Angels in America Themes
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."
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 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...
(The entire section is 1,241 words.)