Angels in America
Perestroika, Act Two
(Act Two is subtitled "The Epistle")
After the funeral of a drag queen friend, Prior bitterly denounces death and the marginalizing of gay men. He is dressed strangely, in a black, prophet-like coat and hood. When Belize questions his moodiness, Prior tells him that the Angel was not a dream: he has been given a prophecy in the form of a book.
Scene Two begins in a flashback, to the angelic visitation three weeks earlier. In piercing, monumental tones, the Angel announces herself as the Angel of America and proclaims that Prior is a prophet. She directs Prior to remove the Sacred Prophetic Implements from their hiding place, which was supposed to have been revealed in a dream. Prior, terrified, says he has no idea what she means. She coughs, puzzled, and consults with an unseen figure, then tells Prior he will find them under the kitchen tiles. He resists, until in a fierce outburst she commands him to submit to the will of heaven. They go into the kitchen and return with a leather suitcase containing a pair of spectacles with rocks for lenses. Prior puts them on briefly, then rips them off, appalled at the vision. Then he removes a bright steel book from the suitcase. Before he reads it, he asks why her presence always turns him on sexually. She replies that "Not Physics but Ecstatics" makes the engine of creation run. They are both increasingly aroused. They have an intense sexual coupling and a ferocious climax.
Prior, in an aside, explains that angelic sexual couplings fuel creation, and that the Angels are incredibly powerful but have no ability to create. But by creating humans, God set in motion the potential for randomness and change. The Angels were disturbed by humanity's migratory instinct, which manifested as tremors in Heaven, a city like San Francisco. Finally, on April eighteen, 1906, the day of the San Francisco earthquake, God abandoned Heaven, never to return. The Angels, believing that human beings' energy drove God away, insist that humankind must stop moving and mingling. Prior, disturbed, tries to reject the prophecy, but the Angel tells him he has no way to hide. She takes the book and ascends into Heaven.
When Belize has heard the full story, he refuses to believe it is real, and accuses Prior of imagining the Angel as a metaphor for wanting his disease to stop and Louis to come back. Prior admits that he might well be going crazy, but that he might also really be a prophet.
Act Two is unique in Part Two for being comparatively brief—only two scenes, one a minor prelude to the other, and the scene's entirety less than half the length of other acts. In this act, of course, the appearance of the Angel is finally played out, an event that has begun twice before (at the end of Millennium Approaches and in the first scene of Perestroika). It is in Scene Two that the Angel first speaks at length and in which her deluded cosmology is finally revealed.
The distinctive speaking style of the Angel deserves closer analysis. Kushner's characters adopt a range of speech patterns, from the girl-talk and bantering of Belize and Prior to Joe's legalese to the endless sentences of Louis's hyper- intellectual diatribes. But all the characters are capable of taking on an unconsciously poetic sound when their thoughts transcend the everyday—when Harper meditates on the end of the world, for instance, or when Belize detects in the snowfall in Millennium the promise of "softness, compliance, forgiveness, grace." This poetry is taken to an even higher pitch in the Angel's speeches—it is consciously poetic, grandiosely poetic, arranged on the page with the short lines and metrical structure of verse. (This sometimes makes her speeches difficult to understand, particularly for audience-goers who do not have the benefit of referring to the printed page—there would be no way to tell whether "Lumen Phosphor Fluor Candle" are the four "divine emanations" of her persona, as Kushner explains mysteriously in his notes on characters.) The Angel's poetry is at its grandest when she is speaking officially—proclaiming Prior's prophet-hood, relating the history of Heaven, and so on. But when she is confused or distracted, a more casual speech peeks through—when Prior says he has never dreamed of the Sacred Prophetic Implements, the Angel stammers, "No dreams, you Are you sure?" It is a glimpse of vulnerability behind her imposing facade.
The Angel's poetry is self-confident and impressive, and—fitting for the Angel of America—redolent of the greatest American poet, Walt Whitman. Sometimes the connection is direct: The Angel's warning to Prior that he cannot escape—"Hiding from Me one place you will find me in another./ I I I I stop down the road, waiting for you"—parallels Whitman's epic poem "Song of Myself," which concludes with the lines, "Missing me one place search another,/ I stop somewhere waiting for you." Earlier in "Song of Myself," Whitman writes, "I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul," a duality which the Angel echoes in her post- coital statement to Prior and later to Hannah. Even when she is not reciting specific lines of Whitman, though, the Angel's words are clearly indebted to him—sweeping and impressive, lavishly erotic and sensual, specifically American, studded with the word "I." At the end of the play, in fact, Kushner acknowledges his debt to his nineteenth-century predecessor, writing in his afterward that "we are all children of 'Song of Myself.'" It is easy to understand why Whitman appeals to Kushner. Whitman is universally acknowledged to have been gay, and his poems are filled with homoerotic images and tender depictions of same-sex friendships. He was also a passionate democrat, filled with affection and optimism for the American experiment. Louis's dream of radical democracy in America, which Belize challenges but does not altogether overturn, could have come straight from Whitman. Angels in America is a darker vision of this country than Whitman ever created, but the darkness comes from what Kushner would see as deviations from the ideal Whitman path.
Even though the Angel sounds like Walt Whitman, however, her theory of the universe and her instructions to Prior would have been antithetical to him. Like Sister Ella Chapter in Millennium, the Angel's message to humanity is, "Stay put." She mistakenly believes that halting the perpetual motion of human beings will convince God to return to Heaven. It is a seductive philosophy but a dreadful one, for it would spell death for humanity. Moreover, the entire play works to convince us that stasis is no solution to loss and that forward motion, however painful or alarming, is the only thing people can do to survive. Belize occupies the same position as the audience, a skeptical witness to Prior's tale. His verdict—that the Angel's proposition is "malevolent"—is the same as the play's.
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