Angels in America

by Tony Kushner

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Places Discussed

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*New York City

*New York City. This play uses many real locations in and around New York City, such as the East Village, the Lower East Side, the South Bronx, and Brooklyn Heights. However, the most important of these exterior settings is Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, a large fountain with a statue called the Bethesda Angel. It is a place around which New Yorkers like to relax, talk, and play music. This final setting of the play suggests that spiritual forces have aligned themselves to produce a new lease on life for him.

The other important New York venue is one that is interior, namely the hospital or sickrooms of two men suffering from AIDS. One room is that of Prior Walter, the other is Roy Cohn’s. Both rooms are often transformed, however, into spaces for hallucinations and visions, especially the appearance of an august, opalescent, winged angel who crashes into Prior’s room to declare him a prophet and charge him with a great mission.

Other worlds

Other worlds. These include an imaginary Antarctica, supernatural levels of reality, and various versions of the Afterworld, ranging from a bleak hell to a gathering place for worried angels heavily invested in the outcome of life on earth.

*Salt Lake City

*Salt Lake City. Capital of Utah and headquarters of the Mormon church, this venue and the characters in the play who come from there suggest a mainstream midwestern conservative perspective.

Historical Context

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History, both the near and distant past, echoes throughout Angels in America. Prior's ancestors from the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries return to herald the arrival of the Angel. The complex evolution of philosophies, political systems, and religions (such as the Jewish and Mormon faiths) over the years are discussed and debated in the context of the characters' current struggles. The most important era to the play, however, is the one in which it is set: the 1980s.

Often characterized as a decade of greed, conservative politics, and negligent middle-class social policies, the 1980s are an indelible imprint on the plot and characters of Angels in America. From Roy, Martin, and Joe, who directly serve the Republican tide that washed across the country during the "Me" decade (so named for the self-centered behavior that was tolerated, even encouraged, by 1980s American culture), to Prior, Louis, and Belize, all somehow victims of straight, white America and the AIDS crisis, Kushner's work is an unmistakable product of its time.

The Political 1980sAngels in America is steeped in politics, particularly influenced by the platforms of the Republican party. Ronald Reagan, Republican President of the United States from 1980-1988, is mentioned often in Kushner's play. He is the era's most recognizable political icon, and the success or failure of economic and political policies from the 1980s is usually attributed to his administration. Reagan's far-reaching economic policies, termed "Reaganomics," were an attempt to correct many of the economic and social problems Americans had been experiencing since the 1970s, when many felt the country had lost its confidence.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, Americans found renewed interest in ecological awareness and demanded that industry take steps to save the imperiled environment. This led congress to pass strict measures that forced American companies to divert profits to environmental controls and cleanup, reducing their ability to modernize and compete with less regulated foreign companies. At the same time, the cost of gas and oil was skyrocketing, unemployment reached 7.1 percent, and the inflation rate soared to 12.5 percent.

America was not doing any better abroad, where the Cold War seemed to be favoring the...

(This entire section contains 1082 words.)

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communists and the Middle East was rapidly becoming a foreign policy embarrassment. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan and installed a communist leader in 1979 and the communist power was also gaining leverage in Africa and Central America. Terrorists from the Middle East hijacked U.S. aircraft, and fifty-three Marines and civilian personnel in the American embassy in Iran were held hostage for more than a year, from November, 1979, to January, 1981.

Amidst all this chaos, Reagan was swept into office on a platform promising a strong national defense and a tough stance against the communist Soviet Union. He also vowed to reduce the size and cost of government, lower taxes by 30 percent, reduce spending, and curb inflation. With the help of a largely Republican senate, Reagan's foreign policy and ‘‘supply-side economics’’ met with a mixture of success and failure. On the positive side, inflation and interest rates fell. Between 1983 and 1989, 18 million new jobs were created, and the average price of stocks nearly tripled in value. A lot of Americans grew very rich, and the country experienced what has been called the longest period of peacetime economic growth in the nation's history.

Growth had its downside, however. The national debt tripled, the nation's trade deficit quadrupled, and much of the credit for economic growth was attributed to the burgeoning defense industry. In his first year in office, Reagan convinced Congress to budget nearly $200 billion in defense spending, creating an economic windfall through the largest peacetime defense buildup in American history.

Still, the buildup had its payoff. Kushner took the title for the second part of his epic, Perestroika, from the policies of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev who, faced with America's tremendous military might and economic boom under Reagan, chose to radically change the direction of Russian society. Gorbachev sought to reform the Soviet economy through perestroika, a Russian word for "restructuring," and he introduced glasnost, or "openness," into political and cultural affairs. Within a few short years, the spread of communism around the world, a threat once characterized by Reagan as the "Evil Empire," had reversed itself. The Berlin Wall, a longtime symbol of the division between the communist east and the capitalist west, was dramatically dismantled in 1989. Two years later, in December, 1991, the Soviet Union's communist dictatorship collapsed; the Cold War was over.

AIDS in America The other "war" that really matters to Angels in America was a domestic one that was being fought between an outnumbered, marginalized, terrified homosexual community and the rest of America, which was largely heterosexual. The discovery of the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in 1981 threw both sides into a feverish struggle over rights, recognition, and morality in America.

Americans have always been, at best, ambivalent about homosexuals in their midst. It wasn't until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders; and the U.S. military continues its "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays in the military. For a time, AIDS was used by some as justification for antigay sentiments (some made outrageous claims that the disease was a biblical curse sent down by God to eradicate homosexuality). In the early-1980s, the disease became known as the "gay plague," in spite of the fact that other groups of heterosexuals— notably Haitians, drug addicts, and hemophiliacs— also suffered the syndrome's debilitating symptoms. The government—and President Reagan in particular—seemed disinterested in the suffering of gay Americans. Serious research at the National Institutes of Health did not begin until early 1983, eighteen months after AIDS had been declared an epidemic in the U.S. Gay rights activists compared their treatment by the United States government to the suffering of Jews in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.

While there are a great many important themes in Angels in America, it is this crisis, at once historical and timely, that Kushner chooses to return to at the end of the epic. Prior closes the play's Epilogue with a direct address to the audience, during which he tells them, "This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away." In many ways, the struggle that began for homosexuals in America with the AIDS crisis in the 1980s defined the relationship between gay and straight America in subsequent decades.

Literary Style

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Epic TheatreAngels in America is built with an epic plot construction. In early storytelling, epic referred to the kind of tale Homer told in the Odyssey and Iliad: stories that cover long periods of time, perhaps months or even years; involve many locations, ranging from small rooms to forests and battlefields; follow many characters through multiple plotlines; and alternate short and long scenes, with a series of crisis points, rather than a single strong climax near the end. Many of Shakespeare's plays follow in the epic tradition, and other notable modern examples include the plays of Bertolt Brecht (Mother Courage and Her Children), and Robert Schenkkan's Kentucky Cycle, a six-hour, nine-play saga covering two hundred years of history in the lives of three eastern Kentucky families.

Kushner's massive undertaking with Angels in America is divided into two complete plays: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. Together, they span more than four years, from October, 1985, to February, 1990. Settings range from living rooms, offices, and hospital wards to New York City streets, Antarctica, and even Heaven.

Scenes in Angels in America are both long and short and often overlap each other, occurring on the stage simultaneously. This provides two qualities that are important to epic plots: juxtaposition and contrast. In climactic plots, the story moves forward in a cause-and-effect fashion, with the action in one scene influencing the action in the next. In epic plots, however, the action may alternate between the plot and subplot, with little connection between the two. The effect of two seemingly unrelated scenes placed next to each other is a juxtaposition of action, characters, and ideas, which often produces a contrast that makes the play more meaningful.

For example, Act II, scene 9 of Millennium Approaches, is a split scene involving Joe and Harper at home, and Prior and Louis in Prior's hospital room. The two scenes, juxtaposed together, each present someone abandoning a loved one. Joe has already drunkenly confessed his homosexuality to his mother on the telephone and now seeks a way to escape his wife, who needs him desperately. Louis, on the other hand, still loves Prior but can't stand living with his sickness. Playing the two scenes simultaneously amplifies the confusion and agony each man feels and makes it difficult to simply dismiss their actions as heartless. Similar juxtapositions occur throughout the play.

Perhaps most importantly, the overall effect of an epic plot is cumulative rather than catastrophic. In a climactic work, such as Sophocles's Oedipus Rex or the plays of Henrik Ibsen (A Doll's House) and Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman), events are compressed and occur quite near the end of the story, making an explosive confrontation inevitable. Epic plots allow events, circumstances, and emotions to pile up, one on top of the other, overwhelming the characters and audience alike. Rarely does a single event—a character's error in judgment or an antagonist's vile deed—decide the outcome. Accordingly, Angels in America ends in uncertainty. The ultimate fate of the characters is unknown, but the events and emotions that have accrued impart a sense of enormity and importance to the play's ideas—progress, identity, community, and acceptance.

Political Theatre Theatre has been a forum for political ideas and agendas for as long as audiences have been attending plays. In America, the Federal Theatre Project of the depression-era 1930s mounted ‘‘Living Newspapers,’’ short plays integrating factual data with emotional, often melodramatic vignettes. Topics usually addressed some kind of social cause, such as slum housing for the urban poor or the plight of the American farmer. During the radical 1960s, several black theatre groups, such as Imamu Amiri Baraka's (formerly LeRoi Jones) Spirit House and the Negro Ensemble Company, were organized with the goal of producing plays written by, and for, blacks in America, often with anti-white themes. Whatever the cause, political theatre is often driven by the themes or ideas in the play, as much as by the plot or characters.

Kushner follows in the tradition of large, important, political dramas, influenced mainly, he claims, by Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright who is credited with the creation of a unique brand of Epic Theatre. Brecht's theories for his Epic Theatre contain many of the qualities of epic plot structure but also assume a strong political aspect; he was a staunch communist and held virulent anti-war beliefs. His plays were didactic, which means he wanted to teach his audiences something, and his lessons were usually stated strongly and openly. Furthermore, Brecht wanted his spectators to be active participants in the theatre and think critically while watching his plays, rather than become absorbed in emotion as passive witnesses. To manage this, he attempted to "alienate" his audiences by exposing theatrical devices (lighting, scene changes, etc.). He also broke up the action of his plays—with disruptive elements such as ironic songs and placards that explained forthcoming plot points—so spectators were not allowed to become absorbed in the story but were instead constantly forced to reevaluate characters and their actions. Through this process, Brecht felt, audiences would better understand and appreciate a play's political messages.

Like Brecht, Kushner strives for a very theatrical presentation that doesn't attempt complete illusion. He recommends a minimal amount of scenery for Angels in America—with all the rapid changes of location, realistic scenery would be quite cumbersome to a production. Furthermore, Kushner suggests the scene changes be handled quickly, in full view of the audience (without blackouts) using both stagehands and actors, a very Brechtian technique. As for the moments of magic in the play, such as the appearance of the Angel, the ghosts, Mr. Lies, and other fantastic occurrences, the playwright says in his introduction, "It's OK if the wires show, and maybe it's good that they do, but the magic should at the same time be thoroughly amazing."

Kushner is also extremely political, and he, too, wants his audiences to learn something, though he allows more subtlety of expression than Brecht. In Kushner's play, the strong political ideas are woven into the fabric of the plot and subplots, and the audience is left with an impression rather than an obvious message. Controversial ideas are usually presented from both sides, leaving the audience free to draw their own conclusions. While Brecht strongly advocated communism and often hit audiences on the head with his overt pacifist rhetoric, Kushner lets his characters and their philosophies speak for themselves.

The concept of the American Dream, for example, is viewed from several perspectives, none of which is presented as "right:" Roy and Martin find the American Dream in the struggle for political power; Joe harbors an idealistic, perhaps naive vision of America as a land of freedom, opportunity, and justice for all; embittered Belize and Louis, scorned by mainstream society for their openly gay lifestyles, find America oppressive and hypocritical, yet they continue their struggles for rights and recognition. By presenting political ideas in this kaleidoscopic fashion, Kushner opens a political dialogue with his audiences, rather than simply shouting messages at them.

Compare and Contrast

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1980s: In 1981, the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, identifies a new syndrome initially called "Gay-Related Immune Deficiency." The disease is named AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) in 1982. By the end of 1985, AIDS has spread to at least fifty-one countries. In 1988, the United States becomes the last major Western industrialized nation to launch a coordinated education campaign. By the end of the decade, an estimated 1 million people worldwide have contracted AIDS. In the United States, nearly 150,000 cases have been diagnosed and almost 90,000 people have died.

Today: Globally, an estimated 33.4 million people are living with AIDS. In the worst-affected countries, such as Zimbabwe and Tanzania, more than 10 percent of the adult population might be infected. In developed countries, however, massive education and disease prevention campaigns, along with new experimental drugs, have slowed or even reversed the spread of AIDS. In 1992, the first successful combination drug therapy for the treatment of AIDS begins in the United States; there is still no cure. Education and disease prevention counseling occur in public schools, and national advertising campaigns promote safe sex or abstinence. In the United States, the number of new cases diagnosed and deaths from the disease have been dropping rapidly since 1993. Over 48,000 people die from AIDS-related illnesses in 1994. By 1997, that number falls to just over 14,000.

1980s: The Executive Office is held by Republicans from 1980-92. Republicans also control the Senate, occupying just over half the seats. The House of Representatives is mostly Democrats, as it has been since the end of World War II.

Today: Embattled Democratic President Bill Clinton is elected to two terms, beginning in 1992. While the Democrats also wrest the majority of Senate seats away from Republicans for a short time (1987-1994), the GOP rallies and gains control of the entire Congress in 1995.

1980s: The eighties ‘‘bull market’’ begins on August 17,1982, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average rises 38.81 points to 831.24—the biggest one day gain in the hundred-year history of the Dow. Over the next five years the value of most stocks nearly triples as the market soars.

Today: After climbing steadily since 1990, the market sets a new record—9337.97 points—on July 17, 1998. At that height, rises and drops of hundreds of points a day are not unusual. Investing in stocks is a white knuckle ride enjoyed by more Americans than ever before.

Media Adaptations

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While several attempts at adapting Angels in America to film have occurred since the play's initial acclaim, the project remains in development, with various directors, including Robert Altman, attached at one time or another.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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SOURCES Barnes, Clive. Review of Angels in America in the New York Post, November 24, 1993.

Benjamin, Walter. "Theses on the Philosophy of History" in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translation by Harry Zohn, Schocken Books, 1969, pp. 257-58.

Brustein, Robert. Review of Angels in America in the New Republic, May 24, 1993, pp. 29-31.

Cohen, Norman J. ‘‘Wrestling with Angels’’ in Tony Kushner in Conversation, edited by Robert Vorlicky, University of Michigan Press, 1998, p. 220.

Gelb, Hal. Review of Angels in America in the Nation, February 22, 1993, pp. 246-48.

Gerard, Jeremy. Review of Angels in America in Variety, May 10, 1993, p. 243.

Jones, Adam Mars. "Tony Kushner at the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain" in Tony Kushner in Conversation, edited by Robert Vorlicky, University of Michigan Press, 1998, pp. 24-25.

Kushner, Tony. Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, Theatre Communications Group, 1992, p.5.

Lahr, John. Review of Angels in America in the New Yorker, May 31, 1993.

Morehouse III, Ward. Review of Angels in America in the Christian Science Monitor, May 17, 1993, p. 12.

Simon, John. Review of Angels in America in New York, December 6, 1993, p. 130.

Stearns, David Patrick. Review of Angels in America in USA Today, May 5, 1993, p. 1D.

Szentgyorgyi, Tom. ‘‘Look Back—and Forward—in Anger’’ in Theatre Week, January 14-20, 1991, p. 16.

Winer, Linda. Review of Angels in America in New York Newsday, May 5, 1993.

FURTHER READING Adelman, Deborah. The 'Children of Perestroika': Moscow Teenagers Talk about Their Lives and the Future, ME Sharpe, 1992.

Interviews with Moscow teenagers that describe their views on the former Soviet Union, socialism and capitalism, the culture of the West, and how they view the future of their society after the Cold War.

Barlett, Donald L., and James B. Steele. America: What Went Wrong?, Andrews & McMeel, 1992.

A critical view of the 1980s that faults corporate greed, government short-sightedness, and the social and economic policies of President Ronald Reagan with undermining the American Dream.

Brask, Per, editor. Essays on Kushner's Angels, Blizzard (Winnipeg), 1995.

An early collection of essays about Angels in America, published shortly after the play was produced, that attempts to view the work from North American, European, and Australian perspectives to see how Kushner's brand of political drama fared around the Western world.

Christie-Dever, Barbara. AIDS: Answers to Questions Kids Ask, Learning Works, 1996.

Informative question-and-answer style approach to AIDS awareness and education for teenagers. Includes biographical sketches of Ryan White, Magic Johnson, and other notable AIDS figures.

Geis, Deborah R., and Steven F. Kruger, editors. Approaching the Millennium: Essays on Angels in America, University of Michigan Press, 1997.

An anthology of essays about Angels in America, written by theatre and film directors, scenic designers, professors, and critics. Topics range from perspectives on racial and sexual politics in Kushner's work, to explorations of religious imagery and postmodern theoretical analysis.

Mann, Jonathan M. AIDS in the World, Harvard University Press, 1992.

An analysis of the spread of AIDS around the world, including the effects of the disease on different populations and the response to the pandemic in different geographical locations.

Pemberton, William E. Exit with Honor: The Life and Presidency of Ronald Reagan (The Right Wing in America), ME Sharpe, 1998.

A biography of Ronald Reagan, the iconic president of the 1980s. Describes the life of President Reagan and explores his presidency in detail, along with critiques of his political successes and failures.

Shilts, Randy. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, St. Martin's, 1987.

An in-depth examination of the genesis and spread of the AIDS virus that views the disease from cultural, political, and popular perspectives. Shilts was a homosexual journalist and gay-rights activist who died of AIDS in 1994.

Stine, Gerald J. Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome: Biological, Medical, Social, and Legal Issues, Prentice Hall, 1998.

Informative look at the history and current state of the AIDS/HIV pandemic, including statistics, social reactions, economic costs, recent medical findings, and references.

Twist, Clint. 1980s (Take Ten Years), Raintree, 1993.

Examines the most important news events of the 1980s, including AIDS, the Cold War, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Vorlicky, Robert, editor. Tony Kushner in Conversation, University of Michigan Press, 1998.

A collection of accessible, entertaining, and extremely informative interviews and conversations with Kushner, documented by journalists, teachers, directors, and other playwrights. Also includes an afterword by Kushner, in which he wryly describes ‘‘the Intelligent Homosexual.’’


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Suggested Readings

Brustein, Robert. “On Theater: Angels in America.” The New Republic, May 24, 1993, 29. One of America’s finest theater critics provides an excellent overview of the play.

Clum, John. Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Felman, Jyl Lynn. “Lost Jewish (Male) Souls: A Midrash on Angels in America.” Tikkun 10, no. 3 (May, 1995): 27-30.

Kushner, Tony. “Playwright of Pain and Hope.” Interview by Bob Blanchard. Progressive 58, no. 10 (October, 1994). Tony Kushner talks about Angels in America.

Olson, Walter. “Winged Defeat.” The National Review, January 24, 1994, 71-73. A revealing discussion of how Tony Kushner tries to combine Marxism, mysticism, and transgression in his work.

Posnock, R. “Roy Cohn in America.” Raritan 13, no. 3 (Winter, 1994): 64-77. A study of how Tony Kushner uses the real history of Roy Cohn.

Savran, David. “Ambivalence, Utopia, and a Queer Sort of Materialism: How Angels in America Reconstructs the Nation.” Theater Journal 47 (1995): 207-227.

Tucker, Scott. “A Storm Blowing from Paradise.” The Humanist 53, no. 6 (November/December, 1993): 32-35. A provocative examination of Tony Kushner as gay militant and as a writer whose vision includes the mainstream.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide