Angels in America
Millennium Approaches, Act Three, Scenes 5–7
Joe tells Roy he cannot accept his offer. Roy tries to be calm, but he quickly blows up at Joe, violently telling him that nothing matters more than the call of Washington and power. Joe tries to explain that his ethics forbid him to break the law, but Roy calls him a sissy. Then he tells him about his proudest achievement—illegally intervening in the trial of Ethel Rosenberg, who was executed as a Soviet spy in 1953. Even though he was an attorney on the case, Roy secretly talked with the judge every day to ensure a verdict of death. Joe, reeling, assumes Roy's illness is talking. But Roy tells Joe he is tough on him because he loves him, and then tells him to leave. The two men nearly come to blows. As soon as Joe leaves, Roy doubles over in pain, which he has been hiding. He calls for a nurse, but looks up to see the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg herself watching him. Roy tells Ethel she does not frighten him, even when she says he is close to death. The nurse cannot hear Roy's cries, so Ethel calls an ambulance for him.
Prior I and Prior II have returned to Prior's bedroom to tell him that the messenger will arrive tonight. The ancestors chant and insist that Prior join them in a dance. He resists, frightened and in pain, so they conjure Louis's spectral form to dance with him. As Louis and Prior dance, the ghosts say they have performed their duty and vanish. After a moment, Louis does also. The sound of loudly beating wings fills the room.
The sound of wings continues, as Prior gibbers in terror, alone in his apartment. On the other side of the stage, Joe approaches Louis on a bench in the park. Joe admits that he followed him from work. Tentative but earnest, he asks if he can touch Louis's face, muttering that he will probably go to hell for what he is about to do. Louis asks Joe to come home with him, and when Joe resists, he kisses him. After a moment's more hesitation, Joe leaves with him. Meanwhile, the sound of wings resumes in Prior's room. He is filled with fear but also with an unexplainable sexual desire. The sound reaches a crescendo, blazing light fills the room, and a magnificent Angel crashes through the ceiling. She greets Prior as "Prophet" and announces, "The Great Work begins."
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg's execution for treason came at the height of anti- Communist hysteria of the 1950s. Although anti-Communism had been building ever since the end of World War Two, Sen. Joseph McCarthy touched off the biggest furor in 1950 by alleging that Communists had infiltrated the State Department—charges never substantiated with proof. The same year, the Rosenbergs, a working-class Jewish couple in New York who had been longtime political radicals, were arrested for allegedly passing U.S. nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. They were convicted, and despite charges that the trial was biased and appeals for clemency from the Pope and other prominent figures, both Rosenbergs were executed in 1953. Roy Cohn's intervention in their case thus positions him at the center of McCarthyism, the most visible assault on civil liberties in America in the twentieth century.
Roy claims he hates Ethel because she is a traitor and a Communist, but his attitude towards her is obviously informed by other factors. For one, his reference to "little Jewish mamas" underscores her Judaism, and emphasizes the fact that Roy feels no connection to her on that ground. As a Jew, she reminds him of his own traces of marginalization from the white Anglo-Saxon establishment, which makes him loathe her more. For all his accomplishments, Roy knows that the WASP elite sees Roy and Ethel as alike. What's more, Roy's crack about Ms. magazine is deeply sexist and anti-feminist. Roy never mentions Julius Rosenberg—his hatred is reserved for Ethel in part because she is a woman, a woman who dares to enter the political arena. In fact, Ethel is the only female character in the play who does so, an especially striking omission when contrasted to the vehement political involvement of Roy, Joe, Louis and Belize.
The most remarkable event in Millennium Approaches, from a theatergoer's perspective at least, is the extraordinary image of the Angel crashing through Prior's ceiling in the final scene. It is the culmination of Part One in the sense that it is the moment of greatest chaos and destruction—the emotional wreckage that the characters have been creating is made literal. In his Playwright's Notes, Kushner writes that the two parts of Angels are very different plays, that Perestroika is essentially a comedy that "proceeds forward from the wreckage" of the Angel's entrance. Part One describes the destruction of an essentially stable network of relationships and individuals, while Part Two works at rebuilding that network into a changed but ultimately recreated whole. The end of Millennium, then, is like the most distant point in the orbit of a comet that will begin hurtling back to familiar regions in Perestroika. The Angel's entrance is a fittingly magnificent image to mark this key transitional moment. Yet, even at the height of the drama, Kushner refuses to be bowled over into sentimentality or maudlin excess. "Very Steven Spielberg," Prior whispers, humorously undercutting the grandeur of the moment and ensuring that it remains tethered to the mundane, human world of daily life.
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