Study Guide

Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika What's Up With the Epigraph?

By Tony Kushner

What's Up With the Epigraph?

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
"On Art"

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.