Angels in America

by: Tony Kushner

Motifs

Biblical references

In addition to its overarching story about angels, God and Heaven, Angels in America is studded with specific references to the Bible. Louis asks Rabbi Chemelwitz what the Scriptures say about someone who abandons a loved one; Joe tells the story of Jacob wrestling the Angel; Louis compares a wound on his forehead to the Mark of Cain; Roy mentions the story of Isaac and Jacob and the Book of Isaiah. Partly, these references help establish a sacred atmosphere—by linking modern America to the world of the Bible, they help convince us that prophecy is indeed feasible in secular times. The skeptical audience member is like Prior listening to Hannah describe the appearance of an angel to Joseph Smith: disbelieving but gradually convincible. Moreover, the Biblical allusions foreshadow the real events of the play, so that Joe's description of Jacob's encounter with the angel lays the groundwork for Prior's—like Jacob, he wrestles the Angel into submission and discovers a ladder leading to Heaven. In another instance, Roy tells Joe that unlike Isaac, he gives his blessing freely—but the comparison proves more apt a moment later when Joe reveals he is living with a man, and Roy feels the pang of a father at what he perceives as the missteps of a wayward son.

Politics

In as opinionated a profession as writing, Tony Kushner stands out for the vehemence with which he voices his politics and the directness with which he incorporates them into his work. One early play, A Bright Room Called Day, stirred controversy with its direct comparisons between the Ronald Reagan and the Nazi Party. Although it is always dangerous to equate a writer with the opinions expressed in his or her works, in the case of Angels the play's (if not Kushner's) political platform is unmistakable. The most villainous characters are conservative Republicans, the heroes tolerant and left-wing; and throughout figures like Reagan, George Bush and Newt Gingrich are subjected to continuous rhetorical assault, only incompletely parried by Joe—who is himself discredited near the play's end. The intention of these political interjections does not seem to be the advocacy of a particular party or candidate, or even broader ideological persuasion—merely promoting Democrats over Republicans would be far too parochial an aim for a work of literature, and besides, it is safe to assume that most of the play's audiences shared Kushner's point of view. The larger purpose is to exhort well-meaning liberals like Louis to shed their blinders and work more fervently for political change. Beyond exhortation, though, the politics of Angels remain inseparable from its morality, philosophy and vision of community.

Religion, especially Mormonism and Judaism

In some ways, the two religions that recur again and again in Angels seem irreconcilably different—Jews and Mormons, after all, are rarely linked in the popular imagination or indeed in real life. Jews tend to be leftist urbanites, while Mormons are concentrated in the conservative precincts of Utah; Judaism is one of the world's oldest religions while Mormonism is even younger than the United States. Louis's shock at encountering a Mormon in New York and his unconcealed derision for the church—he calls it a "cult"—reflect this apparent incongruity. But the play symbolically joins Mormons and Jews with one another and with America itself. Both religions are separated from the wider society by their own inward focus as well as by prejudice and lack of understanding. That prejudice compelled both peoples to make epic migrations, which Rabbi Chemelwitz calls the world's Great Voyages. And both faiths make moral demands on their adherents, legitimate and illegitimate. The religious commandment to loyalty overshadows both Louis and Joe after they leave their partners, and their beliefs add to their feelings of guilt. More problematically, the two religions traditionally frown on homosexuality, adding to the characters' lack of self-esteem.

The play values Mormonism and Judaism for their cultural connotations, the way in which they are separate from the mainstream yet entirely and distinctively American. At their best, they are both caring and valuable communities. But their particular religious doctrines are rarely invoked or examined, except as literary allusions. For all the visibility of religion, this is not a particularly religious play—the secular faith of democracy and civic idealism is ultimately what binds the characters together in the utopian epilogue.


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