Angels in America

by: Tony Kushner

Perestroika, Act Four, Scenes 6–9

Joe's attempts to justify himself—his snide reference to Louis as "the guy who changes the coffee filters in the secretaries' lounge," his defensive retort that the children were not really blinded or that law is different from justice, and most especially, his physical assault on Louis—seem intended to turn the audience against Joe, to make us take Louis's side once and for all. Certainly Kushner does not present Joe in a sympathetic light or offer him the chance to defend himself—he only reappears briefly in two scenes, mostly pleading ineffectually with Harper, and he is excluded from the triumphant epilogue at the Bethesda Fountain. All the other characters are forgiven to some degree, even Roy; Joe alone is unceremoniously booted from the play's society. And yet his only "crime" is that he is personally and politically conservative. This disconnect has led some critics to ask whether Kushner is fair to Joe. John M. Clum writes, "Kushner drops Joe off the face of the earth shortly before the end of Perestroika, as if he is unredeemable or simply not very interesting…Yet in every production of Angels in America I have seen, Joe is the character I care about, anguish over." Joe's struggle to come out of the closet with dignity, to contribute to society or to maintain what seems to be a sincere spirituality count for nothing, with Louis or with the playwright. His apparently heartfelt love for Louis is disregarded and unlamented. In the end, he cannot escape that most dreadful label possible, "Republican." It is an aberration in Kushner's otherwise sympathetic and generous vision, but, perhaps for this reason, it is all the more provocative.

By contrast, Kushner's handling of Roy's death scene is deft and moving. With grim pleasure, Ethel informs him that he has lost the battle he has staked the most on, his desire to remain a lawyer until the day of his death. It is a staggering blow for Roy, which seems to push him over the edge into dementia—he appears to mistake Ethel for his long-dead mother. With this last defeat, the years of defensiveness and bile seem to melt away, and Roy is once again a vulnerable child; Ethel sings him a sweet Yiddish tune. It is a sentimental, three-handkerchief moment, an emotional resolution to Roy's death struggle. On its own, however, it would also be highly problematic: overly melodramatic and stereotypical (with her song, Ethel inhabits the Jewish mother stereotype more fully than ever), it could even be taken as excusing Roy's evil, a farewell lullaby for a murderer. Thankfully, the syrupy-sad tableau is punctured by Roy's springing back to life—to the very end he remains as petty and venal as he was in life. With this outrageously contrived two-step, Kushner allows us to have our teary deathbed scene and still retain the sharpness and vigor that characterizes the rest of the play. He acknowledges the tragedy of death without whitewashing Roy's failings.