Angels in America
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Discussing his play, Tony Kushner has said, "The question I am trying to ask is how broad is a community's embrace. How wide does it reach?" "Community" refers both to personal bonds between individuals and the political bonds we might call democratic citizenship. In simplified form, the plot of Angels in America focuses on the fact that both kinds of community are destroyed and then recreated. In Millennium, relationships end, Roy stretches and contorts the law, the characters slide further into isolation and loneliness. All this wreckage is symbolized by the physical destruction caused by the Angel's appearance at the end of Part One. But Perestroika reconstitutes community in new and unlikely ways, forging bonds between seemingly unconnected characters (Hannah and Prior, Prior and Harper) and repudiating those, like Joe, who see law as unconnected to morality. Louis's optimism for democracy is naive but not invalid—democratic community is even able to withstand the crisis of AIDS. Even Roy, the play's most difficult character, is not abandoned to the wilds of isolation: his death unwittingly links him to communities he had abandoned—gays and lesbians, people with AIDS, Jews—and he is reclaimed, albeit with difficulty, by those with whom he had tried to sever all connections.
Identity: ethnicity, race, homosexuality
The theme of identity is closely tied to the play's notion of community, since identity groups are one of the types of connection around which communities form. Although we are accustomed to thinking of white people as lacking an identity, in this play all the characters are marked by ethnicity: WASP, Jewish, Mormon, as well as black; in addition, the male characters are defined by their homosexuality. Even AIDS infection serves as an identity type, written into the skin as visibly as race.
Identity can certainly have a divisive power: Louis's callousness about race and his suspicion that Belize is anti-Semitic drive a wedge between them, while Prior's AIDS infection is too great a barrier for Louis to overcome. Nor is Kushner sentimental about the ability of identity to connect people automatically, since characters like Roy do their best to deny their membership in oppressed groups (though that denial is erased by his death). But one lesson of Angels is that identity need not be discarded for communities to form—the melting pot need not melt. Despite Prior's misgivings, for instance, Hannah accepts him as a gay man even though she is a Mormon. In the epilogue, the characters are not required to paper over their differences. Quite the contrary: those differences serve as a kind of glue that welds them together. They are diverse yet mutually dependent.
Stasis versus change
From the first scene of the play, the opposition between stasis and change is Kushner's favorite theme. In a world filled with despair, the desire to halt change—to preserve the past and ignore or suppress the future—is a natural reaction. This anti-migratory impulse is voiced by Rabbi Chemelwitz, Emily the nurse and Sister Ella Chapter, and most spectacularly by the Angels, who order Prior to make humanity stop its ceaseless motion. The Angel chooses Prior as her prophet because of the ancient, rooted history of his family and because (as Belize detects) he secretly shares their reaction. But as events make abundantly clear, that desire is literally reactionary—destructive, and at odds with the progressive values of the play. Migration, which brought Prior's family to America as well as Belize's slave ancestors and Louis's immigrant ones, and which carried the Mormons across the continent to Utah, is an inevitable and inerasable human drive. More broadly speaking, Kushner implies that our democracy and our national politics must resist this reactive impulse. Rather than seeking a haven in an idealized 1950s past, America needs to embrace even those changes that frighten some people—especially the growth of a politically active and culturally accepted gay and lesbian minority.
In addition to its overarching story about angels, God and Heaven, Angels in America is studded with specific references to the Bible. Louis asks Rabbi Chemelwitz what the Scriptures say about someone who abandons a loved one; Joe tells the story of Jacob wrestling the Angel; Louis compares a wound on his forehead to the Mark of Cain; Roy mentions the story of Isaac and Jacob and the Book of Isaiah. Partly, these references help establish a sacred atmosphere—by linking modern America to the world of the Bible, they help convince us that prophecy is indeed feasible in secular times. The skeptical audience member is like Prior listening to Hannah describe the appearance of an angel to Joseph Smith: disbelieving but gradually convincible. Moreover, the Biblical allusions foreshadow the real events of the play, so that Joe's description of Jacob's encounter with the angel lays the groundwork for Prior's—like Jacob, he wrestles the Angel into submission and discovers a ladder leading to Heaven. In another instance, Roy tells Joe that unlike Isaac, he gives his blessing freely—but the comparison proves more apt a moment later when Joe reveals he is living with a man, and Roy feels the pang of a father at what he perceives as the missteps of a wayward son.
In as opinionated a profession as writing, Tony Kushner stands out for the vehemence with which he voices his politics and the directness with which he incorporates them into his work. One early play, A Bright Room Called Day, stirred controversy with its direct comparisons between the Ronald Reagan and the Nazi Party. Although it is always dangerous to equate a writer with the opinions expressed in his or her works, in the case of Angels the play's (if not Kushner's) political platform is unmistakable. The most villainous characters are conservative Republicans, the heroes tolerant and left-wing; and throughout figures like Reagan, George Bush and Newt Gingrich are subjected to continuous rhetorical assault, only incompletely parried by Joe—who is himself discredited near the play's end. The intention of these political interjections does not seem to be the advocacy of a particular party or candidate, or even broader ideological persuasion—merely promoting Democrats over Republicans would be far too parochial an aim for a work of literature, and besides, it is safe to assume that most of the play's audiences shared Kushner's point of view. The larger purpose is to exhort well-meaning liberals like Louis to shed their blinders and work more fervently for political change. Beyond exhortation, though, the politics of Angels remain inseparable from its morality, philosophy and vision of community.
Religion, especially Mormonism and Judaism
In some ways, the two religions that recur again and again in Angels seem irreconcilably different—Jews and Mormons, after all, are rarely linked in the popular imagination or indeed in real life. Jews tend to be leftist urbanites, while Mormons are concentrated in the conservative precincts of Utah; Judaism is one of the world's oldest religions while Mormonism is even younger than the United States. Louis's shock at encountering a Mormon in New York and his unconcealed derision for the church—he calls it a "cult"—reflect this apparent incongruity. But the play symbolically joins Mormons and Jews with one another and with America itself. Both religions are separated from the wider society by their own inward focus as well as by prejudice and lack of understanding. That prejudice compelled both peoples to make epic migrations, which Rabbi Chemelwitz calls the world's Great Voyages. And both faiths make moral demands on their adherents, legitimate and illegitimate. The religious commandment to loyalty overshadows both Louis and Joe after they leave their partners, and their beliefs add to their feelings of guilt. More problematically, the two religions traditionally frown on homosexuality, adding to the characters' lack of self-esteem.
The play values Mormonism and Judaism for their cultural connotations, the way in which they are separate from the mainstream yet entirely and distinctively American. At their best, they are both caring and valuable communities. But their particular religious doctrines are rarely invoked or examined, except as literary allusions. For all the visibility of religion, this is not a particularly religious play—the secular faith of democracy and civic idealism is ultimately what binds the characters together in the utopian epilogue.
The city of San Francisco symbolizes both the failed society that the Angels try to perpetuate as well as the promise of an ideal, gay-inflected community that the play's ending promises. Heaven resembles San Francisco after the huge earthquake of 1906, the day on which God abandoned his people forever. His departure is as devastating to the Angels as the quake was to the city. But while Heaven remains in a state of permanent rubble and decay, the real San Francisco was almost immediately rebuilt, becoming, as Prior tells Harper, a place of "unspeakable" beauty. The San Francisco metaphor thus contrasts the untenable stasis of the Angels with the ceaseless energy and determination of human beings. The city also represents the longed-for ideal society the characters attempt to build in the epilogue. Westward migration has always represented hope in America, but earlier migrations like that of the Mormons only replicated the emptiness and isolation they sought to leave behind. Now, in the last scene, Harper is migrating even farther west, as far west as she can go in America, to a place famous for its tolerance, loveliness, and left-wing politics, a city that is not coincidentally America's gay capital. The gathering on the rim of the Bethesda Fountain could have easily been staged in San Francisco's Castro District—both locations represent voluntary community, inclusion, civic participation, and personal promise.
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