Skip over navigation

Angels in America

Tony Kushner

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

Many of the gay characters struggle with the question of how public their sexuality should be, and several come out in different ways over the course of the play. Discuss the meaning of the closet—are closeted characters different from uncloseted ones? What implications does coming out have for self and community?

The first part of this question—how closeted and uncloseted characters differ—requires us to compare two sets of characters, so we will first have to consider what traits each group has in common. The only characters who are completely open about their sexuality are Belize and Prior. Roy and Joe represent the other extreme, but Louis should also be included in this category, since the first scene in which he appears emphasizes that he is closeted around his own family. The uncloseted characters, Belize and Prior, are the most morally upright characters in the play: Belize is generous, compassionate and intellectually honest, while Prior courageously endures his illness and has the strength of character to reject his prophecy. Those in the closet, by contrast, tend to be villainous in proportion to the degree they hide their sexuality: Louis flawed but redeemable, Joe ultimately weak-willed and self-centered, Roy the play's representation of true evil. This observation should lead us to consider further questions and implications: Is Kushner's closeted-uncloseted dichotomy too simplistic? Does he accept the righteousness of openly gay men too unquestioningly? Is there a stigma associated with being in the closet? Asking these additional questions will strengthen your answer and give it depth.

The second part of the question focuses on those characters who change from the beginning of the play to the end—Joe, and to a degree, Roy. Joe begins the play all but unaware of his homosexuality but ends it having experienced a blissful gay relationship. His personality seems to blossom during those weeks with Louis, but his supposed self-absorption continues unabated. At the play's end, Joe is not applauded simply for having come out but criticized for his continuing conservatism and his abandonment of Harper. The play seems to suggest that the act of disclosing one's homosexuality is not in itself sufficient to be virtuous—gay people must re-examine their values along with their sexuality. Roy presents a different archetype: the unrepentant homophobe who will be forced out of the closet by the announcement of his cause of death. Roy's coming out is not by choice, so it does not alleviate his sins (as a thoughtful reconsideration of his attitude towards gay people might); nonetheless, the Kaddish scene emphasizes that Roy is reunited with the gay community despite the fact that he has rejected that community in life. Coming out is not altogether a voluntary act—in the end, Roy cannot escape the fact of who he is.

"It's law not justice," Joe tells Louis during their final breakup. Discuss the themes of law and justice in the play. Is Joe correct that the two are separate entities? Or does the play encourage us to see a more visionary potential for the law?

Law and justice are critically important themes in the play—we need only consider the characters' professions (Roy, Joe and Louis all work in various aspects of the law) or the courthouse setting of key scenes. But as the question hints, different characters have different views of the relationship between law and justice, ideally and in practice. Roy personifies Joe's idea that law and justice are two separate entities: he says that lawyers are America's high priests and encourages Belize to sue someone simply because "it's good for the soul." But for Roy, the exercise of the law is an end in itself, rather than a tool for achieving justice. He wants to remain a lawyer until his death simply because of the status it confers on him rather than for any positive reason. Not coincidentally, despite this appreciation of the law's power he has little respect for the letter of the law—he borrows money from a client, blackmails a friend and tells Joe, "There are so many laws; find one you can break." Worst of all, he tells Joe he illegally intervened in Ethel's trial to ensure a death sentence. This is law totally divorced from justice.

Despite his flaws, Louis offers a different model for the relationship between the two values. Louis is also preoccupied with the law, both earthly and Biblical—he asks Rabbi Chemelwitz for scriptural advice on his predicament with Prior—but his view is more virtuous and humane. In Act One, Scene Eight of Millennium, he tells Prior that in his view the "shaping of the law, not its execution" is most important. For Roy, all that matters is the outcome, the tangible result; Louis cares about the weighing of right and wrong, the morality of a situation, rather than a specific outcome he can manipulate or use.

The final fight between Louis and Joe tests the conflict between these two opposing viewpoints. Louis criticizes Joe for his decisions, which cleverly adopt the letter of the law without considering its spirit or the effects on real people. In this clash of views, Louis's is definitely depicted as superior: Joe has no substantial role in the play after this scene, while Louis is allowed to take part in the utopian epilogue. Thus, the play clearly encourages a more visionary potential for the law. By using real court decisions as the models for Joe's decisions, moreover, and by criticizing the real-life Reagan administration, it also insists that that potential be applied to the political world rather than simply everyday moral conundrums.

The character of Belize stands out as exceptionally compassionate and good and yet at times seemingly two-dimensional. Which view is correct? Is Belize a virtuous stereotype or a complex moral authority?

Belize is the only non-white character in the play; as such, he seems to carry the special burden of representing the point of view of an entire community. This is especially true when contrasted with the wide range of viewpoints presented by members of other minority groups, especially gays, of course, who range from the dismally conservative Roy to the progressive optimist Louis. In the debate scene between Belize and Louis, Belize consistently argues a position that we might consider the "black response" to Louis's unintentional racism. It is less an individual point of view than a generic corrective to a particular white character's excess. Belize's lack of individual distinctiveness is heightened by the fact that he has less of an individual history or a personal life than the other characters: since most of his life is shrouded from view, his only role is as a minority foil. Despite the fact that we might want to know more about Belize's history, however, we should not discredit Kushner for making the decision to make Belize's race a major part of his character. Kushner is speaking realistically about America and as Belize himself wittily puts it, "I am trapped in a world of white people. That's my problem."

At the same time, Belize's moral authority goes beyond generic good works—he elucidates complicated and difficult moral choices. Black characters in mostly white novels and plays are sometimes gentle, self-effacing and super-compassionate helpmates. But Belize's compassion is neither gentle nor self-effacing—he hates Roy with obvious passion, and his call to forgiveness is born less from a sweet Christian charity than from a depth of unfathomable majesty, dignity and confidence. Belize also has a human, flawed side. His humorous, campy banter with Prior saves him from the trap of a dreary rectitude. And his traces of anti-Semitism (which Louis accuses him of having and which glint through in his shouting match with Roy) lend an uncomfortable, authentic tint to his personality.

Suggested Essay Topics

What could Kushner have meant in subtitling his work "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes"? What national themes might he be referring to? And what is the relationship between "gay" and "national" in the play?

One of the play's most interesting techniques is the "split-screen" method, in which two or more sets of characters in different locations appear onstage simultaneously, their words even overlapping at times. Choose a few specific examples of this technique. What is the effect of splitting the stage rather than dividing events into two or more scenes? How does the "split-screen" contribute to connections between characters and broad themes?

Perestroika, a Russian word meaning "reconstruction" or "reorganization," was the term for Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of political and economic reform in the Soviet Union. In what ways does the play represent the possibility of perestroika in America? Is this an appropriate title for Part Two?

Choosing at least two examples (the Rosenberg trial, the San Francisco earthquake, Chernobyl, the Reagan administration), analyze the role of history in the play. Does Kushner depict events more or less as they happened? If not, what dramatic and thematic purposes does he serve by shading the facts?

As a "fantasia," Angels in America is a major departure from prevailing theatrical realism, with detours into the religious and the supernatural—angels, ghosts, apparitions and visions appear over and over. What effect do these fantastical elements have on the play as a whole? Go beyond a simple analysis of plot to consider the implications for characters, messages and themes.

Different characters in the play speak in different, easily recognizable modes—from Louis's elaborate run-on sentences to Belize's campy use of French—yet all are capable of breaking into a stylized, poetic manner of speech. Analyze Kushner's treatment of dialogue in the play: what are the functions of this poetic style versus ordinary prosaic speech? How do speaking styles contribute to meaning and theme? Focus on one or two specific scenes rather than generalizing about the play as a whole.

More Help

Previous Next

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!

Follow Us