Angels in America

by: Tony Kushner

Millennium Approaches, Act One, Scenes 1–5

Summary Millennium Approaches, Act One, Scenes 1–5

Analysis

Although the beginning of Act One only gives brief glimpses of the play's central characters, it nevertheless reveals the conflicts that will confront them for the rest of the play. Louis and Prior experience a terrible shock—Prior's revelation that he has AIDS—and that awful moment signals the inevitable destruction of their relationship. Prior tells Louis he is afraid he will leave him, but rather than comforting him or telling him he loves him, Louis just says "Oh," then says he has to go. Only with prompting does Louis say he will come home. From that queasy beginning we can predict the downward arc of their relationship and Louis's agonized questions to the rabbi only confirm our suspicions. Similarly, the brief pause with which Joe says he was "just…out" and that Harper has nothing to get anxious about indicates the opposite—she has something significant indeed to make her anxious, the state of her marriage, as she confesses to Mr. Lies. These seemingly tiny moments and phrases are miniature versions of larger, future patterns.

The beginning of the play also presages some of the most important recurring themes in Angels in America. In particular, Rabbi Chemelwitz's opening monologue introduces an idea that becomes especially critical after the Angel's appearance in Perestroika: the opposition between continuity and change. Sarah Ironson's journey to the New World is emblematic of the human tendency and the necessity to migrate, the necessity that so troubles the Angels in Part Two of the play. Her migration was literally motivated by survival, an escape from oppression, yet it is symbolic of every person's need to move. As the rabbi says, "In you that journey is"—"you" being both the audience members and the other characters in the play, including Louis and Prior, as yet unseen in the crowd at Sarah's funeral. Yet even within the context of Sarah's migration an anti-migratory impulse is also present. The rabbi points out that Sarah Ironson and her kind tried to recreate the Old World in the New, to stave off the disruptive influence of a completely new society and, in particular, that of America, the world's most famously changing and changeable country. That this reactionary impulse is ultimately thwarted can be detected in the very un-Jewish names of Sarah's descendants. But the desire to prevent change moves Sarah and people like her to take on a heavy burden, one which she metaphorically carries "on her back" and which eventually distances her from the fully assimilated grandchildren on whose behalf she sacrifices.

The rabbi is wrong on one count, when he says that "such Great Voyages…do not any more exist." The entire play, of course, is the story of many Great Voyages: Louis's transgression and his attempt to overcome it, Joe's emergence from the closet, Roy's journey to what Shakespeare called "the undiscovered country," Harper's growing self-confidence and assurance, culminating in her night flight to San Francisco; and most importantly, Prior's voyage to Heaven and back, his painful decision that he does indeed want more life. The play is a voyage in the political sense, too, documenting the struggle for full citizenship by gays and lesbians and by people with AIDS. In real life, Kushner argues for a politics of solidarity, in which different people's fights against oppression overlap and reinforce one another. In that light, it would be odd for him to endorse the idea that the immigrant experience is a unique Great Voyage that cannot be repeated. In Kushner's universe, it is repeated constantly, by members of different groups who share the same dream of democratic inclusion.