar is trying to take away Cohn’s license to practice law. Cohn is determined to die as a lawyer and wants his protégé, Joe Pitt, to take a government job in Washington so he can protect Cohn. Cohn is haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, but he fights her to the end. After he dies, Cohn becomes God’s lawyer.
Joseph Porter Pitt
Joseph Porter Pitt, chief clerk for a federal appeals court judge who has Joe write his decisions. A Mormon from Salt Lake City, Utah, Joe believes in conservative values, individual freedom, and individual responsibility. He struggles to suppress his homosexual desires. He loves his wife, Harper, but feels no desire for her. He also feels responsible for her emotional problems. He falls in love with Louis Ironson and leaves Harper to be with him. He admires Roy Cohn but cannot be as ruthless and unethical as his mentor. In the end, Joe is alone, abandoned both by Louis and Harper.
Harper Amaty Pitt
Harper Amaty Pitt, Joe’s wife, who suffers from agoraphobia and a mild addiction to Valium. She often escapes into dreams and fantasies, where she meets Prior Walter. She loves Joe completely but cannot forgive him. In the end, she leaves for San Francisco determined to find a life of her own.
Hannah Porter Pitt
Hannah Porter Pitt, Joe’s mother, a hard-nosed, commonsense Mormon woman with few prejudices. When Joe tells her that he is a homosexual, Hannah abandons her life in Salt Lake City and goes to New York, where she cares for Harper and Prior. She helps Prior understand his visions and, in the end, stays with him in New York.
Belize, an African American nurse. A former drag queen and lover of Prior, Belize takes care of both Prior and Roy Cohn. As much as he hates everything Cohn stands for, Belize helps Cohn because he is a gay man dying of AIDS. When Cohn dies, Belize insists that Louis sing the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
The Angel, also called the Continental Principality of America, the representative of heaven. Since God, fascinated by the way that humankind evolves, dreams, progresses, and changes, abandoned heaven in 1908, heaven has been falling apart. The Angel wants Prior to tell humankind to stop changing, to stop striving and evolving, in the hope that God might then return.