Angels in America
Millennium Approaches, Act Two, Scenes 6–10
Joe and Roy are dining in a fancy restaurant with Martin Heller, a friend of Roy's who works in the Justice Department. Martin is trying to sell Joe on the idea of coming to Washington, telling him about the conservative renaissance under Ronald Reagan. To show off to Joe, Roy insults Martin and then asks him to rub his back, in order to demonstrate his absolute loyalty. The two men pressure Joe to accept their job offer. When Joe continues to hesitate, Roy switches tactics, telling Joe that his political opponents are attempting to disbar him. But at the Justice Department, Joe could coerce Roy's enemies into easing up. Joe insists that he could never do something so unethical. Roy explodes, telling him that politics is "the game of being alive." Bitterly, he vows to remain a lawyer until the day he dies.
On the steps of the courthouse where they work, Joe comes across Louis eating his lunch, and joins him. True to form, Louis baits him about his unhealthy meal—three hot dogs and a swig of Pepto-Bismol—and his conservatism. He turns philosophical, shuddering at the emptiness and isolation of modern America. Joe, in turn, describes his own private fears, his secret desire for emptiness and freedom. He decides suddenly that he cannot face going to work. Louis invites him to join him for the day instead. Louis's offer, and Joe's acceptance, is fraught with sexual ambiguity.
Late that night, from a pay phone in the park, Joe drunkenly telephones his mother, Hannah Pitt, at home in Salt Lake City. She is startled and immediately assumes that Joe is in trouble. Then she begins to get angry and insists that he hang up and go home. Without warning, he tells her that he is a homosexual. She tells him he is being ridiculous; then, suddenly furious, she yells that drinking is a sin and hangs up.
On opposite sides of the stage, Harper confronts Joe at home while Louis and Prior argue in Prior's hospital room. The two fights overlap rapidly and confusingly. Louis tells Prior he is moving out, and Prior berates him, calling him a bastard and a criminal. Louis responds that he needs privacy, that he refuses to be judged, that he is doing the best that he can. Shattered, pleading, Prior tries to reason with him, then screams at him to leave, which Louis does. Meanwhile, Joe tells Harper that he still loves her and that he will not abandon her, but that even when they were first married he knew inside that he was different from other men. She tells him to go to Washington, anywhere, but just to leave her alone. As they argue, they both realize that Joe is the same man who terrifies Harper in her hallucinations. Closing her ears, Harper calls Mr. Lies. He appears and they vanish together.
Hannah Pitt discusses her house with Sister Ella Chapter, a Salt Lake City real estate agent—she is selling it to move to New York. Ella begins to rhapsodize about the property, but Hannah bitingly cuts her short. Ella tells her she likes her because she is the only unfriendly Mormon she knows, and urges her to stay put and not venture out into the sinful world. But Hannah replies that Salt Lake has worn her out; she plans to take her chances in New York.
Joe and Louis's encounter in Scene Seven plays on the multiple connotations of "free" and "freedom," which are important concepts for the play as a whole. After Louis riffs on the problems of Ronald Reagan's children, Joe remarks on how uninhibited Louis is. He does not use the word "free," but that is what Louis clearly is—free with language, free with innuendo, a free spirit compared to the stuffiness and repression Joe is accustomed to. But freedom is also a political concept, one of the cherished ideals of America. Louis makes the link explicit—"Land of the free," he says, referring not just to political liberty but to his own "irresponsible" nature. This concept of freedom as liberation, both personal and political, is repeated when Joe describes the empty Hall of Justice, and muses about what it would be like "if overnight everything you owe anything to, justice, or love, had really gone away. Free." Justice and love are valuable ideals, but to Joe they are encumbrances—his commitment to justice keeps him from accepting Roy's offer, and his love for Harper traps him in an unhappy marriage. Freedom is frightening to him because it means abandoning his value system, but he still finds the idea attractive, exciting and even erotic.
But Louis understands how costly that kind of freedom can be. Although it will not stop him from leaving Prior, his decision is truly agonizing, and he has a sense, still unformed but real, of the personal and social costs he will endure for his choice. Thus to Louis, freedom is as "heartless" as he himself is; it means the chance "to do whatever," to be "greedy and loveless and blind." His use of the plural and his reference to Americans as Reagan's children links this negative vision of "free" to political freedom just as he earlier connected it with the positive vision.
Thus in this one scene the play offers a complicated understanding of freedom: it is thrilling, adventurous, vital, but also terrifying and lonely, and it has unimaginable costs. Despite these costs, though, both men will pursue their freedom—as they must, for the rejection of freedom leads to stasis and death. Just as Louis's ancestors pursued personal freedom over a dangerous ocean, or Joe's endured a harsh trek westward to find freedom of belief, so must their descendants continue to seek out freedom—forward motion—despite the painful, even immoral choices it requires.
Sister Ella Chapter, more than any of the other human characters, rejects this idea of freedom. For her, freedom—as symbolized by travel—leads inevitably to evil. She would prefer that her friend Hannah remain in Salt Lake City, where she thinks she will be safe from danger. But the experience of the Mormon characters shows that mere lack of movement cannot save people. Joe and Harper were just as unhappy in Utah as they are in New York; the only difference is that, there, a conformist society prevented them from finding a better way, requiring them to seem cheerful, uncomplicated, and strong. Salt Lake was not enough to give Hannah a satisfying marriage or make Joe's father love him. In Scene Four, Joe tells Roy that Mormons come from dysfunctional families even though they are not supposed to—stasis is no cure for dysfunction.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!