Angels in America is an amazing piece of theater that manages to blend many different tones while still feeling like a totally cohesive whole. For starters, it's funny all the way through; bits of comedy pop up even in the most dramatic moments. There are many deeply emotional, dramatic moments too. Nearly all of the characters go through intense life-changing events. The comic moments help lighten the mood just when the audience needs it most, helping the dramatic moments to land emotionally.
The piece is also political without sounding preachy. This is probably because all of the political discussions in the play are deeply rooted in the characters – they have a real need to voice their political views.
All of this is held together by Kushner's uniquely poetic voice. The play's language is truly beautiful in places. It's rhythmic and laced with amazing metaphors. Part of what makes Angels a classic piece of theater is the way in which it successfully blends these different tones.
We call the play a drama because it's well... a play – a piece of literature meant to be performed in front of a live audience. It fits into the genre of magical realism, because it combines realistic and fantastical elements. One minute Prior is hanging out in his hospital room, the next he's wrestling an angel and gaining access to heaven. One moment Harper is in Brooklyn, the next she's hanging out with "Mr. Lies" in Antarctica. Though the play has some similarities to the genres of fantasy and surrealism, the majority of the scenes are realistic, keeping it anchored in this world, despite its moments of "magic."
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.
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"?
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:
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.
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?"
Angels in America ends on a note of hope. Not in a super-cheesy everything-is-awesome-and-perfect-now kind of way, but in a yeah-things-are-tough-but-life-is-still-beautiful kind of way. As Harper says at the end of Act 5, "In this world there is a kind of painful progress" (5.9.2). Though the play definitely highlights many of the problems with America, the planet earth, and the entire state of the universe, ultimately it is optimistic. The play isn't saying that everything in the future is going to be easy, but that we are slowly moving toward something better.
The end of the play, especially the epilogue, is pretty much an argument for the necessity of political progressivism. Louis spends the whole epilogue talking about how awesome Mikhail Gorbachev is for instituting perestroika, a set of economic and political reforms that ended the Cold War and broke apart the Soviet Union. Louis says, "Whatever comes, what you have to admire in Gorbachev, in the Russians is that they're making a leap into the unknown" (Epilogue.7). Louis admires Gorbachev's courage to make major changes even though it's not totally certain how it's all going to come out.
(For more on Gorbachev and perestroika, check out "What's Up with the Title?")
Prior's last lines pretty much sum up the progressive view of the play:
The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins. (Epilogue.31)
Notice that Prior uses the phrase "The Great Work Begins." This is the angel's favorite thing to say to him whenever she appears, and it's how Part One: Millennium Approaches ends. What's interesting is that, though the same sentence is used to end both parts of the play, the intention behind it changes. The angel's idea of "The Great Work" is essentially conservative. She wants human beings to stop growing and changing. Earlier in the play, though, Prior rejects this idea, saying that such a thing is impossible. It's human nature to want to migrate, to learn new things, to improve ourselves. To Prior, "The Great Work" seems to be the "painful progress" that Harper speaks of (5.9.2).
For more on the end of the play, check out "What's Up with the Title?"
Angels in America is set in the 1980s, during Ronald Reagan's presidency. Being a political play, we hear quite a bit about the president. Reagan was the most beloved recent conservative president, and had a huge impact on shaping America as we know it today. As we see in the play, he gave hope to many conservatives. On the flip side, however, his administration has been widely criticized for its long silence regarding the AIDS epidemic in America. Many LGBT activists have accused the administration of ignoring the disease because it was thought to mostly impact gay men and African Americans. Thousands of Americans, many of them gay men, died before the administration formally acknowledged the disease. A whole movement arose with the slogan "Silence = Death."
Want to learn more about Reagan-Era America? Check out our US history guide.
The majority of Angels in America is set in New York City – like all over the place in New York City. We zip around, from the characters' various apartments in Manhattan and Brooklyn, to hospitals, the Brooklyn Promenade, Jones Beach, Central Park, the offices of the Brooklyn Federal Court of Appeals, and everybody's favorite NY attraction – The Mormon Visitors Center diorama room. The wide variety of locations throughout the city that Angels takes us to, lend to the epic feeling of the play. If the whole thing were bottled up in one character's brownstone it just wouldn't have quite the same scope, now would it?
In Part One the only other city we go to is Salt Lake, but in Part Two we briefly leave the North America for a trip to Moscow. At the top of the play, there's a fiery monologue from Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, the World's oldest living Bolshevik, in the Hall of Deputies at the Kremlin. In his monologue, Aleksii warns that all the changes going on in the Soviet Union might be happening too fast. He's talking about perestroika, Gorbachev's policy of economic and political reform. You can read more here.
Setting the first moment of the play in Moscow might seem random at first. But by the end we see that Kushner is using the policies of perestroika as a metaphor for the way his characters have restructured their lives by the end of the play. On an even bigger level, perestroika represents all of humanity's need to constantly grow and change. Setting the first moment of the play in Moscow highlights these ideas.
Angels also takes us into the minds of its characters. We are frequently escorted into Harper's valium-fueled hallucinations. There we meet her mystical travel agent buddy, Mr. Lies, and the Mormon mother, a mannequin come to life. As in Millennium Approaches, Harper and Prior share hallucinations – such as in the Mormon Visitors Center diorama room. Harper and Prior both also go to Heaven, which may or may not be a shared dream.
Because the soul is progressive,
it never quite repeats itself,
but in every act attempts the production
of a new and fairer whole.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
The epigraph is from an essay by famous transcendentalist writer, scholar, and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. Transcendentalism rejected pure reason in favor of a transcendent world beyond, one occupied by ideals, morals, and intuition. (For more on Emerson and his transcendentalist buddies, click here.)
You could say that a lot of the fantastical sequences in Angels in America, especially the shared dreams, might be drawn in some way from transcendentalist thought. In these scenes, the characters communicate on a spiritual plane that's beyond the everyday. There are several examples of this in Perestroika. One of our favorites is Harper and Prior's surreal experience in the diorama room at the Mormon Visitors Center, where they share the same hallucination and even see through time and space. (Pay attention to this scene – it's awesome.)
The epigraph itself seems to perfectly sum up the progressive philosophy of Angels in America. The quote suggests that our souls inherently want change, and that change is moving us toward something that is ultimately better than the place we started. In her final monologue, Harper tells the audience, "In this world, there is a kind of painful progress" (5.9.2). Prior also echoes this idea in his final monologue. Repeating the advice that Belize gave him earlier in the play, Prior tells us, "The world only spins forward" (Epilogue.31). Both of these statements suggest that progress and change are not only good and necessary, but inevitable. We have a feeling that if Emerson's ghost were to catch a production of Angels, he'd be totally into it.
Want to check out the full essay by Emerson from which the epigraph is taken? Sure you do. Click here.
Angels in America manages to be incredibly complex and incredibly accessible at the same time. Even if you don't get all the historical references, poetic motifs, layers of reality, and larger political themes, the play is still one heck of a good story. So yeah, once you start digging into the play you'll find that it gets really intricate – you could spend years unraveling it all. However, the characters are so rich and engaging, and the play is so sad and hilarious, that you'll never feel like you're "taking your medicine."
It is well documented that Tony Kushner is influenced by his theatrical forefather Bertolt Brecht, who popularized the style of theater known as epic. Angels in America shares many similarities to Brecht's works. The play's action takes place over an extended period of time, and it includes many different settings: New York City, Salt Lake City, Moscow, a hallucinated Antarctica, the world of dreams, and Heaven itself.
Also, like Brecht's theater, Kushner's work is socially conscious. When you watch Angels in America, the play asks you to think (and think hard) about the political complexities that make up America. Angels takes it a bit farther, however, delving into the complex conflicting impulses that make up human nature.
Perestroika continues the angel motif that began in Part One: Millennium Approaches (read about it here). There the angel motif is mostly metaphorical, but at the end of Millennium Approaches, the motif becomes pretty darn literal when an actual angel comes crashing through Prior Walter's ceiling.
The angel puts in several more appearances in Perestroika, and we learn more about her. We find out that she represents the Continental Principality of America. When Prior goes to Heaven we meet the angels that represent the other parts of the world – Antarctica, Australia, Europe, etc.
We also find that she and the other angels are actually not shes or hes at all. They're all hermaphrodites equipped with both male and female sex organs. We also learn that the angels had sex constantly at the dawn of time; their orgasms evidently fueled the engine of creation. (We know, it's a little weird.) Among other things, this detail connects the motif of angels to the theme of sexuality. Because the play focuses on AIDS, a deadly sexually transmitted disease, sex is linked to death quite a lot. The angels' cosmic copulation, however, reminds us that sex is the ultimate act of creation.
It's also important to note the job the angels want Prior to do – to make humanity stop growing, changing, and progressing. Prior ultimately rejects this task and tells the angels that it's just not possible for humanity to stop in its tracks. It simply goes against our nature. Kushner portrays the angels as radically conservative – conservative on a cosmic level – because they are against change and progress. When Prior rejects their charge, he rejects their brand of cosmic conservatism.
In Angels in America, we don't only see angels in Heaven and crashing through Prior's ceiling. There's another major angel we see in Perestroika: the statue of the angel Bethesda, which spreads its wings amidst a beautiful fountain in Central Park. When we're first introduced to this statue we're informed that it was built to honor the Naval dead of the American Civil War. In this way, the statue is directly linked to death and the pain of the past. However, you could also see it as representing the cost of a war that painfully pushed the country forward, advancing America from the dark days of slavery.
In the epilogue of the play, we are once again taken to the Bethesda Fountain. Prior, Louis, Belize, and Hannah all gather there to hang out (or maybe just to give us the epilogue in front of a cool symbolic statue). Anyway, in this section we learn the story of the original fountain of Bethesda in Jerusalem. Scripture says that the angel Bethesda descended from the sky in the middle of the market square. Where her foot brushed the ground, a fountain sprang up. Whoever bathed in this fountain would be healed. When the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, the fountain went dry. Legend has it, though, that when the millennium comes, it will flow again. Hannah has promised Prior that she'll take him there to bathe in the healing waters. "We will all bathe ourselves clean," Hannah tells us (Epilogue.24).
In a way, the Bethesda Fountain represents the pain of the past and the hope of the future all at the same time. This angel that was created to commemorate the naval dead of the Civil War also represents the hope that one day we all will be healed. Prior probably describes the Bethesda statue the best:
This angel. She's my favorite angel. I like them best when they're statuary. They commemorate death but suggest a world without dying. They are made of the heaviest things on earth, stone and iron, they weigh tons but they're winged, they are engines and instruments of flight. (Epilogue.17)
The statue of Bethesda can be seen as representing the state of humanity – weighed down by our past but always striving for a better future.
In a similar vein to his angel symbolism, Kushner also laces his work with religious references, drawing mostly from two unlikely bedfellows: Mormonism and Judaism. For a detailed discussion of the way these references are threaded through the play, check out these resources:
Tony Kushner really busts the seams with his epic Angels in America. It just doesn't fit at all into the classic plot analysis. Part of the issue is that it's hard to analyze Perestroika separately from Millennium Approaches. Another issue is that Kushner seems to be a fan of non-traditional storylines. Still, we'll try to fill in some details where they're relevant.
The initial situation for our main characters – Prior, Louis, Joe, and Harper – picks up right where it left off in Millennium Approaches. Prior is alone, recovering from his encounter with an angel that wants him to be a prophet. Harper is alone, in her imaginary world of Antarctica. Louis and Joe are together, having started a relationship.
We have multiple storylines going on here, so that means we also have several conflicts. One conflict is that Louis feels really guilty about abandoning Prior. Joe is cluing into that and feeling more vulnerable about his new relationship with Louis, especially when Louis can't seem to accept that Joe is Mormon.
Meanwhile, the angel wants Prior to be a prophet whose message is for humanity to stop growing and changing. Prior isn't really sure that he wants the job.
Harper is having a conflict of her own. She's feeling totally alone, missing Joe desperately.
The complication seems to involve Joe and Louis' relationship being on the rocks (Louis is feeling guilty about leaving Prior, and is later horrified to learn of Joe's association with Roy), and Joe and Louis' separate halfhearted attempts to get back with their former lovers.
Prior feels horribly hurt when he finds out that Louis has already moved on to another man. He stalks Joe, and then collapses in the Mormon Visitors Center. Hannah kindly brings him to the hospital. Louis' guilt is growing more intense. He visits Prior, but Prior thinks Louis isn't feeling bad enough. Though Louis says he's bruised on the inside, Prior thinks he could use a few on the outside as well.
Joe tries to return to his wife, and though they have sex, it's really no use. Joe keeps his eyes closed the whole time. He simply doesn't love Harper.
Louis and Joe's relationship explodes. Louis's guilt over abandoning Prior is really eating him up and he tries to atone. He does this in two ways: 1) picking a fight with Joe about Roy Cohn and getting beat up (just like Prior said he needed to be); 2) taking the AZT from Roy's room to give to Prior.
Meanwhile, the pesky angel visits Prior once again. He wrestles with the angel and gains access to Heaven.
Now that Louis and Joe have broken up, will the old couples reunite?
On a separate note, what's going to happen with Prior in Heaven? Will he become a prophet after all?
In Heaven, Prior confronts the angels and returns the sacred book, making them see that human beings can't simply stop moving around.
In the relationships storyline, Joe returns to Harper, but she slaps him across the face and finally ditches him, heading for San Francisco. In a similar vein, Prior tells Louis that he can never come back.
The Epilogue serves as the conclusion to the play. We don't hear anything about Joe, and are left to assume that he is all alone. The last we heard of Harper, she was flying off to San Francisco, finally gaining her own independence. The other important characters (Prior, Louis, Hannah, Belize) have managed to form a new friendship and move forward in their lives, even if Prior and Louis are no longer romantically involved.
We get the feeling that Prior still thinks he made the right decision in rejecting the angel's call to be a prophet. Though life is tough, we get the impression that Prior and the other characters feel the world is progressing.
Jonah and the whale (2.2.104)
The angel Bethesda (4.3.5)
Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon religion (4.6.17)
Jacob wrestling the angel (5.1.16)
Ed Koch (1.4.57-58)
Newt Gingrich (3.4.27)
Jesse Helms (3.4.27)
Army/McCarthy Hearings (4.8.41)
John Brown (4.9.2)
Henry Kissinger (4.1.2)
George P. Schultz (4.1.2)
Richard Nixon (4.1.2)
Mao Zedong (4.1.2)
The Berlin Wall (Epilogue.2)
Vladimir Lenin (Epilogue.2)