Angels in America

by: Tony Kushner

Themes

Community

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.


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