Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches
by Tony Kushner
Analysis: What's Up With the Title?
The full title of this play is Angels in America, A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Part One: Millennium Approaches. And you don't need us to tell you that this is one seriously long and amazing title. Well, we guess that makes sense since this is a seriously long and amazing play. Let's take a look at each part of the title.
Angels in America
First, what does "Angels in America" mean? This comes from one of Louis' lines:
Like the spiritualists try to use that stuff, are you enlightened, are you centered, channeled, whatever, this reaching out for a spiritual past in a country where no indigenous spirits exist – only the Indians, I mean Native American spirits and we killed them off so now, there are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there's only the political. (3.2.12)
Whoa, big surprise – a seriously long and amazing quote. It seems like what Louis might be getting at here is that he thinks America doesn't have any real spiritual center. That despite the best efforts of many to find something holy in America's national character, it just doesn't exist. Instead, there's only politics. Most spiritual movements, purposely or not, have political power as their true aim. (Or, at least, that's what Louis thinks.)
For example, the conservative movement going on at the time of the play, led by President Ronald Reagan, put Christian moral values at the center of their platform. This, of course, continued after Reagan: Bush Sr., Bush Jr., and the current social conservative movement all tout the importance of religion and traditional values. Some would say that these movements use religion for political gain; others would say they're honestly trying to bring (or restore) decency to America. What do you think?
Note, however, that Louis doesn't refer to the conservative Christian movement here directly; he talks about "spiritualists" instead. This sounds to us like New Age-y hippy types, who tend to fall on the opposite side of the political spectrum from the Reagans, Bushes, and Sarah Palins of the world. In a way, Louis seems to be criticizing all those, left or right, who are seeking spirituality in America, because he thinks it just doesn't exist. We'd like you to notice, though, in one of the very early scenes in which we see Louis, that he consults a rabbi for guidance. Does he actually believe what he's saying?
But, wait! This play isn't called No Angels in America is it? The title seems to imply that there actually are angels in our fair country. When the angel crashes through Prior's ceiling at the end of Millennium Approaches, it would seem there's definitely one angel at least. The angel is referred to as the Continental Principality of America, seeming to imply that she is the spiritual essence of the US; she's the very thing Louis claims doesn't exist. You could interpret this as meaning that Louis doesn't know what he's talking about, or you could say that Prior is just hallucinating the angel and Louis is right. What do you think? Are there "angels in America"?
A Gay Fantasia on National Themes
Well, the "gay" part seems pretty clear. The play focuses on the lives of several gay men and the people around them. Note that all of the main male characters – Louis, Prior, Joe, Roy, and Belize – are gay. (No lesbians, though. Huh, we wonder why.) The play focuses on the trials of gay men during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, and it's considered by many to be the greatest play ever written about this topic.
Now we come to the next word, "fantasia." If you Google this term you're going to see a lot of stuff about either American Idol winner Fantasia Barrino or the beloved Disney movie featuring Mickey and a bunch of unruly broomsticks. We're pretty sure that Kushner isn't referencing either of these. Dictionary.com gives us this definition of the word fantasia:
a. A composition in fanciful or irregular form or style.
b. A potpourri of well-known airs arranged with interludes and florid embellishments.
3. Something considered to be unreal, weird, exotic, or grotesque.
Yeah, that sounds more like it. The play is like a musical fantasia, in that it blends lots of different styles and has tons of different textures. There are one-person monologues that sing like solos, two-person scenes that play like duets, and overlapping scenes (with several characters talking at the same time) that resound like a full orchestra. The play is also fantastical at times and definitely sometimes gets a little grotesque. Check out "Themes: Versions of Reality" for more on the play's flights of fancy.
Now we come to "on National Themes." This references the sweeping scope of Kushner's play. This epic piece of theater uses its gay characters and fantastic style to explore big issues that affect everyone in the country. Check out "Themes" to find out more about those.
Part One: Millennium Approaches
Now for the final section of the title. It's "Part One" because this seriously long and amazing play is such a whopper that it had to be divided into two parts.
But what about "Millennium Approaches"? A millennium, very simply, is a period of a thousand years. The current millennium started in 2000 and won't end until the end of the year 3000. Historically, people tend to get all freaked out when the millennium arrives, thinking that the world is going to end. As you may remember, the ramp-up to the last turn of the millennium was no different.
Back in the 1980s and 90s, there was a lot of theorizing that some massive disaster was going to happen at the end of the millennium. During the first part of the Reagan Administration, when a good deal of the play is set, America was still deep in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. This meant that both the US and the USSR were stockpiling massive amounts of nuclear weapons. The threat of nuclear war was real. The approaching turn of millennium only added to the growing paranoia. (To see what else Shmoop has to say about the Cold War, click here /cuban-missile-crisis-detente/.)
This part of the title actually comes from a line spoken by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. Roy yells at Ethel that he has "forced [his] way into history" (3.5.65). Even though he knows his death is coming, he will be remembered. Ethel just kind of laughs at him and says, "History is about to crack wide open. Millennium Approaches" (3.5.66). It seems like this line could be referencing the mounting paranoia that led up to the turn of the millennium, the fear that some great nuclear holocaust would wipe out humankind.