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Angels in America

Tony Kushner

Perestroika, Act Five, Scenes 1–5

Perestroika, Act Four, Scenes 6–9

Perestroika, Act Five, Scenes 6–10 & Epilogue

(Act Five is subtitled "Heaven, I'm in Heaven")

Summary

Scene 1

Prior wakes Hannah, who is asleep in his hospital room. Prior is certain the Angel is near. A trumpet peals, flaming Hebrew letters writhe on the walls and the Angel appears. Hannah screams. Prior tells the Angel he rejects his prophecy, and t hen he begs the trembling Hannah to tell him what to do. Hannah says he must wrestle the Angel. They wrestle, the Angel trying desperately to escape. Finally, a ladder to Heaven descends from the sky. Hesitantly, Prior ascends the ladder. The Angel turns to Hannah, who is petrified, but instead of hurting her the Angel kisses her passionately, and Hannah experiences a tremendous orgasm.

Scene 2

Heaven resembles San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. Prior encounters Harper playing with Little Sheba, his missing cat. Harper says she is not dead—though she took so much Valium that she thinks she might have overdosed. Prior asks her to stay with him in Heaven, but she tells him that all the devastation in her life has left her feeling more alive than ever. Harper vanishes, and the Angel greets Prior.

Scene 3

Louis arrives in Roy's hospital room. Belize has called him for an emergency—he cannot remove Roy's AZT by himself, so he needs Louis to carry them. He has called Louis, he says, because he needed a Jew—he wants to say the Kaddish , the Jewish prayer for the dead, to thank Roy for the pills. Louis resists, but Belize tells him that forgiveness matters because it is difficult. Louis finally consents, but he does not know the words of the Kaddish. But Ethel prompts him, and they say the prayer together, adding at the end, "You sonofabitch."

Scene 4

Joe returns home to find the ghost of Roy waiting for him. Roy tells him not to feel bad for beating Louis, and then kisses him fondly. Roy vanishes, and Harper enters. She tells him she has been out with a friend, in Paradise.

Scene 5

In a council room in Heaven, the Continental Principalities—six Angels, of whom the Angel of America is the seventh—sit around a table that holds a bulky old radio. They are listening to a report of the disaster at Chernobyl, which will occur in sixty-two days. The Angel called Antarctica says he will rejoice to see it. The others argue about how best to monitor humanity and how to proceed in God's absence. Then, in a thunderclap, the Angel of America appears with Prior. Prior tries to hand ba ck the book, explaining that it is the essence of human life to progress and migrate, to change. He adds that rather than praying for God's return, they should sue God for walking out. Prior says he wants to live and for the plague to end. But the Angels do not know how to stop it. Despite their warnings of the terrors to come in the future, he demands that they bless him with "more life." As Prior turns to leave, the Angels make a mystical sign over him.

Analysis

If any reader doubts that the Angels' cosmology is deeply flawed, that doubt is dispelled by the image of Heaven presented in Act Five. It is a depressing, decaying place, trapped in the past—like a San Francisco that never rebuilt from its terrible earthquake. Without the creative force of God to lead them, the Angels live amid rubble and cracked buildings and listen to a creaky 1940s radio, as if existing on humanity's hand-me-downs. Even entertainment is deadly dull, an endless succession of card games. In Heaven, everything is known but nothing decided or settled: sitting around their junk-covered table, the Angels can recite facts about the physics and history of cathodes but cannot fix a vacuum tube. They can discuss humanity's plight but cann ot stop the destruction at Chernobyl. Their "lawsuit" against God (admittedly more of a sight gag than a seriously developed theme) can only be initiated after Prior suggests it. They embody the limited imagination that Harper bemoans in the first act of Millennium: "Nothing unknown is knowable."

Faced with such lackluster opposition, Prior's confident rejection of his prophecy loses some of its force—the Angels' philosophy is not viable or even slightly compelling. He declares that he wants more life, a decision he seems to come to almost r eluctantly; but who could possibly make a different choice when the alternative is an eternity playing Hearts with Rabbi Chemelwitz? Still, Prior's speeches in Scene Five encapsulate one of the play's key morals: Life persists and forward motion continue s despite impossible, even unbearable conditions. The Angels never change their plea, but as he leaves Heaven they make a "mystical sign" which we are free to imagine is responsible for his continuing survival in the epilogue—the guarantee of "more life" which he asks for. If this is indeed the meaning of the mystical sign, it is a tacit admission by the Angels that they have been defeated, out-reasoned by their would-be prophet.

A more impressive candidate for the play's climax is the taut, harrowing scene in which Louis and Ethel Rosenberg recite the Kaddish for Roy. The concept of forgiveness, even more than that of progress, lies at the heart of the play's moral vision. Throug hout the play, the characters have been struggling to define both love and justice—what they are, how they can be achieved, what obligations they require; now, Belize suggests that forgiveness "is maybe where love and justice finally meet." We remem ber with a shudder all the hurt that Roy tried to inflict on Belize, and yet Belize, the most ethical character in Angels, is willing to set aside his hatred. So too is Ethel, who has a lifetime's (and more) worth of reasons to despise Roy. They fo rgive, but they do not forget his sins—when the prayer is finished Louis and Ethel add, "You sonofabitch." In the same vein, Prior will forgive Louis for deserting him without letting him move back in, and Harper will signal understanding for Joe's plight while setting off to build a new life for herself alone. Forgiveness is what allows the characters finally to rebuild the society that was shattered by the betrayals and crises of Millennium.

In life, Roy angrily disavowed his homosexuality; in death it will be splashed on the front pages of the newspapers, the irony savored by those like the lawyer on the disbarment committee who always thought of him as "that little faggot." The real-life R oy Cohn is commemorated by a square on the AIDS Memorial Quilt that reads, "Coward/Bully/Victim." AIDS activists teach that all people with AIDS are innocent, even someone as flawed as Roy Cohn. In the same spirit, Belize recognizes that AIDS has brought Roy back, against his will, into connection with the gay community. And by reciting the Kaddish, Louis and Ethel also rejoin him to Judaism, another community Roy strenuously rejected. Belize, and the play itself, challenge us to expand our definition of community to include even those whom we find alien or uncomfortable.

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