Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 525

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Angels Fall is a play about the importance of pursuing one’s vocation in a fallen world. Each of the male characters has a calling and is in some way confronted with difficulties, so each pursues his calling with varying degrees of success. Wilson develops the theme that, faced with difficulties in the world and in one’s own life, a person must pursue one’s calling with courage and perseverance.

The least complex of the male characters, Zappy Zappala, is called to be a tennis player, and his only difficulty is the poor luck he has been experiencing in the tournaments’ draws. His favorable draw for the upcoming tournament is a turn of events that foreshadows similar turns for the other characters.

Father Doherty, whose calling is the priesthood, is faced with the desire to control Don. His foster son grew up at the mission, and the priest has envisioned that he will travel from pueblo to pueblo (“Much as you do,” remarks Niles), ministering to the medical needs of the Indians. He comes to realize, in a climactic conversation with Niles, that while he is called to “preach and teach,” he cannot pass judgment on the career decisions of his young friend to please himself. As in the last temptation that Becket avoids in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (pr., pb. 1935), Doherty must avoid doing the right thing for the wrong reason.

Don is called to be a doctor, specifically, he believes, as a cancer researcher, for he has a special talent for working with cancer research equipment. The Native Americans are sorely in need of medical aid, however, and the priest desperately wants him to stay. Don is tormented by his conflict with Doherty. Finally, when Niles reveals the impetus behind the priest’s desire to hold Don back, the young man is free to go.

To Doherty it is just as clear that Niles Harris is called to be a teacher. It is through this character that Wilson most clearly shows the difficulties of pursuing a vocation, for this character’s problems are the most complex and challenging. As the play opens, he has almost completely rejected his career as a professor of art history. He began his career believing in nothing and investigating everything, but over a thirty-year tenure grew to hold dogmatic positions. Now he realizes that in this world there are no dogmatic positions, no easy answers, and this realization has led him to retreat from his vocation and, more, to retreat from life by neglecting his diet and his health. Through the ministrations of Don and Father Doherty, he finally overcomes his existential crisis, at least to the extent that he begins to take nourishment.

Hanging over all the characters is the further difficulty of the nuclear accident. When Doherty turns to the Bible in his attempt to save Niles, he draws from a passage describing the end of the world. What Wilson wants to impress upon the audience is that one’s vocation must be pursued not only despite personal or societal roadblocks but also under the shadow of one’s own mortality.