Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika
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 Two: Perestroika. 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.
- 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 Two: Perestroika
Perestroika is the name of the late-1980s reform policy instituted by Mikhail Gorbachev, the last General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. This policy gave Soviet citizens more political and economic freedom and it effectively ended the Cold War. Eventually it led to the break up of the Soviet Union, as lots of countries under Soviet control were allowed to peacefully overthrow their communist governments. Soon Russia was just Russia again. For more on Gorbachev and perestroika click here.
Okay, but what does that have to do with the play? Well, the most obvious answer is that these events are literally happening in Russia in the last scene of the play. Louis tells us all about it in the epilogue:
"Remember back four years ago? The whole time we feeling everything everywhere was stuck, while in Russia! Look! Perestroika! The Thaw! It's the end of the Cold War! The whole world in changing! Overnight!" (Epilogue.4)
Of course, the characters in the play have gone through a little perestroika of their own. The word seems to represent what's happened in their lives over the course of the play. Perestroika literally translates to "restructuring." Notice that, by the end of the play, the characters' lives have all been restructured. Lovers, friends, and enemies have all found new ways to relate to one another. Just like in Russia, the community of characters in the play has fallen apart and come back to together again in new and hopefully more productive ways.
For more on this, check out "What's Up With the Ending?"