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A “word processor” who works at the federal appeals court in Brooklyn. Louis embodies a number of “Jewish neurotic” stereotypes: he is anxious, ambivalent and perpetually guilty. Yet that guilt does not prevent him from leaving his lover, Prior, when Prior contracts AIDS. Louis's moral journey, from callous abandonment to genuine repentance and sorrow, is one of the key maturations in the play; his awakening of responsibility parallels the awakening that the play seeks to awaken in its audiences. Louis's idealistic faith in American democracy, while often naive or self-absorbed, is similar to the faith Kushner himself manifests, so much so that some critics call Louis a stand-in for the playwright.
Read an in-depth analysis of Louis Ironson
The boyfriend Louis abandons after Prior reveals that he has AIDS. Prior becomes a prophet when he is visited by an Angel of God, but he eventually rejects his prophecy and demands a blessing of additional life. The Angel is drawn to Prior because of his illness, which inscribes a kind of ending in his bloodstream, and because of his ancient Anglo-Saxon lineage, representing the notion of being rooted and stable. But he proves wiser than the Angels in rejecting their doctrine of stasis in favor of the painful necessity of movement and migration. Prior is as genuinely decent and moral as Louis is flawed. His AIDS infection renders him weak and victimized, but he manages to transcend that mere victimhood, surviving and becoming the center of a new, utopian community at the play's end.
Read an in-depth analysis of Prior Walter
A Mormon, Republican lawyer at the appeals court, Joe grapples with his latent homosexuality, leaving his wife Harper for Louis and being left in turn by Louis. Louis is at first drawn to Joe's ideology but ultimately turns on him because he is a conservative and an intimate of the hated Roy Cohn. His initial naiveté is challenged by Roy's unethical behavior and his painful love affair. Joe's path in the play (from self-sufficient and strong to helpless and dependent) is in some ways the opposite of Prior's trajectory. The play finally seems to abandon Joe, excluding him from its vision of the good society because of his ideology.
Joe's wife, a Valium-addicted agoraphobe trapped in a failing marriage who hallucinates and invents imaginary characters to escape her troubles. The perpetually fearful Harper obsesses about knife-wielding men and the ozone layer as a subconscious stand-in for her own difficulties. But through an inexplicable dream encounter with Prior, she learns that her husband is gay and begins to take control of her own destiny. Of all the major characters, Harper ends the play the farthest from where she began: as an independent, confident woman newly in love with life and setting off to build her own life in San Francisco.
A famous New York lawyer and powerbroker, Roy Cohn was a real-life figure whom Kushner adapted for his play. Roy is the play's most vicious and disturbing character, a closeted homosexual who disavows other gays and cares only about amassing clout. His lack of ethics led him to illegally intervene in the espionage trial of Ethel Rosenberg, which resulted in her execution. Roy represents the opposite of community, the selfishness and loneliness all too endemic to American life. However, his malevolence goes beyond mere isolation to actual hatred and evil. He is forgiven (though not exonerated) in the play's moral climax, after his death (from AIDS) unwittingly reconnects him to the gay community from which he always distanced himself.
Read an in-depth analysis of Roy Cohn
A Black registered nurse and ex-drag queen, Belize is Prior's best friend and—quite against Belize's will—Roy's caretaker. He is the most ethical and reasonable character in the play, generously looking out for Prior, grappling with Roy and rebutting Louis's blindly self-centered politics. At times Belize feels less like an individual than a symbol of marginalized groups, particularly since most of his history and personal life are hidden from the audience. But despite these omissions he remains complex—full of hatred for Roy, yet possessing sufficient character and morality to forgive him.
Joe's mother, who moves from Salt Lake City to New York after Joe confesses he is gay in a late-night phone call. Hannah tends sternly to Harper but blossoms after she encounters Prior, becoming his companion and friend. Her chilly demeanor is melted by Prior and by a remarkable sexual encounter with the Angel.
An imposing, terrifying, divine presence who descends from Heaven to bestow prophecy on Prior. The Angel seeks a prophet to overturn the migratory impulse of human beings, believing that their constant motion and change have driven God to abandon creation. Her cosmology is disturbingly reactionary, even deadly, and Prior successfully resists it in a visit to Heaven. This reactionary nature is rather surprisingly blended with a dramatic, Whitman-esque speaking style and an overpowering, multigendered sexuality.
A real-life Jewish woman who was executed for treason during the McCarthy era. The Ethel of the play returns as a ghost to take satisfaction in the death of her persecutor, Roy. Ethel hates Roy with a “needlesharp” passion, yet on his deathbed she musters enough compassion to sing to him. Her recitation of the Kaddish with Louis indicates her forgiveness.
An elderly rabbi who delivers the eulogy at the funeral of Sarah Ironson, Rabbi Chemelwitz describes the conservative process by which Jewish immigrants resisted assimilation. Louis seeks spiritual guidance from him, and Prior later encounters him in Heaven on his way to confront the Angels.
A travel agent who resembles a jazz musician, Mr. Lies is one of Harper's imaginary creations. She summons him whenever she wants to escape from her present surroundings, though Mr. Lies cautions her that there is a limit to her ability to flee from reality.
Roy's doctor, whom Roy threatens with destruction lest he refer to him as a homosexual. Henry recognizes the folly of Roy's self-delusion but ultimately gives in to it, agreeing to set down his official condition as liver cancer.
A nurse who attends to Prior in the hospital. Emily is one of several characters who give voice to the same anti-migratory impulse as the Angel, she tells Prior in no uncertain terms to stay put.
A Justice Department official and political ally of Roy's. Martin is fundamentally spineless, allowing Roy to manipulate him in order to impress Joe and then taking the abuse that Roy heaps on him along with a blackmail threat.
A real estate agent who handles the sale of Hannah's house in Salt Lake. Like Emily, she urges her friend to settle down and remain at home.
Prior's ancestors who are summoned from the dead to help prepare the way for the Angel's arrival. Prior I is a medieval farmer, Prior II a seventeenth- century Londoner who is more sophisticated and cosmopolitan in outlook. Both men died of the plague.
The World's Oldest Living Bolshevik, who delivers the tirade that marks the beginning of Perestroika. Prelapsarianov criticizes the pettiness of modern American life, the pointless quality of life in the absence of a governing theory.
A dummy from the diorama at the Mormon Visitor's Center who is silenced while her husband and son speak. The Mormon mother comes to life, however, and accompanies Harper while sharing painful truths about life and change.
Louis's grandmother, Sarah's funeral takes place in the first scene of Millennium. Prior encounters her in Heaven, playing cards with Rabbi Chemelwitz.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Angels in America!