Angels in America
Analysis of Major Characters
Of all the characters in Angels in America, Louis most resembles Tony Kushner: a young, progressive, Jewish New Yorker whose wordiness feels like an affectionate parody of the playwright's own rambling prose style. While it is always problematic, albeit tempting, to equate author with character, we can at least infer from the similarity between Louis and Kushner that Kushner does not intend Louis to be seen as a heartless villain, as some readers have proposed. It would be easy enough to reduce Louis to a caricature—the idealist who loudly discusses virtue but reneges on his own responsibilities. Louis's actions are clearly condemned: his abandonment of Prior is weak, selfish and insensitive. But because the hardships of his situation are painted so vividly that the audience can understand Louis's failings and empathize with him. Caring for Prior is complicated and excruciating, and Louis's guilt is genuine. He walks out on Prior with his eyes open, aware of the callousness of his action (despite a few petty attempts to justify himself) yet brave enough to do what he feels he must.
Belize berates Louis for his "Big Ideas," but introducing Big Ideas into the play is one of Louis's important roles. Louis's musings to Prior about the meting out of eternal justice form the core of his eventual answer to Roy's and Joe's amoral veneration of pure law. In a conversation with Emily, Prior's nurse, Louis is the one to describe Prior's venerable heritage, which introduces the themes of history and stability. Most obviously, Louis voices most of the play's ideas about politics (at least, the ideas that the playwright accepts—Joe is just as political as Louis, but his ideas are ultimately discarded). Louis is the spokesman for a brand of democratic optimism with which Belize finds fault but which Belize does not fully discredit. In a play whose title promises a discussion of national themes, Louis is the character who most consistently examines the big picture.
Louis's journey from callous heartbreaker to sincere penitent is one of the strongest moral developments in the play. For a long time, Louis wallows in self-pity and self-protection, but over time he learns to take responsibility for his actions. Prior accuses Louis of crying without endangering himself, a meaningless performance of emotion. But by the end of the play, there seems to be no question that Louis's love for Prior is real and that Louis understands the true import of what he did. Prior's journey to the afterlife and back is mirrored by Louis's voyage to self-awareness.
In classic terms, Prior is the character most easily identifiable as the play's protagonist—ironically and precisely because he is the play's chief victim. Prior begins the play at the mercy of everyone and everything around him: abandoned by Louis, infected with a disease that takes control of his body and its functions, and harassed by a merciless and unfathomable Angel. As a homosexual, an effeminate man and a person with AIDS, he is also the victim of social prejudice as epitomized by the self-hating but extremely powerful Roy.
Over the course of the play, however, the victim gains power and authority far beyond what we imagined he was capable of. The characters who seem the most confident: the strong, the opinionated, the straight-acting, those who wield influence and wealth in the world—the Roys, Joes and Louises—are humbled and changed. At the same time, dispossessed and marginal people—whether by identity, be it black, female or gay, by ideology, or by their own passive personalities—take their places as moral arbiters and shapers of destiny. Put simply, the meek inherit this earth. In Prior's case, he turns the emotional tables on Louis, essentially from being a "woman scorned" to having the wisdom and the willpower to reject Louis's entreaties. His AIDS continues to plague him but not to dominate him, and he defiantly delivers the play's final, stirring monologue. And most spectacularly, the prophet who wanted nothing more than to run from his Angel ends up cowing the assembled ranks of Heaven with an impassioned bit of "theology," wresting from them that which he believes he deserves physically as well as intellectually.
In another, literally progressive trend, Prior embodies the rejection of conservatism and stasis and the embrace of a painful but necessary spirit of change. Prior's connection to stasis is rooted in his very being: in his ancient, respectable bloodlines and in "The End" inscribed in his veins, whether in reference to his AIDS or to the homosexuality that will leave him childless. But by rejecting his Angel-imposed prophecy, Prior becomes the prophet of an alternate philosophy that the play shares. His speech in Heaven is the clearest statement of the theme of stasis versus change that predominates throughout the play, and the firmest rejection of stasis offered throughout.
In an era of super-villains who match wits with equally cardboard superheroes, the Roy Cohn of Angels in America stands out as a genuinely original and surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of intentional malice. At the end of the play, the audience understands Roy deeply and compassionately; perhaps they weep at his death, glimpsing the ferocious pain of his life and the secrets bottled up within. But Roy is not excused by his pathos for a minute. Kushner's depiction of Cohn is so successful because his human side is never decorated with sentimentality or nostalgia—at several uncomfortable moments he represents raw evil. The Roy who calls Belize a string of disgusting racial epithets, who delights in Ethel Rosenberg's execution and shamelessly bullies his protégé Joe cannot ever be obscured by the tough, damaged survivor with the gloriously schmaltzy death.
Kushner employs a stereotypical image of the Jew in drawing Roy as a comment on anti-Semitism and prevailing images of Jewish people. Stripped of his telephone and his New York moxie, Roy almost resembles Shylock of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice—the heartless, greedy middleman who cares only for money and self-promotion. With his back-channel access and wheeler-dealer savvy, Roy also fits with more modern stereotypes of Jews as quietly influential overlords. Kushner does not try to obscure this linkage—he revels in it. The first scene in which Roy appears announces him as a grandly over-the-top villain for whom subtlety is less important than showmanship. By making Roy the cousin of these Jewish stereotypes, the play ironically highlights his own ill- concealed anti-Semitism and homophobia. Roy assumes he is persecuted for his Judaism in part because he does not like other Jews; part of what fuels his hatred of Ethel is her Jewishness (likewise, his attraction to Joe is indivisible from Joe's image as an all-American Gentile). But, the play suggests, what makes Roy a monster is not his Judaism but his prejudice, ironically targeted at his own. The traces of Judaism or homosexuality in Roy's persona (humorously hinted at in his first scene, for instance, by his affection for the musical La Cage Aux Folles) cannot be eradicated, and in death his link to his ancestral communities only grows stronger. But while he lives, Roy's isolation from his natural identity contributes to his twisted villainy and his unprofessed but profound loneliness.
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