Angels in America

by Tony Kushner

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Change and Transformation Change and transformation are at the center of Angels in America. In one way or another, each strand in the plot is related to change of some kind, and every major character faces some manner of transformation. Some characters are frightened by change and prefer the comfort and familiarity of the world they know.

Harper, for example, begins the play terrified by the changes she sees, or thinks she sees, around her. She fears she is losing her husband, her home, and her sanity, and it is all overwhelming. She finds a metaphor for her fear in the ozone layer, high above the earth, which she likens to protective, guardian angels surrounding the planet. "But everywhere," she says, "things are collapsing, lies surfacing, systems of defense giving way." Through the course of the play, Harper does indeed lose everything she held dear, and, in the process, finds a new perspective on change and transformation. As she sits in a plane, bound for San Francisco and a new life, she suggests, "Nothing's lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we've left behind and dreaming ahead."

Other characters are encouraged by change, even thrive in it. Louis's view is somewhat Darwinian. He tells the Rabbi that his sense of the world is that it will change for the better with struggle, which is why he can't accept Prior's sickness into his philosophy of life. Instead, Louis runs away, immersing himself in change to avoid deterioration. He finds Joe, who earnestly echoes the sentiments of his newfound right-wing Republican friends, Roy and Martin. Joe tells Harper that things are starting to change for the good in the world. "America has rediscovered itself," he insists, "Its sacred position among nations." To Joe, the country has been reinvented, for the better, during the Reagan years. Interestingly, though, by the end of the play, both Louis and Joe are longing to return to the way things were, but both are denied this homecoming.

Prior and the Angels are caught up in the play's biggest struggle over change. On a personal level, Prior is having change after change thrust upon him. First, his disease attacks, changing his body. Then, Louis abandons him, changing his world. Finally, the Angel calls upon him and asks him to become a Prophet on behalf of the Continental Principalities. Stasis, the opposite of change, is what the Angels seek. Prior thwarts their plan, however, and tells them, "We can't just stop. We're not rocks— progress, migration, motion is ... modernity. It's animate, it's what living things do."

Identity A search for identity is underway, beginning with the opening monologue of Angels in America, and each of the characters becomes involved, whether they intend it or not. In his eulogy for Sarah Ironson, Rabbi Chemelwitz describes the deceased as one of a special breed of immigrants who crossed the ocean and established a new homeland in America, carrying along bits of the Old World and passing them along to her children. To the Rabbi, Sarah Ironson is part of America's identity; she was an essential ingredient in "the melting pot where nothing melted."

On a more personal quest, Joe seeks a different kind of identity. All his Mormon life, he has tried to deny the nature of his sexuality: He is attracted to men. In an attempt to change his true identity, he went so far as to marry Harper. Contrary to his beliefs, he helps write decisions in court cases that deny the rights of homosexuals. Through the short...

(This entire section contains 1241 words.)

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relationship he finds with Louis, he is nearly liberated. He admits his longings to himself, and to Louis, but stops short of coming out to the world. At the end of the play he is still torn between his life as a heterosexual, married, Republican law clerk and the fleeting glimpse of happiness he found in Louis's arms.

In keeping with his character traits, Louis's search for identity is more abstract. Though he thinks he has come to terms with the world, and has developed opinions and answers for any situation, his philosophies are constantly being tested, and he, like Joe, lives a life of contradictions. He criticizes Joe for hiding his sexuality, yet he has a "butch" side himself, an overtly masculine, heterosexual facade that he assumes around his family. He is a tortured agnostic who was raised Jewish but can't find a religion that accepts him for what he is. Politically, he is an extreme liberal but is attracted to a confused right-wing Republican. Louis' s quest for identity does not end with the play: During the Epilogue, he is still arguing religion and politics with Belize (who, as a black ex-drag queen and confidant to both Prior and Louis, has an identity crisis of his own).

American Dream Kushner suggests that his play is "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," and the concept of America—its social dynamics, political identity, and uncertain future—are prominent themes in the play. Set in the 1980s, a decade of greed and conservatism, Angels in America cannot avoid exploring the impact of Republican politics on the country. Roy Cohn represents the worst the right wing has to offer: political monopoly, economic disparity, discrimination, and censorship. His henchman, Martin, crows, "It's a revolution in Washington, Joe. We have a new agenda and finally a real leader" and brags that soon Republicans will control the courts, lock up the White House, regain the Senate, and run the country the way it ought to be run.

In contrast to these conservative combatants, Louis and Belize despair over America's future, each for different reasons. Louis complains that nothing matters in America except politics and power, the very things Roy and his associates covet. "There are no gods here," he rails, "no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there's only the political." To Belize, however, there is a distinct spirit to America, and he doesn't like it. "I hate this country," he counters, "It's just big ideas and stories and people dying and people like you." To Belize, there is precious little freedom in the land of the free.

These extreme views of America are left unresolved at the end of the play. The Epilogue, which occurs in 1990, four years after most of the play's action, explains that, in the intervening years, the Berlin Wall has fallen, the Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev's vision of "Perestroika" or ‘‘radical change'' has helped bring an end to the Cold War, and America has emerged as a leader of nations. Still, the ragged band of survivors gathered around Bethesda Fountain in Central Park are both champions and victims of the American Dream.

Hannah left her comfortable Mormon life in Salt Lake City and, like her ancestors before her, migrated to a new land (New York City) to be reinvented. Her struggle will continue. Louis and Belize remain, at best, marginal members of society, still misunderstood, still mistreated, and still struggling for the rights enjoyed by society's heterosexual majority. And Prior, though he has survived his disease much longer than he expected, knows his story is not the end but only a beginning for homosexuals with AIDS in America. "We won't die secret deaths anymore," he warns, "The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come ... The Great Work Begins."