Study Guide

Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika Spirituality

By Tony Kushner

Spirituality

Angel: I I I I
Am the Bird of America, the Bald Eagle,
Continental Principality,
LUMEN PHOSPHOR FLUOR CANDLE! (2.2.6)

It seems like the angel is saying that she is the spiritual essence, or energy, of America. Based on the other angels we meet later in the play, who all represent large geographic areas, we're guessing she represents all the other countries in North and South America too.

Angel: Open me Prophet. I I I I am
The Book.
Read. (2.2.36)

Much like Moses was given the tablets bearing the Ten Commandments, Prior is given a book that's supposed to tell him how human beings ought to behave. Unlike Moses, though, Prior thinks these orders from Heaven are a really bad idea.

Angel: You can't Outrun your Occupation, Jonah. (2.2.104)

Here the angel compares Prior to the biblical prophet Jonah. Like Prior, Jonah disobeyed Heaven's command. In the Bible God tells Jonah to go be a prophet in a city called Nineveh, but Jonah hops on a boat headed the other direction. He ends up being swallowed by a whale (or a big fish) and eventually repents his denial of God. Prior Walter never repents; he stands firm against the will of Heaven.

Orrin: When will we arrive in Zion, father? When will our great exodus finally be done? (3.3.39)

These lines come from one of the dummy Mormon sons in the diorama room. (By dummy we mean mannequin – we're sure he's a very smart dummy.) The fact that the boy uses the words "Zion" and "exodus" instantly reveals the connections between Judaism and Mormonism. "Zion" is an ancient Hebrew word for the Promised Land – Israel, basically. And "exodus" makes us think of the Jews' journey out of Egypt, where they escaped slavery and eventually came to Israel. The use of these terms here seems to ask us to compare the journey of the ancient Hebrews to that of the Mormons.

Louis: I don't like cults.
Joe: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is not a cult.
Louis: Any religion that's not at least two thousand years old is a cult. (3.3.61)

Louis, a Jew, has no respect for Joe's Mormonism. He just cannot wrap his brain around the fact that Joe is a Mormon, which doesn't even seem like a real religion to him. Throughout the play, these two characters help us compare and contrast these two religions. (Note that Christianity is the 2,000-year-old religion Louis is referring to here. Judaism is even older.)

Joe: [...] I keep expecting divine retribution for this, but... I'm actually happy. Actually. (3.4.17)

In the first part of <em>Angels in America</em>, Joe really struggled with his homosexuality. He was taught as a child that being gay was evil. Now, though, it seems like he's beginning to be able to square his sexual preference with his faith.

Joe: You have to reconcile yourself to the world's unperfectibility by being thoroughly in the world but not of it. [...] That's what being a Mormon is. (3.4.21)

Joe claims that being a Mormon is about accepting that the world is flawed. (We're not sure what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints would have to say about this summation of their religion, however.) What do you think? Is this the way through life: accepting that this world is never going to be perfect and putting our energies into preparing ourselves for the next one?

Hannah: One hundred and seventy years ago, which is recent, an angel of God appeared to Joseph Smith in upstate New York, not far from here. People have visions.
Prior: But that's preposterous, that's...
Hannah: It's not polite to call other people's beliefs preposterous. He had a great need of understanding. Our Prophet. His desire made prayer. His prayer made an angel. The angel was real. I believe that. (4.6.17-19)

It's interesting that Prior has a tough time believing that Joseph Smith, who founded Mormonism, was visited by an angel, since Prior himself was visited by one. It's also interesting that later in the play, when both Hannah and Prior see the angel, Hannah is almost positive it's not real, even though she implies here that she believes in angels. Overall, this bit of dialogue seems to connect Prior's experience with Joseph Smith's, linking them both to a long line of prophets who claimed to have been visited by divine forces.

Hannah: OH! Grab her, say "I will not let thee go except thou bless me!" Then wrestle with her till she gives in. (5.1.16).

Hannah urges Prior to wrestle the angel, which turns out to be a pretty good suggestion: he beats her and gains access to Heaven. Hannah gets this idea from the biblical story of Jacob wrestling an angel. Prior's turn as angel-wrestler is foreshadowed way back in <em>Millennium Approaches</em>, when Joe tells Harper that his mother (Hannah) used to read him the story about Jacob wrestling the angel.

Prior: God. [...] He isn't coming back. (5.4.46-47)

If you stacked up all the literature written about the nature of God, it would probably be high enough to poke a hole in the ozone layer. Basically, everybody is wondering why an all-powerful God would let bad things happen. Is He just a jerk? Is He testing us? Has God given us free will so that we can live and learn on our own? Does He simply not exist? Is God not necessarily a conscious being, but instead a web of energy that connects everything in the universe? <em>Angels in America</em> goes with the <em>God-as-deadbeat-dad</em> theory: he made the world, and then he deserted it for... God knows what.

Harper: "When your heart breaks, you should die. But there's still the rest of you. There's your breasts, and your genitals, and they're amazingly stupid, like babies or faithful dogs, they don't get it, they just want him. Want him" (1.2.8).

Harper is still reeling from Joe abandoning her in <em>Millennium Approaches.</em> In this poignant bit of dialogue she talks about how her body still wants him even though her mind knows he's gone.

Harper: "Bastard. You fell out of love with me."
Joe (<em>Meaning it</em>): "That isn't true, Harper."
Harper (<em>Breaking</em>): "THEN COME BACK!" (1.2.23-25).

Harper is in total misery over the fact the Joe left her. In this scene, he's not actually there in reality. As we discuss in "Versions of Reality," this is either Harper imagining her husband or one of Kushner's reality-bending moments where a character's consciousness can be somewhere outside his actual body. Either way it shows the total trauma that Joe's abandonment of Harper has caused.

Angel: "The King of the Universe:/ <em>HE Left</em>...
Prior: Abandoned.
Angel: <em>And did not return </em>(2.2.83-84).

Louis and Joe aren't the only ones capable of abandonment. According to the angel, God himself is biggest abandoner of all time. He took off a while ago, leaving both his angels and human beings in the dust.

Belize: "Abandoned. [...] I smell a motif. The man that got away."
Prior: "Well it occurred to me. Louis" (2.2.86-89).

Belize thinks Prior's vision of the angel was caused by his depression over Louis. He implies that Prior's dream that God abandoned the universe is inspired by Louis' abandonment of Prior. This line could also be seen as a self-referential recognition by the playwright. It's kind of like Kushner is saying, "<em>Yes I know it's a little heavy-handed, but whatever, deal with it." </em>

Joe: "What you did when you walked out on him was hard to do. The world may not understand it or approve what you needed to do. And I consider you very brave" (3.4.37).

Joe admires the fact that Louis left Prior; he thinks Louis was only doing what he had to do. Staying with Prior while he was horribly sick would have been too terrible for Louis to deal with. What do you think about this? Is Joe just being self-serving and rationalizing? Could Louis' abandonment of Prior be seen as admirable in any way?

Joe: "AND THEN YOU'LL COME BACK TO ME!" (3.4.68).

Joe gets a taste of abandonment when Louis leaves him on the beach, saying that he needs to see Prior again. Now Joe is in the same position as his wife – he's been deserted by someone he loves.

Belize: "You walk out on your lover. Days don't pass before you are out on the town with someone new" (4.3.14).

To Belize, Louis' abandonment of Prior is made worse by the fact that he hooked up with Joe so soon after. Does this show that Louis is totally heartless, or that he missed Prior so much that he couldn't face being alone?

Prior: "If [God] ever did come back, if He ever <em>dared</em> to show His face, or his Glyph or whatever in the Garden again... if after all this destruction, if after all the terrible days of this terrible century, He returned to see... how much suffering His abandonment had created, if all He has to offer is death, you should <em>sue</em> the bastard. [...] Sue the bastard for walking out. How dare He" (5.4.47).

Prior advises the angels not to take God's abandonment lying down. Instead of meekly accepting the fact that the Almighty left the universe behind, Prior demands that they hold Him accountable. This moment connects with a lot of the themes of justice and judgment from <em>Millennium Approaches</em>. Much like when Louis deserted him, Prior demands that there be some sort of universal system of justice that punishes those who abandon others, even if the abandoner is the one who created the universe to begin with.

Harper: "I want your credit card. That's all. You can keep track of me from where the charges come from. If you want to keep track of me. I don't care" (5.8.2).

Joe tries to come back to her, but Harper isn't having it. In the end, it's Harper who abandons her husband, taking his credit card and heading off to San Francisco. Joe's abandonment, in the end, seems like the best thing that could have possibly happened to Harper. She's now found the strength to live without him. We only hope Joe finds the same thing.

Prior: "I love you Louis. [...] I really do. But you can't come back. Not ever" (5.8.15-17).

Prior refuses to take Louis back; he can't forgive his betrayal. In the Epilogue, we see that Prior and Louis are still friends, even if they're not lovers, showing that their relationship has evolved into something new and hopefully better. It could be that Louis' abandonment of Prior ended up being good for both of them... maybe. [Do we know for sure that they're just friends at the end?]

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