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Angels in America

Tony Kushner

Important Quotations Explained

Perestroika, Act Five, Scenes 6–10 & Epilogue

Key Facts

Imagination can't create anything new, can it? It only recycles bits and pieces from the world and reassembles them into visions. So when we think we've escaped the unbearable ordinariness and, well, untruthfulness of our lives, it's really only the same old ordinariness and falseness rearranged into the appearance of novelty and truth. Nothing unknown is knowable.

In this quote from Act One, Scene Seven of Millennium Approaches, Harper is describing to Prior that it ought to be impossible for him to appear in her hallucination, since she should only be able to hallucinate that which she has already experienced. The audience knows the answer—it is no hallucination but a real encounter. But even if it were not, Harper's theory could not possibly be correct since it is contradicted by Prior's very presence. In Part Two, however, the Angel faces a similar problem to the one Harper describes: she and her colleagues cannot create but must rely on God, or on Prior, to invent things for them. Although Harper does not realize it, human beings are more imaginative and thus more powerful than the Angels, providing support for Prior's decision not to obey them.

Your problem, Henry, is that you are hung up on words, on labels, that you believe they mean what they seem to mean. AIDS. Homosexual. Gay. Lesbian. You think these are names that tell you who someone sleeps with, but they don't tell you that. No. Like all labels they tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology, or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout. Not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will pick up the phone when I call, who owes me favors. This is what a label refers to. Now to someone who does not understand this, homosexual is what I am because I have sex with men. But really this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through the City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout. Does this sound like me, Henry?

Roy's tirade to his doctor Henry in Act One, Scene Nine of Millennium is a succinct example of his view of the world. Roy imagines that he has no connection to other homosexual men because he sits at the right hand of Nancy Reagan. In Roy's deluded world, values like love, honor and trust are irrelevant, and all human relationships can be tallied up by favors granted or seconds needed to return a phone call. This point of view contrasts unfavorably with the charity and generosity of Belize, who cares for Prior not because he thinks he will get something in return but because he is a friend. Roy's rant signals his moral unworthiness, the evil he is capable of. Ironically, as much as he believes himself to be distinct from the gay community, his opponents on the disbarment committee see him as just another "faggot." And while his clout secures him a private stash of AZT, it is ultimately worthless since it cannot protect him from disease and death.

there are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there's only the political, and the decoys and the ploys to maneuver around the inescapable battle of politics

Louis's comical monologue in Act Three, Scene Two of Millennium concludes with the quotation above—immediately afterward he is interrupted by Belize. He contends that because of the nation's newness and its recent settlement (except for the Indians, as he admits), America is less racially polarized than Europe, more centered on political debate. But he is wrong, as Belize deftly proves and as the play re-confirms. In calling attention to this passage the play's title refutes it—there is very much an Angel in America, one who is in fact the Angel of America. Politics is critically important, but it must be informed by history and identity. By deflating Louis's secular claim, Kushner seems to be connecting his populist optimism with a sense of spirituality. The America the characters are striving for is as transcendent as it is democratic.

Harper: In your experience of the world. How do people change?

Mormon Mother: Well it has something to do with God so it's not very nice. God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge filthy hand in, he grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they slip to evade his grasp but he squeezes hard, he insists, he pulls and pulls till all your innards are yanked out and the pain! We can't even talk about that. And then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled and torn. It's up to you to do the stitching.

Harper: And then get up. And walk around.

Mormon Mother: Just mangled guts pretending.

This dialogue between Harper and the Mormon mother appears in Act Three, Scene Five of Perestroika. The Mormon mother's description of how people change is one of the most unforgettable passages in the play. The question of change and how it affects people is one of the central themes of Angels in America, pitting the Angel, who believes all change is destructive and should be avoided, against the characters who do change dramatically over time: Harper, Hannah, Prior. The Mormon mother's description seems to fuse elements of both positions. She would certainly agree with the Angel that change is threatening and destructive—so much so that her words sear us with their painful intensity. But for the Mormon mother change cannot be avoided, can only be endured—the question is not whether people should change but how we must live afterwards. What's more, this description of change is particularly realistic since nothing is added or taken away. People are not magically transformed by gifts from without; we must make do instead with what we were born with, rearranged and restitched, but very much our own.

He was a terrible person. He died a hard death. So maybe. A queen can forgive her vanquished foe. It isn't easy, it doesn't count if it's easy, it's the hardest thing. Forgiveness. Which is maybe where love and justice finally meet. Peace, at last. Isn't that what the Kaddish asks for?

Throughout the play characters grapple with questions of love and justice—whether it is just to abandon a loved one, how to care for others, whether to incorporate villains and enemies into the communities they disavow. Belize's call for Louis to join him in forgiving Roy, which appears in Act Five, Scene Three of Perestroika, resolves some of these questions by pointing out a way to unify people while accepting their limitations. Belize acknowledges that Roy was terrible, and so his sins are not excused. But as Belize notes, forgiveness is only valuable because people are flawed—if Roy had been loving and kind there would be no need to forgive him. Forgiveness drives the final events of the play: it is what allows the characters to rebuild their community in the play's epilogue (Prior must forgive Louis in order to love him and remain friends with him), what permits Ethel to return to the afterworld in peace, what enables Harper to put Joe out of her mind and begin her life anew. It mends the calamities of Millennium and allows relationships and societies to be strengthened.

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Subtitle mistake

by kaythumbs, November 13, 2014

I can see that this is not the forum for this but I don't know how to get a note to Tony Kushner nor to the people responsible for the subtitles. Had seen Angels in America a couple of times when it first came out so was revisiting it. Now old, I turned on the subtitles. In the beginning, Justin Kirk shows a lesion to his lover, who says it is just a burst blood vessel. Justin/Prior says " It is KS." The subtitle said "It is chaos."

At first I was appalled by the mistake and that nobody had apparently checked out the subtitles. ... Read more

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