Angels in America
Millennium Approaches, Act One, Scenes 6–9
Joe stumbles upon Louis a week later crying in the bathroom in the courthouse where they both work. Joe asks him if he is all right and offers him a tissue. Louis complains bitterly about the other lawyers who saw him crying and fled the room, calling them heartless Reaganites. When Joe protests that he voted for Reagan, Louis mutters, "A Gay Republican." Joe awkwardly replies that he isn't gay, stammering and confused. Louis teases him, suddenly kisses him on the cheek and leaves.
In a dream, Prior is doing drag and trying to cheer himself up with makeup, but his depression over his health overwhelms him. Suddenly, Harper appears, bewildered that Prior has appeared in her hallucination; Prior replies that it is actually his dream. In the revelatory atmosphere of the hallucination, she immediately recognizes that Prior is very sick; Prior, in turn, tells her that Joe is gay. Harper denies it, but then in an instant of bonding understands it is true. She leaves, shattered. As Prior smears the makeup off his face, a gray feather falls from above, and a mysterious voice calls to him to "prepare the way."
The two couples lie in bed that night. Harper, screaming, demands to know where Joe has been and what is going on with him. He thinks she is talking about his job, but she is talking about him—he terrifies her, she says. They fight, and without warning she demands to know if he is "a homo." Joe says he is not, but adds that it makes no difference if he has inwardly struggled with something he knows is wrong. Harper has no patience for his pieties and tells him she is going to have a baby. He cannot tell if she is lying, but she replies grimly that they both have a secret now. On the other side of the stage, Louis tells Prior about his vision of the afterlife—it is the weighing of a life that counts, not the verdict. But when Prior tells him about the progress of his disease, Louis becomes very upset. He asks Prior if he would hate him forever if he walked out on him; Prior says yes.
Roy goes to visit his doctor Henry; when the scene begins Henry is describing the causes of AIDS. Henry tells Roy that a lesion he has just removed from his body is most likely Kaposi's sarcoma, and that he has other symptoms of AIDS as well. Noting that AIDS mostly affects homosexuals and drug addicts, Roy tries to force the doctor to say out loud that he is gay, although he threatens to destroy his career if he does. Roy tells him that labels like "gay" and "AIDS" do not describe real things but simply a person's clout. Homosexuals, he says, are not men who have sex with other men but men who have no power. He is a "heterosexual who fucks around with guys," and he insists that his disease be described as liver cancer, not AIDS. Henry, disgusted, urges Roy to use his clout to request a supply of AZT, an experimental new AIDS drug.
Scene Seven is the first real indication that Angels in America has a supernatural element. Mr. Lies's appearance in Scene Three could be explained away as being a figment of Harper's imagination, but in this scene Prior and Harper exchange information that will bear directly on the plot, information that Harper in particular could not have obtained in any "realistic" way. This scene is only the beginning: in the course of the play Kushner creates ghosts, angels and talking mannequins, allows characters to be conjured "spectrally" by one another, and permits travel between earth and other planes of existence, like Heaven. These devices are not gimmicks, however—the play could not function without them. This is obviously true of major plot elements like Prior's visitation by the Angel or Roy's confrontation with Ethel. But the supernatural also adds to the striking interconnectedness of the principal characters. Nearly all the main characters share links that join them alone and are not routed through the others; but while most of the characters encounter each other in life, fantasy provides the most plausible way for Prior and Harper or Louis and Harper to encounter each other.
This fantastical element places Angels in opposition to the long-dominant realist camp of American drama. One need only consider Hamlet or The Tempest to see that unreality, magic, and fantastical apparitions are important elements of Western drama. But many prominent twentieth-century American playwrights have emphasized grittily realistic settings, hyper-accurate dialogue (including dialect and obscenities) and real-time events, often coupled with a depressingly pessimistic or cynical worldview—think of Eugene O'Neill or David Mamet. Part of the hugely positive critical reaction to Kushner's play may have been sparked by the central role of fantasy—the play's very title describes it as a "fantasia." The realist streak in American drama only enhances the playful liveliness of Kushner's vision.
Scene Nine presents a darker, all-too-real image—Roy Cohn's cynical view of politics and identity. Here, at the outset of the play, Roy presents the polar opposite of Kushner's own politics of solidarity. Roy not only feels no solidarity with other oppressed groups, like women or racial minorities; he even rejects other gays and lesbians. Since his personal bonds with others are based not on affection or shared ideology but on power, this is not surprising. Roy might desire another man, but desire is irrelevant—he only identifies with other powerful people, like Nancy Reagan, rather than powerless gays. (A gay rights bill was introduced in the New York city council in 1971, the first in the country, but gay activists could not get it passed until 1986, the year after the setting of Act One.) Roy believes his money and status protects him from oppression, can even buy him immunity from AIDS in the form of AZT. But the events of the play will demonstrate how wrong he is: the disbarment committee is so quick to rule in Act Four of Perestroika because Roy is a "little faggot," and AIDS cannot be held at bay no matter how many drugs Roy takes. In real life, too, Kushner has noted that the newspaper coverage after Cohn died seemed to take a gleeful, homophobic pleasure in revealing his sexual orientation and his cause of death. Roy's politics of clout may have benefited him for decades, but they fail in his hour of greatest struggle.
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