Poor Prior – you definitely have to feel bad for the guy. We see nothing but rotten stuff happening to him over the course of Part One: Millennium Approaches. Let's break down some of his troubles.
In his first scene, Prior reveals the first of many lesions caused by Kaposi's sarcoma, one of the many diseases that can attack the body as a result of AIDS. He describes the sore as the "wine-dark kiss of the angel of death" (1.4.31). At the time the play is set, this whole kiss of death description would be a pretty appropriate. Many medical strides have been made to combat AIDS since the '80s. (AZT is now standard protocol and people can live quite awhile with the disease.) But at the time of the play, the lesions that Prior develops are generally a sign that death isn't too far away. We see him suffer terribly from many of the other symptoms of AIDS over the course of the play as well.
Prior's character seems to be representative of the larger epidemic that decimated the gay community throughout the 1980s. Through his suffering, we get a sense of the larger devastation.
As if the disease weren't bad enough, midway through Millennium Approaches Prior's boyfriend, Louis, leaves him. Unable to deal with the painful realities of his partner's disease, Louis deserts Prior while he's still in the hospital. Prior is a total mess after Louis leaves. Except for his nurse, Emily, and his friend Belize (also a nurse, interestingly), Prior is without human companionship – he's totally isolated. The disintegration of Louis and Prior's relationship is one of the major plot strands that weaves its way through the first part of Angels in America.
While on the topic of abandonment and isolation, let's talk about Prior and Harper. On the surface, these two are really different. What does a gay man sick with AIDS have in common with a Mormon housewife? Well, as it turns out, a lot.
One interesting connection between these two is the way they're both tied to the theme of "Versions of Reality." Throughout the play, Prior has been having strange spiritual visions, while Harper has been hallucinating conversations with an imaginary travel agent. Have you noticed how both characters live partially in an alternate reality that other characters simply don't experience along with them?
We aren't the only ones seeing this connection, either; Kushner sees it too. Remember that weird scene where Prior and Harper meet in some kind of strange joint dream? They don't even know each other, but share this odd and powerful experience. In this scene, both characters help the other to realize an important truth: Harper helps Prior see that though he is very sick, part of him isn't infected; Prior reveals to Harper that her husband is gay.
How can they have these insights about each other? Well, Harper explains that sometimes you can see things when you're on "the threshold of revelation" (1.7.39). Hmm… very interesting. Does that mean the other things they see – the angels, the travel agent – are also true? Maybe other characters can't see these things because they aren't on "the threshold"? And what brings a person to the threshold, anyway?
The insights Prior and Harper share in this scene drive the plot forward, which leads to another connection. Though they start the play in committed relationships – Prior with Louis, Harper with Joe – both become rejected lovers. Louis leaves Prior when he learns that Prior has AIDS; Joe and Harper split when he comes out of the closet. To make the parallels even more interesting, their lovers end up as a couple. As you can imagine, both Prior and Harper are devastated, which seems to drive them even deeper into their alternate realities.
Why do you think Kushner is making strong parallels between such different characters?
Over the course of the play, Prior's visions and dreams build until he thinks he's going crazy. He continually hears a mystical voice telling him to prepare the way for her arrival. He sees a flaming book burst from the floor of his hospital room, hears his nurse randomly spout Hebrew as if she were possessed, and is visited by the ghosts of two of his ancestors. All of this comes to a head at the end of the play when the angel comes crashing through the ceiling of his bedroom. The angel tells Prior that he's supposed to be some kind of prophet, but in Part One, we're not sure exactly what that means.