Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches
by Tony Kushner
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
The play is filled with references to angels, and these divine figures are used to represent many different things. One of the early mentions of angels comes from Harper, who describes the ozone layer as "guardian angels, hands linked, [...] a shell of safety for life itself" (1.3.2). This is a beautiful metaphor if you ask us, and it draws on the way a lot of people probably think about angels, as heavenly beings meant to protect us.
The next reference to angels comes in the following scene, but it has a totally different connotation. When Prior reveals that he has a lesion, a sign of Kaposi's sarcoma and AIDS, he calls the sore on his arm "the wine-dark kiss of the angel of death" (1.4.31). Kind of different from Harper's angel metaphor, huh? Harper references angels as beings who protect life, while Prior references angels as taking life away.
Another intense angel metaphor comes from Joe, when he talks about a book of Bible stories he had when he was boy. There was a picture that he still thinks about of Jacob wrestling the angel. Joe says:
Jacob is young and very strong. The angel is... a beautiful man, with golden hair and wings, of course. [...] It's me. In that struggle. Fierce, and unfair. [...] Losing means your soul thrown down in the dust, your heart torn out from God's. But you can't not lose. (2.2.11)
Though he doesn't say so directly here, Joe seems to be using this heavenly wrestling match as a metaphor for his own struggle with homosexuality. Joe is a devout Mormon and was taught that being gay is a sin. He can't figure out why God would have put homosexual feelings inside of him while at the same time declaring those urges wrong. It just seems like kind of a mean thing to do. Here the angel comes to represent Joe's inability to understand God's will, and the losing battle he's fighting in trying to repress his homosexuality.
And, of course, we can't leave out the biggest angel of them all. Which angel, you ask? Um, that would be the ceiling-smashing supernatural messenger who crashes into Prior's bedroom at the end of Millennium Approaches. The angel has been announcing her visit through falling feathers, ghostly heralds, flaming books, and her own disembodied voice for the entire play. Kushner leaves the audience wanting more by waiting until the second part of the play to explain what she's doing there. All we know by the end of Millennium Approaches is that she's come to anoint Prior as a prophet, but we have no idea what exactly he's supposed to prophesize about. Go forth, dear Shmoopster, into Part Two: Perestroika, to learn where Kushner goes with his intricate angel motif.