Study Guide

Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika Philosophical Viewpoints: Progressivism

By Tony Kushner

Philosophical Viewpoints: Progressivism

Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov: The Great Question before us is: Can we Change? In Time? And we all desire that Change will come. (1.1.3)

We're told that Aleksii is the oldest living Bolshevik. The Bolsheviks were the overachievers responsible for the communist overthrow of the tsar in Russia in 1917. In his day, this man was a radical reformer – a super progressive.

Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov: If the snake sheds his skin before a new skin is ready, naked he will be in the world, prey to the forces of chaos. (1.3.1)

No, Aleksii isn't auditioning for a show on Animal Planet. The snake shedding its skin that he's talking about is the Soviet Union as it goes through the reforms of Gorbachev's <em>perestroika</em>. This former radical reformer is worried that his country is now changing too fast and that it doesn't have a real plan for the future.

Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov: Then we dare not, we cannot, we MUST NOT move ahead!
Angel: Greetings, Prophet. The Great Work Begins. The Messenger has arrived. (1.1.5-6)

Aleksii's insistence that his comrades not move too quickly into the reforms of <em>perestroika</em> parallels "The Great Work" that the angel wants Prior to do: to stop humanity from progressing and changing. Both Aleksii and the angel want change to stop.

Prior: As the human race began to progress, travel, intermingle, everything started to come unglued. Manifest first as tremors in Heaven. (2.2.70)

The angel tells Prior that the human urge to progress and change has totally wrecked Heaven. All the moving around people do has caused some major heavenquakes, and the whole place has really suffered. She begs Prior to take up her charge to make humanity stop moving. Why do you think Kushner depicts human progress as wreaking havoc on Heaven?

Angel: Bored with His Angels, Bewitched by Humanity,
In Mortifying imitation of You, his least creation,
He would sail off on Voyages, no knowing where. (2.2.79)

It looks like God caught the disease of progress from human beings. More and more, he began to take off for parts unknown, leaving his angels behind. Eventually he totally deserted them.

Voice: In 1847, across fifteen hundred miles of frontier wilderness, braving mountain blizzards, desert storms, and renegade Indians, the first Mormon wagon trains made their difficult way towards the Kingdom of God. (3.3.31)

Throughout the play the motif of migration is linked to the idea of progress. Here we see it pop up in the diorama room of the Mormon Visitors Center. The Mormons' journey across America to Salt Lake is linked to all the other great human migrations throughout history. Note that this is exactly the sort of thing that the angel wants to stop.

Harper: I'm stuck. My heart's an anchor.
Mormon mother: Leave it, then. Can't carry no extra weight. (3.3.119-120)

One of the brilliant things about the play is the way it links the big and the small. Here we see that Harper is having serious trouble getting over Joe. The play seems to be saying that, just like the country (and all of humanity for that matter), Harper has to find a way to move forward.

Joe: The rhythm of history is conservative. (3.4.26)

What does Joe mean by this? That humans are slow to change? Hmm, sometimes that's true, but sometimes radical change happens fast. And we are always changing in the long run. Ultimately the play as a whole seems to disagree with Joe's viewpoint, opting for the opposite idea: the rhythm of history is progressive.

Roy: [...] (<em>punching an imaginary button with his finger</em>) Hold. (4.9.29)

This is Roy's last word before he dies. We're thinking it's more than a little symbolic that Roy, who represents all that's bad with conservatism, would say "Hold" with his last breath. In the mind of this progressive play, holding is seen as exactly what society can't do.

Harper: In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. (5.10.2)

Harper pretty much sums up the progressive view of the play in this statement: moving forward isn't easy, but it's necessary. As hard as it is, we all need to be brave enough to change.

Prior: The world only spins forward. (Epilogue.31)

Here, at the end of the play, Prior echoes advice he received from Belize earlier on. He seems to be saying that not only is progress necessary, it's inevitable.

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