Study Guide

Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika Politics

By Tony Kushner

Politics

Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov: How are we to proceed without <em>Theory</em>? What System of Thought have these Reformers to present to this mad swirling planetary disorganization [...] Do they have, as we did, a beautiful Theory, as bold, as Grand, as comprehensive a construct... ? (1.1.3)

Here, Aleksii, the world's oldest living Bolshevik, criticizes the reforms going on in the Soviet Union. It's not like he's against all reform, though. He was part of one of the greatest political changes in history: the Bolshevik Revolution, which transformed Russia from an autocracy to a communist state. But now Gorbachev is instituting perestroika in the Soviet Union, a series of economic and political reforms that Aleksii thinks are half-baked.

Roy: [...] 'Why?' Because I hate your guts, and your friends' guts, that's <em>why</em>. 'Gimme!' So goddamned entitled. Such a shock when the bill comes due. (3.2.37)

What Roy seems to be referencing here is welfare – a hot topic of political debate during the time of the play (and still, for that matter). Conservatives like Roy thought the welfare system, started with FDR's New Deal, was unfair to working people. Why should they have to pay for the unemployed? On the other side of the fence, liberals argued that society needed some kind of safety net for the unfortunate. Welfare ended up being greatly reformed under President Clinton in 1996, but it is still debated today.

Joe: You believe the world is perfectible and so you find it always unsatisfying. (3.4.20)

Throughout this scene, in which Joe and Louis debate conservative and progressive ideologies on the beach, it seems to be implied that conservatives aren't working toward a better world. Is Kushner being fair here?

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

Joe seems to think that history backs up his conservative ideologies. Do you think this is true? What historical events support this idea?

Louis: But the Republican party... [...] Newt Gingrich, Jesse Helms... I hate the Democrats too but the Republicans...
Joe: Responsible for everything bad and evil in the world.
Louis: Throw Reagan on the pile and you're not far off. (3.4.27-29)

The characters of Louis and Joe personify a political debate that's been going on for decades in the United States. Louis absolutely despises the political right, finding them selfish and uncaring. Joe thinks government ought to stay out of people's way so they can take care of themselves.

The characters of Louis and Joe personify a political debate that's been going on for decades in the United States. Louis absolutely despises the political right, finding them selfish and uncaring. Joe thinks government ought to stay out of people's way so they can take care of themselves.

Though their politics are totally different, Louis can't help but be attracted to Joe. Or maybe, as this line suggests, it's <em>because</em> they're so different.

Roy: If you want the smoke and puffery you can listen to Kissinger and Shultz and those guys, but if you want to look at the heart of modern conservatism, you look at me. Everyone else has abandoned the struggle, everything nowadays is just sipping tea with Nixon and Mao, that was disgusting [...] (4.2.2).

Roy hates the fact that conservative administrations have started negotiating with communist countries. Kissinger was Secretary of State under Nixon and helped set up the historical meeting between the president and Chairman Mao of China. Shultz served as Ronald Reagan's Secretary of State and helped to create cooperation between America and the Soviet Union. Roy, on the other hand, gleefully took part in Senator McCarthy's witch-hunt for communists in the 1950s. He thinks these conservatives have really betrayed the right, and all of America, just by sitting down to talk with communists.

Louis: <em>Have you no decency, at long last, sir, have you no decency at all?</em>
Joe: I DON'T KNOW WHO SAID IT! WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME! I <em>LOVE YOU. I LOVE YOU</em>. WHY...
Louis: JOSEPH WELCH, THE ARMY/McCARTHY HEARINGS. Ask ROY. He'll tell you. He knows. He was <em>there</em>. (5.8.39-41)

When Louis learns that Joe is associated with Roy Cohn, the tension over their political differences finally explodes. Louis can't believe Joe hangs out with someone who represents everything Louis despises. Here Louis is referencing a famous moment in American history when someone finally stood up to Senator Joseph McCarthy, who had been leading a witch-hunt for communists in America. Here's a video of the famous moment. Also, check out what Shmoop has to say about McCarthyism.

Belize: But the West Bank should be a homeland for the Palestinians, and the Golan Heights should...
Louis: Well not both the West Bank and the Golan Heights, I mean no one supports Palestinian rights more than I do but...
Belize: Oh yeah right, Louis, like not even the Palestinians are more devoted than... (Epilogue.28-30)

While the end of the play seems to celebrate the political changes in Russia brought about by perestroika, it doesn't pretend that all political differences in the world have been magically healed. By bringing up the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (which has yet to be resolved, even today) the play seems to remind us that there is much, much more work to be done.

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